How things change: the Google Art Project (again)

The updated Google Art Project has been launched with loads more museums contributing over 30,000 artworks.  The interface still seems a bit sketchy to me (sometimes you can open links in a new tab, sometimes you can’t; mystery meat navigation; the lovely zoom option isn’t immediately discoverable; the thumbnails that appear at the bottom don’t have a strong visual connection with the action that triggers their appearance; and the only way I could glean any artist/title information about the thumbnails was by looking at the URL), but it’s nice to see options for exploring by collection (collecting institution, I assume), date or artist emphasised in the interface. 

Anyway, it’s all about the content – easy access to high-quality zoomable images of some of the world’s best artworks in an interface with lots of relevant information and links back to the holding institution is a win for everyone.  And if the attention (and traffic) makes museums a little jealous, well, it’ll be fascinating to see how that translates into action.  After all, keeping up with the Joneses seems to be one way museums change…

Reading some online stories about the launch, I was struck by how far conversations about traditional and online galleries have come.  From one:

As users explore the galleries they can also add comments to each painting and share the whole collection with friends and family. Try doing that in the Tate Modern. Actually, don’t.

Although, of course, you can – it’s traditionally known as ‘having a conversation in a museum’. 
But in 2012, is visiting a website and sharing links online seen as a reasonable stand-in for the physical visit to a museum, leaving the in-person gallery visit for ‘purists’ and enthusiasts?  (This might make blockbuster exhibtions bearable.)  Or, as the consensus of the past decade has it, does it just whet the appetite and create demand for an experience with the original object, leading to more visits?

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.

‘Reshaping the Art Museum’

I’m sneaking a moment from revision to point you to this thought-provoking article ‘Reshaping the Art Museum‘ in Artnews:

To an unprecedented degree, market research about the needs, wants, fears, and anxieties of visitors is shaping how museums are designed. “We got a lot of comments that it’s just overwhelming to come to museums,” says Lori Fogarty, director of the Oakland Museum of California, which inaugurates a complete reinstallation of its art, natural history, and science collections this fall. So the new galleries will feature “loaded lounges” where visitors can relax, read catalogues, or do hands-on activities, along with open spaces that accommodate up to 25 people for concerts, storytelling, or other such programs.

But a bigger change in her plan is connecting people who might never have visited art museums with the people who curate them. Fogarty calls it transparency—”breaking the fourth wall”—having curators answer questions about how and why they choose works. Visitor feedback will be encouraged, and the exhibitions, in turn, will be based on the “wiki model,” with curators representing only one voice in a mix that includes conservators, community members, and artists. “We can’t count on the fact that potential visitors were brought to museums as kids,” Fogarty says. “Many have no cultural or experiential reference; they don’t think of the museum as a place that welcomes them or has anything of interest to them.”

At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, director Olga Viso is also using a major reinstallation as an opportunity to remake the museum into a more civic space. “We want to be in dialogue with the audience instead of in the place of authority,” as she puts it. Such efforts may mean involving the community in the organization of shows or asking people to vote on the selection of artworks. When the new installation opens in November, says chief curator Darsie Alexander, curators will hold in-gallery office hours—giving visitors insights into the way exhibitions happen, and giving the staff a chance to find out “how visitors encounter work in space—the kinds of questions they ask about art, what they find interesting, and how long they stay.”

And for all the innovations in programming, marketing, and education, Campbell argues, the core mission remains the same. “We can make ourselves more user-friendly, but ultimately one of the key experiences of visiting a museum is that moment of standing in front of an object,” he says. “Suddenly you’re responding to something physical, real, that changes your own perspective. And great museums will always do that, as long we get people through the doors.”

The museum/academic divide, museum labels and mobile-accessible interpretation…

This post from the Smarthistory blog, Writing the Museum Label on a Wiki (and some other ideas), very neatly brings together some of the proposals and conversations from MW2009.

The authors suggest two ‘notions’ to bring about greater collaboration between museum educators (in the broadest sense) and academics, starting with the premise that:

For some time now, we have been publicly questioning the division that exists between two professional groups tasked with educating the public about art: those in museums (curators and educators) and those in the academy (art historians). These two communities share expertise that is sought by the museum visitor and the student, yet they rarely meet, too often do not attend the same conferences, and almost never collaborate.

I won’t pre-empt their notions here – go and read the article, but I just wanted to highlight this quote:

Can the tired modernist fiction that the direct experience of the object must remain unencumbered by the frame of context really still be operative?

I really hope not!

(As an aside, my inner web geek is hugely amused by the irony of the ‘403’ contained within the URL of the article – 403 is the HTTP status code for ‘access forbidden’.)