Ludwig-Uhland-Institut für Empirische Kulturwissenschaft

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

Gefördert von

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Teil des Schwerpunktprogramms Das digitale Bild


Prof. Dr. Christoph Bareither, Prof. Dr. Sharon Macdonald


Prof. Dr. Elke Greifeneder


Katharina Geis, Vera Hillebrand, Sarah Ullrich, Tabea Rossol


12/2019 – 03/2023

The DFG-funded research project “Curating Digital Images:  Ethnographic Perspectives on the Affordances of Digital Images in Heritage and Museum Contexts” (2020-2023) was located within the DFG priority programme “Das digitale Bild” / “The Digital Image” and  brought ethnographic perspectives to bear on practices of digital curation in museums and heritage. The project was based at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Ludwig Uhland Institute for Historical and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tübingen. With its main applicants being Christoph Bareither and Sharon Macdonald, it coupled the research expertise of museum and heritage studies with perspectives and approaches of media and digital anthropology, as well as information science, with Elke Greifeneder as project co-applicant.


Key Perspectives

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. The project is not only interested in the curation practices of professionals here, but is specifically interested in the practices of digital curation enacted 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 are being enhanced through an eye-tracking study, conducted by Vera Hillebrand at the iLab at the Berlin School of Library and Information Science, which demonstrates the potential of methodological innovation at the intersection of ethnography and information science.

Besides providing new empirical insights of value for both research and practice, the project makes a significant contribution to the conceptual and theoretical debates of the DFG priority programme “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?” is not to be answered by theory and by examination of the images alone but is, crucially, about their lives in use.

Work Area 1: Digital Archives & Virtual Museums

Work area 1 concentrates on the curation of digital images that can be found in online museum databases and virtual museums. For several years many museums and heritage institutions have been, and still are, heavily invested in digitizing their collections and making them accessible to the public. Those archives offer online visitors the opportunity to browse museums’ collections from all over the world, at any time of the day. Many institutions provide open access to these resources so that online visitors can download and use them for different purposes. The question arises who uses these archives and what people actually do with the digital images of art, artefacts and photographs that can be found online. How do these digital images become part of and influence the daily life of their users? Practices might range from browsing the archives for a new desktop background, for art and handicraft inspiration, research and teaching materials, or collaborative projects like hackathons that remix and reuse images in creative new ways.

The ethnographic research in this work area explores and examines how and which images users share on platforms such as TwitterRedditFacebookPinterestTumblr, and Flickr. Additionally, research is supported by the renowned plattform Europeana, to find users who engage with digital museum and heritage images. The curation practices of how and which images are shared or used for different purposes and in different everyday life contexts are investigated to find out what online visitors find interesting, which practices digital image archives afford and what is perceived as missing, what is important to users and how do the images find their ways into conversations with friends and family.

Work Area 2: Social Media & Visitor Practices

Work area 2 concentrates on the curation of digital images through visitor photography and social media practices in the context of museum and heritage. Social media platforms are offering their users the opportunity to literally put themselves into the picture, not only through selfies and digital portraits, but also through the expression of individual emotional and aesthetic experiences through photographic images of museum objects and spaces. On platforms such as InstagramFacebookTwitter or Reddit, users make these images accessible to the general public and reflect, communicate and shape their impressions and experiences of the museum visit. Here, the digital images are integrally related to the process of curating the museum visit: social media users capture, select, change, optimize and sort them – and when the images are uploaded to the respective platforms, they are often contextualized by comments or emojis and are categorized through hashtags and hyperlinks.

Accordingly, research in work area 2 goes beyond dealing with already digitized exhibits. Instead, it focuses on how visitors themselves become an integral part of digital transformations  in the field of museums and heritage. The ethnographic research not only captures the opinions of visitors, but instead also recognizes the everyday logics inscribed into media practices in order to understand how or to what extent digital images are an essential part of the museum experience.

Methodological Innovation

Our methodological approach aims for an innovative combination of ethnographic perspectives and eye tracking methods used in information behavior science. While eye-tracking offers the chance to grasp the visual perception of visitors and users in the process of curation and thus reaches a level of sensory analysis beyond the scope of ethnographic research, the ethnography on the other hand provides additional contextual knowledge to better interpret the sensory data and understand its social, cultural, emotional and aesthetic implications. For work area 1, it will be of interest to invite users of virtual archives to the iLab and use eye-tracking technologies to record the practices of seeing as part of curating processes, while the study participants visit the pages of selected online archives and browse through the options offered there. The movements of the pupils can be tracked and recorded, giving us information about the affordances of the archives and the incorporated practices of the users. For work area 2, the possibilities of mobile eye-tracking systems, which are particularly suitable for field studies outside the laboratory context, are considered to be particularly productive. For this purpose, museum visitors are asked to continue their visit with so-called head-mounted eye trackers, an eye tracking technology that can be used to film and record both the eye (in order to recognize the viewing direction of the pupil) and the surroundings. In order to be able to contextualize the automated measurements of the gaze directions and facial expression with ethnographic knowledge about heterogeneous emotional and aesthetic experiences, the study looks at the video recordings with the participants of the study after their museum visit and evaluates research-relevant aspects together with them.

Project Publications

Monographs and Portfolio

Sarah Ullrich: Social-Media und Museen. Wie digitale Bilder und ästhetische Praktiken die Kunsterfahrung verändern. transcript Verlag, Bielefeld [forthcoming].

Christoph Bareither, Sharon Macdonald, Elke Greifeneder, Sarah Ullrich, Katharina Heis and Vera Hillebrand (2023): Digitales Bildkuratieren. Reihe Begriffe des digitalen Bildes. Georg Olms Verlag; Universitätsbibliothek der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, München 2023 [Open Access].

Christoph Bareither, Katharina Geis, Sarah Ullrich, Sharon Macdonald, Katrin Brück, Leonie Winterpacht (Eds.): Digitales Bildkuratieren als Bereicherung des Museumsbesuchs. Ein forschungsbasiertes Portfolio für die angewandte Museumsarbeit. EKW-Verlag, Tübingen 2023 [Open Access]. 


Christoph Bareither: Curating the Past: Digital Media and the Emotional Knowledge of the Historical in Holocaust Remembrance. In: Diana I. Popescu. (Ed.): Understanding Visitor Experience at Holocaust Museums and Memory Sites. London / New York 2023, 160-175.

Christoph Bareither: Content-as-Practice: Studying Digital Content with a Media Practice Approach. In: Elisabetta Costa / Patricia G. Lange / Nell Haynes / Jolynna Sinanan (Eds.): The Routledge Companion to Media Anthropology.  London / New York 2023, 171-181 [Open Access].

Christoph Bareither: Difficult Heritage and Digital Media: ‘Selfie culture’ and Emotional Practices at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In: Macdonald, Sharon (Ed.): Doing Diversity in Museums and Heritage: A Berlin Ethnography.  Bielefeld 2022, 293-313 [Republication, Open Access].

Christoph Bareither, Sharon Macdonald, Elke Greifeneder, Sarah Ullrich, Katharina Heis and Vera Hillebrand (2021): Curating Digital Images: Ethnographic Perspectives on the Affordances of Digital Images in Heritage and Museum Contexts. In: International Journal for Digital Art History 82 (2021), H. 1, 82-99 [Open Access].

Sarah Ullrich, Katharina Geis:  Between the Extraordinary and the Everyday How Instagram’s Digital Infrastructure Affords the (Re)contextualization of Art-Related Photographs. In: Art and Culture International Magazine 7 no.7.: 117-135 [Open Access].

Sarah Ullrich:  Digitales Kuratieren der Kunst- und Museumserfahrung auf Social-Media-Plattformen. In: Ulrich Hägele, Judith Schühle (Eds.): Visuelle Kultur. Studien und Materialien. Band 14. Münster: Waxmann: 67-77.

Christoph Bareither: Capture the Feeling: Memory Practices in-between the Emotional Affordances of Heritage Sites and Digital Media. In: Memory Studies 14 (2021), H.3: Special Issue: Locating „Placeless“ Memories: The Role of Place in Digital Constructions of Memory and Identity. Edited by Huw Halstead, 578-591 [Open Access].

Christoph Bareither: Difficult Heritage and Digital Media. „Selfie Culture“ and Emotional Practices at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In: International Journal of Heritage Studies 2020, 1-16 [Open Access].

Christoph Bareither: Gefühlswissen gestalten: Digitale Kuratierpraktiken am „Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas“ in Berlin. In: Hamburger Journal für Kulturanthropologie (HJK) 13 (2021), 349-361 [Open Access].

Project Presentations

Christoph Bareither: Curating Truths through Emotional Practices on Social Media (Eingeladener Vortrag, CIVIS-Summer School "Going Public: Challenges of Contemporary Anthropology and Folklore", University of Budapest/Online, 15.05.2023)

Christoph Bareither, Pia Schramm: Digital Curation as Analytical Concept and Approach to Ethnographic Co-Design (Eingeladener Vortrag; Multimodal Digital Curating, Workshop AG Media Anthropology, DGSKA, Online, 19-20.1.2023)

Christoph Bareither: "Compose Truth": Digital Curation and Emotional Truth-Making in the Age of Social Media. (Keynote, Royster Global Conference at University of Tübingen in cooperation with UNC Chapel Hill 27.7.2022)

Christoph Bareither, Katharina Geis & Sarah Ullrich: Curating Digital Images: Ethnographic Perspectives on the Affordances of Digital Images in Heritage and Museum Contexts (Vortrag am CARMAH/Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik, HU Berlin, 23.5.2022)

Christoph Bareither, Katharina Geis & Sarah Ullrich: Kuratieren – Sehen – Ethnografieren: Zur Kombination von digitaler Ethnografie und Eye-Tracking-Methoden in der Analyse digitaler Bildpraktiken (Vortrag im Rahmen des ethnografischen Kolloquiums, Katholische Universität Eichstädt-Ingolstadt, 3.5.2022)

Sarah Ullrich & Katharina Geis: Curating Digital Images: Ethnographic Perspectives on the Affordances of Digital Images in Museum and Art Contexts (Vortrag im Rahmen des Seminars “Cultural Heritage, European Ethnology and Museum Studies (CHEEMS)”. Universität Helsinki, Februar 2022)

Christoph Bareither & Sarah Ullrich: Social Media und digitales Bildkuratieren in musealen Räumen (Abendvortrag; Ludwig-Uhland-Institut für Empirische Kulturwissenschaft, Universität Tübingen, 20.01.2022)

Sarah Ullrich: Ästhetisch-Bedeutungsgebenden Praktiken und Transformationen im Kunst- und Museumskontext (Doktorand*innenkolloquium. Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Januar 2022). 

Sarah Ullrich & Katharina Geis: Digital Exhibitions within the Aesthetic Logics and Attention Economies of Social Media (Vortrag im Rahmen des Seminars „MakerMuseum - Applied Collection Research Skills“. Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Januar 2022).

Sarah Ullrich & Katharina Geis: Digitales Bildkuratieren als Teil der Kunst- und Museumserfahrung (Vortrag im Rahmen des Seminars „Museale Krisen und Zukünfte. Eine ethnographische Spurensuche“. Universität Wien, November 2021).

Sarah Ullrich: Praktiken des ästhetischen Meaning-Making zwischen musealem Raum und digitalen Strukturen (Nachwuchsakademie des DFG-Schwerpunktprogramms „Das digitale Bild“. November 2021).

Christoph Bareither, Sarah Ullrich & Katharina Geis: ‚Kuratieren‘ als Begriff des digitalen Bildes (Workshop „Prozesse und Erkenntnisse: Begriffe des digitalen Bildes“. Universität Marburg, November 2021).

Sarah Ullrich: Art and Body – Digital Self-Representation as Practice of Aesthetic Valuation (PhD Summer Conference. Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Juli 2021).

Katharina Geis: Curating Digital Images for Knowledge Practices (PhD Summer Conference. Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Juli 2021).

Sarah Ullrich: Digital Mediation of Artistic Heritage through Visitor Photography and Social Media Practices (Tagung SIEF 2021 „Breaking the rules? Power, Participation and Transgression“. Universität Helsinki, Juni 2021).

Katharina Geis: Curating digital images – Embodied Memory Practices through
(Re)Creating Digitised Museum Artefacts (Tagung SIEF 2021 “Breaking the Rules? Power, Participation and Transgression”. Universität Helsinki, Juni 2021).

Sarah Ullrich: Digitale Ethnografie (Vortrag im Rahmen des MA Kolloquiums zum Themenkomplex „Ethnografisches Forschen im digitalen (Corona-)Zeitalter.“ Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Dezember 2020).

Christoph Bareither: Emotionen in digitalen Alltagswelten. Das Beispiel Erinnerungskulturen (Eingeladener Vortrag im Rahmen des Seminars für Europäische Ethnologie / Volkskunde. Universität Kiel, November 2020).

Sarah Ullrich & Katharina Geis: Methoden und Methodologie der Europäischen
Ethnologie: Das digitale Bild aus ethnografischer Perspektive (Workshop „Das digitale Bild – Methodik und Methodologie: fachspezifisch oder transdisziplinär?“. November 2020).

Christoph Bareither: Interfacing the Everyday. Medientheoretische und ethnografische Perspektiven auf Smartphone-Fotografie (Keynote gemeinsam mit Sabine Wirth. Tagung der Kommission Fotografie der dgv in Kooperation mit den Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin „SnAppShot2020“. Oktober 2020).

Sarah Ullrich: Digitales Kuratieren der Museumserfahrung auf Social-Media-Plattformen (Tagung der Kommission Fotografie der dgv in Kooperation mit den Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin „SnAppShot2020“. Oktober 2020).

Sarah Ullrich: Curated and Curating Bodies (PhD Summer Conference. Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Juli 2020).

Katharina Geis: Curating Digital Images from Museum and Heritage Websites for Knowledge Practices (PhD Summer Conference. Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Juli 2020).

Christoph Bareither: The Ethnography of Affordances: Towards a Methodology of Affordance Analysis in the Field of Media and Digital Anthropology (Eingeladener Vortrag, SFB Medien der Kooperation. Universität Siegen, April 2020).

Christoph Bareither, Sharon Macdonald, Elke Greifeneder, Katharina Geis, Sarah Ullrich & Vera Hillebrand: Curating Digital Images: Ethnografische Perspektiven auf die Affordanzen digitaler Bilder im Kontext von Museen und kulturellem Erbe (Initialtagung „DFG-Schwerpunktprogramm ‚Das digitale Bild‘“. Universität München, Februar 2020).

Christoph Bareither: Curating the Past through Digital Media. Medienpraktiken der emotionalen und ästhetischen Wissensgestaltung im Kontext kulturellen Erbes (Welt.Wissen.Gestalten. dgv-Kongress. Universität Hamburg, Oktober 2019).