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The Digital Revolution in Museums

The digital revolution impacts just about every waking moment of our lives. People can do anything from adjusting their thermostats to order food on their phones. This isn’t just limited to our convenience. Even museums and historical databases are jumping on the digital bandwagon. This is especially true in the Canadian Arctic of all places. With sites thousands of miles from any major city, and an extremely hostile environment, few Canadians, and even fewer international visitors get to see these arctic historical sites. Sheila Copps, the Canadian minister of heritage recognizes the challenge of bringing people to such a remote corner of the world, but maintains that “raising awareness of the heritage value of these sites is critical to the management of their cultural resources.” That’s where digital history comes into play. 

After reading the article and being bored on Sunday afternoon, I decided to take a “visit” to the Canadian arctic. The site has an interactive map where you can click on icons and see various landmarks and historical sites throughout the Canadian Arctic. Once you click on a map icon, the link takes you to a panoramic view of the area. You can click on icons throughout the panorama to see anything from close-up wildlife pictures to historical sites and videos. 

Close-up picture of an Arctic Hare in its natural habitat. As featured in Canadian Museum of Nature-Arctic Expedition

Although these virtual historic sites have a clear utility when representing the Canadian Arctic, they also are useful in slightly less desolate and inhospitable places such as Spokane, Washington, and Cleveland, Ohio. Though these sights aren’t as interactive as the Canadian Museum’s page, they play an important role in sharing their cities’ history. Though they featured many great articles, one of my biggest concerns with both of these sites was that they often assume that their audience is all local to their respective areas, and if you aren’t local, you may become disoriented when they describe certain locations.

 For instance, Cleveland Historical’s Carnegie Avenue page left me without a clear orientation as to where all the street names they referred to were located. Spokane Historical’s The Unlawful Arrest and Detainment of Frank Hirata was a bit less geographically confusing, but still lacked a lot of context (or at least links) about landmarks such as the Davenport Hotel. Though these sites are often just views by local people and don’t always see the need for wider context, as the cities and the sites continue to grow, catering to a non local crowd will become necessary. Despite their shortcomings, the sites included some great stories such as Cleveland’s House of Wills, or Spokane’s 26 tons of oddity. Both these pages show interesting histories about places that we can either enjoy from our computer screen, or plan on visiting.  

Sites such as Intermountain Histories take a less centralized approach and feature historical sites and stories throughout the Western United States.  The site features tags ranging from Mormon history to WWII history. The site talks about a number of topics ranging from the forceful adoption of Indigenous children to Uranium Mining on the Navajo Reservation. I personally liked all the articles I saw, but I did find that the site would be a bit hard to navigate if you are looking for specific cities or areas. I think that a subsection between states and cities would improve the site’s navigability. Salt River Stories features stories from in and around the Phoenix metro area. I think that this approach works well as the site maintains a set geographic area, but doesn’t limit its content to just the Phoenix area.  

With the advent of COVID19 and our social distancing requirements, virtual museums are becoming a necessity. Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to set up your own digital history site. Google photo scanner makes it easy for you to post quality pieces of your own museum without even taking them out of the glass case. I have an example posted below with a McDonald’s advertisement taken from a phone. Admittedly this isn’t the best example for a historical site, but I live in a small town and my options are limited. Besides, sometimes even things from McDonald’s make their way into museums.  

Before:
After:

Thankfully McNuggets are very easy to store indefinitely in a museum. Though admittedly they become more related to geology than history after a while. 

With all these advantages digital history offers, there are still some drawbacks. Returning back to the Canadian Arctic, the biggest issue with digital history there is internet connectivity issues.  The author of an article on Canadian virtual museums summarized the issue with this quote.  

“Ironically, perhaps of greatest concern is the issue of accessibility. When creating virtual heritage exhibits, there is often the presumption that the bandwidth necessary to ensure smooth loading and operation of the website and its media contents is present in source communities, and that devices such as smartphones and tablets are easily accessible. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many northern hamlets and towns where reliable high-speed broadband internet connections are non-existent or extremely expensive.”

The big takeaway from this is that virtual museums can be an excellent addition to your museum, but it’s important to recognize that they still pose accessibility issues. Even with relatively decent internet speeds of 30 Mbps, I experienced some lag on the virtual arctic tour. With a particularly slow internet, the tour would have been impossible. Despite these problems, virtual museums are still a great way for historians to share local history. Especially in a time where visiting museums in real person isn’t always possible. But as with all aspects of technology, we must recognize their limitations.

2 replies on “The Digital Revolution in Museums”

Bunny! I agree that the super-local sites might not work as well to explore remotely. That said, as someone who has worn grooves in all the sidewalks and trails in the downtown Spokane area by walking them so much, the Spokane Historical app has answered so many questions for me about places I was looking at or have always wondered about. As I argue in my blog, I think the location and audience should shape the goals and therefore the focus of a place-based website or app.

I wonder if the issue of context never came up because even if the viewers of the sites weren’t from the area there was an expectation that they may be able to just look up other buildings or places in the app itself, especially since the stories are written to be as concise as possible. Maybe curatescape should incorporate a link preview type feature so you don’t even have to click out of the page your on to see the information the same way Wikipedia does it. If you could change the way Spokane Historical worked and how the stories were written to account for the issues you brought up how would you handle it?

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