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Guest Blogger: Melinda Weinstein

Dr. Melinda Weinstein
Dr. Melinda Weinstein - David Lewinski Photography
Dr. Melinda Weinstein is an associate professor of English at  Lawrence Technological University. She received her B.A. in English from Boston University and her Ph.D. in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2000, she joined the humanities faculty at LTU. At Lawrence Tech, she teaches World Mythology, Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Shakespeare and Creative Writing.  

A founding member of the Association for the Study of Esotericism, she edits the book series Studies in Esotericism (New Cultures Press) and is writing a book on the origin and development of pastoral poetry in Hellenistic Egypt, Augustan Rome, and Elizabethan England.  She is also a poet and fiction writer. You can follow her on twitter at #melindawp.


Why Detroit's Cultural Heritage Museums are Going Digital

Detroit is home to four premiere American museums: The Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Historical Museum. Combined, they house millions of artworks, documents, photographs, and films that draw audiences to Detroit from around the world. The public has access, though, to a fraction of these artifacts. Digitization is changing that.  Digitization is changing the very concept of exhibition.  

On September 27, 2013, Lawrence Technological University hosted its first digital humanities conference. Maria Ketcham, head of the Research Library & Archives at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Robert Smith, vice president of education and exhibitions at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, Nardina Mein, manager of the archives and library at The Henry Ford, and Adam Lovell, curator of collections at the Detroit Historical Society shared the benefits and challenges of curating, archiving, and exhibiting historical artifacts in an increasingly technological world. Conference participants included students, faculty, educational technologists, and librarians from the Detroit metropolitan region and beyond.

Though digitization in a museum context is complex and time-consuming (it's not just scanning an object and uploading it to the web), it is cost-effective, good for research, and it stimulates collaboration.  For Maria Ketcham, the web and social media extend the reach of the DIA, drawing new audiences. "People come to the DIA now because they have seen an object on our website," she says. "Digitization is the natural extension of our visitor-centered approach and the museum's current mission: to help people find personal meaning in art." 

William Valentiner, the DIA's director from 1927 to 1944, was a world-renowned art historian who helped set the foundation for what our museum is today. One of his early innovations was to arrange collections by culture and time period as opposed to artist and type. In this way, the viewer "could make connections between methods and culture of different societies."   

The DIA plans to digitize the Valentiner papers, among other archival collections. One project they look to for ideas is the Smithsonian's Peacock Room project that uses the Omeka interface. The challenge, she said, is determining what metadata and how much metadata should be added so as to make the collection searchable. It also takes manpower to scan, input, and code the information. At present approximately 6,000 works out of 60,000 are online. And out of its 60,000 holdings, only 12% is physically displayed. Digitization will bring to view art rarely, if ever, viewed by the public.

Another advantage of digitization is the ability to re-use and repurpose items. Robert Smith of the Charles H. Wright Museum reported that "Museums have to increasingly rely on digital technology to be successful." The Charles H. Wright Museum is the largest museum of African-American history in the world, but budget cuts have decimated his staff. Despite significant budget and staff reductions, Smith and his staff have leveraged digital technology to create cutting-edge projects, the museum's "best work." 

Smith described the evolution of multi-media displays. He recalled his graduate student days, physically gathering and organizing hundreds of slides, then punching holes into tape that would run through multiple Ektagraphic projectors. With Medium Management and Publishing System (MMaPs), a content management system, he and and his staff can input images, information, videos, and music to one place. With a few keystrokes, they can create interactive websites, kiosks, and touchscreens.   

Digital media creates new ways to experience collections. "Inspiring Minds," for example, an interactive touchscreen wall, provides children an active, fun way to learn about the accomplishments of African-American inventors and scientists. Digital media accelerates the curatorial process. Every month, museum staff and interns create and publish high-quality documentaries on African-American perspectives on the Civil War.  

Nothing is lost, either. In the past, once an exhibit was dismantled, its elements would be stored in files and drawers and boxes. Now, materials can be easily accessed and reused. Digital technology fosters more collaboration. Instead of working in silos on individual projects, everyone participates in organizing, storing, publishing, updating, and expanding the collection. 

Henry Ford believed in "learning by doing." He wanted to inspire future generations of innovators by allowing the public to "look at objects and see how they worked." He believed "ordinary people can do extraordinary things." The Benson Ford Research Center, the focal point of the collection, provides the public expertise and resources in order to "create new knowledge about the American way of life."  

 At present, The Henry Ford physically displays only 5% of its 26-million item collection (one million items of material culture, 25 million archival photos, documents, films and digital files). Now we can view rarely displayed objects, and objects no longer on the floor, such as Susan McCord's brilliant crazy quilts or a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Nathan Sargent insisting that anti-slavery be part of the Republican Party platform.  Digitization provides different views of an object and can throw into relief details such as the ash falling from a cigar in the Monkey Bar, an allegory of vice, carved by a prison inmate from peach pits. Instead of simple labels and brief descriptions, objects can be displayed with associated media such as images, video, and sound.    

Current digitization initiatives at the Henry Ford include a week of remembrance honoring the 50th year anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

For Adam Lovell, curator of the Detroit Historical Society, digitization provides "more bang for the buck." Of its 250,000-object collection, only 1 % of its holdings is displayed.  With a small staff and an IT consultant but no on-site IT staff, Lovell can still provide rich educational resources and innovative exhibits with PastPerfect Museum software, the most widely used software in the museum industry. "When you don't have an IT person on your staff it is crucial to have a system that is easy to use," he says. The downside of the software is that there is not a lot of customization. The benefits of digitization, though, clearly outweigh its limitations. He can display primary documents and associated lesson plans for teachers. He can crowdsource 6,000 images retrieved from the Packard Motor Company for information. "We have images of Packard concept vehicles and prototypes but none of the images are labeled."  

He said, though, that historians need to define what digitization means to them. The Detroit Historical Society uses a five-step program for digitization that involves inventory, physical capture, data entry, archival supplies, and access. In determining what to digitize, he advises keeping the public in mind. Most often, curators determine what to display. "What does the public want? How do we make our collections accessible?" 

The Detroit Historical Society is currently participating in the "Cognitive Memory Project," an innovative program which brings digitized photo collections to the elderly to jog memory and stimulate conversations about Detroit history. His staff posts a blog, "Look What We Found," that displays rare, random objects discovered by museum staff, and a Tumblr page featuring highlights from the collection. "It gets our collection out and used," Lovell says.  

Summing up the benefits of digitization noted by all the speakers, he concludes, "Digitization allows for increased accessibility, increased revenue, increased staff usage, more lesson plans, and more research."
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