Cultural Studies, Digital Scholarship, Historical Studies, Humanities, Museum Studies

Exhibiting History: The Digital Future

25.04.08 | Comment?

Ultimate history we cannot have in this generation; but we can dispose of conventional history, and show the point we have reached from one to the other, now that all information is within reach, and every problem has become capable of solution. – Lord Acton, from his 1896 report to the Syndics of Cambridge University Press, in The Cambridge Modern History: Its Origin, Authorship and Production (1907)

Readers of the Cambridge Modern History at the time that Lord Acton wrote these words, at the turn of the twentieth century, were living at the end of an era of great optimism and confidence in the power of nineteenth century ways of understanding the world in all its grandeur and complexity. The ‘great exhibitions’ of the late nineteenth century offered the promise of rendering the world fully knowable through large scale systems for cataloguing, classifying and displaying information based on the discoveries of science and exploration—providing a moving spectacle that aimed to showcase the sum of accumulated human knowledge of the world and its people.  Like the major history texts, museums were also key agents for presenting and disseminating information in ways that created a sense of universal connectedness and order.

Now, one hundred years later, with the rise of the internet, information is again being displayed in ways that are new and spectacular, but without any suggestion that this might eventually lead to complete knowledge or final answers. Nevertheless, for history, heritage, museum studies and related disciplines, the new capacity to display and organise material digitally has clear parallels with the great exhibitions, whose power to attract the wider public, capture the imagination and inspire wonder came not only from the exotic nature of their content, but also from their use of new technologies of preservation, simulation and representation.

While technology has always influenced how the past is studied and portrayed, the technological revolution of interactive, networked digital media represents a massive change—greater than any other since the invention of the printing press. The effects of this have only been felt for the most part over the last decade. In the arena of historical studies, a major effect has been to dramatically enhance public access to, and appreciation of, stories of the past. We live in an age when there is far less confidence than there was a century ago in our ability to know the world and its history or our capacity to record any historical events ‘completely’—even though (or perhaps because) we have access to such vast stores of information. Faced with such a wide choice of information we can plainly see the contradictions, inconsistencies, silences and gaps, which have been long the subject of critical and cultural theories including, for example, poststructuralist and postcolonial approaches. In the last decades of the twentieth century these new critical perspectives had a major impact on how history was written in books or shown on film. They also influenced how history would be displayed in museums and galleries, and more broadly, the role it now plays in society.


Arthur, Paul Longley. “Exhibiting History: The Digital Future,” reCollections: Journal of the National Museum of Australia 3, no. 1 (2008): 33–50.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity