Opinion

Bringing Collections to Life

OAKLAND, Calif. — Floating around the web right now is The Whale Warehouse, a terrific look behind the scenes of Los Angeles’s Natural History Museum. Produced by KPCC Los Angeles’s AudioVision, it brings to life the collections in a new way, with a tour of a “warehouse down the street from a meatpacking plant in the most industrial part of LA.” We’re taken past the unassuming doors and into a treasure trove of samples — “a library of specimens” — where the museum houses oversized specimens that don’t fit in their main cabinets.  That, of course, is whale bones, hippotami, gazelle, and other large creatures.

It’s a mesmerizing look behind the scenes, a win for KPCC’s new video series, which builds on its excellent radio programming, but also a win for the Natural History Museum. While most museums maintain collections in some fashion, the general public is often not aware of this. The public-facing elements of the museum — i.e., the exhibitions and talks — make up only one small part of what a museum does. This video is one way to bring those collections to the general public without demanding the extra curatorial or conservation work that a public visit might require.

It’s part of a larger trend, and one that I think is quite positive. Earlier this fall, the Morgan Library and Museum announced that their entire drawings collection would be digitized, a yearlong process that will make 10,000 images available for the general public and scholars alike. The Brooklyn Museum has long been known for its rich online collection, of which they’ve uploaded “only a fraction,” while UCLA’s Fowler Museum, and the Getty Research Institute are busy digitizing their collections, as are many others. And on a tour of the construction on LA’s new Broad Art Museum, I learned that visitors will get a chance to peek behind the scenes at their collections floor through strategically-situated windows.

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There’s educational value to this trend, but also artistic value.  Recently, I wrote about the work of Kevin Weir, who mined the online archives of the LIbrary of Congress to produce some stunning animated GIFs. Some of LA’s most compelling street artists took a cue from the Getty’s historic book collections. And the Asia Art Archive’s online collections have seen the re-creation of some of Filipino artist Roberto Chabet’s more temporal works. As more collections come online, we should expect more compelling ways for the public to experience them.

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