Enabling Access to Digitized Museum Collections

A part of this text is appropriated from a talk Cassandra Kist (cassy kist) and I gave at #HCII2021 conference on 25th July 2021.

Thanks to everybody who came to our talk as part of the panel ‘Digital Memory Modalities — Inquiring the Role of HCI for Participatory Memory Practices’ in the Human-Computer Interaction conference (Computing & Culture section). Even though we can’t be in Washington DC in person, Cassandra Kist and I are grateful that the virtual conference platform enables remote participants to access live, interactive networking opportunities and content.

The panel, convened by Prof Gertraud Koch (University of Hamburg), gathers participants from diverse disciplines (cultural heritage, cultural anthropology, digital and participatory design) to explore the potential of human-computer interaction in personal, institutional, and ecological memory practices. The six papers outline the relevance of media technologies for memory-making processes, which will serve as a foundation for developing digital memory modalities that are more responsive to the experiences of different groups of communities or users.

Six papers were presented in our panel at the HCII2021 conference

The panel: HCI in participatory memory practices

Memory-making practices bridge the gap between personal and collective histories, and this suggests that memory-making is an iterative process within any given social context. As Gertraud Koch points out in her introductory article to the panel, memory-making has both individual and collective dimensions. It refers to shared experiences within a particular historical epoch and space marked by distinctive institutions, events, and ways of life.

At the same time, technology has permeated every aspect of our lives, including memory-making processes. Within this panel, the papers seek to explore how digital culture has changed the face of participatory practices and shown the dilemma of opening up. The speakers are also interested in understanding how participatory practices might change the way we think about memory, archiving, and user engagement.

Some key questions stand out:

  • What are the affordances and limitations of participatory memory practices?
  • What are the challenges of “opening up”? Is it a step-by-step or “by design” engineered process?
  • Is openness the same as publicness?

How is this relevant to our paper?

Cassy and Tan’s article focuses on the role of infrastructure in memory institutions, particularly the museums, and how staff through digital means design for access to cultural heritage. What are crucial factors that impact staff practices in creating online opportunities for user engagement? What are the implications for human-computer interaction and digital design communities? Our article is part of the outcome from POEM, an EU-funded project focusing on participatory memory practices.

The paper discusses the development and use of museum infrastructure through two case studies: one at the Open Museum (OM) — Glasgow Museums, and another at Swedish National Historical Museums (SHM). But first of all, let’s go back a bit into 2019 when we asked ourselves the question: what do we like to achieve in this collaborative work?

Collaborative fieldwork

My colleague, Cassandra Kist, and I started our fieldwork at Glasgow Museums in August 2019. As the COVID-19 pandemic wore on, ethnographic data from Swedish National Historical Museums were obtained by online interviews with staff.

We considered museum staff as gatekeepers to cultural heritage and central to enabling or constraining user interaction with the museum objects. Throughout our fieldwork, we aimed to identify organizational barriers that frequently hinder staff’s ability to invest in expanding user access to digitized collections.

Drawing on two case studies, our work suggests that changes to the infrastructure, including the expansion of digitized collections and tools, build on and are shaped by the “installed base.” By centring user needs and leveraging their place in diverse heritage networks, staff in two museum groups can overcome infrastructural boundaries that hinder practices of designing for access.

Infrastructure perspective

Now we get into the fundamental question: what is the role of infrastructure in enabling museum access and creating opportunities for user engagement?

Below are the two photos I took in August 2019 in front of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, a member of Glasgow Museums. On the left is the sign showing access for people in a wheelchair to the museum. On the right, you see the sign indicating a small track where museum objects can be delivered in a safe way into the storage.

By infrastructure, we mean not only the physical building, racks and cabinets, boxes and trays — equipment facilities located inside the building that make the museum function — but also the everyday practice, goals, and intention of the staff, what the museum workers witness and do on a daily basis, that will again, shape the smooth functioning of the institution.

Enabling museum access. Photos were taken at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, in August 2019.

Employing the infrastructure perspective, we emphasize that museum staff creating opportunities for user engagement, whether in physical spaces or online, is an active ongoing process of expanding and negotiating infrastructural boundaries.

Another thing that we notice from the photos above is that the signs put up by the museum staff signify invisible boundaries between distinctively drawn functions: functions towards this type of user and another type of user, functions towards this kind of objects, and another kind of object. These functions are also shaped by staff practices, intention, and achievement.

The “installed base”

Via interviews with museum staff, our observation is that staff members can be seen as craft workers who are organized to build up incremental steps of the infrastructure’s development.

To investigate the incremental innovation of infrastructure, we rely on the notion of the installed base, which Science and Technology Studies scholars define (see Star & Ruhleder 1996; Edwards et al. 2009) as the backbone construction of infrastructure. The installed base includes not only technical artifacts but also human habits, norms, and roles. These social factors, rather than technical, are the most difficult to change if we want to develop the infrastructure to reach beyond its backbone or one-site practice.

The concept of “installed base” necessitates a process-oriented understanding that traces and analyzes the historical sequence of events and decisions that shape infrastructure formation.

Our paper’s contribution

Expanding access to digitized collections can bump up against pre-existing ideas specific to institutional contexts and histories, regarding social and cognitive accessibility. In our two case studies, existing perceptions of staff’s roles and responsibilities hinder and shape the ability of staff to invest in expanding user access to digitized objects from the collection.

In the paper, we illustrate the ways in which staff members are compelled to negotiate perceptions of what constitutes both an “authentic” museum object and a professional museum role in enabling user access to digitized collections.

  • We analyze staff practices that attempt to expand user access to digitized collections in different ways. In the process of expansion and the resulting tensions that arise, we identify elements of infrastructure or an “installed base” that causes inertia in staff practices.
  • Specifically, two shared aspects of existing infrastructure in our case studies caused tensions in expanding digital access for users, referred to as boundaries. These two boundaries include staff’s perceptions of their professional role and associated responsibilities and what constitutes a museum object as authentic and valuable for engagement.
  • We argue that staff practices that help create online opportunities for user engagement are a process of actively expanding and negotiating infrastructural boundaries of connective capacities. These boundaries constitute and expose an “installed base,” which refers to the backbone of infrastructure and the existing practices and norms from which work takes place.

Cassy and I are looking forward to hearing about your impressions of the event and hope you found it worthwhile. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to let us know: cassandra.kist@glasgow.ac.uk or quoc-tan.tran@uni-hamburg.de.

Kist, C., & Tran, Q.-T. (2021). Breaking Boundaries, Creating Connectivities: Enabling Access to Digitized Museum Collections. In M. Rauterberg (Ed.), Culture and Computing. Interactive Cultural Heritage and Arts: 9th International Conference, C&C 2021, Held as Part of the 23rd HCI International Conference, HCII 2021, Proceedings, Part I (pp. 406–422). Springer Nature Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-77411-0_26

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@POEM_H2020 fellow | structure is (not) imagination

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