Memory and Museums

Hi everyone, I hope you and your families are all staying safe and indoors! For this post, I will be discussing Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory by Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart, and Sheila Brennan’s article “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory.” The section of the Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory I will be focusing on concerns the relationship between new media and social memory, and how the evolution of the former results in implications for how productions of culture are preserved. The article, published in 2012, explores how museums refrain from making their collections public online. While in the past week we have seen a drastic shift from that trend as museums start to make exhibits and other materials accessible online, do you think this will change once things return to normal?

In Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, Ippolito and Rinehart argue that the growing presence of digital media and its vulnerabilities threaten the existence of different cultural forms within social memory. The explore their argument by using the challenges in preserving new media art as a case study. In the chapter “New Media and Social Memory”, Ippolito and Rinehart first introduce the concept and field of “social memory.” They argue that social memory is “how and what societies remember­––the long-term memory of civilizations”(pg. 14). Social memory is also categorized as a multifaceted ideological nature that facilitates the inculcation of traditions, beliefs, and values into the subconscious of an evolving society. Ippolito and Rinehart argue that there are two types of social memory–formal and informal. Formal social memory, interpreted as being institutionalized, entails the preservation and interpretation of objects in their organic and stagnant form by museums, libraries, and archives so they maintain a sense of historical authenticity. Informal social memory serves to distinguish the evolution and functionality of an object i.e. the preservation of late-twentieth-century video games. Ippolito and Rinehart argue that the preservation challenges facing the field right now require melding techniques used in both formal and informal social memory. Ippolito and Rinehart later argue that the digitization of the vehicles of social memory and the tools used to practice it and the weaknesses of new media challenge the foundation of social memory. Some of the suggestions they pose for preserving social memory from extinction are emulation, migration, and reinterpretation.

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In her article “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory,” Sheila Brennan argues that the gatekeeping measures put into place by museums prevent amateur historians and everyday people from interacting with collections not currently on display. Brennan argues that museums can benefit from increasing their digital footprint by using tools, such as an increase in visitation both virtual and physical.  In 2004, at the suggestion of Roy Rosenzweig, whose work explores the relationship everyday people have with history, Brennan published a study about the presence of museums on the web. Later in the article, Brennan compares her findings from 2004 with another survey she conducted in 2011. She analyzed 115 sites out of 1179 museums listed in the American Association of Museum’s directory and her findings showed that between 2004 and 2011 the context provided by museums about their collections decreased and that they overwhelmingly lacked online teaching and learning resources. It is interesting to read this article as different institutions start to recognize the popularity of their collections and using them to increase public awareness about historical events.

Stay safe!

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9 Replies to “Memory and Museums”

  1. Leah,
    Great overview of the topic! I think that this week, more than ever, has shown the benefits of ALREADY having digital resources available, as many now scramble to get resources online.

    To your first question– I hope that it doesn’t change! I sincerely believe that online availability of exhibits, collections, archives, etc. will not keep people from visiting museums. If anything, they get people more interested in seeing them in person! (or maybe that’s just nerds like me.) Also, they allow low-income communities, those that are distanced from the museum, etc. to enjoy the collection.

    In addition, I think that this shows the popularity of museums and proves why digitally-focused staff positions are crucial. I think one change we may see post-COVID19 is an increase in hiring for these types of digital positions. What do you guys think?

  2. Thanks, Leah, for making connections between these two readings for us! Are there good examples of history museums that have made quick shifts to including exhibits online in the last few weeks? If you know of any, I’d love to check them out.

    I too hope this pattern continues for the reasons that Sarah pointed it out, but I wonder what the covid-19 induced economic downturn will impact cultural preservation institutions. I’ll be curious to see what the final stimulus package coming out of Congress will look like.

    1. Hi Elisabeth,
      Thank you for your comment! This article by the Smithsonian Magazine lists some of the sixty-eight cultural, historical, and scientific collections that people can now explore online ( You can also take virtual tours of some famous National Parks (!

      Recently the Smithsonian released 2.8 million images into the public domain. This allows students, amateur historians, and smaller historical sites to use higher resolution images without having to go through multiple hurdles to obtain access. I can speak to the benefits of this since the company I intern for relies heavily on the use of digitized images of historical figures. I think Brennan would appreciate these recent changes since she included the quote, “Collections are useless unless they are used,” in her article. It would be interesting to conduct a study possibly using the Wayback machine to examine the online presence of museums before CORONA forced them to temporarily close and compare those findings to Brennan’s 2011 study. The growing presence of social media platforms, which museums and historical sites use to share parts of their collection, may change the results as well. The closure provides museums the time to work on creating education programs as well.

      I read the article that Jenna posted in her comment about the and I hope that the increase of online foot traffic that the museums and sites are getting –as parents are trying to find ways to entertain and educate their kids– will result in more people visiting the museum once things return to normal.

      1. Thanks, Leah, for these resources and examples. It’s interesting to hear about connections between firsthand experiences (like the company you intern with) and how the Smithsonian release of these images relates to the reading!

  3. Thanks for your post, Leah! Seconding Sarah and Elisabeth, it’s really interesting to have done these readings in a time when the only option for museums to be present in our lives is to be online. I, for one, have definitely seen many news articles about museums that you can visit virtually (like the Louvre), but I don’t know how many museums had existing online presences or have beefed them up since shutting down. I’m not sure if you all have heard the (terrifying) stat that about a third of museums will never open again ( This prediction, plus the lack of funding in general, makes me think that many museums will have no choice but to build and/or keep up their online presences when the virus is over; it may be their only option.

    I do definitely tend to find myself more in Brennan’s camp than Ippolito and Rinehart’s, though. One of the few silver linings of this whole situation is that sharing museum content online makes it more accessible to more people and helps to deconstruct gatekeeping practices. There has been and always will be a remote audience — this time (though absolutely terrible) is a good opportunity to learn how to best engage them.

  4. Hi Leah, thanks for your post! Think these two readings were my favorite from the week–Brennan’s article feels even more timely than usual (as I attempt to scour the internet for access to resources/materials for research papers I am still?! attempting to write though the world is upside down), and Ippolito and Rinehart’s discussion of social memory gets at the heart of something I’ve been researching for the past 8+ years: social memory in the form of memorials. More broadly, the ways in which public memory is usable and, in particular, used by the public to 1. understand their collective past, 2. envision their collective future, and 3. make meaning of events/objects, specifically those linked to trauma or difficulty. The “candies” example from Ippolito and Rinehart’s text helps illustrate this, I think. The candies, themselves, represent an object created and with a use at a particular moment in time. However, are they most important to social memory because of WHAT they are, or HOW they have been used/WHAT MEANING the public has given them, both individually and collectively. I tend to believe it is the meaning someone gives something through the way they interact with it that matters most. Thus, when it comes to preserving social memory in the digital sphere, I think opportunities abound. For example, HOW people seek out/utilize digital materials in this period of uncertainty/quarantine etc. can very well reveal more to us, as historians, about social memory and experience and meaning than the material, itself, could.

  5. Thanks for your post Leah! Brennan’s point that putting museum content online works to expose the process of selection and curation has vast implications. Not only can museums make their collections and exhibits more accessible by sharing objects and text sources online, but sharing things like metadata opens up the opportunity for an online community to contribute to the interpretive process. Brennan notes that digital platforms provide more space for different layers of interpretation from a wider variety of perspectives than physical exhibits; having this variety available to the public encourages them to think through the selections that museums staff make in their interpretation in a really interesting way.

  6. Very much enjoying seeing all this discussion and conversation on the blog. I don’t know about all of you, but I can hear you’re voices when I’m reading each of your comments and posts in my head. Missing the chance to get together and dive into these discussions!

    Great to see all the connections folks are drawing out between the readings and the current moment of social isolation. Also great to see folks linking out to some of the ongoing discussions of the work to get more and more information about collections up online.

    The recent bulk release of digital images by Smithsonian is, I think, very much in keeping with many of the points that Brennan was pushing for. I think one of the big themes in this space is that the highly interpretive function of museums, where they show small numbers of objects in a highly interpreted and curated fashion is in some ways at odds with the the kind of “put it all up and out there” side that comes through in pushes for broader open access to content. But as we’ve discussed a few times over the semester that itself gets into some of the give and take at the heart of the notions of heritage institutions becoming more participatory.

    That relationship to authority and potential for participation is also something that comes through as a key point in Ippolito and Rinehart’s focus on social memory. Their focus on reinterpretation as a form of preservation draws out some really important potential for how historical institutions can become enablers of use and reuse of culture instead of functioning primarily as the conservative function of keeping things as they are and as they were. Given that a lot of their focus is on born digital content, I think many of their ideas on this front produce interesting connections with some of the work that Cope and Chan are getting into in their work with the Planetary app which Camaron blogged about this week.

    1. Great discussion, gang — I’m excited that you have taken these texts as a jumping off point to ask where museums should look for solutions to the shuttering of their physical doors in the wake of COVID-19. And I like Leah’s idea of using the Wayback machine to research the changes in their online presence.

      Following on Trevor’s response, I would invite you to to consider whether today’s crisis might inspire museums to become less centripetal and more outward facing —an idea I explored in an essay called “From Here and Then to There and Now.”

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