A Place For Everything

Museum Collections, Technology, and the Power of Place

“Everything came from someplace.” That’s what my eleven-year-old son said to me when I told him about my latest project. I was talking about the Chicago 00 app prototype we are developing at the Chicago History Museum (CHM). The app’s name comes from the downtown intersection of State and Madison Streets, where the city’s street numbers begin at zero. I told him that we were hoping to use Chicago’s street grid to push some of our collection out of the museum and share it with people in those same locations today. As the son of a museum curator, he’s been going to, walking through, and thinking about museums all his life. More importantly, he’s being raised in twenty-first-century urban America, so he’s been schooled in and through technology. And he understands that many, many people have called this place home over the past two centuries and that evidence of their time here is often still visible if you know where and how to look. It wasn’t hard for him to see beyond the immediate goals of the project.

My plan was simple: bring historical images of Chicago into the city’s central business district via an augmented reality (AR) mobile app. As a way to get started, I was searching the collection to find photographs taken at or near the corner of State and Madison that had been or could be digitized. The challenge was to find images that included buildings or infrastructural elements that I could use to align the image from the past with the site today, effectively bridging the gap between the place that was and the place that is. My son understood the idea immediately, but he wondered if all the Museum’s images could be placed. Since the collection is all about Chicago, wouldn’t it be logical to think that all of the photographs we have come from places that are still here? “Everything came from someplace,” he said. I told him that, for the most part, he was right. But it took a bit of time for that idea to sink in (to my brain).

When I was first approached to write something for the CODE│WORDS project, I had the idea to write a tongue-in-cheek piece about the museum world from the perspective of the Rip Van Winkle Curator of All Things Olde who emerges from object storage to discover that a technological revolution has occurred while he was working in the collection. He doesn’t recognize the museum. It’s loud and boisterous, packed with kids and families sharing their ideas and moving through galleries filled with interactive experiences designed to make the visit more meaningful and fun. Overwhelmed and uncomfortable, he retreats to the safety of his collection, certain that he has no role in this new environment.

Like the character from Washington Irving’s story who goes to sleep before the American Revolution and wakes afterward to find that everything has changed, I found the idea of the curator struggling to find a role for himself and the collection in an increasingly technology-driven society compelling for a piece meant to explore the changing nature of the museum enterprise in the digital age.

The problem with that essay is that it would have been constructed on a false character. The curator, clinging to his precious collection, unable and unwilling to share it with anyone not blessed with the impulse for contemplative study or the natural insight to see the deeper meaning of objects, is a straw man. He may exist in some form somewhere, but the image of the museum professional so set in his ways, so aloof and cold that he shields his collection from people like a miser is, for the most part, an anachronism.

The truth is that, at worst, today’s curators are more like Scrooge on Christmas Day than Rip Van Winkle. We may have only recently awoken to the potential positive effects of technology on our work, but we are increasingly ready to engage with these tools. And we don’t want to waste any more time working in a manner that fails to meet people where they are. We may not be technophiles, but we aren’t necessarily technophobes either. We can easily see that technology has made our rolodex obsolete, the phone on our desk too limiting, our camera too time-consuming, and the museum’s card catalog, literally and figuratively, out of date. And those are just the things we notice without really looking. After closer inspection, we realize that our visitors are all thinking and learning and sharing and socializing and seeking information and experiences in ways that have turned the traditional model of the museum visit on its ear.

Many of us invested in informal object-based learning are wondering how collections fit into this new reality. What is the role of the artifact when learning increasingly occurs in a digital form? More fundamentally, is it our job to make our collections compelling? Or are our collections just tools for us to use to help people learn, share, and understand the subject to which our museums are dedicated? If we can’t make objects compelling, perhaps we don’t need to use them. But if we don’t or can’t use them, perhaps they have no role in the twenty-first-century museum?

In fact, in a 2011 article published in History News, the magazine of the American Association for State and Local History, independent curator Rainey Tisdale posed the question, “Do history museums still need objects?”[i] As is often the case with provocative rhetorical leads, the ensuing paragraphs do not upset the proverbial applecart. But it’s worth pointing out that although Ms. Tisdale ultimately confirms the value of artifacts, using statements such as, “We need objects more than ever,” she also qualifies her support. She suggests that we only need objects if “we do something great with them” and that we may need objects but “we may not need the ones we’ve collected.”

Tisdale’s challenge to do something great can be daunting. For most of us there is a firewall around our objects: protective glass, rope barriers, alarms, and security personnel (and that’s just for the objects on display). How can we push the envelope when preservation nearly always trumps access in our policies and our behaviors? This is where the ongoing expansion and development of digital tools in our museums and communities can help us. We can experiment in this realm. We can iterate. Test an idea, develop an experience, evaluate it, and decide if it works. If it does, we can do more. If not, we can try something new more quickly and easily than ever before. Today, the technologically proficient museum can be a laboratory for engagement as we think and rethink how to break down the barriers to access and share all that we have with anyone anywhere.

For example, augmented reality apps are not new, but so far, museum AR apps have been mostly limited to featuring visual imagery from the collection. The central characteristic of these experiences is a simultaneous then-and-now view of a place constructed from a live image with an overlay of a painting, drawing, photograph, or postcard. More recently, museums, including the Andy Warhol Museum and the Museum of London, have developed AR apps promoting their collections by placing historical AR experiences at specific contemporary locations. But what I find most intriguing about the Chicago 00 app is the long-term implications of geo-locating all of the objects, images, and documents in our collection.

Ultimately, every CHM collection item has a place or places associated with it. A suit of clothes could be mapped to where it was made, purchased, tailored, worn, even collected. A letter could be assigned locations according to where it was written, where it was received, the home of the person who wrote it, and the places they wrote about. Once created, the app could transform the current urban landscape into an historical excavation of the people and places that have defined Chicago over time. It could provide CHM with a new tool for sharing the city’s stories and help us connect the museum to the diverse audiences we hope to reach across the urban landscape.

While this would be an amazing and powerful tool for understanding the city’s history, if we reframe the museum’s collection in geo-spatial terms, what else might be revealed? What might we discover about our collecting priorities over time? I suspect that the vast shortcomings of our collection will be laid bare. We would clearly see the underrepresented neighborhoods, unheralded stories, and undocumented events in the lives of people and communities that didn’t matter to us at the time. These deficiencies would appear like black holes on a map of space, areas shockingly devoid of documentation during certain time periods or between one street and another throughout the city’s history.

CHM’s collection is supposed to be a tool for understanding the city, but perhaps it is primarily a tool for understanding the museum. Our idiosyncratic collecting history would likely be revealed as racist, sexist, and driven by the ideals and lifestyles of the privileged class. But what if we shared that map with everyone? What if the entire city could see what is and what is not in the museum? What if they could fill in the missing parts? Could we both confront our nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideas of inclusion and representation and begin to rectify the shortcomings of that limited vision?

I suppose it’s possible that my predecessors wondered what the CHM collection might look like if presented on a 4-D map of the city (time being the fourth dimension). But with millions of items in our care, they could not have created such a map, and it certainly could not have been shared with the public or manipulated by them or used as a tool for evaluating our collecting habits over time. Technology makes it possible for us to ask and answer questions that could reshape the way we work going forward. However, it’s not enough to note that the technology could make a collection map possible. The reality is that the technology enables the app, and the app becomes a catalyst for new thinking about the collection and the mission of the museum.

Over the course of the past two decades or so, two often-discussed avenues of thought have emerged in the museum community vis-à-vis digital technology. One sees the growth of the virtual experience as a threat to the face-to-face encounter with real artifacts, eventually making the virtual experience with the collections the only experience. The other sees the digital experience as a way to reinvest in the collection by creating visual surrogates of objects that can be mined and manipulated for a host of possible purposes, inspiring greater interest in the real thing.

Ultimately, these opposing perspectives reinforce the value of objects. It’s clear that we widely recognize the significance of collections across the profession, but so far we have failed to articulate what they mean in our increasingly digital world. For those of us who do not think in terms of 1s and 0s, we need to make the effort to understand and mine the technology for what it can do. For the technologically proficient, we must help create a community of digitally savvy staff in all sectors of the museum and foster a collaborative environment in which everyone thinks about both digital space and gallery space as venues for creating meaningful collections-based experiences with and for visitors.

Together we can foster a new, robust relationship between the twenty-first-century communities we serve and the collections we care for. After all, it is the assumption that such a relationship exists and has meaning that makes the task of collecting worth doing in the first place.

[i] Rainey Tisdale, “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?” History News (Summer 2011): 19-24.