Observations from the Interface: Photography, Ethnography, and Digital Projects at the Pitt Rivers Museum
This chapter looks back over 10 years of putting photograph collections online at the Pitt Rivers Museum (hereafter PRM), the University of Oxford’s museum of anthropology and world archaeology. This has been a period of intense activity on externally funded research projects, digitization, and website and database development. Through a series of case studies, I will discuss ways in which images of historical photography have been ‘translated’ online, and the strategies employed by the PRM’s curators and project staff (including, reflexively, myself) in negotiating interactions with collections within a digital environment. External expectations of online access to museum collections by the PRM’s many different audiences have risen rapidly over this period, and yet the institution has continued to rely on short-term project funding to deliver online resources, none of which build capacity within the Museum to update or sustain such resources. Although the PRM was an early leader in digital research projects relating to ethnographic collections, important questions now arise about the long-term relevance and sustainability of these early projects. These concerns are coeval with a dramatic shift in Internet trends in recent years, which have taken a decided turn away from a curated and authoritative, yet static, web delivery of museum collections, towards a more open and collaborative set of possibilities characteristic of social media, in which participatory information sharing and interoperability have become standard features of a more devolved set of digital connections to heritage. This chapter also explores in detail the PRM’s distinctive and deliberate curatorial decision to foreground the materiality of photographs in its online research spaces, a policy intended to reinforce the intellectual point that online images are not coextensive with photographic objects, and that questions of materiality might still be usefully communicated.