Curating Digital Images: Ethnographic Perspectives on the Affordances of Digital Images in Museum and Heritage Contexts


The DFG-funded research project “Curating Digital Images: Ethnographic Perspectives on the Affordances of Digital Images in Museum and Heritage Contexts” brings ethnographic perspectives to bear on practices of digital curation in museums and heritage. The project is based at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at the Humboldt University of Berlin and located within the DFG Priority Program “Das digitale Bild” / “The Digital Image”. Through its main applicants Christoph Bareither and Sharon Macdonald, it couples the research expertise of CARMAH with perspectives and approaches of media and digital anthropology, as well as information science, with Elke Greifeneder as project co-applicant.

The key theoretical perspective of the project draws on affordance theories to explore how the digital image, through its specific practice potentials and practice -restrictions, affords particular practices of digital curation. Here the project not only focuses on the curation practices of professionals, but is specifically concerned with the practices of digital curation employed by laypeople whose experiences in the context of museums and heritage are significantly transformed through the digital image. Two interconnected empirical studies explore these transformations ethnographically. The first study, conducted by Katharina Geis, examines how users of digital image archives and virtual museums view, search, sort, alter and creatively rearrange digital images, and for what purposes. The second study, conducted by Sarah Ullrich, concentrates on the digital image practices and social media activity of museum and heritage visitors. The two ethnographic studies will be enhanced through an eye-tracking study, conducted by Vera Hillebrand at the iLab at the Berlin School of Library and Information Science, which will demonstrate the potential of methodological innovation at the intersection of ethnography and information science. The work of the researchers is supported by student assistant Tabea Rossol.

Besides providing new empirical insights of value for both research and practice, the project will make a significant contribution to the conceptual and theoretical debates of the DFG Priority Program “The Digital Image”. From an ethnographic perspective, the particularities of the digital image – and therefore its theory – can only be understood in relation to the practices surrounding and enacting such images. Thus, the question “What is the digital image?” cannot, and will not be, answered purely on the basis of theory and an examination of the images alone but will also crucially involve the way the images live through use.


Christoph Bareither, Humboldt University of Berlin

Sharon Macdonald, Humboldt University of Berlin

Elke Greifeneder, Humboldt University of Berlin

Katharina Geis (PhD Researcher)
Sarah Ullrich (PhD Researcher)
Vera Hillebrand (PhD Researcher)
Tabea Rossol (Student Assistant)