Museums and Digitization
Why do museums digitize?
Increased Accessibility: For potential audiences unable to visit a museum in person, online exhibits allow for collections to be experienced from home.
Increased Engagement: A more interactive and engaging way to share items from our museum exhibit to a larger audience. Audience members are invited to virtually manipulate the artifacts, which allows for a new way of experiencing the collection.
“Virtual Repatriation”: Digitization can act as a “virtual repatriation” as it allows for cultural objects to be interacted with by source communities that live far from the physical museum. In some cases, source communities want the objects of their cultural heritage to be returned to them. However, other times the source communities would like the objects to remain in museums so that they can be shared with the public or conserved by the museum. Ultimately, most source communities want a say in what happens with their cultural objects. When indigenous cultural objects remain in the museum, digitization is a way for the objects to reach the homes of the source community.
Photogrammetry: Making 3D Models
The process to make 3D photogrammetry is a slightly long and tedious one. Below, is step by step process of how an object goes from being in the real world to becoming a digital object.
Photos are taken of an artifact from at least three different positions (top, bottom and center), around the object at every 10 degrees. Photos are uploaded to a photogrammetry software, which aligns the images by matching points. From there a dense cloud of points is built, which then are used to construct a 3D mesh of the object. The final step is to add texture to the mesh.
Are Digital Museum Items Authentic?
When we think of the digital as simply a copy of the material object, the digital tends to take on an inferior status (Cameron 2007). However, as media theorist Lev Manovich suggests, it might be more helpful to think of difference from the original not in terms of something lacking or less than, but rather as a thing in its own right:
“Synthetic computer-generated imagery is not an inferior representation of our reality, but a realistic representation of a different reality” (Manovich 2001 in Cameron 2007).
Often, the value of museums items do not reside in their initial function, but instead are valuable due to what they have come to represent (Cameron 2007).
For example, the chamber pot on display from the Philadelphia Almshouse is no longer valuable for its function as chamber pot, but now is of importance because the carved “X” on its base represents an act of individualism and agency in the face of the institution. The chamber pot in the museum context now stands for something beyond its original meaning and can tell us a story about people, places, and resistance to power in the past.
Paraphrasing George MacDonald (1992), Fiona Cameron argues that once we reframe museums as a place for sharing information rather than a place for storing “authentic” objects, the digital object is no longer inferior to the physical (Cameron 2007).
In conclusion, digital objects can take on a new life and meanings in addition to the already accumulated significance of the material museum object. They offer new ways to experience and interact with the collection. Their digital format can bring new associations and values to an old object, whether that be for better or worse.
Cameron, F. 2007. "Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects—Traditional Concerns, New Discourses", pp. 49-75 in F. Cameron and S. Kenderdine, eds., Theorizing Digitigal Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
Manovich, Lev 2001. The Language of New Media. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.