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Museum (of) Heresy

August 23, 2010

circa 1960s Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa

Here goes with what might pass as a bit of museum heresy, or at least so considered by some of my students, and perhaps more broadly within the museum community as well.  I teach a course in Museum Practices every fall at the University of Memphis.  This graduate level seminar provides a broad overview of theory and method in museum practices on everything from ethics to housekeeping.  The first day of class we look at the similarities and differences in various institutional definitions of a museum.  For example,  The International Council of Museums’ definition of a museum is:

A non-profit making permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purpose of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment.

The class then considers the applicability of the definitions to museums today.  As we are in Memphis, the discussion always includes the mission at Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion that clearly places this pilgrimage destination outside the ICOM parameter.  We then move to more nuanced discussions, such as taking up the plethora of Children’s Museums and the role of edutainment facilities.  (The Independent has an interesting discussion of edutainment placed in both Museum and Archaeological contexts.)

When I pose the following hypothetical, I often get blank stares.   I wonder if some students quickly run through the alternative course offerings in their heads.  Here is the set-up for the hypothetical – via the internet, I review the on-line resources from the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress.  I then navigate to the 1930s era Farm Security Administration Photo Collection and show the iconographic images of Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and others.  I note the very high quality of the images available to download.  I ramble on a bit about the tremendous resource these online materials offer, including 160,000 of the 164,000 black and white negatives in the FSA collection.  I then pose the question:

If the Library of Congress burns to the ground and all the books, photographs and “hard copies” are completely destroyed, but the servers on which the digital images are stored are preserved, do the collections still exist?

At this point, some of the blank stares begin – but please keep reading just a bit further and I will get to the point.

Moving from the hypothetical to the real world, at the Chucalissa site here in Memphis, in the 1950s-60s a trench (pictured above) was excavated through a residential ridge of the Mississippian Culture temple mound complex.  A building was constructed over the excavation as an exhibit for public visitation.  After 40 years, the stability of the trench is compromised to the extent that the building is closed to the public.  The stewards of this Native American cultural resource have an obligation to preserve the integrity and research worth of the excavation trench.  One solution posed is to create detailed digital images of the excavation walls to live in a virtual presence, then fill-in the trench, tear down the building, and let the soils re-hydtrate or go back to nature, as it were.  Question:

If the trench is filled in, and the detailed digital images are available in a virtual environment, does the excavation exhibit still exist?

For me, these two hypotheticals raise a couple of important points about Archaeology, Museums and Outreach.  First, in the excavation trench example, a virtual presence may offer one solution to the museum’s Mission Statement mandate  “to protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site for the benefit of the University community and the public, to provide high quality educational experiences on past and present Native American cultures . . . ” where technical and economic constraints rule out other alternatives.  The Library of Congress example demonstrates how a virtual presence, regardless of whether the hard copies exist or not, allows the 75% + of private homes in the United States (and beyond) with internet access to experience this tremendous repository of cultural heritage, without the need of traveling to Washington D.C.

Certainly, this is not an argument for equivalency in on-line and virtual exhibits.  But consider that some “museums” exist only on-line.   For example, consider the new Adobe Museum of Digital Media and click the “making of the AMDM” link to hear and view the case for this exclusively virtual museum.  Or consider a website I recently ran across of a fellow who took a Polaroid photo each day for nearly 20 years (until his death) and posted them on-line.  A blog from Mental Floss discusses this chronicle of the photographer’s last 20 years.

We are not in Kansas anymore.  I suspect the margins of the museum definitions such as ICOM’s will continue to be pushed in the coming years.  In one week my Museum Practices course meets for the first class of Fall 2010 semester.  I am curious if my hypotheticals will be met with fewer blank stares.

What are your thoughts on virtual museums, especially as a means for Outreach?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2010 3:02 pm

    I think the questions you pose are really interesting ones – they’d certainly have me sitting up and paying attention at least! The Bamburgh Research Project currently lacks a physical museum storage and exhibition space of its own, and so our only real option for the dissemination of our material (the absolutely essential and core value of our work) is to explore online / virtual methods. A critical understanding of these methods and what their implications are is necessary to make sure we work with technology in the best and most compatible way possible.

    Taking off my BRP hat and speaking merely as Rachael Barnwell, heritage enthusiasts, I also believe that the questions you pose about virtual exhibitions are highly relevant in another way. A lot of the culture that I enjoy today is virtual in nature. I enjoy transformative works produced by transformative communities (I’ll refer you to the Organisation for Transformative Works for reference and to this video which explains the whole concept much better than I ever could with words). I enjoy art and music and literature that is only available on the Internet or to view on a computer screen. Indeed, it is my love of this participatory culture that has made Nina Simon’s Partcipatory Museum so exciting to see. How will we address this kind of im/material culture into the future? Does it somehow ‘count less’ because there is no material manifestation of objects of interpretation? How would you display and interpret a recent history of fandom?

    While I don’t claim to be able to answer these questions at all, I think they’re important food for thought!

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