Exploring a New Frontier: Cultural Institutions and Digital Space

Courtesy of Public History Ryan Gosling on Tumblr.

When I worked at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, an African American history museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, my favorite artifact to point out in our permanent exhibit was a piece of wall reading “White” and “Colored” that once resided over the water fountain of a public building in the city. Often visitors found this odd, until I shared why it was my favorite: location. This piece of wall, removed from its original location and placed in an African American history museum, held great meaning. It no longer represented the power of segregation to judge worth or place, and its new location represented a victory of civil rights and equity. For me, that artifact provided a constant reminder as to the importance of place in interpreting meaning.

While the museum had just started to engage audiences through mobile interface when I moved to the Washington, D.C. area,  there were already serious discussions about the influence of environment and location, and what approaching different types of spaces would mean for the institution’s future. Would our collections still hold priority? Could we use mobile interface to keep the material culture of the museum present and relevant to our audience? Will future generations still want to come to a physical building and view in person artifacts like that piece of wall that held such importance for me? The digital revolution and growing importance of mobile spaces often presented daunting challenges; however, these challenges would hold the key to how we, as public historians, shaped our institution’s trajectory.

Many other museums have in fact embraced the mobile tech revolution and harnessed its most promising advantages, expanding their presence inside and outside the walls of the exhibition space. As Jason Farman addresses in his book Mobile Interface Theory, we are experiencing a cultural shift in computing in that what was once geographically fixed is now mobile. Thanks to the widespread use of the Internet, this means that museums themselves are no longer fully geographically fixed, but mobile. This is equal parts a kind of mind-blowing, a little frightening, and really cool. While the theory behind all of this is complex and fascinating, I’m more interested in the practical implications of our newfound permeability of space.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s study of Mobile for Museums has documented several ways cultural institutions can connect using a mobile interface. Museums use mobile both to draw people into their physical spaces, and to connect with audiences in a larger geographical context. Mobile is used to interact with individuals, both imparting more knowledge than could be absorbed in a single museum visit and gathering information about the individual’s stories, experiences, and memories. Utilizing digital space, of course, has significant implications for the curation of history.

The Cleveland Historical Project for example, has utilized mobile, app-based interaction to step outside of its physical institutional space to engage in a dynamic, multi-layered curatorial and interpretational process. Cleveland Historical pulls together several different layers of meaning to interpret stories in a particular place and time: images, sound, video, text, and geolocation. The last feature in particular “allows the present physical context of the region to become part of the interpretive frame, transforming the landscape into a laboratory for informal learning.” (Tebeau, 26) Their primary innovation is allowing oral history to work on different levels, to interact with location and connect with a broader context.

Basing this project in the mobile interface also allows for, indeed demands, a more collaborative, community based approach to public history. This represents a larger paradigm shift for all institutions that choose to pursue utilization of mobile space. Mobile interfaces allow greater access to the crevices of history, so to speak, making room for more than the broad historical narratives many traditional exhibitions command. By allowing historical interpretation to reach beyond the brick and mortar bounds of the museum, audiences can experience added layers that are at times difficult to communicate in a traditional exhibition or presentation. However, use of digital space also comes with a loosening of interpretive control. By allowing more access for the audience to experience historical narrative, they also gain access to influence historical narrative.

This is a quite a sea change, and as demonstrated by my above recollections, not always a welcome one. John Russick, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Chicago History Museum, addresses the discomfort of many public historians with the implications of digital spaces and mobile interfaces inside and outside their institutions. Russick tackles all of the questions we dealt with at my old museum in his article, acknowledging that the answers are not always easy to find or to address. However, he asserts that just by asking these questions, museums can do the necessary work of changing with one’s audience, learning from them what things, stories, and approaches are important to a place. Change is very rarely easy, but it is almost always necessary. By engaging material culture, oral history, and historical narrative in more collaborative and interactive space, cultural institutions can find their place in this newly expanded environment.

One Reply to “Exploring a New Frontier: Cultural Institutions and Digital Space”

  1. Heh. I thought about using a couple of images from Public History Ryan Gosling in my post last week but decided not too. I’m probably a little too worked up about what anybody thinks about my posts.

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