Interview by Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell: Your book is a manifesto of sorts of what the digital – as a relatively new domain – does for more traditional objects in museums, how the digital as a different constitution of relations is and isn’t unique, what the digital does (and doesn’t do) to our understanding of heritage, and how by engaging with these relations and configurations we can begin to see museums anew. Could you comment on what prompted you to write this book?
Haidy Geismar: Over the course of my research career, since starting in around 2000, almost all the practices I have been involved with in museums have migrated into the digital: collecting and archiving, discussions about property rights, community and artist interventions, and new forms of display, are all increasingly situated within digital media. I was struck however by the lack of continuity between previous practices and these new digital projects. There seemed to be an assumption that the digital provided “a way out”, particularly for the complex legacy of the ethnographic collection. My own empirical observations however, were showing how many digital projects were in fact reproducing concepts and issues that already existed. The case of digital repatriation is a great example, which you explored in a great series of workshops that you and Kim Christen convened at the Smithsonian which was published in the collection “After the Return”. Digital repatriation burst out of the reproductive affordances of digital media and was quickly embraced as a way for museums to redeem themselves by sharing collections and supposedly giving up sovereignty or ownership over indigenous cultures. As the papers in your collection explore, this promise was not always borne out in practice. Instead the digital came to afford a continued negotiation between source communities and museums/archives, and it became yet another site of contested sovereignty, in which the history of collecting, and of colonialism, could not be forgotten. I wanted to write a book that tracked between the digital and the analogue and argued for a ethnographic perspective on the digital that placed it in a context beyond its own.