Material Culture online

One of the sessions I attended today at THAT Camp was on material culture (led by my friend Arden Kirkland – see her blog post and webgroup).

This is something I’ve given passing thought to, or tangentially considered, but never thought of seriously on it. What I said in the session was that, for me, the ideal presentation of an object online is not a single web page. It involves: a representation of the image on its own; at least one image of the object in its historical context; a description of the object; at least one documentary mention of that object or a similar object.

To flesh this out, take for example a silver teapot from 18th century (take a look at the teapot in the Domestic Furnishings Collection at the Smithsonian or this teapot from the National Museums of Scotland ). The stand-alone image could be a still image, like the examples, or a QTVR which you can launch and rotate, to really see the object. This image should be in a neutral background, as museum collection images often are.

The second image, or set of images, would be the teapot on a tea table. Ideally, it would be the same object with other objects from the same set or era, on an appropriately dressed table. That’s not always possible, but even images of tea tables from period prints and artworks would help viewers understand the object in context.

The description would hopefully be a happy medium between the two museums I’ve linked. I like that the NMS exposes some of the data in list form, giving you materials, dimensions, place of creation in a quick-read layout. The personal history and general information about teapots on the Smithsonian are also useful for (again) providing context. If I were creating a page on the teapot, the text blocks would be broken into “teapots” and “this teapot” sub sections, with the statistical information under or next to that.

Finally, show how we find these objects in documents. Include a page from a goldsmith’s ledger or a storekeeper’s account book, or a mention in a letter. In my work, I start with the documents and seek out objects, while some of my colleagues start with objects and then turn to the documents. However you work, the objects and the documents are in concert, and I think it’s important to show that on the object’s page if you can.

Obviously, building a series of pages like this would be labour intensive. The best implemtnation might be with a furnished room in a historic house; web visitors could start with the room, go to the object’s page, move through documents, back to the room, and explore.

Many, many thanks to Arden Kirkland for proposing this session for THATCamp, to Laurie Kahn for sharing with us some of the ideas that didn’t get used when making A Midwife’s Tale, and to everyone who participated in the session. If you want to know more, there are notes from the session on the THATCamp09 wiki.