Q&A with Miriam Posner, Information Studies Assistant Professor

Museums in the Digital Age

With her explorations of such diverse topics such as surgical instruction films of the 1920s and the growth of chain stores in America, Miriam Posner seeks to find out how the creation of data on these subjects re­sults in cultural, social, and economic impact. Her work, which focuses on the inter­section between information studies and humanistic inquiry, encompasses a range of topics, including the history of medical visualization, the history and philosophy of “data,” and the movement of data and goods under globalization.

“I tend to be interested in what happens when you take, just stuff in the world, and turn it into data, and what are some of the unintended consequences, how do people interact with it, how does it create a system that circulates,” says Posner. “Those questions are relevant to lots of things.”

In 2017, Posner joined the faculty of UCLA’s Department of Information Studies as an assistant professor of IS and Digital Humanities.

For the last two years, she has taught a course on the growing field of digital environments and museums. Her interest in science and technology has led to her forthcoming book, “Depth Perception: Narrative and the Body in American Medical Filmmaking.” Her most re­cent publications include the articles “Data as Media” (with Lauren Klein) in Feminist Media Histories; “Tracing a Community of Practice” (with UCLA IS alumna Marika Cifor, ’17) in The Moving Image; and the chapter, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities” in “Debates in the Digital Humanities” (University of Minnesota, 2016).

Posner was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Digital Scholarship Commons at the Emory University Library, researching, designing and writing a grant to fund a new library-based digital humanities center. She has also served as an instructional innovation intern at the Yale University Instructional Technology Group; and associate curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY, curating, maintaining, and developing its collection of 125,000 artifacts.

At UCLA, Posner has taught a number of courses, including “Selfies, Snapchat, and Cyberbullies: Coming of Age Online,” “Digital Labor, Materiality, and Urban Space,” and undergrad and graduate levels of “Introduction to Digital Humanities.” From 2012 to 2017, she served as coordinator of the UCLA Program in Digital Humanities, working with students on projects focused on early African American cinema in Los Angeles, the Origin of the Species, and the Getty Provenance Index, which earned the students a Sotheby’s Institute of Art Research Award. Assistant Professor Posner was rec­ognized by Inside Higher Ed as one of the “Rising Stars of Digital Humanities” in 2017. She earned her Ph.D., Master of Philosophy, and Master of Arts in Film Studies and American Studies at Yale University.

Posner published a recent piece in Logic Magazine about her exploration of global supply chains and has been invited to write a series for The New Yorker based on that research. This spring she is teaching a course for UCLA graduate students and faculty on how to teach with digital methods.

UCLA Ed&IS Magazine had a conversation with Assistant Professor Posner on the growth of digital museums and the possibilities for more social equity in museum environments through community engagement.

How are you preparing students at UCLA IS for the new digital environments of the museum fields?

MIRIAM POSNER: A lot of Information Studies students are in­terested in going into the museum fields. Museum professions are changing rapidly right now with bulk digitization projects and a lot of data management questions. There are some mu­seums that choose to be exclusively online. So, the class is an introduction to digital practices in museums from a lot of different angles. They want to know how you can incorporate digital technologies into exhibits and how you manage data behind the scenes. Then there are questions on how you build online collections or exhibits.

How does the ability to digitize collections dovetail with the goal of access to museums for all populations?

POSNER: I think that there are still a lot of unanswered ques­tions about what it means to be a museum right now and I think one of them is how to meaningfully reach underserved communities in a digital way. No one’s got it worked out, but we’ve certainly seen various institutions experimenting with social media, hosting museum selfie days—taking a picture of yourself at a museum and posting it online—engaging with peo­ple on different social media channels. So, we’ll see if people find that compelling or if it just becomes part of the wallpaper.

How can museums make the general public—underserved communities in particular—more aware of museum going and making it part of their culture?

POSNER: Just because a museum is free doesn’t mean it’s necessarily super accessible. Anyone who’s ever been to a museum, even people who come from families that go to muse­ums, knows that there is something a little bit intimidating about having to stand there and look at art or artifacts right next to a security guard, or knowing what the protocol is in terms of what we can carry [into a museum] or how to behave in a museum.

Of course, if you ask people of color about their experi­ences in museums, before very long you’ll start to hear about being followed by security guards or being made to feel like they don’t belong there. So, actually there are tons of barriers to getting people from underserved communities meaningfully engaged with museums.

So, people who are thinking about that are really inter­ested in community engagement that goes beyond [simply] bringing a class into a museum and more about co-curating exhibits with certain communities, about bringing artifacts into the community rather than waiting for people to come to muse­ums themselves, and about licensing images and content from museums less restrictively so that it can circulate more freely.

How do museums approach dealing with exhibits that require cultural sensitivity?

POSNER: There are questions of what kinds of things should be digitized and be made freely available online and what kinds of things should not be circulated like that.

For example, indigenous artifacts often have cultural re­strictions attached to them. If a museum is reckless about what it is digitizing and making available, it could really harm some people. And then there are some works of art that really bear some thinking about how freely we want the images to circu­late without context.

Just because a museum is free doesn’t mean it’s necessary super accessible … if you ask people of color about their experiences in museums, before very long you’ll start to hear about being followed by security guards or being made to feel like they don’t belong there.

So, there are questions of censorship in digitizing museums—how are museums preparing themselves to deal with that?

POSNER: There are a lot of people thinking and writing about this right now. One thing that I think is really good about teach­ing the museums class in an information studies department is that our students are really well prepared to think about those questions because they spend a lot of time in archives class dealing with exactly these questions about access and owner­ship and community engagement. So, it’s a really natural fit for them to think about it in relation to museum objects.

What do you think is unique about museums in Los Angeles?

POSNER: Los Angeles is so special because it’s so colorful and riotously mixed and lively. I think in the best cases we do see some of that diversity and energy reflected in museum collections and museum exhibitions. It’s wonderful to see the communities that are being discussed actually in there engag­ing with exhibits, talking back, seeing friends in photographs —it’s really special.

You have very diverse interests—from global supply chains to museums and access—how did that come about?

POSNER: Some of my teaching really comes out of what stu­dents need rather than what I am personally researching. I happen to be in a position to teach this museums course and I care about museums so I love teaching the class. It’s not my exclusive research focus but I know it’s a big area of interest among our students.

We’ve had a good number of students who intern at the Fowler and the Hammer, the Getty. We have students at the Broad, LACMA, really all over town. Our students are definitely finding slots in museums all over L.A. We had a student go on a few years ago from my digital museums class, to work at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching “Information and Power,” which is a new undergraduate class. All of us are really interested in the urgent questions about who has access to what resources, how does misinformation spread online, how kinds of biases are embedded in algorithms—all these really urgent questions about power and the Internet.