The NPG’s response to the Wikimedia kerfuffle

[Apparently responses are being listed on a Wikimedia page, which I suppose makes sense but please bear in mind this is usually read by about five people who know my flippant self in real life]

I haven’t been able to get the press release section of the National Portrait gallery to load, so I’m linking to an email from the NPG posted as a comment on another blog.  I’m still thinking this through, but currently the important bit, to me, is this:

The Gallery is very concerned that potential loss of licensing income from the high-resolution files threatens its ability to reinvest in its digitisation programme and so make further images available. It is one of the Gallery’s primary purposes to make as much of the Collection available as possible for the public to view.

Digitisation involves huge costs including research, cataloguing, conservation and highly-skilled photography. Images then need to be made available on the Gallery website as part of a structured and authoritative database.

Obviously, I am paid by a museum to put things online so I might be biased towards something that ultimately means my job exists – but while a government funding gap exists, someone has to pay the magical digitisation fairies. [This doesn’t mean I think it’s right, but the situation is not going to be changed by an adversarial relationship between WMF and the cultural heritage sector, which is why this whole thing bothers me.  Lots of good work explaining the Commons models and encouraging access is being undone.]

You can’t even argue that the NPG is getting increased exposure or branding through the use of their images, as there’s a big question over whether images hosted on Wikimedia are being incorrectly given new attribution and rights statements.  Check the comment about the image on this blog post, and the Wikipedia statement from Wikimedia about the image and the original image page.  

To use a pub analogy, is Wikimedia the bad mate who shouts other people a round on your tab?

Running notes, day 3 (Saturday) of MW2009

These are my running notes from day 3 of the Museums and the Web conference – as the perfect is the enemy of the good I’m getting these up ‘as is’. I did a demo [abstract] in the morning but haven’t written up my notes yet – shame on me!

The session ‘Building and using online collections‘ included three papers, I’ve got notes from all three but my laptop battery died halfway through the session so only some of them are already typed – I’ll update this entry when I can sneak some time.

Paul Rowe presented on NZMuseums: Showcasing the collections of all New Zealand museums (the linked abstract includes the full paper and slides).

National Services Te Paerangi (NSTP).

4 million NZers, 400 museums.  NZMuseums website – focal point for all NZ museums. NSTP administers the site, Vernon Systems is solution provider.

Each museum has a profile page including highlights of their collections. Web-based collection management system.

What needs to be in place for small museums to contribute? How can a portal be built with limited resources? What features of the website would encourage re-use of the data?

Some museums had good web presences, but what about the small museums? Facing same issues that small or local govt museums in the UK face.

Museums are treasures of the country, they show who we are. Website needs to reflect that.

Focus groups – volunteers are important – keep it simple; keep costs low; some places had limited internet connectivity; reservations about content being on the internet were common.

Promoting involvement to the sector – used existing national monthly newsletters to advertise workshops and content deadlines. Minimum of 20 items for placement on site to avoid ‘box ticking’ [some real commitment required]. Used online forum for FAQs.

Lack of skills – NSTP were trained so could then train staff and volunteers in museums. Digitising, photography for the web.

Had to explain benefits to small museums. It gave them an easy start to getting an online presence.

They overcame resistance by allowing watermarking and clear copyright statements; they showed existing museums sites that allowed tagging; promoted that would help them reach a diverse dispersed audience.

First tag on site – ‘shiny nose‘. First comment was someone admitting they’d touched the nose on a bronze sculpture.

eHive.

Could also import Excel spreadsheets as content management system didn’t exist at early stage of project. Also provided a workaround for people with lack of internet – the spreadsheet could be posted on CD.

API provides glue to connect eHive (Collections Management System) and NZMuseums site together.  

Tips for success
Use OS software where possible; use existing online forums and communication networks to save answering questions over again.

90% of these collection items not previously available on the internet. 99% of collection items have images.

[Kiwis are heroes!  Everyone was incredibly modest about their achievements, but I think they’re amazing.]

Next was Eero Hyvönen on CultureSampo – Finnish Culture on the Semantic Web 2.0: Thematic Perspectives for the End-user (the linked abstract includes the full paper and slides).

Helsinki semantic web thingies
Part of national ontology project, Finland
Vision – international semantic web of cultural heritage. Marriage between semweb and web 2.0

Challenges – content heterogeneity, complexity 

Other challenge relates to the way cultural content is produced – Freebase, Wikipedia, open street maps, etc, 

Semweb for data integration; web.2 0 approach for content production

Automatically enriched by each piece of knowledge.

In Finnish the sampo is a magic drum that makes everything possible.  

Portal intended for human users and machines. Trying to establish a national way of producing content so can be published automatically.  

Infrastructure – 37,000 class concepts in ontology. MAO, TAO – museum ontologies, collaboratively built ontologies, then mapped to national system. End user sees one unified ontology. [A little pause while I pick my jaw up from the ground.]  66 vocabularies, taxonomies and ontologies available online as services, can be used as AJAX widgets. Some vocabularies are proprietary so can’t be published online in the service.

28 content providers, 22 libraries and museums and some international associates like Getty places, Wikipedia.

16 different metadata schemas. [Including some for poetry!]

134,000 cultural collection items (artefacts, books, videos, etc)

285,000 other resources (places, people etc)

Annotation channel for content items – web 2.0 type interface.

Semantic web 2.0 portal

Portal users – for humans, Google-like but semantic search. Nine perspectives into cultural heritage. Three languages. Recently view items, recently commented items.  

Map view.

With one line of JavaScript on own website, can incorporate CultureSampo on own website.

[Sadly my laptop died here and the rest of my notes are handwritten.  You can probably get the gist from the published paper and the slide, but the coolness of their project was summed up by this tweet: Musebrarian: What can you do with a semantic knowledgebase? Search for “beard fashion in Finland” across time and place. #mw2009

It might not sound like much, but the breadth of content, and the number of interfaces onto it was awe-inspiring.]

Sadly my notes from Brian Dawson’s paper, Collection effects: examining the actual use of on-line archival images are also still on notepaper.  The paper was a really useful examination of analytical approaches to understanding the motivations of people using cultural heritage collections.

Happy developers + happy museums = happy punters (my JISC dev8D talk)

This is a rough transcript of my lightning talk ‘Happy developers, happy museums’ at JISC’s dev8D ‘developer happiness’ days last week. The slides are downloadable or embedded below. The reason I’m posting this is because I’d still love to hear comments, ideas, suggestions, particularly from developers outside the museum sector – there’s a contact form on my website, or leave a comment here.

“In this talk I want to show you where museums are in terms of data and hear from you on how we can be more useful.

If you’re interested in updates I use my blog to [crap on a bit, ahem] talk about development at work, and also to call for comment on various ideas and prototypes. I’m interested in making the architecture and development process transparent, in being responsive to not only traditional museum visitors as end users, but also to developers. If you think of APIs as a UI for developers, we want ours to be both usable and useful.

I really like museums, I’ve worked in three museums (or families of museums) now over ten years. I think they can do really good things. Museums should be about delight, serendipity and answers that provoke more questions.

A recent book, ‘How does one become a scientist? : survey on the birth of a Vocation’ states that ‘60% of scientists over 30 and 40% of scientists under 30 note claim, without prompting, that the Palais de la Découverte [a science museum in Paris] triggered their vocation’.

Museums can really have an impact on how people think about the world, how they think about the possibilities of their lives. I think museums also have a big responsibility – we should be curating collections for current and future audiences, but also trying to provide access to the collections that aren’t on display. We should be committed to accessibility, transparency, curation, respecting and enabling expertise.

So today I’m here because we want to share our stuff – we are already – but we want to share better.

We do a lot of audience research and know a lot about some of our users, including our specialist users, but we don’t know so much about how people might use our data, it’s a relatively new thing for us. We’re used to saying ‘here are objects in a case, interpretation in label’, we’re not used to saying ‘here’s unmediated access, access through the back door’.

Some of the challenges for museums: technology isn’t that much of a challenge for us on the whole, except that there are pockets of excellence, people doing amazing things on small budgets with limited resources, but there are also a lot of old-fashioned monolithic project designs with big overheads that take a long time to deliver. Lots of people mean well but don’t know what’s possible – I want to spread the news about lightweight, more manageable and responsive ways of developing things that make sense and deliver results.

We have a lot of data, but a lot of it’s crap. Some of what we have is wrong. Some of it was written 100 years ago, so it doesn’t match how we’d describe things now.

We face big institutional challenges. Some curators – (though it does depend on the museum) – fear loss of control, fear intellectual vandalism, that mistakes in user-generated content published on museum sites will cause people to lose trust in museums. We have fears of getting the IT wrong (because for a while we did). Funding and metrics are a big issue – we are paid by how many people come through our door or come to our websites. If we’re doing a mashup, how do we measure the usage of that? Are we going to cost our organisations money if we can’t measure visits and charge back to the government? [This is particularly an issue for free museums in the UK, an interesting by-product of funding structures.]

Copyright is a huge issue. We might not even own an object that appears in our collections, we might not own the rights to the image of our object, or to the reproductions of an image. We might not have asked for copyright clearance at the time when an object was donated, and the cost of tracing it might be too high, so we can’t use that object online. Until we come up with a reliable model that reduces the risk to an institution of saying ‘copyright unknown’, we’re stuck.

The following are some ways I can think of for dealing with these challenges…
Limited resources – we can’t build an interface to meet every need for every user, but we can provide the content that they’d use. Some of the semantic web talks here have discussed a ‘thin layer’ of application over data, and that’s kind of where we want to go as well.

Real examples to reduce institutional fear and to provide real examples of working agile projects. [I didn’t mean strictly ‘agile’ methodology but generally projects that deliver early and often and can respond to the changing technical and social environment]

Finding ways for the sector to reward intelligent failure. Some museums will never ever admit to making a mistake. I’ve heard over the past few days that universities can be the same. Projects that are hyped up suddenly aren’t mentioned, and presumably it’s failed, but no-one [from the project] ever talks about why so we don’t learn from those mistakes. ‘Fail faster, succeed sooner’.
I’d like to hear suggestions from you on how we could deal with those challenges.

What are museums known for? Big buildings, full of stuff; experts; we make visitors come to us; we’re known for being fun; or for being boring.

Museum websites traditionally appear to be about where we are, when we’re open, what’s on, is there a cafe on site. Which is useful, but we can do a lot more.

Traditionally we’ve done pretty exhibition microsites, which are nice – they provide an experience of the exhibition before or after your visit. They’re quite marketing-led, they don’t necessarily provide an equivalent experience and they don’t really let you engage with the content beyond the fact that you’re viewing it.

We’re doing lots of collections online projects, some of these have ended up being silos – sometimes to the extent if we want to get data out of them, we have to screen-scrape our own data. These sites often aren’t as pretty, they don’t always have the same design and usability budgets (if any).

I think we should stick to what we’re really good at – understanding the data (collections), understanding how to mediate it, how to interpret it, how to select things that are appropriate for publication, and maybe open it up to other people to do the shiny pretty things. [Sounds almost like I’m advocating doing myself out of a job!]

So we have lots of objects, images, lots of metadata; our collections databases also include people, events, dates, places, businesses and organisations, lots of qualified information around things like dates, they’re not necessarily simple fields but that means they can convey a lot more meaning. I’ve included that because people don’t always realise we have information beyond objects and object metadata. This slide [11 below] is an example of one of the challenges – this box of objects might not be catalogued as individual instruments, it might just be catalogued as a ‘box of stuff’, which doesn’t help you find the interesting objects in the box. Lots of good stuff is hidden in this way.

We’re slowly getting there. We’re opening up access. We’re using APIs internally to share data between gallery interactives and the web, we’re releasing them as data points, we’re using them to provide direct access to collections. At the moment it still tends to be quite mediated access, so you’re getting a lot of interpretation and a fewer number of objects because of the resources required to create really nice records and the information around them.

‘Read access’ is relatively easy, ‘write access’ is harder because that’s when we hit those institutional issues around authority, authorship. Some curators are vaguely horrified that they might have to listen to what the public have to say and actually take some of it back into their collections databases. But they also have to understand that they can’t know everything about their collections, and there are some specialist users who will know everything there is to know about a particular widget on a particular kind of train. We’d like to capture that knowledge. [London Transport Museum have had a good go at that.]

Some random URLs of cool stuff happening in museums [http://dashboard.imamuseum.org/, http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/menu.php, http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/collections/, http://objectwiki.sciencemuseum.org.uk/] – it’s still very much in small pockets, it’s still difficult for museum staff to convince people to take what seems like a leap of faith and try these non-traditional things out.

We’re taking our content to where people hang out. We’re exploring things like Flickr Commons, asking people to tag and comment. Some museums have been updating collections records with information added by the public as a result. People are geo-tagging photos for us, which means you can do ‘then and now’ mashups without a big metadata enhancement budget.

I’d like to see an end to silos. We are kinda getting there but there’s not a serious commitment to the idea that we need to let things go, that we need to make sure that collections online shareable, that they’re interoperable, that they can mesh with other things.

Particularly for an education audience, we want to help researchers help themselves, to help developers help others. What else do we have that people might find useful?

What we can do depends on who you are. I could hope that things like enquiry-based learning, mashups, linked data, semantic web technologies, cross-collections searches, faceted browsing to make complex searches easy would be useful, that the concept of museums as a place where information lives – a happy home for metadata mapped around objects and authority records – are useful for people here but I wouldn’t want to put words into your mouths.

There’s a lot we can do with the technology, but if we’re investing resources we need to make sure that they’re useful. I can try things in my own time because it’s fun, but if we’re going to spend limited resources on interfaces for developers then we need to that it’s actually going to help some group of people out there.

The philosophy that I’m working with is ‘we’ve got really cool things, but we can have even cooler things if we can share what we have with everyone else’. “The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else”. [This quote turns out to be on the event t-shirts, via CRIG!] So that said… any ideas, comments, suggestions?”

And that, thankfully, is where I stopped blathering on. I’ll summarise the discussion and post back when I’ve checked that people are ok with me blogging their comments.

[If the slide show below has a brown face on a black background, it’s the right one – slideshare’s embed seems to have had a hiccup. If it’s not that, try viewing it online directly.]

[My slide images include the Easter Egg museum in Kolomyya, Ukraine and ‘Laughter in Odd Places’ event at the Museum of London.]

This is a quick dump of some of the text from an interview I did at the event, cos I managed to cover some stuff I didn’t quite articulate in my talk:

[On challenges for museums:] We need to change institutional priorities to acknowledge the size of the online audience and the different levels of engagement that are possible with the online experience. Having talked to people here, museums also need to do a bit of a sell job in letting people know that we’ve changed and we’re not just great big imposing buildings full of stuff.

[What are the most exciting developments in the museum sector, online?] For digital collections, going outside the walls of the museum using geo-location to place objects in their original context is amazing. It means you can overlay the streets of the city with past events and lives. Outsourcing curation and negotiating new models of expertise is exciting. Overcoming the fear of the digital surrogate as a competitor for museum visits and understanding that everything we do builds audiences, whether digital or physical.

‘The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web’

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.

A sort of private joy? User-generated content and museums

I came across this lovely perspective on the content visitors create with museums:

We didn’t start out asking people to leave their work, but it always happened. Now, we build it into the consideration of the activities that will be offered in the space. It isn’t really like the formal artist-displaying-work model that is in evidence throughout the museum…the work is typically anonymous and individual pieces aren’t highlighted.

When you walk into the space during the last month or so of an exhibition you experience the visitor-created artwork as a single, room-sized installation first, and only later do you focus on individual pieces. I think it is closer in some ways to the urge behind street art…the sort of private joy to be had from making something great and then leaving it behind for others to discover. I sometimes see visitors coming back to find something that they left behind a month or two before, not to reclaim it, just to see where it is now.

From the post ‘Show your work‘ at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Blog.

It’s talking about work created during physical visits to a museum rather than virtual visits but I think I noticed it because there’s been a spurt of discussion about user-generated content and visitor participation on museum websites on the MCG mailing list following a workshop at the London Museums Hub on ‘Understanding collections use and online access across the London Hub’.

A study presented at the event found an apparent lack of interest from museum website visitors in user-generated content, but in discussion at the event it appeared that the findings might have been different if the questions had been asked differently (with examples of some possible outcomes from UGC, perhaps ‘would you like museum collections to be more discoverable because other visitors had tagged them with everyday words you’d use’ rather than ‘would you like opportunities to comment or upload content’), or if the focus groups hadn’t been recruited from people who were physically visiting a museum and who were therefore fairly traditional museum-goers.

This lead to some interesting discussion about the differing reactions to the idea of opinions from other visitors versus real-life stories from other visitors; and of the idea that sometimes the value in user-created content lives with the person who contributes rather than those who read their contributions lately. This last idea was also raised at the User-generated content session at Museums and the Web in Montreal, my notes are here. I think the role of authority and trust and the influence of the context (type of museum or collection, user goal) need to be teased out into a more sophisticated model for analysing user-generated content in the cultural heritage sector.

There’s a lot of research into user-generated content, participation and social software going on in the UK at the moment, it’d be great if there was somewhere that results, and ideally the raw data too, could be shared. Perhaps the MCG site?

Next-generation approaches at ‘UK Museums on the Web Conference 2008’

Session 3, Next-generation approaches, of the UK Museums on the Web Conference 2008 was introduced by Jon Pratty.

Jon questioned, ‘what is a virtual museum?. It can be pretty much anything. Lots of valuable historical documents aren’t in ‘online museum’, they’re just out there to be found by search. It raises the question – how much permanence should digital objects have?’.

George Oates, ‘Sharing museum collections through Flickr’
Introducing the Flickr Commons project and talking about some early results. Some practical information on what it means to join the program, and things that have come out of it.

Flickr ‘swerved in from left field’ and bumped into museum people and librarians and archivists.

It started with Library of Congress thinking about how to engage with Web 2.0. They were looking for a Web 2.0 partner. They have 14 million images, about a million digitised.

Flickr is designed specifically to search and browse photos. It has a big infrastructure and supports interfaces in 8 languages. It has lots of eyeballs – “it’s made of people”.

From the Commons point of view, it’s simply a service, organisations can publish content into it.

They hit a hurdle: can a collecting institution publish content onto a site like Flickr? As collecting institution, someone like the Library of Congress doesn’t necessarily own the copyright or know who the copyright holder was. They devised a new statement – ‘no known copyright restrictions’ – this provided a way to use this content once institution had done as much work as they could to trace copyright so they could still publish if not able to trace copyright holders.

Might open up to other sorts of content.

What’s it for? Increase access to public photography collections; gather context about them, [something else I missed].

Powerhouse – lots of the collection was geo-tagged. It means you can find photos from then and now, for example around the CBD of Sydney. [Cool! I love the way geo-tagging content lets you build up layers of history]

Brooklyn – it made sense to use their existing established Flickr account, so Flickr created functionality to support that. The Smithsonian joined on Monday.

Soon they’ll have content from other partners including a charming collection from a tiny local museum.

Results:
Last 28 days Library of Congress – 15,000 [or 50,000?] views per day, 8 million views over last six months, 72,000 tags.
Powerhouse – 77,000 views (more views of that collection in one month than in the whole previous year), 3500 tags.
Brooklyn – figures affected by merged account issue.
Smithsonian – 10,000 views in first day, 100 new contacts

The numbers are probably affected by the ratio of photos e.g. smaller numbers when an institution has put fewer photos online.

“But, is it any good”?”
Suddenly there are conversations between Flickr users and institutions, and between Flickr users, contributing information and identifications.

They contribute the identification of places and people, with information about the history behind photos.

Now and then – people are adding their recent photos of a location via comments on Flickr.

Library of Congress have made a list of types of interactions [slides], they include the transcription of text on signs, posters, etc in background, geo-tags, non-English tags.

Institutional context and Flickr – bind them together with hyperlink, but being on Flickr frees a program from institutional constraints.

Flickr has been designed as a vessel or platform where interactions and conversations can happen.

The information that the community provides is proving useful. The Library of Congress has updated 176 records in catalogue, recording that it’s based on ‘information provided by Flickr Commons Project 2008’.

The Smithsonian found it was opportunity for collaboration between institutions/departments and staff.

How to join: the process is publish – interact – feedback.

What to think about: give a broad representation of what’s in your collection. Think about placement of images in photostream and sets. Plan to attract special interest groups. Think about what is already digital, what is popular? It can direct your digitisation efforts with feedback from a live community. Or you could go into your stores or collections database and possibly digitised randomly.

How much metadata to include? How many fields from database into description of photo; more or less?

When: can be a challenge for institutions.

How? You could use the normal Flickr uploadr if you don’t have too many images; or you could use API to write applications that will work with Collections Management Systems.

Who? Might be web technician and curator.

The catch? It costs $24.95 for a Pro account. But you get unlimited storage, and could conceivably put whole collection online.

The future:
It’s a work in progress. Probably will end up developing tools like additional reporting
Grow gently (make sure institution can handle the changes and respond to interactions)
They will continue their focus on photographs, not photographs of objects “(sorry)”. “Flickr is about … empathic photography”
“Go local” e.g. small archives in little towns – people can still participate even if they don’t have a web team, or web site.
API methods, RSS
Searching, browsing, maps
Search across Commons coming soon. Maybe combine searches to see a map of photos taken in 1910.

Notes from ‘Object-Orientated Democracies: Contradictions, Challenges And Opportunities’ in ‘Theoretical Frameworks’ session, MW2008

These are my notes from the first paper, ‘Object-Orientated Democracies: Contradictions, Challenges And Opportunities’ in the Theoretical Frameworks session chaired by Darren Peacock at Museums and the Web 2008. I’ll post the others later because the ‘real world’ is calling me to a 30th now.

I didn’t blog these at the time because I wanted to read the papers properly before talking about them. I probably still need a bit longer to digest them, but the longer I leave it the more vague my memory will get and the less likely I am to revisit the papers, so please excuse (and contact me to correct!) any mistakes or misinterpretations. I’m not going to summarise the papers because you can go read them for yourself at the links below (one of the truly fantastic things about the Museums and the Web conferences, IMO), I’m just pulling out the bits that pinged in my brain for whatever reason. My comments on what was said are in [square brackets] below.

The papers were Object-centred democracies: contradictions, challenges and opportunities by Fiona Cameron, Who has the responsibility for saying what we see? mashing up Museum and Visitor voices, on-site and online by Peter Samis and The API as Curator by Aaron Straup Cope.

Darren introduced the session theme as ‘the interplay between theory and practice’.

Fiona Cameron, Object-orientated democracies.

Museums use currently collections to produce stable, ordered, certain meanings. Curators are the gateway to a qualified interpretation of the object. [Classification and ordering as a wish-fulfilment exercise in ‘objective’, scientific recording, regardless of social or cultural context?]

However, the ‘networked’ (online, digital?) object overturns hierarchical museum classifications and closed museum-specific interpretive paradigms.

Online objects taking ‘active role in social networks and political agendas’. [Objects re-appropriated in role as cultural signifiers by the communities they came from – cool!]

‘Heritage significance is where the museum meets pop culture.’

Collection information becomes fluid when released into network, flow, subject to interactions with other resources and ideas.

From the paper: “Clearly, the more technology facilitates a networked social structure and individual cultural expression, as seen most recently with Web 2.0, the more difficult it becomes for museums to produce universal or consensual meanings for their collections.”

[Why would museums want to (claim to) produce universal meanings anyway? One of the exciting possibilities of linking from each of our online objects to its instance in various museum projects is the potential to expose the multiplicity of interpretations and narrative contexts produced around any single object, even within the same museum. Also, projects like ‘Reassessing What We Collect’ are an acknowledgement that a ‘universal’ reading is in fact problematic.]

Bruno La Tour: object-orientated democracies. “For too long, objects have been wrongly portrayed as matters of fact.”

Objects as mediators in assertion of associations, not just cultural symbols. How are competing readings inscribed in collections documentation context?

Collections wikis – how interactions between museum and public culture might inform new collection spaces.

Test cases for ‘Reconceptualising Heritage Collections’ – politically charged objects – coin and wedding dress. Wiki and real time discussion with curators, Palestinian Australians, Jewish readings of the same objects – many different readings.

Placing objects in open/public wiki was seen as problematic – assault on Palestinian culture. Role of museums in this… protection, ‘apolitical gatekeeper’, governance?

Collections as complex systems. [Complexity as problem to be smoothed out in recording.]

Objects derive meaning and significance from a large number of elements, multi/inter/disciplinary or from outside the museum walls. [Too much on that slide to read!]

Curators as expert groups within proposed systems; group boundaries are permeable. Static museum categories become more ambiguous as objects are interpreted in unexpected, interesting ways. Role in mapping social world around a collections item. Equilibrium vs chaos?

“Objects are able to perform at a higher level of complexity.”

Issues re: museum authority and expertise, tensions between hierarchical structures and flexible networks, sustainable documentation practice, manage complexity.

[I think one of the reasons I liked this so much on a personal level is that it has a lot of parallels to the thinking I had to do about recording structures for post-processual archaeology at Çatalhöyük Archaeological Project – relational archaeological databases as traditionally conceived don’t support the recording of ambiguity, uncertainty, plurality, multiplicity or of interpretative context.

I also like the sense of possibilities in a system that at first might seem to undermine curatorial or organisational authority – “Objects are able to perform at a higher level of complexity”. The role of museums, and the ways curators work, might change, but both museums and curators are still valued.]