'The Past is a Foreign Country. This Is Your Passport.': Media Fragments, Digital Archives and Virtual Museums

Curator's Note

While traditional museums are becoming virtual and conventional archives are being digitized, so too are blogs and websites emerging as new sites of curation and new sites for public history and art. Blurring institutional and spatial boundaries, the content of sites like Vintage Everyday, Voices of East Anglia, and How to Be a Retronaut is just as often taken from digital archives or publicly shared museum collections as taken from the websites and flickr albums of thrift store connoisseurs, auction enthusiasts and vintage devotees. Reflecting these diverse sources, the images on display at these blogs range from 1940s Stanley Kubrick photographs in the Victoria and Albert Museum to Cold War rocket ads, 1950s kitchens and amateur street photography.

Though there’s certainly much to say about this range of content and how it circulates in a constellation of blogs and websites concerned with vintage culture and retro style, what I want to focus on here is the question of the archive, the museum and the blog, their similarities and their differences. Though museums often have archives and archives often have display space, generally an archive is seen as a repository of information for historical reference while a museum is focused on the public display of material objects. However, each in their own way both the internet and visual media change this. We speak of archiving film and television, but have only really just begun to musealize them. When we digitize archives and make information and documents public online, the archive becomes a forum not just of preservation but of display and access. Further complicating this then are blogs like those mentioned above. Do they function as archives or museums? How do they complicate that dichotomy by using material from archives and museums but also from estate auctions, junk shops and their internet equivalents flickr and youtube? How can they be used to musealize media whose ephemeral projection has made its commemoration and public display difficult?

In addition to the public culture formed by museal institutions, one of the key attributes which is at stake in musealized media is the relation between objects and between objects and viewers. Ultimately, I would suggest that viewing history blogs as museums not only facilitates new curatorial constructions but makes possible new, unexpected and productive meanings about the artifacts of the past.

Comments

Ian Peters's picture

Collecting, Archiving, and Curating the Virtual

This is a really fascinating post, Mabel. As the Internet continues to provide ways for people to "see the world" from the comfort of their own homes, the presence of digitized material culture on blogs, and how we contextualize them, is an important topic to explore. As you pointed out, these blogs frequently feature found materials or media fragments. In this regard they are exactly like museums and archives which are themselves made up of fragments and found materials. Any act of collecting, be it virtual or physical, and displaying that collection with meta data description is an act of curation. What makes these blogs so interesting is that people can also access these objects and interact with them in ways that you can’t in a traditional museum setting (click on them, zoom in, copy them for inclusion in your own archive, etc.). This is a really fascinating post that continues to raise important questions, none of which are easily answerable.

Michael Z. Newman's picture

storing, saving, or sharing?

I like this post a lot, and I’m a fan of some of the sites you mention (Voices of E.A. is new to me though - thanks for the link). Ideas about the public preservation of images and sounds online have been on my mind often of late as I try to use the internet as an archive in my historical research. I find the riches available to be a great gift to historians of popular culture. Some things worry me though. The purpose of publishing these materials online is usually first of all to share them and see them circulate as the "finds" (or the collection) of the curator, and I wonder about the tensions between sharing, as a most basic activity of the participatory web, and storing or saving artifacts of the past, which is the ultimate purpose of the traditional archive. Do we share things for reasons different from those motivating preservation? What are the differences and how do they affect our sense of the past? (Maybe this is a tension between musealizing and archiving functions of the sites you discuss.) I worry about historical understanding being shaped by the interests, identities, etc. of the archivists in terms of availability and circulation of old media. So much is there that we can start to wonder if maybe everything is now available. Of course it isn’t and I am always contemplating what is missing, why it’s missing. etc. Finally, materials posted online disappear, and the personal archives we must make to back up these public archives are another interesting thing to consider.

Mabel Rosenheck's picture

and original sources

 Yes I compltely agree. One of the things I’m fascinated and sometimes troubled by is the quesiton of attribution and sourcing. While most sites offer some attribution there is rarely if ever any interrogation of that. How are objects/texts different when they come from corporate sites, flickr pages, thrift stores, formal digital archives, etc. One that I’ve been thinking about especially is the proliferation of photos from LIFE magazine. Are we using those as immediate reflections of the everyday life of the era in which they were taken? How does the magazine’s institutional history impact those images and how does it effect their consumption 50 or so years later? I often wonder if some of these sites might do a better job of analyzing and interrogating the images they post, archive, musealize, etc. 

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