Virtual Museums and Repatriation

I would like to applaud Google this morning for the  important new project that it is undertaking in Iraq.  As the New York Times reported yesterday,  Google will be creating a new virtual Iraq National Museum,  by imaging the museum’s crucial collections and placing them online.  In a press conference yesterday in Baghdad,  Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Iraq officials and journalists,  “I can think of no better use of our time and our resources  than to make the images and ideas of your civilization available to all the people of the world.”

Like many,  I am a little skeptical about what use Google might eventually put these images to. The megacorporation has already digitized vast numbers of books (including two of mine) without obtaining permission to do so,  and the company is now trying to purchase sweeping digital rights to these books in a lawsuit hardly anyone understands.

But leaving that aside,  I’d like to point out that Google is far from alone in its interest in creating virtual museums.   Indeed,  some research teams are already way ahead of Google.   At the Unversity of Arkansas,  for example,  a team at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technology led by Angie Payne has already scanned some 350 artifacts from the collection of the Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park in Wilson, Arkansas.   The result is the Virtual Hampson Museum.

The Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park holds an absolutely superb collection of Native American pottery,  particularly from the Mississipian era.  Now with the Virtual Hampson Museum,  researchers can perform basic measurements on the artifacts and gather data for analyses,  without scraping together grants for traveling.  This will be very important for struggling graduate students in years to come.

Moreover, as more and more museums repatriate key artifacts from their collections–either to Native American tribes or to  countries of origin– 3-D images of the artifacts can be still be preserved online,  providing access to all.  I’d call this the best possible solution right now to a very sticky issue.

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