Keyword searching and advanced text mining techniques have transformed the way many historians discover and use textual primary sources. For numerous technological and disciplinary reasons, digital tools for discovery and analysis of material culture objects lag behind the sophistication of those for textual scholarship.
This is surprising given the extent to which the web has become a vast virtual museum, as Jennifer Reut argues in her introduction to a forum in the November issue of Perspectives on History that investigates how digital scholarship is beginning to transform the ways in which scholars access and utilize objects. Scholars involved in innovative digital work on material culture have written about their projects and the benefits and limitations of using digitized image archives and virtual collections of objects. The web offers scholars the ability to discover and view images of objects from museums and other collections across the globe, making materials previously inaccessible easily available, but this kind of availability has risks associated with it. There is an often-forgotten difference between the physical object and its digital surrogate, as Martha Sandweiss makes clear in her piece on working with digital image archives. She also writes about the very important differences between experiencing an archive in person and using it on the web.
One of the most powerful things the web allows is the building of virtual collections. Many museums only have a few examples of a given type of object (especially items of ephemera), and building large databases of images and associated information about those objects can provide scholars with the tools to make connections that were previously difficult to draw. By virtually connecting quilts from collections across the country, the Quilt Index allows scholars to ask new questions. Like the Quilt Index, the Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran site brings together objects from a number of different physical collections and connects them with a range of other documents, including poetry, travelogues, letters, and other types of documents that allow the user a far more complex understanding of the history.
As more work is done with digital material culture, better tools are being developed to do interesting things with the resources. Algorithms that can recognize patterns in images and match those patterns to similar ones in a database of images are rapidly gaining sophistication (think here of the face-recognition technology employed by Google and Facebook to identify users), and these can allow questions about provenance and influences. Other recent developments include 3D scanners that create virtual models that can be virtually manipulated on screen, and the re-creation of objects utilizing 3D printers. AHA staff member Vanessa Varin describes this technology in a recent blog post about her trip to a Smithsonian event on 3D. Prognosticating about the future of this research would be fruitless. The one certain thing is that what will be possible in a few years is difficult to imagine now.