Data in Museums: Digital Practices and Contemporary Heritage

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Chiara Zuanni

    Karl-Franzens Universität Graz (University of Graz)

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

This short paper will examine notions of, and practices in relation to, digital data in museums. On the one hand, it will discuss how digital data are conceptualized, identified, and considered in museums; on the other hand, it will explore how they are produced, collected, curated, shared, and preserved within the heritage sector.
Digital data have now a liminal position in museums, where they are increasingly being recognized as part of 21
st century heritage. Despite the UNESCO
Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage dating to 2003, and a CIDOC Digital Preservation Working Group active since 2006, museums have begun to recognise the value of preserving digital data as sources and representations of contemporary heritage only in recent years. For example, MoMA announced its first collection of videogames in 2012; at the Museum of London, in 2017, the installation
Pulse tracked social media and displayed live what Londoners were tweeting; in 2018, a major exhibition on videogames was held also at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and, outside of the museum sector, the Daily Show programme (on Comedy Central) organised the pop up
The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library, which has now visited a few North American cities and it is the subject of a virtual museum. However, this recent attention for digital data as potential museum objects implies also a reconsideration of their position within museum taxonomies, where in the past they have mostly been treated as auxiliary information and interpretative support.

In addition, user generated content related to the museum and its collections, and generated by visitors during museum visits and by online audiences on social media, will be considered also for its potential in expanding object biographies (Kopytoff, 1986; Hill, 2012). Previous research has focused on participatory practices and digital engagement (Simon, 2010; Adair et al., 2011; Giaccardi, 2012; Kidd, 2014) and the evaluation of digital programmes (Villaespesa, 2016), although there are not yet clear frameworks and methodologies for harvesting, managing, and using this data (Marstine, 2011; Kidd and Cardiff, 2017). Less work has been done on the exploration of objects online biographies, as emerging from the museum digitisation practices and its collection management systems, and continuing through social media photos and digital engagement material, and this paper will highlight some of the emerging challenges.
While the inclusion of digital data in collections might prompt a redefinition of the values and position of digital heritage in a museum and might provoke new questions on the digital lives of museum objects, this data causes also a series of curatorial and methodological challenges. Firstly, this data will come in different forms, each one presenting different technical challenges in relation to their collection, archiving, and representation. Secondly, it might even be part of assemblages of digital and analogue items which, together, represent the heritage of 21st century events (e.g. a political protest leaves behind social media posts as well as placards). The acquisition of both physical and digital material within a museum system poses a series of additional challenges to its ontologies and vocabularies, which are not prepared to acquire born digital materials in the same digital infrastructure as that of more ‘traditional’ museum objects.
Throughout the discussion, the paper will observe how museum approaches to digital collecting and to digital preservation diverge or complement existing practices in parallel fields. The idea that history and heritage are now increasingly shared and produced online, and thus we ought to preserve digital outputs and research the circulation of news, opinions, and debates in the digital sphere has a longer story in the field of digital humanities, and web archiving in particular (Rosenzweig, 2004; Graham et al., 2015; Brügger, 2013, 2017; Giaccardi and Plate, 2016; Winters, 2017). Hence, the paper will observe how discussions and projects in the digital humanities field could be productively inspire new forms of curating in museums, in order to improve practices in relation to the acquisition, recording, management, and preservation of this data. Similarly, the field of digital ethnography (Hine, 2008; Kozinets, 2011; Pink et al., 2016) and research in social sciences have emphasised the values of collecting, analysing, and eventually preserving our online lives. For the purposes of this paper, it is particularly the ethical discussions around the collection of contemporary data which are of interest.
In conclusion, the paper will focus on the one hand on questions on the collection, management, and use of digital data, which are increasingly crucial for future museum curating practices. On the other hand, the paper will discuss how the repositioning of digital data as heritage raises new questions in relation to the materiality and authenticity of the ‘digital’, to the politics and impact of co-production and knowledge creation online, to the management of digitised and born-digital content, and to the ethics of collecting digital data and its consequent implications.


Adair, B., Filene, B. and Koloski, L. (2011). Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User generated World. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

Brügger, N. (2013). Web historiography and Internet Studies: Challenges and perspectives.
New Media & Society, 15(5): 752 – 764.

Brügger, N. and Schroeder, R. (2017). The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and the Present. London: UCL Press.

Giaccardi, E. (2012). Heritage and Social Media: Understanding Heritage in a Participatory Culture. Oxford and New York: Routledge.

Giaccardi, E. and Plate, L. (2016). How memory comes to matter: From social media to the internet of things. In Muntean, L. Plate, L. and Smelik A. (eds),
Materializing Memory in Art and Popular Culture. Taylor and Francis Group, pp. 65-88.

Graham, S., Milligan, I. and Weingart, S. (2015). Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope. London: Imperial College Press.

Hill, K. (2012). Museums and biographies: stories, objects, identities. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Hine, C. (2008). Internet Research as Emergent Practice. In Hesse, Biber S.N. and Leavy, P. (eds),
Handbook of Emergent Methods. New York: Guilford Press, pp.525 – 542.

Kidd, J. (2014), Museums in the New Mediascape: Transmedia, Participation, Ethics. London: Routledge.

Kidd, J. and Cardiff, R. (2017). ‘A space of negotiation’: Visitor Generated Content and Ethics at Tate.
Museums & Society, 15(1): 43-55.

Kopytoff, I. (1986). The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process. In Appadurai, A. (ed),
The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 64-91.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: SAGE.

Marstine, J. (ed) (2011). Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty- First Century Museum. London and New York: Routledge.

Pink, S., Horst, H., Postill, J., Hjorth, L., Lewis, T. and Tacchi, J. (2016). Digital Ethnography: principles and practice. London: SAGE.

Rosenzweig, R. (2004). How will the net’s history be written? Historians and the internet. In Nissenbaum, H. and Price, M. E. (eds),
Academy & the Internet. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 1–34.

Simon, N. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0.

Villaespesa, E. (2016). Measuring Social Media Success: The Value of the Balanced Scorecard as a Tool for Evaluation and Strategic Management in Museums. University of Leicester: PhD thesis.

Winters, J. (2017). Breaking in to the mainstream: demonstrating the value of internet (and web) histories.
Internet Histories, 1(1-2): 173 – 179.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.