Welcome to the Digging Digital Museum Collections blog series! The Alexandria Archive Institute and Open Context (AAI / OC) 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.
Today we have our first guest bloggers!
Part 6: Learning with Digital Representations
by Dr. Pınar Durgun, Curator, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Dr. Jen Thum, Assistant Director of Academic Engagement and Assistant Research Curator, Harvard Art Museums, & Dr. Carl Walsh, Postdoctoral Fellow in Egyptian Art, The Barnes Foundation
The past year has presented new challenges, but also new opportunities, for teaching with museum collections in the online space. As museums closed their doors to visitors, many turned to digital resources as their primary tools for engagement. Based on our recent experiences working with museum collections online, we share several tips for learning with three types of digital representation—2D images of objects, 3D models, and virtual reconstructions—in equitable, accessible, and ethical ways.
Work with What You Have: 2D Images
Museums operate under a variety of financial constraints, but one resource most have already is digital photography of their collections. Many curators and educators took advantage of this during the 2020-2021 academic year, as remote teaching took the place of in-gallery experiences. For those of us who regularly emphasize the importance of first-person encounters with objects, it is important to think of teaching with digital images as a new dimension of this very same work, rather than a subpar alternative to it. Consider these four driving concepts to foster engaging and welcoming close-looking experiences with collection photographs.
Teach with objects that shine in the online space. Although you likely have go-to objects for teaching in person, teaching with images is a great opportunity to diversify your repertoire and spotlight previously underutilized parts of the collection you work with. Doing so can allow for more equitable use of objects, such as those that usually live in storage due to their fragility, light sensitivity, or lack of prior interest for gallery installations. When teaching with images, look to objects that really shine in the online space: ones whose images allow learners to see the back and sides, zoom in closer than they can in person to examine texture and toolmarks, explore conservation histories and the technologies of conservation science (Fig. 1), and make connections to comparanda from other collections.
Use images in the service of accessibility. It’s important to look to best practices for accessibility when teaching with images, as these can help learners of all kinds get a sense of an object’s material properties. Use captions and descriptions that help learners understand what they are seeing. Use images that clearly indicate an object’s size, such as those that show it being handled or are annotated with a scale bar. Describe the object in relation to learners’ bodies or to similar objects from their own lives: the hydria above, for example, is a little taller than a 2-liter soda bottle; learners might also like to know that a person using it would hold the belly of the vessel in one arm and lift it with the larger handle to pour the water out. If the object is or has been installed in a gallery, show images of that context with visitors nearby—not just for scale, but also to reinforce the idea that museums are spaces for people. If it usually lives in storage, take the opportunity to show images that speak to that context and explain how museum storage works; museum literacy is accessibility, too
Mobilize digital collections as a tool for learner agency. If your images are embedded in a publicly accessible online collections search, you can use that search as a tool to give learners greater agency in their experience. Offer them the opportunity to choose what they want to see and discuss by asking them to look at your collection images ahead of time and weigh in with the objects that strike their interest. This is also a way of contributing to more equitable use of your collections, as learners may choose to explore objects that are not often exhibited or discussed.
Make it interactive. Close looking with images isn’t just possible—it can be deep, interactive, and exciting with the right tools and methods. Consider using an image viewer rather than a PowerPoint slide to guide learners’ eyes around an object and allow them to make spontaneous observations as they would in a gallery (Barnes Takeout videos offer great examples of a “deep zoom”). Think about whether a “flipped classroom”—where learners have a chance to explore images of an object on their own before they join your group—may be a good fit for your learning experience. Ask questions that encourage personal responses and considerations of the object’s materiality and sensorial aspects. For example, you might ask learners exploring the amulet above (Fig. 2) what it would feel like in their own hand or if they were to run their fingers over its surface, and whether they can think of a contemporary object that serves a similar purpose in their own lives. If you’re looking for some inspiration, the Harvard Art Museums’ Art Talks series and the RISD Museum’s K-12 Virtual Visits both illustrate effective practices for interactivity using collection images. Some museums have even done this on their social media channels; see the Getty Museum’s Instagram for some great examples.
Bring Images to Life: 3D Models
3D models—digital representations—of objects and architecture are increasingly allowing more creative methods for engaging audiences with museum objects and cultural heritage. These models provide an interactive image that allows learners to explore objects on their own and at their own speed. While learning with such models, it is important to consider the ethical aspects of using a 3D model. Would the production of a digital model have the potential to be disrespectful or offensive? Are there stakeholders that might need to be consulted or recognized before making and disseminating a digital model? This is particularly important when dealing with human remains, burials, or objects with contested provenance.
See objects in a different light. Digital models provide viewers the chance to digitally ‘handle’ an object, sometimes even those that are not on view. We can move the model with a cursor or touchscreen to view different perspectives, zoom in on details, and get a sense of the texture and dimensions of an object. Different scanning technologies used on 3D models can also illustrate different types of information on objects. For instance, Reflective Transformation Imaging—a type of computational photographic method that captures a object’s surface and enables interactive re-lighting of the subject from any direction—can provide 3D models with lighting that changes as you move the object, highlighting different features, shadows, and textures (for an example of an RTI model see here). This provides a sense of physicality and allows the viewer a more interactive experience with the object. When making or using a 3D model consider showcasing objects that allow the learner to interact with parts that are not usually visible and provide more information on the story of the object and the people who used it.
Design and share digital galleries. Online platforms such as Sketchfab or Thingiverse are publicly accessible repositories of 3D models, which can be uploaded, searched for, and downloaded, often for free or a small fee. Museums are increasingly providing 3D models of objects on their own accounts on these platforms, allowing them to be used by anyone (for a list of museum Sketchfab accounts see here). You can use these accessible models to create, collaborate, and share your own digital collections of objects across multiple museums. Learners can even create their own galleries and exhibitions, allowing them to share new ways of presenting and discussing objects outside of the physical gallery (Fig. 3). Digital platforms such as Omeka and Thinglink can be used to construct multimedia galleries incorporating 3D models, photography, soundbites, video, or drawings.
Experience digital models “in the flesh.” 3D models can also be printed on a 3D printer to produce a physical reproduction of an object. Reproductions can be printed in different plastic materials, allowing them to reproduce different textures and colors, and they can be handled, modified, and even destroyed without worry of damaging an ancient object. Most importantly, printed reproductions allow wider audiences to experience objects using their own senses and perception to form personal connections with ancient material. They can reach wider audiences and provide effective learning through handling and using them in more human contexts.
Learners can even think like an archaeologist, interpreting the uses of objects based on their interactions with reproductions. For example, a class on ancient palaces at Brown University challenged learners to interpret the function of a printed copy of a bread/cake mold from the Middle Bronze Age palace at Mari, in Syria, and how they would use it to reconstruct the function of the room it was found in (in this case, a kitchen; Fig. 4). This experiential learning could be taken even further through experimental archaeology, using a modified version of the 3D print for baking. In this way learners are given the opportunity to connect with past peoples through using objects as they would in life. For some more ideas on how to use 3D prints in experiential learning have a look at this poster made by C. Johnston, A. Wheeler, A. Nuun, and E. Escobar on academia.edu here. When printing a 3D model, always consider the ethical implications of doing so. For example, while 3D models may be useful for research on human remains by scholars, is it appropriate, or even beneficial, to 3D print them to be handled by a wider audience?
Place Objects in their Contexts: Virtual Reconstructions
Every object in a museum comes from somewhere. But in the galleries, they are often placed against white walls (the so-called “white cube”), distanced physically and visually from their original setting. This, of course, changes the way we see and understand these objects. Think about a simple ceramic vessel. Its function is different when people place it in an ancient burial than when they use it in a cooking area of an ancient house. Its meaning changes also when it is placed on a pedestal inside a glass case.
Similarly, the digital realm (the so-called “black box”) can isolate objects not only from their context, but also further distance them from their physicality. For example, the digital 3D models we mentioned earlier, are often viewed in digital platforms that have solid color backgrounds, positioned almost like floating in the void. To place both physical objects and their digital models back in their context, we can make use of virtual reconstructions and realities.
Reconstruct contexts when we don’t have them. Virtual realities can assist us in understanding the context by going beyond the walls of the museum. Supplementing a 3D model or object image with a digital reconstruction of the site or architecture it comes from, enables us to learn about the place where this object was made, used, or seen. A digital reconstruction of the Assyrian reliefs in the Nimrud palace, for example, tell us something about architectural scale and help us see the artworks in their intended context. It can also start a conversation on the colonial collection history of these reliefs.
Providing a digital reconstruction of the original contexts where objects come from is not only informative, but also more ethical. Many ancient objects that are on display today, especially in North America, come from the art market, not from excavations. Collectors historically have valued and demanded objects that were shiny, made of precious metals and stones, and that were complete and “beautiful.” Such objects often come from burials and temples, even when the museums do not explicitly know or say so.
While teaching with museum objects that come from an ancient Egyptian burial context, for example, one can provide virtual tours of ancient Egyptian tombs that are from a similar time period or from the same place. One can also ask learners to explore these places on Google Street View. Of course, not all tombs and temples where the museum objects come from are scanned or made digitally available as virtual tours or have Google Street View. But this absence also tells learners that the context of many museum objects is lost forever. It enables us to question where objects come from, why they are in a museum, whether they should be there.
Share different contexts, stories, and histories. Virtual tours may provide some of the missing information on the archaeological context. They also enable us to see another context: The museum gallery itself. Seeing where objects are placed, in relation to what other objects, can help us make connections that we can’t see by studying a museum object, its model, or image in isolation. The same object can tell a different story based on which objects they are exhibited with. The Google Arts and Culture extension of various museums, enables us to see some of the objects in their display cases using the Google Street View. Some museums provide such information on their object pages. The Barnes Foundation Museum collections search, for example, enables us to see objects in relation to their “ensembles” in the gallery.
Different (hi)stories can also be told by annotating models and reconstructions in ways that can not be achieved in the physical galleries. For example, digital reconstructions give us the opportunity to reimagine objects in color. They can also be used to understand the museum practices of the past. A lamassu’s back may not be visible in the museum gallery as they are often mounted into the wall. This makes it harder, in some cases even impossible, to scan its back and create complete models. However, using archival images of their context, excavation, and transportation, and even links to similar objects in different collections as annotations on the models, museums can be more transparent about their collection histories and practices.
Share Your Strategies
In her recent Hyperallergic article, Dr. Sarah Bond rightly argues that “the idea of a universally accessible, digital museum could challenge traditional models. Conversely, it may allow algorithms and gatekeeping to replicate colonial policies.” There are still many unresolved ethical issues surrounding the making and use of digital models: who gets to replicate, see, or share digital representations? Is it ethical to scan heritage sites and objects in the name of cultural heritage protection? Who gets to decide what to “preserve and protect”?
The digital museum world has been developing faster than we can build a sound ethical foundation, and it is obvious to us that museum ethics are lagging behind museum technologies. Experimenting critically with digital representations is one way to move this conversation forward. As educators, we may not be able to control the production of such representations, but we can provide learners with digital literacy skills that would enable them to question the ethical issues surrounding these digital tools.
What can educators do to encourage ethical engagements with digital representations? If you have tried one of the strategies above and found better ways to tackle these issues, or have a tip to share for teaching with digital representations, we would love to hear from you. Let’s keep the conversation going.
Consider reaching out to us at the AAI/OC or the authors of this post. You can also share your thoughts in a blog post in this blog series. Please find more information on how to be a guest blogger here.
Jen Thum would like to thank Molly Ryan, Harvard Art Museums Programs Manager, for developing many of the museums’ best practices for teaching remotely and contributing several of the ideas mentioned above.