Digitality and museal landscape – a contradiction? Critical thoughts on digitization in the museum

When visiting a museum, one expects to encounter and interact with historical objects, artefacts and their materiality. Especially after the turn of the millennium, museums increasingly introduced (and embraced) new digital components. Today, audio guides, for example, have become indispensable for many institutions. According to the National Museum of American History, it has more than 1.7 million objects “and a 22,000 linear feet of archival documents”[i] in its collection. The Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) in Berlin has also more than 60,000 historical documents and more than 900 movie clips from the past.[ii] These are too many historical objects and media to exhibit on the walls of museums. Therefore, museums have been discussing and experimenting with ways of using digital technology to make objects from their archives and storage facilities more visible. Would you expect that there will be a next level of presenting museal artefacts digitally to visitors?

The Mindener Museum in North-Rhine Westphalia is one example for a fruitful combination of a museum as a haptic room with digital methods. Since 2018 the head of the museum, Philipp Koch, has been cooperating with Prof. Silke Schwandt from Bielefeld University whose research interests include digital history and humanities. This cooperation offers students the possibility of thinking creatively and of developing their own digital projects about museal artefacts of the museum. In the past, the students developed a new tour for the digital city model related to the bombings of Minden by the allied forces in World War II and produced 3D scans and prints of a crest from the 17th century. Currently, there is one group, which creates an escape tour, inspired by the traditional experience design from the gaming scene. Julia Becker, an expert of experience design, supports the escape room project and shares her knowledge with the students. In this museum the areas of narrative history, which is making the past come alive with digital elements, and the traditional historical craft of researching the historical artefacts and contents overlap.[iii]

virtual city model – Visitors can choose historical tours on the screen that are presented on the city model via beamer afterwords.

The limited option for showing historical objects is a common problem for every museum. Therefore, Philipp Koch acknowledges the value of digitization, especially since it enables the display of treasures from the archives to visitors. Digitization can open up access to objects for researchers and historically interested people alike. It supports the preservation and display of historical files on the one hand, while pushing the pedagogical work on the other. Hence, digitization facilitates access for individuals to historical objects and chronological processes and supports the understanding of complex structures. Yet, digitization also has its limits, some of which are demonstrated by the example of the digital city model: The digital tour of the bombings in WWII needs more layers of telling than the mere presentation of the impacts of the bombings on the screen. Needed is an accurate and well-researched textual introduction to the historical events, now provided on the screen and of course ideally through a guide. Without these additional layers of explanation, historical education through digitization will not be as effective.

main menu of the tour on the bombings of WWII – Visitors can access information about WWII and bombings on the city of Minden.

Indeed, it requires more than just digital objects on a screen. Experts describe the way of dealing with digitization in the cultural, museal field as “Digital Cultural Heritage.”[i] The possibilities opened through digitization call for the discussion of visualization, presentation, and publication of digital artefacts. For Silke Schwandt, digital history is an evolving field of historical research that offers a wide array of application in museums. Therefore, digital representations such as interactive maps or 3D models of historical artefacts like in the Mindener Museum, allow visitors to interact directly with the displayed materials in ways that were formerly unavailable. Certainly, the opportunities of digitization are wide. You can think of using tablets to provide tours through the museum, virtual reality apps on the smart phone to bring portraits to life, or 360° experiences to set visitors into a historical scenery for example. In addition, digitization reduces the risks of damaging the originals, since visitors explore historical manuscripts on the screen. Imagine that you can scroll through the Declaration of Independence or letters from Bismarck virtually. Nevertheless, Silke Schwandt pleads for an intersectional dealing with digital elements. Most applications of digital tools in historical research, and the museal sector as well, do not make human interaction, interpretation, and communication obsolete:

“Historical information or insight tends to be more complicated than can be shown in a simple diagram. Historians stress the fact that there usually is more than one answer to a research question, more than one interpretation of the past. To meet these demands, digital representations in museums, or in any other context for that matter, should therefore be interactive in a way that allows the visitor to see more than one linear interpretation and maybe even arrive at their own interpretations after interacting with the material.”

What does experience design mean in a museal context? As Julia Becker says, in most people’s minds, the general idea of visiting a museum is being a passive spectator who gets to see exhibits and gains information. Therefore, application of experience design to this practice literally could turn visits into experiences that speak to several senses and put the human at the centre. The visitor would become a participant and their once passive position changes to a more active mode of participation in the experience. If a museum is able to tell stories and has the financial means to try out something new designing an experience for a museum can establish a memorable user journey, even if it breaks with traditional expectations for museum visits.

According to experts that are mentioned above, here are some pieces of advice (or guidelines) for doing digital history at the museum:

First, you should reflect about what digitization could yield for your museum. Digital elements in the exhibition can be a useful supplement, visitors still come to experience history primarily by looking at historical artefacts. Therefore, one should evaluate how much the museum on the one hand, and the visitors on the other, can benefit from digitization. Your curators should keep in mind that technology needs frequent maintenance and technical problems can arise every time. One should ensure that there is sufficient personnel capacity to manage failures in case. The Mindener Museum, for example, has its technician Mr. Wurm who is responsible for the digital city model. If there are problems with the image resolution or with the beamers on the ceiling – he is the one who fixes them.

Second, digital objects need thorough and accurate historical research as a basic preparation for their display in a museum context. The digitized objects or experienced stories may be as astonishing as ever, but no one will benefit from it without solid information about the historical content: ‘What kind of an object is it?’, ‘In what time period was it produced?’, ‘How has it survived over time?’ and even more questions should be asked and answered about an object. Of course, this can be very difficult and sluggish if you do not find the information at first sight. But to set the object into context makes it interesting for visitors. They want to know the content of the presented objects to connect this background information with knowledge they already have. Therefore, the basis should always be historical research by professionally trained historians. Without ensuring the accuracy of the historical context, the museum would fail its educational mission.

Third, the museum needs financial means for digitization. That can be digitized objects on a screen or ideally, experience design. Either need capacity in manpower and money for preparation and curation over time. The goal should be that digitization will be an additional enriching element in the exhibition and not a handicap. Remember that every digital project needs time and money to develop it from the first idea to the fully finished product. In addition and in the best case, every museum should have an in-house technician like Mr. Wurm. Besides the care of the technique, this person can share his or her knowledge with your curators to arrange technical solutions for your grand digital vision. The group of students who developed an additional virtual tour for the city model was in close exchange with the technician of the Mindener Museum to see if the historical maps fit on the screen, if the resolution of the image is good enough for presentation, and if the beamer lights are set correctly.

Fourth, while experience designs have to fulfill historical standards, they also have to adequately represent the complexity of story structures and narratives. Making history alive via digital tours through the museum or via virtual reality, for example, usually requires curated historical research. If experience design is interesting for your museum, curators should keep in mind that all playful and historical elements are connected to another and that the historical content must be worked out carefully. For example, the group who is currently working on the digital tour through the Mindener museum is still struggling with the conflict between the playability of historical stories. Is it allowed to change the historical facts of the escape tour just to provide a positive end and a feeling of success for the visitors? This question is not as simple as is looks at first sight and requires a huge amount of reflection on the side of the students. Beyond that, one has to take into consideration the different types of experiencing. Which mode fits to your historical artifacts and story?

At last, one has to live with gaps in historical storytelling. Every historian stood for the challenge that some questions stay unanswered. This is okay and the risk of historians, who should stick to what they know. (In that case you should only spread proven knowledge.) Do not take the trap of inventing historical fiction just for entertaining. The 3D-printed crest from the 17th century has shown how difficult it can be to deal with physical objects in a digital world. While the student read a lot of literature, it turned out that only a few pieces of proven information could be provided by the museal documentation and the research. Of course, he would have loved to share deeper knowledge of this crest. But in the end, he had no other choice than to stick to the information he could prove if he wanted to contribute to the educational task of the museum. The fact that there remain open questions about objects such as the 17th crest that even experts cannot answer remain is shared with the visitors.

If you plan digital or playful elements in your museum with these thoughts in mind, it could be a great opportunity to take the next step into to the 2020s. Exhibitions and educational work can support the ways by which museum visitors experience history in different ways. It can set them into the view of an historical character; it can open up historical files and hidden objects in the archives; it can give visitors the opportunity to experience history in an unexpected way. In short, while it should be carefully prepared and conceptually balanced, it gives visitors the chance to experience history in more than just one traditional way.


[i] National Museum of American History Behring Center, Collections, (access 04/09/2020 5.10 pm).

[ii] Deutsches Historisches Museum, Sammlungen Dokumente & Filmarchiv, (access 04/09/2020 5.20 pm).

[iii] Julia Becker, Philipp Koch, Silke Schwandt, Interview, February 26, 2020. All statements that are mentioned in this article refer to this interview.

[iv] Silke Schwandt, “Digitale Methoden für die Historische Semantik: Auf den Spuren von Begriffen in digitalen Korpora.“ Geschichte und Gesellschaft 44, no. 1 (2018), p. 107-134, here p. 108-109.



Cite this blog post
Laura Maria Niewöhner (2020, May 1). Digitality and museal landscape – a contradiction? Critical thoughts on digitization in the museum. h r e f. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from https://href.hypotheses.org/1732