Clash of the models? Object-centred and object-driven approaches in online collections

While re-visiting the world of museum collections online for some writing on ‘crowdsourcing as participation and engagement with cultural heritage’, I came across a description of Bernard Herman’s object-centred and object-driven models that could be useful for thinking about mental models designing better online collections sites.

(I often talk about mental models, so here’s a widely quoted good definition, attributed to Susan Carey’s 1986 journal article, Cognitive science and science education:

‘A mental model represents a person’s thought process for how something works (i.e., a person’s understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.’

CATWALKModel House FaceTo illustrate a clash in models, when you read ‘model’ you might have thought of lots of different mental pictures of a ‘model’, including model buildings or catwork models, and they’d both be right and yet not quite what I meant:

And now, back to museums…)

To quote from the material culture site I was reading, which references Herman 1992 ‘The Stolen House’, in an object-centred approach the object itself is the focus of study:

“Here, we need to pay attention to the specific physical attributes of the object. The ability to describe the object – to engage, that is, with a list of descriptive criteria – is at the forefront of this approach. A typical checklist of the kinds of questions we might ask about an object include: how, and with what materials, was the object made? what is its shape, size, texture, weight and colour? how might one describe its design, style and/or decorative status? when was it made, and for what purpose?”

In object-driven material culture:

“the focus shifts toward an emphasis on understanding how objects relate to the peoples and cultures that make and use them. In particular, ideas about contextualisation and function become all important. As we have already noted, what objects mean may change through time and space. As products of a particular time and place, objects can tell us a great deal about the societies that gave birth to them. That is, they often help to reflect, or speak to us, of the values and beliefs of those who created them. At the same time, it is also important to remember that objects are not simply ‘passive’ in this way, but that they can also take on a more ‘active’ role, helping to create meaning rather than simply reflect it.”

It seems to me that the object-centred approach includes much of the information recorded in museum catalogues, while the object-driven approach is closer to an exhibition.  Online museum collections often re-use content from catalogues and therefore tend to be object-centred by default as catalogues generally don’t contain the information necessary to explain how each object relates ‘to the peoples and cultures that make and use them’ required for an object-driven approach.  If that contextual information is available, the object might be sequestered off in an ‘online exhibition’ not discoverable from the main collections site.

A complicating factor is the intersection of Herman’s approaches with questions about the ways audiences think about objects in museums and other memory institutions (as raised in Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections?).  The object-centred approach seems more easily applicable to individual objects but the object-driven approach possibly works better for classes of objects.  I’m still not sure how different audiences think about the differences between individual objects and classes of objects, so it’s even harder to know which approach works best in different contexts, let alone how you would determine which model best suits a visitor when their interaction is online and therefore mostly contextless.  (If you know of research on this, I’d love to hear about it!)

I’d asked on twitter: ‘Can mixed models make online collections confusing?’  John Coburn suggested that modes of enquiry online might be different, and that the object-driven attributes might be less important.  This was a useful point, not least because it helped me crystallise one reason I find the de-materialisation of objects online disconcerting – attributes like size, weight, texture, etc, all help me relate to and understand objects.  Or as Janet E Davis said, ‘I automatically try to ‘translate’ into the original medium in my head’.   John answered with another question: ‘So do we present objects via resonant ideas/themes/wider narrative, rather than jpg+title being “end points”?’, which personally seems like a good goal for online collections, but I’m not the audience.

So my overall question remains: is there a potential mismatch between the object-driven approach that exhibitions have trained museum audiences to expect and the object-centred approach they encounter in museum collections online?  And if so, what should be done about it?

Some thoughts on linked data and the Science Museum – comments?

I’ve been meaning to finish this for ages so I could post it, but then I realised it’s more use in public in imperfect form than in private, so here goes – my thoughts on linked data, APIs and the Science Museum on the ‘Museums and the machine-processable web‘ wiki. I’m still trying to find time to finish documenting my thoughts, and I’ve already had several useful comments that mean I’ll need to update it, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, etc.

Get thee to a wiki – the great API challenge in action

Help us work on an informal, lightweight way of devising shared data, API standards for museum and cultural heritage organisations – museum-api.pbwiki.com is open for business.

You could provide examples of APIs you’ve used or produced, share your experience as a consumer of web services, tell us about your collections.

Commenting on other people’s queries and content is an easy way to get started.  I’d particularly love to hear from curators and collections managers – we should be working together to enable greater access to collections.  If you check it out and none of it makes any sense – be brave and say so!  We should be able to explain what we’re doing clearly, or we’re not doing it right.

Some background: as announced on the nascent museumdev blog, the Science Museum is looking at releasing an API soon – it’ll be project-specific to start with, but we’re creating it with the intention of using that as an iterative testing and learning process to design an API for wider use. We could re-invent the wheel, but we’d rather make it easy for people to use what they’ve learnt using other APIs and other museum collections – the easiest way to do that is to work with other museums and developers. The Science Museum’s initial public-facing collections API will be used for a ‘mashup competition’ based on object metadata from our ‘cosmos and culture’ gallery.

Speaking of museumdev, I started it as somewhere where I could ask questions, point people to discussions, a home for collections of links and stuff in development.  It’s also got random technical bits like ‘Tip of the Day: saving web.config as Unicode‘ because I figure I might as well share my mistakes^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H learning experiences in the hope that someone, somewhere, benefits.

‘Sector-wide initiatives’ at ‘UK Museums on the Web Conference 2008’

Session 2, ‘Sector-wide initiatives’, of the UK Museums on the Web Conference 2008 was chaired by Bridget McKenzie.

In the interests of getting my notes up quickly I’m putting them up pretty much ‘as is’, so they’re still rough around the edges. There are quite a few sections below which need to be updated when the presentations or photos of slides go online. Updated posts should show in your RSS feed but you might need to check your settings.

[I hope Bridget puts some notes from her paper on her blog because I didn’t get all of it down.]

The session was introduced as case studies on how cross institutional projects can be organised and delivered. She mentioned resistance to bottom-up or experimental approach, institutional constraints; and building on emerging frames of web.

Does the frame of ‘the museum’ make sense anymore, particularly on the web? What’s our responsibilities when we collaborate? Contextual spaces – chance to share expertise in meaningful ways.

It’s easy to revert to ways previous projects have been delivered. Funding plans don’t allow for iterative, new and emergent technologies.

Carolyn Royston and Richard Morgan, V&A and NMOLP.
The project is funded by the ‘invest to save’ program, Treasury.

Aims:
Increase use of the digital collections of the 9 museums (no new website)
No new digitisation or curatorial content.
Encourage creative and critical use of online resources.
[missed one]
Sustainable high-quality online resource for partners.

The reality – it’s like herding cats.

They had to address issue of partnership to avoid problems later in project.

Focussed on developing common vision, set of principles on working together, identify things uniquely achievable through partnership, barriers to success, what added value for users.

Three levels of barriers to success – one of working in an inter-museum collaborative way, which was first for those nationals; organisational issues – working inter-departmentally (people are learning or web or whatever people and not used to working together); personal issues – people involved who may not think they are web or learning people.

These things aren’t necessary built in to project plan.

Deliverables: web quests, ‘creative journeys’, federated search, [something I missed], new ways of engaging with audiences.

Web Quests – online learning challenge, flexible learning tool mapped to curriculum. They developed a framework. It supports user research, analysis and synthesis of information. Users learn to use collections in research.

Challenges: creating meaningful collection links; sending people to collections sites knowing that content they’d find there wasn’t written for those audiences; provide support for pupils when searching collections. Sustainable content authoring tool and process.

[I wondered if the Web Quest development tools are extendible, and had a chance to ask Carolyn in one of the breaks – she was able to confirm that they were.]

Framework stays on top to support and structure.

Creative journeys:
[see slide]

They’re using Drupal. [Cool!]

[I also wondered about the user testing for creative journeys, whether there was evidence that people will do it there and not on their blogs, Zotero, in Word documents or hard drives – Carolyn also had some information on this.]

Museums can push relevant content.

What are the challenges?
How to build and sustain the Creative Journeys (user-generated content) communities, individually and as a partnership?
Challenge to curatorial authority and reputation
Work with messiness and complexity around new ways of communicating and using collections
Copyright and moderation issues

But partners are still having a go – shared risk, shared success.

Federated search
Wasn’t part of original implementation plan
[slide on reasons for developing]
Project uses a cross collection search, not a cross collection search project. The distinction can be important.

The technical solution was driven by project objectives [choices were made in that context, not in a constraint-free environment.]

Richard, Technical Solution
The back-end is de-coupled from front end applications
A feed syndicates user actions.

Federated search – a system for creating machine readable search results and syndicating them out.
Real time search or harvester. [IMO, ‘real time’ should always be in scare quotes for federated searches – sometimes Google creates expectations of instantaneous results that other searches can’t deliver, though the difference may only be a matter of seconds.]

Data manipulation isn’t the difficult bit

Creative Journeys – more machine readable data

Syndicated user interactions with collections.
Drupal [slide]

Human factor – how to sell to board
Deploy lightweight solutions. RAD. Develop in house, don’t need to go to agency.

[I’d love it if the NMOLP should have a blog, or a holding page, or something, where they could share the lessons they’ve learnt, the research they’ve done and generally engage with the digital museum community. Generally a lot of these big infrastructure projects would benefit from greater transparency, as scary as this is for traditional organisations like museums. The open source model shows that many eyeballs mean robust applications.]

Jeremy Ottevanger and Europeana/the European Digital Library
[I have to confess I was getting very hungry by this point so you might get more detailed information from Jeremy’s blog when he adds his notes.]
Some background on his involvement in it, hopes and concerns.
“cross-domain access to Europe’s cultural heritage”
Our content is more valuable together than scattered around.

Partnership, planning and prototyping
Not enough members from the UK, not very many museums.
Launch November this year
Won’t build all of planned functionality – user-generated content and stuff planned but not for prototype.

Won’t build an API or all levels of multiple linguality (in first release). Interface layer may have 3 or 4 major languages; object metadata (maybe a bit) and original content of digitised documents.

Originals on content contributors site, so traffic ends up there. That’s not necessarily clear in the maquette (prototype). [But that knowledge might help address some concerns generally out there about off-site searches]

Search, various modes of browsing, timeline and stuff.

Jeremy wants to hear ideas, concerns, ambitions, etc to take to plenary meeting.

He’d always wanted personal place to play with stuff.

[Similarly to my question above, I’ve always wondered whether users would rely on a cultural heritage sector site to collate their data? What unique benefits might a user see in this functionality – authority by association? live updates of data? Would they think about data ownership issues or the longevity of their data and the reliability of the service?]

Why are there so few UK museums involved in this? [Based on comments I’ve heard, it’s about no clear benefits, yet another project, no API, no clear user need] Jeremy had some ideas but getting in contact and telling him is the best way to sort it out.

Some benefits include common data standards, a big pool of content that search engines would pay attention to in a way they wouldn’t on our individual sites. Sophisticated search. Will be open source. Multi-lingual technology.

Good news:
“API was always in plans”.

EDLocal – PNDS. EU projects will be feeding in technologies.

Bad news: API won’t be in website prototype. Is EDLocal enough? Sustainability problems.
‘Wouldn’t need website at all if had API’. Natural history collections are poorly represented.

Is OAI a barrier too far? You should be able to upload from spreadsheet. [You can! But I guess not many people know this – I’m going to talk to the people who coded the PNDS about writing up their ‘upload’ tool, which is a bit like Flickr’s Uploadr but for collections data.]

Questions
Jim O’Donnell: regarding the issue of lack of participation. People often won’t implement their own OAI repository so that requirement puts people off.

Dan Zambonini: aggregation fatigue. ‘how many more of these things do we have to participate in’. His suggestion: tell museums to build APIs so that projects can use their data, should be other way around. Jeremy responded that that’s difficult for smaller museums. [Really good point, and the PNDS/EDL probably has the most benefits for smaller museums; bigger museums have the infrastructure not to need the functionality of the PNDS though they might benefit from cross-sector searching and better data indexing.]

Gordon McKenna commented: EDLocal starts on Wednesday next week, for three years.

George Oates: what’s been most surprising in collaboration process? Carolyn: that we’ve managed to work together. Knowledge sharing.

Some ideas for location-linked cultural heritage projects

I loved the Fire Eagle presentation I saw at the WSG Findability event [my write-up] because it got me all excited again about ideas for projects that take cultural heritage outside the walls of the museum, and more importantly, it made some of those projects seem feasible.

There’s also been a lot of talk about APIs into museum data recently and hopefully the time has come for this idea. It’d be ace if it was possible to bring museum data into the everyday experience of people who would be interested in the things we know about but would never think to have ‘a museum experience’.

For example, you could be on your way to the pub in Stoke Newington, and your phone could let you know that you were passing one of Daniel Defoe‘s hang outs, or the school where Mary Wollstonecraft taught, or that you were passing a ‘Neolithic working area for axe-making’ and that you could see examples of the Neolithic axes in the Museum of London or Defoe’s headstone in Hackney Museum.

That’s a personal example, and those are some of my interests – Defoe wrote one of my favourite books (A Journal of the Plague Year), and I’ve been thinking about a project about ‘modern bluestockings’ that will collate information about early feminists like Wollstonecroft (contact me for more information) – but ideally you could tailor the information you receive to your interests, whether it’s football, music, fashion, history, literature or soap stars in Melbourne, Mumbai or Malmo. If I can get some content sources with good geo-data I might play with this at the museum hack day.

I’m still thinking about functionality, but a notification might look something like “did you know that [person/event blah] [lived/did blah/happened] around here? Find out more now/later [email me a link]; add this to your map for sharing/viewing later”.

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of making the invisible and intangible layers of history linked to any one location visible again. Millions of lives, ordinary or notable, have been lived in London (and in your city); imagine waiting at your local bus stop and having access to the countless stories and events that happened around you over the centuries. Wikinear is a great example, but it’s currently limited to content on Wikipedia, and this content has to pass a ‘notability’ test that doesn’t reflect local concepts of notability or ‘interestingness’. Wikipedia isn’t interested in the finds associated with an archaeological dig that happened at the end of your road in the 1970s, but with a bit of tinkering (or a nudge to me to find the time to make a better programmatic interface) you could get that information from the LAARC catalogue.

The nice thing about local data is that there are lots of people making content; the not nice thing about local data is that it’s scattered all over the web, in all kinds of formats with all kinds of ‘trustability’, from museums/libraries/archives, to local councils to local enthusiasts and the occasional raving lunatic. If an application developer or content editor can’t find information from trusted sources that fits the format required for their application, they’ll use whatever they can find on other encyclopaedic repositories, hack federated searches, or they’ll screen-scrape our data and generate their own set of entities (authority records) and object records. But what happens if a museum updates and republishes an incorrect record – will that change be reflected in various ad hoc data solutions? Surely it’s better to acknowledge and play with this new information environment – better for our data and better for our audiences.

Preparing the data and/or the interface is not necessarily a project that should be specific to any one museum – it’s the kind of project that would work well if it drew on resources from across the cultural heritage sector (assuming we all made our geo-located object data and authority records available and easily queryable; whether with a commonly agreed core schema or our own schemas that others could map between).

Location-linked data isn’t only about official cultural heritage data; it could be used to display, preserve and commemorate histories that aren’t ‘notable’ or ‘historic’ enough for recording officially, whether that’s grime pirate radio stations in East London high-rise roofs or the sites of Turkish social clubs that are now new apartment buildings. Museums might not generate that data, but we could look at how it fits with user-generated content and with our collecting policies.

Or getting away from traditional cultural heritage, I’d love to know when I’m passing over the site of one of London’s lost rivers, or a location that’s mentioned in a film, novel or song.

[Updated December 2008 to add – as QR tags get more mainstream, they could provide a versatile and cheap way to provide links to online content, or 250 characters of information. That’s more information than the average Blue Plaque.]

Notes from ‘Catch the Wind: Digital Preservation and the Real World’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from Nick Poole’s presentation ‘Catch the Wind: Digital Preservation and the Real World’ at the MCG Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. If I’ve made any comments below they’re in [square brackets].

Nick’s slides for ‘Catch the Wind: Digital Preservation and the Real World’ are online.

The MDA is now the Collections Trust. Their belief is that “everybody everywhere should have the right to access and benefit from cultural collections”. Their work includes standards, professional development and public programmes wherever collections are kept and cared for and they have a remit across collections management, including documentation, digitisation and digital preservation.

We need to think about capturing and preserving digital surrogates, etc, or we’ll end up with a ‘digital dark age’.

We need a convergence of standards and practice in museums, libraries and archives, and to develop a community of professional practice.

Nick was interested to know if whether any museums are actively doing digital preservation. It turns out lots have some elements of digital preservation but it’s not deeply embedded in the organisation. Nick sent a question to the Museums Computer Group (MCG) list: see the list archives for December 2007, or slide 6.

If you’re not doing digital preservation, why not? And how do you decide whether and what is worth preserving? How do you preserve pieces of information or digital assets in their context needed for them to make sense?

Today is partly about the results of the enquiry begun with that email.

We know what we should be doing [slide 9, CHIN slide on workflow for ‘Digital Preservation for Museums’.]

We know why we should be doing it:

The preservation and re-use of digital data and information forms both the cornerstone of future economic growth and development, and the foundation
for the future of memory.

From “Changing Trains at Wigan: Digital Preservation and the Future of Scholarship” by Seamus Ross – the ‘common-sense bible about digital preservation’.

And there are lots of programs and diagrams (slides 11 – 15).

So if we know why and how we should be doing it, why aren’t we doing it?

It’s not necessarily about technology or money – is it about the culture in museums?
There’s no funding imperative; project-funded digitisation seldom provides for (or requires) the kind of long-term embedded work that digital preservation requires.

It depends on the integration of workflows and systems which is still rare in museums. Some digital preservation principles fit more intuitively with an archival point of view than an object/artefact point of view.

Is it possibly also because museums aren’t part of the scholarly/academic publishing loop which is giving rise to large scale digital preservation initiatives? e.g. Open Content Alliance.

We also don’t have an expectation about the retrievability of non-object museum information that we do about collection information. [Too true, it doesn’t seem to be valued the same way.]

We should learn from libraries and archives. We could mandate ‘good enough’ standards so digital assets can be migrated into stable environments in the future. There’s so much going on that we’ll never be able to draw a line in the sand and say ‘standards happen now’. We need to tweak the way we work now, not introduce a whole new project.

A proposed national solution: could we aggregate ‘just enough’ metadata at a central point and preserve it there? But would organisations become disenfranchised from their own information, lose expertise in the curatorship of digital content, and would it blur the distinction between active and dormant records?

If not a national solution, then it must be local: but would it actually happen without statute, obligation or funding? Possibly through networks of people who support each other in digitisation work, but there are economic issues in developing infrastructure and expertise.

Museums seem oddly distant from current initiatives (e.g. Digital Preservation Coalition, Digital Curation Centre), and lack methodologies and tools that are specific to museum information. Do we need to develop collective approaches for digital preservation?

He hasn’t got answers, just more questions.

We must start finding answers or the value of what we’re doing right now will be lost in ten years time.

Questions
Mike: there was a slide ‘is this stuff worth preserving’ – but that question wasn’t answered – is there lots of stuff we should and can just chuck away? Nick: the archival world view is more like that.

Alan [?]: born digital stuff like websites is difficult to ‘index and scope’. The V&A website is divorced from libraries and archives – internal databases don’t link to website [to capture non-collections records?]. What are the units of information or assets within a website? It’s impossible to define boundaries and therefore to catalogue and preserve… How do we capture this content? Nick: web archiving solutions are already out there but do museums have the money for it?

John: to what extent could digital repositories be out-sourced? Nick: look at examples like the Archaeology Data Service. But for whatever reason, we’re not following those models.

David: preservation was in NOF Digitise in business plan but … didn’t happen. He doesn’t think archives are ahead in preservation services. Museums use of collections management systems is different to academia using repositories – there’s an interesting distinction between long-term archiving and day to day work.

Ian [?] – re-run what we’ve done with [digitising] object collections but think about information collections too [?]. Nick: there’s a development path there in existing CollMS, possibly with hosted CollMS, We don’t need entirely new systems, we already have digital asset management systems (DAMS), web software, CollMS.

[This reminds me about recent discussions we’ve had internally about putting older object captions and information records on our OAI repository – this might be a step towards a ‘good enough’ step towards digital preservation.]

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.]