A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Digital adds density for the collections of museums, galleries

You have seen it portrayed in films and on TV: characters getting sucked into an artwork who can then experience it, even explore its depths through touch.

Words by Michelle See-Tho
mARChive provides interactive access to a good chunk of Museum Victoria’s collection. PIC: UNSW

mARChive provides interactive access to a good chunk of Museum Victoria’s collection. PIC: UNSW


Now, technology has actually made that experience possible. And according to Sarah Kenderdine, of the University of NSW, this is just one aspect of the future of museums.

“In the world of museums, traditional boundaries have been thrown wide open,” she told the Digital Densities Symposium at Melbourne University this week. “New media technologies are expanding our collective policies, refreshing our curatorial visions and, more importantly, renewing our relationships with audiences.” 

Professor Kenderdine, who is deputy director of the UNSW National Institute for Experimental Arts, was giving the keynote speech at the two-day symposium, which reflected on various changes in academia and art due to emerging digital technologies.


Professor Kenderdine’s research focuses on participant culture through new media in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector. Galleries and museums were once constrained by one-way communication. They presented patrons with an object, such as a painting, and the patrons simply looked at it.

However, digital technologies were now enabling two-way communication with viewers, she said. In the case of galleries or museums, visitors  could  now zoom in on ancient artworks and see detail invisible to the naked eye. They could see virtual recreations of caves for Indigenous people, for example.

During her speech, Professor Kenderdine talked about the capabilities of new technologies – particularly with reference to curatorship and museums – but  also included a warning.

“Most museums feel that they’ve solved their relationship to digital by creating a website and perhaps having apps,” she said. “The real battle is going to be fought on the floor of the museum.”

An example of the possibilities now opening up was mARChive, which Professor Kenderdine developed last year for Museum Victoria, which arose out of the difficulty of having too many items to display. Before mARChive, Museum Victoria only displayed 0.8 per cent of its 16 million items.

“Most museums feel that they’ve solved their relationship to the digital by creating a website and perhaps having apps. The real battle is going to be fought on the floor of the museum.” — Professor Sarah Kenderdine

mARChive was a digital data browser enabling viewers to examine virtual artefacts using 3D glasses and a mini tablet. Data from the museum’s exhibitions  were exported from its content management system and displayed scattered about in the data browser. Professor Kenderdine said that while a search function had not been included, nor had one been intended.

“That’s not what we’re interested in doing,” she said, adding that the aim was to draw people to collections they might not otherwise look at.

“It’s really a member of the public curating the collection through their serendipitous browsing,” she added.

Professor Kenderdine has worked on similar projects around the world with peers from international institutions.

She told The Citizen prior to her speech that participant culture was  helping the GLAM sector evolve.

“It makes museums more malleable, permeable, open and reflexive,” she said. “It is inclusive.”

The Digital Densities Symposium brings together academics, students and the public to examine the digital humanities, which refers to humanities researchers who are using new technologies for research – rather than traditional physical research methods.

The symposium also aims to provide a forum for discussions around the use of  digital technologies for research. Various academics from around Australia are expected to discuss their experiences and analysis of the growing method.

Professor Kenderdine told The Citizen: “The symposium brings together researchers who are exploring ways of doing scholarship with digital data tools and methods, and opening up teaching and learning methods.”

The symposium would reflect on the way researchers could  “sculpt” materials to assist with their research. It would allow for discussions about the way digital materials might impact consumers’ thoughts and emotions.

It also aims to address some of the difficulties people in the digital humanities face. These difficulties include the fact that the intelligence of digital media is often questioned because it might at first seem too simplistic. For example, infographics can be thought of as part of so-called low culture.

But Professor Kenderdine added:  “This will probably change the nature of museum-going forever.”

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourneā€™s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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