More than “Access”: Extending Digitization for Inclusion

Balsamo-DC-CoverOn Wednesday March 4th, 2015, I had the opportunity to hear Anne Balsamo give a presentation at the University of Washington. For those of you who don’t know Anne Balsamo, she is a cultural theorist and media designer and serves as the Dean of the School of Media Studies at the New School for Public Engagement in New York City. In this blogpost, I will give a short synopsis of Anne’s talk that I will organize according to themes I connected to in her presentation. Next, I focus my discussion on her work with the digitization of the AIDS Quilt as an example relevant to our ongoing discussion on inclusion in museums. -Rose

Three main themes that particularly resonated with me:

  • Transmedia–Anne opened her presentation by talking about her book, Designing Culture, in which she advocates that culture be taken more seriously in the design of new technologies, as these two components are, in fact, inseparable. Designing Culture is a transmedia project that includes a book, DVD, and a website. All components build off of one another and allow the reader to explore with more depth elements supported by one medium. I think this idea of leveraging different tools’ affordances is brilliant and simple enough to do in this day and age­–it opens up many doors and expands, I believe, our understanding of what “access” could be (more on that below). I also thought it was interesting that she repurposed much of her past work for integration into this transmedia project. The book is a reflection of her experiences, among other things, as a designer concerned with culture: the DVD present in the book is of her 1995 documentary “Women of the World Talk Back”, and the website hosts documentation pertaining to her exhibit “XFR: Experiments in the Future of Reading” that took place in the late 1990’s. This repurposing made me reflect on how knowledge emerges though a process of connecting pre-existing ideas or content together. Working across media, I think, offers new opportunities to those working in fields of knowledge production such as scholars and curators.
  • Bridging Publics­–Throughout her talk, it was clear that over the course of her career, Anne has been in the business of bridging publics: from the world of academia and design, from “traditional” humanities and digital humanities, from members of a small community and a broader public. I was inspired by her ability to occupy multiple spaces at the same time and to be able to facilitate dialogue between different publics. She spoke of how her interdisciplinary teams have had to work hard to develop a shared language to be able to work together. This made me reflect on the role of language when working in an interdisciplinary space: members of each discipline have to give up or modify certain ways of talking that are specific to their discipline to create a new, hybrid vocabulary shared among disciplines.
  • Public Interactives–She also spoke of her current work focused on public interactives, which she defines as “broad category of exhibits that use innovative interactive for communication with a range of public audiences” (2011, p. 131). She’s interested in critically analyzing the different genres of public interactives and asking what these mean for how we define and understand “public”. This path has led to her recent work with the digitization of the AIDS Quilt, a public memorial that bears witness to the lives lost to aids that, at the time of the quilt’s inception in the 1980’s, were not acknowledged by the US government. This digitization is much needed, as the quilt now weighs 54 tons and is composed of more than 48,000 blocks (that are dedicated to more than 94,000 individuals!). In other words, it is now nearly impossible to exhibit the quilt as a whole. She raised this interesting question about the mediums of cultural memory: how is the cultural act of remembering changed by the digital? (I won’t go into that question, but wanted to bring it up nonetheless).

Connections between the AIDS Quilt project and inclusion in museums:

In museums, we often talk about how digitization initiatives can increase access to our collections. While there is a certain truth to this, I think access can be construed narrowly and more broadly. On the narrow side of the spectrum, access can be satisfied by digitization alone–we’ve made our “things” available online to those who care to see them. The mere digitization of the AIDS Quilt visible here falls on this side of the spectrum: the quilt can be seen in its entirety and the viewer can zoom in to view each block individually. When access is thought of in broader terms though, infrastructure and tools that can help viewers form connections with and make meaning of the “things” become important. I was impressed by the current efforts Anne is working on to facilitate meaning making and personal connections. For example, she and her team are developing community-sourcing tools (e.g., an annotation app and a story gathering app) that will allow people to help generate metadata and connect oral histories related to each block. While this community archival effort is an end in itself, she also spoke of how this information could be used to eventually facilitate interactive tours through digital hotspots embedded in the digital quilt.

Anne linked the act of community-sourcing to the idea of community of practice. To her, this approach serves as a critique to crowdsourcing, which negatively connotes the idea of a mob. In the context of the AIDS Quilt, Anne spoke of tapping into the network that The NAME Foundation, which cares for the quilt, has already established. She referred to this as “networking the networks”. We have many items in our museum collections that connect in a deep way to certain communities and that could be animated through community-sourcing tools and mechanisms. I think experimenting with such tools could expand what it means for a museum to create knowledge and who gets to participate in this knowledge creation. Following Anne’s point that the digitized quilt is no substitute for the physical one, museums’ experiments with digital modes of community archiving and curating would be complementary to their offline services. I’m curious to follow Anne’s work!

Reference:

Balsamo, A. (2011). Designing culture: The technological imagination at work. Duke University Press.

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