Digital humanities and the virtual museum

On November 16th, The New York Times published an article by Patricia Cohen entitled, “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches,” in which she writes, “Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.”

The “digital humanities” is not only the new frontier for academics and researchers but also for museum professionals and designers who seek to push the boundaries with digital technologies to create online exhibitions and construct virtual museums.

As museum professionals and researchers grapple with how they may document, collect and disseminate intangible cultural heritage, which the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage defined to include: “ (a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; (e) traditional craftsmanship,” a reexamination of how heritage and cultural artifacts are cataloged, represented and interpreted within a museum context needs to be carefully considered and a virtual environment may be the most appropriate place to disseminate them.

By using digital technologies to document and create records of a museum’s intangible and tangible cultural heritage assets as well as related contextual information, a museum can create a database system and interface to sift and sort through its digital assets to create meaning and understanding in ways that would have been very difficult to achieve earlier. Nevertheless the following questions need to be considered: 1.) Does a new or revised cataloging system need to be employed? 2.) How can a tagging system be better developed and defined to benefit museum staff, researchers, teachers and lifelong learners?

Originally posted on November 20, 2010

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