Absences and Opportunities

Sheila Brennan’s 2012 talk “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory” provides a thought-provoking look into the digital practices of history museums and makes a strong case for why history museums should be doing more to make their collections (specifically objects) accessible online. When it comes to historical research and interpretation, Brennan states, “Non-textual sources found in museums—and elsewhere—work to inform us of stories absent or obscured in textual records.” The potential to address archival and narrative silences should be motivation enough for museums to provide more open access to their collections. In Brennan’s view, however, there is also enormous potential for digitized collections to engage non-scholarly audiences in thinking critically about history. By not making their collections digitally accessible, museums not only “contribute to a perceived absence of sources” available for historical research and interpretation, they are also missing out on an opportunity to contextualize objects in a way that offers robust, educational insight into the historical process.

Brennan’s discussion of publicly addressing “the murkiness of historical interpretation,” as well as ways that museums might facilitate exploration (of different perspectives, of different lenses for interpreting evidence), immediately brought to mind an earlier course reading that laid out scholarly primitives for history. It made me wonder if there are any good models among existing online museum collections that engage users in examining the historical process (of selecting, synthesizing, arranging, and contextualizing sources to communicate an account of the past).

In analyzing the digital practices of museums, Brennan has been particularly interested in the “meaning-making” opportunities that museums provide online. For Brennan, meaning-making can happen through online access to collections, online exhibitions, resources for educators, and participatory initiatives (such as citizen history and transcription projects). What other ways, or through what other types of resources, might museum websites help users make meaning?

Ultimately, Brennan’s key question is: “Why not use the capacity of an online environment to share more objects and demonstrate the ways to answer historical questions using a variety of sources?”

Perhaps (hopefully) in 2019 we can move from questioning, “Why not…?” to “How might we…?”

On that note, I also wonder how different Brennan’s “State of History Museums” survey would look today. To what extent have institutions taken her recommendations around providing open access; promoting the importance of material culture; creating multi-layered, contextualized digital experiences around objects; and inviting outside stakeholders to contribute and participate in the process of creating and delivering historical content?

Have you seen any particularly strong examples of museum websites advancing this important work?

3 Replies to “Absences and Opportunities”

  1. Great post Sara! I thought it was interesting that even museums with good interactive online content–such as the Henry Ford Museum–have limits to accessibility because the objects don’t show up in a Google search.

    Despite this, I found myself drawn down a rabbit hole on the Ford website. I was intrigued by the idea that they offered the option for users to create their own “sets” of artifacts–and arrange and share them in whatever ways users see fit. It really contrasted with what Brennan cited from an op-ed about art museums not working “collaboratively and experimentally.” I kept coming back to the idea of institutions sharing authority, and what that looks like from a digital standpoint.

    1. Thank you for pointing me to the Henry Ford Museum website, Haley! I too found myself going down a rabbit hole, and I think the feature allowing users to create their own collections is really interesting. I also enjoyed the “Connect 3” videos (https://www.thehenryford.org/explore/stories-of-innovation/connect3/) and think the concept of threading together a narrative around 3 totally different types of objects from various time periods gets a few steps closer to demonstrating the kinds of historical questions you can answer using objects.

      Your point about objects not appearing a Google search is a really important one; digitizing an object is one thing, but making a digitized object as accessible to researchers as other types of sources through online searches is a separate but critical task. I hadn’t thought about it that way until reading Brennan’s article and your comment. I wonder how (or whether) institutions that are pushing to put their collections online are addressing that need to go further.

  2. Great post Sara and thanks for pointing out the Henry Ford Museum site Haley! I have never seen a museum site that allows visitors to create their own collections and the videos on connecting the three objects is very interesting. It is a shame these artifacts can’t be searched on Google because there is so much that can be done with them. Even though they are available online, they are not as accessible as they could be. If a researcher was looking for related objects they would have to know specifically about this site and if they did not, then they are missing over 80,000 artifacts that could help their research.

    This reminds me a lot of our classes on shared authority. Giving the visitors access and having them create their own historical questions and interpretations. By creating their own collection they can do their own “meaning-making” opportunities.

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