This blog post will contain some slight spoilers for the game ‘I Am Dead’.
As readers may remember, I absolutely loved the video game I Am Dead (Hollow Grounds, 2020) and wrote a previous blog post about how it was actually more of an archaeology game than players may actually realise. Perhaps one of my favourite parts of the game was the level centred on the town museum, of which the main character was previously the curator of and, as such, holds particular sentimentality for. The game’s fictional setting of Shelmerston seems to be based broadly on the islands of the North Atlantic, although for me it certainly brought back memories from when I excavated in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. More specifically, playing the game – and particularly the levels in the town museum – reminded me so much of Stromness Museum, which similarly has collections related to both the local fauna and flora, as well as local history. And frankly, as a museum worker-turned archaeologist-returned to museum worker, I just love spending time in these spaces where archaeology and the construction of heritage meet, where the past meets and engages with the present through the meticulous work of museum workers.
But I think there is something particularly charming and fascinating about the “little town museum” as its own type of museum space – the independent museums that have less than a tenth of the budget of larger, internationally renowned institutions and hardly any of the sort of “flashy finds” that line the exhibition cabinets of the British Museum, yet push through curatorial practices and care to display their collections with the underlying message that they are just as important to our collective understanding of the past as any “big name” artifact or assemblage. And don’t take that as an insult against these museums either – I’ve always been fond and protective of smaller museums as an important feature of the broader heritage sector, having worked in both national and more localised museums myself.
Research on small museums have indicated their potential as producers of social capital and communal cohesion among regional communities, particularly when community members are their main stakeholders and internal goals are focused on building and sustaining a sense of social community (Burton and Griffin 2008). Other research has identified several characteristics that community members expect from their local museums, including a sense of pride in local traditions and customs, the development of cross-communal engagement that includes all members of the local community, and a consistent sense of relevancy with the local region. However, it’s not just about keeping the focus on the local either (although this is clearly important to local community groups); feedback from local stakeholders have also emphasised the need for small museums to support local tourism and to act as representative of local histories and cultures to visitors from outside of the community (Kelly 2006).
These small, localised museums are clearly key places for their associated communities to partake in developing how we illustrate and interpret local histories and heritage, and how this gets communicated to others from outside these communities. In I Am Dead, various objects on display are observed to have been donated by recurring characters in the game, placed in context with Shelmerston history – for example, one character’s camera is displayed in a exhibit about the local fictional sport of “sheller”, with the provided text explaining how that character was an avid photographer of sheller games. In another example, we see how local community donations can influence curatorial practice and design – with an entire display dedicated to a local band, filled with their donated instruments.
I think the importance of local museums, and those who work in them, is summed up in the inscription of the memorial bench that your character, former local curator Morris Lupton, which simply says: “He collected stories”. Smaller museums preserve these stories that perhaps may not be as major as others in the grand scheme of things, still are important in shaping the culture and heritage of that particular region. It’s similar to how I have always viewed individual sites in archaeology – although important to view from a wider context as part of the puzzle that makes up the greater archaeological record, it’s equally as important to view the site on its own, the ways in which one specific area can have a ripple effect on the wider community and environment. And I think that also ties into the broader themes of the video game as well – that we, as living people navigating throughout the world, impact others in ways that we may not even recognise but add to the narrative that connects us all together as a larger community. And perhaps one day our stories will get told long after we’re gone, in small museums dedicated to preserving our connected histories and the cultural heritage we developed together and left behind.
You can buy I Am Dead now for the Nintendo Switch or for PC via Steam.
Burton, C., & Griffin, J. M. (2008). More than a museum? Understanding how small museums contribute to social capital in regional communities. Asia Pacific Journal of Arts and Cultural Management.
Hollow Grounds (2020) I Am Dead, video game, Nintendo Switch. West Hollywood, CA: Annapurna Interactive.
Kelly, L. (2006). Measuring the impact of museums on their communities: The role of the 21st century museum. Intercom, 2(4).
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