MuseumNext Digital Summit: Day Two

If I was asked to summarise day two of the MuseumNext conference in one sentence it would be the following: COVID-19 has accelerated the need for museums to re-consider traditional ways of collecting and venture into the realm of collecting digital content from a diverse audience. I really enjoyed listening to how museums are adapting their collecting practices in order to respond rapidly to such significant historical events as the Australian bushfires and the pandemic. The pandemic in particular has spurred this need to have a procedure in place for not only collecting content quickly, but ethically. Especially when it comes to traumatic events – how can we protect both staff and visitors from re-living or re-experiencing trauma?

One thing to add from yesterday. I mentioned that because of sleep I had missed the live Q&A sessions. When I logged on this morning I was so thrilled to see the sessions have been uploaded and can now be watched. I will be re-visiting day one this afternoon to see what kinds of issues were raised for each presentation.

This post will focus on two talks that I will use as springboards into discussing how the themes they raised were also central in other presentations. The overarching theme was digital collecting, however this led to discussions on digital accessibility and ownership. I also hope to highlight the incredible projects that were discussed and how COVID-19 has been an opportunity for re-thinking engagement, policy and practice.

  1. Digital Collecting from Bushfires to a Pandemic
    Presenters: Craig Middleton and Lakyn Cooper

The first presentation of the day was by Craig Middleton and Lakyn Cooper from the National Museum of Australia. Over the past 18 months, Australia has not only experienced the pandemic but also a horrific bushfire season at the end of 2019 that affected so many individuals and communities. Their presentation focused on two museum-run Facebook groups and the website ‘Momentous’ – a digital space where people can share stories, videos and images both about the bushfires and COVID-19. On both platforms, members of the public have the opportunity to document their story and have it form part of the Museum’s collection. A couple of really fascinating points were raised by both presenters. Firstly, how can we be contemporary collectors within a broader ethical framework when dealing with trauma? Secondly, how is this new way of collecting able to be captured and organised?

I am just going to focus on the website to answer these questions. How we can be ethical with this kind of collecting is to give agency to the people submitting their stories. At its core, this is a crowdsourcing model. From the beginning of the submission process to the end, the control is in the hands of the contributor when it comes to, whether or not to post, whether or not to provide your name alongside the post, etc. It was revealed that no material is edited, but it is moderated to ensure nothing too distressing makes it to the website. Not only that, but staff have been trained in recognising this kind of content and how to approach/manage these type of stories.

Moving onto the second point, museums have been accessioning objects for an extremely long time. But what happens when a physical object becomes something virtual? Having a space set-up and dedicated to sharing these stories, and any accompanying multimedia, means that at the end of this project, the information can be downloaded into the collection and archived. The stories are organised by theme and you can select which theme you want to explore. Otherwise, when you first open the site, all stories appear and you can just infinitely scroll through. There are breaks every so often reminding the visitor that they can submit a story. Everything from the colour scheme to the layout supports the aim of the website to be a safe place for sharing stories that shed much light on the lived experiences of Austrailans during this time.

The majority of talks looked at how this new way of thinking when it comes to collecting can actually democratize a museum’s collection. As Foeini Aravani from the Museum of London said, we aren’t just collecting the expert opinions, we are collecting with a more inclusive mindset to really capture a diversity of experiences. We are navigating these particpatory spaces online to gain a more complex understanding of these historical events.

2. Museums, Communities and Civic Engagement
Presenters: Suhaly Bautista-Carolina along with Ali Rosa Salas, Lauren Zelaya and Djali Alessandra Brown-Cepeda

As opposed to thinking about how we can collect in the present and future, this talk posed a question that made the audience think of how museums can change their practices for the future. Bautista-Carolina posed the question to the other panellists, how can we centre care as practice? There was an exceptionally insightful and meaningful conversation that followed highlighting so many issues surrounding the concept of agency and trust (also touched on by Christine Azzi). Zelaya spoke about how we must be honest about our past if we want to move forward. Be upfront and be accountable and then see how this impacts on engagement and building relationships with communities. Salas highlighted how there are already people doing incredible work that need help in the form of resources and assistance in carrying out their mission. Finally, Brown-Cepeda asked museums not to just reach out in times of hardship or peril, but to make reaching out a standard practice. Of course, so much more was discussed. It was a powerful conversation about how museums can de-centralise, share authority, and look at what’s happening outside their walls rather than focusing on within.

The presentation on the Mootookakio’ssin Blackfoot Digital Project also spoke to this broader issue of agency. By using digital platforms, a website made by and for the Blackfoot people has been able to use technology to establish the ownership of objects. It was discussed how this project provides a space to reclaim authority on heritage and take objects usually on display to represent an ancient culture and make them fit into a contemporary understanding and story. Through the digital platform, the objects and language come alive and that sense of ownership returns to the Blackfoot people.

Going over the presentations for tomorrow, it seems to be a mixed bag of looking at accessibility, content and navigating the digital for, perhaps, the first time. I wanted to end by saying a huge thank you to everyone who read my post yesterday. It feels so great to be able to start blogging again and organising my thoughts and reflections from a conference.

All images are from the MuseumNext Digital Summit page.

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