Digital photographs of objects are ubiquitous in the work and presentation of museums, libraries, archives and collections, whether in collection-management infrastructure or in web-based communication. Last week, we submitted an article for a special issue of Library Trends on the visual practices at and around the Tropenmuseum, in which we trace the role of digital images in the production of museum knowledge. A better understanding of how users interact with images must include careful attention to the databased and networked aspects of images and to their functions as interfaces. These are related to, but not reducible to their digital status.
Our analysis shows that the images, like any other sources of authoritative knowledge, are most effective when they remain in dialogue with other sources. Furthermore, particular skills are required of users to pursue and constitute such connections, especially when the images are embedded in web-based collection databases. We argue that it is therefore crucial not to reify the database, and equate it with ‘the knowledge of the museum’.
The image as interface also has a number of very practical consequences for museums. As images become increasingly active objects that have many functions besides being viewed, this should lead to renewed attention to how images are made available. For example, images are often only retrievable through keyword search possibilities. There are projects that experiment with different formats, allowing for greater browsing freedom. Our analysis indicates that other kinds of engagement with the material could offer new possibilities for knowledge production.
As images as interfaces provide a networked context for digital knowledge, interactions with the images exceed the limits of single images, single collections or institutions, and even of single platforms, with consequences for how museums view their role. Lateral connections to other cultural institutions and to web-based settings could mean not only increased visibility, but also increased opportunity for new forms of knowledge production. On the other hand, new forms and intensity of media work is also needed on the part of museums, to engage with new kinds of actors in new ways.
Although it was beyond the scope of our article, the issue of virtual repatriation is also relevant here. Other projects are currently pursuing the issue of knowledge transferal in digital heritage initiaves and the possibilities to create bridges between museums and source communities. A paper delivered by Devorah Romanek (The British Museum/University College London) at last year’s CHArt annual conference was particularly sensitive to all kinds of corrollaries of digitisation in ethnographic museums. Among other things, Romanek argued that is is crucial to take into account concerns about ownership and ethics, but also the cultural sensitivity of images in ethnographic museum collections. These issues, Romanek points out, are also highly relevant when lateral connections enable the (web-based) reunion of once-dispersed collections.