The Physical and the Virtual Museum Remain Divided

Brown Bag 17th November 2010

“Museums, Communities and the Internet: Digital Reciprocation”

Carl Hogsden

When Ross Parry first met Carl Hogsden 6 years ago, Mr. Hogsden was already thinking about stretching the potential of web-based technology for museums and how this might re-shape object interpretation, audience engagement and collections knowledge. Today, Mr. Hogsden divides his time between curatorial responsibilities in his capacity as a Research Associate at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge (MAA), and technological development within the museums sector.

He is currently technical lead and project manager for Artefacts of Encounter, a three year project investigating how digital technology can be used to develop networks between museums, objects and their source communities, and how this approach might also generate new knowledge about collections.

More specifically, Artefacts of Encounter focuses upon objects collected during European and American voyages to Polynesia between 1765 and 1840, and seeks to (virtually) reunite dispersed artefacts with their surviving documentation and archival material, such as images and texts. It also draws historical connections between these early encounters while exploring their meaning and legacy for Maori communities today. Finally, it provides a means of making new associations between seemingly disparate objects, via algorithms and researcher and fieldwork data from a number of participating institutions worldwide, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Mr. Hogsden makes the point that many museums have paid lip-service to government demands for greater accessibility and inclusivity in the virtual as well as the physical museum, and have, for example, posted great reams of information about their collections online, but have neglected to involve the voice of the community in the process. For this reason, he argues, there exists a divide between the digital museum and its physical counterpart, citing as another example the anthropology galleries at MAA, which, he feels, are still very much dominated by the voice of curatorial authority.

Mr. Hogsden also questions the wisdom of the global scale of many virtual museum projects, and argues that smaller-scale, targeted and collaborative outreach projects that can be replicated are of more use to both museums and communities than large scale projects which generate user content which is rarely of any use to the physical museum. An early experiment which involved Mr. Hogsden designing and building a website for MAA’s exhibition on the 1934 Wordie Arctic expedition failed to engage with Inuit communities by inviting visitor feedback and comments on the collection solely through an online comments form with no collaboration or prior contact with the community. Also, the vast majority of comments left by non-Inuit visitors did not add to collections knowledge in any way, and therefore had no impact upon the day-to-day work of the physical museum. Thus, although this exercise had made a particular collection more accessible to some, it was not truly participatory, instead serving to distance the community it had wanted to engage.

Mr. Hogsden’s team of researchers are currently working in partnership with the Maori community Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti in collaboration with their arts management team, the Toi Hauiti. This community were largely based in Tolaga Bay, New Zealand, around the time of Captain Cook’s first voyage (1768-71), but are now dispersed across a wide geographic area. The team hope to use digital technology as both a tool and a catalyst for building sustainable and reciprocal relationships with the community on an equal footing, rather than falling back on traditional models which hold that the museum retains the control and ownership of information which it then disseminates as it sees fit.

For instance, the Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti wish to set up a web archive for the use of their community, and particularly for the benefit of younger members whose awareness of their Maori heritage is not as great. Access to this system is to be strictly in accordance with the Maori tradition of proving one’s Whakapapa, or lineage. Ultimately, Mr. Hogsden hopes that his approach will lead to better curatorial practice, by demonstrating through digital reciprocation that source communities must be given autonomy in determining what information they wish to share, or not, with the museum and its partners. Only by sharing control and ownership at a local level, he argues, do we truly create a working partnership of equals.

There have also been some exciting developments in other areas. Recently, MAA developed their collections management system into an open-source web platform, inviting direct contributions by opening up a number of object fields such as names, descriptions and contexts to researchers and other institutions. The museum also releases data on a regular basis. As part of the Reciprocal Research Network, a co-developed web research site by four first-nations communities from British Columbia, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and thirteen partner institutions, partners can be notified when MAA changes an object record, but as their databases can also talk to the museum’s database, they are free to access and retrieve data whenever they choose, and interpret it in new ways.

All of these observations led to a very interesting discussion about the possibilities and limitations of digital technology for museums. While Mr. Hogsden acceded that initial contact with source communities was by necessity physical, and at least partially dependent on pre-existing connections as well as anthropological expertise, digital technology made continued contact a viable possibility through long-distance working with communities and colleagues all over the world and the instantaneous and dynamic exchange of data, as well as enabling the dispersed Tolaga Bay community to reconnect with each other over common ground.

In discussing the implications of Mr. Hogsden’s work for the museum sector as a whole, Sandra Dudley recognized that while it is not the case that all curators would perceive digital reciprocation as a loss of control, it does pose some very difficult questions surrounding the authorship of what is said about culturally-sensitive objects.

Mr. Hogsden explained that the museum’s core data remains unchanged; extra information from non-museum sources is added as an overlay, and can be removed. Personally, I would argue that this still presents problems for the seamless integration of poly-vocality into the fabric of museums and in bridging the divide between the physical and virtual space of the museum. Issues of access protocol and content ownership also present challenges.

Certainly, digital technology has proven itself a valuable and powerful tool in engaging and collaboratively working with source communities, but only when used in tandem with face-to-face contact, fieldwork and the physical handling of objects as well. For example, in reconnecting the Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti with the artefacts of historic encounters, the team noted how important it was for them to be able to touch the objects, and what an emotional experience it was for them. Finally, as Ross Parry observed, digital space is not by definition neutral space, but if the community themselves were to own and run that space then this is a potentially empowering tool which could also be sustainable beyond the life of the project.

This was an interesting talk which raises some important questions about the ways in which museums build relationships and ‘conversations’ with all communities, not just those with a special interest in a particular collection, and whether it is possible for museums to be truly democratic institutions if the sharing of knowledge, curatorial authority and the ownership of material culture remains an impossible dream for some of them.

Our thanks go to Carl Hogsden for taking the time to speak to us today, and we hope to hear more about the development of the Artefacts of Encounter project in due course.


Anonymous said…
Great summary of the discussion. I almost feel like I was there.

Any chance of ever podcasting the brownbags?
Stephanie said…
Thank you very much! I'll put your question to the other PhD students and get back to you.
Stephanie said…
Hello again; it does seem that at this time we only have the permission to distribute the recordings on an internal basis. Sorry about that!

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