A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to attend MCNx in London, where I sat absorbing ideas that ranged from how big projects can be stacked and cut like a cake, to how to add and use TripAdvisor data to understand museum’s visitors, and to how an integrated approach (of skills, knowledge, and communication) is best practice for the success of ‘digital’ in museums. One of the highlights for me was Arran Rees’ (2018) presentation where he asks “why should a museum collect social media?” and where he explores the difficulties that museums face when trying to collect and preserve such objects (e.g. memes, gifs, social media photographs). His presentation was thrilling because it adds a dimension to my own research interests and because at the same time I had been reading (and trying to digest) Ross Parry’s (2007) Recoding the museum: digital heritage and the technologies of change.
In this book, Parry discusses how digitization affected museum’s cataloguing systems and their approaches to collection management. Of particular interest (to me) is his discussion of (im)materiality, authority, and authorship – especially the notion of ‘e-tangibles’, that is “objects that are grasped through the intervention of the a computer” (2007, p.68). E-tangibles are (im)materially fluid, they occupy a spectrum that ranges from the digitally born to the digital surrogate, and between those that are created and acquired by the museum.
Where does social media fit in this spectrum? Such objects can be created and acquired by the museum, but I am not sure how to place them in the ‘born – surrogate’ axis. My struggle comes from the modularity/fluidity of social media posts and what can be collected at any given time. For example, an Instagram post is based on the platform’s code, which leads to how it visually appears to us on a screen. The functionality of the platform is entirely dependent on our embodied usage and engagement, when we become Instagram users we also become producers and hosts to others’ behaviours (e.g. likes, comments, saves, etc…) – so then if our content belongs to us, who do these behaviours on the post belong to? If a museum were to collect an Instagram post, would they collect comments and likes that others have left? Can we anatomically dissect an Instagram post and attribute different authorship to its parts?
Instagram is one of the preferred platforms for selfies and images that depict our relationship to other humans. What happens when a museum collects images where the subject is a person? Do the people in the images become
objects part of the collection? What ethical and moral boundaries of such collecting practices?