Archives by proxy: The digital object as archive

2:45 PM Posted by Ian Alden Russell
As part of the Brown Digital Lunch reading group I was introduced to an interesting development in creating digital solutions for archival access to sensitive pieces of museum collections. Whether or not  digitisation or designed applications for access stem from the same drive as the traditional archive, it is perhaps useful to acknowledge that the digital object generated through digitisation can be as ephemeral as gesture and perhaps more susceptible to degradation into entropy (or at least obsolescence) without constant vigilance and presence.

From the L.A. Times

The J. Paul Getty Museum is using new technology to provide a close-up look at an old treasure.
The Augsburg Display Cabinet (c.1630) is a German Kabinettschrank, a piece for storing and exhibiting  valuables and curiosities.
The wooden cabinet, which is about 29 inches tall, is the star attraction of one of four newly reinstalled galleries in the museum's North Pavilion. It rests on a Renaissance marble table with each of its four sides open to reveal an array of drawers, doors and cupboards.
Visitors aren't allowed to touch the cabinet -- which means they don't get the chance to fully appreciate its craftsmanship and complexity.
That's where the Getty's technology comes in.
"We are always looking for ways in which we can enhance the viewer's experience," says Erin Coburn, head of the museum's Collection Information & Access department. During a discussion about the pavilion's reopening, she says, "A curator suggested we do something to help people understand the Augsberg cabinet in a way other than just staring at it."
Coburn and her colleagues created an "interactive" -- a virtual model that computer users can spin, open and reassemble. This model is accessible via two touch screens in the gallery and on the Getty’s website at
The Getty also has enabled online computer users to view and interact with a floating 3-D simulation of the cabinet, thanks to Augmented Reality technology, which combines the real and the virtual in real time.
"With Augmented Reality, you have a marker on a piece of paper," says Coburn, "and it has certain information embedded on it and when you hold it up to a Web camera, the camera recognizes that it's telling the computer to do something."
Coburn says interactives are becoming more common in museums, but "what's unique for [the Getty] is that this is being installed permanently in the gallery."
Augmented Reality has been used commercially, Coburn says. "However, we weren't aware of it being popular in a museum setting. But this seemed like a perfect opportunity to try it out."
To view the Augsburg Display Cabinet with Augmented Reality technology, go to
-- Karen Wada


A series of conversations and reading groups bringing students and faculty at Brown University together with artists, researchers and professionals from a wide range of international and interdisciplinary perspectives, Archiving the Ephemeral is a valuable discursive space for researchers and practitioners concerned and critically engaged with the authoritative agency of the archive in the arts and humanities. More information [here].

Made possible by a grant from the Office of International Affairs, Brown University.


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