Blog Post

Museums and Digital Tools

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.[1] 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.”[2]

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.



[1] Steven Conn, Museums and American intellectual life, 1876-1926 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 15.

[2] “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 2008),




Abby, thanks for a thought provoking post!  Museum administrators have long been interested in the ways they can use the internet as a tool.  The annual conference Museums and the Web, organized by Archives and Museum Informatics, has been held since at least 1997.  For those who are not familiar with Nina Simon, she is the director of the Santa Cruz, California museum you referenced.  She is the author of The Participatory Museum, published in 2010, and the blog Museum 2.0.   Her blog is about applying Web 2.0 philosophies to museums. You can read more about that here.Simon is on the leading edge of administrators who are trying to figure out how best to use their resources (oftentimes quite limited) to meet the public’s growing demand for online content.

One challenge that museums face is keeping up with the rapidly changing ways that people interact with and use the internet.  “Grounding Digital Information Trends” is a great presentation created by Kristen Purcell for the 2011 Museums and the Web conference which discusses this.   Purcell’s presentation ends by enumerating ways museums can “remain relevant” through their use of technology (slides 52-60). 

Purcell and others emphasize the fact that museums need to make sure that they are providing context in addition to content.  This is one thing that will help in the battle to keep users returning to  online museum exhibitions. This philosophy upholds the changing mindset of museum administrators from the idea that museums exist to serve their collections to the idea that they exist to “serve society by helping provide the knowledge its members need to survive and progress.”[1]

Two last things:  First, I am keenly aware of my privilege as a lifelong museum-goer.  I share your assertion that there is no substitute for the "real thing."  Yet, I wonder if the majority of people, especially those who cannot or do not visit physical museums, would agree.  And I also wonder if so-called “digital natives” would agree. Perhaps they do not feel a diminishment in affective power or they feel a different type of affective power.  In one blog post Nina Simon writes about an experience in which the physical museum was a pale imitation of its online presence, which she and many others felt was a serious problem.  Is it?  Second, online exhibits blend museology, technology and pedagogy and much of the literature about them is divided along those lines.  I feel an integrated approach would be so much more helpful, but I question whether it is possible to merge them in some way for future research.  Is the specialization necessary?


[1] George F. MacDonald and Stephen Alsford, "The Museum as Information Utility," Museum Management and Curatorship 10, no. 3, (September 1991): 305-311.


I too have experienced Nina Simon's views on the participatory museum and how she applies Web 2.0 philosophies to museums through her TED talk video which you can view here: Whist she makes valid points about transitioning from archaic vessels for academia to public ownership and personal history as their guide for experiencing the museum the question is: how appropriate is this view to other museums or historical institutions elsewhere in the world? Sure, in one way or another you are always participating when experiencing historical content at a museum, but that is a personal interaction that exists between you and the physical object. Abby mentions how the connection is lost when objects are digitised and the virtual element that causes and promotes a different style of engagement with viewer and object. But the same principle could apply to changing the dynamic from individual to participatory/collective experiences within the museum walls. Is the historical content viable? Is the relationship between person and historical content altered, and if so how so, and is it for the better? Will all people feel inclined to participate, or will they hold on to their personal experiences? And the ultimate question is, what do we do with the apparent increase in subjectivity that participatory museums must cultivate? In no way do I feel like I am the bearer of the wisdom and academic knowledge needed to answer these questions, but what I do have is a perspective from outside the American culture that views the history of my particular country alongside the current social climate that we have and I come up short, thinking that a participatory museum may not be particularly effective here in New Zealand. Our historical heritage, as limited as it may be, is full of history that has negative social interactions between those of European descent and those who were indigenous or migrants from other continents. The air of superiority of the European settlers that is inflected in the historical sources written that document New Zealand's colonisation plays a big part in the way cultural history and significance is perceived even today, and people from all descents listed above are still governed to varying degrees by the decisions of our forefathers. There is a tribunal for claims pertaining to the Treaty of Waitangi that was signed in 1840, and that tribunal is still settling claims today. The difference in culture between the Maori and the European's is seen even today, and the culture that view acquisition and entitlement to land back then still echoes in our society today when coming up with resolutions for those claims. My point in this is, I would not feel encouraged, supported and free to share my individual and personal belief in relation to that history with people from Maori heritage as I am of European descent and I do feel the weight of my history. New Zealand culture collectively embraces the freedom of speech but also the consideration of keeping personal views out of historical matters in order to maintain peace. Therefore I am skeptical of how successful a participatory museum would be here in New Zealand. There could be topics and areas of personal history that could combine with traditional sources through participation well, and I'm sure that someone with greater foresight could pull it off here, but I am unconvinced. There are places out there in the world (in fact most other places in the world) that have a deeper, further reaching history than what we have in New Zealand. We only know disparity among races, tensions and arguments over understanding one another, and we have a society that still 'walks on eggshells' about certain topics. As much as that could be put down to our history, I think it is fair to say that New Zealander's as a whole operate with a humble, personally relevant disposition that keeps us distant from topical issues and therefore we are better observers than we are contributors. I'm sure that there would be many New Zealander's that would give a participatory museum a go, but I believe it would be a minority of people inclined to expressing their extroversion and their personal acceptance of themselves that would look at participating. Museums in New Zealand are still seen as places to visit to educate from academics who have structured the experience for us, if you look on this tourist site for how they depict New Zealand Museums, maybe you could see where I come from with my view:


You both raise great points and provide such a wealth of information. I wanted to just quickly point out the HASTAC forum on "The Future of Museums" that people might want read if interested and suggest that we may also want to cross-post some of the discussion on museums taking place here in the DH Group to that forum where relevant/appropriate? 


Any interest in starting a Museum Studies group on HASTAC? Anyone can start one, and it would provide a way of aggregating content and networking amongst yourselves. Let me know if I can help. Check out the Sound & Music group as an example.


Hey everyone,

Thanks Abby for the post. In response to Danya's comment on whether "digital natives" would agree that there is no substitute for the real thing, I think that they would. Most people go to museums not just to acquire information, but also because it is a social activity that you do with your family and friends. In my opinion, exhibits online are great but there needs to be more of an engagement wih the digital inside the actual musueam building through the use of instalation art and interactive activities. This would draw out more families and those looking for a fun intellectual activity. Exhibits that allow visitors to comment and engage in discussion while viewing the exhibit in real time are much more appealing...


Thanks for your provocative post on the limitations and advantages of using digital tools in/for museum environments. Affect and scale do seem to be elements of the museum-going experience that may not be reproduceable online. Although as Danya points out, there may be a different kind of affective experience that can occur online (and this is not to be underestimated!), you astutely point out that there is a long history of pilgrimmage that speaks to the power of presence.

Still, I do have questions about the benefits of access and participation both in museum and digital spaces. Questions of access and participation have come up in discussions between a local museum and a Haida community about putting expropriated Haida artifacts online. Many of the people who live in the First Nations community have limited internet access and thus limited access to the digital representations of those artifacts. So while, access may be greater for those who have internet, there is a large portion of the population for whom that access may not be a reality. Likewise, while social media may allow some to contribute to conversations around an artifact, it may exclude those for whom the artifact has particular significance. This may be true for Haida communities, but could also be true in the case of Chinese artifacts in the British museum; access to and participation on the internet is a very different matter in China. Of course, this gets into the question of who has more of a right to speak about a certain cultural object than another, and I look forward to hearing people's opinions on this!

Another thing though, in the case of some First Nations communities, it may be important to have the visitor encounter the objects in a specific context and with understanding of the object's importance in that context. All that to say, I think we have to complicate the idea that access and participation are necessarily benefits of museums online. Whom do they benefit? Who has access and who can participate? Who can't?


Regarding the first challenge you identify: it is certainly fair to say that a digital display of a historical artefact or document is simply not "the same" as the "real thing". That is a common criticism. I do agree to an extent with Patrick Gallagher though, that seeing an object on the screen may provoke a desire to see the "real thing". I would say that this is particularly true for children. Indeed, Gallagher himself states in the interview in that link that the willingness to go to digital displays is largely determined by the age of the visitor.

Similarly, in writing about the use of electronic media at the National Museum of the American Indian, Gwyneira Isaac has noted how children are usually drawn to electronic kiosks and interactive devices first, whilst adults usually prefer to go to the real objects.

[See: Gwyneira Isaac, 'Technology Becomes the Object: The Use of Electronic Media at the National Museum of the American Indian', Journal of Material Culture 13:3 (2008), p. 297.]

On the whole, I would argue that this is actually a good thing. This is the digital age - if we want children and young people to get interested and maintain an interest in history, then institutions of history (of which museums are obviously one), need to "move with the times" so to speak, and make strong use of digitisation.



Your statement "if we want children and young people to get interested and maintain an interest in history, then the institutions (of which museums are obviously one), need to 'move on with the times' so to speak and make strong use of digitalisation" is something that I agree with, but with certain parameters and conditioning on the statement. To strengthen your view Daniel, I would add this statement from Jones and Christal (2002), and they say "It [being virtual museums] allows students to make choices about what they want to study and provides meaningful topics that incorporate academics and culture while providing a way to get families and the community involved in their education." Check out the full report here Fostering and sustaining curiosity about an area of academia that can often be viewed as outdated and only for 'smart people' is crucial for students and young people, I definitely agree here. But, as an educator, I am also acutely aware of certain principles and skills that students need to learn from first hand, personal interactions with sources and artefacts. As Abby mentioned, the grandeur of museums and the experience you have personally when you can see the real life artefacts is something that doesn't translate over virtual representations. Students need to learn values, and how to respect the culture and historical preface behind the objects, and how history narratives have been constructed in a museum environment as a tool and place for learning. 

In saying that, this blog raises an interesting point on whether the artefact item itself is even relevant in the explanation of the history to which it pertains. 

The blogger writes "if we take away the object but keep the museum label and descriptions, if we take away the object but keep the preconceptions that we bring into the museum about what that object is, if we take the object away but draw on the sme imaginings and personal experience, then what is lost when we lose the object?" Only the primary source. Which is really the point. Sure the historical content is there, but the appreciation for the primary source, the object, is completely eliminated. It really is up to you how much you weigh historical content versus appreciating primary sources in regards to importance. For educational purposes, for teaching our children to have content knowledge as well as objectivity and skills, I say both


Those are very good points too, Christie. I would certainly qualify my statement earlier by noting (as you have) that looking at something on a screen may mean that we become too distanced from the 'real thing' and therefore not fully appreciate its significance or even trivialise it. This is in many ways an example of the online disinhibition effect. I think you would find this article very interesting.

I would also agree that first-hand experience is extremely enriching. The reality as I see it however, is that people are decreasingly willing to expend time, money and energy travelling to see and feel a historical object, when so much of it is freely available on the web. A classic New Zealand example would be the Treaty of Waitangi (which I see you have posted about as well). I have seen it many times on the internet, including digitised copies on websites run by museums and government departments, but I never taken the time to go and see the original. This is further reflected by the fact that there is a trend amongst children to gravitate towards computer displays and interactive kiosks in museums, rather than objects located in a roped off area behind glass.

I absolutely accept that a blend of both appreciation of the primary source (object) itself along and the way it is expressed and interpreted through processes such as digitisation is extremely important for general educational purposes though.

NB: That link you posted doesn't seem to be working for me? You might want to check that.


I like your points regarding children and their interactions with historical objects. I agree that for children it is important for them to experience and gain knowledge of how to interact with certain objects and artefacts; instead of constantly relying on the internet to 'research' or learn about particular things.  As the Isaac article states, children are more likely drawn to the technology within a museum, instead of being interested in the actual object itself, while their parents are more likely to want to see the 'real' object.  I also think it is important for children to be able to have the skills and knowledge to be able to interpret an object or historical source for themselves; instead of only relying on what they are being told, and not coming to their own conclusions. I think that digital tools in relation to museums are useful, but I don't think that they should be the only way in which historical content is communicated.

I agree with you about the blog, 'Does the artefact matter?', that if we lose the object itself, what do we have to show for it's place in history? Sure we have some information that someone has interpreted for us, but if the object  no longer exists, we can no longer make judgments, intepretations and experience it for ourselves. I think both the object and historical content are important, but without the object, the historical content almost seems worthless which also makes it difficult to put the information into an historical context without having the object present. 



Simple human error in regards to the link, so here's the correct link: I really like what Jones and Christal have to say about the future of museums, and indeed the future of virtual museums also. They talk about the sophistication needed to really take virtual museums to the next level if they are to become suitable substitutes for physical museums. I agree with what Ilana says about the artefact in regards to the object taking the meaning with it if it is present or not, and I think that a certain amount of human sentimentality is transferred onto objects with which we feel an affinity. Just the other day I was walking the mining tracks up in the Karangahake Gorge, and it was almost as if I could feel the labourers sweat as they laid the tracks for the carts that I was walking beside so many years later. I'm not sure there will ever be a viable virtual substitute for that feeling and connection.


As someone who loves going to museums, I find the concept of digital musuems online to be an interesting one.  I do agree with your point of potentially 'losing power' through displaying only a replica or an image of the object and personally, I would find myself to be less interested, or less 'impressed' with only seeing a digital interpretation of a particular object.  Gwyneira Isaac emulates this, by discussing in her article, 'Technology Becomes the Object', that we can become 'distanced' from an object because we are viewing it through a computer screen.  Isaac also notes that the value of the history can be subjected because often the digital technology is viewed in favour of the history. 

 As you stated Abby, using digital tools within the space of the musuem are a potentially useful entity.  The whole idea of the museum is to share ideas and to deepen understandings surrounding the study of history and historical objects. The use of these tools enable access from people all over the world to view a museum's collection or exhibition, without having to physically journey to the phycisal building. 

The technology can be used as a method of not only encouraging people to access and become involved within what a museum has to offer, it can also be used to preserve history that otherwise might not be saved, and also to encourage people to become involved and become interested in learning more on the museum and what it has to offer them.  
I do find myself agreeing with Daniel, in which we are in the digital age, with technology only advancing and going forward, not backward.  Using particular digital tools will (hopefully) ensure that this history is preserved and also ensure that the interest in history and the museum is maintained. 
Isaac, Gwyneira, 'Technology Becomes the Object: The Use of Electronic Media at the National Museum of the American Indian', Journal of Material Culture 13.3 (2008), pp.287-310. 

We do become 'distanced' from an object when looking at it on a computer screen yes; although it can also be argued that a screen enables us to more "up close and personal" wih the object. This is especially so if the image can be enlarged or looked at from different angles, or if certain details can be highlighted and exacerbated. Sometimes this can be a more enriching experience than looking at somthing which might be the "real thing" yet situated in a roped off are and encased behind a glass wall where the general public cannot get anywhere near it.  So digitisation can be both advantageous and disadvantegous, I would argue.


Digitisation can be advantageous from the points that you have highlighted. Personally, I prefer to look at the 'real thing' but I do agree that for people who want to learn more or prefer to be involved in the interactive experience, these digital tools and technology can be useful.  I guess it depends on how digital tools and technology is used in the displaying of certain objects and artefacts. Yes, we can become more up close and personal to these objects, but I think that depending on how the technology is used will ultimately determine how we view and interpret them. 


Here is an interesting article published in the Guardian last year which discusses the benefits of museums digitising their archives.

As the article notes, digitisation makes it easier for audiences to interact with artefacts and historical collection. This is particularly so for international audiences who are unable to travel to visit the museum themselves. Increased freedom of access is not the only benefit, however. Digitisation also saves space in a museum and provides the possibility of displaying objects which could be too fragile to display in an offline environment due to the need for light/temperature/humidity control.

This disadvantage with this I would argue however, is the increased curatorial control. It will of course be entirely the choice of museum curators which objects or documents to digitise and therefore make more readily available. This could in some cases hinder the intended democratising function of archive digitisation somewhat. 


With regards to the second benefit you identify, I think this has it's own advantages and limitations embedded within it. I agree with you, the fact that digitised museums and archives provide a much more accessible space for users to view and interact with the documents/artifacts is a great benefit indeed! A digital platform for community participation is an effective way for visitors to interact with what they are viewing, and I would argue that many people would find this a more comfortable and familiar environment (particularly of the younger generation). Although on the other hand, I do agree with Ilana and Daniel, that there is definitely a 'distancing' that comes with viewing a digitised artifact online. There is something about viewing a document in person that cannot be replicated on a screen!

I would like to make one additional point, that in terms of cultural citizenship, the digitised museum is a very useful way of communicating with the masses. Because of globalisation, it could be said that individuals have a more fragmented identity, and perhaps can see themselves identifying with several different cultures. With the traditional museum, one cultural narrative is generally created for presentation to the public, based upon the dominant cultural group. Within this, many issues appear such as agency, nationalism, and what the museum's purpose is. However, a great advantage of the digital museum is that the viewer no longer is restricted to one narrative. With the wealth of archives becoming digitised on the internet, access to archived documents has widened to all those using the web, rather than those in the general vicinity of the museum. Hence, someone can participate in their own cultural community and engage with their cultural heritage digitally, in a way that may not previously have been possible.

You also express the importance of weighing up the "potential pitfalls of the new technologies and ideas". A question that immediately springs to my mind relates to the purpose of the museum, and how much of this community interaction and participation is actually essential in helping people engage with history. Also, does this participation need to occur in a tactile, real environment to be effective? These are important questions to consider.


Fahy, Anne, 'New technologies for museum communication', in Museum, Media, Message, edited by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (London and New York: Routledge, 1999 [1995]), pp. 82-96.



I agree that online exhibitions and museum archives are beneficial to providing access to people all over the world who may be interested in a particular museums content. Museums that offer access online are able to reach a wide range of people and to be able to express and exchange ideas and knowledge; I think this is a positive aspect of what digital tools and technology can offer museums.  I thought the article you provided, Daniel, provided interesting insight and brought up some interesting points. I hadn't really considered digitisation as being able to save space within a museum, which I now do believe is a valid point. 

I agree with you, Daniel, that it is at the discretion of the musuem curator or whoever is in charge of a certain object as to whether it gets digitised or not. I totally agree with you, as this could equate to one object to be digitised over another which is deemed not as important, or perhaps thought of as not being as popular.  Not everthing will be digitised, as there is so much criteria that an object has to go through in order to be eligible for digitisation due to costs, time and also requiring someone with enough skill and knowledge to be able to do it.  

I also particulary like your points Claudia, as to how museums might cater to varying degrees of cultural identites, as it relates to cultural objects. I agree that the 'traditional museum' is often catered for that one dominant group (particularly European) and I agree that this could potentially be altered through the use of online digitial museums. As to the purpose of the musuem, I believe the purpose is to the sharing and experiences of knowledge, and I don't think that this has to neccasarily occur within the physical building of a museum. Yet, I still also think that there is something about being inside the physical building of the musuem, and becoming fully immersed with what is has to offer us that the environment of an online digital musuem can simply not offer through a screen. 


I was really drawn to your initial comment about the Victorian era, where "...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 think this issue is one we are constantly facing with the digitization of historical materials. How do we provide the detailed relevance of the significance of each historical piece on display?

Which brings me to my next thought which lies in the issue of access. As historians, we want to provide rich, valuable information to the public about our world’s histories, but public access can be so limited, particularly within online exhibitions, or lack thereof. There are only so few digital exhibitions with a wide range of information and interaction, and limited public access to certain areas of information that it makes it difficult to share this world of historical content with the public. Online exhibitions are a wonderful way of documenting and sharing in the experiences of history, whilst keeping up with the ever-changing digital environments. What a wonderful way to enlighten and experience the world around us in the classroom with students than to go online and walk around various places, click links to see photographs and hear digitized voices and videos, sharing with students what has gone before. I too love Claudia's idea of the catering to various cultural identites, what a way to showcase who we are as humans, how far we have come, and where we can go from here.


I was really challenged by what you said about historians providing rich, valuable information to the public about our world's histories, and how thus far public access has been limited. This article ( on Penn Museum tells how they partnered with Digital Antiquity on the Museum's 125th anniversary in 2012 in order to expand digital access to increase global scholarly access. Whilst it is not open as far as public access yet, Penn Museum is setting a foundation for public access to become a reality. Check out the links to the projects they already have underway. I think that opening digital access to global scholars is the first step in allowing public access, as their research, aided by the research of Penn Museum, will be shared by their readers. So whilst it's not direct public access to Penn Museum research, the indirect access will be beneficial to people of the public with historical interest through global scholars. I think you will find this project of particular interest. It is a Research Map that has a timeline integrated into it. Link: Global scholars, with their particular areas of expertise, are able to contribute information from their particular country, time period, or people group that is their focus and combine it with others doing the same thing. This is truly digital history. We as the public can access the information, and although we cannot change it, why would we when people who know far more than us can provide accurate information? I think it is an awesome project!


Access to historical content is a matter of personal interest to me and is one that encourages engagement on a number of levels.

I have always thought of museums as the perfect way to immerse oneself in a countries culture whilst travelling. However it simply is'nt possible or realistic to jump on a plane when wanting to learn more about another culture, time or place. It is importatn to remember not everyone has physical access to museums and this I feel is where the importance of digital history lies. While I am no historian or digital histories expert I do feel that online exhibitions are vital in allowing anyone with internet access to expand their horizon. I agree with Eden in that online exhibitions are a wonderful way of documenting and sharing history. For example it allows me to learn about the Apartheid struggle in South Africa from the comfort of my living room in New Zealand.

Further the advancement of technology allows users to interact with history on various levels giving them a deeper understanding of the historical content. The problem however is not all museums or exhibitions are utilising the function of an online exhibition. Whether this is due to financial aspects or concers that it may draw users away from physically going to museums the result is restricting historical knowlede to the hands of the privileged few.

While there are benefits to an online exhibition, there is no substitute for the real thing. Anyone who has gone to the Louvre to see Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Musee Rodin to see The Thinker will know there is no replacement for the real thing. However online exhibitions of both of these museums for example allows users to experience the history and culture at some levels and has inspired many including myself to see these works of art first hand for themselves.

Howvever, as noted above access to online exhibitions is limited to those with internet access. Further, many online exhibitions require pogram downloads to fully utlise the sites functions. Therefore technical barriers have become just as important as physical barriers in regards to access. This however may be an issue beyond the scope of this particular article yet it is one which should be considered somewhat.


I completely agree with it not being the same as seeing the real thing - I was very fortunate in my high school years to be able to go on an overseas trip for three weeks and personally experience history and a different culture than that of my own. This shifted my understanding and perceptions on the ideas of travel. Physically walking through museums and historical monuments made me not just read the history, but almost made me feel as though I were living it. I think digital exhibitions can do this to an extent too, as we are able to see various angles of objects, walk through virtual tours and see panoramic photographs of beautiful historic sites. Though it may not be as personal as being in the exact location of something, there is something quite magical about being able to access it so quickly from the other side of the world, sometimes in completely separate time zones.


Thanks for your comments Eden. I agree with you in that to some extent online exhibitions can allow you to become absorbed in the historical content leaving you feeling as though you are experiencing the past in the present

For myself in particular online exhibitions have allowed me an opportunity to experience my South African heritage from all the way in New Zealand. My family had moved to New Zealand when I was seven and coupled with the reluctance of my family in Cape Town to relive the days of apartheid, online exhibitions have given me an opportunity to experience the vibrant history of South Africa through fellow South African's eyes. To that end I completely agree with you that there is something magical about experiencing historical content online, as online exhibitions have given me access to historical information I otherwise would have been without.

However, while I do appreciate the many benefits of digital exhibitions, particularly the ability to view historical content from the comfort of my own home I must assert there is no comparison to physically experiencing historical content. The feeling of completeness I felt when travelling back to Cape Town to learn about my culture and physically viewing historical monuments such as the Cupido Bell in Stellenbosch named after my great-grandfather simply could not have been achieved by viewing them through an online exhibition. Although I had viewed these monuments many times through online exhibitions it had not taken away from the impact of experiencing them in person.

On a final note however, I will say that online exhibitions had aided in my understanding of the historical importance of these monuments. One benefit of accessing online exhibitions which is lacking in museums  is the ability to access additional information and to do so with ease.


I think what we are getting at through this discussion is that digitisation by museums invokes something of a tension between the opportunity for increased participation and increased curatorial control.

We tend to think of digitisation as having a democratising function. Going back to Claudia's point; digitisation of museum artefacts, documents and other objects can increase accessibility, and therefore encourage participation and interactivity with the objects by people of many different cultural and genealogical identities. Access and participation is no longer restricted to primarily reflecting the dominant culture in the place where the physical museum is located, as it might have been in the past. Digital technologies can therefore reduce the chances of cultural colonialism by museums and other institutions of history.

On the other hand, as Ilana and I have noted, the choice of "to digitise or not to digitise" a certain object is entirely that of the museum curator; which, I might add, could well be influenced by certain stakeholders, including who mainly funds the museum and its activities. This then presents the issue of increased curatorial control, which somewhat hinders the intended democratising function of digitisation by museums.

So acknowledging these two points, would you say that the issues about accessibility and participation are therefore both a benefit and a challenge at one and the same time?


I like your points there Daniel, and I would agree with you that the issues we have been discussing are both a benefit and a challenge. There is a real tension there, and I think it’s important that a balance is found. I also think Eden makes a great point about the advantages of the online exhibition, in that we are keeping up with the way our world is heading digitally. The web clearly provides a wonderful space for sharing vast amounts of history with virtually everyone who is able to view it.

In terms of curatorial control, I think Daniel raises some interesting points. As historians, we are constantly being selective, in choosing to discard certain pieces of evidence or sources, or deeming them to be reliable and significant to our research. A curator also has this role in determining which documents/artefacts are important to display in a museum, in addition to choosing what to digitise. Because we do not have the means or funds to digitise everything, a curator must be selective. Consequently, I think it is important to acknowledge and explore the purposes of the digital exhibition or museum, and what is being represented. Are we getting an accurate representation of the past? Does the accessibility of the digital museum outweigh any limitations that may come from increased curatorial control?


Thanks for the comments Claudia; those are very good questions. To an extent I think you have answered them already.

As you have righlty acknowledged, historians and curators alike must always be selective about what to include and what to exclude, based on significance and reliability of sources. This goes for everything, not just digitisation. So accepting that, I would say that no: you can never get a truly accurate representation of the past. Everything is an interpretation.

If we also accept that the purpose of digital exhibitions by museums is to at least attempt to increase accessibility and participation with historical objects and artefacts across different cultures and cultural identities; then it follows that digitisation has an overall advantage of increasing cultural participation and providing a more democratic, crowd-sourced representation of the past (whilst still acknowledging that absolute accuracy and objectivity is never really possible).

So thinking about it from that angle, I would therefore argue in response to your second question that: yes, increased accessibility and participation does outweigh potential limitations caused by curatorial control.

I would be interested to see if anyone else reaches a different conclusion. Good work though, that was very helpful. I like your thinking.


Daniel and Claudia I have been reading both of your comments in terms of curator control with considerable interest. As you have both acknowledged it is the curator's role to choose which historical content is to be selected or disregarded and this decision is based not only on the reliability of the sources but also the significance of the historical content. In theory digital history would be the ideal tool for allowing public access to information which hasn't gone through the curator's process of elimination. Yet, while historians have argued for a more democratic approach to the curating process I think we need to be aware of the effects an abundance of information will have on representations of the past.

I am sure all digital historians are more than aware of the vast amount of historical information which can be accessed online. However not all of the information which can be found online is reliable which for a novice who lacks the skills and tools to assess historical sources means finding reliable information which accurately represents the past can be very problematic. Therefore I think the role of the curator is essential particularly in online exhibitions as one expects a certain quality of information from museums which is sadly lacking in the internet as a whole which unfortunatley is more than often recognised as a source of unreliable information.

In this respect I agree with Daniel wholeheartedly that one can never really obtain an accurate representation of the past. However, I do think through digital exhibitions the representations of the past are more accurate due to the role of the curator.

Additionally, as many online exhibitions are becoming more interactive, particularly in allowing it's online users to upload their own historical content I do think increased accessibility and participation in these respects goes a long way in balancing the negative points of curator control which Claudia had addressed above.



I think you make a really great point Meggan - I hadn't really considered that, thanks! The reliability of historical information on the internet as a whole is, as you pointed out, sadly lacking. We can be reasonably confident that digital exhibitions are more reliable than the general historical information that can be found during a google search. The process undergone by a curator is clearly an advantage in that it provides historical facts and evidence which can, with discernment, be considered accurate. This is a wonderful advantage in the sphere of digital history! Combined with increased participation and accessability, I certainly would not question the benefits of digitised archives, but would simply seek to consider the limitations also. 



Those days, I think I got more and more understanding about the Digital Histories, and I think that is really important for Future generations, time effaced the memory, but the photons and the video will stay by the Digital Tools. That is no doubt; there are many advantages since the Digital Tools was coming, like we can find the information of history become more and more easy and fast, we do not spends time on talk with staff of library, even we do not need pay the money for the books we want to have look, we just need turn on our laptop, everything is coming to my screen.

Also, the good example is the Digital museums online. It’s like sharing the things of Pandora box of history. That is really useful to the student and the scholar, that can help them to doing the learning and researching easily, collection the data and analyzing as well as.

But, there are some problem always follow with the Digital Tools, we need face them first, like the web museums is in In virtual world, we cannot real touch them by the hands, maybe we still can see the phone and numbers, even the video, but I do not think that is good enough for the learning and researching, the big question is who can make sure those things are really real and right. If the information is wrong, through too many times propagate and utilize information that can be real and right someday. that is trouble if that  is happen.


Eden Pirie

i agree with you, I have been to some museums in china when I was young, and I still cannot forget now, because the smell and the environment is make me impress, I do not think people can feel that by the online phone or something, that is just a part of history, not good enough.



TERRY MARTIN, Director of Harvard Law Library: “I am a little troubled by this discussion of "The" Museum, because there are many kinds of museums and their needs are different. I am not sure they would all apply digital technologies properly. As a librarian, I have had a lot of experience with the problems of preserving paper. First, it went to microfilm and now to digital form.”

There are ninety percent of today's museums were created after World War II. there are too many museums, and many museums have too much stuff, there's no way or not easy to digitize everything. On the other hand, not every object in every museum is worthy of veneration. How do we make sure we can to distinguish them by the right way? We're going to have all this wonderful technology in the digital museum, but not everything has to go into that museum.



There are no absolutes!
Thanks Abby for posted, that is very helpful to me, I read very carefully, and I got some good points from this as well as. In my view, the Museums and Digital Tools are both important to us, and we cannot lose any one between them. Museums are the Past evidence, is where we learn not just about the past but also educate us for the future, the things in our museums that remind us of our past. And Digital Tools as sign of the Digital ages, we cannot live without the Digital Tools. I think the problem lies not in the digital media itself, how it’s processed or stored, or any other of its qualities. 
Maybe in future, people can make Museum work with digital tools, keep past, move on towards us positive future.
 This makes for an interesting read: 

I think another thing to be aware of, and I'm sure we all understand this, some have made mention, but digital archiving doesn't necessarily mean everything will be open to the public online, let us remember it may be digital tools used inside museums, touch screens, and computer information displayed in that way. So yes, the issue of digital access is an issue, but so is access to the museum itself. Meggan was talking about that too, it is difficult to just jump on a plane and see every exhibition we would like to (though one can dream!).

This makes for an interesting read:


The past few posts have been referring to "digital tools", and I would like to make a comment regarding those. In this blog post (, Mary Rizzo makes an interesting point. In comparing these digital tools to weapons, she states "We expect technology to be our obedient tool. But in the wrong (or right) hands, any tool can be turned from its intended purpose quite easily." People must understand how to use these tools, in order that scholarly history remains authentic and enables people to engage with the past effectively. We must be aware of the limitations associated with the digitisation of history.

I think Eden makes a good point regarding access too. Even with the digital tools used within museums, there still remains an issue of access. This made me think of digital archives online, as there are some which are only open to a particular audience. I think that there are always going to be benefits and limitations to weigh up when choosing to digitise history.