Digital Collections Round Table

DailyDose2Welcome back to the Daily Dose–and to the culmination of our first series on Digital Collections: the Roundtable.

We have been very privileged to host a number of wonderful people over the past few months, Including the Medical Heritage Library, the Medical Historical Library (Yale), the Osler Library, the British Library, the American College of Surgeons, the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, the National Library of Medicine, the Melnick Museum, the Robert Brown History of Health Sciences Collection, and the New York Academy of Medicine. Each of these collections has used digital platforms to reach a wider audience, and so today I have asked some of the librarians and curators to weigh in a few questions.

The first two of these concern both the viewer–and the teller. The next two will discuss the balance between digital and actual exhibit spaces (and there will be two final questions as well). Not all of our librarians and curators can answer every question, but we will hear from several voices in this round-table, and the comment feature will be turned on so that you, as readers, can participate as well. We hope you will join us for each of the three roundtables, beginning today and concluding by the first week of November!


  1.  Just recently, an op-ed ran that gave a litany of reasons for “hating museums,” mostly complaints that they were dull, static, and rarely engaging. I highly disagree, but I do think this is an all-too-common sentiment. Have you encountered it? In what ways might we use digital platforms to address it?
  2. Do you think of digital platforms as a means of story-telling? Is online exhibit technology “narrative” in nature? Do you find the visual or the verbal aspect most useful in the promotion of collections?


indexElizabeth Mullen, NLM

I didn’t see the op-ed… It is unfortunate that many museums (and this can be a broad term) are underfunded which can lead to displays that become outdated and remain static. But I don’t know that static is necessarily a bad thing.  The fundamental importance of museums cannot be hidden regardless of the displays they provide.  Museums are custodians of physical history, real things, real places, collected, preserved, interpreted and reinterpreted for society.  No amount of digital technology can replace this function or the profound experience of being in the presence of the real thing or in a place where history happened.  But digital platforms are great for inexpensively sharing stories tied to that physical object or place, interpreting it in multiple ways for different audiences, combining it with other objects in various ways, and telling the world about its existence.

yaleMelissa Grafe, Medical Historical Library, Yale
While we are not a museum, we do have exhibition spaces throughout the library, including the Cushing Center:  I don’t believe that anyone who has ever entered the Cushing Center thought it was dull or static, and our guest book certainly attests to this.  Yet there are spaces in the library that we rotate on a regular basis to ensure that anyone entering the library gets a taste of some of the wonderful collections we have, and keeps a fresh look in the library.  We also work with students and classes to put together exhibits, engaging different partners with new angles on the collections on a regular basis.  However, we use digital platforms expand the reach of our exhibits in different ways, and hope to continue expanding in new ways.  For example, a recent exhibit on the Civil War wounded, “Portraits of Wounded Bodies: Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866” was popular both locally and beyond.  The exhibit was co-curated by a graduate student in the Program in the History of Medicine, allowing us to partner with a program we really support. We had tours, sessions with medical staff, and classes for hands-on use of the materials. For those who couldn’t come, we digitized this collection, and ensured that each man’s case was searchable, so anyone could read the stories (some quite heart-breaking) on these wounded men.  The gallery view allows a quick view of the men depicted in the collection:  The announcement and link was spread to blogs focused on the Civil War and beyond.  There are likely other ways to address the “dull, static” questions digitally, but this is a beginning.

brownLinda Lohr and Keith Mages, R.L. Brown Collection
Perhaps we have been lucky, but we have not heard this rather biting criticism. There will always be some people who just don’t (or won’t) connect with history, but we hold out hope that those with some amount of curiosity will find their way to our collection.  With regards to our digital initiatives, one way we try to engage viewers is by attempting to create an air of mystery, to spark curiosity among those who view our blog, Curiosity Cabinet videos, and tweets. In this way, we hope to invite viewers closer, to take in the details a bit longer, and hopefully explore for a bit more information on the topic at hand.

MHLHanna Clutterbuck, Medical Heritage Library
I can’t say I’ve come across overt museum hate for a few years. However, I do work in the Center for the History of Medicine with the curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum who has a continual struggle trying to get people to take his (sadly, very limited) physical exhibit spaces seriously – or to look at them at all, honestly. I think using digital platforms to do museum outreach depends at least a little on who you want to reach and are you open to having your material seen, commented on, and used by everyone. I’ve encountered a little resistance to this idea which surprises me and I wonder if some institutions are still thinking a little too narrowly in terms of audience: “scholars” rather than “public.”

Dmuseumlogo3Brandy Schillace, Dittrick Museum of Medical HistoryI most often get a glimpse of that sentiment in the way people respond once they realize its inverse. Students will come to the museum and say things like: “Oh, this is much more interesting than I expected,” or “Wow, that wasn’t boring at all.” I have also heard comments from people who suddenly discover the additional exhibit spaces in the Allen Memorial Medical Library, and it is almost always a happy surprise that there is so much to see and do in a library/museum. In other words, it usually isn’t open hostility of the sort displayed in the op-ed, but more a misunderstanding of what museums and libraries have to offer. Even so, everyone at the museum–the curator, the archivist, the photographer, and me as research associate–are aware of the attention span problem. Twitter is great practice for writing museum lables: get it said, be quick, be interesting. You have seven seconds to catch their attention, and you do need to offer something engaging and ponder-worthy. We have started to incorporate digital picture frames and a touch-screen monitor (as well as scannable bar codes to more info) so that we can maximize small spaces as well as information “take-away.”


indexElizabeth Mullen, NLM

Absolutely!  Of course, I work for a history institution, so much of what we do is narrative just by nature.  But people respond to stories and many find it easier and more enjoyable to absorb historical information when they can relate to the personal experiences of others.  I think the visual and the verbal have to work together.  That’s part of what makes an exhibition different from an essay or an image gallery: the presentation of the ‘real thing’ (or its closest digital analogue) in an interpretive narrative that enhances our understanding of the past and enriches our present.

yaleMelissa Grafe, Medical Historical Library, Yale
Absolutely! For example, I enjoyed this one:  A simple story of a man on his travels, but so much more.  As the technology changes, I think there will barely be a line between online exhibitive technology as narrative, and other digital works (ebooks, etc.)….both will look quite similar.  We find the visual aspect most useful in the promotion of our collections.  For our poster collection, we could write “poster collection” with a long narrative, or we can provide a very striking image, which we did on our digitized collection page for all the collections:

brownLinda Lohr and Keith Mages, R.L. Brown Collection
We definitely think of digital platforms as a means of story-telling. Online exhibit technology is narrative in nature. Being able to view instruments from our collection online provides the viewer with the ability to study the item closely and from different angles at his/her own pace and can provide more information about it than can be easily included on a descriptive tag in an exhibit case. The item tells its own story. The visual aspect of our collection is extremely useful in promotion activities as many of the items we have are unusual and have never been seen by many people before. When we think of the “verbal” aspect of our collection we think of the “back story” of the material and how we ourselves can tell that story in person. We hope that through the digital technology, we can lure visitors to the collection to find out more information about what they saw online line and, even better, provide an opportunity whenever possible for them to actually touch or hold the material.

MHLHanna Clutterbuck, Medical Heritage Library
I think almost anything can be a means of story-telling, honestly: check out @weird140, for example. But to take the third question first… In working with the MHL I’ve tried both and I think the visual aspect is more immediately eye-catching: you post a colorful page from an Elizabethan herbal, for example, and folks see it – it’s as simple as that! But then – if you’re lucky! – they click in and, unless you’re just providing a channel to the text itself, you’ve got to add value to that image.

I’m not sure I think that online technology is more inherently narrative in nature than other means of presentation; it’s an interesting question and I’ll have to think some more about it. I do think that you can provide a very rich narrative using digital tools – it doesn’t have to be a strictly linear, ‘move from case to case and read the caption cards’ type of experience. With the time and money, you can really think about what helps to provide context for the core of the exhibit and it’s much easier to provide a link than an entire new exhibit case!

Dmuseumlogo3Brandy Schillace, Dittrick Museum of Medical History
Absolutely. In fact, that is my primary view as a medical humanities/health and humanities scholar. Everything is a narrative. Understanding the narrative quality of history is crucial for correcting our own present-day narratives of medical progress. Our entire museum is a story-telling apparatus, and the digital platforms (our blog, our twitter @DittrickMuseum, our Facebook Page) are extensions of it. We are working to make the interaction between object and online exhibit as seamless as possible, but though we lead with images (for impact), we always include the context. One interesting caveat: we actually have more text online than in the museum. The images of the museum exhibit are linked to digital narratives about that image. For, although I value things like Pintrest for getting an image out there, I always worry about its place-less-ness. Not long ago, I saw a page of Holocaust images, but no narrative was included. Images can, of course, be a kind of narrative–but without the context, they seem mere visceral titillation to me, and risk a-historical misinterpretations. (That will happen anyway, of course, but we do out best to limit it by keeping story and image together).

Thank you for joining us! Tune in next week for the second round!

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