Museum professionals have been concerned with declining attendance practically since museums were invented. Smaller museums have more to fear than larger museums, many of which have actually seen increased attendance over the last few years. But numbers up or down, museums still have to come up with new ways to draw people in and then maintain a meaningful connection with them. As people use the Internet for more and more of their information, museums risk falling into irrelevance.
In the Victorian era, museums were the seat of cutting-edge research in many disciplines. As universities took over rigorous academic studies, museums had to shift their purpose to maintain their relevance. They became static memorials to the past rather than places of fresh insight into historical questions. As museums have increasingly fought back against this static perspective, digital tools have been able to help them bring real dialogue about important historical issues back into the realm of museums.
I’d like to examine two challenges and two benefits of using digital tools in a museum. These ideas aren’t new, by any means, nor are they original. But perhaps they can help to open up a dialogue about the best ways to use digital tools in museums. These challenges and benefits basically deal with how the public approaches artifacts in a museum. Though there are plenty of other ways museums can have a digital presence, most museums start with digitizing some or all of their collections and then making online exhibits based on them. These thoughts relate to that practice.
Challenge #1: Affect
Since the earliest days of historical collections, what draws people to museums is the affective quality of objects and experiences. People have understood the affective power of objects for millennia, for example, saints’ shrines to which people went for healing, the signet ring of a king that endowed its holder with authority, and in some cultures, the representation of a person’s body believed to be actually connected to the person. Though we today may not endow objects with explicit religious significance, it is intuitive to everyone that we like to see the real pieces of our history that make us who we are.
Museums have answered this need for affect by their focus on the artifacts of history. Various exhibit styles and interpretive focuses endow the artifacts with more or less affective power, but in a good museum, patrons are almost always seeing the “real thing,” not just a representation of it. (A discussion of using replicas in order to provide more participatory experiences for patrons is for another blog post, as is a discussion of how to maximize affective power through exhibits.)
One major concern for doing online exhibits or digitizing collections is the loss of this affective power. An image of the object is not the same thing as the object itself. Even virtual reality is just that: virtual. It’s hard to imagine how one could capture the grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial or Versailles on the Web. (Feel free to offer a rebuttal to this statement!)The lack of affect is not unique to the Internet, of course: every photograph in a book, or postcard representation, shares this loss of affect.
So how do museums capture the affective power of the actual object when digitizing or creating online exhibits? In some ways, they can’t. But that’s the beauty of the Internet: seeing the artifact online may provoke a desire to see it in real life. Patrick Gallagher suggests, “Often it is the virtual environment that encourages the visitor to go to a museum.”
Challenge #2: Proportion
Just as it’s impossible to demonstrate the grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial online, so it is difficult to depict the sheer size of the monument. The same is true of almost any object, no matter what size. People who visit the Mona Lisa often observe that the painting is much smaller than they expected, because they are used to seeing photographic reproductions of it in an indiscriminate size, a size manufactured in their minds.
Using digital reproductions causes an additional layer of size indeterminacy. Because it is online, observers can look at the object’s photograph in the size the webmaster posted it in, but they can also zoom in or out to change their conception of the object’s size. This feature is helpful for closer examination, but it doesn’t give an accurate perspective about the proportional size of the artifacts. This issue of proportion relates to affect, since the size of an object does influence our affective response, but it’s more than that: the actual size of an object can tell us about its uses, its limitations, and its function in society. (A silly example: a child’s shirt, though it may look just like an adult’s, has different functions and uses, which would be hard to tell from a digital representation.)
Providing a scale within the photo gives the viewer a sense of the scale, but since the photo can still be manipulated, the scale is basically useless. There is no real substitute for seeing the actual size of the object.
With these challenges in mind, let’s look at two benefits.
Benefit #1: Accessibility
The major benefit of digital collections for museums is its accessibility: the ability to attract visitors from afar. People can access the museum’s collections without coming to the museum itself. Though this could be a disadvantage, museum professionals have to ask themselves whether it’s better to have some influence over people who visit the website, or better to have no influence over them at all because they have no digital presence.
Museums generally do not allow close access to rare artifacts, even to look at them closely. A website has the potential to allow much closer access to artifacts than a person would have in the brick-and-mortar museum, as this example from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts shows. This website also allows additional interpretation, tied to artistic elements on the bowl. (It’s not possible to gloss specific areas on the actual bowl.) So a closer and deeper look at artifacts can be made possible by using digital tools to enhance accessibility.
Benefit #2: Participation
Digital tools have the potential to allow for more participation with the community both within and before exhibits even open. One great blog about museums in the digital age reports how the Santa Cruz Museum of Arts has used Pinterest to plan their exhibitions, allowing the public access to the exhibits before they’re even created. This is a creative usage of social media to encourage participation in the museum’s plan, especially since it doesn’t even require a digital collection.
Digital collections also allow for participation away from the museum. Visitors who want more information can go online and see artifacts in more detail, with further interpretation. Digital collections can be used for classroom teaching, allowing for participation by young people who have no possibility of going to see the actual museum.
Social media can also enhance participation by opening a dialogue about interpretation or artifacts. Even something as simple (and free) as designating a Twitter hashtag to publicly record people’s responses to exhibits can increase participation. Another simple way to encourage visitor participation is maintaining a blog (with the comment function on!) about what the museum is doing, its philosophy, and whatever else visitors might be interested in.
These thoughts about museums are by no means exhaustive. As museums seek to keep attendance high, embracing the digital seems like an inevitability. But they must still weigh the potential pitfalls of the new technologies and ideas. I don't have any experience in running museums or even working at them, but these ideas seem like important ones to consider even for non-museum professionals thinking about material culture. I’d love to hear feedback on how you’ve seen digital tools used well in museums, or perhaps even how you’ve seen it done poorly.
 Steven Conn, Museums and American intellectual life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 15.
 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 2008), http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/952/interchange/index.html.