Challenges to Digital Inclusiveness: The Personalization of Historical Narratives of Museum Objects on YouTube


As museum objects circulate on social media, their narratives shift. This hermeneutic process is explored through social media methods that track the movement of Viking objects from the Swedish History Museum to YouTube Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs). Through the case study the Viking helmet, this method compares the meanings generated by personalized SERPS on YouTube with the preferred meanings produced by the Viking exhibitions of the Swedish History Museum. In this paper, the developed method argues that personalization algorithms targeting user identities accessed through IP addresses generate social media SERPs whose mediation and commercialization of museum objects impact heritage narratives. More specifically, personalization challenges the social justice aims of museums: museum object stories are not curated to individual tastes and identities but are pitched to promote a plurality of perspectives in order to erode the rigidity of identity categories.

To compare meanings generated by personalized SERPs on YouTube with the preferred meanings of the Viking exhibitions, this method is contextualized via visual methods elaborated by Martin Hand (2017): meaning is produced through the visual juxtaposition of content on YouTube’s SERPs and objects within exhibitions. Meaning production occurs on YouTube through user-generated content in combination with algorithms, whereas the museum is curated in predetermined ways to generate narratives. Studies in search engines by Alexander Havalais (2018), Richard Rogers (2013 & 2018) and Jacob Ørmen (2016) shed light on the ways that SERPs are subjective media created in part by personalization algorithms built via user communication. This subjectivity, which produces filters bubbles (Pariser, 2011), is situated within the context of YouTube through the research of Jean Burgess and Joshua Green (2018). The work of Christian Fuchs (2014) and Lawrence Lessig (2006) highlights how personalization is in place to monetize users by tracing their IP addresses. Clemens Apprich’s (2019) analysis of filter bubbles informs the method: echo chambers conceal that platform architecture ushers in a covert and reductive identity politics grounded in the power relations of class, race and gender as immutable identities. This algorithmic narcissism centred on fixed identities undermines the communality and even the democracy created through shared interpretations and stories (Apprich, 2019). The personalizing of historical interpretations forged through a reductive identity politics via algorithms and commercialization counters, according to Jette Sandahl (2019), how the meaning of objects is often conveyed in contemporary museums. Illustrating Sandahl’s claim, research on Vikings by Gunnar Andersson (2016) for the Swedish History Museum demonstrates that exhibitions at the museum specifically recount histories of objects that promote diversity and democracy. This process fosters the mutability of identity categories to further social justice by breaking down the rigid dynamics of class, race and gender. This method demonstrates that the circulation of museum objects on personalized SERPs can erode meanings integrated within the curatorial aim of museums to nurture critical awareness and endorse social justice through the eradication of rigid identity politics. This method asks how can the dissemination of museum objects by SERPs become inclusive as personalization algorithms counter inclusiveness.