Beyond the Virtual Exhibition

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Cautiously, museums across the world are opening their doors. But there’s one place where, even during the pandemic, you always get to be up close – the virtual museum. In the digital environment, the museum can take on a new role, less a place of authority, more an agora of ideas. But we have to think outside the box to solve curatorial issues in the digital space. Zara Karschay takes us on a tour……

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To see each and every brushstroke. To handle priceless objects. A place where figures in famous works of art turn to look back at you. A place where you can stay as long as you like in front of the Mona Lisa. Virtual collections aren’t new. But for much of last year, our only option to see museum was online. And 2020 had many more cultural institutions racing to develop their virtual collections and tours. As we enter the promised ‘new normal’, or perhaps even a ‘virtual-first’ era, where we might come to see a collection and objects online before going in person, we wonder, what can virtual collections give us that physical collections cannot? How can we turn the novelty of technology into something more meaningful, something that introduces us to new stories that helps us change our minds? Or maybe, that even changes the perspective the museum has of itself?

ME: We are definitely rethinking how we’re using digital in our collection.

ZK: This is Maria Economou, Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage at the University of Glasgow.

ME: The digital is not just the technology that underpins it, but also affects the way the museum is seen. It affects its identity, the way we see ourselves. I think the first few years of digital heritage and digital activity, the digital, unfortunately, was the strong partner, and the cultural heritage was the weakest relative. It’s improved a lot, but you see even today that sometimes the whistles and bells and the graphics the tech was really the main driving engine rather than, “Who are we doing this for?” “Who are the users?” “What do these collections require?” and being focused more that way.

ZK: In the digital environment, the museum can take on a new role, less as a place of authority and more, an agora of ideas, which also reforms the way that visitors see their role in the museum.

ME: To think of themselves not just as end-users and consumers and producers of this material, but to put themselves in the position of being critically engaged with this. How do we make sense of personal memories? What do we feel are common memories to be shared? What gives us and helps us define ourselves? It’s a shift in your position, in your role, and much more active one.

ZK: In 2018 Professor Economou produced the Digital Heritage Strategy for the university’s museum, the Hunterian. One of its themes was to find ways to engage a broader public by building and sharing knowledge. From the digital agora to the ancient Roman marketplace, the Hunterian can tell stories about associated but disparate collections, well beyond the walls of the museum.

ME: The actual act and art of storytelling has been taking place for so long. And all good cultural institutions are doing some form of storytelling. Even if it’s just by putting objects together, even the juxtaposition and placement in space is telling a story and a narrative. We have, for example, in the Hunterian an important part of the Antonine world collections, which is from Roman Scotland. So, one of the parts of the Roman Empire’s most northern frontier, then it goes all over Europe, and then the rest goes south to Africa. So, it’s a great big scheme for UNESCO to connect all the sites that relates to the frontiers of the Roman Empire. We were looking at how digital storytelling can support emotional engagement with our collections. So, even for people who actually don’t really care that much about Roman Scotland, or history or some of those objects, it was to try to help people connect with that and make links and engage with their lives today and the quite severe challenges that they’re facing.

ZK: Jessica BrodeFrank is Digital Collections Access Manager at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, the first planetarium in the US.

JB: I think now there’s just a bit of a switch in the way people are using collections and in particular online collections. And so, when we started looking about how to make our collections more usable, that was part of the thing we noted was a lot of our users are looking for, “what is in that image?” “What’s it about?” “What does it show?” And that’s not exactly what we catalogue for. We were missing a lot of that language about the object and about its purpose and what it looks like. It really does in a way limit the ability of the museum, to have the conversation and to provide the information when people don’t see what they’re looking for. The usefulness only goes so far, if you can’t find them.

ZK: Rainbows, Chicago in the snow. Requests to the planetarium were changing. They were highly visual. Older catalogues didn’t include these new ways of thinking, looking and finding. How can a virtual museum modernise its systems of documentation? Mapping Historic Skies was a joint digital project between the Adler Planetarium and Zooniverse. Zooniverse is a citizen science platform that has users and curators investigate a digital collection together. For the planetarium, the online platform netted a team of volunteers and numbers that would have been impossible in person.

JB: We were a team of about three, and looking at our dataset and just our collection, in order to add all of the metadata about these amazing pieces that we wanted to, we just didn’t know if we had that capacity. We had 4000 constellation depictions, which is fantastic. But a lot of those come out of rare books, and out of works on paper where the cataloguing doesn’t necessarily reflect what you’re looking at. So, the cataloguing for the book explains maybe who wrote it, when it was written, where it was written, maybe a title and a brief description. But it doesn’t give you an idea of what constellations are in that book, let alone what constellations are on a specific page and in that specific image.

ZK: Over 7500 people signed up to Mapping Historic Skies.

JB: The beauty of this project was that it did expose people to probably 600 years’ worth of constellations that come from various regions, and multiple cultures. And a lot of these visual elements that we use to describe them do change over time and over cultures. And so, the way Hercules is depicted in one culture might not be the way it was depicted 200 years later. We also started having some of our users tagging us that some of the constellations they were seeing weren’t even an option. And what we realised is we didn’t account for all the constellations that became obsolete or are defunct. Now, they’re not included in that list. But historically, they were a constellation. And they were recognized. We found just under 40 constellations that we didn’t account for at the beginning. And we got to engage with people one on one and answer questions and really create some lasting relationships there, where we’ve had some of the Zooniverse users reach out directly and let us know, “I see your project is wrapping up, I really enjoyed it. I would love to come to the Adler one day when you’re reopened and research this or see more”. I think it’s a very enriching path for both the user but also for the institution. Traditionally, in the museum building, unless there’s maybe a survey or a place to drop a note, you don’t have as many opportunities to really connect with what those moments are, as it’s happening. There’s a real privilege to be able to be a part of that process of getting to watch people learning and questioning with your collections almost in real time, in a way that maybe you didn’t expect, but now you get to go on that journey with them. And it’s a much more personal path.

ZK: Mapping Historic Skies wrapped last month, but the planetarium’s next project TagAlong will be available on zooniverse.org in April. Opening up digital archives also create spaces for cultural institutions to have more difficult conversations about their history and those of their objects.

JB: We need to be open to having difficult conversations. A lot of them were asking about why the choices were made for certain depictions, or “why does this look different than what I’m seeing over here?” A lot of the southern skies constellations really come out of that idea of exploration. Colonialism. Why did we think it was appropriate to make a constellation called the Indian, and have it be a native person?

ZK: Professor Economou.

ME: I remember when I was working in the past at the Pitt Rivers Museum, a lot of the terms we were using to describe different cultures are not really acceptable anymore today and they were used 100 years ago. The quality of that information varies enormously.

ZK: The digital is also a way to draw out personal histories and fill in knowledge gaps, because museums don’t always know where their artefacts have come from or how they’ve travelled over time. Meike Hopp, Professor for Digital Provenance Research at the Technische Universität Berlin traces the movement of objects and explores how digital infrastructures might solve the problem of traceability.

MH: Using algorithms could be something more meaningful and sustainable. For example, when you collect metadata on objects, to follow them through hundreds of years and follow cultural exchanges, even violent cultural appropriation, through 1000s of years. What is important in my work is personal contact with family members of the victims of Nazi persecution. And I really tried to get into contact with the heirs of these victims so they might contribute information to artefacts that are important to solve provenance issues as a family or community trying to trace the whereabouts of their former belongings. It is, of course, a chance to see where these objects went and in which museum they are kept. So, what we really need is this metadata on the actors that brought these objects into the museums, we need the metadata about the art market, also, documentation about the processes of expropriation from the authorities and from the former persecutors.

ZK: Virtual collections bring together people, objects, places. They help us visualise the histories and networks of objects, they can drop us into the middle of ancient worlds and societies. They give us the tools to search for artefacts, literally on our own terms. What more work needs to be done?

ME: In terms of actually integrating thinking of really difficult questions about quality control, democratisation of information and knowledge and access in the broadest sense, putting it all together in something that becomes everyday practice, I think we have quite a long way to go still. There is a real danger of organisations being left behind. People assume nowadays that for example, cultural organisations would have at least one image for every single item in their collections, and that 100% of the collections are digitised. And the reality is far from that. That is a huge undertaking takes a lot of resources. It takes a lot of human time. It takes equipment, it does take a change in mentality as well. And especially in the case of organisations with large collections. Europe as a whole has a very strong tradition of supporting culture. The UK, for example, to come closer to where I am at the moment, just announced a few weeks ago, as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, three very large projects funded as part of a project called Towards a National Collection that is looking at bringing collections together, interoperability, but also how to use digital resources and bring them together to support different communities, but also making them more accessible and more “out there”, connecting them. Quite a lot of us in the community advocated that we still need more smaller, more experimental, rather than three huge ones. I come originally from Greece, for example. And although we have an amazing and world-renowned classical past and collections about Ancient Greece, there is also, really interesting the last few years, activity on contemporary art, or more sort of ethnographic and social history and other types of activity that is not as well known around the world. So, one of the reasons it’s also that the digital activity has focused so much on some of this big “well known”, sometimes very heavy ancient past. But even beyond Greece, there is even within each country or community really serious problems with accessibility and digital divide issues, whether it’s national, regional, whatever kind of funding and training opportunities being available. We tend to take this as given and it’s not a given. It requires quite a lot of considerable effort and over several years to make serious progress.

ZK: Is the digital merely replicating the problems of the physical? Does it really democratise in the way it promises?

JB: So a lot of projects are based in the US or in the UK and we’re trying to sort out some of the demographic information. Can we claim that the tags that were made in this project are more representative, and have a bigger diversity if our survey data shows that the majority of visitors were white, between the ages of 45 and 60, and had educational levels of a college degree or higher? Because at that point, what’s the real difference between our museum staff and those users?

MH: Institutions might think that guaranteeing the transparency of the objects they have might solve all the problems of repatriation or relocation. It is definitely a first step but it is not enough. As a second step we should get into contact with society. And we should find solutions together, not from our very European museum perspective, but in a global sense, together with these societies or families that have been victims of this looting, illegal excavations or trafficking or expropriations. So we should have a global dialogue on how to solve these problems, because, of course, every case is a little bit different.

ME: This is the kind of conversation and dialogue that I think should happen within the organisation, but also bringing in other bodies where appropriate in a sort of ‘advisory board’ capacity, but also different representatives of communities to help keep you informed and up to date, realising that this is also very much a shifting ground. And since the pandemic it has become even more important, highlighting, I think, and reminding all kinds of cultural organisations that with digital tools, we can also offer things to people that go much beyond the traditional role of the museum. I think it will be good to see with the virtual, those really imaginary, interesting things that open our minds up and don’t just try to slavishly copy reality, because that will never work well, compared to really seeing and experiencing the original.

MH: There is a tendency to reproduce the existing museum. We have to think outside of the box when it comes to solving these curatorial issues in the digital space.

JB: Our digital landscape is not just a website to sell tickets! It does help to get the institution’s collections out to even more people than might have been able to originally see them

ME: What I want to see more in the future in those environments that you’re not on your own, that it’s also shared with others in ways that makes sense. So, we can exchange and interact with each other as well as engage with the stories that these objects have to tell us. And there’s a lot of really interesting possibilities about bringing the physical or the virtual and real together in appropriate interesting ways.

ZK: Thanks for listening. And thanks to my guests, Professor Maria Economou, Professor Meike Hopp, and Jessica BrodeFrank. For more details of and links to everything we discussed, visit podacademy.org.

Zara Karschay writes about tech-culture, literature and ethics

Photo: Stacey Gabrielle Koenitz Rozells

Sound attribution

exhibition” by dobroide, used under CC BY / Edited

Elevator door opens and closes” by NachtmahrTV, used under CC BY / Edited

Night Sky Above the Arctic” by be-steele, used under CC BY / Edited

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