The numerous civilizations of the past left behind numerous tangible traces of their heritage. Coveted or discarded, scattered or buried, broken or intact, these objects would soon become artifacts. Archeologists would study them, museums would acquire them, and the rest is none other than History. But what happens when the core activities of a civilization leave scarce amounts of tangibles? What happens when the pace of change is faster than that of preservation? We should start formulating a response, for this describes none other than the 21st century. We live in an age of information, of which a substantial amount now exists online, but is constantly in flux. The Economist described this phenomenon in an article titled History Flushed, where the author argues that archivists are limited in their activities of digital preservation due to anti-piracy legislation and software such as Digital Rights Management.
“As companies more fiercely protect their wares, contemporary digital artefacts run the risk of never being archived. Libraries have no mandate to collect apps, such as Angry Birds or Instagram, which form part of popular culture.”
In the same article, the author mentions how efforts are being made by governmental archives in the UK and the US, and non-profits like the Internet Archive. The latter is a truly comprehensive internet library that was founded in 1996 and has since become a vast collection of “texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived webpages.” With so much of our culture now in digital format, will there be a shift in the responsibility of preservation, one from our museums to organizations specializing in digital archiving?
Yes, I believe so. Because our digital footprints are becoming bigger and more pronounced. And this seemingly unimaginable amount of information, along with our technologies and software, will most likely be preserved by various non-museum organizations; from tech giants like Google, to nonprofits like the Internet Archives, and even individuals (take a look at the Museum of Sounds).
So what of our museums? In a recent post on museum geek, Susie Cairns asked this very question. She wondered whether the plight of newspapers, and their subsequent shift towards digital content, heralds a change in museology. Especially in the way culture is preserved;
“Now is that time for museums. We still need the things that museums do. We still need to know how to select, preserve and disseminate, whether objects or information. What we don’t need is museums. If those same needs can be met by other means (digital or otherwise), the impact on museums will be significant. I think it’s important to keep this in mind as we look to the future, particularly as we see the effects of the Internet on other traditional institutions.”
While I agree with her to a certain extent, it's difficult to imagine a museum free future. The internet has definitely made it easier for us to access information about an object, but not the object itself. And even if the object can somehow be experienced remotely, it will still exist and so will the museum. Yet I can see how a technology such as augmented reality (or something not yet developed) may further separate the preservation of an object from the dissemination of its meaning to audiences. So much so that people need not visit museums.
But museums must realize this too because there have been some interesting collaborations between the tech and cultural world. Google’s work with various cultural organizations through its Cultural Institute, Nintendo’s collaboration with the Louvre, the recent 3-D printing event involving the Met and ScanBot are all examples of museums keeping apace with technology’s giant leaps. Hopefully, they will continue to make such leaps and stay wary of stumbling into obsolescence.