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The Case for Artifacts in a Digital Age

September 9, 2019 • History Factory

With continuing advances in virtual reality, green screens and 3D printing, archivists and museum professionals are often asked why artifacts are still on display in their institutions. What is the difference between using an image or replica versus a genuine artifact? While it is becoming a quick and easy process to scan artifacts, there is still immense value in keeping and preserving primary materials. The artifacts that you keep provide insight into your values and into the lives of those who came before you.

What We Gain From Keeping Artifacts

When handling and observing an original object, you see the craftsmanship, the conditions in which the item was used, and what it meant to someone based on how well it was cared for. A book can provide insight into paper-making practices, ink types and binding methods. You can even find hidden treasures inside the binding of old books. Artifacts give us the opportunity to experience materials in the way that our predecessors did.

What we don’t immediately see provides just as much, if not more, information. For example, the smell of letters written during World War II can tell us about chemicals and perfumes used at the time. The scent, touch and craftsmanship of an artifact cannot be fully translated to a digital version. In the midst of advances in anthropology and other scientific research, we are constantly learning more about artifacts. Digitizing the first edition of a product and then discarding the item would mean significantly limiting what more could be learned from it.

Using Artifacts to Demonstrate Values

Pictured: historical Coca-Cola merchandise and vending machines. These are artifacts in the company archive.
The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta

The historical objects that companies keep illustrate corporate values and set the tone for future endeavors. Artifacts tell the world what is important to an organization. Small businesses often hang the first dollar they earned on the wall behind the cash register. A larger business may display its founder’s notebook in the front lobby. A nonprofit may have a family photo album in the conference room to illustrate its dedication to its founding family. A photo of an item offers some awareness of the item and its significance, but the real object holds much more power. You can edit a digital image, but artifacts are concrete. Companies that are dedicated to preserving originals are showing that they remember who they are and why they do what they do. Artifacts are something tangible in a digital world.

The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta does an excellent job of using artifacts to highlight the soft drink’s history and values. Visitors can view hundreds of thousands of artifacts and taste countless Coca-Cola products from around the world.

Artifacts Inspire

Artifacts can inspire corporate employees in the same way that old-fashioned storytelling does. When a company exhibits the original 1903 immigration documents of its founder, it is inviting employees to persevere now, as it did long ago. Original technical drawings from a company’s history can inspire today’s engineers as they pursue innovations and solve problems. Pictures or reproductions of these drawings may provide the same information as the original. But when we see the indents of pen strokes on a page or feel the ridges in an original prototype, we feel closer to those who came before us. When we surround ourselves with evidence of our past accomplishments, great ideas develop.

The Hard Rock Cafe places heavy emphasis on history and the value of artifacts. At every Hard Rock Cafe around the world, you can find hundreds of thousands of authentic music industry artifacts. These objects from the history of popular music inspire visitors and employees alike.

 

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It is impossible to save everything. Artifacts get lost, damaged or thrown out. As you move forward with developing your identity as a business, it is important to consider what sorts of artifacts you’re creating today and what artifacts in your history best illustrate what you value. Your artifacts may be more than 100 years old, or they may have been created last week. You might want to dedicate a room or an entire museum to them, or just a small corner of your lobby. What’s important is recognizing the value of your artifacts and using them to strengthen your cultural heritage.

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