Digital museums was the topic in our Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis this past Tuesday. One of our readings was Carol Dunmore’s 2006 article “Museums and the Web” from the The Responsive Museum. The article provides a historical perspective on digital media and museums and illustrates the British national model of museum presentation. For example, the Culture 24 website provides links to hundreds of museums and their activities throughout the UK. The Show Me website focuses on cultural heritage from a child’s perspective in Britain. The Cornucopia website provides access to information on over 6000 UK museum and gallery collection databases.
I challenged students to consider if such a system would work in the United States. I noted the lack of a systematic cross-promotion/integration of US cultural heritage institutions. For example, the Louisiana Division of Archaeology publishes a fantastic driving tour of the prehistoric mounds and earthworks in Louisiana. The neighboring state of Mississippi publishes a digital Archaeology Trails but there is no weblink between the two. Some US states do a good job of promoting within but not across their geopolitical borders.
The C.H. Nash Museum where I am the Director is located on the Mississippi River in Memphis Tennessee where east-west Interstate 40 crosses north-south Interstate 55. We routinely direct visitors to the Parkin Archaeological State Park 45 minutes west on I-40 in Arkansas, Wikcliffe Mounds 3 hours north on I-55 in Kentucky, the Winterville Mounds a couple of hours to the south in Mississippi, and Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park 90 minutes to the east on I-40 in Tennessee. We also link to all of these archaeological sites on our web page. For the first time this week, I realized that none of these sites link to our webpage.
My point is not to whine about a grievous injustice in that we promote others but they do not reciprocate. However, my observation does point to a promotion or presentation problem for cultural heritage regionally in the US. For example, the Tennessee Association of Museums lists 32 member museums in West Tennessee. An interesting pattern quickly emerges when examining the member websites. There is a reasonable probability that smaller museums will link to other museums in the region or those with similar topical interests. There is very little probability larger venues will link to anyone other than themselves.
Or consider the presentation of archaeological venues in a region. The Hopewell Culture Center (HCC) at the Mound City Site is operated by the National Park Service (NPS) in Chillicothe Ohio. However, there is no listing for the HCC on the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) website that owns other archaeological sites and museums of the Hopewell Culture within 50 miles of the HCC. Nor does the HCC list any of the OHS sites located as close as 50 miles from Mound City. As well, the homepage for Fort Ancient a Hopewell Culture site in Ohio, owned by the OHS but operated by Boonshoft Museum of Discovery does not link to any of the other Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio whether operated by the OHS or the NPS. In sum, depending on which website a visitor hits first, one might conclude there is one museum that interprets the Hopewell Culture in Ohio (NPS or Fort Ancient web sites) or many (the OHS).
A devil’s advocate reading the above paragraph can offer lots of “yeah but . . . if you go to this webpage and click here and then . . .” to my examples. However, the point is finding relevant museums should not be that hard. I am going to Leicester England in January for a conference where I will spend a few days roaming about the country. To the extent I am interested in museums on prehistory for the area, I suspect the Culture 24 link will give me good direction. Were someone from Leicester to visit Memphis, the same single source for information is not available.
“We have met the enemy and he is us” so sayeth Pogo. In a time when many cultural heritage venues are seeing reduced visitation and tax-based revenues, we should strive to become easier not more difficult to access. I have a set of books on all the places to stop between Lake Itasca, Minnesota where you can walk across the Mississippi River in two strides and New Orleans, Louisiana some 2000 miles downstream. I keep the NPS brochure in my car for all of the cultural and natural stops along the 400-mile Natchez Trace that crosses three states from Natchez, Mississippi to just outside Nashville, Tennessee. Developing a simple brochure or web presence for a Mississippi River archaeological trail between St. Louis, Missouri and Natchez, Mississippi ala the Great River Road could provide a similar resource. Consider applying for the $2000.00 Southeastern Archaeological Conference Public Outreach Grant by December 1 as seed money for this project!
What are your thoughts on the need for promoting cultural heritage institutions in the US?