Smudges on the glass
: Tracing and locating the museum in the British Museum’s digitised collections.

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines how digitisation affects and changes the established meanings embedded in museum collections, and makes the argument that the culture and identity of an institution can affect how it experiences and executes digital transformation. In order to make this argument, the thesis focusses on the digitisation of objects, records, and networks of relationships at the British Museum. The second core argument of the thesis emerges from this examination: that data and data models can be said to have a cultural component – and that this can be found by examining digitised collections for evidence of how decisions were made during digital transformation. Taking an approach grounded in museum studies, this research accepts the position that digitisation has ontological implications for the collections being transformed, and that these changes are communicated via the web, but are also influenced through their transmission online.
In doing so, I explore the paradox which must be addressed by those carrying out the digitisation of museum material: museums are complex spaces where multiple voices, narratives and processes circulate, this requires that, at the technical and symbolic level, they be co-operative and interoperable. However, the crucial requirement for interoperability is standardisation, and that requires simplification, which risks the loss of complexity.
In addressing this paradox, I examine how the institutional history of the Museum has influenced the ways in which knowledge and identity are presented in their digitised records, catalogues and collections, and the partnerships they have developed with external actors. The research considers the digitisation of individual objects, knowledge infrastructures in the form of database design, records and catalogues, and the Museum’s online network. I argue that digitisation is not a panacea for the problems of authenticity, authority and representation which many museums are currently grappling with, and can, at times, magnify the narrative silences and omissions evident in the Museum’s collections. The research ends with the proposition that new models of knowledge infrastructures, such as those of boundary infrastructures, might help to resolve the paradoxical tensions facing museums undergoing digital transformation.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorTobias Blanke (Supervisor) & Ruth Adams (Supervisor)

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