Below is a quote from Wired’s Chris Anderson on museum, curatorial authority and the long tail, from a Washington Post report, ‘Smithsonian Click-n-Drags Itself Forward‘ on Smithsonian 2.0 (‘A Gathering to Re-Imagine the Smithsonian in the Digital Age’).
The quote really covers two issues – making failures and mistakes in public and leaving them there, and training external volunteers and experts to curate parts of collections, because no one curator can be authoritative on everything in their remit: “in exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things”.
I suspect this is a false dichotomy – there’s a place for both internal and external expertise. The Science Museum object wiki doesn’t mean the rest of the collection catalogue and interpretation has no value or relevance. The challenge lies in presenting organisation and user-contributed content in the same interface – can those boundaries be removed? Is it wise to try? And what about taking external content back into the catalogue?
This isn’t a new conversation for museum technologists, but it’s a conversation I’d love to have with curators. I’ve never been sure how the technologists who get really excited by the possibilities of sharing content online in various ways can go about working with curators to find the best way of managing it so that the public, the collections and the curators benefit.
Anyway, onto Chris Anderson:
The discovery of the “long tail” principle has implications for museums because it means there is vast room at the bottom for everything. Which means, Anderson said, that curators need to get over themselves. Their influence will never be the same.
“The Web is messy, and in that messiness comes something new and interesting and really rich,” he said. “The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web. It says, ‘We blew it, but we are leaving that mistake out there. We’re not perfect, but we get better over time.’ “
If you think that notion gives indigestion to an organization like the Smithsonian — full of people who have devoted much of their lifetimes to bringing near-perfect luster to some tiny pearl of truth — you would be correct.
The problem is, “the best curators of any given artifact do not work here, and you do not know them,” Anderson told the Smithsonian thought leaders. “Not only that, but you can’t find them. They can find you, but you can’t find them. The only way to find them is to put stuff out there and let them reveal themselves as being an expert.”
Take something like, oh, everything the Smithsonian’s got on 1950s Cold War aircraft. Put it out there, Anderson suggested, and say, “If you know something about this, tell us.” Focus on the those who sound like they have phenomenal expertise, and invest your time and effort into training these volunteers how to curate. “I’ll bet that they would be thrilled, and that they would pay their own money to be given the privilege of seeing this stuff up close. It would be their responsibility to do a good job” in authenticating it and explaining it. “It would be the best free labor that you can imagine.”
It didn’t go down easily among the thought leaders, who have staked their lives’ work on authoritativeness, on avoiding strikethroughs. What about the quality and strength of the knowledge we offer? asked one Smithsonian attendee.
You don’t get it, Anderson suggested. “There aren’t enough of you. Your skills cannot be invested in enough areas to give that quality.”
It’s like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, Anderson said. Some Wikipedia entries certainly are not as perfectly polished as the Britannica. But “most of the things I’m interested in are not in the Britannica. In exchange for a slight diminution of the credentialed voice for a small number of things, you would get far more for a lot of things. Something is better than nothing.” And right now at the Smithsonian, what you get, he said, is “great” or “nothing.”
“Is it our job to be smart and be the best? Or is it our job to share knowledge?” Anderson asked.