In the first lockdown of 2020, MAA was confronted with the limits of its digital offer. It realised that it had a few digital assets that would enable it to engage online audiences, which had suddenly become its only audiences – and it certainly did not have digital materials that would empower collaborative online work.
Since then however, the Museum has made some progress. In 2020 itself, it launched its online collections portal and embarked on a large-scale Stores Move project as part of which over 250,000 objects from MAA’s current off-site stores will be moved to the new Centre for Material Culture, a historic nuclear bunker. This project has massively added to the digital accessibility of the collections in MAA’s care; catalogue descriptions and other documentation have been updated, mistaken identities of objects and collections have been restored, each object has been photographed and safely packed. Further to this, all of the Museum’s Accession registers are digitised, historic catalogue cards are currently being scanned, and a project on African Provenances made digital copies of thousands of letters and archival documents relating to African collections.
But digital assets do not equal access. The Museum felt that it needed a space for engagement with these assets, and for people to facilitate these engagements. In 2021, the Museum received a donation from Ms. Xiao Rong to establish the Digital Lab, a project which seeks to increase the visibility and accessibility of the world cultures collections at MAA through digital engagement. We recognise that digital platforms and methodologies can support reaching new audiences, diversifying voices, and incorporating decolonial practice and perspectives within the galleries, the reserve collections and beyond. We want to use these tools and methodologies to explore new ways of working with, showing, and talking about collections: to do things that cannot be done within the physical space of the museum.
Our ambition is to tell global stories and highlight connections between the peoples and material heritage of Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The stories we hope to tell will critically and creatively engage with such connectedness, in the present, past, and in the future. We have identified a few themes with which to explore the collections, but we are not limited to them, and open to suggestions for new and different ones.
Our outputs include a series of blog posts which explore wider themes, issues, histories, and debates through the lives and stories of particular objects and collections. Each post starts with an object at MAA, but then it is up to the author where and how far to take the narrative. We will also be developing digital versions of past and ongoing physical exhibitions at the Museum, in an attempt to create an archive of exhibition history which can be revisited to inform critical and decolonial curatorial practice. And, we will be developing digitally born exhibitions exploring different themes, narratives, and projects at the Museum. Our outputs will be programmed regularly throughout each year of the project, linking to local, national and international projects such as the UCM Legacies of Empire season or significant commemorations and initiatives that relate to the collections.
Our project is managed by a Project Team and a Steering Committee. Part of the Project Team are Dr. Mark Elliott (Senior Curator in Anthropology, MAA), Dr. Jimena Lobo Guerero Arenas (Senior Curator in World Archaeology, MAA), Dr. Zilan Wang (Affiliated Researcher, MAA), Aayushi Gupta (Research Assistant, MAA). Part of the Steering Committee are Professor Nicholas Thomas (Director, MAA) and Ms. Xiao Rong.
We are committed to producing and commissioning new digital content that increases access to the collections at MAA, that tells new and complex stories about artefacts and the people and events connected to them, that makes research and scholarship visible to a wider audience, and that diversifies the voices and perspectives that speak to and for the collection and the Museum. If you would like to contribute or get involved, then please do get in touch!