In her Digital Dialog talk, “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory,” Sheila Brennan urges history museums to get in the game by “applying digital tools and methodologies to their collections.” She warns that if museums continue to lack a presence on the web, their collections, in addition to the contextual information museums have about those collections, may be lost.
I work in the archives and library of a small, privately owned history museum in which it is acknowledged that the archival and library materials are the biggest draw for visitors. This may be partially attributed to the fact that the catalog for the research center is online, but many visitors come to do research without ever having used the catalog. I think much of the problem has to do with the perceived and actual inaccessibility of museum items. When visitors come to the museum, artifacts they see are kept behind glass, ropes, or “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. Most people have no idea they can come to our institution and request to see museum objects and few would know to come looking since the museum collections are not searchable online.
When visitors come to the research center, even though there is an air of restriction – requirements to sign-in, stow bags in a locker, use pencil only – they still get to see and work with collection materials. Now, I don’t propose allowing visitors to handle all of our museum objects, but the suggestions Brennan puts forward, sharing collection metadata online, creating digital exhibits to showcase more artifacts, and inviting experts from outside the institution to contribute would help increase the accessibility (and hopefully visitation) of the museum.
Although digitization is often viewed as “a process of loss,” Tim Sherratt maintains in “Conversations with Collections” this is too simplistic a view of “digital deficiencies.” Instead we should view digitization of cultural heritage material as a chance to interact, analyze and perceive these objects in new ways. Digital images of artifacts would allow the public to interact with collection pieces to which they would not ordinarily have access. Further, as Brennan points out, linking museum artifacts with textual and other record types can help fill in the gaps in our understanding of history.
In a quote cited by Brennan, Sherratt asserts “the most exciting part of online technology is the power it gives people to pursue their passions.” I think part of the reason visitation is higher in the research center of my institution than the museum, is the personal connection people feel with the library and archival materials. Genealogists and family historians come to research their family, to root themselves in the larger scheme of history, to pursue their passion. By creating access to collections online and allowing the public to interact with objects in new ways, museums have the opportunity to forge similar personal connections with the public.