Enabling Access to Digitized Museum Collections

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.

  • 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?

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

  • 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.

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