Does your institution have an online presence?

One apparent theme for this week was the benefits of digitization for an institution’s collections. As I perused the readings with regards to this theme, a series of questions came to my mind: why do some institutions not have an online presence in an increasingly digital world? Could it be because many institutions lack funding and manpower to digitize their collections?Or is it because digitizing is too difficult? And does the lack of an online presence hurt the institution?

While these questions were not explicitly answered in our readings for the week, I think a quick look at some of our readings may provide some answers to my questions.

In Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory, Sheila Brennan discusses how she conducted a survey of 115 museums across the country to explore how digitized history museums have become since 2004. She found that while some museums, such as the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum and the National Underground Railroad Museum, have made great leaps and bounds to digitize their collections for public access, most museums have yet to create an online presence for themselves. In fact, Brennan says that

  • Nearly 70 percent of history museums provide only a summary or list of exhibitions.
  • Only 2 museums offered a means for closely examining an object.
  • Searchable collections databases were available in 17 percent of museums… while 37 percent offer no collections information (not even a summary or finding aide).
  • Nearly 70% of history museum sites offer no online teaching & learning materials. Most list programs offered on-site with contact information, only.

Now let’s contemplate this data with regards to my previous questions.  If you notice, many of the institutions that Brennan cites as having an online footprint are large institutions.

Since, I am an intern at the National Postal Museum, I am capable of saying that the museum has resources dedicated to maintaining the Arago Online Collections Database. With that being said, would a smaller institution have the same amount of resources available to create and maintain an online presence?

My guess is probably not.

In this respect, it may not be the institution’s fault that they are not making meaningful connections with visitors or making their collections accessible to the public via the World Wide Web.

With this being said, I agree with Brennan’s introductory quote that states

“Most of the tools we need already exist, and are free.”

There are plenty of digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Omeka, etc. that provide free services to their users. These platforms could provide smaller institutions with tools to begin their movement toward an online footprint. It is even possible that it would allow them to reach broader audiences and may even aid them in gaining more resources to further their digital adventures.

It is important to note that these platforms are fairly easy to use as well.  In most cases, the use just has to fill out a form to register for an account and then the site provides prompts on how to use the platform.  Even if the one responsible for maintaining the site were unsure on how to use it, there are plenty of free tutorials available online.  All that is required to find them is a simple Google search.  Even Steven Lubar, in his article Museumbots: An Appreciation describes a quick and easy way for museums to use Twitter to post collections online.

Now, this provides clarity for my first three questions, so let’s turn our attention to my last question: does the lack of an online presence hurt the institution?

My answer here is yes.

While, the lack of resources to maintain an digital footprint may not cause the institution to be at fault for their lack of online information, they are at fault for not taking advantage of the above mentioned, free platforms.

Looking back to Brennan’s digital dialogue, she is found quoting a user saying

“Collections are useless unless they are used.”

When I first read this, I was surprised that I had not thought of this before since I work with collections at the National Postal Museum.

Think about it, if a collection is not on exhibit and is just sitting on a shelf in collections storage, then how is it useful in furthering the institution’s mission statement or teaching the public something new?

Guess what, it isn’t. At least not until the institution decides to use it.

A great way to remedy this issue is to digitize the collection and make it accessible to the public online.  Not only would this reach the institution’s regular following, but also audiences across the globe who can make meaningful connections to the collection, this new media, and social memory. A topic that is described in Jon Ippolito and Richard Rhinehart’s book Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory.

In the end, I do agree with many of our authors this week who argue that the lack of an online presence hurts institutions.  Not only does it limit how useful a collection is, but it also limits how broad of an audience the institution can reach.  With this being said, smaller institutions may not have the resources to maintain a large online component, but there are platforms that are free, easy, and efficient to use that could help expand a smaller institution’s scope.  Without an online footprint, an institution is wasting the value of its collections (particularly those not on exhibit), missing an opportunity to expand its audience, and, ultimately, losing a chance to expand their institution and revolutionize how their fulfill their mission.

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6 thoughts on “Does your institution have an online presence?

  1. Hi Anna,

    I was also surprised by the number of museums that did not have any digital presence. You mentioned several free platforms that museums could use to create some digital presence. Despite the many free and simple options, museums still lack a strong foothold in the digital realm. The only thing I could think of that may be preventing museums from stepping into the digital world is time.

    A small museum I volunteered for also had this problem – they wanted to be online (or at least I wanted for them to be online!) but they were 100% volunteer-run. Launching and running social media and digital platforms can be a daunting prospect. One way I think helped bring this museum into in the digital world slowly was using Facebook as a way to promote their events and SLOWLY showcase some of their collections. The other volunteers and I wrote brief posts about special items in the collection. These posts were far from exhibit-ready, but I hoped they generated interest in this small museum’s mission and collections.

    We also featured ‘mystery items!’ Sadly, I cannot take credit for this brilliant idea. We posted pictures of collection items, particularly old photographs, about which we did not have any information and we asked for the public’s help. Everyone loves to be a part of solving a puzzle or problem; people want to feel as though they have contributed to a greater collective (sounds like I may be paraphrasing Participatory Museum by Nina Simon). This allowed our museum to post unusual items in the collections that we typically never put on display because of their lack of information. Although we did not have many particularly useful contributions, we received lots of feedback!

    I certainly agree with you, Anna, not having a digital presence hurts a museum. Like our readings from this week showed, there are ways to have history online that is not costly. Museums are missing out on a chance to make their collections useful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment Alexandra! The mystery items idea is a brilliant idea! I think that goes to show that there are tools, even for small museums with limited resources, to enable museums to have a digital presence.

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  2. Anna,
    Thank you so much for the thoughtful and well-organized post. I really enjoyed reading about your experience with the postal museum. I think your point about museums not having the man-power to digitize objects and collections is very well-put. I agree that many museums just do not have enough people or support for these kinds of things. However, like you said, “there are platforms that are free, easy, and efficient to use that could help expand a smaller institution’s scope.” Indeed, if smaller museums did know and use sources like Omeka as a resource, it could do them a lot of good. I only wish that there was some way to get this kind of information out to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Cat! Thanks for your comment! What is really interesting about your comment is that you bring up diffusing knowledge about the free and easy-to-use online platforms. Obviously, Facebook and Twitter are pretty common knowledge. I wonder why museums do not think about using them? Maybe they do not consider them to be legitimate? I wonder…

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