Curating Digital Images:
Ethnographic Perspectives on the Affordances of Digital Images in Heritage and Museum Contexts

The DFG-funded research project “Curating Digital Images:  Ethnographic Perspectives on the Affordances of Digital Images in Heritage and Museum Contexts” brings ethnographic perspectives to bear on practices of digital curation in museums and heritage. The project is based at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and located within the DFG priority programme “Das digitale Bild” / “The Digital Image”. With its main applicants being Christoph Bareither and Sharon Macdonald, it couples the research expertise of CARMAH with perspectives and approaches of media and digital anthropology, as well as information science, with Elke Greifeneder as project co-applicant.

Key Perspectives

The key theoretical perspective of the project draws on affordance theories to explore how the digital image, through its specific practice-potentials and practice-restrictions, affords particular practices of digital curation. The project is not only interested in the curation practices of professionals here, but is specifically interested in the practices of digital curation enacted by laypeople whose experiences in the context of museums and heritage are significantly transformed through the digital image. Two interconnected empirical studies explore these transformations ethnographically. The first study, conducted by Katharina Geis, examines how users of digital image archives and virtual museums view, search, sort, alter and creatively rearrange digital images and for what purposes. The second study, conducted by Sarah Ullrich, concentrates on the digital image practices and social media activity of museum and heritage visitors. The two ethnographic studies will be enhanced through an eye-tracking study, conducted by Vera Hillebrand at the iLab at the Berlin School of Library and Information Science, which will demonstrate the potential of methodological innovation at the intersection of ethnography and information science. The work of the researchers is supported by student assistant Tabea Rossol.

Besides providing new empirical insights of value for both research and practice, the project will make a significant contribution to the conceptual and theoretical debates of the DFG priority programme “The Digital Image”. From an ethnographic perspective, the particularities of the digital image – and therefore its theory – can only be understood in relation to the practices surrounding and enacting such images. Thus, the question “What is the digital image?” is not to be answered by theory and by examination of the images alone but is, crucially, about their lives in use.

Work Area 1: Digital Archives & Virtual Museums

Work area 1 concentrates on the curation of digital images that can be found in online museum databases and virtual museums. For several years many museums and heritage institutions have been, and still are, heavily invested in digitizing their collections and making them accessible to the public. Those archives offer online visitors the opportunity to browse museums’ collections from all over the world, at any time of the day. Many institutions provide open access to these resources so that online visitors can download and use them for different purposes. The question arises who uses these archives and what people actually do with the digital images of art, artefacts and photographs that can be found online. How do these digital images become part of and influence the daily life of their users? Practices might range from browsing the archives for a new desktop background, for art and handicraft inspiration, research and teaching materials, or collaborative projects like hackathons that remix and reuse images in creative new ways.

The ethnographic research in this work area will explore and examine how and which images users share on platforms such as Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Flickr. Additionally, research will closely work together with several project partners, including the renowned plattform Europeana, to find users who engage with digital museum and heritage images. The curation practices of how and which images are shared or used for different purposes and in different everyday life contexts will be investigated to find out what online visitors find interesting, which practices digital image archives afford and what is perceived as missing, what is important to users and how do the images find their ways into conversations with friends and family.

Work Area 2: Social Media & Visitor Practices

Work area 2 concentrates on the curation of digital images through visitor photography and social media practices in the context of museum and heritage. Social media platforms are offering their users the opportunity to literally put themselves into the picture, not only through selfies and digital portraits, but also through the expression of individual emotional and aesthetic experiences through photographic images of museum objects and spaces. On platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, users make these images accessible to the general public and reflect, communicate and shape their impressions and experiences of the museum visit. Here, the digital images are integrally related to the process of curating the museum visit: social media users capture, select, change, optimize and sort them – and when the images are uploaded to the respective platforms, they are often contextualized by comments or emojis and are categorized through hashtags and hyperlinks.

Accordingly, research in work area 2 goes beyond dealing with already digitized exhibits. Instead, it focuses on how visitors themselves become an integral part of digital transformations  in the field of museums and heritage. The ethnographic research will not only capture the opinions of visitors, but instead also recognizes the everyday logics inscribed into media practices in order to understand how or to what extent digital images are an essential part of the museum experience.

Methodological Innovation

Our methodological approach aims for an innovative combination of ethnographic perspectives and eye tracking methods used in information behavior science. While eye-tracking offers the chance to grasp the visual perception of visitors and users in the process of curation and thus reaches a level of sensory analysis beyond the scope of ethnographic research, the ethnography on the other hand provides additional contextual knowledge to better interpret the sensory data and understand its social, cultural, emotional and aesthetic implications. For work area 1, it will be of interest to invite users of virtual archives to the iLab and use eye-tracking technologies to record the practices of seeing as part of curating processes, while the study participants visit the pages of selected online archives and browse through the options offered there. The movements of the pupils can be tracked and recorded, giving us information about the affordances of the archives and the incorporated practices of the users. For work area 2, the possibilities of mobile eye-tracking systems, which are particularly suitable for field studies outside the laboratory context, are considered to be particularly productive. For this purpose, we will ask museum visitors to continue their visit with so-called head-mounted eye trackers, an eye tracking technology that can be used to film and record both the eye (in order to recognize the viewing direction of the pupil) and the surroundings. In order to be able to contextualize the automated measurements of the gaze directions and facial expression with ethnographic knowledge about heterogeneous emotional and aesthetic experiences, we will look at the film recordings with the participants of the study after their museum visit and evaluate research-relevant aspects together with them.