Founding visions (and learning from the past for the future of museums)

I’ve got a few presentations coming up that explore a re-imagining of museums, so I’ve been thinking about the original founding visions of specific museums (based on e.g. What would a digital museum be like if there was never a physical museum?), and whether there’s dissonance between mission statements based in institutional history and those you might write if we were inventing museums today.

For an example of where my thoughts are wondering, check this out (from the excellent ‘Museums should not fear the art snobs‘):

…it was only with the emergence of aestheticism and competition from universities in the late 19th century that curators started making exhibitions for each other and for people of their class. Most earlier Victorian museums were educational institutions (not just institutions with education departments). In Britain, both the Liberal Henry Cole (founding Director of the V&A) and the Tory John Ruskin created museums that aimed to achieve the widest possible audience in the name of public education. The Met was founded “for the purpose…of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufacture and practical life…and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction.” In 1920, the Met’s president Robert de Forest wrote that it was “a public gallery for the use of all people, high and low, and even more for the low than for the high, for the high can find artistic inspiration in their own homes”.

So I’m curious, and if you’re up for it, I have a little task for you (yes, you, over there) – what was the founding statement for your museum, and what is your current mission statement? And if you’re feeling creative, what would you like your favourite museum’s mission statement to be?

Some leads on game design in the UK

Today I passed on a query from @fayenicole: ‘…know anybody who could run a retro-style game design workshop for teenagers at the British Museum?’ on twitter and got a bunch of responses. Since people were so generous with their time, I thought I’d take a few minutes to collate them so they’re available the next time someone has a similar query.  Feel free to add further suggestions in the comments, particularly for people or agencies who are keen to work with museums and cultural heritage organisations.

In other news, I learned this week that ‘MT’ means ‘modified tweet’ and signifies when someone’s shortened or otherwise changed something they’re retweeting.  Mmm, learning.

Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections?

This is something I wrote for my MSc dissertation (‘Playing with difficult objects: game designs for crowdsourcing museum metadata’, view the games I built for it at http://museumgam.es/ or check out the paper (Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections) I wrote for Museums and the Web 2011) about the role of ‘distinctiveness’ in mental models about collections, that’s potentially relevant to discussions around telling stories with and collecting metadata about museum collections.   I’m posting it here for reference in the conversation about instances vs classes of objects that arose on the UKMCG list after the release of NMSI (Science Museum, National Media Museum, National Railway Museum) data as CSV.  One reason I’ve been thinking about ‘distinctiveness’ is because I’m wondering how we help people find the interesting records – the iconic objects, the intriguing stories – in a collection of 240,000 objects.

I’m interested in audiences’ mental models about when a record refers to the type of object vs the individual object – my sense is that ‘rockets’, in the model below, are generally thought of as the individual object, and that ‘sprockets’ are thought of as the type of object, but that it varies for ‘lockets’, depending how distinctive they are in relation to the person.

I’m also generally curious about the utility of the model, and would love to know of references that might relate to it (whether supporting or otherwise) – if you can think of any, let me know in the comments.

Not all objects are created equal

Both museum objects and the records about them vary in quality. Just as the physical characteristics of one object – its condition, rarity, etc – differ from another, the strength of its associations with important people, events or concepts will also vary. To complicate things further, as the Collections Council of Australia (2009) states, this ‘significance’ is ‘relative, contingent and dynamic’.

When faced with hundreds of thousands of objects, a museum will digitise and describe objects prioritised by ‘technical criteria (physical condition of the original material), content criteria (representativeness, uniqueness), and use criteria (demand)’ (Karvonen, 2010). In theory, all objects are registered by the collecting institution, so a basic record exists for each. Hopefully, each has been catalogued and the information transcribed or digitised to some extent, but this is often not the case. Records are often missing descriptions, and most lack the contextual histories that would help the general visitor understand its significance. Some objects may only have an accession number and a one word label, while those on display in a museum generally have well-researched metadata, detailed descriptions and related narratives or contextualised histories. Variable image quality (or lack of images) is an issue in collections in general. This project excludes object records without images but does include many poor-quality images as a result of importing records from a bulk catalogue.

This project posits that objects can be placed on a scale of ‘distinctiveness’ based on their visual attributes and the amount and quality of information about them. Within this project, bulk collections with minimal metadata and distinctiveness have been labelled ‘sprockets’, the smaller set of catalogued objects with some distinctiveness have been labelled ‘lockets’, and the unique, iconic objects with a full contextual history have been labelled ‘rockets’. This concept also references the English Heritage ‘building grades’ model (DCMS, 2010). During the project, the labels ‘heroic’, ‘semi-heroic’ and ‘bulk’ objects were also used.

These labels are not concerned with actual ‘significance’ or other valuation or priority placed on the object, but relate only to the potential mental models around them and data related to them – the potential for players to discover something interesting about them as objects, or whether they can just tag them on visual characteristics.

In theory there is a correlation between the significance of an object and the amount of information available about it; there may be particular opportunities for games where this is not the case.

Project label

Information type


Amount of information


Proportion of collection
Rockets Subjective Contextual history (‘background, events, processes and influences’) Tiny minority
Lockets Mostly objective, may be contextual to collection purpose Catalogued (some description) Minority
Sprockets Objective Registered (minimal) Majority

Table 1 Objects grouped by distinctiveness

This can also be represented visually as a pyramid model:

Figure 2 A figurative illustration of the relative numbers of different levels of objects in a typical history museum.

References
Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) (2010) Principles of Selection for Listing Buildings [Online] Available from: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/content/imported-docs/p-t/principles-of-selection-for-listing-buildings-2010.pdf

Karvonen, M. (2010). “Digitising Museum Materials – Towards Visibility and Impact”. In Pettersson, S., Hagedorn-Saupe, M., Jyrkkiö, T., Weij, A. (Eds) Encouraging Collections Mobility In Europe. Collections Mobility. [Online] Available from: http://www.lending-for-europe.eu/index.php?id=167

Russell, R., and Winkworth, K. (2009). Significance 2.0: a guide to assessing the significance of collections. Collections Council of Australia. [Online] Available from: http://significance.collectionscouncil.com.au/

My PhD proposal (Provisional title: Participatory digitisation of spatially indexed historical data)

[Update: I’m working on a shorter version with fewer long words. Something like crowdsourcing geolocated historial materials/artefacts with specialist users/academic contributors/citizen historians.]

A few people have asked me about my PhD* topic, and while I was going to wait until I’d started and had a chance to review it in light of the things I’m already starting to learn about what else is going on in the field, I figured I should take advantage of having some pre-written material to cover the gap in blogging while I try to finish various things (like, um, my MSc dissertation) that were hijacked by a broken wrist. So, to keep you entertained in the meantime, here it is.

Please bear in mind that it’s already out-of-date in terms of my thinking and sense of what’s already happening in the field – I’m really looking forward to diving into it but my plan to spend some time thinking about the project before I started has been derailed by what felt like a year of having an arm in a cast.

* I never got around to posting about this because my disastrous slip on the ice happened just two days after I resigned, but I’m leaving my job at the Science Museum to take up the offer of a full-time PhD in Digital Humanities at the Open University in mid-March.

Provisional title: Participatory digitisation of spatially indexed historical data

This project aims to investigate ‘participatory digitisation’ models for geo-located historical material.

This project begins with the assumption that researchers are already digitising and geo-locating materials and asks whether it is possible to create systems to capture and share this data. Could the digital records and knowledge generated when researchers access primary materials be captured at the point of creation and published for future re-use? Could the links between materials, and between materials and locations, created when researchers use aggregated or mass-digitised resources, be ‘mined’ for re-use?

Through the use of a case study based around discovering, collating, transforming and publishing geo-located resources related to early scientific women, the project aims to discover:

  • how geo-located materials are currently used and understood by researchers,
  • what types of tools can be designed to encourage researchers to share records digitised for their own personal use
  • whether tools can be designed to allow non-geospatial specialists to accurately record and discover geo-spatial references
  • the viability of using online geo-coding and text mining services on existing digitised resources

Possible outcomes include an evaluation of spatially-oriented approaches to digital heritage resource discovery and use; mental models of geographical concepts in relation to different types of historical material and research methods; contributions to research on crowdsourcing digital heritage resources (particularly the tensions between competition and co-operation, between the urge to hoard or share resources) and prototype interfaces or applications based on the case study.

The project also provides opportunities to reflect on what it means to generate as well as consume digital data in the course of research, and on the changes digital opportunities have created for the arts and humanities researcher.

** This case study is informed by my thinking around the possibilities of re-populating the landscape with references to the lives, events, objects, etc, held by museums and other cultural heritage institutions, e.g. outside museum walls and by an experimental, collaborative project around ‘modern bluestockings’, that aimed to locate and re-display the forgotten stories around unconventional and pioneering women in science, technology and academia.

‘We’ll be like Adam and Eve biting the apple, and suddenly realizing that we’re naked’

This was a draft post from July 2010. At the time it was prompted by yet another Facebook privacy scare (‘Facebook data harvester speaks out‘) but it’s more and more relevant each day. The quote was such a succinct summary of the state of privacy and social media that I had to share it: ‘we’ll be like Adam and Eve biting the apple, and suddenly realizing that we’re naked’.

It’s from Perspective: Carnegie Mellon’s Jesse Schell on Mobile and the Art of Game Design:

I’ve been thinking a lot about augmented reality. I’ve been thinking about how very soon all the scattered data about us on the web will be consolidated in ways that will shock us. Someone will hold their smartphone up as they walk by my car, my house, or my person, and suddenly get information about my life, my interests, and my family. This is going to make us feel like our privacy has been violated, even though no new data is being shared — rather, the old data that is already out there on Facebook and on the web is going to be consolidated in unexpected ways. We’ll be like Adam and Eve biting the apple, and suddenly realizing that we’re naked.

Notes from Culture Hack Day (#chd11)

Culture Hack Day (#chd11) was organised by the Royal Opera House (the team being @rachelcoldicutt, @katybeale, @beyongolia, @mildlydiverting, @dracos – and congratulations to them all on an excellent event). As well as a hack event running over two days, they had a session of five minute ‘lightning talks’ on Saturday, with generous time for discussion between sessions. This worked quite well for providing an entry point to the event for the non-technical, and some interesting discussion resulted from it. My notes are particularly rough this time as I have one arm in a sling and typing my hand-written notes is slow.

Lightning Talks
Tom Uglow @tomux “What if the Web is a Fad?”
‘We’re good at managing data but not yet good at turning it into things that are more than points of data.’ The future is about physical world, making things real and touchable.

Clare Reddington, @clarered, “What if We Forget about Screens and Make Real Things?”
Some ace examples of real things: Dream Director; Nuage Vert (Helsinki power station projected power consumption of city onto smoke from station – changed people’s behaviour through ambient augmentation of the city); Tweeture (a conch, ‘permission object’ designed to get people looking up from their screens, start conversations); National Vending Machine from Dutch museum.

Leila Johnston, @finalbullet talked about why the world is already fun, and looking at the world with fresh eyes. Chromaroma made Oyster cards into toys, playing with our digital footprint.

Discussion kicked off by Simon Jenkins about helping people get it (benefits of open data etc) – CR – it’s about organisational change, fears about transparency, directors don’t come to events like this. Understand what’s meant by value – cultural and social as well as economic. Don’t forget audiences, it has to be meaningful for the people we’re making it (cultural products) for’.

Comment from @fidotheCultural heritage orgs have been screwed over by software companies. There’s a disconnect between beautiful hacks around the edges and things that make people’s lives easier. [Yes! People who work in cultural heritage orgs often have to deal with clunky tools, difficult or vendor-dependent data export proccesses, agencies that over-promise and under-deliver. In my experience, cultural orgs don’t usually have internal skills for scoping and procuring software or selecting agencies so of course they get screwed over.]

TU: desire to be tangible is becoming more prevalent, data to enhance human experience, the relationship between culture and the way we live our lives.

CR: don’t spend the rest of the afternoon reinforcing silos, shouldn’t be a dichotomy between cultural heritage people and technologists. [Quick plug for http://museum30.ning.com/, http://groups.google.com/group/antiquist, http://museum-api.pbwiki.com/ and http://museumscomputergroup.org.uk/email-list/ as places where people interested in intersection between cultural heritage and technology can mingle – please let me know of any others!] Mutual respect is required.

Tom Armitage, @infovore “Sod big data and mashups: why not hack on making art?”
Making culture is more important than using it. 3 trends: 1) collection – tools to slice and dice across time or themes; 2) magic materials 3) mechanical art, displays the shape of the original content; 3a) satire – @kanyejordan ‘a joke so good a machine could make it’.

Tom Dunbar, @willyouhelp – story-telling possibilites of metadata embedded in media e.g. video [check out Waisda? for game designed to get metdata added to audio-visual archives]. Metadata could be actors, characters, props, action…

Discussion [?]:remixing in itself isn’t always interesting. Skillful appropriation across formats… Universe of editors, filterers, not only creators. ‘in editing you end up making new things’.

Matthew Somerville, @dracos, Theatricalia, “What if You Never Needed to Miss a Show?”
‘Quite selfish’, makes things he needs. Wants not to miss theatre productions with people he likes in/working on them. Theatricalia also collects stories about productions. [But in discussion it came up that the National Theatre asked him to remove data – why?! A recommendation system would definitely get me seeing more theatre, and I say that as a fairly regular but uninformed theatre-goer who relies on word-of-mouth to decide where to spend ticket money.]

Nick Harkaway, @Harkaway on IP and privacy
IP as way of ringfencing intangible ideas, requiing consent to use. Privacy is the same. Not exciting, kind of annoying but need to find ways to make it work more smoothly while still proving protection. ‘Buying is voting’, if you buy from Tesco, you are endorsing their policies. ‘Code for the change you want to see in the world’, build the tools you want cultural orgs to have so they can do better. [Update: Nick has posted his own notes at Notes from Culture Hack Day. I really liked the way he brought ethical considerations to hack enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible – the ability to say ‘no’ is important even if a pain for others.]

Chris Thorpe, @jaggeree. ArtFinder, “What if you could see through the walls of every museum and something could tell you if you’d like it?”

Culture for people who don’t know much about culture. Cultural buildings obscure the content inside, stop people being surprised by what’s available. It’s hard if you don’t know where to start. Go for user-centric information. Government Art Collection Explorer – ace! Wants an angel for art galleries to whisper information about the art in his ear. Wants people to look at the art, not the screen of their device [museums also have this concern]. SAP – situated audio platform. Wants a ‘flight data recorder’ for trips around cultural places.

Discussion around causes of fear and resistance to open data – what do cultural orgs fear and how can they learn more and relax? Fear of loss of provenance – response was that for developers displaying provenance alongside the data gives it credibility; counter-response was that organisations don’t realise that’s possible. [My view is that the easiest way to get this to change is to change the metrics by which cultural heritage organisations are judged, and resolve the tension between demands to commercialise content to supplement government grants and demands for open access to that same data. Many museums have developed hybrid ‘free tombstone, low-res, paid-for high-res’ models to deal with this, but it’s taken years of negotiation in each institution.] I also ranted about some of these issues at OpenTech 2010, notes at ‘Museums meet the 21st century’.

Other discussion and notes from twitter – re soap/drama characters tweeting – I managed to out myself as a Neighbours watcher but it was worth it to share that Neighbours characters tweet and use Facebook. Facebook relationship status updates and events have been included as plot points, and references are made to twitter but not to the accounts of the characters active on the service. I wonder if it’s script writers or marketing people who write the characters tweets? They also tweet in sync with the Australian showings, which raises issues around spoilers and international viewers.

Someone said ‘people don’t want to interact with cultural institutions online. They want to interact with their content’ but I think that’s really dependent on the definition of content – as pointed out, points of data have limited utility without further context. There’s a catch-22 between cultural orgs not yet making really engaging data and audiences not yet demanding it, hopefully hack days like CHD11 help bridge the gap and turn data into stories and other meaningful content. We’re coming up against the limits of what can be dome programmatically, especially given variation in quality and extent of cultural heritage data (and most of it is data rather than content).

[Update: after writing this I found a post The lightning talks at Culture Hack Day about the day, which happily picks up on lots of bits I missed. Oh, and another, by Roo Reynolds.]

After the lightning talks I popped over the road to check out the hacking and ended up getting sucked in (the lure of free pizza had a powerful effect!).  I worked on a WordPress plugin with Ian Ibbotson @ianibbo that lets you search for a term on the Culture Grid repository and imports the resulting objects into my museum metadata games so that you can play with objects based on your favourite topic.  I’ve put the code on github [https://github.com/mialondon/mmg-import] and will move it from my staging server to live over the next few days so people can play with the objects.  It’s such a pain only having one hand, and I’m very grateful to Ian for the chance to work together and actually get some code written.  This work means that any organisation that’s contributed records to the Culture Grid can start to get back tags or facts to enhance their collections, based on data generated by people playing the games.  The current 300-ish objects have about 4400 tags and 30 facts, so that’s not bad for a freebie. OTOH, I don’t know of many museums with the ability to display content created by others on their collections pages or store it in their collections management systems – something for another hack day?

Something I think I’ll play around with a bit more is the idea of giving cultural heritage data a quality rating as it’s ingested.  We discussed whether the ratings would be local to an app (as they could be based on the particular requirements of that application) or generalised and recorded in the CultureGrid service.  You could record the provence of a rating which might be an approach that combines the benefits of both approaches.  At the moment, my requirements for a ‘high quality’ record would be: title (e.g. ‘The Ashes trophy’, if the object has one), name or type of object (e.g. cup), date, place, decent sized image, description.

Finally, if you’re interested in hacking around cultural heritage data, there’s also historyhackday next weekend. I’m hoping to pop in (dependent on fracture and MSc dissertation), not least because in March I’m starting a PhD in digital humanities, looking at participatory digitisation of geo-located historical material (i.e. getting people to share the transcriptions and other snippets of ad hoc digitisation they do as part of their research) and it’s all hugely relevant.

Interview about museum metadata games and a pretty picture

I haven’t had a chance to follow up Design constraints and research questions: museum metadata games with a post about the design process for the museum metadata games I’ve made for my dissertation project (because, stupidly, I slipped on black ice and damaged my wrist), so in the meantime here’s a link to an interview Seb Chan did with me for the Fresh+New blog, Interview with Mia Ridge on museum metadata games, and a Wordle of the tags added so far:

Some of the 1,582 unique tags added so far – click to view full image

There have been nearly 700 turns on the games so far, which have collectively added about 30 facts (Donald’s detective puzzle) and just over 3,700 tags (Dora’s lost data).