The role of objects in the 21st-century museum seems to be a hot topic right about now, especially with many museums incorporating digital collections, 3-D models, and reconstructions into their understanding of what it means to interact with a museum object. When we think about digital collections and 3-D models, however, historic house museums might not be the first thing that pops into our head. Yet, as a student currently taking a course called Revitalizing Historic House Museums (HHMs), my mind has been infiltrated with thoughts about how to make the visitor experience worthwhile in a genre of museums with declining visitor numbers. In my experience, HHMs seem to be one of least likely kinds of museums to create a digital collection of their objects. One reason for this could be because HHMs sometimes serve as dumping grounds for community members to donate their personal belongings that they feel are important enough to be preserved, and thus many sites have a plethora of unrelated objects that they may not even know they have. Another reason could be that many HHMs contain mostly objects that are not original to the house. And a very pressing and apparent issue is that HHMs typically have small operating budgets, low numbers of paid staff (and oftentimes are run solely by volunteers), and are dealing with houses that are sometimes hundreds of years old that require careful and costly maintenance. So how can HHMs compete with other bigger, flashier, more digitally-oriented museums when they are focused on keeping their doors open and the house still standing?
While it can be hard to see past some of the unrelenting issues HHMs as a genre are facing, digitizing collections and creating reconstructions could make them a more desirable place to visit. Indeed, in our modern world where visitors are asking (begging) more and more for an interactive experience rather than a lecture from a stodgy tour guide, HHMs might need digital collections and 3-D models more than any other kind of museum. Think about this: many HHMs have a strict “DO NOT TOUCH” policy when it comes to the collections. Yet how does this recreate a realistic home-life experience for the visitor? If a goal of HHMs is to allow visitors to experience what it was really like to live in the house, how does a hands-off policy achieve this? What person lives in a house and touches nothing (and does anyone really live in a house with Plexiglas over the bookshelves and velvet ropes in front of the bed)? Whose home is always perfectly set up to look as if no one has lived in it the way many HHMs are? This is where digital collections, 3-D models, and reconstructions can come in. While it would be unrealistic to recreate every object in the house, even having a few objects that visitors can touch, sit on, or interact with would greatly add to the visitor experience. An online digital collection where visitors can zoom in on and manipulate the objects in the house could also be an option and can be an effective stand in for those people who will, for whatever reason, never be able to visit a particular site. Digital collections accessed prior to a visit have also been known to increase visitor interest in a museum, which could improve declining visitor numbers at HHMs who do have an online collection. However, these endeavors require time, money, and resources which, unfortunately, many HHMs do not have.
Thus, I have more questions than answers about this topic when it relates specifically to HHMs (*sigh*). Is it necessary to create an online collection of objects that are not even original to the house or have anything to do with the house or site? If the objects are not original to the house, are they there to simply create the ‘experience’ of being in the house and how could this experience be recreated with a digital collection? Additionally, does it matter if non-original objects are touched by the public during a site visit? If an HHM is able to create a digital collection, how can they do it effectively so that it enhances the visitor experience rather than simply providing a picture with the same information from the proverbial house tour? What objects will be chosen and who has the final say in this? Will the visitor’s experience of the objects online and out of context from the house itself be as rich as an on-site visit? Is it even responsible to create an online collection if there are so many other issues with the house, and where on the ‘to-do list’ of HHMs should creating a digital collection fall? Is it an HHM’s responsibility to have an online collection for those who cannot visit the house?
These are just a few of the questions I have come up with (some of which came to me in the middle of writing this reply), but I think there are many more that are important to think about with regards to HHMs, their collections, and the possibility of digital collections. Let me know other questions or thoughts you have in the comments below!