Museum Collection Databases and the Digital Lives of Objects

I am a PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture program, where I am working on a dissertation project that explores the exhibition history of the Smithsonian's First Ladies Collection. As the interface between the archive, objects, and publics, museums have driven both my professional and academic interests in curatorial practice and museum pedagogy. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Professor McCloskey as she reimagines her Foundations of Art History course for online learning this fall. In the past, Foundations has taken advantage of the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA)'s proximity to the Frick Building, which allows students to engage with a world-class art collection in person. Sustained object engagement is a core experience of Foundations, allowing students to practice close looking with individual artworks and exhibition spaces. Through time in the galleries of the CMOA, students become familiar with the ways museums frame objects through display mechanisms, text, and spatial relationships.

To facilitate this core experience in a digital context, I am curating a collection of twenty objects pulled from digital museum collections across the world. The essential criteria for selection are the object’s representation across at least three digital platforms.  For example, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston’s Storage Jar by David Drake (ca. 1857) is represented in five digital contexts across four platforms. It is on the MFA’s digital collection platform, is accessible in the museum’s virtual tour, and is presented in the museum’s digital exhibition Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Additionally, Storage Jar is featured on both the MFA’s official institutional Instagram account and one created by the museum to highlight black artists. In each of these digital spaces, Drake’s vessel is recontextualized, offering a range of interpretive frameworks for understanding the object. Through engaging with this curated collection of twenty objects, students will learn how digital collections frame objects and the ways those frameworks shift across digital platforms.

When we proposed our module, I falsely assumed that tracing objects across different digital platforms would be relatively easy, figuring it was a function built into the latest collection databases. It quickly became apparent that this was not the case. It is not yet possible to trace an artwork’s presence across digital exhibitions, blogs, Instagram, YouTube, Tiktok, Twitter, or Google art & culture with ease from a digital object file. For Foundations, this creates more opportunities for our students to practice and refine their research skills. As a student of museum studies, I find this digital gap to be an interesting glimpse into how museums are currently positioning their digital content as supplementary and secondary to an object’s public facing collection’s record. The separation between an object’s primary data entry and its other digital lives is a telling one, revealing the distinction museums draw between scholarship and accessibility. As museums continue to face the challenges posed by Covid19 and museum visitors increasingly experience art collections through digital platforms, this may be the moment we begin to see institutions thinking holistically about the digital lives of objects and the shifting relationship between art historical scholarship and social media content.

Emily Mazzola
History of Art and Architecture
August 17, 2020

Learn about all the projects from the Curricular Development Opportunity for Ph.D. Students