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When museum objects go online

Posted Mar 21 2012 5:02am

At an internal workshop here at Medical Museion, we recently discussed the problematic aspects of distributing objects from the collection on the web. The web surely poses a great opportunity for museums to get stuff out there and thereby to reach a broader audience – hopefully then inspiring them to an actual museum visit – but at the same time it threatens a sense of loss. A loss of control with regard to the conceptual framing of the specific object, and also a loss of material presence and complexity, which is somehow lost in the flattened image.

The point of departure for our discussion was a short film from the series “Favourite things”, produced by Medical Museion and distributed on YouTube. In the film, our Head of Collections Ion Meyer gives his interpretation of the preserved preparations of conjoined twins, which are a rare and distinctive part of the Museion collection. And it hit the charts! With over 150,000 views, this can be seen as a successful example of viral outreach.

But at the same time it poses the question of how we at Medical Museion want to present our collection, and if this kind of digital ‘sharing’ poses a threat. The movie title included the words ‘conjoined twins’ – which perhaps explains the many hits – and therefore the movie clustered with other YouTube clips with a more one-dimensional agenda of showing ‘freaky wonders of nature’. Perhaps unsurprisingly in this context, the movie received critical comments such as “unnecessarily grotesque” and “they need a proper burial”. This raises difficult questions about whether we should respond to these comments and enter the discussion, and whether we are ready to put our museum objects out there without being able to control their contextual framing.

And then there’s the question of the materiality and physical presence of the object, which seem to be lost when objects are turned into pictures on a flat screen. But is it really just a matter of losing something, and does it even make sense to make a simple division between the ‘real’ analogue object and its ‘false’ digital double? A division that seems to imply that the museum is the only place where the real meeting with between public and collection can unfold? Of course the actual closeness to the object that the museum space provides can’t be disputed, and this can be seen as a ‘reality guarantee’ in itself.

But at the same time, isn’t the exhibition just another kind of mediation? We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that simply putting an object in a glass case in the museum will enable a complete embodied experience of its material presence. Indeed, in a society strongly dominated by screen-based digital media, we often seem to be able to have strong bodily experiences in front of a screen, but may actually not be that good at sensing the analogue materiality of the physical object.

At the MUSE workshop we took this potential paradox as a prompt to consider the possibility of learning from digital and other screen-based media, such as motion picture, when developing exhibitions in ‘real’ time and space. Maybe exhibitions can actually be seen as a golden opportunity to enhance peoples’ ability not only to look at an object, but also to have a bodily experience of its materiality when doing so. And maybe the web can somehow serve as a tool in this respect – not only as a place to trigger curiosity and thereby lure people in, but also as a sensuous modality different from the museum, though not necessarily in conflict with it.

Being able to make full use of this modality – or rather this crossing of modalities – poses the possibility that museum objects not only lose something by going online, but also gain something. But how, exactly? If you know of any good examples of synergetic crossings between analogue and digital modalities, please join the debate.

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