Identifying with the Crowd(s)

In his April 4th talk to the Digital Scholars group, Dr. Paul Marty brought to focus the shifting identities that museums and those in museum spaces, both those working within them as well as the visitors who come to them. Situating his discussion in a historical overview where he brought in work from Edward Elin, Dr. Marty noted how Elin argued for  museums to incorporate digital exhibits and how his vision led to the concept of the Museum Computer Network (a notion that has just recently turned 50 years old). Elin had actually put forward these notions in his 1969 work “Museums and the computer: An appraisal of new potentials,” and argued that the digital art museum could be a reality as early as 1980. This repositioning of our understanding of the intersection of museum history and digital technologies helped to situate our discussion about the shifting identities that are impacted by digital technologies and their crowdsourcing capacities.

From this historical understanding, the discussion shifted more to the roles that museums currently play, with Dr. Marty providing anecdotes of colleagues working at the Smithsonian and spending most of their time having to run down legalistic issues such as copyright, coordination of property rights, or multiple families arguing claim over one artifact, which impedes his colleague’s ability to pursue those things such as tracking down all of the warehouses full of collections and artifacts and being able to cross check the records and create a more navigable catalogue of their stores. Dr. Marty went on from there in his talk to discuss the social impacts on museums, how the perceptions of those outside of the field shape how and what it does and is able to do, and how, with all of these issues to contend with, dreams such as his colleagues or others to do work that is exciting and new are not necessarily technical issues that stop them, but rather social.

At this point, Dr. Marty’s talk shifted, with more of an emphasis on how the social implications of how patrons’ and museum workers’ perceptions of museums do and should operate shape the identity of the museum itself. These identities are socially constructed, with the values of each the visitor and the curator shaping how the other interacts with and views the material on display. Dr. Marty’s discussion seemed to be primarily situated within this space, with his emphasis being on how people utilize and interact with these materials, what they get out of that interaction, and how it works to shape the identities of both the user (patron/visitor) and the place that houses that information (museum), as well as the kinds of implications that has on more collective notions of identity (the overall narrative, the way people view these objects/cultures/spaces). When Dr. Marty brought in the example of the young African American child at the Florida History Museum stating that they did not “see themselves there,” that really drove home the tangible impacts that this system has on the everyday; it is not only an issue for those within the field, but it is an issue that impacts anyone who goes to a museum on a school trip, or during a vacation, or just pops in to see one or two exhibits but catches themselves wondering through others… it has impacts beyond just the scholarship written on a page on the subject.

These issues coalesce within Dr. Marty’s notion of the sociotechnical tensions within museum infomatics, which he defined for us as “the study of the sociotechnical interactions that occur between people, info, and tech in museum and other cultural heritage organizations.” Marty argued that, in order for these issues to be remedied,  both internal issues and external expectations need to be remedied and consolidated. Crowdsourcing might be a way to accomplish that, although we spent much of our discussion also talking through potential issues that crowdsourcing also introduces to the systems. Dr. Marty brought in the example of a web cartoon that showed a person at a Braille Museum being yelled at to “not touch the exhibits,” and we used the absurdity of the notion to discuss the ways that people are actively or passively excluded from museum spaces and from actually interacting with and identifying with the history they have come to learn about. With crowdsourcing enterprises, people can interact more thoroughly and personally with different facets of history. We went through several different crowdsourcing ventures, such as the Galaxy Zoo, where users could interact with and learn about and catalogue galaxies that were photographed, as well as several transcription crowdsourcing ventures such as the Shakespeare’s World project that allows users to transcribe contemporary writings. These projects allow people to directly interact with these texts and artifacts, and to feel like they are contributing to the knowledge around them in a tangible way. While we also discussed limitations to these kinds of ventures (some programs feels more like a game than actually interacting with the tangible artifacts, some of the infrastructure on some programs make you question what is being done with the information you’ve contributed or whether you might have made a negative contribution and ruined the previous work done with your own inexpertise and the imprecise UI, etc), but we also discussed how pivotal it is for these kinds of projects to reach out to people, to say this material, this history, this work is for everyone, for you; we can all contribute to future of humanity in this way.

It helps to answer the all-important question of “Do you see yourself here?” and to incorporate the material and the resources into everyone’s lives, which gives meaning to the work being done. Because if the average person cannot see themselves represented, cannot see themselves interacting … then what is the point of the museum at all?


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