History in the digital age

Rethinking Museums in the 21st century

By Gemma McLean-Carr


Increased emphasis is being placed on digitalisation in the 21st century due to globalisation and expanding technological influence. History, both as an academic field and more widely, has taken steps to ensure it is able to keep up with this process; for example, the mass digitalisation of archives in recent years has vastly expanded access to certain historical documents such as newspapers. The traditional nature of history has meant that it has been previously criticised for evolving too slowly and failing to embrace technological advancements. Museums, in particular, have begun to seriously consider the influence of digitalisation within the sphere of cultural heritage – shown through increased digital displays and the introduction of digitalised museums. Increasing discussion is being held around whether museums are doing enough to ensure their relevance is maintained as more focus is placed upon technology and digitalisation in the 21st century. The current pandemic has resulted in this discussion becoming more vital as the heritage sector continues to be affected.

Museums have been strongly encouraged to adapt their approaches to historical content to allow for a more dynamic approach to the past (ensuring they remain of importance within cultural settings). This dynamic approach is needed to allow for continued interest in history as a subject but also to encourage open access for consumers. However there has been both a struggle and reluctance within the historical tourism sector to embrace digitalisation; this has led to wide-scale discussion concerning both restrictions caused by museum digitalisation but also the possible consequences of this process.

Further digitalisation of museums creates concern regarding the shifting relationship between the institution, curator and the public. Questions arise regarding issues between the authority, access of ownership and information when placed alongside increased use of digital forms. These concerns affect both the physical and intellectual expansion of information by formulating a bias between subjects and consumers that is also traditionally found within a museums institutional setting.

Many museums are free to the public meaning there is a reliance on donations and government funding. A tension is also formed between access for the wider public and methods of displaying this information when the cost of digitalisation is considered alongside the potential loss of profit caused by this process. Despite the potential benefits of increased digitalisation, museums and curators need to remain as the gatekeepers of their displays and therefore as the authoritative body of collections. In order for this to occur, payment may be added in order to access fully digitalised content – resulting again in a restriction of those able to access the information.

Concern also arises surrounding the effects of digitalisation upon museum funding. Increased digitalisation may lead to the withdrawal of government funding that is currently used to sustain the presence of museums and historical institutes. If museum displays and content are able to be accessed freely online, will the attraction of physical museums decline? Is there therefore any need for physical museums within a digital age?

The positive elements of museum digitalisation should also be considered allowing for the informal communication of art, history and the past. Expansion of digitalisation within museums allows for increasing use of technology within an informative context; allowing visitors to immerse themselves both within the history and culture displayed. Technology is able to easily create active participation between the subject and its consumer by creating opportunities regarding the development and structuring of displays. This process also expands potential audiences as museums are able to break away from previous limitations of physical diameters; Trilce Navarrete suggests this would allow institutions to transform into an information market place.

Although partially digitalised displays are evident within most museums today, particular sites have taken this further to completely accommodate all displays online. Complete digitalisation of museums allows consumers to remotely explore historical topics at their disposal. A fascinating example of this is the digitalised Swedish museum ‘Internetstiftelsen’ which opened in 2014. The museum explores internet history and demonstrates the development of internet access within Sweden. With its aim to preserve the digital history of Sweden, the museum demonstrates how complete digitalisation is able to be practically achieved within a museum setting.

Lockdown has encouraged digitalisation within some institutes to be fast-forwarded; shown most clearly through the release of over 1.9 million digitised historic artifacts by the British Museum. Now containing around 4.5 million objects, the site provides an example of need to adapt during this disruptive period. This shift to online access is being followed by museums across the globe in order to encourage continued support for historical institutes with the spread of the hashtag #museumathome via social media.

The argument surrounding the digitalisation of museums presents practical difficulties but also a chance to adapt in this technologically dominated society. Although this debate is beginning to be considered more seriously, further discussion of this topic is needed to present possible solutions. These arguments also need to be expanded in order to consider the digitalisation of archives and heritage sites. Overall, it is clear that considerable steps are being taken to ensure that digital history has a presence within museum settings, however it must be questioned whether this is enough to maintain relevant within this technological age.



Sources used:

The Rosetta Stone on Google Street View, 27 March 2020 via British Museum (https://blog.britishmuseum.org/how-to-explore-the-british-museum-from-home/) accessed 5 April 2020.

Bertacchini, Enrico and Morando, Federico. ‘The Future of Museums in the Digital Age: New Models of Access and Use of Digital Collections’ International Journal of Arts Management 15 (2011), 60-72.

The British Museum [online source] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection accessed on 29 April 2020.

Given, Lisa and McTavish, Lianne. ‘What’s Old Is New Again: The Reconvergence of Libraries, Archives, and Museums in the Digital Age’ The Library Quarterly 80 (2010), 7-32.

Internetmuseum: INTERNETSTIFTELSEN [online source] https://www.internetmuseum.se/ accessed on 23 April 2020.

Parry, Ross (ed.). Museums in a Digital Age (London, 2010).

Parry, Ross. Recoding the Museum: Digital Heritage and the Technologies of Change (London, 2007).

Van den Akker, Chiel and Legêne, Susan. Museums in a Digital Culture (Amsterdam, 2016).

Navarrete, Trilce. ‘Digital heritage tourism: innovations in museums’ World Leisure Journal 61:3 (2019), 200-214.