The future of digital artifacts

By Matthew MacArthur

At a recent professional conference, I came across the idea of “anticipatory democracy.” The context was a discussion on “Society and Museums in 2034,” which was also the subject of a recent study commissioned by the American Association of Museums. The idea of anticipatory democracy is that as organizations like the Smithsonian think out to the future , we do so in an inclusive way, allowing the community to help define that future.

Poll In that spirit, a few months ago on this page I initiated a discussion about our own museum’s digital future, and asked readers for input on the question of whether the role of museums as trusted sources of online information would become more or less important in the digital age. The response warmed a humble museum professional’s heart: nearly three-quarters of respondents thought it would become more important, 18% thought it would remain about the same, and only 9% thought it would become less important.

Based on this unscientific survey, let us agree for the moment that museums will continue to play a vital role in the society of the future. There is still a lot of room for discussion about what that role entails and what particular strengths we can bring to bear in a time when access to information is proliferating, and the ways that people pursue learning and entertainment are changing.

Clearly, being a repository for the “real stuff” of history is one of the museum’s strengths, even when we are talking about digital representations. But as we must frequently remind people, only a small fraction of the three million artifacts in our collection can be on display in the museum at any given time. One of the great tasks before us is to make more artifacts “virtually” available to the public online. This task is approached in many ways by different museums, but typically it boils down to making tradeoffs between quality vs. quantity. Creating complete digital information about an artifact takes time—and so the more detailed the information, the slower the pace of progress (and vice versa).

This is where I come back to the issue of “trust.” Some argue that museums earn trust by ensuring that our digital artifacts are accompanied by complete, authoritative information (see, for example, this thorough description of an early 19th-century clock). Others are of the opinion that it’s more important to focus on exposing greater numbers of objects in our collection to the public, even if accompanying information is brief (for an example of an online collection that emphasizes quantity over written detail, see this group of patent medicines). These are the kinds of issues the museum is grappling with as we rethink our process and priorities for publishing artifact information online.

What do you think? Here is your chance to weigh in on the type and quality of information you expect from the National Museum of American History. Take our quick survey or share your thoughts in a comment.

(Don't see the poll above? Go here.) 

Matthew MacArthur is Director of New Media at the National Museum of American History.