Category: Museums

  • Haunted by the Past

    Top: The Scarif Archive in Rogue One / Bottom: Robotic storage facility in the Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago

    Ever since Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor extracted the Death Star plans from a digital repository on the planet Scarif in Rogue One, libraries, archives, and museums have played an important role in tentpole science fiction films. From Luke Skywalker’s library of Jedi wisdom books in The Last Jedi, to Blade Runner 2049’s multiple storage media for DNA sequences, to a fateful scene in an ethnographic museum in Black Panther, the imposing and evocative halls of cultural heritage organizations have been in the foreground of the imagined future.

    There have been scattered instances of cultural memory institutions in such films in the past—my colleagues in the library will recall, with some eye-rolling, the librarian Jocasta Nu in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones—but the appearance of these institutions  in recent speculative fiction on the screen seem especially relevant and rich, and central to their plots.

    Which begs the question: Why are today’s science fiction films obsessed with libraries, archives, and museums?

    The answer of course is rooted in how science fiction has always pursued a heightened understanding of our very real present. At the same time that these movies portray an imagined future, they are also exploring our current anxiety about the past and how it is stored; how we simultaneously wish to leave the past behind, and how it may also be impossible to shake it. They indicate that we live in an age that has an extremely strained relationship with history itself. These films are processing that anxiety on Hollywood’s big screen at a time when our small screens, social media, and browser histories document and preserve so much of we do and say.

    Luke Skywalker’s collection of rare books in The Last Jedi neatly captures the tension inherent in these movies. In an egg-shaped stone hut reminiscent of (and indeed filmed in) the rural parts of western Ireland where Christian monasteries were established in the Middle Ages, Luke’s archive of Jedi books represent a profound bond to the traditional wisdom of the Jedi cult. Yet as the movie proceeds, it is clear that these volumes are also a strong link in the chain that holds Luke back. Ultimately his little library is not a source of knowledge, but one of angst. It makes him surly and disassociated from present possibilities, and he must ultimately sever himself from the past that is encapsulated in paper. Burning the books becomes a necessary precursor to his taking action, and to moving to the metaphysical (and more real) plane of the Jedi.

    Black Panther uses two characters, rather than one, to embody the tense dynamic between setting history aside and being unable to let it go: the dueling figures of T’Challa (Black Panther) and N’Jadaka (Erik Killmonger). T’Challa understands that black people have been abused and enslaved, globally, for centuries. And yet he imagines a day when Wakanda steps beyond this past, and integrates their society and advanced technology with the outside world that has done so much wrong to them. He is a forward-looking optimist.

    N’Jadaka, on the other hand, seethes with anger about the past, and how it is so vividly documented in the halls of cultural heritage institutions. Before he declines into a more monochromatic villain, he experiences frankly justifiable rage at what whites have done with black culture—namely, stolen and stored it like an alien, and lesser, culture, in glass-cased museums. A pivotal scene in one such museum reflects the troubled genesis of institutions such as the Pitt Rivers Museum, which collected artifacts of non-white culture from the British Empire to be viewed and dissected by professors in Oxford.

    In one of the most memorable lines of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the seminal rap album that documents what happened to African slaves and their descendents in the United States, Flava Flav shouts “I got a right to be hostile!” given this terrible history. A poster of that album is on the wall of N’Jadaka’s father’s apartment in Oakland, and it frames, like the glass case in the museum, the young man’s views of the world in which his ancestors have been constantly subjugated.

    Blade Runner 2049 is even more unrelentingly pessimistic about the future and its connection to the past. In the movie’s opening, we are told that the documentary evidence of that past has been wiped out in a catastrophic electronic pulse that destroyed digital photographs and electronic records. As we learn, however, not all archives are lost. While personal images and documents that were never printed are gone forever, some plutocratic corporations maintain archival records, and we see several of them in the film: digital media as well as formats encased in glass spheres and more recognizable microfilm. Nevertheless, these archives are imperfect, like so much in the film. Even a leather-bound handwritten book of records in a wasteland orphanage has critical pages ripped out.

    Because it is based on the work of Philip K. Dick, who was obsessed with libraries as part of a larger obsession with memory and reality, Blade Runner 2049 ultimately binds not only the past and present together, but the archival and the alive. Humans and replicants, the movie seems to argue, are simply incarnations of archival records, fleshy beings made up of the synthetic or parental DNA that form their core information architecture and the libraries of memories that are either fabricated or lived. This uneasy fusion is at the dark core of the film and its philosophical examination of the permeable boundary between the real and the artificial.

    For all of these films, the past constantly threatens to come back to haunt the present. (Just ask those on the Death Star.) In turn, these big-screen portrayals of imagined libraries, archives, and museums should make us reconsider how what we preserve and make accessible reflects—and perhaps determines—who we really are.


  • The Digital Public Library of America, Me, and You

    Twenty years ago Roy Rosenzweig imagined a compelling mission for a new institution: “To use digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.” I’ve been incredibly lucky to be a part of that mission for over twelve years, at what became the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, with last five and a half years as director.

    Today I am announcing that I will be leaving the center, and my professorship at George Mason University, the home of RRCHNM, but I am not leaving Roy’s powerful vision behind. Instead, I will be extending his vision—one now shared by so many—on a new national initiative, the Digital Public Library of America. I will be the founding executive director of the DPLA.

    The DPLA, which you will be hearing much more about in the coming months, will be connecting the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums so that the public can access all of those collections in one place; providing a platform, with an API, for others to build creative and transformative applications upon; and advocating strongly for a public option for reading and research in the twenty-first century. The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country, but instead will extend their commitment to the public sphere, and provide them with an extraordinary digital attic and the technical infrastructure and services to deliver local cultural heritage materials everywhere in the nation and the world. DPLA_logo The DPLA has been in the planning stages for the last few years, but is about to spin out of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and move from vision to reality. It will officially launch, as an independent nonprofit, on April 18 at the Boston Public Library. I will move to Boston with my family this summer to lead the organization, which will be based there. It is such a great honor to have this opportunity.

    Until then I will be transitioning from my role as director of RRCHNM, and my academic life at Mason. Everything at the center will be in great hands, of course; as anyone who visits the center immediately grasps, it is a highly collaborative and nonhierarchical place with an amazing staff and an especially experienced and innovative senior staff. They will continue to shape “the future the past,” as Roy liked to put it. I will miss my good friends at the center, but I still expect to work closely with them, since so many critical software initiatives, educational projects, and digital collections are based at RRCHNM. A search for a new director will begin shortly. I will also greatly miss my colleagues in Mason’s wonderful Department of History and Art History.

    At the same time, I look forward to collaborating with new friends, both in the Boston office of the DPLA and across the United States. The DPLA is a unique, special idea—you don’t get to build a massive new library every day. It is apt that the DPLA will launch at the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, with those potent words carved into stone above its entrance: “Free to all.” The architect Charles Follen McKim rightly called it “a palace for the people,” where anyone could enter to learn, create, and be entertained by the wonders of books and other forms of human expression.

    We now have the chance to build something like this for the twenty-first century—a rare, joyous possibility in our too-often cynical age. I hope you will join me in this effort, with your ideas, your contributions, your energy, and your public spirit.

    Let’s build the Digital Public Library of America together.

  • Digital Campus #37 – Material Culture

    As a follow-up to earlier discussions of Smithsonian 2.0, the Digital Campus crew tackle the thorny question of how to bring museums online in this episode‘s feature story. Can the reverence for physical objects carry over into the digital realm? We’re lucky to be joined on the podcast by the Center for History and New Media‘s Director of Public Projects, Sharon Leon, who has done extensive work with the Smithsonian on projects such as The Object of History. We also discuss the impact of a possible new moderation policy on Wikipedia, Creative Commons on the White House website, Gmail going offline, and how we can all get a piece of the giant U.S. economic stimulus package. Another profitable Digital Campus podcast—give it a listen. [Subscribe to this podcast.]

  • Smithsonian 1.1 and 2.9

    si_logoI was lucky enough to be invited to the Smithsonian 2.0 meeting this past weekend as one of the “digerati” who were there to prod the institution out of its analog complacency into the digital future. Long-time readers of this blog will probably sense my amusement at the “digerati” designation; not only am I a history professor, which seems like an instant disqualification for any noun that ends in -ati, but I’ve always tempered the Vision Thing with the Pragmatic Thing. Having done a lot of big digital projects, my feeling is that using mod_rewrite well is as important to success as modifying ideals. Edison’s dictum about “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” remains true for the digital realm.

    Anyway, the real digerati showed up at Smithsonian 2.0 too, and they did indeed provide inspiration: hip representatives of Facebook and MySpace, people with “seriously, that’s your title?” titles like Chief Gaming Officer, and bestselling authors like Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and Long Tail theorist, and Clay Shirky of Here Comes Everybody fame. (Long-time readers of this blog will probably sense my envy at not having a cool, bestselling book like these ones.) It was an incredibly well-run meeting; several of the attendees joked that the Smithsonian could get to 2.0 just by placing the people who deftly managed the coat racks in charge of the web servers.

    If you really want to get a full feeling for the meeting, the best way to do it (in true 2.0 style) is to read in chronological order the Twitter stream of it. I jotted a lot of notes and ideas there, as did many other attendees. (You can follow me on Twitter @dancohen.) In addition, via the power of Twitter, we captured many excellent points and responses from people around the globe. You should also be sure to read the discussion page on the main Smithsonian 2.0 site, and initial crowdsourced recommendations I gathered before the meeting.

    Let me summarize my post-meeting sense of where the Smithsonian should go for those who don’t have time to read a hundred tweets. Given my background in mathematics, I began to think of Smithsonian 2.0 as existing between Smithsonian 1.1 and Smithsonian 2.9. That is, implicit in “Smithsonian 2.0” were some incremental moves forward that could be done cheaply and quickly—Smithsonian 1.1—and a very large, expensive, complex project that would lead Smithsonian into Web 2.0 and beyond—Smithsonian 2.9. I believe both of these models can be instructive to institutions beyond the Smithsonian, whether large or small.

    Smithsonian 1.1 would involve a much more aggressive use of social media and technology that’s already out there, to begin to take many small steps and make many small experiments using what is currently available. The Smithsonian has already done some of this, of course: the National Museum of American History has a blog, SI has a small presence on Flickr Commons, and museums have begun to tweet.

    But these are relatively scattered, uncoordinated attempts, frequently done by younger, tech-savvy SI staffers in their spare time. The Smithsonian should be doing much, much more of this. For instance, given their expertise and excitement about SI’s holdings, it seemed clear to the digerati that every curator should have a blog, even if infrequently used, to recount tales of objects. While visiting the Museum of American History’s vaults, it was clear that a huge audience would subscribe to a weekly or daily video podcast that covered incredible treasures that rarely see the light of day, such as Abraham Lincoln’s handball, or what the Smithsonian just collected and is preserving from the inauguration of Barack Obama.



    Undoubtedly there will be resistance among some curators to doing Web 2.0-y things like podcasts or crowdsourced tagging of their items. These curators believe that such efforts belittle (or “anti-intellectualize,” as one put it) the holdings of the Smithsonian. (As Chris Anderson tweeted: “Response from curators to my Smithonian 2.0 talk suggesting radical things like adding comments to stamp website: we’ll be out of a job!”) Moreover, it’s still harder than it should be for SI staffers to engage in common, modern digital activities. This institutional friction was embodied in the tale of Sarah Taylor, a National Zoo public affairs staffer, who couldn’t get the equipment or accounts she needed to upload video of the zoo’s famous pandas to sharing sites that reach millions.

    If Smithsonian 1.1 requires overcoming institutional conservatism, Smithsonian 2.9 will require a moon shot mentality. Digitizing 137 million objects will be enormously expensive, and that’s just the beginning. Service layers will have to be added on top of that digital collection. The young, brilliant David Recordon of Six Apart summarized what the 2.9 project should result in (I’m paraphrasing here from memory):

    Before I visit Washington, I want to be able to go to the web and select items I’m really interested in from the entire Smithsonian collection. When I wake up the next morning, I want in my inbox a PDF of my personalized tour to see these objects. When I’m standing in front of an object in a museum, I want to see or hear more information about it on my cell phone. When an event happens related to an object I’m interested in, I want a text message about it. I want to know when it’s feeding time for the pandas, or when Lincoln’s handball will be on public display. And I want to easily share this information with my classmates, my friends, my family.

    This is the Smithsonian not as a network of museums but as a platform for lifelong learning and cultural engagement. A tall order, to be sure. But everything in that vision is possible right now, with existing technology. It’s just going to take tremendous will, and the funds to get there. Everyone felt that the new Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, was going to put a lot of energy and resources into the 2.0 initiative, and I suspect much will come of this meeting. The Smithsonian might not get to 2.9 for a while, but as I was writing this blog post, Sarah Taylor emailed me to say that she was able to get her video online.

  • Smithsonian 2.0

    For the next two days (Friday-Saturday, 23-24 January 2009) I’ll be at the Smithsonian 2.0 meeting in Washington, D.C. From the description:

    Smithsonian 2.0 is a two-day interactive gathering exploring how the Smithsonian can better and more effectively reach the younger generation (teenage through college students) with its collections, materials, and expertise through the web and web/new media-based interactive strategies. The focus is on SI resources—and how to make them accessible, engaging, useful, and valuable to the younger generation who will largely experience them digitally. The gathering brings over 30 active creative people—digerati—from the web/digital/new media world to the Smithsonian. Chosen because of their engagement of large audiences, including youth, and the thoughtfulness and educational consequences of their work, they will join 30 Smithsonian staff at the forefront of efforts to digitally expand the Institution’s reach and impact.

    Together the group will explore the Smithsonian’s current work through discussions, electronic and actual visits behind the scenes with collections and staff. The gathering will generate an initial, but informed vision of what the new, digital Smithsonian—”Smithsonian 2.0″—might look like in the years ahead. The results of the gathering will be integrated into the Smithsonian’s Strategic Planning process and forthcoming National Campaign.

    Unfortunately the meeting is closed to the public, but I will try to provide a live feed of some of what’s going on via Twitter (follow me @dancohen, where I’ll also be gathering questions and comments), and I’ll blog my standard wrap-up afterwards.

    For the record, a month ago I asked my very helpful followers on Twitter to envision what Smithsonian 2.0 would emphasize. The top five answers:

    • Mobile. The Smithsonian needs to think beyond the desktop/laptop computer and onto the mobile platforms that are becoming central to online interaction.
    • High-Density, Image-Focused Design. When I asked which websites the Smithsonian should emulate, a lot of respondents mentioned sites like Etsy and technologies like Seadragon, which pack a lot of images onto the page (without seeming overstuffed) in a way that encourages browsing and exploration.
    • Back-end Standardization. Not as sexy as the first two, but many responses mentioned that the first two can only be enabled by standardizing and making interoperable (and web serviceable) all of the many (often creaky) legacy databases that the Smithsonian undoubtedly runs.
    • APIs. Don’t think that the Smithsonian can do it all. Provide application programming interfaces to those databases so that others can reuse, remix, and reenvision the riches of the Smithsonian.
    • Social Media. Make it easy to share and connect Smithsonian holdings with social media like Twitter and Facebook.

  • Digitization and Repatriation

    Elgin MarblesIt’s always worth listening to Cliff Lynch‘s opening talks at the CNI task force meetings, and this week’s meeting in Washington was no exception. (My apologies for not blogging the meeting; busy week.) Like no one else, Cliff has his finger on the pulse of all that is new and important in the world of the digital humanities. Although Cliff discussed some issues that have received a lot of press, such as net neutrality, I found one issue he raised totally unexpected and fascinating.

    Cliff noted that digital surrogates for museum objects—that is, digital photographs or 2- or 3-D scans—are becoming so good that for most scholarly and classroom purposes they can replace the originals. For many years, one of the main arguments museums have used to avoid the repatriation of foreign materials—e.g., sculpture or pottery taken during colonization or war—is that they worried about the accessibility and condition of an object if they returned it. Scholars might lose important evidence, museums argued, and researchers often needed to look at the original object for small details like texture or paint color. With advances in digitization, however, this objection no longer holds water, and museums should feel more pressure (or more freedom) to repatriate controversial items in their collections.

    [Creative Commons licensed photo of the Elgin Marbles courtesy of zakgallop on Flickr.]

  • “The Object of History” Site Launches

    Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media, led by Sharon Leon, you can now go behind the scenes with the curators of the National Museum of American History. This month the discussion begins with the famous Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter and the origins of the Civil Rights movement. Each month will highlight a new object and its corresponding context, delivered in rich multimedia and with the opportunity to chat with the curators themselves.