Is there a point in making a medical museum like ours part of an ‘internet of things’ — i.e., a global network of miniaturised sensors and radio transmitters attached to physical things, thus connecting the material world to the digital internet?

The rapid technological development invites to leaps of museological imagination. RFID-tags and barcodes open up for a seamless connection between museum showcases/storerooms and internet sites. Just a decade ago, the ‘internet of things’ was nothing but techno-fiction. As usual when it comes to IT nothing seems to be impossible, however. There are indeed tons of technical, economic, legal, political etc. problems to be solved first, but both academia and industry have been moving along towards a realisation of the vision for some years now (see, e.g., The Internet of Things 2008 conference in Zürich in March).

I didn’t expect anything about museum applications on the Zürich programme, but I thought there would have been a workshop or session about the ‘internet of things’ on the program of the Museums and the Web 2008 conference in Montreal in early April. This doesn’t seem to be the case, which is a bit disappointing (even though there may be a few barcodes hiding behind more innocent session titles).

Because the topic has been thought of for a while. For example, archaeologist Shawn Graham (Electric Achaeologist) envisions internet-of-things-based exhibitions where visitors spot artefacts on the shelves and when pointing to the object barcodes they instantly get access to excavation reports, secondary literature etc. through the web. Internet pundit Clay Shirky imagines how even “the smallest relic in a collection” can get a RFID tag which makes it “traceable, updateable, auditable, Google-able and even be its own Web page, living on-line as well as in a glass case” (cited from Archimuse here).

There are skeptics, of course, including Shirky himself:

If we can search nationally for certain objects, would our funders then be able to ‘rationalize’ the duplicated collection items? It could be like the way national supermarket chains use EPOS (electronic point of sale) technology to track inventories and control stock levels on a hourly basis: good from one point of view – keeping tabs on collection items would be easy, but bad in that it could diminish local, regional or personal responsibility for curation and collection policy.

To such political warnings one could add aestetic and existential questions. What about the relation between unmediated material presence, on the one hand, and mediated digital information and visualisations on the other? Will the constant interpretative power of the on-line connection kill the immediacy and aesthetic apprehension of the artefact ‘itself’?

And what about the joy of being off-net? Today, museums are internet-free zones outside the ubiquitous Google empire. Can they remain cultural reservations. Will the possible invasion of RFID tags and barcodes destroy this quality? And is it a quality?

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