I attempted to write a post about an article I did not like, but I was not fully aware of why it left me with a sour taste. The article’s basic argument was that museums should digitize their collections, (make them available online) which is a great idea, and their exhibit, which is a nice thing to do….to attract visitors, (ughh).
The last ingredient is what annoyed me, blistered my tongue even. Digital collections help people do research. I understand that tourist could see the collection and pick out what they wanted to see in person, which is great. But arguing that on-line collections and exhibits are for tourists obscures the fact that digital collections help researchers and that museums and their holdings have a lot to offer academics.
I understand if the article was written attempting to sell digitization to museum boards who are concerned with funds and visitors. But when it is written in an academic journal for public historians it sounds like even academics don’t want to associate themselves with academics.
The current climate in this country is unfriendly and at times downright hostile to individuals in higher education, as we saw in the clip of Reza Aslan on Fox. When this article heralds the emergence of on-line access to museums and collections as tourist attractions it confuses the very action of looking at documents or exhibits on-line. Here is an example: someone goes on-line and looks up the collection at WXY Museum. What did they do? They just did research. Why then do we need to confuse this action with tourism? Digital tourism is the same as Arm Chair Tourism. They are both someone reading about a topic that interests them. They are both research. Rejecting the term research in favor of tourism distances museums from academics. And that is generally depressing.
I understand museums need to attract and keep donors to fund their projects and existence. It is important for museums to have a supportive community of funders, but when it comes to not-for-profits, as many museums are, why are we trying to focus on getting people in the museum rather than what the museum does for the people? The museum is a collection, a space to construct meaningful and intriguing exhibits. A place where people can connect to whatever definitive importance they have with objects, places, or people. An entity that advances education, thought and knowledge. Everything else should be understood as providing for those ends. When we say that something that is so clearly for academics, for research, is for attracting tourists or promote donations, it cheapens the relationship that museums and their collections have with the rest of the world.