Digital Collections I

Minneapolis Institute of Art:A “new” museum

Digital Collections have a still developing role in the memory ecosystem as the space between traditional physical collections and our ‘lived’ memory (Haskins, 2007, p. 401). However, we have to admit that digital archives and collections are, then, like their traditional counterparts, media for producing knowledge. With this premise, there are lots of confusion. For example, is there any difference between traditional curation and new media curation? What opportunities and challenges does new media curation bring to traditional curation? In this blog, I will use Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) as a case to answer these questions and give my own arguments.

WHAT IS CURATION

Curation is diverse and ever-changing practice.According to Valenza, et al, (2014, p.51), curation is about recognizing interesting items and not going to the jungle to discover new species. It is the practice of researching, filtering information to a specific theme, packaging it and presenting it in a way most suitable to the intended audience. This makes the curator the go-to person for the specific theme they curate about. According to Robin Good, a new media publisher in his blog, curation is preparing, collecting, packaging, and presenting information to a specific audience. Other new media curators like Harolde share the same definition and only differ in purpose.

Traditionally, curation was reserved for historians and academics. It involved selection, conservation and as a way to document and exhibit. The role of curation would be to collect and preserve information and art for future use. The curator would be behind the scenes and anonymous. This was a reserve of museums and library specialists who would carefully select and package materials to create collections. Curators were more concerned with tangible objects like art, historical items, and collectibles among others. They would manually select these items and interpret them based on the heritage and historical meaning. This was a way to preserve history, to have collections explaining certain items or happenings in the future. These would be conserved and people would need to physically visit the places to acquire the information (Khan & Bhatt, 2019).

At the early days of the world wide web, the digital collections that were mostly curated by libraries, museums, and archives(Watkins et al , 2015). These collections were mostly presented using data to ensure most of the Institution’s collections are publicly available to anybody with internet connectivity. This is because historical documents are physical objects, either of delicate material or paper. As time goes, their quality deteriorates. Nothing lasts forever. An earthquake or fire is enough to destroy a crucial part of history. It was, therefore, logical that memory institutions preserved the information through digital collections. New media collection is a kind of digital collection, because new media platforms are the product of digital era ( zhang, 2021). Think e-books, photographs, video games, podcasts, and articles, among other items. Curating new media requires specific skills that ensure the curator has an understanding of the pieces. However, the collection of such new media is pursued and achieved with different means from the traditional forms of collection. Additionally, the meaning of the collection is only dictated by the curator, and their taste determines the value.
A clear indication of the differences and similarities between traditional and new media curation is in the following case study on the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA).

CASE STUDY
The Minneapolis Institute of Art

The Minneapolis Institute of Art has been a respected and iconic institute for the people in Minneapolis. However, after COVID-19 hit, and non-essential businesses closed, the Museum also had had to shut down. For the first time in twenty-seven years, Eler (2020) reports that the Museum recorded losses. After months of having its doors closed in March, the Museum finally reopened on July 16 (Eler, 2020). Notably, in June, 16% of its staff had already been cut, with some taking voluntary buyouts, some being laid off, and some remaining few taking a 15% salary cut. Unfortunately, even after the Museum opened, it did not open every day of the week. In 2021 as well, the Museum had to close due to increased COVID infections in the area. Therefore, even though the Museum cannot make sales in terms of tickets, parking, and event locations, it does need to keep showing collections that serve the society and possibly keep the donors interested as they are now the Institution’s primary source of income. It is for this reason that the Museum introduced virtual events (Eler, 2020).

Visitors to the Minneapolis Institute of Art followed social-distancing procedures when the museum reopened on July 16.

The collection, “In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art,” which is now being presented on the MIA website, is a free exhibition that run from December 12, 2020, to December 5, 2021 (Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2021). The collection tells the African American ancestors’ story in their journey in the country for four hundred years. Watkins et al, (2015 p. 3423) argues about a collection being groups of acquired possessions with distinguishable characteristics that create perceived unity, the collection communicates explicitly ancestral memory and visual storytelling. The artists chosen are also from the “Black Belt” region of the American South, as they can easily tell the story of how African Americans in the region shaped the social culture in that specific area (Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2021).

One of the digital clollections of the MIA(Screenshot for Minneapolis Institute of Art MIA)
So what are the differences and similarities between traditional and new media collection in relation to the case study?

First of all, the common ground for curation is that it serves the same role of collecting and compiling information to specific audiences regardless of timelines. MIA was initially using traditional curation serving as a source of information for academicians and historians. It has curatorial areas representing more than 5,000 years of world history! It was a place to preserve history. As it has evolved to using online curation of some its collections; it still serves to provide and preserve information. People can access the collections through the websites. Very few people consider libraries, archives and museums as critical information centers. Traditional and new media curation differ in the curating method, media, motive, audience, and narrative.

  • Method of curating and media

The method of traditional curating is manual. Historians, librarians and academicians would manually collect information, research over periods of time, acquire objects, compile in books and present the collections to be preserved, in the memory institutions. New media curation is different. The collections are created and presented virtually. Just like MIA’s latest collection, there are podcasts, art stories and 360-degree images that one can zoom in to view!

  • Motive

Traditional curation is intent on preservation and is from a ‘carer’ perspective. As you may notice, the history collected in MIA was mainly curated from a care perspective. Online curation on the other hand, is meant to provide information. Preservation comes as a by-product of digital technology. Look at MIA, they resulted to online curation as a need to get information out there so they can get means to keep the Institute afloat. Sometimes, the curators do not even begin with the intention of creating collections but over time, the collections evolve to become these collections. The boundaries in this case of what a collection is loose because in most occasions, the curator did not have an end goal when they began. Also, new media is continuously being created, and for that reason, boundaries wound need to be re-expanded over and over (Watkins et al, 2015 p. 3426).

  • Audience

Traditional curation targeted people who had a keen interest in history or academicians. People who would walk into the Museum to look at the collection, gather information, learn and connect with history. MIA had people visit the Museum as it had a free general admission policy to encourage people to visit. As the Institute has digitized to include New Media curation, it targets anyone and everyone with internet connectivity to view the collections.

some free exhibition on MIA
  • Narrative

As you may know, a narrative is a story. Traditional curation emphasizes more on telling a story, while new media emphasizes creating a story. Traditional curators often exercise full control over the selection of material. They choose what to collect and present without any interactivity. For instance, MIA museum has over 8900 objects of traditional curation. They narrate stories as curated with no other additional information. This is different from new media collection where the public engages in creating the story behind the collection.

DISCUSSION

At this juncture, is digital better or tradition more dominant for students like us at the moment?

The answer is yes, digital curation is more dominant than traditional curation. However, they are both important as they serve different situations. For students, traditional curation is vital as it offers a connection as students get to see and feel the objects as they collect, organize and present. New media curation is also important as it presents convenience in searching online, organizing online, and presenting online for everyone. It presents ease and the future of curation where students can be curators in the internet without restrictions.

Despite the crossover from traditional curation to new media curation, traditional curation still has a prominent place. They appeal to traditional collectors, historians, and art lovers who still want to enjoy culture in a form that they did in the past. Nevertheless, with the new changing landscape of movement and gathering restrictions, new media curation is a need in the world. Traditionally curated collections have had to be digitized to new media collections to salvage the place of the Museum in society. The MIA collection, “In the Presence of Our Ancestors: Southern Perspectives in African American Art” is an excellent example of how traditional collections can be presented in the digital space.

Nevertheless, restricting the presentation of traditional collections to museums takes away from the strides that curation and collection of new media has made in the digital age. According to Dekker and Tedone (2019, p. 3), curation and collection has now opened up, and anyone can now become a curator to curate a collection that can be displayed digitally and make profits. An example is when MIA opened virtual events and collections to raise funds for the Museum to continue its operations. This established Museum with traditional curators recognized the value of online curation. They display their pieces, find buyers, hold events and in the process, make a profit.

Global adoption of new media curation saves the artists from traveling to access display spaces and removes the need for customers or art enthusiasts from traveling, parking payment, and risking crowds associated with COVID-19 infections. This not only saves the artists lots of costs but the buyers themselves in travel and accommodation costs. However, the documentation of such displays not only depends on the artists and the items that are being put on display, but also how well the work is described in the exhibition. The MIA collection involved putting the collections in categories on their online platforms. However, in doing so, they emphasize art commodification. This means that collections have been reduced to be objects of trade. The focus is on the economic value in order to make money. The MIA collection was brought about by the need for the Institute to make money to sustain it. This is evidence that digital is dominant but traditional curation is equally essential.

However, new media collections can also bring some trouble.According to Haskins (2007, p. 405), ‘digital memory’ is the collective authorship of public memory where everyone can contribute to public memory digitally through posting that image, audio recordings, and photographs, among other forms of new media. This produces interconnection between different sources forming public memory that is inclusive and representative. Digital memory can be preserved over time, ready to be viewed or revisited over time. She argues that interactivity has made new media collections accessible to everyone. Interactivity is defined as the process where two or more people, on the digital space, influence each other as they work together in new media curation. The audience is no longer a consumer of a linear curated collection as the case in traditional curation but a new media curation participant. This helps in engaging the public in memory work in the virtually unlimited storage.

Haskins indicates that all memory is archival to mean that there is no limit in space to hold information and keep as memory. Digital memory can hold all memory and all that is need is adding more disk space! (2007, p. 419) While this serves the purpose of preserving all public memory it creates another problem. Too much memory! It is hard to sift through and determine the facts from fabrication especially from social media archive. Haskins explains this information surge as people being so unsure of what to save that they save everything!

Conclusion

In conclusion, As times change so should curation. Like many other businesses that rely on people physically showing up for organizations to make sales, institutions like museums have been greatly impacted. One of these revered institutions is the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). Regardless of curation method,  the information is presented to the audience. It is possible to have traditional curators and new media curators serving the different situations described. Though different in method, narration, media, and immediate motive, they both preserve public memory.

As stated in the article, the digital display of collections is a solution to the limitations put in place in the past. An authentic collection of pieces of one genre was limited by space and distance in traditional curation. However, now with the help of hyperlinks and proper description, art and culture lovers will finally access all art pieces collectively that have distinguishable similarities. Therefore, media in Europe, Africa, the United States, and globally can finally be enjoyed as a collection without the bureaucracy associated with borrowing art pieces from one Museum to another. It is interesting to see the adoption of digital forms in the traditional collection and curation. It is also interesting to see how museums like Minneapolis Institute of Art have been quick to adopt these new media for their collection in 2020. Whether curators view the shift as an opportunity to create more digital spaces that specifically cater to traditional pieces’ digital display remains to be seen.  However, so far, it is evident that new media curation has dominated and created stiff competition for museums, archives, and libraries. They should heed the call to make their collections accessible online. Altogether, the collection and curation industry is experiencing a huge shift and there will be more public memory than we know what to do with! After all, all memory is archival.

References

Eler, A. (2020, Dec. 31). Minneapolis Institute of Art blames pandemic for its first budget loss in 27 years. Star Tribune. https://www.startribune.com/minneapolis-institute-of-art-blames- pandemic-for-its-first-budget-loss-in-27-years/600005581/?refresh=t 

Haskins, E. (2007). Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 37, 401-422. DOI: 10.1080/02773940601086794

Khan, S., & Bhatt, I. (2019). Curation. The International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy, 1-8. Doi: 10.1002/9781118978238.ieml0047.

Minneapolis Institute of Art. (2021). In the Presence of Our Ancestors. https://new.artsmia.org/art-artists/explore/in-the-presence-of-our-ancestors-southern- perspectives-in-african-american-art/

Valenza. J. K., Boyer, B. L., & Curtis, D. (2014). Curation outside the Library World. American Library Association, 50 (7), n.p.

Watkins, R. D., Sellen, A., & Lindley, S. E. (2015). Digital Collections and Digital Collecting Practices. Association for Computing Machinery, 3423-3432.   http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2702123.2702380

Zhang Keji. (2021). An analysis of museum development in the era of new media. Journalism and Communication

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