Materiality and Digital Collections : The Weapons Collection of the Grand Curtius Museum
The outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020 changed many aspects of our social lives. It has been approximatively one year since European governments have taken strong measures in in order to stop the epidemic. Almost every social places such as bars, restaurants, cinemas or Museums were shut, re-opened and shut again in the course of 2020. The stakeholders of these different areas had to organise and find alternatives to keep their sectors and businesses alive. Restaurants had to propose take-away services to survive, even those that were not used to do it before. Museums and curators had to maintain people interest for their collections with their closed doors. In order to do that, many museums decided to move their collections online during the pandemic (Burke & al., 2020). Numerous digital collections already existed before COVID-19. However, during this period, museums were pushed to increase significantly their online presence. They had to adjust their interactions with their audience. For example, in Italy, UK and US, museums boosted their communication through social medias and remain very active during the lockdowns. Indeed, social medias are easy access to mass communication (Deborah & al., 2020, p.363: Samaroudi & al., 2020, p.356). The different institutions also proposed online catalogues, audio visual content or even complete digital exhibition such as virtual museum tours. Digital platforms have been vital for Museums during the pandemic. Indeed, it allowed visitors and researchers to glimpse collections through shut doors. However, even if many efforts were put in the digitisation of archives and artefacts, virtual experiences of exhibitions are not comparable with physical ones. Additionally, museums have important social context and are important places of interactions that are not operative through digital platforms (Burke & al., 2020: Vanayou & al., 2020, p.1).
Since the advent of new technologies, the digitisation of archives and artefacts collections became a highly debated topic among scholars. Indeed, many articles discuss the importance of physical objects materiality and the consequences that digitisation of archives and historical artefacts could have. This is exactly what this blogpost focuses on. It exmines the implications of artefacts materiality and their digital replication. To this end, this post firstly reviews the academic conversation about digitisation. Next, to exemplify the discussion, this post have a look at the ancients weapons digital collection of the Belgian Grand Curtius Museum. Lastly, In connection with the discussion about materiality, it draws some conclusions about the latter case.
Cox and Guillemin (2018) explain that objects are primary data sources that teem with many different information. Indeed, the multi-sensory nature of physical objects add richness and complexity to their materiality. It also increases the meaning and the understanding we have about our world and the interactions we have with it. In opposition, digitalized object and numerical images are uni-sensory and hold far less meanings (p.2766). In the same line of thought, Lester (2018) explains that engaging with archives and artefacts is a holistic experience which is both physical and intellectual. Without both sides of the experience, the author argues that it is impossible to grasp the full meaning of objects. Indeed, the multi-sensory experience of an artefacts is very important. It creates personal emotional feelings that can be associated with design, form and shapes. Additionally, being in presence of an object can have a special resonance. These are these emotional responses to objects that bring us new useful understandings and meanings about them and our world (pp.73-5). Lester (2018) also discusses the process of digitalisation of physical objects. When museums started the first digitisations, many scholars were afraid that it would replace original artefacts. However, it finally allowed to launch a discussion that allowed to rediscover materiality of historical objects and archives. Nevertheless, the author argues about digitized artefacts that when they are without their bodies, they lose their aura as well (p.76). Therefore, It is important to favour a co-existence culture between physical and digital objects in order to not miss any information. In addition, objects are traces and their physic can transmit information about social, historical and economical context of the past that cannot be identify when digitised (Lester, 2018, p.77). Varnalis-Weigle (2016) also explains that physical objects stimulate critical thinking and play an important role in our social and emotional development (p.1). When rendering them digital, elements of the objects are lost and the sensory and emotional engagement is diminished. The author argues that artefacts contain non-textual elements that cannot be transmit through digital medias. There are deep connections between people and objects that are only maintainable with physicality.(Varnalis-Weigle, 2016, p.17). However, the article also shows that digitising can be very useful for institutions, researchers and people. Indeed, it provides an easy access to collections from all around the world and experimenting a digital collection of objects can encourage visitors to experience it physically (Varnalis-Weigle, 2016, p.17).
Since the announcement of restrictive measures because of the COVID-19, museums have increasingly digitised their artefacts collections. Apparently, the argument of Varnalis-Weigle (2016) about encouraging people to physically visit collections with digital collections has proved to be very useful during lockdowns. Indeed, Burke & al. (2020) explain that institutions use digital in order to attract and maintain people interest in their collections. By this mean, they push them to physically visit exhibitions when museums will be open again. They give visitors a foretaste of their collections by digitally opening a little window to their exhibitions. Indeed, Tebeau (2016) argues in the same direction. According to him, digital helps to reconnect people to physical and renders the latter more accessible. Such as Varnalis-Weigle (2016) and Burke & al. (2020), he explains that the more digital collections are online, the more it focuses the attention on the physical collections (p.475). As stated by Tebeau (2016), digital collections did not replaced the physical ones but they altered our relationship with the latter by emphasising their importance (p.476).
Nevertheless, according to Forlini and Hinrichs (2017), it is still very important to preserve physical content because digitised collections have an tendency to devaluate materiality. Therefore, the authors focus their work on how to transform sensory physical experiences digitally and how to make it best. In order to do that, they porpose a process called “synthetic visualization”. It consists to accompanied digital artefacts with metadata about size, weight, texture and materials but also with multimodal interactions such as visual or auditory. This creates new ways to digitally explore objects. In addition, the authors explain that the combination between “content- and materiality-centric metadata” is the best way to holistically approach digital curation of artefacts (pp.1-2).
Now that the academic discussion around the importance of materiality has been reviewed, the case of the digital weapons collection of the Grand Curtius museum in Liège is analysed. This blogpost tempts to understand how materiality is conveyed through the latter digital collection. The arms collection of the city of Liège has been created in 1885, which makes the Arms Museum one of the oldest museum of the city. The arm industry is emblematic in Liège. From before 1885 until now, the city always kept its renown as a leading place for weapon production worldwide. Consequently, the Arms Museum which has been merged in 2018 with the Grand Curtius museum also occupies an international leading place regarding its weapons collection. Indeed, thousands of firearms and cold weapons from the local production and from all over the world are detained by the Arms Museum of Liège. The collection covers every part of the history of weaponry. What is interesting about this collection is that since the fusion between the Arms Museum and the Grand Curtius museum in 2018 a website that host parts of the collection has been created. Additionally, since March 2020 and the first lockdown after the outbreak of COVID-19, the Museum had to close for a while. Therefore, as mentioned by Burk & al. (2020), the curators had to find solutions to keep the collections accessible and entertaining for their visitors. Therefore, some parts of the Grand Curtius became accessible through a virtual tour. In this case analysis, the parts that concern the weapons collection form the Arms Museum are examined.
As stated previously, , in order to decelerate the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belgian government had to take strong measures, such as closing closing down many social places. Therefore, the Grand Curtius decided to allow its visitors to immerse themselves in a virtual tour of the museum and its collections. Concerning the weapons collection of the Arms Museum, only two rooms are accessible virtually.
When landing on these pages, the virtual immersion is complete. It creates a feeling of physically such as being in the museum. The 360° view allows to look all around the room. However, the felling of presence and freedom quickly subside. Indeed, the space cannot be felt extensively because it is impossible to change position. It feels like you are standing in the middle of hallway with your feet attached on a lazy suzan and you are not allowed to move the later. It is a bit frustrating as it is not possible to clearly identify the objects that are not right in front of you. Nevertheless, this interactive experience still enhance the mediation of materiality as explained by Forlini and Hinrichs (2017), even if it could be richer. Indeed, this virtual tour still provides a more sensory environment than looking at classical digital images of weapons. The spatial reproductions of the two rooms allow viewers to compare and imagine the weapons in relation with the environment surrounding. This virtual tour provides a limited sensory experience.
The feeling of being restrain will also come back if visitors want to know more about the artefacts their contemplating in one of the two virtual rooms. Indeed, There are no metadata neither explanations nor descriptions of the latter objects. In order to learn more about the weapons of the Liège Arms Museum, the virtual tour needs to be deserted to navigate on the website of the Grand Curtius. A short history about the collection is the first thing presented when landing on the page. Under this, a collection of 7 weapons is displayed in an image gallery which is follow by a section of 9 “unavoidable” arms in an image slider.
On this page, the materiality of the collection is not well portayed. Except from the rather limited virtual tour, this collections does not benefit from multimodal interactions that could enhance the feelings of materiality such as proposed by Forlini and Hinrichs (2017). Nevertheless, by clicking on one of these images, visitors can access to well furnished meta-data about the objects. Some precise pictures of individual weapons allows to distinguished very small details of the weapons. These images are accompanied with rich meta-data. A little text that contains information about the history of the model, its mechanism and its design is presented beside each weapon.
Additionally, under individual pictures, we can find the name of the gunsmith, the year and place of production, the dimensions and the calibre of the firearm. As explained by Forlini and Hinrichs (2017), the combination between “content- and materiality-centric metadata” is the best way to holistically approach digital curation of artefacts. In this collection, the quality and the accuracy of the picture accompanied with the meta-data allow visitors to get a better sense of the physicality of the weapons. Academics or passionate people can find important indications about the designs and the technical features of these objects. However, in addition to the multimodal and interactive factors, there is one important thing missing to get a complete sense of the materiality: the weight of the weapons. Indeed, the weight of the arms can be a crucial information in order to envision their physical aspects.
The digital collection of weapons from the Grand Curtius museum in Liège clearly lacks from a sensory and physical experience to strengthen the materiality of its digital objects. The virtual tour could be much more interactive and immersive to let the visitors completely dive into the museum universe and get a better sense of physicality. Moreover, more meta-data could help to emphasis the materiality of the digital collection. Lastly, after visiting the website and browsed over the different weapons exposed, what is interesting is the “not-enough” feeling developed. It maybe can be explained by the argument of Varnalis-Weigle (2016) that digital collections are used to encourage visitors to physically discover the collections. Therefore, one could ask if that the “missing” information that would have allowed to get a better sensory experience with the digital collection are intentionally omitted. By this mean, the museum can focus the attention on the physical collection and make visitors want to visit it.
In conclusion, in this blogpost, the academic discussion around materiality and its implications for digital collection has been reviewed. Some authors discuss the importance of physical artefacts and express their fear of replacement by digital objects. However, many other scholars agree that even if digital is becoming very significant, it should and could never replace the physical materiality. Therefore, academics propose ways to process objects digitally. Through various method such as the “synthetic vizualtion” of Forlini and Hinrichs (2017), they try to explain how to preserve the most features of artefacts materiality in their numerical counterparts. In light of this academic discussion, the digital collection of the weapons of the Grand Curtius museum has been analysed. It showed that interactions and “content- and materiality-centric metadata” do help to convey the materiality of collections digitally (Forlini and Hinrichs, 2017p. 2). However, the analysis showed that in the latter case, a lot of work could be done in order to enhance materiality. Some missing pieces are missing in the digital collection to benefit from a holistic approach to the weapons of the Grand Curtius Museum of Liège. Nevertheless, one might think that omitting information is maybe a strategic practise of the museum to lure visitors to see their physical collections.
If you have not checked yet the digital collection, clic on the link bellow :
To try the virtual tour of the weapons collection follow these two links :
Burke, V., Jørgensen, D., Jørgensen, F. A. (2020). Museums at Home: Digital Initiatives in Response to COVID-19, Norsk Museumstidsskrift 6.
Cox, S., & Guillemin, M. (2018). Enhancing meaning-making in research through sensory engagement with material objects. The Qualitative Report, 23(11), 2754-2771.
Deborah, A., Arnaboldi, M., Lampis, A. (2020). Italian State museums during the COVID-19 crisis: from onsite closure to online openness, MuseumManagement and Curatorship,35:4, 362-372.
Forlini, S., & Hinrichs, U. (2017, June). Synesthetic visualization: balancing sensate experience and sense making in digitized print collections. In Proceedings of the conference on Digital Preservation for Social Sciences and Humanities.
Lester, P. (2018). Of mind and matter: the archive as object. Archives and Records, 39(1), 73-87.
Samaroudi, M., Echavarria, K. R., & Perry, L. (2020). Heritage in lockdown: digital provision of memory institutions in the UK and US of America during the COVID-19 pandemic. Museum Management and Curatorship, 35(4), 337-361.
Tebeau, M. (2016). Engaging the Materiality of the Archive in the Digital Age. Collections, 12(4), 475-487.
Varnalis-Weigle, A. S. (2016). A comparative study of user experience between physical objects and their digital surrogates. Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies, 3(1), 3.
Vayanou, M., Katifori, A., Chrysanthi, A., & Antoniou, A. (2020). Cultural Heritage and Social Experiences in the Times of COVID 19. AVI2CH 2020, September 29, Island of Ischia, Italy.
Weapons. Grand Curtius.