A Modest Digital Proposal

As part of the application for CHNM’s NEH Summer Institute for Doing Digital History, I was asked about a digital project that I’d like to work on during the course of the Institute. While my initial proposal had to do with my department’s ongoing primary source repositories, I’ve since realized that the scope of this project is perhaps too big for a two-week summer institute–it would require a new website, lots of metadata, and some cold, hard thinking about exactly who our audience is, and what we want them to be able to do. So, for this larger (and hopefully, eventually community-collaborative and grant-funded project) I hope to get some ideas, but for now, I’d like to start with something different.

And so, I have a more modest proposal for a smaller project, but one for which I have an immediate use. As part of our M.A. program in Historical Administration, I teach a two-semester course in the theory and practice of history exhibition. In each seminar meeting, I try to present lots of case studies that both illustrate and challenge reading assignments on exhibit conception, scope, design, interpretation, etc. I want students to see how artifacts are placed, what labels look like, how cases and installations are located in a physical space. But I’ve had a lot of trouble finding adequate visual representation of exhibits to use as examples. I understand the reasons for this deficit: in some ways, its not really possible to represent the experience of a museum exhibition, and museums and other institutions have a vested interest in making visitors come look at artifacts in situ, so while most museum exhibitions certainly have a digital presence, this is often far removed from the physical exhibition itself. I can sometimes find installation shots of particular exhibits, but there are never enough, and tracking them down on the internet is a slow and often fruitless process.

museum exhibitions online

Over the past year, in a haphazard way, I’ve been using my iPhone camera to document each exhibition that I visit, thinking that I would eventually use these images in my teaching. At this point, I’ve photographed over twenty exhibitions, both large and small. I take general installation shots, close ups of labels, signage, cases, interactives, all of the components of an exhibit. I’ve started to think that it might be a good idea to take video of walk-throughs. I try to document each exhibition as fully as I can. I do historical houses, big national museums, presidential libraries, commercial exhibits, children’s museums. I don’t discriminate between the good and the bad, there’s something to learn from each one. They’re not perfect, but they’re often the only visual record of the physical spaces of these museums that is available. These pictures will help my class think about exhibition conception, design, and implementation, give them reference points for their own exhibition ideas.

a few of my installation shots

Right now, all of my photos are in a Dropbox account. I planned to eventually put them into individual PowerPoint presentations, and have an index that lived on my computer, so that I could drop slides into presentations at will.

But perhaps a better solution would be an online repository of exhibition images–my students could have access to these whenever they like, and perhaps (eventually, once I had a sizeable archive), other educators would find them useful, or would be interested in adding images themselves. In an ideal Web 2.0 world, these images might be organized by exhibition type (chronological, thematic, artifacts, narratives, etc. etc.), or location, or institution size, or using any other number of tags or categories. Or my students (and anyone else) could tag each image with their own comments.

This is a pretty simple idea, but I don’t think anything like this currently exists on the web, and would surely be useful, at least for me, and maybe for other practitioners and scholars of history exhibition. I realize that there’s a big difference between walking through an exhibition (we talk a lot in museum studies about immersion, “wonder,” the power of objects, etc. etc.), but realistically, there aren’t that many history museums that are accessible to us from central Illinois. This is a germ of an idea, but one that I can see having immediate payoff, and perhaps eventually leading to something even more dynamic and interesting.

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