I loved the Fire Eagle presentation I saw at the WSG Findability event [my write-up] because it got me all excited again about ideas for projects that take cultural heritage outside the walls of the museum, and more importantly, it made some of those projects seem feasible.
There’s also been a lot of talk about APIs into museum data recently and hopefully the time has come for this idea. It’d be ace if it was possible to bring museum data into the everyday experience of people who would be interested in the things we know about but would never think to have ‘a museum experience’.
For example, you could be on your way to the pub in Stoke Newington, and your phone could let you know that you were passing one of Daniel Defoe‘s hang outs, or the school where Mary Wollstonecraft taught, or that you were passing a ‘Neolithic working area for axe-making’ and that you could see examples of the Neolithic axes in the Museum of London or Defoe’s headstone in Hackney Museum.
That’s a personal example, and those are some of my interests – Defoe wrote one of my favourite books (A Journal of the Plague Year), and I’ve been thinking about a project about ‘modern bluestockings’ that will collate information about early feminists like Wollstonecroft (contact me for more information) – but ideally you could tailor the information you receive to your interests, whether it’s football, music, fashion, history, literature or soap stars in Melbourne, Mumbai or Malmo. If I can get some content sources with good geo-data I might play with this at the museum hack day.
I’m still thinking about functionality, but a notification might look something like “did you know that [person/event blah] [lived/did blah/happened] around here? Find out more now/later [email me a link]; add this to your map for sharing/viewing later”.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of making the invisible and intangible layers of history linked to any one location visible again. Millions of lives, ordinary or notable, have been lived in London (and in your city); imagine waiting at your local bus stop and having access to the countless stories and events that happened around you over the centuries. Wikinear is a great example, but it’s currently limited to content on Wikipedia, and this content has to pass a ‘notability’ test that doesn’t reflect local concepts of notability or ‘interestingness’. Wikipedia isn’t interested in the finds associated with an archaeological dig that happened at the end of your road in the 1970s, but with a bit of tinkering (or a nudge to me to find the time to make a better programmatic interface) you could get that information from the LAARC catalogue.
The nice thing about local data is that there are lots of people making content; the not nice thing about local data is that it’s scattered all over the web, in all kinds of formats with all kinds of ‘trustability’, from museums/libraries/archives, to local councils to local enthusiasts and the occasional raving lunatic. If an application developer or content editor can’t find information from trusted sources that fits the format required for their application, they’ll use whatever they can find on other encyclopaedic repositories, hack federated searches, or they’ll screen-scrape our data and generate their own set of entities (authority records) and object records. But what happens if a museum updates and republishes an incorrect record – will that change be reflected in various ad hoc data solutions? Surely it’s better to acknowledge and play with this new information environment – better for our data and better for our audiences.
Preparing the data and/or the interface is not necessarily a project that should be specific to any one museum – it’s the kind of project that would work well if it drew on resources from across the cultural heritage sector (assuming we all made our geo-located object data and authority records available and easily queryable; whether with a commonly agreed core schema or our own schemas that others could map between).
Location-linked data isn’t only about official cultural heritage data; it could be used to display, preserve and commemorate histories that aren’t ‘notable’ or ‘historic’ enough for recording officially, whether that’s grime pirate radio stations in East London high-rise roofs or the sites of Turkish social clubs that are now new apartment buildings. Museums might not generate that data, but we could look at how it fits with user-generated content and with our collecting policies.
Or getting away from traditional cultural heritage, I’d love to know when I’m passing over the site of one of London’s lost rivers, or a location that’s mentioned in a film, novel or song.
[Updated December 2008 to add – as QR tags get more mainstream, they could provide a versatile and cheap way to provide links to online content, or 250 characters of information. That’s more information than the average Blue Plaque.]