The APPlication of Artifacts in the Digital Age

“Everything came from someplace,” John Russick muses on his son’s observation as the curator struggles to find a role for himself and his collection. From this simple statement, you could also say that ‘Everything has a history or a story to tell,’ from a small scrap of document to an ancient artifact or ruins. It is the task placed upon the curator or historian to tell the public why they should care, why it is relevant or important. To do this, the curator must provide a compelling story to make the public interested.

Russick continues, “What is the role of the artifact when learning increasingly occurs in a digital form? More fundamentally, is it our job to make our collections compelling? Or are our collections just tools for us to use to help people learn, share, and understand the subject to which our museums are dedicated? If we can’t make objects compelling, perhaps we don’t need to use them. But if we don’t or can’t use them, perhaps they have no role in the twenty-first-century museum?”

Curators perhaps need to think more like content marketers

Besides the historical and inherent value of artifacts, they correspond closely with the function of apps that Sam Colling and Matthew Durington describe. In their understanding, “apps offer a coherent, purposeful ideological structuring of space, narrative and practice. They facilitate embodied ideologies, and they mark the exact point of interpellation where structure and symbol meet practice and bodily nexis. Apps show how institutions and other powerful agents are trying to structure the meaning of cities by combining mobile media and social media through organizing embodied narrative experiences.”

This is where one’s interest in a niche subject comes into play – I would think that the curator would be so interested in the subject matter that they would want to make a compelling case and therefore the collection would show its “narrative experience” and importance of these artifacts.

“We may not be technophiles, but we aren’t necessarily technophobes either.” As Brennan discusses, this usually leads to mobile projects that concentrate on in-gallery experiences, leading to “projects that resemble audio tours with additional multimedia, with some notable exceptions.”

While seeing these artifacts or documents in a digital form can provide context/its history and provide a new way of learning, it cannot completely take the place or experience of seeing them in person, standing in a museum or among ancient ruins. I would suggest that the digital form provides a new, but complementary way to disseminate the information or the story. These niche apps, mobile websites, and digital interactive experiences enhance that story to try and make the patron or reader feel as though they are a part of that history/provide a connection/make them want to know more.

Museums must engage visitors in a meaningful way.

Through mobile applications and browsing, “tourists, new visitors, and dedicated patrons with new ways to experience museum content by capitalizing on place, artist, theme, and time as organizing principles for content delivery.”

Such projects applied to museums not only allows their collections and exhibits to move beyond the confines of physical space, but also provides new avenues for users to experience and interact with the museum. Fulfilling the all important aspect of connecting with people beyond passive observation in the museum, and as Sheila Brennan stressed in an earlier article, provides limitless possibilities for makes museums more “discoverable, open, or extractable.”

Just as Guldi decribes the spatial turn as representing “the impulse to position these new tools against old questions, Tabeau continues, “the openness of the digital revolution has made knowledge production more democratic, challenging traditional power relations between scholars and their audiences.” Perhaps it is a through the new democratic relations that the power of the Internet can allow everyone to provide their mark on the Why wasn’t I consulted?? (WWIC) concept—thereby providing a fuller “social” history. “Just as the mobile revolution has fractured further the power relationships that have long guarded information, today’s new historians can be inspired by the promise of social history and the radical ways that oral history can restructure power relations, moving toward curating an exhibit or collection in collaboration with the community, rather than curating it for the city’s many constituencies.”


One thought on “The APPlication of Artifacts in the Digital Age

  1. Is it our job to make collections compelling? Hmmmm…. interesting question. I certainly found your ‘curators gonna curate’ meme compelling! A good curator can use a museum’s collections to tell history in a way that is understandable and digestible, but I do not believe that always means that the history is told in a compelling way. For me, in order for a museum exhibit to be compelling it needs to speak to my personal interests in some way. Everyone has their own specialized interests and to try to cater to everyone’s desires would be an impossible job for a curator. Perhaps I see collections more as tools, the means to express a story. With that said, I still do not want to see us give up on tangible collections in the 21st century!

    On the topic of apps, I see them as complementary to the collections. Out of all the museums I have ever been to, I can only think of three exhibits I have ever been to that used an app as part of the exhibit-viewing experience. For all three situations the apps were almost necessary to fully appreciate the exhibit and the story it was telling. Those who were not using the app were not getting nearly the same amount of information out of the exhibit. I noticed that it was mostly younger people that were using the app. As much as I really like the idea of using museum apps, museums are going to have to figure out how to handle accessibility issues. Have tablets available for use in the gallery? Have staff teach those who are unfamiliar with apps how to use the app, touchscreen, smart phone, tablet, etc.? There are certainly going to be some hurdles to overcome before apps are widely used in museums.


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