Re-Collection and Getting to the Stuff: Thoughts on Social Memory and Digital Culture

Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, explores the challenges and possibilities of preserving new media artifacts and works, contrasting the strategies that curators, archivists, institutions, and creators themselves will need to use for new media with the conventional wisdom currently practiced in preservation. Rinehart and Ippolito argue that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a new mindset that those preserving new media must take on regarding the purpose of preservation and the creation of social memory. While certain strategies, like emulation, migration, and reinterpretation offer ways to preserve new media, the key to preservation is not honing in on creating new standards, but a variety of people in different positions learning to relate to one another to shift the preservation paradigm to focus on variable media, what Rinehart and Ippolito define as an approach that “encourages creators to define a work in medium-independent terms so that it can be translated into a new medium once its original format is obsolete.” (Rinehart & Ippolito, 11)

Central to the book’s argument is the way new media shapes and challenges social memory and, conversely, how understanding social memory, the stuff that provides a framework for how societies understand historical context and ideological assumptions, is vital in informing the way we preserve new media. The authors assert that social memory often takes two forms, formal and informal. Formal social memory, which is what we most often see practiced by museums and other cultural heritage institutions, focuses on preserving cultural objects in fixed form to maintain the historical accuracy and integrity of the original. Informal social memory, which for example can be seen practiced daily all across the Internet, emphasizes recreation and reinterpretation of cultural objects to keep them alive and relevant. One good example of informal social memory is the website Virtual Apple, which allows users to play almost every Apple II game in their modern Internet browsers using emulators.

If this doesn’t bring you right back to middle school computer lab, I don’t know what will.

Informal social memory, especially in regards to the way we preserve digital works, will likely increasingly inform more formal approaches taken by cultural institutions. Sheila Brennan’s transcribed talk, “Getting to the Stuff,” is all about the way history museums approach (or rather, don’t successfully approach) new media strengthens this hypothesis. Brennan asserts that though museums have been getting better about maintaining and online presence, actual digital collections presence is still woefully behind as museums opt instead for internally interpreted narratives, games, or educational interactive activities. She argues that museums should, in fact, get comfortable putting their stuff online, largely because people have really interesting ideas about how and why artifacts matter to them, and can often bring a new perspective on the collection that museum professionals might otherwise miss.

Brennan brings up several examples that we’ve covered in previous weeks, such as the Holocaust’s Museum’s Children of the Lotz Ghetto project and New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” collection, pointing out different ways museums are engaging their public on the basis of a more informal type of social memory. Unfortunately, many museums are still heavily proprietary about their collections, fearing the consequences of the unvetted hordes gaining access to their artifact metadata. Unfortunately, Brennan argues, this protective instinct could be the downfall of museum collections as an institutional norm.

The consequences of greater accessibility?

To keep collections relevant, she offers a few suggestions: remember why we’re preserving the stuff in the first place (hint: something to do with the public trust), publish your collection online so that researchers can actually access the stuff, use your digital space to provide context to the stuff, and perhaps most importantly, actually invite outside scholars and enthusiasts to contribute their thoughts and ideas about the stuff.

Though Brennan is mostly talking about material culture and collections, her thoughts and those presented in Re-Collection run on similar themes, namely that social memory is important, and deeply informs what we choose to preserve, and how we preserve it, just as much as institutional collections create and affect social memory. Change is scary, I know, but it really couldn’t hurt to consider the ideas presented by Rinehart, Ippolito, and Brennan. As our cultural heritage keeps evolving, whether as born-digital new media or as a digital representation of material culture, so will our methods of interacting with it; ultimately, embracing the future may be the only way of saving our past.