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History Museums are Not Art Museums

2011 November 22
by Sheila

The MCN program committee put together another great conference last week. There are many exciting programs, collaborations, and experiments at museums, inside galleries, in apps, or on the web. In such a friendly, inspiring, and collaborative conference, why would we want to talk about difference rather than focus on similarities?

There are more history museums in the US–1179–than art museums–793–(according to AAM’s online directory), yet when looking over the conference program for this and past years you will see that the panelists and projects highlighted overwhelmingly come from the art world. Art museums are leading the way in many areas of museum tech and together with science and technology museums offer some great examples and models for all museums. And it is apparent from my survey of the history museum web, that a majority of history museums still are not sharing much of their expertise, content, and collections online. Nor are they engaging their visitors through digital means through shared knowledge creation, crowdsourcing data, or fostering online communities. There are some notable exceptions, but the average history museum is: summarizing their exhibition content and their collections; listing education programs without providing teaching and learning materials for teachers or lifelong learners; and using a Facebook page for promoting their public programs.

Recognizing that there are some differences in the breadth and variety of content available online from history museums we also thought it necessary to highlight disciplinary differences in the ways that historians, artists, art historians, scientists, and engineers approach collections and exhibition interpretation. We often do not talk about the ways that museums approach their interpretation differently, and therefore might have different concerns about and needs from digital media.

Our dynamic panel included: Eric Johnson of the UVA Scholars’ Lab; David Klevan of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum who joined via Google Hangout; Sharon Leon, my colleague from CHNM, and Barbara Matthews of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (unable to attend but offered some thoughts in the Google Doc).

We framed the roundtable around four main questions:

  • How do the disciplinary approaches to history, art history, art composition, and hard sciences effect interpretation on-site and online?
  • How can digital media introduce museum visitors to the process of history making?
  • What are the risks in engaging the public in content creations?
  • To address a question that Koven Smith has posed, What is the point of museum websites, and do museums need websites, we ask, do history museums need websites?

We discussed how history museums can’t always follow the lead of art museums in aestheticizing objects. Sharing collections online with only basic metadata, which is sufficient for an aesthetic interpretation, doesn’t always work for historical objects that have context and often different stories associated with it that are equally valuable in understanding how, why that thing was made, used, or re-purposed. Those objects are then chosen to tell stories through exhibition narratives that curators and historians create using skills and methods they have learned and those interpretations that are represented as content in the galleries. Unfortunately, as Sharon noted, most museums do not make that process visible to the public and by keeping it hidden, museums are inadvertently reinforcing that there is a master narrative of history–that is not open to re-interpretation by the visitor. If visitors can see and learn to model historical thinking skills visible in one exhibition, for instance, perhaps they can learn how to piece together and source evidence to develop their own interpretations in other exhibits or even other venues.

Some museums are asking visitors–online and physical–to assist in doing history work through data collection and by crowdsourcing data in documents and photographs as demonstrated by David. Opening up interpretation can feel risky to some historians and curators, particularly when dealing with difficult subjects. Eric identified three “circles of public participation”: creation of primary sources (through online collection or donation of personal materials); data creation (through crowdsourcing transcriptions); and public interpretation and reaction to historical events/objects. Each circle carries different levels of risk for institutions. Even for museums that are engaging their visitors and enthusiast communities, sharing in interpretation is seen as most risky and remains the most difficult to implement.

Overall, I would like to see some museums attempt to deal with sharing in interpretation of objects and narratives online. One great advantage of the web is the ability to show layers of interpretation, ie using different color backgrounds to represent different voices. Is it possible to create an online exhibition that represents multiple voices? I think so.

One major problem exists for history museum professionals who are not already engaged with the museum tech community: where can they find helpful advice on using free or inexpensive digital tools to facilitate increasing their presence on the Web? Collaborations can help, where one institution provides leadership and together with its members offer support and guidance to smaller institutions unable to afford an innovative tech staff of their own. The amazing Balboa Park Online Collaborative in San Diego is taking on the challenge of creating a cross-institutional digital asset management system, in addition to other open-source development that will make resource sharing possible for small museums in the collaborative. Go BPOC!

In terms of resources, I do not wish to create something completely new, since there are existing tutorials, archived webinars, conference presentation, and summaries available. Earlier this year, I authored a post, “Navigating DH for Cultural Heritage Professionals”, and last month Lisa Spiro provided some advice for Getting Started in the Digital Humanities. I know there are many similar advice pieces tailored to museum professionals that have appeared in the ASTC newsletter, Dispatch, and other publications. Perhaps those can be gathered together and made available in a page or wiki accessible from the websites of associations serving a variety of history and small museums, such as AASLH, AAM, NCPH in a format similar to the DiRT Wiki or’s, Tech for Teachers.

As usual, I leave good conference sessions with questions and ideas. Please share your thoughts on this topic.

Here are links to resources if you are interested in catching up on our MCN session:

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