Tag Archives: Collections

Digital Collections in Public History

Base digital collections seem to inherently allow for richer, more rigorous public history engagement. Any history endeavor needs a foundation of solid primary sources to build analysis upon.  In a public history project, however, simply providing digital resources does not ensure that the audience will be able to engage with history any more effectively. Project designers need to consider the needs and wants of their audience when they build their digital collection.

Mitchell Whitelaw, in his essay “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections,”1 discusses how one of the greatest challenges project designers face is communicating to the audience what resources are available. His solution presents as much of the collection as possible from the home page. I like that this method provides users with an idea of the breadth and scope of the collection. For my project, however, I don’t think such an approach would be appropriate. My base collection, images of the churches and material culture of Baptism, are not particularly meaningful as stand-alone images. I want my audience to engage in the full context of baptism, for which a single image or object is insufficient.

I do plan to provide a browse/search images page in my website, but I don’t think that will be the primary way my audience will want to engage with my collection- nor the way I want them to. To build up context for the collection of images, I want users to feel that they have entered a room, rather than a gallery. In a room the viewer can see how objects are related to one another. In a gallery (although carefully selected and curated with a particular argument), viewers often encounter the images as stand alone objects removed from the world. At this point in development, I intend to provide my users with pathways of exploration, rather than shove a box of photographs in their hands. The two paths I am currently working out is a timeline approach and a denominational approach. The time line will take the user through the collection by church construction date. The denominational approach will allow the user to view the collection by faith tradition.

My project is built off material culture and the object is my central focus. My digital collection is the crux of my work.  Coming from archaeology, context is the keystone to any interpretive work. I want my audience to engage with the history of Baptism through putting material culture in context. Specifically, I want my audience to understand how those objects functioned together at particular times and particular places, and by particular people. This kind of engagement is only possible with a rich digital image collection and with a structured discovery design- as opposed to expecting the audience to draw meaning from search results.

1. Whitelaw, Mitchell. “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 9.1 (2015).