Digital objects, digital memory

By Jonathan Westin

As Stephanie Grimes was detailing in her blog post, a recurring discussion in the groups have been the nature of the digital object in regard to what aspects of the original it is able to represent. Another discussion has circled the relation between a physical collection and a digital collection.

While there are differences between these, digital collections tend to emulate the physical collections they are based upon in several ways in regard to organisation, both visually and functionally. In its simplest form a digital collection can present itself as no more than a searchable catalogue through which to acquire an overview of the documents and artefacts in the physical collection and make digital photographs or three-dimensional representations of them available for study (as exemplified by the digital collection of Leighton House). At its most advanced it can be a toolbox used for analysis, processing, contextualising, and sorting of the material contained (somewhat exemplified by British Museums ResearchSpace). A digital collection can also be presented as an exhibition or a curated collection meant to attract or inform an audience, adding another layer of narration to the material. Through high-resolution digital photos or processed 3D scans it may present detailed representations of objects and documents and their internal spatial organisation in an effort to be a virtual reflection of the technology that holds and organises the originals (for instance, the digital representation of the Soane museum). Regardless, the physical collection, already subjected to limitations, choices, random circumstances, and politics, is in these instances curated anew through the very process of digitisation.

However, just as the technical structure of the physical collection determines the boundaries of what can be collected and displayed, the technical structure of the digitisation process determines the boundaries of our future understanding of an object. When a document or artefact is digitised it is detached from the context to which it was bound by its physicality. Relations between different objects, hierarchies, and groupings, absolute limitations all important for the organisation of the physical archive and values of the originals, become artificial limitations in the digital collection where objects can have several positions at once and thus several associations. As we have found in our discussions, every artefact is multidimensional and multirelational, both as a physical object and as a concept defined through its relations in society. Furthermore an artefact can be described at different scales, ranging from properties of its materiality, to the object as a symbol through both its physicality and representations, to the object on a conceptual level.

To digitise and make available its collections online has for more than a decade been part of the work description of memory institutions such as archives, museums, and libraries. Yet, despite being a professional domain where both the material and the immaterial aspects of an artefact or phenomenon constitute difficult problems in any effort of creating a faithful representation, digitisation is often treated as a straight forward content-mining process where the persons, protocols, processes, and technology involved serve as neutral intermediaries rather than mediators. However, as the layer of meaning inherited in the interplay between content and format deepens, with text on paper on one end of the spectrum and ephemeral phenomenons on the other end, the impact of these mediators becomes more pronounced as the digitisation can only capture a subset of the original.

This is problematic as digitisation not only constitutes an avatar or entry point to a physical object, but a placeholder often substituting the original as a referenced object by scholars and the publike alike. This puts pressure on what aspects and properties of the artefacts or phenomenon we preserve through both new and old media. As Derrida has noted, archives are not created to serve the past, but instead the future. Digitisation, therefore, as a concept, must be explored as a process that transforms our future understanding of an artefact or phenomenon. By positioning the digitisation as both a documentation and a conservation effort, a process through which the objects of the collection are to be represented as a way to safeguard and communicate the information it possesses, we must not only recognise the inherent limitations of the digital media the material is represented through, and in what way those involved shape the process, but also the limitations of the physical archive and its individual documents and how these limitations have shaped other values around them.

Digital replicas lack unprocessed information, thereby turning mute when moving past the surface pixels. While seldom considered in a digitisation effort, those non-visual aspects of an artefact not communicated through its external appearance could perhaps be included in what Helen Slaney referred to as ”digitisation of experiences or encounters”. This could be records and reconstructions of its context (both present and past), but also tactile information such as how it feels to the touch. Likewise, even visual aspects of its physical manifestation, such as how light is reflected at different angles that might offer up clues in regard to how it has been approached, perceived, and used, are rendered invalid by the neutral lights of the digitization process. When preserving the memory of an artefact through digitisation, by not acknowledging the particulars of a physical format one negates many of the cultural connotations connected to it.


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