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Stealth Collecting Online

2011 April 13
by Sheila

At this year’s NCPH conference, I attend a session entitled, “Remembering the Bad Times: Collecting the Material Culture of Difficult Subjects,” where the notion of “stealth collecting” was discussed. (Read a nice summary of the session by Amy Tyson and Brent Nunn.) Curators and historians occasionally want to collect artifacts of recent tragic and sometimes politically-divisive events, because they believe these objects will be useful sources for reconstructing pieces of complicated stories in the future. (For more on risks in collecting see, Jim Gardner, “Trust, Risk, and Public History: A View from the United States,” Public History Review 17, 2010).

How do they then deal with directors, supervisors, or boards that do not support the collecting, or refuse to allow such objects to be interpreted in a public exhibition? Some collect in spite of those objections, because collecting an object now doesn’t mean that it must be interpreted and exhibited now. A curator can be thinking of the future when such a topic might be less politically-charged or when the board membership changes, so that “stealth collecting” looks forward to a time when a museum can deal with “unsafe ideas” in the “safe place” of a museum. (See Elaine Heumann Gurian’s, Civilizing the Museum: the Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian (NY: Routledge, 2006)

This discussion reminded me how important digital collecting and archiving social media can be for saving in-the-moment emotions, images, sounds, video for a time when we are ready to interpret them. While many digital collecting projects make materials available for immediate viewing, after vetting, others also contain a dark archive. Two of CHNM’s collecting projects, the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank gave contributors the option to post submissions anonymously and/or to not post their on the public site but to remain in the archive for researchers (with permission to see the entire collection). We did not set a release date for items in the dark archive, so they will remain there indefinitely unless the contributor seeks a change in its status. Other online collecting sites, however, might include options for publishing digital contributions after a certain amount of time. Online collecting and archiving projects can be types of “stealth collecting” efforts even when conducted publicly.

Historians and curators need some distance when thinking about the recent past, so we haven’t seen much published research using these digital resources of recent events. This may change with the upcoming anniversary of 9/11, because we have public digital history collecting projects available for research.

The underlying reasons for collecting in crafty and innovative ways really is because public historians want to be active participants in saving physical and digital objects from the present to interpret at some point in the future. This sounds simple enough, but we know the stakes are high for some of these “stealth” collectors and contributors, who are in real personal danger while others put their their careers in danger. In some cases, collaborations or dark archive may help avert some of these risks. And when considering a digital collecting project, we should focus on the process of soliciting and collecting through digital means, and save the sorting and curating for another time when we are better prepared to contextualize it all.

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