Notes from “The Artifact in the Age of New Media”

Here, finally, are some highlights of my notes from the “Artifact in the Age of New Media” symposium at the Bard Graduate Center.

The discussion throughout the day was very stimulating, and I was very grateful to have been able to attend. Overall, though, I was struck by the way that the discussion really never got around to what distinguishes 3D artifacts from text or 2D images in digital collections – I had hoped that was what the day would be about! If you’ve read my other posts, here and elsewhere, you know that this is my issue right now. The day was definitely more focused on new media than it was on artifacts.

Anyway, I wish I had been able to speak more with other attendees at this event! I know many of us are facing the same issues with our individual projects and have much to learn from each other. Perhaps we’ll all connect again at future seminars, or perhaps we’ll find each other online. If you’re reading this, you’ve found me – please let me know you’re out there, and keep in touch!

You can also read other people’s tweets from the event under the hashtag #digifact, and keep an eye on the forum they’ve set up for continued discussion (general info about the symposium, and some of the presentations, are there as well). There was talk of a continuing seminar series – I hope that pans out!

On to the notes (my asides, including things out of order, are in parentheses):


Dan Cohen (CHNM)

loved the title of his presentation – “The Social Life of Artifacts”
much of what he discussed was already familiar to me, from following his blog, etc., so I didn’t take many notes (sorry!)
my keywords: open, sharing, abundance, flexibility


Josh Greenberg (NYPL)

Digital Artifacts:
1. decoupling of text from artifact
2. decoupling of artifact from single physical context

(someone (Steve Brier or Josh Brown?) made the point later – this is in fact a de-de-de-coupling, as many artifacts were removed from their original context years ago and have been in multiple contexts since)

(at some point I raised a question related to this – we have collection databases and we have virtual exhibitions, but often they don’t link to each other – why not? is anyone working on this? shouldn’t there be hybrids that connect these functions? answer from Carrie Rebora Barratt (Met) – it’s a goal, but slow to come)

(another later follow up to this (from Koven Smith, I think?) was about the structure of many databases not allowing for alternative information, therefore not allowing for entries about the history of the object pre-acquisition and the history of the object post-acquisition, or the “present history” of the object – ideally databases should include multiple entries for this, for every time the object has been moved, in a different exhibition, any time our understanding of it has changed – for example, “until 1996 we thought this was from XXX, but now we believe it’s from XXX” – as opposed to just deleting and re-entering information when knowledge develops)

idea of “deputizing” people outside the curatorial staff
-the NYPL did this with students working on mapping projects
(-this is what I’m doing right now with my Historic Costume Preservation Workshop (HCPW)!)

role of curator = community organizer
(this really resonates with me, and the HCPW! Of course, this relates to the changing role of teacher to community organizer, as well.
this is a significant shift – training for curators and educators often hasn’t included this kind of community organization work – how do we develop these skills? It’s not just about good intentions. I’m looking forward to reading Jono Bacon’s book related to this, The Art of Community )

importance of multiple access points – loved the discussion of the Handmade Librarian’s blog, as picked up by the Design Sponge blog, which turned into the Design by the Book project, which had a giant party in person at the library. They promoted the project on several platforms (I wrote down youtube and itunes, but I know there were several others) with great results. This ties in nicely with my goal of multiplicity for digital material culture projects (see my previous posts on this) – multiple access points can bring in a much more diverse audience. Bringing the community together physically like that, and bringing them into the institutional space, is a wonderful accomplishment.

much of his talk was about the tension between professional and amateur, and ways of connecting an interested public with the experts they could value; connecting these two sides without one negating the other


Carrie Rebora Barratt (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

my most important notes from her talk are all focused on the importance of standards – data standards, workflow, etc.

of course she talked about much more than that, but since data standards are one of my areas of interest right now, that’s what I focused on. One of her current concerns is how to create a central catalog for the museum (there currently is not one) but maintain the “purity of data” from each of the museum’s 19 diverse departments

(later in the day I talked briefly with Koven J. Smith, also of the Met, about how they’re reconciling the varied data collected by each department – turns out it’s not so much of a mapping, as a semantic process – I’m intrigued, and I look forward to following up with others at the Met to learn more about this)


Amelia Peck (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

she spoke about the updated technology in the Period Rooms – touch screens in 10 of the 18 rooms so far, for increased depth of supporting data about the objects

early on, she described the rooms as being an odd way to display art – which in the context of the Met is mostly true, and which I found to be very telling perspective. How is it that we have come to see the white box as the right way to look at art? Certainly for decorative arts / material culture we often prefer the context of a period room or some such attempt at re-creating the original setting. But even for other art forms this is an interesting issue. (see the section about Beth Harris below, which really relates to this)

silhouettes are used on the touch screens for seeking more information (vs. photos), to keep viewers in the room focused on looking at details on the objects themselves
but some details which are hard to see in the room are shown in better photographs on the monitor

she prefers guided comments to random comments – this is a wonderful point –
that lack of guidance can result in comments which are not at all helpful (and in the case of the Luce Center, turned obscene)
also, without guidance, people may not feel motivated to leave a comment at all

the phrase “multiplicity of authority” came up in the Q and A, when the expert curator vs. amateur enthusiast conversation continued – again, fits in very well with my ideas of multiplicity (see my previous posts) – authority with flexibility

it might also have been in this Q and A that someone (another prof from the BGC, I think?) brought up the concern of material culture being turned into, or viewed as, visual culture – unfortunately this thread wasn’t really picked up


Beth Harris (MOMA,

loved the MOMA video “I See” that she shared – yes, it does bring tears to my eyes, and not just because my husband’s a sculptor

I also loved her discussion of her experience of seeing Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter in context at Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome – how a slide on a projection screen, or an image in a book, had not prepared her for the experience of seeing it in person, surrounded by the sights and sounds and smells and feeling that went with it. Of course this continues the discussion that inevitably follows the digital vs. physical binary (which has been pointed out doesn’t need to be a binary, either/or – instead of digital vs. physical, think also of virtual, augmented)

she also discussed the “trust issues” that exist between museum and audience – “why is this here?”


Joshua Brown (CUNY)

using archival images not just as illustrations – this is an important distinction! they are works to be studied in their own right

discussion of the Picturing US History site

I loved his point about “seeing the seams” – showing the historian’s process, seeing how someone arrived at their conclusions, rather than just being presented with that conclusion fully formed


Steve Brier (CUNY)

as with Dan, I was already familiar with Steve’s work, so I didn’t take many notes (again, sorry!)

but it’s always great to hear about the work being done at CUNY’s Interactive Technology & Pedagogy Certificate Program, and to discuss the challenges and excitement of incorporating this kind of work into our teaching


That’s it – if you were there and there’s something important I missed, please add a comment! Or if you weren’t there but you want to continue the conversation, leave a comment!

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