by Marcia Spicer
I recently heard from a curator whose exhibit had been prematurely removed from display. They were understandably upset; detailed work had gone into carefully selecting items from their larger collection, creating displays, and editing placards. They also knew that the history the collection conveyed was important. But a decision-maker who saw the collection found the contents unsavory, offensive, or inappropriate—resulting in the removal of the display.
These situations happen more than we like to think about, although owners, curators, archivists, and families constantly face similar dilemmas. Those who find value in history, in looking back with an unflinching gaze and cherishing the opportunity to learn, grow, and be inspired, may find themselves at odds with different narratives, conventional wisdom, or a desire to keep the past, well, in the past.
Historical collections do not exist in a vacuum but rely on their caretakers to interpret and share their contents. Aunt X may want to keep an ancestor’s now-unpopular views secret from younger generations. A museum donor may withhold financial support if his perspective isn’t included in an exhibit. Patrons may demand that access to particular materials be granted or withheld.
How can digitization help?
Among other benefits, digitization offers flexibility.
- Where it is difficult and often expensive to change a physical display, digital display accompanying a digitized piece can usually be changed quickly and easily. Time and resources spent on compiling a thorough display don’t have to go to waste if revisions are needed to make the presentation acceptable.
- Where physical items and displays stand the risk of destruction or physical inaccessibility, digital items placed on a website represent only one copy of an original.
- Where a physical display is designed to meet the collective needs of an entire audience, a digital display can be easily customized, expanded, and contextualized to meet specific needs.
The curator I mentioned in the beginning had the immeasurable benefit of having their collection already completely digitized. Though they would have preferred public display, they also found some comfort in knowing that the exhibit could be experienced digitally through their website.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, other institutions faced this question in a much broader way. With physical exhibits unable to be visited at all, digital exhibits provided the opportunity to share important history and the flexibility to do so in a way that physical visitation could not. COVID-19 might have pushed the need for digitization to the fore, but once a collection is digitized, it will continue to be available to a wider audience even when the collection can be accessed in person again.
No matter how niche the topic, a collection has an audience somewhere in the world. At Anderson Archival, we seek to provide solutions. While it cannot solve every problem, digitization helps our clients discover solutions and options that might not otherwise be available. If you’d like to move your collections from the purely physical world into the digital, send us an email.