Does the artefact matter?

Take a Victorian frock on display at any given museum. Think about it in terms of a brittle shell discarded by its former inhabitant (think about Victorian women as if they were marine mollusks). Think about the journey of the fabric before it became cut and sewn, think about the fingers that did the sewing, think about the needles and pins and candlelight. Think about the sweat ingrained in the seams, the food spills, the mud on the hem, the breath caught in the encased chest over unexpected events. Think about touching it. But don’t touch it.

Digital history threatens the corporeality of the past. Recent debate has touched on the tensions between the real-world-object-complete-with-sweat, and the digitized simulacra thereof (see here, and here.) We see proponents suggest that gains in accessibility outweigh the negatives associated with transforming an object into a digital veneer of the past. However in so-doing, even proponents signal their agreement that, for good or ill, there is indeed a loss when it comes to digitization. But what is it we lose?

Museum objects are often considered as objects which speak to us, which ‘tell stories’ to us, which are either narratives in themselves or become part of wider histories. But that story doesn’t exist, until a professional historian, an archivist, or a genealogist, pulls a story out of it. Until research is undertaken, no object has a voice, and as such, the voice belongs to the person who did the research, not the object.

Mieke Bal has speculated in this regard,

‘Things, called objects for a good reason, appear to be the most ‘pure’ form of objectivity. So examining the question of the inherent fictionality of all narratives can as well begin here. In other words, can things be, or tell, stories?’

Moreover our obsession with ‘real’ objects has more to do with fetishes than it does the actual experience of history. Our experience of history relies on ourselves as museum-goers and historians as display-creators communicating through an object, not on the object itself. If we take away the object but keep the museum label and descriptions, if we take away the object but keep the preconceptions that we bring into the museum about what that object is, if we take the object away but draw on the same imaginings and personal experiences, then what is lost when we lose the object? And if we don’t need the object in itself, if all we really need is a trigger which encourages us to fantasize about the past, then can’t a digitized version work just as well?

Take a Victorian frock on display on any given museum website. Think about it in terms of a brittle shell discarded by its former inhabitant (think about Victorian women as if they were marine mollusks). Think about the journey of the fabric before it became cut and sewn, think about the fingers that did the sewing, think about the needles and pins and candlelight. Think about the sweat ingrained in the seams, the food spills, the mud on the hem, the breath caught in the encased chest over unexpected events. Think about touching it.

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