• Digital v. Analog: There’s no competition

    On the way to Great Lakes ThatCamp, I started thinking about the competition between analog and digital that has been implied, implicitly or explicitly, in much of museum discourse about the Internet age. At first it seemed a lot of museum professionals feared that putting images of collections online would make the analog or ‘real world’ collection irrelevant; people would stop coming to museums and they’d all lose their jobs. I think we’ve pretty much gotten over that, especially when we realized that museum attendance has only increased since the 1990s – in part because websites now help encourage and inspire people to go see ‘the real thing’ in person. After all, how many times have you seen the Mona Lisa in representation (online, on tea towels, earrings, t-shirts, mouse pads…) in your life? And does that in any way make you less inclined to go see the real painting the first time you go to Paris? On the contrary, it makes the pilgrimage to the object all the more important and exciting. So much of the pleasure of looking is in recognizing… (what do you say, @drszucker [Steven Zucker, principal of Smarthistory.org]?)

    But in a recent symposium at the Bard Graduate Center on “The Artifact in the Age of New Media”, one of the participants, Dan Cohen, tweeted, “Barratt [Carrie Barratt, Met curator], pushing back against @dancohen & @epistemographer, strongly argues that there’s no substitute for seeing objects live. #digifact” Full disclosure: Carrie is a friend, and I don’t in any way disagree with this sentiment, however it was expressed originally. But the comment implies a competition between the digital and the ‘real’ that I think we need to move beyond in order to get the most from both our analog and our digital experiences. Instead, I think we need to be thinking in the direction that Maria Gilbert [also a museum professional and friend] suggested, following the sameĀ Twitter thread: “#digifact Digital surrogate can offer interaction/experience unavail w real object, e.g. mechanism demo or hi res magnification capability.”

    In other words, what happens if we think about platforms’ differences and how they might be complementary and mutually-supportive? Can we list in very general terms what the “real world” formats are good at, and what “digital” does well? If so, perhaps we can leverage the particular strengths of digital media to create online experiences that are as valuable and engaging for virtual audiences as the experience of the real world artifact can be in person.

    Here are my initial thoughts about the kinds of experiences that people can have of digital representations of artifacts, and that may not be possible, practical or easy in the museum or with the actual object. Can you add more?

    • ‘Handle’ and examine digital representations of objects personally, up close, in detail, and from all angles
    • Alter objects: reframe, resize, and recolor them e.g.
    • Put objects in different contexts
    • Collect, curate and share objects and collections
    • Write about them
    • Assemble vast quantities of scholarship and publications on objects and related themes relatively quickly
    • Read and watch long pieces of media/scholarship about objects: articles, documentaries, archives etc.
    • Engage in conversations about objects and collections with people all over the world
    • Make very brief or fragmented visits to the object
    • Alternatively, spend extended time with objects and collections, even after hours
    • Track changes in the object’s or collection’s state over time

    These seem so obvious once they’re written down that it almost seems absurd to mention them. And yet: by really understanding and responding to the obvious strengths of each platform, I think we can redirect energy from sandbox battles between the ‘digital’ and the ‘real’ to building interpretation and resources for objects and collections that create a whole truly greater than the sum of its parts

8 Comments


  1. NancyProctor says:

    In our conversation on this (Sunday 8:30), @publichistorian noted that part of the reason for the sense of competition is that funds are limited: fear that money going to digital will take away from care of the physical collection. Another participant responded that in fact we’ve seen the opposite: digitizing and presenting collections online has brought hitherto relatively low-profile or lesser-known objects into greater prominence, and thereby increased the importance given to them and their preservation and interpretation.

  2. NancyProctor says:

    We discussed new kinds of research and digitization that are becoming possible with new technologies, and that underscore the importance of holding on to physical collections for future analysis in ways we can’t even imagine today. @williamjturkel noted that digitizing smells is now becoming possible; Patricia Keller discussed all things you can learn from objects’ scents…

  3. NancyProctor says:

    @robotnik discussed all the creative things that can be done with digital representations and texts that can’t be done with the physical object: great opportunities for learning and engagement.

    Another participant noted that the concern about letting the public freely use digital content is a fear of loss of income from licensing images etc.

  4. NancyProctor says:

    Patricia brought an idea from yesterday’s linked data session: get pan-institutional organizations behind projects that link data across institutions. Giving the public and researchers the ability to collect digital objects and compare artifacts across collections through linked data offers another critical learning opportunity.

  5. NancyProctor says:

    @nowviskie raises the issue of how historical contexts can be lost and distorted when people have the ability to ‘play’ with digital artifacts: we don’t want to see this as a ‘problem’, but an interesting opportunity for play, engagement, and teaching the importance of understanding context and histories behind objects.

    Now the conversation is moving to the question of replicas: for Lynne Goldstein digital objects, based on the real object, are less problematic…

  6. NancyProctor says:

    Display of human remains is an interesting case: views about how to do this, or not, vary greatly around the world & case-by-case. Digitizing those remains makes them easier to transport across boundaries and to new contexts – this raises serious concerns, but also offers teachable moments.

    On the other hand, digitized representations of remains can provide better opportunities for accurate measurement than working with the actual artifact.

    There are no easy answers! Ethical behavior and discussion are required in all cases!!

  7. NancyProctor says:

    @publichistorian drops the doozy question: how do you digitize a steam engine – and other large-scale 3D objects? And btw she also wants to digitize the inside, in the way that we’ve seen video from inside the human body…!

    Robotized large scale scanners exist; also 2d image technologies like Photosynth. @williamjturkel notes that the technology exists to do all this – it’s just a question of how much you’re willing to spend now, and how long are you willing to wait for the cost to come down? These choices also depend on the interpretive choices being made: how do you want to use the digital artifact in an interpretive context?

    @robotnik ties this discussion back to yesterday’s map session: just as maps are rhetorical documents, digitized objects are imbued with the agendas, intentionality and narratives as well…

  8. NancyProctor says:

    Yay, we just got the obligatory “I think I can!” retort to questions about digitizing trains :-)

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