In 2018, one of the oldest and most important Brazilian museums, the National Museum of Brazil, was set on fire and a huge part of the collection was destroyed. It is estimated that around 92% of the items were significantly damaged and with that, an incalculable loss to the Brazilian cultural heritage occurred. Between these items, there was a Roman fresco from Pompeii, that had endured the eruption of Vesuvius, and thousands of indigenous artifacts. Needless to say, this was devastating news for the whole country and sparked a discussion around heritage preservation and the perishability of physical collections.
Museums and cultural organizations are responsible for how people create collective memory. With the fire on the National Museum, part of the country’s collective memory was lost forever, including a huge part of the indigenous history and culture. Of course, the material loss was a tragedy and could not have been avoided with the fire, but how could the heritage be better preserved using digital tools?
Luckily, the collection from the National Museum was digitized in 2016 by the Google project Arts and Culture and one can have a small virtual experience of what the museum used to offer. It is possible to have a tour based on the Google Street View technology and explore the space. Thanks to photogrammetry, sculptures, artifacts, and other ancient objects can also be seen in 3D.
In this blog post, I will talk about the importance of preserving the heritage through digitization of the collection in museums and how this shapes the collective memory of a country. First, there will be a literature review which will be relevant to understand the question. Following, I will present a case study related to this question, the case of the National Museum of Brazil. Finally, I will bring a conclusion presenting the outcomes of the discussion.
First, it is relevant to define what constitutes a digital collection. A digital collection can be defined as a group of objects, that can be born digitized or be a digitized version of an analog one. The objects can be digitized in different forms like text, audio, image, and video. Digital collections can be created and curated by individuals or institutions. This curator has the role to decide what objects should or not be included and therefore construct the narrative for whoever is visualizing the collection. They are usually shown on platforms or websites, which have affordances not presented on the physical collections. Furthermore, the objects are usually accompanied by metadata, which gives information about the item that is being exhibited and sets the context of the piece.
“They represent new collections, over and
above the physical collections of memory
and cultural institutions, with another kind
of potential that physical collections do
not have. They require special curatorship
and new technical skills, especially
specific precautions due to the fragility of
digital environments, in terms of volatility,
storage and obsolescence.”(Bettencourt &
Marcondes, 2019, p. 50).
Besides preservation purposes, the digitization of a collection can also be done with the intention of knowledge dissemination. When published online, a collection might be seen by a larger number of people and reach those who are geographically far away. Furthermore, it can be more easily shared and accessed through social media. As for affordances, it allows new ways of interacting with items, like zooming in and out to get to details and some collections propose ways for the user to engage with the items.
As mentioned earlier, every collection is curated by an individual, institution, or organization, which can create a certain narrative based on their choice of objects. In turn, this can affect the way people perceive their past and shape their collective memory. A museum can be defined as a mnemonic device and as said by Conway (2010) “these range from the better-known devices such as memorials, museums, and monuments to less well-known, though increasingly widely used, means such as street murals, Internet Websites, and consumer items like t-shirts, key rings, and CD-ROMS.” He also explains that these devices have different approaches to the preservation of the past and ways of being interacted with. “In terms of the preservation of our connections to the past, museums tend to be better repositories of the past than more ephemeral, throw-away items like key-rings.”
What about collective memory? By the sociologist Barry Schwartz definition, “refers to the distribution throughout society of beliefs, feelings, moral judgments and knowledge about the past”. Conway (2010) complements that by saying the term is defined based on three points. First, collective memory belongs to a group and not to an individual. Another point is that collective memory is not bond to what actually happened in the past, rather a feeling about it. In his words, it “has to do with what social groups select out of the happenings of their lives that they consider important and worthy of preserving”. (p.443) It is not such an easy task to define what belongs to the collective memory because “answers to seemingly basic questions such as who should be remembered? When? And why? are rarely easy to answer, and social groups frequently fight with one another over the answers to them”. (p.443) Finally, collective memory is never only attached to the past, but also to the present and future. Therefore, the contextual time of a group of people will influence how they think about the past. Thus, the way that a collection is being curated and presented can heavily influence the meaning people will create to the objects while also shaping their past and this, in turn, will reflect on the Collective Memory.
Collections, when digitized, lose certain physical characteristics that cannot be reproduced in a digital environment. For instance: texture, smell, touch, sound, and so on. Although materiality is not restricted to physical objects, there has been a lot of debates about the materiality of digital collections. About that, Marlene Manoff (2006) says that “any content, whether print or digital, is subject to the physical limitations of the technology used to produce and distribute it”. (p.13) For her, we need to see start seeing digital objects as physical artifacts too as a way of understanding their materiality, even if they might seem immaterial because we cannot touch them. Mannof (2006) claims that there are some obstacles to have in mind when thinking about the materiality of digital objects: they are “prone to degradation over time”, which is called “bit rot or data rot” (p.318). The other challenge relates to software and hardware issues, the object’s platform might not be accessible anymore in the long term. Thus, these two issues need to be taken into account when dealing with digital objects. Another important aspect of digital collections mentioned by Manoff (2006) is the interface:
“Interfaces promote the illusion of transparency even as they shape our experience of the online environment. This means that we need to maintain an awareness of how our library Web pages and portals and the databases we provide affect users’ experience of the materials that we offer. Our interfaces are not transparent windows; they are designed mechanisms that provide students and researchers with very specific and not necessarily neutral choices about accessing our resources. (p.320)
To complement the discussion about materiality, Tebeau (2016) claims that “the emergence of a more interactive digital era has blurred the lines between physical and digital entities.” (p.476) He goes on to say that digital objects changed the way we see and relate to physical ones, not by replacing them, rather by raising their significance. Sensory speaking, digital collections brought new experiences: he mentions the example of listening to the voices of former slaves at a museum. Thus, new connections between analog and digital are created in this context, giving a new meaning to our relationship with the objects and the past.
Case Study – The National Museum of Brazil
The National Museum of Brazil was founded in 1818 and is located in the Palácio de São Cristóvão, Rio de Janeiro. It was started by King João VI, king of Portugal at the time, and served as a residence for the Portuguese Royal Family, being considered as Brazilian National Heritage in 1938. The museum’s collection was composed of more than 20 million objects, one of the biggest in America. Among them, there were items from Archaeology, zoology, ethnography, geology, and paleontology, representative of many cultures and civilizations with immense historical, cultural, and artistic value.
Google Arts & Culture is a project initiated by Google that consists of a platform that in partnership with museums, institutions, and organizations exhibits collections and galleries. This database was released in 2011 and has images, videos, objects from more than 1800 galleries and museums, which can be explored and interacted with. The interaction can occur, for example, by projecting artwork into the user’s home by using the augmented reality function on the app or transforming the pictures from the user’s phone into artworks. Another interesting feature the platform offers is the ability to save exhibitions so the user can curate their own collection. One of the platform partners is the National Museum of Brazil, that started digitizing their collection in 2016.
“It is important to stress that the National Museum has not lost its ability to generate knowledge,” said the museum’s director in an open letter about the digitization of their collection. This saying can be seen as soon as one enters the homepage of the collection, which is called “Inside Brazil’s Museu Nacional”, with the subtitle “Rediscover the collection before the fire in 2018”. It is composed of 171 items, which can be organized by popularity or color; 11 museum views where one can walk around the physical space similar to the Google Street View tool, and 10 stories with thematic exhibitions.About the interface, on the top of the page, there is an editorial with information on what the future holds for the museum. Following, there is a guided tour called “Discovering the National Museum”: the space can be explored with a narration available in Portuguese, English and Spanish, about the collection being visualized, like the tours available in physical museums. Below that, there are the highlights of the collection. Another immersive sensorial experience the museum offers is a playlist of binaural beats with audio description, narrating the dimension, texture and location of the items in the collection. This is available on Youtube, Deezer, and Spotify.
In addition to that, the objects have metadata with information about them, like title, physical dimensions, rights, sector, area of research, date of origin, culture, and place where it was collected. Almost every item of the collection provides this description and the zoom tool, which is nice to engage with artifacts with a lot of details.
After the fire, one campaign to collect photos from visitors of the National Museum was started by students from Unirio, a Brazilian University. Their intention with the initiative was to keep the memory of the museum alive and publish them in the future online, making a virtual museum or a place to celebrate the memories. Wikipedia has also asked anyone that has visited the place and photographed it to upload it to Wikimedia Commons.
Comparing to the huge collection the museum offered offline, the online one is very simple and does not provide the same amount of objects, it is a miniature of the original. The interface might not seem so easy to navigate at first sight, it took me a while to figure it out what kind of items were available on the page. Thus, for someone that has been to the physical place this physical collection must be underwhelming, so it is probably better suited to new visitors.
As for the future of the museum in its physical form, little is known about it. There is a project that aims to reconstruct the space but nothing concrete has been planned. The material loss caused by fire will never be recovered. From this tragedy, what the country takes is the necessity of discussing about the preservation of national heritage and how can technology be involved in it. Museums play a big role in constructing collective memory and with digital tools, the discussion is: how can we make them more accessible to people? There are, of course, critics that say digitization is not an ideal way of preservation and should not replace the value of a physical item. But in disasters like the burning of the National Museum, that might be the only way to have access to a collection. Therefore, cases like that bring to our attention what can digitization provide in face of a devastating loss and that this urgent discussion should happen before it is too late.
To summarise, disasters like the fire on the National Museum of Brazil can happen with any museum or institution and if we want to avoid enormous cultural and historical losses, a debate about the digitization of collections needs to happen. Not only that, but the COVID-19 crisis has shown us that digitization can be helpful in times where there are no possibilities of going to physical collections.
I believe the two campaigns created by students and Wikipedia have a huge potential to create a new narrative about the museum, with the help of digital tools. The “Inside Brazil’s Museu Nacional” collection is a good starting point but curation was made by Google and the Museum. It would be interesting to see what narrative could be constructed with Brazilians help.
Although the pictures, tours, audios, and videos provided virtually do not compare in quantity and quality to the original heritage from the museum, it can be said that they help to reconstruct the collective memory from the place. Moreover, it provides new ways of research and interaction with the material, creating a singular experience for each user. Hopefully, it will still be possible to reconstruct the physical collection and digitize more items, to preserve this rich and valuable collection.
Bettencourt, A., & Marcondes, C. H. (2019). Elementos para uma política brasileira de acesso
integrado, utilização e preservação de acervos digitais em memória e cultura. PragMATIZES: Revista Latino-Americana de Estudos em Cultura, 16, 44-61.
Conway, B. (2010). New Directions in the Sociology of Collective Memory and Commemoration. Sociology Compass, 4(7), 442–453.
Google Arts & Culture (website). Retrieved from: http://artsandculture.google.com/project/museu-nacional-brasil
Manoff, M. (2006). The materiality of digital collections: Theoretical and historical perspectives. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 6(3), 311-325.
Tebeau, M. (2016). Engaging the Materiality of the Archive in the Digital Age. Collections, 12(4), 475-487.
Schwartz, Barry [http://www.sociologyencyclopedia.com/info/sample1.pdf