Beaujot on Herman, 'Reconfiguring the Museum: The Politics of Digital Display'

Ana-Maria Herman. Reconfiguring the Museum: The Politics of Digital Display. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2023. Illustrations. 320 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-228-01425-6

Reviewed by Ariel Beaujot (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

Ana-Maria Herman’s book is a deep dive into an iPhone app used by the McCord Museum as part of its 2011 “Montreal Points of View” exhibit, a savvy and quite brilliant use of a case study in what Herman calls a “sociotechnological approach” to digital historiography (p. 6). Based on augmented reality (AR), the app under study, “Urban Museum App”—developed for the iPhone and sold exclusively by Apple—allows museumgoers to take the “Points of View” exhibit out of doors, to walk the city using the smartphone map and camera to overlay nineteenth-century images of Montreal’s urban landscape on that of the present day. The exhibit, making extensive use of the McCord’s collections, covers 375 years of history from First Nations and settlement, to periods of French and British colonization, to more recent landmarks that have come to define the city’s identity. And the app makes use of a photograph collection of nineteenth-century images of Montreal in six zones of the city. Herman sees McCord’s use of digital AR technologies from the framework of actor-network theory, which collapses the distinction between human actors and nonhuman objects and thus explains social, cultural, and technological phenomena as the products of the intersections between, in this case, the app, the human operator, the museum as a space, and the physical and geographical landscape of a city governed by both natural forces (cold, sunshine) and human-made constructs (buildings).

Reconfiguring the Museum: The Politics of Digital Display makes a number of contributions to the field. Herman’s research framework is innovative and allows her to read the digital app fluidly, to see how it fails at delivering a particular user experience as well as how it succeeds. The app is not straightforwardly good or bad, effective or ineffective, innovative or obsolete; it creates a tourism/museum experience that empowers visitors while also rendering them vulnerable to its errors, malfunctions, and security risks. The app itself, designed to contextualize and historicize urban spaces in a streamlined, effortless, efficient way, is limited (even, humanized) by the elements beyond its control: busy streets, sunlight, tall buildings. By looking very closely at this single app, Herman is able to ask important questions about technology and the humanities, such as whether we are as vulnerable and subject to control and surveillance as we might think. For example, when the app malfunctions due to human error or a burst of sunlight reflected off the screen or by the encroaching twilight or tall buildings, it is completely disrupted. And, while the app does gather detailed Google Analytics data that would seem quite valuable to the McCord—museums being spaces that famously surveil us, always wanting to better understand what drives visitors to stay and look—the resulting data, Herman discovers, is not of much use to the museum. The combination of the analytic data dump and the cost-prohibitive nature of creating, altering, and maintaining an app specifically tailored to the exhibit means that the museum may collect data, but will not be able to use it—raising questions, Herman notes, about the ethics and reach of digital surveillance technologies in museum studies. The app, exclusive to Apple smartphones, is also limited by its accessibility and availability in a city in which the iPhone is less dominant than other smartphone technologies.

Another key finding useful for other museums interested in using AR technology is that the nineteenth-century images overlaid on modern-day Montreal project images of upper-class white men onto a city that now thinks radically differently about gender, race, and control. Visualizing a cityscape dominated by Anglophone names, Catholic priests, and all-male university classrooms after centuries of struggle to emancipate and escape such ideological dominance and oppression has an effect that the curation of the app failed to address.

Concerns about accessibility, albeit in a different context, also mark my experience as a reader: the book markets itself toward a general audience but is centered on complex, theoretical historiography that will likely challenge readers outside of the discipline and field. The introduction, notably, is densely theoretical and difficult to wade through. This is a shame because it is precisely the innovative theoretical approach she takes to “reading” this app that makes the book so important; a strong grasp of actor-network theory is required to understand the whole. However, once placed into the context of a case study in ensuing chapters, her arguments become clearer and more solid. As I am a digital humanist who also does exhibition work outside of the museum proper, work that is similarly space-based, Herman’s work makes me think about my own project in terms of how the specific technology employed in these embedded projects can distort or enable or mediate user experience. And with the choices of more stable technologies—for example, local or regional phone and messaging services—erased and replaced by bleeding-edge technologies like an app exclusive to Apple or (in my case) Amazon Web Services, questions like the ones Herman is posing about our place in the stabilization of infrastructures that favor specific technologies are required of digital humanists and will become foundational in museum studies. How, for example, can we change, adapt, revise, or tailor technologies over which we have very little control? How does one curate a proprietary app? And is a user, empowered with the responsibilities usually upheld by the museum and the curator—lighting, security, interpretation—truly “free” to explore when the app, due in large part to its high price, delegates important decisions about which images can be shown to parties outside the museum (such as sponsors)?

I found the appendices extremely helpful; these include the researcher’s notes and experiences using the apps, surveys used, data collected from observing people’s use of the app, and cell phone use data. The surveys, while interesting, are quite limited in how representative they truly could be of user experience: the in-house exhibit survey has only thirteen responses, and the app-based exhibit has eleven. This is just not enough to get a strong sense of what audiences are thinking. The limited scope of this data also means that case-in-point examples (included in the introduction, conclusion, and body text) are often repeated and insular.

Citation: Ariel Beaujot. Review of Herman, Ana-Maria, Reconfiguring the Museum: The Politics of Digital Display. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.