Digital Museums

 Ben Howell Davis

Leave Comments

from Aperture Magazine, Fall, 1994

Copyright, 1994.

Objects Within Objects

What level of abstraction can you suffer to get across the concept?

John Driscoll, New York Hall of Science, 1993.

Museums are repositories for evidence. Evidence that events have occurred, phe nomena have been noted, human expression persists. Museums remind us that we haven't been alone. Computation in museums elucidates the space between the museum and the evidence, the evidence and the maker, the maker and the viewer, the evidence and its value. Many cultures exist without museums. In cultures like the Balinese (we have no art, we do everything the best we can), the evidence is stored in the memory of the members of the culture and preserved by being spoken of or illuminated. Memory is the repository for this kind of culture. The more a memory is invoked and disseminated, the more important that piece of information becomes to giving the culture a survival code.

Museums in our culture have the function of giving value to evidence. Something in a museum is worth more because it is provided with constant care, and as it is researched and written about, it accumulates value. The more a thing is known and understood the more valuable it becomes. An object without an anecdote is impoverished. Digitizing existing collections is a necessary record keeping activity.The more digital information about a work that is recorded, the more valuable that work becomes. Circulating digital images of objects is value-added to the object because it qualifies as critical acknowledgment that the object has significance.

Digital technology is both the means of generating economies and modeling them at the same time. The computer is a prediction tool as well as a record keeping tool. For a museum, digital record keeping is efficient, but digital communication is problematic. For the computer, the two functions are integrated. Digital evidence can flow out of the museum record keeping system into the educational system, the entertainment system, or the economic system depending on how museum digital information is modeled. Indeed, what level of abstraction do you have to suffer to retrieve a concept? What are the issues for digital abstractions?

The main issues of digital museums are storage, retrieval, and interaction.

Storage involves the methods of recording images and data, file formats, com pression ratios, and annotation fields. What level of detail is held in the fields of information about an object? Besides the identification of a work and its maker, what anecdotal information about it can be referenced? Where has it been reproduced? For what purpose? What condition is it currently in? How many other objects like it exist or have existed? What is it currently worth? What uses may it be put to? Who has owned it? If a digital image of the object is included, how much resolution and color is required to "faithfully" represent it? How many bits of information in this image is public property? How much is private?

What parameters are placed on the retrieval of this kind of information? Who can get at information about art works, for instance, that provide reference for the art market? How is software constructed to allow access to certain information and restrict access that might endanger the security of the work?

And finally, how is interaction with the information performed? Can the data and digital image be removed from the collection for any purpose? Can enough bits be accessible for reproduction?

The issues of storage, retrieval, and interaction beg many questions: What can you do with a digital museum? Does the digital museum act as an electronic playground, allowing museum data and representation to become a resource for the creation of new art and critical thinking? Does this create a pro-active audience that is not a passive appreciation audience but a creative audience? Does it make transparent the conflict between education and connoisseurship? Is the museum an image supplier? Does the digital collection become a publishing resource? Does it create a viable test of quality based on the amount of informa tion amassed about an object? Does digitization make the original more precious? Does it make the consumer rule and the consumer suffer the damage?

Possibly art may be seen as the transparent commodity that it is. There will be no need to comment on this condition; everyone will understand and participate in the art information market. Much like the stock market, the general availability of art data over networks could make the buying and selling of cultural artifacts a transaction that is public rather than private. Legally or illegally exchanging access to databases could create an open art market or it could create security systems as dense as those of world banks.

Building digital museums is to reveal the essential nature of museums. The digi tal museum is an interesting hybrid of the culture that needs no museum and the culture that relies on them. The collective memory that digital museums repre sent is much like the culture that keeps its cultural identity in its head. Dematerializing objects and creating virtual buildings that anyone with a computer and a modem can visit makes the traditional museum into a transactional space. At the same time, the information is the link to the valued object. Each time the data of the object is accessed, the more valuable the object is because it is known a little better.

Digital museums are project driven. Each time a collection is the subject of a digital imaging project, museums move closer to having an electronic system for cataloging, exhibition, and product development.Choosing collections for these kinds of initiatives is interesting in regard to their being reflections of the process of creating a digital museum inside the physical museum as well as creating a digital object for the real object. The MIT Museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has traditionally been a repository for evidence of important thinking at MIT. Over the past twenty years, the MIT Museum has grown from a small collection of MIT memorabilia into a sizable collection on the history of technology. There are now more than 4,500 scientific instruments, models, com ponents, related artifacts; 138,100 drawings and prints, 1,700 films, videotapes, and recordings; 1,560 paintings and art objects; 621,000 photographs and 770 cubic feet of biographical materials. It recently acquired the New York Museum of Holography collection as well.

The MIT Museum is starting the digital process with the photographic work of Harold "Doc" Edgerton, the inventor of the electronic strobe. In the process of doing the project, the Edgerton Foundation, the MIT Edgerton Center, the George Eastman House, the MIT Center for Educational Computing Initiatives, the MIT Archives, and the MIT Museum are all sharing responsibilities. This is a hyper-organization to create a hyper-museum. The digital project itself reveals structures in organization analogous to the images it is digitizing.

Seeing the Unforeseen

On January 4, 1990, I was having lunch in the MIT Faculty Club with Kenneth Goldman, an officer of the MIT Industrial Liaison Program. We were discussing potential international industrial sponsors of the AthenaMuse multimedia soft ware that we were producing when he noticed Harold Edgerton nearby. I told Goldman that I had always thought Edgerton's work would be a perfect subject for interactive multimedia. I wondered aloud whether I should mention this to Edgerton while he was having lunch. Goldman thought it might be prudent to wait until after he had eaten. I deferred to his judgement. Edgerton got up and went to pay his bill at the cashier, had a massive heart attack and passed away.

Needless to say, the event was disturbing. It made his images all the more moving in terms of being evidence of the arresting of time.

The objects of value, the Edgerton photographs and films, were essentially evidence that a phenomena had been recorded accurately. The better the rendering of the phenomena, the more "accurate," the better the photograph, the closer to art the rendering became. A good picture in this context is one that renders a phe nomena accurately whether the phenomena be scientific or artistic. The beauty of the Edgerton images is that they are precise abstractions of reality. They are evi dence that science and art are separated by a very thin filter of time and intention. They are magical by definition. They may be proof of Robert Louis Stevenson's description of the artist:

This is the particular crown and triumph of the artist - not to be true merely, but to be lovable; not simply to convince, but to enchant.

They may be evidence that creativity is more valuable than art or science.

Art as evidence of scientific phenomena is explicit. Events are fabricated for the camera and the photograph is best when it provides proof conclusively. When the photograph is perfect, the evidence is seemingly incontrovertible. This kind of photographic image gains its aesthetic power from being a reflection, not an interpretation. It is a fixable transmissive mirror, especially when it fixes some thing that the unaided eye cannot reflect on. It could be said that this kind of image is a literal example of art, but in its precision is its flaw; like a digital image it has no error. It is an example of truth and, like the digital reproduction, it is not the truth, but it looks like the truth.

It is more like a simulacrum that goes to the root understanding of a photograph and it is pleasurable because it involves us in the act of conjuring -- not conjuring the exotic and predictable of the magician, but conjuring in the ordinary world. As a product of science, these pictures have another value -- they act as a reward for synchronizing technology and events into moments of vision, art as a reward or celebration for science and engineering -- a reward for learning something. The tradition of using this kind of conjuring is carried on at MIT by staff and fac ulty at the MIT Edgerton Center who still perform the experiments with strobe and multiflash for students of all ages. The students produce Polaroid images of the phenomena themselves. They usually get the picture wrong, fail to synchro nize the event, the light, and the camera. The resulting image is close, but not quite right. Succeeding tries finally produce a rewarding image -- an image that captures the spirit of the phenomena as well as the data.

Edgerton's imagery is much closer to notions of magic realism (in the art con text) than anything else. The work makes photography and the subject matter into one interconnected object. It makes photography not a medium but an expression of time. The technology is expressing time the same way a painter expresses time, by gesture. The images are both renderings of photography itself and the event being photographed. The digital image has this same property.

A digital image of an Edgerton image could be said to be a clone of an experi ence. The original Edgerton was a record of magic reality, the reality behind human vision. The digital reproduction of it makes a temporal object of the image that preserves the original by being infinitely reproducible without loss of detail. Edgerton, of course, would have simply wanted a digital camera capable of making the recording first-hand. The Edgerton Center now uses a high speed video camera in the lab to demonstrate what used to be done with film cameras. The work goes on.

The intent of the Edgerton project has many facets. Funded by the Edgerton Foundation, the work consists of cataloging the vast number of Edgerton related materials in a digital database at the MIT Museum, creating an interactive multimedia exhibition on the life and work of Edgerton for the George Eastman House Exhibition to open in November, and an interactive multimedia application for 5-8th graders on Edgerton as a scientist, inventor, artist, and teacher. The creation of the digital Edgerton museum as a resource for the MIT Museum has the same spirit as the Edgerton images. The data will be network accessible as a resource for creative thought and productivity at MIT as well as other museums and institutions.

A difficult design strategy is being attempted to accommodate museum interests (both technical and aesthetic), museum education interests, college level educa tional experiences, middle school science curriculum, not to mention the representation of Edgerton as scientist, artist, inventor, teacher, philosopher, and celebrity. The single framing of the stobe films, the ability for the user to feel like they were taking the pictures themselves, the enormous technical archives that lie behind the images and the apparatus he used, the adventures with Jacque Coust eau, the Lock Ness monster search, the aerial strobing of Normandy villages before the WW II invasion (imagine a villager waking up to those unearthly white lights) -- in short it seemed that interactive multimedia was the only medium capable of representing the meaning of his life's work.

Basically this project is an "extended biography" -- the life of a single individual can be used as an example and a stimulus for interactive experience with a "life's work." In the case of Doc Edgerton, his life's work was the creation and demonstration of technologies that allowed ordinary events to be viewed and examined in extraordinary ways. This work is especially relevant for young students as they search for meaning in educational experience and begin to discover what their own "life's work" might be. The study of science and engineering is especially useful in this context as it provides a window into the examination of everyday experience as phenomena by using technology, mathematics, and theory as tools of exploration. The products of Edgerton's inquiries also happen to be like art, providing an even richer set of experiences.

Already though, the digitization of images from Edgerton's work has raised issues in the use of them for K-12 education. The most famous image of a bullet passing through an apple has suddenly emerged as symbolic of violence in schools. The reference of the teacher's apple being blasted has caused educators some concern. How to use the image in the digital education package is an inter esting problem. Edgerton used to refer to it as "how we make applesauce at MIT". The innocence of the experiment has since become sinister. This was never an issue until the image appeared in a digital form inside a digital multime dia application for a contemporary fifth grader.

The Digital Object

At the other end of this process is the digital object. The digital object is a mass of linkages and, to use a collage of Duchamp's phrases: an infrathin of standard stopages. Who's object is the digital object? How does it function as an artifact? Can you make something new out of it? How do you catalog art made of digital objects? What is it worth?

In 1986 the Musee d' Orsay opened in Paris. It was the first museum to open with the intention of having a digital collection that the public could come to the museum and browse. About 700 images of artworks from 1848-1914 were digi tized and put into files that are served to a dozen workstations. Museum visitors can look up artists names and titles of works and then access a single image dis played on a large screen. There is no network access to the images outside the museum. In an effort to make a visual browsing interface, we built a timeline, the Chronograph, that would display images strung along changeable sets of dates. It makes it possible to compare different artists' works visually and then access text information. It reverses the traditional catalog structure of making text the primary identifier. It's an example of a digital museum and the process of discovering what users of museum information need rather than what they are usually taught that they need. The digital museum can be visitor centered rather than curator centered.

Ironically, however, the Musee d' Orsay does not encourage the touch-screen as in interface. Less sophisticated visitors might be encouraged to handle originals. It's actually somewhat amazing that valuable works of art are still hanging with out any physical protection other than the current electric eye that beeps when you get too close and calls a guard.

The collecting of digital evidence will be an interesting occupation. Digital images are simulations. In their structure are imbedded the codes that allow them to be materialized in an infinite variety of ways. They can also be interpreted, known, and understood in as many ways. They have potentially unlimited value in this regard. Like the culture with no museum, they are illuminations of evi dence that are common to the culture.

There are more than 5000 museums in the United States. What if all their digital collections were accessible via network? What kind of a museum would that constitute? What about world-wide access? What kind of computer fraud could we imagine? What kind of licensing structures? What about private collections? Dealer databases? In Neil Stephenson's novel Snow Crash he describes such a digital world: "The Metaverse is a fictional structure made out of code. And code is just a form of speech -- the form that computers understand. The Metaverse in its entirety could be considered a single vast incantation." The museum ritual-- going to the museum -- will be altered by the digital Metaverse museum. You will go to the content of an image rather than the museum.

Will there be free admission on Thursday evenings to the digital museum net work? What about a multi-cultural distribution specialist who puts "a voice" on collections for orientation? The public may come to expect more and more tech nology and digital services. Blockbuster exhibits may have to have virtual reality that can be accessed from home. The orchestration of the facsimile and the orig inal to heighten the importance of the original may become a major preoccupa tion of art dealers and collectors -- how to distribute the digital information as a kind of advertising for the original. Will museum visitors be expecting to do something at the museum rather than be passive viewers? Will they just want to see the things that are the most valuable and well known? Will the hands-on edu cational approach of science museums merge with the appreciative nature of art museums?

The collection-by-collection approach to creating digital museums will be an interesting literal interpretation of post-modern deconstructionist theory. The collections themselves will be fragmented and the viewer can actually take digital information apart and put it back together fragmenting it further, reconfiguring it to create new meaning. Conversely, for the preservationist the digital object can be preserved by replicating it, updating file structures. The term "symoble" describes a transmitted media object whose lossless digital reproduction insures its permanence. If the digital museum object is active on the system, it is "on" display continuously.

The digital museum really asks "Why do you want anyone to know about art?" What is the real value of this digital phenomenon ? Certainly the digital museum will finally allow us to appreciate the analog, the hand-made object and all that it represents. Perhaps, like the hero of John Fowles' The Magus, we will return to where we began, and know it for the first time.