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 same 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