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Museum Studies in the Twenty-First Century: Theory and Praxis (September): Technology, the Digital, and the Museum

By Juilee Decker

Technology, the Digital, and the Museum

The twenty-first century is the age of the internet of things and Web 3.0, and wearable technology has anchored technology, in the museum as well as elsewhere. In short, technology and the digital have become part and parcel of museum practice, not an afterthought. Many twenty-first-century publications emphasize the digital, but the most recent include the digital as an integrated facet of work. This shift recognizes the ubiquity of museum websites, apps, and other institution-specific assets as well as exhibit-centric entities such as social media hashtags and touchscreens in galleries. Scholarship focuses on digital culture and crowdsourcing and also on shared authority, autonomy, and collaboration.

When it comes to museums and the digital, one of the early gems is Robert Chenhall and David Vance’s Museum Collections and Today’s Computers—“today” being 1988. Chenhall and Vance were writing for museum staff—executives, museum professionals who managed collections, and computer scientists, programmers, and others who had an interest in computers in museums and could benefit from learning about authority control. As Chenhall and Vance noted, computers could track museum collections and document the lifecycle of objects.7

Technology, and the literature, has come a long way since then. Combining theory and praxis, Museum Informatics, edited by Paul Marty and Katherine Burton Jones, offer a prismatic approach to museum information. For instance, in his essay Marty links the changing needs and expectations of the field to the interest in understanding museum visitors’ conceptualization and use of museum information resources. Clearly, informatics is a specialized field that will have even more relevance as museums deliver, receive, and share information on a multitude of platforms.

In Do Museums Still Need Objects? Steven Conn examines what he calls the current age of the museum, an exciting time when museums are proliferating and thriving and at the same time being challenged in a host of ways (including their bifurcation between education and “info-tainment”). In looking at objects and museums, Conn identifies three publics across the twentieth century: a Progressive-era public comprised primarily of immigrants; a mid-century public shaped by the New Deal; and a post-1960s public of individuals who brought to the museum different expectations and demands.

The relationship between the physical and digital is fertile ground. In Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age, Wayne Clough, former secretary of the Smithsonian, advocates for the physical and the digital in championing technology to open Smithsonian collections and programs to the world.8 In Museums in a Digital Age, editor Ross Parry brings together forty essays on the place, role, and influence of the digital in cultural heritage and museum work. The contributors—scholars and practitioners—point out changes in the cultural landscape that impact both museum professionals and visitors, changes having to do with data, information, knowledge, authenticity, authority, and trust. Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, offers perspectives on the implication of the digital in knowledge creation, documentation, and authority, and on the introduction (or intrusion) of AR/VR media.

Looking at co-creation and re-creation, rather than just consumer practice, Jenny Kidd’s Museums in the New Mediascape: Transmedia, Participation, Ethics frames the museum as a remix or “mashup” in the digital age; that is, as “a site where innovation meets tradition; authorship meets plurality; and, crucially, professional history ‘makers’ meet the public.”

Addressing the power of collaboration and communication among museums and their communities, Manual of Digital Museum Planning, edited by Ali Hossaini and Ngaire Blankenberg, is a user guide with case studies from museum professionals (from the US, Canada, and the UK) on how they are engaging with the digital; how these technologies are transforming museums; and the critical need for user-centric, omni-channel approaches that create new relationships between museums and communities.

Whereas the above-mentioned books look at the digital museum landscape today, other works are valuable for offering perspective on the iterations of digital technologies and their use as aids to planning and strategy. Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience: Handheld Guides and Other Media, edited by Loïc Tallon and Kevin Walker, situates the advent of new technologies as a harbinger of multivocalty as well as portability and greater access. In Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy, editor Nancy Proctor asserts digital’s staying power by connecting a single mid-twentieth-century moment—an audio tour crafted in multiple languages to guide visitors to an exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in1952—to the persistence of the digital sixty years later.9 Though it is a familiar concept today, crowdsourcing—a term coined by Jeff Howe (a contributing editor to Wired magazine) in 2006—had been employed for more than 160 years in museums in the United States.10 Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage, edited by Mia Ridge, situates the term within the space of museums and cultural heritage institutions. Including eight accessible, compelling case studies, the volume examines crowdsourcing in the context of challenges and opportunities facing cultural heritage institutions, including its place in participatory activities as a whole and in the creation of knowledge and its ties to mission and value. 

7.   A decade earlier, Chenhall had published Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging: A System for Classifying Man-Made Objects (American Association for State and Local History, 1978). Nomenclature has been consistently revised and updated since then, and it is the standard cataloging tool for museums and historical organizations in the US and Canada. The most recent (fourth) edition is Nomenclature 4.0 for Museum Cataloging, edited by Paul Bourcier, Heather Dunn, and the Nomenclature Task Force (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). It is supported by an online community.

8.   Clough’s book is available in open access.

9.   Loïc Tallon wrote about this. See “About that 1952 Sedelijk [sic] Museum audio guide, and a certain Willem Sandburg,” Musematic May 19, 2009.

10. See Elena Bruno, “Smithsonian Crowdsourcing Since 1849!” Smithsonian Institution Archives, April 14, 2011,