This week in #hist5702x I seem to have nosedived head first into my relationship with the digital world. I am now aware that the relationship I am entering will be unpredictable and rocky at times as I learn our dynamic. But wow, this learning is also full of surprises, delights and just amazement at the opportunities and possibilities of the digital world and my relationship with it.
I have been reading about and exploring 3D representations of physical objects in public history environments. Digital technology allows public historians such as museum curators and educators to digitize physical artifacts, archaeological sites and even telescopic images of stars and galaxies in space and three dimensionally recreate these for the public to interact and engage with. For an example of this in action, check out the Smithsonian’s X 3D project here. This is really neat, definitely one of those delightful moments of amazement I seem to periodically feel towards the digital world. Sure it looks neat, but what implications does 3D historical representation actually have for public historians?
Well, according to Tom Scheinfeldt in his bit on “Theory, Method and Digital Humanities” and Western University’s William Turkel, Devon Elliot and Robert MacDougall, digital technology and representation encourages historians to experiment and to creatively research and express their historical work. Historians are actually taking on the challenge to move beyond the traditional textual documentary record and written evidence and to engage with physical objects fabricated from that textual or visual material through digital technology. Such physical materializations allow historians to ask new questions and consider new perspectives and approaches – opportunities that are available only by having these new physical dimensions of the historical past. Take the Smithsonian’s 3D representation of Lincoln’s Life Mask for example. Having this artifact digitally represented allows historians to manipulate, rotate, zoom around, and actually just play with an artifact that would have otherwise been treated with total caution. Furthermore, this digital representation is publically accessible for any historian, or non-historian, globally as long as there is an internet connection. This technology is accessible, interactive, engaging and encourages new kinds of historical research, approaches and understandings. It encourages historical representations of the past through a medium other than the traditional text on paper. What is not to love? (Might I be falling in love?)
Not so fast! There are some consequences of digital historical representation that I do not think were adequately addressed in these week’s readings. Digital technology changes historians’ relationship to the archive and the archival and artifactual documents they consult for their research. Those familiar with Jacques Derrida and his notions of Archive Fever, and have experienced it themselves, know that feeling of obsession when in the archive, searing for that one archival document perfect for your research. There is a certain smell of the archive and museum storage room, and there is a certain sensation felt when you finally touch and handle the artifacts or documents you have been looking for, actual physical objects of your academic passion. Historians’ sensory relationships and physical connections to their histories are threatened by 3D digital technologies and representations that make it possible for researchers to avoid that trip to the archive. I am not sure if I am ready to give up this relationship, however romanticized.