Can our computers illuminate the dark corners of museum stores?

Its a sad picture to imagine – thousands of objects once destined for a display cabinet now boxed up and gathering dust in the shadowy depths of a storage room, unseen and unadmired. For most of us these cavernous warehouses of untapped knowledge will forever be semi-mystical stores of hidden potential. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way and with the possibilities offered by our explosive digital age even the most forgotten artifact could be rediscovered through our computers. This is the subject addressed by a new body of research currently being undertaken by Dr Suzanne Keene from the Institute of Archaeology at UCl. Entitled ‘Unlocking the treasure house with digital keys’, this project seeks to address the dual issue of low visitor figures to stored collections and the redemptive opportunities offered by digital technologies to increase public access.

Keene’s initial research suggests that an apathetic approach to marketing archival services permeates museums at all levels. Overlooking the regrettable implication that museums don’t want to deal with visitors to their collections, a happy medium to the problem seems to be to encourage the proliferation of online catalogues and resources. Whilst most museums are undergoing this process to some degree, Keene’s research hints that attention should be turned towards mobilising the current fad of user generated content pages to the cause. If museums are to fully utilise digital technologies to widen access then they should seriously consider how they can tap into sites such as Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia and interactive gaming. No doubt Keene’s work will present some erudite insights into the problem and present an array of innovative solutions to the current stagnation of collection visitor figures.

So, as everyone bats to keep up with public trends you shouldn’t be too surprised to one day find yourself linking your Myspace page up with the latest news from the Manchester Museum, maybe even visiting the British Museum’s latest blockbuster in Second Life, or inexcusably superpoking the Imperial War Museum. For the museum studies students amongst us its a fate almost preordained.

For more information about Suzanne Keene’s research visit http://www.ucl.ac.uk/storedcollections. A conference will be held in July.

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