Archiving Thoughts: Museums, the Internet and the Nature of Knowledge

Originally published on Spoonfed, September 2011.

What is knowledge today? As John Walsh laments the death of the reference book over at the Independent, it’s time to realise that, gradually, but with increasing speed, our concept of what knowledge is or ought to be has altered almost beyond recognition.

I walked past the British Library the other day and noticed their enticing new slogan: “Step inside – knowledge freely available.” It got me thinking that in some ways information has never been so widely or immediately accessible. Within seconds anyone with a computer and a half-decent internet connection can locate obscure pieces of information about virtually anything, and share them with people anywhere in the world. But information, unfortunately, is not the same as knowledge – and the internet is notorious for the recklessness with which it disseminates information as fact.

Perhaps then we should begin to look elsewhere for our knowledge, back to these  traditional repositories of learning. Because what is interesting now is the way many institutions – notably the Museum of London, Wellcome Collection, National Maritime Museum, and, of course, the British Library – are looking to move away from the idea of knowledge as something locked away in a box and placed on a shelf out of reach to all except the select few.

All of these places, in their very different ways, are working hard to change the way we access knowledge. The Museum of London, for example, have opened up their archives (known as LAARC) to the public in the form of occasional guided tours, one of which I’m lucky enough to attend. Usually this building is a hang-out for academics and serious researchers: my friend Alex Cassels carried out his PhD research into late medieval dress accessories here, and describes LAARC as “the most extensive collection of archaeologically significant artefacts in the world”.

But it’s not just about academic research. Visiting is a fascinating experience, following the archiving process from the start, when sacks of dirt arrive from archaeological digs, right through to pieces being classified and filed away for future reference. We examine a medieval copper buckle, a Roman writing tablet, even a bone fashioned into an ice-skate. Did you know that clay tobacco pipes are so common that they even have their own abbreviation (CTP)?

What’s interesting for me is the insight into the way these objects are organised, classified, and archived – and how, through these processes, knowledge is not only stored but produced. This is specialist knowledge, of interest to archaeologists and academics, but there’s no reason to stop anyone sharing it too. As the guide (one of a team of award-winning volunteers) tells me near the end of the tour, “anyone can come if they want particular information”. This is the kind of openness and accessibility that is so important now.

Likewise, the ever-wonderful Wellcome Collection have recently started hosting events and after-hours tours round their lovely library. I’m given a one-on-one sample tour with Ross MacFarlane, one of the library’s Research Officers, and it’s a real eye-opener. The central atrium of the library itself is an elegant 1930s affair, whilst the walls of another room are lined with Frederick Cayley Robinson’s enigmatic Acts of Mercy series (last seen at the National Portrait Gallery). It’s crammed with all sorts of weird and wonderful titles – from histories of sexuality to investigations into the effects of alcohol, and one section entitled, simply, Sewage. We examine an 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (freely available on the shelves), 17th century local government surveys and even a letter written at the start of the Great Plague in 1665.

There’s an immediacy about this kind of research – a directness that can only help one to think of the past afresh. As Cassels puts it: “It’s only by getting hands-on with artefacts that you can actually pick up the details of decoration, form, or production methods that can be missed by looking at them in a display case.” Knowledge then emerges from confrontation, from pure experience – unmediated (as far as that’s possible) by the opinion or agenda of others.

The excitement here stems not just from the sense of proximity that accompanies this way of accessing knowledge, but also from the way places like the Wellcome Collection are doing such great work of opening up the experience. Not just through the fact that the library is free, nor simply through their programme of tours and events, but through – and here we come full circle – the internet.

The Wellcome Library is currently in the process of assessing various digitisation options in order to decide upon the best way forward. But already a whole host of 17th century recipes are freely available online (although it helps to have experience of reading medieval handwriting before you’re likely to get much out of them) and more is on the way.

Most impressive perhaps is the National Maritime Museum, who recently unveiled a radical reorganisation of their archives as part of the brilliant new £36.5 million Sammy Ofer Wing. There’s a host of innovations, like the Compass Lounge, a space where visitors can interact with the archives through cutting edge (and visually exciting) digital technology, and the Compass Card, a way of encouraging visitors to find out more about the museum’s artefacts. Upstairs in the library, there’s a seemingly simple piece of software to enable access to the museum’s collection of shipbuilding blueprints. I remember contemporary artist Helen Pynor telling me how amazing these blueprints are (her recent exhibition at GV Art was informed by research carried out at the National Maritime Museum) and now they’re even easier to access.

What is most intriguing is the way in which the National Maritime Museum are in the process of re-evaluating the very concept of the museum archive. No longer is there some kind of suspicious relationship between the ‘real’ object and the ‘virtual’ representation. Here – and it’s still a work in progress – the two operate with and alongside each other. No longer, for example, is a museum website simply a marketing tool, but an integral part of the museum’s storage and presentation of the information that it holds within. It’s a fascinating development, and with the presence of a new on-site archive, one that’s of value to both excitable schoolchildren and serious researchers alike.

This is not simply another online deluge of unverifiable information. What these institutions – and others like them – are doing is opening up new paths into the archive, new ways of accessing, creating and sharing knowledge. And the result? New thoughts, new ways of thinking – and, potentially, excitingly, a reappraisal of the very nature of knowledge.