Digital Collections Round Table #2

DailyDose2Welcome back to the Daily Dose–and to the second round tables of our first series on Digital Collections!

We have been very privileged to host a number of wonderful people over the past few months, such as 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. Today’s address the balance between digital and actual exhibit spaces. 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 the last roundtable, which will appear near the end of this month!



3. I know some people worry that digital technology is replacing “real” museums and “real” books. What, in your opinion, is the best balance of digital versus actual exhibition spaces? What are the merits of each kind of display/interaction?

4. I just recently went to a “deep dive” experience at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where they spoke about their use of Gallery One and its attendant web pages. The analytics revealed that many people from around the world are experiencing the museum’s online presence first—and it has changed the way they think about that digital “foyer.” Have you had similar experiences? If the online space is the first thing people see, what is most important to highlight?


ContactSheet-001_2Cassie Nespor, Melnick Museum
3. I don’t worry about digital exhibits replacing physical exhibits because each has a unique function. Physical exhibits are a place where visitors can interact with the artifacts. For example, we have a replica Iron Lung so that visitors can actually get inside and have an experience with history. Also, most of our tours are done in groups, so I think that adds a dimension that is usually absent in virtual visits. The group’s discussion of the exhibits give each of them a personal connection to the artifacts that they probably wouldn’t have experienced online. Digital exhibits are wonderful to make connections in a different way. I am working on a digital version of one of our exhibits on local medical history and hospitals. I want it to be a place for people to leave their memories of these physical places in our community- and perhaps it will lead to a few donations of local artifacts. Digital exhibits also serve as wonderful reference tools, since they are available long after the physical exhibit needs to be taken down.

4. I really like the thought of museum’s having a digital “foyer.” I am not surprised that most people visit the museum’s website before they visit in person. I do the same thing! Usually, I’m looking for information on their current exhibits, hours, fees, etc. I’m interested in a site that functions well and where the information is easy to find. I don’t want a site that takes a long time to load, has too many videos, and information that is buried in a lot of text. Websites also help convey the tone of the museum as well. They should reflect the kind of text that accompanies the exhibits and the priorities of the museum (education, preservation, interpretation, etc.).

MHLHanna Clutterbuck, Medical Heritage Library
3. In an ideal world, one should not try to replace the other; I think they work best in a relationship of mutual supplementation. (It’s also worth noting that it’s important to emphasize to visitors/users that the “real,” i.e., physical, original object or book or painting is still available for consultation. I’ve seen some people panic about digital surrogates being a 100% replacement for the analog object and I think some of the kneejerk negativity in response to digital exhibitions or collections may come from this. Once the user is reassured that the digital is for work purposes or to show detail or useful in this fashion which the analog object is not, they tend to calm right down!)

4. I hadn’t heard of Gallery One before so I went to do a little background research and read up on that and the ArtLens app. I’m not keen on proprietary apps of this kind; if you can’t make it available to everyone – free is also really nice! – then think again about what you’re doing in terms of a project of this kind. Why restrict it to one kind of user on one kind of device? And then having a free museum in which you pay for the rental of the device seems odd to me. The visual and interactive experience seems like a really good idea to me but I think one of the most important things a display like this should emphasize is that the works of art it shows you or makes you imitate or whatever are *real* and can be seen in the museum in which you stand. The point is not to provide people a digital surrogate of the museum but to encourage them to explore the museum more confidently.

yaleMelissa Grafe, Medical Historical Library, Yale
3. For a physical exhibit, there is something about the space that is often missing in online exhibitions. From large tours and classes who thrill at actually experiencing the physical object (especially when the cases are opened!), to individuals who get diverted from their everyday activities by something that’s caught their eye in the cases, physical exhibition spaces attract attention and interaction in different ways. When an exhibition space is all-encompassing, like the Cushing Center, where over 300 brains in jars and a wide variety of other materials immediately seize your attention and draw you in, this “something” can’t be repeated online (you are welcome to try!):

Digital technology is helping us expand our reach. I enjoy seeing how a digital exhibit can represent more viewpoints than can be captured in an actual exhibition space. At Yale, we are wrestling with an online exhibition template that has the flexibility we need for a variety of users and audiences. While I don’t think we can hit all the major points with whatever online template we achieve, I think some level of interaction is key, through timelines that can be created, mapping, user reactions, blogging capability, ability to explore a larger collection represented in electronic archives…I think I can go on and on.

Although older, I’ve always enjoyed “The Lost Museum” site, which includes archives, the ability to “explore the museum” (which doesn’t exist anymore), and an element of mystery, as well as supporting classroom activities and references:  Wrapping up, I think a combination of digital and actual exhibition spaces helps bring our message and collections to our users.

4. Our digitized collections and our library page ( and ) are often the first interaction for people wanting to know more about us, although we continue to revise and rethink this online space. I would want people to see our collections, including how to access them, what exhibitions we have on display, and maybe more of who we are. I think an attractive space is important. I’m certainly open to suggestions and feedback!

brownLinda Lohr and Keith Mages, R.L. Brown Collection
3. The best balance between digital and “real” museums and “real” books can depend on the size and scope of the particular collection. For a very large collection with an extensive variety of print and/or non-print materials, a sizeable online presence can be very effective in providing virtual visitors with a kind of “summary” or overview of the holdings of the museum, library, or other special collection. The visitor can focus on a particular part of the collection that piques his or her interest and learn more about it. Ideally, this will inspire an in-person visit and, in the case of displays and exhibits that are set in a large museum or building, the online experience can provide the visitor with a place to begin their actual visit. For someone who is exploring the site from far away, it can provide possibly the only opportunity to view and study the artwork, book or artifact and also prompt the individual to visit similar collections where they live. In the case of smaller collections such as our Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection, too large of an online presence could work against the goal of attracting “real” visitors to the collection to actually look at and use the resources for scholarly research or to learn about the history and evolution of a particular discipline or topic in general. If too much is available digitally, the thought might be “why do I need to go there?” On the other hand, what we do offer online can make it possible for a distant researcher to access to item, Another consideration in determining how extensive the digital presence should be is how much staff time and technological expertise is needed to create, update and maintain this footprint. In a smaller setting it may not be possible to do this on a large scale.

4. Gallery One is an amazing undertaking and makes absolute sense for the Cleveland Museum of Art. It certainly must have a far-reaching impact, especially for people who may otherwise never have the chance to see these wonderful works of art in person and, as mentioned above, succeeds in inspiring visits to museums and other collections in their area. The Brown History of Medicine Collection has had such results when an individual, whether local or far away, has come across something on our blog/website or the digitized McGuire Historical Instrument Collection and would like to come in person to study, use it for their research or simply learn more about it and our other resources. We have based our decisions on what items from the collection are appropriate for possible digitization on whether they are truly unique and not available anywhere else. For example while books and other print materials make up an important part of the History of Medicine, some of them are already available on line. Some of what we have digitized are materials that focus on the history of medicine and the health sciences in Buffalo and the greater Western New York area.

Thank you for joining us! Tune in October 28th for the third round!

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