Museum technologists redux: it’s not about us

Recently there’s been a burst of re-energised conversations on Twitter, blogs and inevitably at MW2012 (Museums on the Web 2012) about museum technologists, about breaking out of the bubble, about digital strategies vs plain old strategies for museums.  This is a quick post (because I only ever post when I should be writing a different paper) to make sure my position is clear.

If you’re reading this you probably know that these are important issues to discuss, and it’s exciting thinking about the organisational change issues museums will rise to in order to stay relevant, but it’s also important to step back and remind ourselves that ultimately, it’s not about us.  It’s not about our role as museum technologists, or museums as organisations.

Museum technologists should be advocates for the digital audience, and guide museums in creating integrated, meaningful experiences, but we should also make sure that other museum staff know we still share their values and respect their expertise, and dispel myths about being zealots of openness at the expense of other requirements or wanting to devalue the physical experience.

It’s about valuing the digital experiences our audiences have in our galleries, online and on the devices they carry in their pockets.  It’s about understanding that online visitors are real visitors too.  It’s about helping people make the most of their physical experiences by extending and enhancing their understandings of our collections and the world that shaped them.  It’s about showing the difference digital makes by showing the impact it can have for a museum seeking to fulfil its mission for audiences it can’t see as well as those right under its nose.

I’m a museum technologist, but maybe in my excitement about its potential I haven’t been clear enough: I’m not in love with technology, I’m in love with what it enables – better museums, and better museum experiences.

My Europeana Tech keynote: Open for engagement: GLAM audiences and digital participation

This is a slightly abridged version of my notes for my keynote, ‘Open for engagement: GLAM audiences and digital participation’ at EuropeanaTech (#etech11) in Vienna in October 2011.

Introduction 
I’m really excited about being here to talk about some of my favourite things with you. I think helping people appreciate cultural heritage is one of the best jobs in the world so I feel lucky to be here with people working toward the same goal.

This is a chance to remind ourselves why we should get audiences participating digitally – how does it benefit both GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) and their audiences? I’m going to take you through some examples of digital participation and explain why I think they’re useful case studies. I’ll finish by summarising what we can learn from those case studies, looking for tips you can take back to your organisations. Hopefully we’ll have time for a few questions or some discussion.

Why enable participation?
Isn’t it easier to just keep doing what we’re already doing? Maybe not – here are some problems your GLAM organisation might be facing…

You need to think digitally to enable participation at scale – to reach not tens or hundreds, but thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. As cultural heritage organisations, we have lots of experience with access and participation at reference desks and in galleries. We are good at creating experiences to engage, delight, and educate in person, but these are limited by the number of staff required, the materiality of the objects or documents, the size of a venue, its location and opening hours. We’re still learning how to translate those brilliant participative experiences into the digital domain…

Collections are big, resources are small. In most cases we’re still digitising catalogue records, let alone taking images and writing beautiful contextualised interpretative material for our collections. We’ll be at it for centuries if we try to do it alone…

What’s more, it’s not enough for content to be online – it has to be findable. Our digitised content is still not very discoverable in search engines – which means it’s effectively invisible to most potential audiences. We need better content to help search engines find the stuff we’ve put so much work into putting online. For example, I wanted to use Europeana images to illustrate my slides, but I had trouble finding images to match my ideas – but if other people had tagged them with words like ‘happiness’, ‘excitement’, ‘crowds’, I might have been able to find what I needed.

User-contributed content can help bridge the ‘semantic gap’ between the language used in catalogues and the language that most people would use to look for content.

Even when our content is found by our audiences, it’s not always very accessible without information about the significance, and cultural and historical context of the item. Further, in Europeana’s case, there’s a gap between the many languages of the user community and the catalogue metadata; as well as gaps between historical and contemporary language. Sadly, at the moment, many records lack enough context for a non-expert to have a meaningful experience with them.

Why support participation?
So, those are some of the problems we’re looking for solve… what are the benefits of digital participation?
Firstly, the benefits to organisations

Engagement and participation is often part of your core mission.

inspire, passion, educate, enhance, promote preserve, record, access, learn, discover, use, memory, culture, conservation, innovation

I had a look at some mission statements from various museums, libraries, and archives, and these are the words that frequently occurred. The benefits of audience participation are both tangible and intangible, and exactly how they relate to your mission (and can be measured in relation to it) depends on the organisation. And don’t forget that access may not be enough if your content isn’t also discoverable and engaging.

Participation can increase traffic. It’s pretty simple – if content is more discoverable, more people will discover it. If audiences can actively participate, they’ll engage with your collections for longer, and return more often. They may even turn into physical visitors or buy something online…

Turn audiences into advocates – there are many people who forget that GLAMs even exist once they’ve left school – but these are often the people we can reach with digital projects. When people directly benefit from your resources, they know why your organisation is important. You’re no longer dusty old stuff in boxes, you’re their history, part of the story of how their lives came to be and how their future is formed.  When people have a great experience with you, they become fans. When you encourage people to participate in meaningful work, they gain a sense of ownership and pride. These intangible outcomes can be as important as the content created through audience participation.  It’s a chance to let people see the full complexity of what you do, how much work goes into providing access and interpretation; understand that what they see on the shelves or in the galleries is the tip of the iceberg..

There are more experts outside your GLAM than within. Participatory projects let you access external knowledge.  This knowledge can include the experience of using, repairing or building an object; memories of the events or places you’ve recorded; or it may be specialist knowledge they’ve built through their own research. Let them share their knowledge with you, and through you, with your audiences.

Finally, the rest of the world is moving from broadcast to dialogue and interaction. If you spend time around kids, you may have seen them interact with old-fashioned screens – for them, an interface you can only look at is broken.

Benefits to audience

It’s all very well saying participation creates deeper engagement, but rather than tell you again, I’d rather show you with a quick thought experiment.

First I want you to imagine taking a photo of an object in a museum. Ok – so, how many times do you really go back and look at that photo? How much do you remember about that object? Do you find yourself thinking about it later? Do you ever have a conversation with friends about it?

Now I want you to imagine sketching the object, perhaps at this handy sketching station in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.

As you draw, you’ll find yourself engaging with the particular materiality of the object – the details of its construction, the way time has affected it. You may start wondering about the intention of the creators, what it was like to use it or encounter it in everyday life. In having an active relationship with that object, you’ve engaged more deeply, perhaps even changed a little as a result. New questions have been raised that you may find yourself pondering, and may even decide to find out more, and start your own research, or share your feelings with others.

Perhaps surprisingly, even the act of tagging an object has a similar effect, because you have to pay it some attention to say something about it…

A big benefit for audiences is that participation is rewarding. There are many reasons why, but these are some I think are relevant to participation. Games researcher Jane McGonigal (Gaming the future of museumssays people crave:

1. satisfying work to do
2. the experience of being good at something
3. time spent with people we like
4. the chance to be a part of something bigger

Participation in digital cultural heritage projects can meet all those needs.

Types of participation

The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education came up with these forms of public participation in science research. Nina Simon of the Museum 2.0 blog mapped them to museums and added ‘co-option’; I’ve included ‘platform’.

  • Contributory – Most GLAM user-generated content projects. Designed by the organisation, the public contributes data.
  • Collaborative – the public may be active partners in some decisions, but the project is lead by the organisation
  • Co-creative – all partners define goals and make decisions together
  • Platform – organisation as venue or host for other activity.

It’s also important to remember that there are some types of participation where the value lies mostly in the effect of the act of creation for the individual – for example, most commenting doesn’t add much to my experience of the thing commented on. However, sometimes there’s also value more widely – for example, when someone comments and includes a new fact or interesting personal story. Taking this further, participatory projects can be designed so that each contribution helps meet a defined goal. Crowdsourcing involves designing carefully scaffolded tasks so that the general public can contribute to a shared goal. Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage is probably most often contributory rather than collaborative or co-creative.

Case studies
I’ve chosen two established examples and two experimental ones to demonstrate how established digital participation is, and also where it’s going…

Flickr Commons – I’m sure you’ve all probably heard of this, but it’s a great reminder of how effective simply sharing content in places where people hang out can be. The first tip: go fishing where the fish are biting. Find the digital spaces where people are already engaging with similar content.

Example page: [Sylvia Sweets Tea Room, corner of School and Main streets, Brockton, Mass.].  You can see from the number of views, comments, tags, favourites and notes that organisations are still finding much higher levels of discoverability, traffic and user contributions on the Commons than they’d ever get on their own, individual sites. It’s also a nice example of the public identifying a location, and there are wonderful personal recollections and family histories in the comments below.

Trove – crowdsourcing OCR correction.  Tasks like OCR correction that require judgement or complicated visual processing are perfect for crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing can solve real problems – helping scientists identify galaxies and proteins that could save lives, or providing data about climate change through history. In this example, crowdsourcing is helping correct optical character recognition (OCR) errors. In the example here, the correction is subtle, but as someone from the location described, I can tell you that the transcription now makes a lot more sense… And making that correction felt good.

According to the National Library of Australia, by February 2011 they had ‘20,000+ people helping out and 30 million lines of text had been corrected during the last 2 years’. This is a well-designed interface. Their clear ‘call to action’ – ‘fix this text’ – is simple and located right where it needs to be.  Another tip: you don’t need to register, but you can if you want to track your progress. Registration isn’t a barrier, and it’s presented as a benefit to the audience, not the organisation. They’ve also got a forum as a platform for conversation between participants.

So, crowdsourcing is great. But as crowdsourcing gets more popular, you will be competing for ‘participation bandwidth’ with other participatory and crowdsourcing projects – people will be deciding whether to work with your site or something else that meets their needs… What to do?

Well, it turns out that crowdsourcing games can act as ‘participation engines’…

[I then talked about ‘a small tagging game I researched, designed and made in my evenings and weekends, so that you can see the potential for crowdsourcing games even for GLAMs that don’t have a lot of resources’ – if you’re curious, it’s probably easiest to check out the slides at http://www.slideshare.net/miaridge/everyone-wins-crowdsourcing-games-and-museums alongside the video at http://vimeo.com/26858316].

Because crowdsourcing games can be more accessible to the general public, they can also increase the number of overall contributors, as well as encouraging each contributor to stay for longer, do more work, engage more deeply. Crowdsourcing games can be much more productive than a non-game interface by encouraging people to spend more time and play with more content. If games not suitable for your audience, you can adopt some of the characteristics of games – clear initial tasks to start with and a sense of the rules of the game, good feedback on the results of player actions towards a goal, mastering new skills and providing interesting problems to solve…

Continuing the [Europeana Tech] theme of openness, this project was only possible because the Science Museum (UK) and the Powerhouse Museum had APIs into their object records – I was able to create a game that united their astronomy objects without ever having to negotiate a partnership or licensing agreement.

Oramics – co-creation (and GLAM as platform).  My final example is something I worked on just before I left the Science Museum but I make the caveat that I can’t claim any credit for all the work done since, and I haven’t seen any internal evaluation on the project.

The Oramics project was a conscious experiment in co-curation and public history, part of a wider programme of research. This is the Oramics machine. It’s a difficult object to interpret – it’s a hand-built synthesiser, and not much to look at – it’s all about how it sounded, but it’s too fragile to restore to working order. So the museum needed help interpreting the object, in understanding how to explain its significance and market it to new audiences. They tried a few different things in this project… They worked with young people from the National Youth Theatre who met museum staff to learn about the people who invented and built the machine, and they visited the object store to see the machine. They worked with developers to make an app to recreate the sounds of the synthesiser so that people could make new music with it. They also worked with a group of co-curators recruited online to help make it interesting to general visitors as well as music fans – the original call to action was something like ‘we have an amazing object we need to bring to life, and six empty cases – help us fill them!’.

While the main outputs of all this activity are pretty traditional – a performance event, an exhibition – it’s also been the catalyst for the creation of an ad hoc online community and conversations on Facebook and blogs.

As Clay Shirky told the Smithsonian 2.0 workshop in 2009, it’s possible that “the artefact itself has created the surface to which the people adhere. … Every artefact is a latent community”. It’s nice to think we’re finally getting to that point.

Best practice tips
So what do you need to think about to design a participatory project?

  • Have an answer to ‘Why would someone spend precious time on your project?’
  • Be inspired by things people love
  • Design for the audience you want
  • Make participating pleasurable
  • Don’t add unnecessary friction, barriers
  • Show how much you value contributions
  • Validate procrastination – offer the opportunity to make a difference, and show, don’t tell, how it’s making a difference
  • Make it easy to start participating, design scaffolded tasks to keep people going
  • Let audiences help manage problems
  • Test with users; iterate; polish
  • Empower audience to keep the place tidy – let them know what’s acceptable and what’s discouraged and how they can help.

Best practice within your GLAM
How can your organisation make the most of the opportunities digital participation provides?

  • Have a clear objective
  • Know how to measure success
  • Allow for community management resources
  • Realistically assess fears, decide acceptable risk
  • Put the audience’s needs first. You need a balance between the task want to achieve, the skills and knowledge of audience and the content you have to work with.
  • Fish where the fish are – find the spaces where people are already engaging with similar content and see how you can slot in, don’t expect people to find their way to you.
  • Decide where it’s ok to lose control – let go… you may find audiences you didn’t expect, or people may make use your content in ways you never imagined. Watch and learn – another reason to iterate and go into public beta earlier rather than later.
  • Open data – let people make new things with your content. Bad people will do it anyway, but by not having open data, you’re preventing exactly the people you want to work with from doing anything with your data. Unclear or closed licenses are the biggest barrier that friendly hackers and developers raise with me when I ask about cultural heritage data…

In a 2008 post about museum-as-platform, Nina Simon says it’s about moving from controlling everything to providing expertise; learning to change from content provider to platform. [More recently, Rob Stein posted about participatory culture and the subtle differences between authoritarian and authoritative approaches.]

Conclusion
Perhaps most important of all – enjoy experiencing your collections through new eyes!

Notes from EuropeanaTech 2011

Some very scrappy notes from the EuropeanaTech conference held in Vienna this week as I prepare a short talk for the Open data in cultural heritage (LODLAM-London) event tonight… For a different perspective there’s an overview post at EuropeanaTech – är det här framtidens kulturarv? and I’ll link to any others I find.  I’ve also put up some photos of ten questions attendees asked about Europeana, with written answers from the break-out exercise.  I’ll tidy up and post my keynote notes in a few days, and I’ll probably summarise things a bit more then.

Max Kaiser: Europeana is like a cruise ship with limited room to move, hackathons inject Europeana with a bit more agility… Build real stuff for real people with real business requirements – different to building prototypes and proofs of concept – requires different project culture.

Bill Thompson: pulling the analogue past into the digital future… We don’t live in a digital world and never will – the physical world is not going to vanish. We’ll remain embodied minds; will have co-existing analogue and digital worlds.Digital technologies shaping the possibilities we decide to embrace. … Can’t have a paradigm shift in humanities because no basic set of beliefs to argue with… But maybe the shift to digital is so fundamental that it could be called a paradigm shift. … Even if you don’t engage online, you’ll still live in a world shaped by the digital.  Those who are online will come to define the norms. … Revolutionary vanguard in our midst – hope lies with the programmers, the coders – the only weapon that matters is running code. Have to build on technologies that are open, only way to build diverse online culture that allows all voices to be heard. … Means open data in a usable form – properly formulated so can be interpreted by anyone or any program that wants it; integrate them into the broader cultural space. Otherwise just disconnected islands.

Two good reasons to endorse open linked data. We’re the first generation that’s capable of doing this – have the tools, network, storage, processes. Within our power to digitise everything and make it findable. We may also be the only generation that wants to do it – later generations will not value things that aren’t visible on the screen in the same way – they’ll forget the importance of the non-digital. So we’d better get on with it, and do it properly. LOD is a foundation that allows us to build in the future.

Panel discussion…

Qu: how does open theme fit with orgs with budget cuts and need to make more money?
BT: when need to make money from assets, openness is a real challenge. There are ways of making assets available to people that are unlikely to have commercial impact but could raise awareness e.g. low-res for public access, high-res for commercial use [a model adopted by many UK museums].

Jill Cousins: there’s a reputational need to put decent resolution images online to counter poor quality versions online.

Max: be clever – don’t make an exclusive contract with digitisation partners – make sure you can also give free access to it.
Jill Cousins: User always been central to Europeana though got slightly lost along the way as busy getting data.  …  Big stumbling block – licenses. Not just commercial reasons, also about reputational risk, loss of future earnings, fear of giving away something that’s valuable in future. Without CC licence, can’t publish as linked open data. Without it, commercial providers like INA can’t take the API. Can’t use blogs that have advertising on them. Couldn’t put it on Wikipedia. Or ArtFinder.  …  New [UK?] Renaissance report – metadata related to the digitised objects by cultural heritage orgs should be widely and freely available for re-use.
Workshops with content holders: Risks – loss of quality, loss of control, attribution, brand value, potential income (‘phantom income’), unwanted spillover effects – misuse/juxtaposition of data. Rwards: increasing relevance, increasing channels to end users, data enrichment, brand value, specific funding opportunties, discoverability, new customers, public mission, building expertise, desired spillover effects. … You are reliant on user doing the right thing with attribution….
Main risks: unwanted spillover effects, loss of attribution, loss of potential income. Main rewards: new customers, increasing relevance, public mission. But the risks diminshed as the rewards gain more prominence – overall outweighed the risks.  But address those 3 areas of risk.
What next? Operationalise some of the applications developed.  Yellow Kitchen Maid paper on the business of open data. Working together on difficulties faced by institutions and licensing open data.
[notes from day 2 to follow!]
Ten questions about Europeana…
10 questions (and one general question)
The general question was, what can the community building with domain experts, developers and researchers/R&D/innovation work package in Europeana 2.0 do?  (Something like that anyway, it was all a bit confusing by that point)
You had to pick a question and go into a group to try and answer it – I’ve uploaded photos of the answer sheets.
1 Open source – if Europeana using open source software and is open software, should it also become a community-driven development project?
2 Open source – are doubts about whether OSS provides quality services justified? What should be done to ensure quality?
3 Aggregation and metadata quality – what will be the role of aggregators, and what is role of Europeana in LOD future?
4 What can Europeana do which search engines can’t that justifies the extra effort of creating and managing structured metadata?
5 Is EDM [Europeana Data Model] still too complicated? If yes, what to simplify.
6 What is the actual value of semantic contexualisation, and could that not be produced by search engines?
7 enhance experience of exploring, discovering [see photo – it was too long to type in time!]
8 How important is multilingual access for discovery in Europeana? Which elements are the most important?
9 Can Europeana drive end-user engagement on the distributed sites and services of contributing archives?
10 How can we benefit from existing (local, international) communities in enriching the user experience on Europeana?

Usability: the key that unlocks geeky goodness

This is a quick pointer to three posts about some usability work I did for the JISC-funded Pelagios project, and a reflection on the process. Pelagios aims to ‘help introduce Linked Open Data goodness into online resources that refer to places in the Ancient World’. The project has already done lots of great work with the various partners to bring lots of different data sources together, but they wanted to find out whether the various visualisations (particularly the graph explorer) let users discover the full potential of the linked data sets.

I posted on the project blog about how I worked out a testing plan to encourage user-centred design and set up the usability sessions in Evaluating Pelagios’ usability, set out how a test session runs (with sample scripts and tasks) in Evaluating usability: what happens in a user testing session? and finally I posted some early Pelagios usability testing results. The results are from a very small sample of potential users but they were consistent in the issues and positive results uncovered.

The wider lesson for LOD-LAM (linked open data in library, archives, museums) projects is that user testing (and/or a strong user-centred design process) helps general audiences (including subject specialists) appreciate the full potential of a technically-led project – without thoughtful design, the results of all those hours of code may go unloved by the people they were written for. In other words, user experience design is the key that unlocks the geeky goodness that drives these projects. It’s old news, but the joy of user testing is that it reminds you of what’s really important…

‘Share What You See’ at hack4europe London

A quick report from hack4europe London, one of four hackathons organised by Europeana to ‘showcase the potential of the API usage for data providers, partners and end-users’.

I have to confess that when I arrived I wasn’t feeling terribly inspired – it’s been a long month and I wasn’t sure what I could get done at a one-day hack.  I was intrigued by the idea of ‘stealth culture’ – putting cultural content out there for people to find, whether or not they were intentionally looking for ‘a cultural experience’ – but I couldn’t think of a hack about it I could finish in about six hours.  But I happened to walk past Owen Stephen’s (@ostephens) screen and noticed that he was googling something about WordPress, and since I’ve done quite a lot of work in WordPress, I asked what his plans were.  After a chat we decided to work together on a WordPress plugin to help people blog about cool things they found on museum visits.  I’d met Owen at OpenCulture 2011 the day before (though we’d already been following each other on twitter) but without the hackday it’s unlikely we would have ever worked together.

So what did we make?  ‘Share What You See’ is a plugin designed to make a museum and gallery visit more personal, memorable and sociable.  There’s always that one object that made you laugh, reminded you of friends or family, or was just really striking.  The plugin lets you search for the object in the Europeana collection (by title, and hopefully by venue or accession number), and instantly create a blog post about it (screenshot below) to share it with others.

Screenshot: post pre-populated with information about the object. 

Once you’ve found your object, the plugin automatically inserts an image of it, plus the title, description and venue name.

You can then add your own text and whatever other media you like.  The  plugin stores the originally retrieved information in custom fields so it’s always there for reference if it’s updated in the post.  Once an image or other media item is added, you can use all the usual WordPress tools to edit it.

If you’re in a gallery with wifi, you could create a post and share an object then and there, because WordPress is optimised for mobile devices.  This help makes collection objects into ‘social objects’, embedding them in the lives of museum and gallery visitors.  The plugin could also be used by teachers or community groups to elicit personal memories or creative stories before or after museum visits.

The code is at https://github.com/mialondon/Share-what-you-see and there’s a sample blog post at http://www.museumgames.org.uk/jug/.  There’s still lots of tweaks we could have made, particularly around dealing with some of the data inconsistencies, and I’d love a search by city (in case you can’t quite remember the name of the museum), etc, but it’s not bad for a couple of hours work and it was a lot of fun.  Thanks to the British Library for hosting the day (and the drinks afterwards), the Collections Trust/Culture Grid for organising, and Europeana for setting it up, and of course to Owen for working with me.  Oh, and we won the prize for “developer’s choice” so thank you to all the other developers!

Define your purpose or others will define you (and you may not like the results)

[A re-post, as the blogger outage seems to have eaten the first version. I’m incredibly grateful to Ben W. Brumfield @benwbrum for sending me a copy of the post from his RSS reader. I’ve set blogger up to email me a copy of posts in future so I won’t have to go diving into my Safari cache to try and retrieve a post again!]

There’s a lot of this going around as the arts and cultural heritage face on-going cuts: define yourself, or be defined, a search for a new business model that doesn’t injure the unbusinesslike values at the core of public cultural institutions. Mark Ravenhill in the Guardian, Global art: nice canapes, shame about the show:

Many of our UK institutions operate under a strange contradiction: most of the signals we give out suggest that we offer the international glamour, the pampering loveliness, the partnerships with banks and brands… But at the same time, we agonise about access: we want everyone to be let into the business lounge.

In a modern world that buys and sells information and luxury, the arts deal in something very different: wisdom, a complex, challenging, lifelong search that can make you happy and furious, discontented and questioning, elated or bored.

What we need now, more than ever, is a clear message about what we do and why we do it. The government has opted for swift deficit reduction and a good hack at the arts: it’s up to us to set the long-term agenda for the role of the arts in public life over the next decade and beyond if we’re not going to be cut, cut and cut again. Boom and bust are here to stay: capitalism will always be in a permanent state of crisis.

Nick Poole has also written on A New Way Forward for Museums, saying:

It is entirely possible to be commercially savvy, operate sharply and make sophisticated uses of licensing as an artefact of control all in the name of serving a public cultural purpose. Equally, it is possible to throw open the doors and make content universally accessible in the name of driving commercial value to the bottom-line. The cultural and commercial imperatives are not in opposition, but coexist along a spectrum of activity which runs from non-commercial, through non-transactional (things like brand equity and audience engagement) to strictly financially transactional.

If the financial future of museums lies in becoming commercially acute, then a key part of true sustainability will lie in recognising our place in the supply-chain of culture to consumers, and in truly understanding and embracing our core competence and their value.

…we need to recognise that focussing on our core competencies and using them to create cultural assets and experiences which we can monetise (and therefore sustain) in partnership with the private sector is a story of success and advantage, not failure or loss.

His post has some interesting suggestions, so do go read it (and comment).

Nick also describes a vision “of a world in which museums have renegotiated the social contract with the public so that people everywhere understand that museums are places where culture is made and celebrated, rather than preserved and hidden from view” – it’s easy, in my happy little bubble, to forget that many people don’t see the point of museums. Some I’ve talked to might make an allowance for the big national institutions, but won’t have any time for smaller or local museums. Working out how to deal with this might mean changing the public offer of these museums – or is it too late? There’s a silent cull of museums happening in the UK right now, and yet I don’t hear about big campaigns to save them. What do you think?

Thoughts towards the future of museums for #kulturwebb

Last week I was in Stockholm to give a talk on ‘Museum Crowdsourcing Games: Improving Collections Through Play (and some thoughts on re-inventing museums)‘.  Again, my thanks to @kajsahartig and @nordiskamuseet for the invitation to speak, and to all the lovely people I met for sharing their own stories with me, and for listening to a talk in English. The quote of the day came from @charlotteshj during a panel discussion on museums and innovation at the end of the day: digital museum collections should be ‘shareable, spreadable and nerd-friendly’.

Based on what I learnt about the audience I ended up including more explanatory material on museum crowdsourcing games and didn’t really have time for the ‘re-inventing museums’ bits, so I thought I’d share those notes here.  It’s still very much a work-in-progress but since there are so many smart people thinking about the same subject, it’s worth sharing for comment… (Also because Jasper Visser, who is also thinking about the future of museums, asked me what I was going to say. Btw, Jasper’s #kulturwebb talk inspired the whole room, watch the video on his post about it.)

I know the future of museums lies in fitting into people’s lives as well as being a destination; being the cathedral and being in the bazaar. Cultural heritage needs to be ‘out there’ to help people value and make time for visits the physical place.  It’s about new types of engagement and outreach. It’s not all digital, but as the world is networked and mobile and social, we should be too.

I was thinking about new metaphors for museums – what if we were Amazon? A local newspaper? A specialist version of Wikipedia? A local pub? A student blog? A festival, a series of lectures, or a film group? A pub quiz? Should a museum be at the heart of village life, a meeting place for art snobs, a drop-in centre, a café, a study space, a mobile showroom?

But I realised that the answer to the question of the future of museums is deeply personal to any museum, because museums exist in the intersection of their collections, their fans and their local audiences. This is good, because it means you can apply your existing knowledge about what your audiences love about you.  The answer to the question ‘what would your museum be if it was invented in 2011?’ is up to you…

Every time I approach the question of the future of museums, or of how the future of museums will be informed by what’s happening the world today, I seem to come at it from a different angle. Today I’m wondering about the implications of the fact that there are no (g-rated) offline activities anymore – people will do almost anything with their mobile in one hand, and could be doing anything from googling to find out more about the museum object in front of them to looking up the lyrics of that one-hit wonder from that summer they went camping with friends.  Their head could be in any space as well as in your space.

I’m also thinking about outreach, whether improving wikipedia articles, snippets of local history on the back of pub toilet doors or putting a museum exhibition in a truck and taking it to kids in the outer suburbs.  Tomorrow I’ll wake up with some new ‘what if?’ in my head. And I’m curious – what are you thinking about the future of museums?

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.

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.