Material Culture in the Digital Frame: Introduction

Jennifer Reut, November 2013

The use of digital images for research is so ubiquitous in every kind of historical inquiry that it's taken for granted, but it's surprising how little we've interrogated the implications of using these images instead of the actual material objects for our research. Though the idea of the virtual museum goes back nearly as far as our common use of the web, or even to the time of CD-­ROMs, in the last few years the production of digital images of historical objects has exploded. As server space, consumer tools, and institutional missions have rapidly evolved, we've seen a mind-­numbing escalation in the sheer volume and variety of images we can easily obtain.

We've been living with access to vast quantities of images for about a decade, and it's been an undeniable benefit for historians. High resolution images of historical newspapers, paintings, archaeological finds, textiles, tools-­the whole wealth of material culture on which so much first-­hand research has relied-­has been scanned and uploaded to the web for our use. And there is more every day.

Now that we've started to see the scope and possibilities of aggregating so much visual data-­making it searchable, linkable, and downloadable-­it may be time to ask a new set of questions about how our research might be changing because of it. This forum was brought together in order to begin to shape those questions. Rather than discuss the utility of having so many images, so much visual data at hand, we asked the authors to consider two questions. First, how does the shift to a digital alter our understanding of the materiality of these objects? Martha Sandweiss takes this on in her essay on the photograph, which recognizes both the positive and the negative consequences for studying that medium. Secondly, we asked what can now be done that would not have been possible without the digital tools we now have? Two web-­based projects, the Quilt Index and Women's Worlds in Qajar Iran, responded to that provocation in very different ways.

What comes across in all three essays is that, while the tactile, olfactory, or even architectonic experiences of the material objects can never be adequately conveyed through what is (at least now) the primarily visual medium of the web, many of these objects would not or could not ever be experienced in person. The questions raised by the study of material objects in the digital frame are not easily satisfied, but perhaps, as the historians in this forum have demonstrated, there is potential for  new insights we have not yet even imagined.

—Jennifer Reut