Are Brick-and-Mortar Museums Something of the Past?

The National Council of Public History recently shared an article concerning the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. There has been a long-term goal of establishing an education center on the National Mall to accompany the memorial, but because of the lack of funding, the plan for the 40,000-square-foot building has been abandoned. The educational center would have housed exhibits featuring artifacts and oral histories, but in replacement of that, it has been proposed that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) will partner with existing institutions like the National Archives and the National Museum of American History as well as develop online resources, mobile exhibits, and other technologies to enhance the experience of visitors to the memorial.

By engaging with digital technologies, the VVMF avoids museum risks such as upkeep costs, fleeting public interest, and the slashing of funds which could involve staff cuts, selling artifacts, and closure. However, concerns about a lack of a building to house Vietnam exhibits were raised. Some believe that avoiding a museum is an example of disrespect for veterans of America’s most controversial war.

The author of the article, William Vaillancourt, is clearly in favor of the digital method the VVMF has chosen. The VVMF has already developed useful digital resources: their website and their app, “The Wall.” Their website features teaching tools, databases of photos and stories, a photo album of items left at the memorial, and a project called the “Wall of Faces” which endeavors to put a face to each war victim. The app hosts information about POWs, soldiers missing in action, the Tet Offensive, and the memorials history and controversy. Vaillancourt also outlines that the VVMF would partially avoid the cuts Congress makes to agencies that promote historical learning.

Are digital technologies wholly sufficient in replacing a physical museum or educational space? When faced with funding cuts, it is tempting to think so. However, I think when both are used in conjunction, it creates an environment that can host multiple media platforms which can accommodate a variety of visitors who learn in different ways. There are those who like to and need to see physical objects to help them understand a historical era, person, or event. A physical place can also be used as a place to facilitate important discussion about the content in the museum or educational space. But that is not say that others do not benefit from a technological aspect that promotes engagement with history. For example, augmented reality help audiences to understand and interpret historical context. There is something to be said about accessibility. Digitization, app development, and other digital methods used for historical purposes can democratize history. Museums and other historical spaces can sometimes be hard to get to as they are often located in urban areas and having a digital exhibit, archive, or other point of access allows those from rural or international areas to have some sort of approach to history education.

Let me know your thoughts about physical museums and digital history in the comments.

To read the article in full, you can find it at this link:

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1 thought on “Are Brick-and-Mortar Museums Something of the Past?

  1. I was sorry to about the plans for the educational center being scrapped, I think this is a big loss!! I agree with you Katrina – digital and physical mediums provide different experiences, and for me there is certainly something lost when you translate physical exhibits to the web. But as you said, there are benefits to the digital exhibits, accessibility being a big one. In an ideal world, I think a museum should exist in both a physical and digital space, but as we all know the world is not perfect! It is something to strive for at least.

    With that said, I do think the physical and digital spaces should maintain something unique to themselves, rather than be exact duplicates of each other, leaving the visitor to both something new to discover.


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