Museums and the Web 2005

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

The Museum of the Person-Indiana

Philip B. Stafford, Indiana University, USA


This paper describes the goals, activities, and challenges of developing an on-line museum of life stories and memory in Bloomington, Indiana, U.S.A. A summary is provided of the conditions that should also be met to create an international network of Museums of the Person in partnership with other nuclei in Brazil, Canada, and Portugal.

Keywords: Virtual museums; life stories; oral history; community memory


Don Robinson, of Bloomington, Indiana, is a gentleman with a significant developmental/intellectual disability. His story is important and the Museum of the Person-Indiana ( has supported its telling.

I was born in Baltimore. That's where my mom was from. My grandfather, my mother's father, was born and raised over in Ireland. My dad was a hillbilly from Kentucky. That's how my mom met my dad. I've been back and forth, Baltimore, Kentucky, Indiana. We used to travel in the back of a pick up truck. I lived with my sister in Arizona, and in Indiana with my brother when he worked at Crane [Naval Surface Warfare Center].

We lived in a one-room bungalow in Gary, [Indiana] all five of us. It wasn't easy for my mom. That was a lot of work to do, raising a family with four kids. When my mother was pregnant with me, she was working in a bomb factory during the war, when Hitler was alive. I was home with mom a lot. I never went to school because of my handicap. I just sat around the house. I got sent into the hospital in Baltimore because my mom couldn't handle too much. If you can't handle too much, well someone's just got to go. You know what kind of hospital I'm talking about. It wasn't a place to be, for anybody. I got kicked around a lot. It was bad. This happened a long time ago.

I'd like to see my family more often. I went to see my brother Randy last year from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It was cold in Nevada. We gambled every Saturday, won some money. The second Saturday we went to the movie Lord of the Rings. We went out to eat and we went shopping for shoes. I didn't get to see my sister Nancy in Reno. My brother Rick lives in Florida. You never know where he'll be. He travels back and forth. So I don't know what to do right now, because I don't hear from him too often.

If I won the lottery, I'd probably go to Miami, relax in the sun, go fish, go on a big boat ride, go water skiing. I'm pretty happy. I went to Golden Corral on my birthday last year. I've got food in my tummy and a roof over my head. That makes me happy.

As an individual who is outside of the world of writing, the ordinary opportunities for Don to establish a record of his being here are few and far between. Insofar as the Museum can serve to host his presence in society, the goals of inclusion are advanced, however slightly. The work involved in creating such a presence is not light. In this instance, Don was initially engaged through an introductory photography class that brought together amateur photographers and adults with disabilities to "picture their world". Photographs taken, reviewed and selected by class members became the framework for a community photography exhibit designed to reveal the perspectives and lifeworld of adults with intellectual disabilities. The collection of photographs taken by each participant then became the foil for further, in depth interviewing and the creation of a written and approved life story, authored with the assistance of an editor.

This example serves, of course, to point to the distinction between stories by and stories about. When it comes to people marginalized by such differences as intellectual disabilities, poverty, dementia, illiteracy, etc., writing tends to be "about" them and not "by" them. It is not suggested that the former is necessarily inferior nor the latter more natural in any sense. Indeed, as Don's story demonstrates, he takes upon himself the power to talk "about" others. Hence, the difference between these forms of writing centers upon issues of power and authority – who gets to write, and that, among other things, is a central goal of the Museums of the Person in Brazil, Canada, Portugal, and in Indiana, U.S.A. Typically, history is written by "accredited" historians. They have the power to represent others. Similarly, agents of development and change have too often proceeded without effectively listening to the testimony of those most affected by change (Slim and Thompson, 1993).   Without delving too deeply into the current and important intellectual discourse surrounding the idea of post-modernism and the cultural construction of reality, it is averred that the Museum of the Person-Indiana simply seeks to redress the balance a bit and provide a voice to those who too often are unheard.

The Role of The Museum of the Person

Put concisely, the Museum of the Person provides a base from which individuals and groups can influence other's interpretations of their capacities, memories, lives, experiences, opinions, and dreams… that we can develop a corpus of people's history equivalent in volume and access to that offered in traditional historical texts.

This corpus, then, can serve:

  • To reveal (or, from a post-modern perspective, to invent, as in Wagner, 1981; Clifford and Marcus, 1986) shared historical experiences; in effect, to create new cohorts and to frame the academic term cohort into a category of experience.
  • To reveal commonality in experiences of oppression, exploitation, marginalization, and, importantly, commonality in forms of resistance and strengths.
  • To ally previously disconnected groups, e.g., through action based on common experiences among traditionally separate groups such as those with old age, disability, and poverty.

For this to happen, however, the Museum project(s) would need to exhibit very specific  elements.

Requisite Elements

Authors (here defined as individuals submitting stories) must be motivated through a sense of personal or social gain (including altruism) to reveal their personal stories.

In Museum of the Person projects, we have cited potential personal gains in both psychological and social terms. With respect to psychology, older "exhibitors" evoke the spirit of Erik Erickson in speaking of the achievement of closure and ego integrity incumbent upon the process of life review (Butler1963). For participants of any age, the Museum provides a platform for establishing and signifying personal identity. From a social standpoint, participants are often motivated by multiple attractions – a family or community-minded desire to leave a legacy that informs a "good life" for those coming after; a politically inspired desire to assure that certain events and oppressions are remembered; a simple, reciprocal response to the requests of valued others to participate in an important and satisfying social activity.

The varied motivations of individuals and groups to participate in the development of the Museums must be considered and are pertinent to the gathering process, the Web design, the infrastructure, and the "ownership" associations of the Museums.

Readers (Web site visitors) must find compelling reasons to visit the Museum sites or they will subsist as passive archives eventually subject to dissolution.

Hence, Museum developers must entertain plans to market the sites. Again, this has relevance to web site design, data base infrastructures, search strategies, and networking with both virtual and real museums and other social and educational institutions.

With respect to participation on both ends of the process (from authoring to reading), the key element of success has and will increasingly involve the goal of embedding the Museum of the Person in real world, face-to-face participation projects. Insofar as community change can't, by definition, occur in cyber-space, there must be a strategy to situate the Museums of the Person in the lifeworld of individuals and groups 

For the Museum of the Person- Indiana, and for the other nuclei museums, this strategy has been implemented in a variety of engaging and meaningful citizen participation projects such as streetside video cabins, story sharing workshops, intergenerational oral history "clinics", design charrettes, mapmaking events, and memory projects.

Authors and readers must have access to the web tools implied as necessary tickets to participation.

This is, of course, a huge issue and speaks to the vast digital divide separating, for the most part, wealth and poverty (and the associated features such as disability, age (young and old), geographic isolation, powerlessness, and minority or stigmatized status). The challenges for the Museums of the Person, therefore, relate to the development and inclusion of web accessibility features, culturally competent web page design, translation features, and, most basic, access to computers.

Lastly, authors and perhaps, readers, must trust in the activity and not be subjected to potential risks associated with participation.

In many parts of the world, speaking one's mind and revealing one's identity can entail serious risks to life and liberty. It is no small request to invite an individual to create a permanent record available to a completely unknown audience. Museum developers must pay serious attention to policies of confidentiality, security, copyright, ownership and representation. Moreover, as life histories change, as long as one remains alive, there must be a commitment to "stay open" so that participants can revise their histories over time.

These challenges are significant, and the Museums of the Person do not claim to have resolved them. They do, however, provide a basis for an evaluation scheme – a set of benchmarks to gauge progress as the movement grows, and a set of ethical standards by which proposals for new nuclei might be judged. Currently, the members of the network have signed on to a set of organizing principles, and conferences such as this provide the opportunity to learn how these principles can be transformed into action.


Butler, R. N. (1963). The Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence in the Aged. Psychiatry 26:65-76.

Clifford, J. and G. E. Marcus, eds. (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkely: University of California.

Slim, H. and P. Thompson, (1993). Listening for a Change: Oral Testimony and Development. London: Panos.

Wagner, R. (1975). The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Cite as:

Stafford, P., The Museum of the Person-Indiana, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at