The Benefits of Digitized Museum Collections
Even before the pandemic, many museums had begun digitizing their collections, discussing open content licenses for the extended use of digitized assets, and aspiring to provide broad-based access via various Internet platforms. As important as this groundwork is, it represents only one aspect of the promise offered by digital democratization. The other aspect is the use made of digitized collections, through which their social potential can only then be exploited. Although the importance of the objects for users outside the museum is a recurring argument in favour of digitization projects, the interests and practices of these users as they engage with digital objects are still poorly understood (Clough et al., 2017). This knowledge gap became apparent in the context of lockdown experiences, when many museums found themselves for the first time obliged to reflect on how objects can be used in digital learning, relaxation or creativity.
In this article, I suggest that we equip ourselves for the next pandemic by finally understanding the users’ perspective. One excellent opportunity for doing this comes in the shape of culture hackathons, for example, in which new user scenarios are developed collaboratively. The hackathon format – a word coined by combining ‘hacking’ and ‘marathon’ – emerged from the technology sector and is based on participatory design concepts: in a limited period of time, interested members of the public are invited to get creative over the course of a design sprint. The interaction between spontaneity, interdisciplinarity and practice reveals new perspectives. Lodato and di Salvo describe this process as the ‘collective imagination of how future users could themselves participate in an issue through the props attendees are constructing’ (Lodato and DiSalvo, 2016: 554). Since hackathons aim to create tangible prototypes, the hackers produce one of the many possibilities and thus contribute to our ‘social imaginaries’ (ibid.). Referring to culture hackathons, Moura de Araújo describes a new constructivist method of interpretation, which brings to light the potentialities of digitized cultural collections that have hardly ever been fulfilled in the museum context thus far: the sensory immersion in cultural data, the narrative quality of various media and the tension between historical evidence and contemporary issues. The users’ creative practices are the key to these potentialities that lie in the virtual nature of digital objects: ‘To the hacker there is always a surplus of possibility expressed in what is actual, the surplus of the virtual. This is the inexhaustible domain of what is real but not actual, what is not but which may become’ (Wark, 2004).
The digitization of collections makes them more fluid, more tangible and full of possibilities. Objects can thus be connected to questions of everyday life and personal interests. The Internet provides an infrastructure for maintaining the availability of data and enabling communication. But a ‘digital contact network’ (Hogsden et al., 2012), a social network or framework in which the objects are meaningful and meaning is created, is required. This framework can come about in the context of co-creative events or through digital forms of collaboration. Regardless of what form is chosen, it is the task of museums to develop collaborations and forge partnerships based on a ‘logic of care’ (Morse, 2021) so that such networks are created and the potential is transformed. Only in this way can museums make the collections they hold in trust for the public productive and relevant for people.