• Digital Material Culture Beyond Images: (How) Can We Digitize Materiality?

    I am an objects person in love with stuff and all the ways it informs. I’m also an educator who’s passionate about empowering students to mine material culture as historic evidence. Third, I’m a museum person who works to empower others to understand objects as sources of meaning about the/their past, present, and future.

    I’m excited about projects applying digital technology to material culture, and recognize we’re just getting started. Objects in museum storage – and nearly all the wonderful stuff in private collections – are only occasionally on view in public spaces. The web affords a way to “exhibit” objects to a very wide audience, potentially reaching folks who might never be able to, or wish to, enter a museum or historical society door.

    Hmmmmm. Perhaps the enormity of the number of objects, public or private, for which digital images are yet to be made (let alone made available through a website) makes my discussion topic seem absurd, premature, even a bit ungrateful . . .

    But here goes.

    Viewing an object’s digital image – even a series of images showing the object 360̊ –
    is wonderful, a huge step forward, and gets us waaaaay down the path of accessibility. The problem I’m grappling with is that material culture is . . . well, material. I want to digitize objects’ materiality to teach with, learn from, analyze. Close, hands-on study of objects gives lots of cues and clues that would be terrific if somehow made available in the digital realm. Some are visual – patterns of wear-and tear, traces of the craftpersons’ hands, views in raking light; yet information also comes from other ways of perceiving: the heft, the surface temperature, the feel or texture (think velvet) – you get the idea.

    We learn a lot from this kind of evidence about objects’ materiality. How can we convey more of that materiality in the digital realm? Can we? Should we?

    So . . . I’m interested in talking about / brainstorming what we can do – and imagine what we might be able to think about doing, or try to do – with digital technologies (now and future) to convey these and other aspects of (virtual) materiality. What technology exists that could be adapted? What might be possible with technologies not yet invented – and how might they work? Can we go beyond visual toward the object, or is it more realistic to move away from the object to context?

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4 Comments


  1. greenshade says:

    This sounds super interesting! I’ve often wondered about whether attempting to adapt technologies used in console gaming (like vibration or resistance) could work in a museum/educational context or whether it would just be gimmicky. Looking forward discussing further.

  2. I can’t add anything about the technology for this (how to build it) but I love the idea. It’s parallel to my thoughts about preserving the orality of spoken performances and not just the content.

    And as a maker of material culture (knitting, bookbinding) there are marvelous implications for apprenticing. Can you learn a skill by training your muscle memory with technology that transmits sensory information? ‘This is what it feels like when you pull the yarn too tight. This is how paper feels when you fold with the grain vs. against the grain.’

    • MaterialCulture says:

      I don’t know how tactile it might be, but I’ve been wondering about those “long distance surgeons” and the technology they use to be in location A and perform delicate surgery in location B. They put their hands into gloves that are anchored with sensors (I think) to coordinate with robotic hands elsewhere. What kinds of sensors can robotic hands have? what kind of information can they transmit?

  3. NancyProctor says:

    I think my last post falls within the thread of this conversation. Maybe we can combine into a session? http://www.2010.greatlakesthatcamp.org/2010/03/digital-v-analog-theres-no-competition/

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