Finding museum, digital humanities and public history projects and communities online

Every once in a while I see someone asking for sources on digital, participatory, social media projects around museums, public history, social history, etc but I don’t always have a moment to reply.  To make it easier to help people, here’s a quick collection of good places to get started.

I think the best source for museums and digital/social media projects is the site and community around the Museums and the Web conference, including ‘Best of the Web’ nominations and awards (2012-1997)  and conference proceedings: 201220112010-1987.

Other projects might be listed at the new Digital Humanities Awards (nominations closed on the 11th so presumably they’ll publish the list of nominees soon) or the (US) National Council on Public History Awards. The Digital Humanities conferences also include some social history, public history and participatory projects e.g. DH2012, as did the first Digital Humanities Australasia conference and the MCG’s UK Museums on the Web conference reports.

To start finding online communities, look for people tweeting with #dhist, #digitalhumanities, #lodlam, #drinkingaboutmuseums, #musetech (and variations) or join the Museums Computer Group or the Museum Computer Network lists (or check their archives).

I’d like to add a list of museum bloggers (whether they focus on social media, technology, education, exhibition design, audience research, etc) but don’t know of any comprehensive, up-to-date lists (or delicious etc tags).  (Though since I originally posted @gretchjenn pointed me to the new ‘Meet a museum blogger‘ series and @alexandrematos told me about Cultural blogging in Europe which includes a map of the European cultural blogging scene.) Where do you look for museum bloggers?

This is only a start, so please chip in!  Add any resources I’m missing in the comments below, or tweet @mia_out.

Keeping corridors clear of dragons (on agency and digital humanities tools)

A while ago I posted ‘Reflections on teaching Neatline‘, which was really about growing pains in the digital humanities. I closed by asking ‘how do you balance the need for fast-moving innovative work-in-progress to be a bit hacky and untidy around the edges with the desires of a wider group of digital humanities-curious scholars [for stable, easy-to-use software]? Is it ok to say ‘here be dragons, enter at your own risk’?’ Looking back, I started thinking about this in terms of museum technologists (in Museum technologists redux: it’s not about us) but there I was largely thinking of audiences, and slightly less of colleagues within museums or academia.  I’m still not sure if this is a blog post or just an extended comment on those post, but either way, this is an instance of posting-as-thinking.

Bethany Nowviskie has problematised and contextualised some of these issues in the digital humanities far more elegantly for an invited talk at the MLA 2013 conference. You should go read the whole thing at resistance in the materials, but I want to quickly highlight some of her points here.

She quotes William Morris: ‘…you can’t have art without resistance in the material. No! The very slowness with which the pen or the brush moves over the paper, or the graver goes through the wood, has its value. And it seems to me, too, that with a machine, one’s mind would be apt to be taken off the work at whiles by the machine sticking or what not’ and discusses her realisation that:

“Morris’s final, throwaway complaint is not about that positive, inherent resistance—the friction that makes art—which we happily seek within the humanities material we practice upon. It’s about resistance unhealthily and inaccessibly located in a toolset. … precisely this kind of disenfranchising resistance is the one most felt by scholars and students new to the digital humanities. Evidence of friction in the means, rather than the materials, of digital humanities inquiry is everywhere evident.”

And she includes an important call to action for digital humanities technologists: “we diminish our responsibility to address this frustration by naming it the inevitable “learning curve” of the digital humanities. Instead, we might confess that among the chief barriers to entry are poorly engineered and ineptly designed research tools and social systems”. Her paper is also a call for a more nuanced understanding and greater empathy from tool-builders toward those who are disenfranchised by tools they didn’t create and can’t hack to fit their needs. It’s too easy to forget that an application or toolset that looks like something I can happily pick up and play with to make it my own may well look as unfathomable and un-interrogable as the case of a mobile phone to someone else.

Digital humanities is no longer a cosy clubhouse, which can be uncomfortable for people who’d finally found an academic space where they felt at home. But DH is also causing discomfort for other scholars as it encroaches on the wider humanities, whether it’s as a funding buzzword, as a generator of tools and theory, or as a mode of dialogue. This discomfort can only be exacerbated by the speed of change, but I suspect that fear of the unknown demands of DH methods or anxiety about the mental capabilities required are even more powerful*. (And some of it is no doubt a reaction to the looming sense of yet another thing to somehow find time to figure out.) As Sharon Leon points out in ‘Digital Methods for Mid-Career Avoiders?‘, digital historians are generally ‘at home with the sense of uncomfortableness and risk of learning new methods and approaches’ and can cope with ‘a feeling of being at sea while figuring out something completely new’, while conversely ‘this kind of discomfort is simply to overwhelming for historians who are defined by being the expert in their field, being the most knowledgable, being the person who critiques the shortfalls of the work of others’.

In reflecting on March 2012’s Digital Humanities Australasia and the events and conversations I’ve been part of over the last year, it seems that we need ways of characterising the difference between scholars using digital methods and materials to increase their productivity (swapping card catalogues for online libraries, or type-writers for Word) without fundamentally interrogating their new working practices, and those who charge ahead, inventing tools and methods to meet their needs.  It should go without saying that any characterisations should not unfairly or pejoratively label either group (and those in-between).

Going beyond the tricky ‘on-boarding’ moments I talked about in ‘Reflections on teaching Neatline‘, digital humanities must consider the effect of personal agency in relation to technology, issues in wider society that affect access to ‘hack’ skills and what should be done to make the tools, or the means, of DH scholarship more accessible and transparent. Growing pains are one thing, and we can probably all sympathise with an awkward teenage phase, but as digital humanities matures as a field, it’s time to accept our responsibility for the environment we’re creating for other scholars. Dragons are fine in the far reaches of the map where the adventurous are expecting them, but they shouldn’t be encountered in the office corridor by someone who only wanted to get some work done.

* Since posting this, I’ve read Stephen Ramsey’s ‘The Hot Thing‘, which expresses more anxieties about DH than I’ve glanced at here: ‘Digital humanities is the hottest thing in the humanities. … So it is meet and good that we talk about this hot thing. But the question is this: Are you hot?’.  But even here, do technologists and the like have an advantage? I’m used to (if not reconciled to) the idea that every few years I’ll have to learn another programming language and new design paradigms just to keep up; but even I’m glad I don’t have to keep up with the number of frameworks that front-end web developers have to, so perhaps not?

Clash of the models? Object-centred and object-driven approaches in online collections

While re-visiting the world of museum collections online for some writing on ‘crowdsourcing as participation and engagement with cultural heritage’, I came across a description of Bernard Herman’s object-centred and object-driven models that could be useful for thinking about mental models designing better online collections sites.

(I often talk about mental models, so here’s a widely quoted good definition, attributed to Susan Carey’s 1986 journal article, Cognitive science and science education:

‘A mental model represents a person’s thought process for how something works (i.e., a person’s understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.’

CATWALKModel House FaceTo illustrate a clash in models, when you read ‘model’ you might have thought of lots of different mental pictures of a ‘model’, including model buildings or catwork models, and they’d both be right and yet not quite what I meant:

And now, back to museums…)

To quote from the material culture site I was reading, which references Herman 1992 ‘The Stolen House’, in an object-centred approach the object itself is the focus of study:

“Here, we need to pay attention to the specific physical attributes of the object. The ability to describe the object – to engage, that is, with a list of descriptive criteria – is at the forefront of this approach. A typical checklist of the kinds of questions we might ask about an object include: how, and with what materials, was the object made? what is its shape, size, texture, weight and colour? how might one describe its design, style and/or decorative status? when was it made, and for what purpose?”

In object-driven material culture:

“the focus shifts toward an emphasis on understanding how objects relate to the peoples and cultures that make and use them. In particular, ideas about contextualisation and function become all important. As we have already noted, what objects mean may change through time and space. As products of a particular time and place, objects can tell us a great deal about the societies that gave birth to them. That is, they often help to reflect, or speak to us, of the values and beliefs of those who created them. At the same time, it is also important to remember that objects are not simply ‘passive’ in this way, but that they can also take on a more ‘active’ role, helping to create meaning rather than simply reflect it.”

It seems to me that the object-centred approach includes much of the information recorded in museum catalogues, while the object-driven approach is closer to an exhibition.  Online museum collections often re-use content from catalogues and therefore tend to be object-centred by default as catalogues generally don’t contain the information necessary to explain how each object relates ‘to the peoples and cultures that make and use them’ required for an object-driven approach.  If that contextual information is available, the object might be sequestered off in an ‘online exhibition’ not discoverable from the main collections site.

A complicating factor is the intersection of Herman’s approaches with questions about the ways audiences think about objects in museums and other memory institutions (as raised in Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections?).  The object-centred approach seems more easily applicable to individual objects but the object-driven approach possibly works better for classes of objects.  I’m still not sure how different audiences think about the differences between individual objects and classes of objects, so it’s even harder to know which approach works best in different contexts, let alone how you would determine which model best suits a visitor when their interaction is online and therefore mostly contextless.  (If you know of research on this, I’d love to hear about it!)

I’d asked on twitter: ‘Can mixed models make online collections confusing?’  John Coburn suggested that modes of enquiry online might be different, and that the object-driven attributes might be less important.  This was a useful point, not least because it helped me crystallise one reason I find the de-materialisation of objects online disconcerting – attributes like size, weight, texture, etc, all help me relate to and understand objects.  Or as Janet E Davis said, ‘I automatically try to ‘translate’ into the original medium in my head’.   John answered with another question: ‘So do we present objects via resonant ideas/themes/wider narrative, rather than jpg+title being “end points”?’, which personally seems like a good goal for online collections, but I’m not the audience.

So my overall question remains: is there a potential mismatch between the object-driven approach that exhibitions have trained museum audiences to expect and the object-centred approach they encounter in museum collections online?  And if so, what should be done about it?