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Wolfsonian Museum To Use Largest-Ever Donation To Go Digital

Five million dollars will go a long way toward helping The Wolfsonian-FIU museum share its collection with the world.

That amount represents the largest grant ever received by the 18-year-old Miami Beach museum and the single biggest award promised to any organization in 2012 by the prestigious Knight Foundation, a champion of community engagement and the arts in South Florida. It will make a vast amount of the museum’s collection accessible in the next five years, at no charge, to anyone around the globe with an internet connection.

Annually, FIU’s internationally renowned museum sees some 35,000 visitors, welcomes about 200 researchers and presents several dozen lectures and exhibits. Those numbers will explode as The Wolfsonian begins a transformation.

“The whole world is changing,” says Wolfsonian director Cathy Leff, summing up why the time to act is now.

Brave new digital world

“I think that museums still need to be physical spaces. There’s nothing that replaces looking at a real object,” Leff says. “But there are other experiences. It’s about access, about access to information, to images, to knowledge.”

Leff is talking about the digital age, which The Wolfsonian has embraced unequivocally. The museum has undertaken a painstaking process of photographing the museum’s 120,000 or so objects and then bolstering the accompanying data – the name of the artist or manufacturer, the year and place of origin, the media from which it was created, etc. – that goes along with each image to make online catalog searches productive.

“It’s a fascinating challenge,” says digital asset manager Derek Merleaux, who is overseeing the process.

The collection represents the art and design associated with the height of the industrial revolution, in the mid-1800s, to the end of World War II and includes such things as the first mass-produced home appliances, early movie cameras, modernist dinnerware and all manner of visually arresting propaganda.

“There are these huge drifts of material within the collection that are virtually unexplored,” Merleaux says, “which is, I think, the other reason for promoting digitization: You can pore through the stuff, you can explore, you can sort of roam the collection in a way that was never possible before.”

Building connections

That thrilling potential – to put the collection fully online to help users find items of value to them – is the impetus for The Wolfsonian’s digital push.

“It’s about sharing knowledge and information and then not knowing what will happen once you do that,” Leff says. “When you put groups of scholars with different interests together a lot of new and interesting ideas and projects and research comes out of that. So we want to create a type of online environment that fosters these intersections and connections and networks.”

Figuring out just how to make all that happen will require help.

A digitized collection on its own “has absolutely no importance on the world,”says Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED Conference. He recently visited the museum to discuss with Leff and others how to encourage use of the digital resource for knowledge creation, content generation, sharing and dissemination among user-groups, even creative production.

The ultimate goal, he explains, is to help users “answer their questions.” How The Wolfsonian’s digitized collection puts users at its center to “engender their joy, their curiosity – that’s the interesting problem.” How The Wolfsonian might best do that, even Wurman cannot say definitively right now, but a proposed technology advisory board – which will include leaders in the world of information technology – is currently being assembled to address that very question.

A museum of ideas

The drive to engage a broader audience – one based on interest rather than geography – comes out of The Wolfsonian’s mission to encourage individuals to
explore “the persuasive power of art and design” so as to better understand “the social, political and technological changes that have transformed our world.”

Says Leff, “We are more than a collection of objects. We’re a museum of ideas, and that’s really what it boils down to: How do you get people to understand all the ideas that are embedded in objects?”

Elizabeth Heath, a history professor at FIU, recognizes the challenge. “This is a classic problem,” she says. “As historians, we’re very well trained to read texts critically, but how do we turn a similarly critical gaze toward the visual arts, toward material culture? I think The Wolfsonian’s collection provides the perfect place to engage students in those kinds of questions.”

And while the digital future looms large – “There will be students from high schools and colleges everywhere that will be turning toward The Wolfsonian,” Heath predicts – the physical collection remains the institution’s bedrock and will continue to feature prominently in upcoming activities.

Money to grow on

For example, while FIU faculty already take advantage of what the museum has to offer – several professors teach courses there and others require students to visit the exhibits or archives to complete course assignments – the museum also invites scholars from elsewhere to use its holdings by awarding research fellowships. With the Knight funds in hand, this opportunity will expand.

The grant likewise will make possible planned changes at the museum’s historic Art Deco building, including removal of a few walls and installation of new display cases to show off more of the permanent collection. And the funds will underwrite an “ideas festival” that, Leff says, will “connect the objects in our collections to the issues and events of our times.”

Ultimately, The Wolfsonian is preparing for the years ahead precisely because its collection reflects a past full of enduring significance.

“Yes, these are historical artifacts,” Leff says, “but they also speak as much today about our culture and our times as they did about their own.”

This item was reprinted with permission from FIU Magazine.

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