Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star and Digitized Collections Won’t Kill the Physical Museum Either

When people first watched a movie in the theater, many feared that the train on the screen would fly out and hit them. When the VCR was invented, film companies worried that it would mean the end of their business. Of course, neither of these things happened and in fact, now many years after both of these inventions, films and home recordings are still hugely desired commodities.

We live in a world of constantly updating technology. We always look for the next big thing and maybe that’s detrimental in the long run, but it doesn’t mean we should overlook all the good that has come from it. And digitized collections can, and should, be the newest rising star.

@MuseumBot tweets this image of 16th century thigh defenses.

@MuseumBot tweets this image of 16th century thigh defenses, one of the many items in the Met’s collection.

How incredible is it that you can search through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online collections from the comfort of your own home? That if you don’t know where to begin @MuseumBot tweets out a handful of objects everyday for you to view? Some that are not even on display in the museum. Whether people seek out an institution’s holdings for educational purposes or for their own entertainment, this incredible opportunity allows people the chance to explore a museum in a new way.

However, in his piece, “Conversations with Collections,” Tim Sherratt brings up the notion that “in the realm of cultural heritage, digitisation is frequently assumed to be a process of loss. We create surrogates, or derivatives — useful, but somehow inferior representations of ‘the real thing.'” But is that really the problem?

I don’t think so.

In my own experience in the museum profession, I have heard tales of museums wary that digitizing their collection might reduce their number of visitors. I can understand this concern. In days when donors and stakeholders demand high visitorship, institutions that rely on outsider funding may be very apprehensive.

I understand it, but that doesn’t mean I believe it.


Ford’s Theatre’s presence on Google Cultural Institute lets viewers examine some of their objects in incredible high resolution.

As great and convenient as online viewing is, it lacks the transcendental experience of seeing some historic object in person. Yes, when I go to Ford’s Theatre’s Google Cultural Institute website and click on John Wilkes Booth’s deringer, I can see the smallest of details in a way that I would never be able to in the museum.

However, it is not nearly as powerful. When you actually stand next to the gun, you can imagine Booth’s hand clasped around it. You can look down the barrel and wonder how one bullet changed the course of history.

Now sure you can think all of those things from your computer chair as well, but it’s not the same and we are undermining audiences’ intelligence and sense of history if we assume they cannot understand this.

Maybe 50 years in the future when all fly on hovercrafts and everything in our lives is digital, it will be a different story. For now, though, I think museums are safe.  

So if digitizing a collection does not threaten visitorship and if the institution possesses the funding and resources to accomplish such a task, why haven’t more places jumped on this bandwagon?

Sheila A Brennan’s article “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory,” asks,

With many students and scholars beginning their research with online search and discovery tools, if cultural heritage collections are not visible online, in some form, what are the implications of these absences?

For a general viewer, a museum’s lack of an online, searchable collection is likely a bit annoying at most. For a potential visitor unable to see what is on display and whether it is worth their time, it is frustrating. For students and teachers doing research who now need to find another source, one less reputable or perhaps even a competing museum, this is unforgivable.

Aren’t museums supposed to be institutions of learning just as much as they are institutions of collections?

As one tweeter commented, and Brennan quoted, “Collections are useless unless they are used.”

If a place has these incredible objects in its possession, it should share them with the world. After all, that is the foundational purpose of museums.

The digital realm offers such potential for millions of viewers, all around the globe, to access a distant museum’s collection, and aren’t online viewers just as important to visitorship numbers as those who actually walk through the institution?

You can even virtually walk through Ford's Theatre's <a href= Museums can use their own websites to upload images of their collections, both on display and in storage, or they can rely on unaffiliated sites like Omeka or Google Cultural Institute. The latter of which even allows people to virtually tour a museum’s space.

So no, digitized collections and online museums won’t kill the physical ones, in fact, they just make the originals better.


3 thoughts on “Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star and Digitized Collections Won’t Kill the Physical Museum Either

  1. Pingback: Online Exhibits Just Got Easier and Now There’s No Reason Not to Make Them | Public History Goes Digital

  2. Anna,

    When I started reading I was so happy to see that you were addressing the effects of digital collections on physical museums. As I read the articles for these week and our classmates’ blogs I began questions the fate of physical museums. Are they going to loose the appeal for visitors if collections can just be accessed online? I like that you addressed this question by arguing that society always seems to have pushback with new technology and this is no different. I agree with you completely.

    Another interesting point you bring up here is the purpose of museums. Your quote “If a place has these incredible objects in its possession, it should share them with the world. After all, that is the foundational purpose of museums” led me to question how we view museums. I agree with the sentiments of this week’s readings in that digitization is important for access and sharing authority but is that in line with how museums view themselves? Are they supposed to be safe havens for historical artifacts? Or are they places of exposure and learning for the public? Personally, I feel that they should be both but maybe some of the pushback against digitization could be in this issue of the purpose of the museum. Obviously this definition could vary from institution to institution but maybe it’s a worthwhile conversation to have and could shed light on specifically how digitization can effect specific organizations.


  3. First of all, after reading your title I couldn’t get the song out of my head. Secondly, and more importantly, this post hits important points about the role of online exhibits for museums. I think you are definitely right in saying that an online exhibit presence does not hurt visitation numbers and even enhances the research capabilities of historians. However, I would go even further to say that online collections and exhibits gives the museum visitor and even better experience. For example, after I visit an exhibit, I often want to see the object again online to examine and think about it more. Museum experiences are often fraught with time constraints and fatigue. Having an online exhibit allows the physical museum visitor to see the objects again online.


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