A Digital Museum?

I love museums.  I could spend days in a museum.  With some museums there are truly not enough hours in a day to see everything; with other museums there is not enough space to fit everything in to the museum.

So here we have the inquisitive museum visitor and the space confined museum curator.  What are they to do?  The visitor simply doesn’t have the time and the curator doesn’t have the space!  And, added to that some of the most interesting pieces a museum may own could now be too fragile to be put on display, but what is the point of conserving something if the public can’t see it?

Enter the Smithsonian Institute, a fine example of two problems that museums suffer, too much stuff and not enough space.   What is a curator to do?  Put it online, that is what a curator is to do!  At HistoryWired: A Few of Our Favorite Things the avid museum visitor and history enthusiast can explore the vast collection of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History.  On display now you can see pieces that are on display at the Museum of American History but also pieces that are not on display.

As implied by its name the HistoryWired website is a collection of the favorite things of the Smithsonian curators.  The website states that “With less than five percent of our vast and diverse collection on public display in our exhibit halls, we hope that Web sites like this will bring many more of our treasures into public view.”  When a visitor enters the “museum” they are shown a floor plan of the museum with rooms marked as Home, Clothing, Business, and the like.  Subdivided within these boxes are boxes of different shapes that the visitor can move their cursor over and discover what that box represents.  The sizes of these item boxes are determined by visitor voting, after viewing an item the visitor is then asked if they would like to see more objects like the one they were looking at.  The more popular and object is the bigger its individual box.  This voting system allows visitors to see what others have found interesting and noteworthy and let curators to change the exhibit to reflect what the public wants to see.  Read more about how to work the website here and more general information here.

This digital museum shows pieces directly related to the history of the United States whether that be the clothing of a time period or the invention of the computer a visitor should be able to find something that interests them.  The culture history of the United States is represented magnificently with items of clothing (highbrow and lowbrow), sports paraphernalia, musical recordings, and photography.  Science, medicine, technology, are also represented in this digital museum.  With each image you click on you get more information about the item and the time period of the item.  Depending on what kind of item you click on you could be directed to a recording of music or a speech or articles written by Smithsonian historians.

With so many different pieces on this site one might wonder if it is difficult to find something pertaining to a specific time period or subject.  The answer would be no!  It is not difficult to search this site.  (Color me surprised!)  You can modify your visit by time period (like WWI or everything pre 1800) or you can look at items only dealing with daily life or whatever subgroup you are interested in.  You can even search for specific things like Woodstock or Hell’s Angels and find a match.  A hopeful search for airplanes or flight yielded nothing, a sad oversight I believe!

I have to admit that when I first started playing around with HistoryWired I was skeptical.  Very skeptical.  Why would I want to look online at objects that I could see in person?  After spending sometime looking at the objects displayed and reading about them I was won over.  I like that there are links to more information, that if you are looking at a piece of music there is a link to hear the music.  I thought it was great that I could look at a dress form the 1800s and then a playboy bunny costume and that each piece was given a historically valid reason for being part of the online collection.  This website manages to put what should be in several different museums all in one place.  Hours could be spent on this site but because of its formatting it does not seem overwhelming.  I do not think that this is what museums should turn into but I do think that it is a nice companion to a museum.  I look forward to more museums creating a site like HistoryWired.

8 Replies to “A Digital Museum?”

  1. I enjoyed playing around on this site as well. What I like about it is it presented a good range of history and didn't limit categorization to one category. I could click on two categories and see where they overlap clearly. I got a lot of information from this site as they open the pages on the articles in separate windows with their own links to other sites, so I had quite a few tabs open at one point. The decision to have the objects open in a different window was great, as then I didn't have to back track through the my history or hit the back button a thousand times to get back to the map. I liked that you could give feedback on what kind of objects you wanted to see in the future on this site, so that means they plan to update this sometime. I'll have to check it out again and see what they added. Hooray, wikibinge!

  2. This is a wonderful site! You are right, that HistoryWired is a great complement to the physical museum.

    In fact, the ease of one-click access to items of interest and the excellent accompanying text actually makes the site much more "user-friendly" and in some ways superior to the museum itself! Since the site is not limited to by size or time constraints, users will potentially be able to "view" the other 95% of the collection that is otherwise hidden in storage. That is a very exciting prospect!
    The digital museum concept also enables the user to have the museum "experience" without walking long distances or battling crowds. This empowers the user/visitor and allows for a more focused and informed experience both online and in-person. In the long run, a digital museum saves the public's time, money, and energy.

    I think this site is an outstanding model for other museums. I cannot wait to see what other additions they make to the collections and the site!

  3. Great post and super neat site! I want to work as a curator or collections manager in a history museum when I am done with grad school, so I am always eager to see how museums are incorporating new media into their work. While I strongly feel that people should visit museums in person if time and money allows, I think sites such as this are incredibly beneficial additions to physical museums. I particularly like when large museums like the National Museum of American History take part because it allows people who may be unable to travel to DC still learn about and see some of the museum's collection. I am eager to see how more museums use sites such as this in the future!

  4. It seems as though everyone has something positive to say about the "online" museum but, while I personally think it's great to have something like this, there is one thing about it that I dislike. As the website says, less than five percent of their entire collection can be placed on display in the physical museum. My guess is that the five percent that is chosen is most likely those pieces with which the general public would be "most" fascinated. It's almost like a democratic, or possibly capitalistic, function of a museum. In order for the museum to maintain its viewing audience it needs to put those pieces that would "sell" best on display. Now, the idea of a digital museum allows them to place the remaining 95% of the collection online without needing to worry about the physical space. This is an excellent resource for historians and other scholars to be able to view those lesser-known (or less interesting) pieces.

    Obviously, they have a long way to go before the entire museum's collection can be made available online, and they may not even want to do that (which would be unfortunate). It is possible that the online museum may also place items only selectively online according to public opinion. The voting feature, therefore, is something I dislike. Either it may create large boxes of general public interest that overwhelm and hide those less-interesting (and smaller-box) pieces, or the museum itself will see those items as being voted off the site to be replaced by something else. What a historical tragedy it is for any items to be lost or hidden because of a voting public!

  5. I think Dennis is touching on an important point here. One that generalizes out of this specific example to a range of web phenomena. Chris Anderson from Wired wrote a book called "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More." The book has its fans and detractors but the general idea is important. If you look at something like Amazon.com and compare it to a book store you quickly realize that Amazon can have a page for any book where the floor space in your local book store requires them to be choosy about what goes on the floor. So when you go to your book store you are getting a set of things that the book sellers think you are interested in. That is in fact a service, if they simply had never ending shelves you would need to know what it is you want and then you would go find it. Now to deal with this Amazon (among other things) put in place a very powerful recommendation system. So, the "other people who liked that book you like also liked this book." I think Netflix's catalog and what you have access to at your local blockbuster is another example of this.

  6. Lost half my comment there 🙂
    Taking this back into the museum world. Thankfully we are not in a situation where we need to decided if we get to have the physical museum and an online one. We get both. In this case, what is particularly exciting to me is that this is an attempt to deal with content at scale. There are a lot of online exhibits that replicate physical exhibits, but when we realize that the space limitations of the brick and mortar building are gone we get the ability to work at a different scale and I think this example does a nice job of demonstrating some of the ways we can work with material at scale. With that said there are some big questions that come from this. How do we tell stories at scale? How do you get the user to what they want to see? How do you get the user to what you want to see?

    In a few weeks we are going to read Graphs, Maps, and Trees. It is a book about distant reading. There is some great work going on in literature dealing with how we can conduct distant readings of texts, ways to interpret hundreds or thousands of books to complement close readings of a few texts. I am excited to think more about how those ideas can be folded into creating interfaces to museum collections at scale and I think this works as a powerful prompt for imagining these interfaces.

  7. I enjoyed exploring this site. I recently visited the Smithsonian's Museum of American History and this site is a wonderful compliment to that experience. In addition to History Wired, the Smithsonian also has an online collection, (http://www.si.edu/Collections) which enables visitors to explore other items not displayed in the physical museums. I know that they are only "scratching the surface" in making their extensive collections available to the public, maybe someday everything will be available with a click of your mouse!

  8. I think this site is a wonderful way to keep visitors interested and informed about the artifacts in The Smithsonian/NMAH's collections. Working in an archive, I often lament that some our most interesting artifacts will sit in dismal gray boxes till the end of time. Although I do think the aesthetic of the main search page is slightly offputing because of the hectic grid and busy strings moving about. Maybe if they had made a little mock up of archives stacks?! The searchability and categorization is quite well done though. I think the 'scrollable' time line at the top is a nice touch and very revealing of just how young this country is! If a national history museum in Western Europe had something like this and you scrolled to the 1400s, it's safe to say there would be more than 1 artifact.

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