Disembody: to divest of a body, of corporeal existence, or of reality
Featured image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution
The topic for this post caught me by surprise. I will start by saying this: I am a long time museum enthusiast. I have built a career on working at and with them. I think that they are engaged in work of tremendous importance and cultural value. Yet it occurred to me this week that putting things in historical context is maybe not what they do best. I know – this sounds like blasphemy. Let me explain.
We have been engaged for much of this semester in a conversation about context and authenticity, and the implications for two concepts that are central to our practice when we do history on the web. There is a lively debate about context and authenticity in digital archives, for instance, and the loss of the archival bond – how a document relates to those around it – when materials are selectively digitized and organized online. Archival authenticity, some argue, is lost online. In “Big Data, Little Narration,” on the other hand, Dragan Espenschied demonstrates the power of the web to avoid creating “arbitrary relations,” touting web exhibits that do not introduce “order where there was no order.”
A week ago, while I acknowledged the relevance of Espenschied’s argument to the born-digital world – which also serves as a well-articulated case for the kind of randomized content that Museum Bots can produce – I did not immediately see how this argument might apply to the work historians do in museums, nor the exhibits they put on the web. In fact, in a blog about an exhibit I created on Omeka, I wrote that while my site “lacks serendipity or true archival content,” the platform did allow me to “arrange items across collections and institutions in new and meaningful ways.” That kind of content, I wrote, is valid. Its central to the work of a public historian.
I would not necessarily that I’ve changed my mind, only that considering the potential of mobile technology – and its ability to tap into our powerful sense of place – has made me think more about museums as a specific type of place. We have talked in detail about how mediated online experiences may not be as powerful – or authentic – as a physical experience. So, viewing a photograph of an object online will never replace the powerful feeling of being in the presence of the same artifact. But I started to wonder this week: how authentic is the museum experience?
Every object in a museum’s collection, as John Russick aptly points out, came from somewhere, it has a natural, original context. Yet museums selectively acquire, preserve, and display these objects, placing them next to other objects to which they likely have no real relationship. Curators impose the kind of order that Espenschied talks about, creating what I think is ultimately a false sense of context. Furthermore, because museums are trusted cultural authorities, the mere fact that an object is accessioned into the collection imbues it with meaning and value that is not inherent to the object. Amidst these layers of meaning, value, and –dare I say – artificiality, “authentic” might not be the right way to describe a museum. They disembody artifacts, divesting them, as the definition would suggest, of their reality.
I am not trying to say that this makes museums any less important, or that they should fundamentally change how they do business. As I was careful to point out at the beginning of this post, I think that museums have incredible potential and unquestionable value. My point is this: that mobile technology enables a digital experience that may come closer to “authentic” than museums are able.
Mobile technology allows us to come closer to this mystical (and, in truth, probably impossible to achieve – see Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts) concept. As Mark Tebeau points out in “Listening to the City,” an effective smartphone app has the power to transform “the landscape into a living museum,” reconnecting narrative and place. The Cleveland Historical project, Tebeau writes, has enabled a new, arguably better type of oral history that is “no longer disembodied from its geographical and historical contexts.” Sam Collins and Matthew Durington similarly see value in the potential of apps to enable experiences that go beyond tourism, “with its commodified and canned experiences.”
Mobile apps, in other words, allow for exploration, and for organic encounters with context. Objects in museums can never be returned to their original context, often because the place (and most certainly the time) in which they first existed is no longer accessible. This is precisely why we need museums – a dinosaur, for instance, cannot be experienced in context (and thank goodness for that). Yet museum professionals should be more invested in the sort of projects that forge stronger and more realistic contextual connections. Apps are one way to do just that. As John Russick notes, for instance, an app that located each object in a museum collection “could transform the current urban landscape into an historical excavation of the people and places” that define a city. I will simply say this in closing: museums pour a lot of time and resources into elaborately immersive and experiential exhibits. The truly immersive experience, however, may lie beyond their walls.