Ellie Miles

The conversation

Mark Carnall, Ellie Miles, Issue 116/07, p17, 01.07.2016
What role should museums have in collecting digital objects?
Dear Ellie: When it comes to born-digital objects, I’m not sure that museums even have a role. Internet archives and libraries have a 20-year head start but, crucially, they are also where a niche group of people go to find these objects. Museums can barely manage and make accessible digital assets in their own collections, let alone start collecting funny cat GIFs, Sonic the Hedgehog fan art or YouTube videos. As with all “digital” discussions, I’d like to see evidence about specific audiences and users before creating resource-eating, esoteric digital hoards.

Best wishes, Mark

Dear Mark: Thanks for the provocation. Web archives and libraries with digital collections are great, and they are working hard to grow the audiences for these collections too – like the British Library labs competitions. The Photographers’ Gallery exhibition of GIFs and the Museum of London’s recent exhibition about video games show there is an appetite and audience for these objects, but I’m sure you’re right that more research would be helpful. What kind of audience and user evidence do you think would be useful? Do you think we should (re)assess the other objects that we collect, too?

Best wishes, Ellie

Dear Ellie
: The idea that sticking esoteric digital objects online in English only equals “accessible to everybody” is still prevalent in museums, when it obviously isn’t the case. The other mistake is to use digital objects to get the “millennial digital natives” (yuck!) interested – but they’re the people who are creating and accessing better content elsewhere. Digital objects should be collected and used with a specific audience in mind, with robust ways to measure if they’re effective or not. As for other objects, irrational collections are what we largely have to work with. What’s the usual starting point for a digital collecting policy?

Best wishes, Mark

Dear Mark
: I agree that collections online and millennials are red herrings. In terms of policy, at the London Transport Museum we aim to collect and share the story of transport in London, and to collect the contemporary story without anything born-digital would be difficult. Our born-digital collecting policy is based on learning what’s feasible and effective to collect, by working through examples and learning as we go. I haven’t seen an example of a disposal policy specifically for born-digital yet though, which might be useful. What do you make of established born-digital collections, such as oral history?

Best wishes, Ellie

Dear Ellie
: This is where museums have a role. Even when museums display digital objects such as video games, they tend to focus on the product. As a gamer, the hardware isn’t interesting to me – it’s the culture, people, forums and time. Instead of focusing on digital objects, museums should collect the stories and the stuff behind the people – and that’s what’s disappearing. Rather than collect the first Tweet, collect the story, history and impact behind it – and yes, some of that will be digital objects. That’s our strength and that’s what people would come to our physical spaces to see. Although it’s hard to collect at the time, should contemporary collecting be right here, right now?

Best wishes, Mark

Dear Mark: You’re right about games – like lots of collections, much of the meaning is social, and I agree that digital objects can offer some ways to collect that. Museums should continue to find ways to use born-digital methods to enrich our acquisitions. Contemporary collecting can help get an insight into the social context of objects, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what born-digital material could offer as objects in their own right. I’m hopeful that with enough experimentation and discussion, we can continue learning ways to use born-digital objects to disrupt some of the shortcomings of past collecting.

Best wishes, Ellie

Mark Carnall is the collections manager (life collections) at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Ellie Miles is a contemporary collecting curator at the London Transport Museum

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