In a time period where oftentimes digital offerings are prioritized over thinking about physical objects and their meaning, I think it’s important to carefully integrate both ways of thinking to create a more robust offering for museums and similar institutions, both for in-person and digital exhibits.
There’s no question that having a digital surrogate for a physical object makes that object usable for a much wider audience. But how usable is that surrogate, in the end? To me, there’s a difference between seeing a great, high quality image of a piece of art, and being in the museum itself and really seeing the work, its scale, the brushstrokes… It’s a hard balance for me, because you absolutely want to be accessible. There are folks who live on the opposite side of the world who want to see the items in your collection, and there are people down the street who want to see them as well, who can’t get there because they can’t afford the entrance fee, or they can’t get off work, or they feel like they won’t belong there.
At the same time, I do really feel like there’s an intangible part of seeing something in person that has such a power and makes the experience more useful from a researcher standpoint than using solely digital surrogates. For example, at Dominican, we have some of the personal papers of Vachel Lindsey, a poet from Illinois. He wrote on thin onionskin paper with a fountain pen, probably with a sharp nib. Now, 85 years after his death, those papers are deteriorating in an interesting way. The loops of his letters — the g’s, the y’s, the e’s — are losing their centers. Where his letters have intersecting lines, the paper is simply falling out as though it was incised with a blade. This doesn’t really have a lot to do with the meaning of the papers, per se. But it is a really interesting aspect to his papers. Lindsey pioneered singing poetry, which is performance based. While deteriorating papers probably isn’t something Lindsey saw happening, it does tie in nicely with the way in which his performances can never be replicated since he has passed away. How do we replicate that in a digital surrogate? How do we show where the paper has fallen away, and how thin and delicate the remaining sheet is?
For me, the questions of authenticity/inauthenticity doesn’t have a lot to do with whether the object could have been faked, or exists in a location. It’s more a question of the authentic experience. Even for something that could be easily replicated in terms of items online, how do we recreate the overall exhibit experience? Items from an exhibit on Chicago history could be easily photographed in a 360 degree view and shown online. The digital visitor could spin them and explore them. But how do we put up all the written interpretation? Do items have the same impact when they’re displayed as thumbnails instead of a display case? How do we replicate the way background music and visitor noise sounds in the physical museum? And is all of this stuff even necessary for an “authentic” museum experience?
As a class full of (mostly) public historians with interests in museum work, archives, and similar fields, I don’t think that there’s any question that we would value physical items. The quote at the beginning of the Witcomb article really spoke to me:
“Modern multimedia exhibitions reflect not the international world of museums as repositories, but the external world in which museums now find themselves.” – Roger Miles, Exhibiting Learning
For me, this quote rings true, and has a lot to do with how we see physical objects in the digital world. I think that museums and archives most often use physical objects as a way to engage and experiment with new technology. We see this particularly in the way that institutions think about digitization, 3D or 360 degree rendering, and even basic skills like gif making. I’m really intrigued by how we could represent museums as linked repositories, though. In my mind, it would be pretty reliant on a common metadata schema, like Encoded Archival Description exists for archival finding aids. It would be so cool to be looking at the aforementioned Lindsey’s papers at Dominican, and have a way to link to his papers in other institutions. Museums could create digital galleries of painters or styles from museums across the world.
In the end, I think that the analog object in the digital world isn’t fully understood yet. We’ve been experimenting with new technologies as they come along, but until some stability is achieved in terms of technology and what’s available to museums and similar institutions, I don’t think any consensus will be achieved on the meaning of the physical object.