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Digital vs. Analog

This is a post for HIST 479 addressing tensions between digital and analog exhibits in museums.  This blog is a reflection on three readings: Andrea Witcomb’s “The Materiality of Virtual Technology: A New Approach to Thinking about the Impact of Multimedia in Museums,” Fiona Cameron’s “Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects – Traditional Concerns, New Discourses,” and Deidre Brown’s “Te Ahua Hiko: Digital Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Objects, People, and Environments.”

Throughout these three readings, all of which are well outside my “comfort zone,” I found myself returning to something familiar: the idea of Kuhn’s paradigm shift.  It seems that the rise of digital multimedia exhibits in museums has elicited significant tension between those who prefer analog exhibits and those who see the utility in multimedia presentations.  In a sense, I find this to be a paradigm shift.

It seems to me that there is a series of fundamental questions underlying the incorporation of digital exhibits into museums.  First, does the incorporation of digital representations of historical objects undermine, or lessen, the values of the objects themselves.  Cameron points to theorists who argue that digital exhibits eliminate the auric, iconic, and ritualistic qualities of the actual object.  Second, are digital objects capable of conveying the cultural importance of the actual object.  Brown’s article touches on this extensively.  Brown points to the role of digital objects in the efforts by Maori to understand their cultural heritage.  Brown argues that digital objects do transfer the culture found in the original object.  Finally, are digital exhibits capable of evoking the same emotional responses that “real” exhibits are capable of doing.  For Witcomb, not only do digital exhibits allow for a powerful emotional response, but in much more democratic way than traditional museum exhibits.  Witcomb notes that:

“The result is the ability to empower the museum visitor to undergo a process of alteration, just as much as it is an attempt to tell history from a different point of view.  However, because affective responses are embodied and not abstract, the process of coming to know is not framed by a didactic top-down approach characteristic of conventional museological interpretations of the material world, but rather it is more open to the process of dialogue and interactivity.  In a sense, multimedia installations, if seen alongside objects and not as their other, can bring a new understanding of the way in which virtual media can have both physical expressions and material efforts.”  (Witcomb, 47)

To me, the above quote embodies the fundamental benefit of digital exhibits.  In an increasingly global and pluralistic world, digital exhibits enhance the ability for a museum, or piece of public history, to reach a wider audience.  Multimedia exhibits fit within the wider trend of new media emboldening increased democratization.  Witcomb and Cameron, in particular, address the fact that multimedia exhibits are less confined by the institutional control of a museum.  Cameron emphasizes that objects and their reproductions are part of a specific form of knowledge and institutionalized claims of authority.  The rise of multimedia and digital exhibits reflects the cultural turn of history and new social history, helping free these objects from such confined hierarchy.  Above all, each author makes a strong case for the legitimacy of the digital object as an object in its own right, not just a representation of something “real” or tangible.

Admittedly, I lack a strong theoretical understanding of the practices of public history, but several questions remained after reading these essays.  I must wonder if those debating the relative merits of digital and analog exhibits are missing a fundamental point.  If museums and other pieces of public history are meant as a way to reach wider audiences, does it really matter how something is conveyed?  If authority rests both with the curator and the audience, then the audience is still free to interpret the object whether it is digital or analog.  Getting bogged down in theoretical debates about the “realness” of the object pushes the debate away from the ability for the audience to interpret and react in their own right.

Going back to my point about a paradigm shift, I must also wonder if established members of museum hierarchies feel somewhat threatened by the democratizing effects of digital representations.  Do multimedia exhibits threaten the institutionalized hierarchy of knowledge in a museum?  As Witcomb states, digital exhibits shift the role of curator from the holder of knowledge to a facilitator of knowledge.  I don’t imagine it a stretch to question if some of the resistance to digital exhibits has something to do with this change.

Finally, I must question the rise of digitized objects as it pertains to more “traditional” historical research.  I’m sure I am not alone in hearing stories of historians sifting through manuscripts and archival materials only to discover a misfiled document that provides great insight into their monograph.  But as more archives are becoming available online, historians are increasingly able to research from the comfort of their couch.  If one of the major debates about digital vs. analog has to do with the “realness” of the objects, what does that mean for the historian looking at the digital manuscript as opposed to traveling to the archives?

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Categories: Full Post, HIST 479, Museums
  1. February 5, 2012 at 8:20 am

    Sherry Turkle has some provocative thoughts on the authenticity and simulation (it’s not exclusive to digital simulations though). While not an exact fit to your comments, she does question what “realness” means and implications of what a changing “real.” She goes on about this in her book _Alone Together_, but here’s the vignette I was thinking of: http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/www/pdfsforstwebpage/ST_Simulation%20vs%20Authenticity.pdf.

  2. Samantha
    February 5, 2012 at 10:10 pm

    As someone on the public history side of the fence, you are correct that the articles do miss the point about visitor attendance. For a more balanced theory/pragmatic approach, check out the AASLH (www.aaslh.org). The Summer 2011 magazine answers the question from Steven Conn’s new book Do Museums Still Need Objects? Short answer: yes. Long answer: online collections allow museums to see each other’s holdings. In an era of tight budgets, if someone else is collecting spinning wheels, you can avoid duplicating that collection. Unless you are a rival Spinning Wheel Museum. Then: steel cage death match.

    Geo-tagging is also offered as a way to link objects, online resources, and actual places. If you are creative, you will figure out a way to integrate the digital and the physical for the benefit of your audience – wherever they may be.

  3. February 7, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    I would say that to consider virtual museums more “democratic” is misleading. If the problem resides in the interpretation, the “holder of the knowledge” does not change from conventional to virtual. A digital museum’s exhibit is as mediated as the more conventional ones. There are no rules on what to get on the world wide web, and the information presented could be very minimal leaving out essential elements for a “correct” interpretation by the audience.

  4. Eliot Pope
    February 7, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Marc Prensky’s “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” article adds another dimension to the digital vs analog debate. As Prensky put it, “our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” Prensky argues this change in how students learn is attributed to digital technology. With cell phones, email, internet and instant messaging, students’ brains are physically different from previous generations. Students are more into graphics and less into text. Students want instant gratification and are less patient. That being said, students are able to relate to multimedia exhibits more than analog displays. Because of this, students gain a deeper appreciation for exhibits that incorporate multimedia because they are able to relate to it better. In this sense, multimedia functions as a democratizing agent within museums, making the comprehension of exhibits more accessible to a broader audience.

  5. Colin Scheer
    February 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    If digital exhibits are becoming the new paradigm, then all we have to do is simply wait for those who prefer analog exhibits to die off and let the “new” paradigm take over (this is a humorous reference to Kuhn’s pessimistic view on paradigm shifts).

    In all seriousness, I think that “realness” does matter. You aren’t looking at an eighteenth century military jacket; you are looking at a jacket worn by George Washington himself. That’s not any ordinary pottery fragment; that is a pottery fragment crafted by an ancient Sumerian thousands of years ago. That’s not any ordinary tooth with a gold crown that you are looking at; that is a tooth that was pulled out of a Jew’s mouth by a Nazi.Its that kind of authenticity that helps elicit emotional responses that digital copies just can’t quite emulate. would you rather go to a museum that has a copy of King Tut’s sarcophagus, or go to the museum that has the real one? It’s one thing to look at a virtual layout of Washington DC, but I’m willing to bet that being physically present in the city itself will elicit the greatest feeling of authenticity.

    That is not to say that digitized objects are useless. If a five-hundred-year-old book is on the verge of disintegrating, then by all means digitize it; the worlds on paper are more important than the book itself, and digitizing works greatly enhances its preservation. Digitized works allow for greater access to the public, just don’t expect them to elicit the same kinds of responses as an analog object.

  6. February 9, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    TL;DR

  1. February 16, 2012 at 4:48 pm

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