Digital Museums: Quasi-objects for quasi-minds

I had occasion to remember that in small museum houses the past is preserved within objects as souls are kept in their earthen bodies, and in that awareness I found a consoling beauty that bound me to life. *

Display in the Museum of Innocence
Display in the Museum of Innocence

The study of cultural heritage involves core questions of identity and the human experience. Who are we? How do we experience the world around us? How do we express who we are to the outside world? How much is the content of our identity shaped by our means of expression?

To kick off my studies in the Systems of Representation research group I am taking a course called “Digital Strategies for Museums and Cultural Heritage” at Aalto University. The course has me thinking about the true meaning of cultural heritage, what it means to “represent” life through objects, and how digital media change the principles of representation by changing the platforms of representation. (The course also has a stellar list of recommended links).

Representation, be it in the format of images, reproduction, or language, has long been recognized as a vital component of how we experience reality.

For Aristotle, representation becomes man’s way of being in the world and his method of learning (lecture notes: 14 January 2002).

For C.S. Peirce, a progenitor for theories of linguistic semeiotics and game-theoretical semantic approaches, the word representation encompasses not only the physical form of an object, but also the aspect of reality that the object carries meaning about and the meaning of the object as understood by an interpreter. In other words, representation encompasses the processes of thought, communication, and interpretation of reality. To Pierce, Truth requires an embodiment:

A thought is not per se in any mind or quasi-mind. I mean this in the same sense as I might say that Right and Truth would remain what they are though they were not embodied, & though nothing were right or true. But a thought, to gain any active mode of being must be embodied in a Sign. A thought is a special variety of sign. All thinking is necessarily a sort of dialogue, an appeal from the momentary self to the better considered self of the immediate and of the general future. Now as every thinking requires a mind, so every sign even if external to all minds must be a determination of a quasi-mind.**

While representations of reality saturate our everyday lives, cultural heritage is a very intentional form of representation. It is the art of representation, the study of representation, the exploration of representation through media.

It is generally accepted in the field that what distinguishes cultural heritage objects, those objects traditionally found in libraries, archives, and museums, from ordinary objects is that they are thematically acquired, organized, preserved, and made accessible. Cultural heritage objects and exhibits are supposed to tell a story, to create an experience, to possess meaning for the audience. If done right, cultural heritage should enhance the human experience and serve as a gateway to knowledge. In the past there has been a professional layer of curators, archivists, and librarians who make the decisions and do the work to transform objects, be they paintings, manuscripts, books, or ephemera, into cultural heritage collections.

Shepherding cultural heritage to the digital space presents huge opportunities for how we access and experience cultural heritage. Items can be made accessible on a previously unimaginably massive scale, easily discoverable through search engines, manipulated through automation, and interacted with via social media and crowdsourcing. We have moved from the Age of Preservation to the Age of Access.

There is no question that the development of digital media has fundamentally revolutionized the cultural heritage field and the process of information access. But it has left many unresolved questions about whether this change in the platform of representation changes the principles of representation.

It may sound philosophical, but such questions have innumerable unresolved applications in everyday life. Does the possibility of accessing information swiftly and easily through search engines change the interpretation of freedom of expression? This is being battled in the European Court’s Right to be Forgotten decision. Does automated data collection change the application of privacy rights? This is being fought in a cascading series of anti-surveillance legislation and activism following Edward Snowden’s NSA spying revelations. Cooper Hewitt’s Aaron Straup Cope playfully and thoughtfully probes these questions in his dConstruct talk. He sees our age as being defined by a rhetoric of ephemerality that arose partly as a coping mechanism to deal with the fear of constant surveillance:

Which is problematic because it replaces what is fundamentally a social question – one of means (how data is collected) and admissibility (whether information collected in a manner contrary to the social norm is acceptable) – with a technical solution that from a practical like-how-does-it-work perspective is fantasy.

The cultural heritage profession has been busted open, coopted, disrupted, and enhanced by digital developments. The role that information professionals will play remains to be determined. The invention of the internet briefly resurrected utopian visions of a universal library. We are still exploring what it will really mean to move cultural heritage online.

As a guest lecturer in a class, Georgetown University’s Lesley Kadish questioned whether digital cultural heritage is enhanced by being more visual or decreased in value by being flattened into pixels. Are we succumbing to the tyranny of the visual, teased by looking at objects that we expect to trigger emotional responses while still grasping at authenticity?

In the end, cultural heritage allows us to transcend time through sensory stimuli. It feeds our nostalgic longings to rebel against the modern idea of time by representing moments of past experiences. It opens up new, future, unrealized worlds. It feeds the cycle of knowledge that keeps life moving. I see digital platforms as a way to continue this tradition in new ways on a massive scale. To end these happy chirpings I give you another quote from Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence:

My life has taught me that remembering Time — that line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the present — is for most of us a rather painful business. When we try to conjure up the line connecting these moments, or, as in our museum, the line connecting all the objects that carry those moments inside them, we are forced to remember that the line comes to an end, and to contemplate death. As we get older and come to the painful realization that this line per se has no real meaning — a sense that comes to us cumulatively in intimations we struggle to ignore — we are brought to sorrow. But sometimes these moments we call the “present” can bring us enough happiness to last a century. (Page 288)

*Pamuk, Orhan. The Museum of Innocence. Trans. by Maureen Freely. New York: Vintage International, 2009. Page 500.

**‘Quasi-mind’ (pub. 14.04.13-13:09). Quote in M. Bergman & S. Paavola (Eds.), The Commens Dictionary: Peirce’s Terms in His Own Words. New Edition. Retrieved from


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