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Yes, Museums Still Need Objects & Digital Exhibitions, too

2011 May 17
by Sheila

I recently finished Steven Conn’s Do Museums Still Need Objects?, where he explores the implications of a trend he has observed in this late 20th, early 21st-century museum age: visitors see fewer objects on public display. For history museums, particularly, he argues that fewer objects mean there are fewer opportunities to highlight alternative stories through different perspectives represented in things (Conn, 23). The objects chosen, then, are elevated and carry a larger burden of interpretation of an exhibit’s master narrative.

As Conn details how different genres of museums have changed their approaches to interpretation and serving audiences, he never addresses museums’ virtual presence online. I wished he asked questions such as how are virtual interactions with objects different from in-person experiences? How can a virtual representation of a thing give you a different perspective of the object that is not possible in a museum gallery (ie, QTVR’s of objects not on displays, 360-degree views inside large objects, or high resolution images to examine details in a painting). In his last chapter, I kept waiting for him to deal with ways that museums are engaging audiences through virtual and digital means, but this discussion never came.

If Conn examined what some museums are doing online, he would have seen that many more objects have gone online even if they are not on display in a physical museum. Interestingly, I see a trend of museums moving away from structured narrative online exhibits and focusing more on access to collections and building communities around institutions.

Early museum websites were not much more than online brochures, and some remain in that state, while larger institutions launched rich online narrative exhibits especially in the mid-00’s. Some beautifully designed, content-rich, sites such as Lewis and Clark, National Bicentennial; America on the Move, National Museum of American History; and Churchill and the Great Republic from the Library of Congress provided narrative paths for visitors to follow, or they could explore collections, maps, games, or lesson plans.

The Raid on Deerfield, the Many Stories of 1704 (2004) project from the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and Memorial Hall Museum created a virtual exhibit that offered 5 cultural perspectives and interpretations of the events in Deerfield, MA through artifacts, maps, songs, and narrative. This approach is what Conn seems to think is missing from history museums, which is why I was disappointed he did not look online for new examples of interpretation.

While these exhibition sites looked great, there were some drawbacks. The examples I cite above were wrapped in Flash that isolated content, including objects, making pages un-shareable by visitors and invisible by web searches (unless there was a duplicate HTML site). These sites also required a huge investment of staff time and exhibition budget monies to produce. I continue to see some new narrative-driven exhibition sites, but I see a shift to collections-based experiences and user participation in museum websites.

Some museums are creating digital strategies to think beyond their website, including means to better re-use, distribute, and share object-related content in different ways and facilitate co-creation of content with their audiences. Additionally, some museums are app-ifying new experiences that are not available through a traditional website or that require a museum visit, and are accessible only with mobile devices, either provided by a museum or accessible via visitors’ own smartphone or tablet.

Sharing raw data is another strategy, as a few institutions–with places like the Powerhouse Museum leading the way– are developing APIs to share their collections and are encouraging developers and enthusiasts to build something new or analyze this information in ways useful to them. Encouraging the release of APIs and sharing through a Commons is a very good direction for cultural institutions, even though as a historian, I do still crave context!

Museum do still need objects, and visitors still love them. Visitors are interested in seeing more stuff, and enjoy behind-the-scenes tours where they can access storage (remember, NASM’s Garber Facility?) and open-storage exhibits (think Luce Foundation Center of American Art). With less space in museums’ galleries for object display, now the best way to find some of these objects is through digital means–the starting place for most researchers and enthusiasts is the web, anyway.

As I thought about why Conn ignored the digital world of museums, I also wondered if the time has passed when online exhibitions like the Raid on Deerfield will be created by history museums. This kind of layered content works well on the web, and also serves the purpose of unveiling the processes of historians. Much of what is happening with museums and the web lately is about making visible the processes, the decisions, the objects that museum professionals engage in everyday. Users can participate in more ways than ever, through crowdsourcing photographs, choosing exhibit “>themes and objects, and contributing digital content to a museum collection.

This is a fascinating step. I am pleased that more institutions are exposing the way that the exhibits are created, and the process by which curators ask questions and generate narratives, particularly in art and history museums. But, let’s not lose sight of the need to contextualize historical objects that are available online to be sure that there is space for multiple interpretations to be acknowledged and many voices to be heard.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Norman Rey Panganiban permalink
    March 19, 2015

    Can you please give me your opinion why the trend is shifting from object to narrative focus in representations of the past in many contemporary museums.

    • Sheila permalink*
      April 9, 2015

      In the US, this trend started in the 1980s at larger history museums, as a way to tell larger stories about social, political, and cultural trends through exhibitions. Objects are part of the evidence used to tell those narratives, but the story is what drives the exhibition, often, and not the objects in a collection.

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