The quality of content in ACI is due to the rigor of our selection process and to the incredible scholarship and credentials of scholarly bloggers publishing in their fields. Due to this selectivity in content and academic contributions, ACI is proud to highlight exceptional blog authors in order to showcase their work and inspire other scholarly blog authors… and today’s author spotlight is on Dr. Steven Lubar.

Dr. Lubar has a BS in Humanities and Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD in the History of Science and Technology (American History) from the University of Chicago. He is currently a Professor of American Studies, History, and the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University.

In addition to topics in these overall disciplines, Dr. Lubar’s interests include the digital humanities, material culture studies, and the history of museums and memorials. In his On Public Humanities blog, Dr. Lubar tackles these and other topics and issues in the public humanities.

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Read on for ACI’s full interview with Dr. Lubar.

You received your BS in Humanities and Science and your PhD in the History of Science and Technology and American History. Have your interests in the humanities and science always gravitated towards the history of those areas, or did that come about later?

I started off thinking I’d be an engineer or mathematician, and discovered that the history of those fields was more interesting than the fields themselves. My first area of interest in the history of science was the history of alchemy, astrology, and magic — I was working on the idea that they were better explained as technology than as science — but then moved on to the history of American technology. My dissertation was on the nineteenth-century textile industry in Lowell, and I was curator of the history of technology at the Smithsonian for many years. That’s where I became interested in museums, and then the history of museums. That’s where most of my work is now.

There is a lot of interest right now in the “digital humanities”. In some cases, academic departments are urged to rework projects to involve digitization or other efforts that use technological applications. Aside from cataloging needs, are museums mostly immune to that? Are there any hidden benefits in the digital humanities trend for those artifacts or collections that don’t fall neatly under that umbrella?

Many museums are fascinated by the possibilities of the digital. They’ve got a good foundation for that, for two reasons. First, they can build on a century of good record keeping and a few decades of digitizing collections records. Museum care about metadata, keeping track of things, and they have always photographed their collections. And second, outreach (often free access) is fundamental to the work of museums. The Web serves that purpose admirably.

On the other hand: art and artifact are the core work of museums, and neither are particularly amenable to the digital. Art gains from presence; artifacts are defined by their thingness.

The challenge for museums has been to take advantage of these possibilities while not losing what makes them special. One answer is to consider the ways in which museums as social spaces translate to the Web. Another is to imagine new combinations of the virtual and physical, looking for synergies. Might we overlay the virtual — the history of an object, its context — onto the real thing? Museums are good at that.

I am fascinated by the way that digital humanities techniques has opened up new ways to explore museum history. Many museums have good records of acquisition, conservation, display, and use. Those records released through APIs or open databases, offer some new insights into the history and art history as well as museum history.

Many of your posts discuss the importance of a museum’s collections management system (CMS). In one post, you note that an inclusive CMS bridges the curator’s traditional focus (an object’s pre-museum history) with the registrar’s traditional focus (an object’s in-museum history). What factors do you think have prevented an inclusive CMS from being the accepted standard to this point?

Collections management systems have a complicated history in museums, right back to their earliest days. In part this is politics: collections are power in museums, and curators have not always wanted to share nicely with registrars and others. In part, it was practicality; earlier systems weren’t as useful for the kinds of information curators cared about. But the possibilities of bringing together all of the ways of knowing and using objects into one system are enormous, and I think we’ll see more of that.

What can museums – and other archival collection entities – do differently now to move towards that being the future standard?

Like so many other areas of digital humanities, rules about what you as a scholar, or the museum as an institution, get credit for will help to shape future work. As these systems become more open to the public, their value will increase. Right now, they’re mostly of internal use, and so they’re hidden infrastructure. We need to find ways that we might publish to the public within the museum database, rather than within an academic journal, or an exhibition, or public program.

A hundred years from now, the full “life history” of an object would include its 2016 experiences (a small part of its roller coaster ride). Is there a tendency to defer the full value or worth of an object until a certain amount of time has passed? And if so, would having an inclusive CMS standard in the future help to counter that?

There’s an increasing interest in “contemporary collecting,” curators acquiring things in present-day use. There are many advantages: you can document them better, with oral and video histories. Of course, it’s much more difficult to know what to collect. It might be interesting to consider ways to tie a contemporary artifact’s virtual life into the CMS of the life in the museum. Can we collect its Amazon sales history, the way it is advertised on line, the photographs taken of it, even (before too long) its place in the “internet of things”? What if we collected the documentation that accompanies almost every object today as part of its museum record, and brought it into the museum as part of its file?

How do you go about selecting topics for your On Public Humanities posts? Has your approach changed since you first started the blog?

Some of the blog posts, especially recently, are presentations to conferences or workshops. Others are documents that I wrote for my students that I thought might be interesting or useful to a wider audience. Early on, I wrote more think-pieces, as a way of working through ideas on various topics.

Do you have any advice for students or early-career researchers in the humanities (and other areas) who want to blog but worried about whether their ideas are “new” or “valuable” enough to contribute?

I encourage students and others to blog. In part, it’s just good practice in writing; the blog post is short enough to be quick to write but long enough to make an argument. Not every post needs to be “new” or “valuable” – it’s part of a conversation, a way of participating in a community interested in the things you’re interested in. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a kind of sharing. It builds community.

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