The Digital Wrecking Ball: Collapsing Walls between Museum Disciplines

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The Digital Wrecking Ball: Collapsing Walls between Museum Disciplines

By Trish Oxford|@TrishatReynolda

After launching our digital wing,, in September 2013, we invited Museum Hack, an atypical New York-based museum-tour company, to apply their visitor-curated approach to our online collections. We stepped out of the way and let young art enthusiasts interact directly with our objects. What happened next made us a better museum.

The Curatorial Conundrum surfaces

Museum Hack curated an online gallery and wrote three blogs fleshing out their choices. Witty, dynamic, fresh - their commentary was everything we wanted, except it was wrong. Well, one part was. Ethan of Museum Hack wrote about George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election, but attributed John Sartain as the artist. However Sartain is the engraver, not the artist. *We discovered that the logic of our database-interface was not presenting the nuances of artist/image maker and engraver. Ethan’s observations were valid based on the information that our digital record provided.

Light on our Feet

Our Interpretive, Collections, and Marketing departments all came to the table with their respective expertise and priorities to work together. As a result, Reynolda House acted in real time to engage our visitors through our digital collections. Changes were made in matter of hours. Organizational debriefing, action, and reflection occurred in days. And we worked with our website developers to create a systemic solution for all digital records with multiple constituents, which was implemented one week after we discovered the issue.

Our staff embraced the fact that the Museum’s expertise got lost in its digital translation, an unexpected discovery that we decided as an organization to handle with transparency.

The Rhizomatic Museum

Visitor engagement occurs everyday in the physical Museum and creates similar Curatorial Conundrums. However, every learning moment in the digital space is held under a microscope and magnified to the nth power for the world to see. Our experience with Museum Hack demanded that Reynolda House be a cross-collaborative institution that blurs the lines between museum disciplines, a challenge the Museum met.

The digital paradigm shift requires a non-hierarchal Museum with multiple entry points and pathways for change in order to create a space for the constant exercise of interpreting, imagining, reacting, and reflecting, an iterative process that mirrors our museum's institutional philosophy. Therefore, the digital museum must be a dynamic entity in a perpetual state of improvement. Excellence becomes a process, not a goal.


Related entries:

Museum Hack Hacks the Collection online gallery 
Museum Hack Blog Series back story on the Museum Hack online gallery picks 
Museum Hack/Reynolda House partnership media release

[Editor's Note: On 3-26-14, the original text of database was changed to database-interface to more accurately describe the source of the issue.]

Want to learn more? Follow #HackReynolda to see our discussion on Twitter from Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 2 pm.


Posted on behalf of the Meghan Maher, Assistant Manager of Collections.
While I love how thorough and enthusiastic it is, I had one concern regarding your blog post, "The Digital Wrecking Ball: Collapsing the Walls between Museum Disciplines" and  I wanted to share it. 
The biggest part that caught my attention was the 2nd paragraph, where you state that Sartain was not the artist and that The County Election should be attributed to George Caleb Bingham. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite catch the nuance of the situation. Bingham is the originator of the image content and the artist of the painting on which the lithograph is based, but Sartain is indeed the artist of the lithograph.  It's this idea of the physical object versus the intellectual content that can become confusing! It would be more accurate to say:
"Ethan of Museum Hack wrote about The County Election, a lithograph that was created by John Sartain but based on the original painting by George Caleb Bingham. Because our website attributed the piece to Sartain, Ethan wrote his response as if Sartain had created the image's content, and drew connections that ultimately proved to be false."

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