My digital project tackled one possible solution to a larger question: how can historians incorporate community collaboration into the curation of material collections? In an effort to find a digital means to this end, I have been experimenting with PixStori to model how staff at the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly, NC, can use short oral contributions from their visitors to enrich their knowledge of the museum’s artifact collections.
In the end, the idea behind this project seems to have more merit than its reality on this platform. While using PixStori I ran into one challenge after another that hindered its potential to be used for collections management. To be fair, this isn’t what the platform was designed to do – its concept is to caption and share photos with oral recordings. This unique pairing could only be found on PixStori, and because I felt it was integral to encouraging participation with my project (read why in my proposal post), PixStori initially seemed the right platform to use.
Because PixStori is not collections management software it did not have the capacity to perform that side of the co-curation that I envisioned. I was only able to add metadata to the item pages as a block description, rather than a list of characteristics as is standard practice. There is no framework for the organization of the collection as a whole – no tagging or categorization system that could link items together to organize or search. With these limitations, additional steps would be required to incorporate the contributed stories into existing software. This would require consistent, additional labor from someone familiar with both PixStori and whatever management software a museum uses, a commitment that likely isn’t realistic for the type of local or community museums that would benefit from this model.
This is not to say that my project was completely unsuccessful. PixStori could still be utilized as a means of collecting stories about material objects – an easy way to record these stories linked directly to artifacts. Additional steps would just be needed to incorporate that knowledge with collections management and put those stories to work. This is perhaps a question for the PixStori creators to contemplate: what are the stories shared on their site meant to do? Simply be recorded and put out into the internet, or something more concrete?
Despite these limitations, the question of incorporating collaboration directly into the curation process is one that needs to be explored further. Not only does my approach open the door for museum staff to gain additional and more personalized information about the artifacts they work with, but placing that information directly alongside more technical metadata communicates that these contributions are just as important. This approach elevates community knowledge and input to the same level of importance as measurements, accession information, and more – and in a community museum that can be a necessary step towards a shared authority between staff and community members.
My project provides a window to think about this question, even if it was unable to achieve the full curation process that I envisioned. I feel confident that digital history tools and methods (maybe as PixStori develops further!) can be used to incorporate community voices into curation in a meaningful way.