Welcome to the Digging Digital Museum Collections blog series! The Alexandria Archive Institute and Open Context advocate for data sharing, data literacy, open access, and community collaborations. In this series, we explore user experiences with online museum collections and question what we can do to use museum collections data in more accessible, inclusive, and efficient ways.
We will highlight how different museums are sharing their digital collections, interview users of digital content, share “how tos” about using online collections, and try our hand at integrating content from different institutions.
Part 4: Digital Museum Research: Challenges and Lessons
by Pınar DURGUN
Freshman art history student uncovers the identity of Mughal miniature! Graduate student discovers one of the world’s oldest swords in mislabeled monastery display! These are some recent headlines that make any museum nerd excited about looking more carefully into museum objects.
Going back to museum collections and looking at them more closely, or looking at them through a lens of different knowledge, can change how we understand, interpret, and display them:
“In October of 2020, Jesse Dutton-Kenny visited the Mills College Art Museum to research 39 baskets from Northern California Indigenous communities in the collection. This research project was sparked after Jesse saw a Pomo basket from the collection on display. She began looking through the baskets in the MCAM online collection and found a few from Northern California that were almost certainly caps but had been misidentified as bowls.” Read more on Jesse’s research here.
Researchers can make museum collections more meaningful digitally based on their specific research questions. For example, Dr. Shannon Martino, a faculty member at Morton College, created a map based on ancient figurines and their find spot information in the Oriental Institute’s database. The Integrated Database Project enabled for the database to be generated as a csv (comma-separated values) file. With the assistance of Dr. Matthew Martino, this file was integrated into Google Earth to create a time lapse of figurine locations. Unfortunately, as the public, we cannot generate this csv file because that can only be done with local institutional access. The map also can’t be shared outside of academic conferences due to the licensing issues.
The mystery surrounding licenses limits digital public and academic engagement with museum collections. You can find more information on licenses in our resource and in this video:
Using digital data from the Met collection, students at Parsons School of Design created beautiful data visualizations and data stories, because the Met’s Open Access allows for such file use and sharing (Fig.1). Dr. Martino informs me that the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and several art museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Walters Art Museum have also made their data available under public domain licenses on their websites or Github.
As a result, the ways these collections were used increased considerably: “Since the Walters released its images as of July in 2015, the images were used in over 4,098 Wikimedia project and article pages, using over 50 languages, with related pages being viewed over 8.4 million times!”
This is a good example to encourage museums to continue producing, improving, and enabling open-access digital collections engagement, even post-COVID. Making collections information available, accessible, and usable is an essential step towards equity in museums.
If you are reading this far into the Digging Digital Museum Collections blog series, you don’t need to be convinced of the value and legitimacy of researching museum collections. But according to Tine Rassalle, a graduate student at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, many still treat working in collections as “armchair archaeology:”
It is important to go back to existing collections. We are constantly gaining new understandings about the past based on the different insights and latest technologies in the field. Moreover, not all archaeological objects receive a full study or publication at the time of their discovery; many are stored away. Diving into existing collections, therefore, can lead to new and exciting discoveries. We need to eliminate the stigma that working with existing collections is not ‘real’ archaeology. Collections research produces important scholarship.
One crucial type of scholarship that comes out of museum collections is provenance research. This should not to be confused with provenience, which means the findspot. Provenance is the history of an object and how it got to the museum. Many museum professionals use other collections to learn more about the provenance of the objects in their museum collection.
Erhan Tamur, Curatorial Research Associate at the Morgan Library & Museum and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, says that he frequently uses different online museum collections during his exhibition-related research. His goal is to access provenance-related information (archaeological context, acquisition history) to get a sense of existing curatorial interpretations. Similarly, Dr. Carl Walsh, a postdoctoral researcher at the Barnes Foundation, says that to find comparable objects to the ones he is researching, he looks into museums that have ancient Egyptian collections with better contextual information and complete provenance (excavated collections such as those in the Met or MFA Boston).
Such research can have serious consequences for the return of stolen objects. Although, some academic journals, such as the American Journal of Archaeology, do not allow the publication of undocumented ancient objects (acquired after 1973) as the “first publication” because of legal and ethical issues.
The value of provenance research is becoming more apparent and public with its use in rem(p)atriation and restitution cases. The British Museum recently hired a curator to research the history of its collection. This curator will cover areas of the collection that include contested objects such as the Parthenon Marbles that are still not returned to Greece.
However, here is the problem: “A remarkable aspect is that those Western museums that clamour for provenance research usually employ one person to do such research on thousands of looted artefacts. In World Museum, Vienna, one staff member is responsible for provenance research on 38,000 African objects. How long would she take to complete the work? ” asks Dr. Kwame Opoku. Dr. Opoku argues that, especially in the case of African objects, western museums may be delaying restitution by putting all the provenance work on one person.
Museum collections research, especially provenance research, does not need to be done only by one curator or one museum’s curators. Collections often include a great variety of objects from different periods and cultural areas that require specific expertise. No curator is an expert on all the objects in a collection. Enabling more researchers access the collection digitally would allow museums to hear different voices, share authority, have more complete records, and work towards restitution.
Museum Research in the time of COVID
COVID-19 has affected all aspects of our life, including how we do research. Madeline Duffy, an anthropology graduate student at Western Washington University, tells me that she had to change her thesis topic three times because of COVID closures and disappearing resources and funding. The silver lining to Madeline’s difficult thesis journey is that now her topic is about COVID-induced surge in online museum programming. She conducts a survey on how this surge may affect museum audiences.
You can read the Network of European Museum Organizations’ survey on “Museums and COVID-19: How museums increase their online activities” here. Madeline’s survey will look at similar questions with data from the United States. We can’t wait to read about the results of her study.
As Tine noted, graduate students like Madeline, especially those in archaeology and anthropology departments, are often expected to do original research (read: fieldwork) for their theses or dissertations. I am here to tell academic advisors, departments, and committees that original research can be done digitally using existing collections, whether they are stored in museums or online.
Legitimate research can happen in person and digitally. Either way, collections research requires an ethical foundation. We compiled some essential aspects of digital museum collections research such as citation and image licenses in this resource.
It is not a secret that even before COVID, physical collections research had been often difficult due to travel, institutional bureaucracy, and visa processes. Such limitations discouraged students and researchers who are international, who have low or unstable incomes, who are disabled, and who have caregiving responsibilities from doing collections research. Now adding the limitations of COVID, museums need to reconsider how they enable researchers to use their collections and resources.
Like many of you, I can’t wait to visit museums in person. But this does not mean that digital tools and collections research need to go back to being complementary or an after-thought. For so long, museums have worried about discouraging physical attendance by making exhibits or programs available online. This misconception changed forever with COVID. Now that visitor numbers have dropped considerably due to restricted travel and tourism, the interruption of school visits, and people’s fear of visiting crowded spaces, museums will need the support of their digital visitors and researchers more than ever. They need to engage their fans digitally to encourage them to come visit in person.
In the long run, this is a good thing. Even though museums have started to think about their impacts on climate change, they still create large amounts of carbon footprint due to objects (loans) and people (visitors, staff) traveling for purposes like exhibits, research, and visits. You can read about this pilot study on the carbon footprint of museum loans in the National Museum Wales.
Museums can reduce the amount their carbon footprint by not making researchers fly across the globe to study their collections. A good way to do this would be to digitize archival and collections records (like object cards or curatorial notes that live in the institutional memory or in a storage drawer) and enable virtual study sessions with curators and collections managers. This will also allow for more transparency and access, and help demystify what museums do “behind the scenes.”
Digital engagement allows for larger and more global audiences. For those of us who can’t necessarily visit museums in a different continent, country, or city, whether due to visa restrictions, COVID, financial or other limitations, digital access to collections and exhibits may be the only way to access museums at all. Many people whose cultural heritage was stolen or is distributed in museums around the world, will never be able to see these collections in person. Even when restitution is in the works, it is a slow process. Therefore, it is not only essential for museums to enable access digitally, but it is also the ethical thing to do.
How can researchers, educators, and content creators make better use of museum collections digitally? What kinds of tools and resources do they need? If you have any suggestions or would like to appear as a guest blogger, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org