Museum (of) Heresy

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?

Collections on-line: Quality vs. Quantity

We are in the process of a major library reorganization at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  In the reorganization we intend to begin digitizing the 50 years worth of accumulated photographic prints, 35 mm slides, negatives, and to systematically organize more recent digital images.  Also, we will scan our archive of research reports, often written by students for course requirements, but containing a wealth of primary data.  Further, we aim to digitize the University of Memphis, Department of Anthropology’s Occasional Paper series that contains archaeological research and conference proceedings from the past 20 years.  Initiating the process raises the issue of how to disseminate these materials once digitized – or to the point, what do we do with all this stuff once placed in a format that better accommodates transfer and access.  We could put it all up on the internet, but, even discounting considerations of logistics and ethics, should we?  Does such wholesale uploading of material address the public outreach part of our mission?  What is the appropriate solution?  Is more always better?  A couple of months ago we posted photos from 1960s Chucalissa  field schools on Facebook.  The photos generated much interest and feedback from the folks in the 40-year-old photos.  Is our public outreach goal simply to have interaction or is there more to it than that?

On-line visual representation across the field of anthropology is quite varied.  An example of an engaged and informative online photographic presentation is the Edward S. Curtis Collection at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress.  Besides the images, and lots of them, the site also presents a set of essays that contextualize the Curtis photos in time and space.  The Field Museum in Chicago is one of the institutions that has placed many photographic galleries of their collections online.  For example, photographs of collections from the World Columbian Exposition are online but there is very limited provenience or interpretive information despite the several introductory essays. My takeaway is that the online Field Museum collection has lots of pictures of things but little in the way of meaning.  The British Museum galleries however provide detailed information on many of the  artifact images presented.

A cursory examination of anthropological collection websites shows considerable variation in the presentation of images online.  This observation raises questions about the very nature of these public access resources.  If we have 50 years of photographs is it important to have each and everyone available online?  What considerations come into play when considering community engagement and outreach in the access to collections on-line?