Smudges on the Glass: Locating and Tracing the Museum in the British Museum’s Digitised Collections
Doctoral Dissertation, King's College London
The thesis examines how digitisation affects and changes the established meanings embedded in museum collections. In order to examine these changes, I focus on the digitisation of objects, records, and networks of relationships at the British Museum, and the museological and national identities that they transmit. I argue that, in this case, the institution’s culture or identity is a significant factor in its digital transformation, and that this culture informs the decisions made by the institution, which in turn have an effect on the resulting digital outputs, and which may be read through the traces and residues which mark the collections.
Taking an approach grounded in both the digital humanities and museum studies, this research works from the position that digitisation is not a neutral, technical process, but one which has ontological implications for the collections being transformed. I examine how museum theorists and professionals are experimenting with digitisation as a mechanism for revising and revisiting the ways in which knowledge and identity are communicated via the web.
In doing so, I uncover a paradox in the digitisation of museum material: museums are complex spaces where multiple voices, narratives and processes circulate, this requires that they be co-operative and interoperable. However, the crucial requirement for interoperability is standardisation, and that requires simplification, which risks the loss of complexity.
In addressing this paradox, I examine how the institutional history of the Museum has influenced the way in which knowledge and identity are presented in their digitised records, catalogues and collections, and the partnerships they have developed with external actors. The research considers the digitisation of individual objects, knowledge infrastructures in the form of database design, records and catalogues, and the Museum’s online network. I argue that digitisation is not a panacea for the problems of authenticity, authority and representation which many museums are currently grappling with, and can, at times, magnify the narrative silences and omissions evident in the Museum’s collections and reinforce the unassailable, authoritative position the Museum is often criticised for taking.
The research ends with the proposition that new models of knowledge infrastructures, such as those of boundary infrastructures, might help to resolve the paradoxical tensions facing museums undergoing digital transformation.