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Museum Collections and Scholarly Use

2012 December 14
by Sheila

I have proposed that if museums make their collections more visible then researchers of all stripes are more likely to discover them and incorporate them into their research. Without a digital presence online, collections absences from discovery-level searching will further push those sources into obscurity. (here and here) Even with that presence, would scholars, historians specifically, incorporate those collections into their own research?

I drafted a short survey a few weeks ago that I thought might help to address these issues. I never publicly released it (other than at my Digital Dialogue talk), because who has time for another survey?

  1. Do you currently use, or have you used, museum objects and collections, in your research?
  2. How do you identify appropriate or possible museum collections to use in your research? Personal knowledge of a collection, inquire at a local museum, Google or J-Stor, or I don’t know where to begin
  3. Do you use, or have you used, web auction sites (eBay, for example) to identify historical objects for analysis?
  4. Would you be more likely to use museum collections as primary sources for your research if you could find them easily online?
  5. Are you interested in gaining access to museum collections data for your own analysis, such as for text or data mining, topic modeling, visualizations? If yes, for what?
  6. Would you be interested in sharing your research with a museum whose objects you analyzed in your research project.

Luckily, experienced and trained researchers at Ithaka S+R surveyed historians and research practices in the 21st century and published their findings this week, Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians. This survey did not directly address museum collections, however, the responses indicate that historians do not use museum collections, at all, despite expressing needs to discover and use non-textual sources.

The report prompted a Twitter discussion about the availability of museum collections online and whether historians even know how to use them:


The report offers insight into research practices and offers recommendations for a variety of stakeholders, including archives, libraries, historians, and digital resource providers. History museums also serve as unique destinations for historical research, particularly for non-textual sources.

Based on the recommendations given to Archives in the report (see, page 42 of the PDF), I modified them slightly for history museums and historical societies.

  1. Museum collections present great challenges for researchers, because of unfamiliarity and inaccessibility. Efforts to improve access by including online finding aids are critically important to today’s researchers. Even if a museum cannot offer a searchable catalog, offering basic discovery mechanisms may open access to otherwise hidden collections.
  2. Museums should continue to make every effort to make collections as accessible as possible through digitization. There may be opportunities for
    museums to partner with other institutions, such as archives or libraries that are digitizing related collections of their own. Smaller museums would benefit from collaborative opportunities that could make such efforts more feasible. A great example of such collaboration can be found in the work at the Balboa Park Online Collaborative.
  3. Museums of all sizes partner with local school systems to reach K-12 students and teachers through object-based learning programs, but give much less attention to reaching undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty to use their collections. Partnering with universities to offer summer institutes, can help to teach students and instructors about interpreting material culture and get them invested in using your collections. One good example is this Bard Graduate Center’s NEH Summer Institute for 2013, American Material Culture, Nineteenth Century New York.

And, Funders

  • Museums need some incentive and financial assistance to achieve some of these ambitious goals. A program similar to Chronicling America could make smaller historical collections more visible and usable, as Chronicling America has done for small, local newspapers.

In the end, the question still stands: will scholars use museum collections even if they are discoverable and accessible online? Let’s discuss.

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