Digital Exhibitions: Museums A Key-Stroke Away

This concept of the Museumbot that Lubar discusses seems a completely worthwhile project. It parallels efforts of archivists to digitize primary sources, but goes much further at placing historical significance of the cultural item than the disconnected historical photographs Onion criticizes: “At its best, Twitter acts as a portal, a place where knowledgeable guides point you to ever-more interesting corners of the Web. The history-pics accounts treat Twitter as a static medium, where each photograph is a dead end.”

I see Lubar’s proposal as more important to the issues of access and usability: “What if we could design a museumbot for the other choices in this list? Could we tweet random things offered to museums, or turned down, to show the collections choices that curators make? Random things on display, to expand my notion of what areas of the museum I like to visit, or what catches my attention? Random objects in various departments?”

I might point out I do not have a Twitter account, but a quick search revealed quick list for a number of impressive museums.

I think there is an underlying implication here for unparalleled access to the museum artifacts and acquisitions. Think of the all the unique artifacts and acquisitions museums have all over the country. I would love to see museums take efforts to digitize photos of random objects from collections, they could then use a crowdsourced like application to perhaps provide met-data or organizational data. Somewhat similar, but more scientific based project, is Snapshot Serengeti. Based off hundreds of field cameras, the project allows users to help scientists identify and organize animals observed in Africa.

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 stresses, provides limitless possibilities for makes museums more “discoverable, open, or extractable.”

It is not just the question of access to material, but accessibility to the museum itself. The Seattle Art Museum, for example, undertaking efforts to allow people to tour the museum remotely. This would provide a high-tech solution for those unable to visit the museum in person, whether through location, schedule, or disability. The Palo Alto, based company calls its technology The Beam, leaving some to wonder whether, The Beam is “the first generation of something that might one day be as obvious as a wheelchair and as ubiquitous as a disabled parking spot.”

How is the “bot” pulling these items? Is it random? Are we supposed to consider this an archive? Or is it just a collection of disassociated images? What are to gain from it?

While the bot shows pieces of a collection and gives minimal historical information about the item (including provenience), it cannot evaluate whether the item is significant or relevant in any historical context. Everything inside the computer is a performance. “The terms performance (what computers do) and activity (what users do) are helpful for thinking about preserving digital culture and its unique properties.” The computer is performing the tasks it has been programmed to do, but cannot contribute to a further dialogue about why the public should care and what makes it important to add to the larger narrative.

Further Lubar says, “The museumbot calls attention to the necessity of making choices. The vast difference between its random choice and what I see in the museum points out that the choices have been made…The randomness of the museumbot calls attention to the choices that we take for granted.” This again goes back to interpretation and the “story” the historian is trying to tell or as Lubar says “to make a point.”

A quick addendum: I appreciated the appreciationbot commenting on the museumbots posts.

Constructing/Deconstructing Documents – Insight with Omeka

This assignment called for creating an online collection with a series of “digitized images” with Omeka. I chose something I am most familiar with, digitized documents and primary sources. The topic of my site, The Cairo List is a selection of research documents derived from my dissertation. In that regard, I chose to post several documents that either highlight different perspectives on a rather politically charged subject, the presence of Germans in Egypt between 1945 and 1965. In themselves, the documents only suggest a portion of a convoluted narrative. Taken as a whole, however, the documents highlight historical interpretations, and gain certain historical meaning in the context with the other documents. Moreover, I believe several of the documents show the importance of learning particular archival skills, while proving the difficulties for bringing archival resources to the open web.

Omeka’s interface and layout is fairly straightforward. As I was not previously acquainted with the site, I am pleased with its designated function as a platform to present collections, research, exhibits, and digital projects. In some way, I had been looking for such a digital platform to present my own research, but did not even know what I was looking for. Overall, (though skeptical of the implemented pay wall) I could see this as perhaps a vital digital resource that allows for the novice historian to create digital collections and contribute on topics personally important.

Is this an archive? I certainly do not believe so in any traditional sense. Even calling it a digital archive might be a stretch, definitely as compared to something like Rossetti Archive. It is a curated selection of images, and the images and documents I chose were compiled from a variety of sources, including ordinary internet searches, specialized databases, and archival/manuscript collections. Particularly, since the items that come from pre-existing archival structures and differing parents organization, thus the items are lose all sense of the “principle of original order.

However, at the same time, the items were specifically chosen to show that they gain a new, more nuanced, if not more historically accurate meaning, only when viewed as a whole.


“The web has put the ‘novice in the archive,’ but it has not taught him or her what to do there.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig 47)

In the continued debate about digital history, and the historian’s role therein, particularly in regard to the problems of performing or “doing” history in the Information Age, there arises a debate over the fundamental meaning and importance of an archive. As, Cohen and Rosenzweig said in Digital History, “the history web is both more and less than a good historical library” (23).

I am something of the opinion that “doing” history and being a historian in the traditional sense, essentially means going to archives, examining the special primary sources within, and ascribing meaning to the documents in a larger historical narrative. To me, it is the “hide and seek” aspect of archival research that I get the most enjoyment of out pursuing academic history, and plays a fundamental reason for why I (despite having currently thin professional credentials) describe myself as a historian. There is still some thrill to thinking I might be the first to view such documents, discover the missing link in a chain of historical events, or provide some new worthwhile academic interpretation.

I agree with Kate Theimer, that there are “fundamental principles that separate traditional archives from many of the collections created by digital humanists” online. Moreover, Theimer importantly suggests a “more rigorous assessment” of digital sources, that will encourage “a greater understanding and appreciation” of the important distinction between archives and digital historical representations – “separate intellectual products created from archival sources”—like Google books or Wikipedia.

While I certainly agree that digital technology has drastically increased both the user base for archives, and the access to historical sources and data, it does not necessarily lead to a more knowledgeable user. I would again stress that the skills of a historian become doubly important when it comes to providing interpretive nuance, as well as, discovering, evaluating, and contextualizing digital sources.

For me, the most important aspect derives from when Jefferson Bailey mentions, archival bond, the “network of relations that each record has with the records belonging in the same aggregation.” – “a web of documentary co-dependencies that presumes an inheritance and relationship between records based on functional proximity.” This relationship is of fundamental importance for the historian to utilize a document in a way that furthers the historical narrative without perpetuating falsehoods.

Moreover, navigating archives demands learning certain skills and knowing the particular ways in which document sets have certain meaning based on the “the principle of original order.”

See for example, the rules explaining the War Department decimal system or hints for searching State Department central decimal files.

Finally, based on some of the important distinctions Trevor Owens describes, I would add a few final thoughts. First, I think traditional archives, as in record management, will continue to dominate as something like professional enclaves, particularly for historians. Second, is the particular importance of crowdsourced material like September 11th Digital Archive, and digital archives like the The Shelley-Godwin Archive. Such digital resources are of paramount importance for researchers. As Guldi and Armitage explained, those “streams of electronic bit comprise, to a great extent, the public context of our time” (Guldi 111). Such resources provide unprecedented ways for historians to continue their role “arbiters of data for the public, and investigator of forgotten stories” (Guldi 113).

Third, I see no clear point to the type of born-digital archive Jeremy Schmidt & Jacquelyn Ardam describe. That is not to say that there is no importance to the files of Susan Sontag’s computers in themselves, but in light of the previously mentioned open-source type archives, there seems little point in hiding such digital information strictly within the confines UCLA Library Special Collections.

Outside the Wall

Cohen and Rosenzweig in their book Digital History, hit at one of the primary problems with modern historical research on the web: What they describe as potential positives—in terms of capacity, accessibility, and diversity can just as easily turn out to be negatives for historians in the digital era. As their first chapter clarifies, the “History Web” had grown exponentially since the book was published in 2006. Even the most mundane search can reveal thousands of hits, and can quickly overwhelm the researcher in the abundance of repetitive informational resources.

One has to know how to both ask the right questions and separate the wheat from the chafe of opinionated misinformation. I am reminded of another historian acquaintance, who (like many young PhD’s spends time working unrelated jobs) encountered a teen customer at his record shop looking for Pink Floyd’s classic 1979 album The Wall. As the young man perused the records, he finally worked up the gumption to ask my friend whether they had the album, to which he indicated it was there with all the rest of Pink Floyd’s catalog. Somewhat incredulous, the customer, replied that he had already looked under “W” for The Wall but could not find the album….

This exchange somewhat indicates the continued discrepancy between the internet’s potential capabilities and the ill-informed ways in which a supposedly tech-savvy generation surfs the web. In this case, it seems as if the teen was so intent on receiving the correct information from a Google type basic input (“The Wall” by Pink Floyd) that he lost sight of how the real world might collate the same information (alphabetically by artist).

While the internet has become the first place people go to find information, it has by no means replaced libraries and archives. A simple look at the copyright and page restrictions of Google books or the various pay walls established by the likes of Thomson Corporation and Pro-Quest make this more than evident.

At the same time, however, As Jo Fuldi and David Armitage point out in the book The History Manifesto, traditional historical research is “limited by the sheer breadth of the non-digitized archive and the time necessary to sort through it.” The ever-increasing prevalence of digital material allows for a “digitally structured reading…giving more time to counterfactuals and suppressed voices, realigning the archive to the intentions of history from below.”

The digital historian needs to bridge the gap between the plethora of archival material and the newfound preponderance of digital sources.