The New York Times on what the American public want in a history museum, and some discussion of the value of multimedia and interactive exhibitions:

if memorizing dates and place names hold little appeal, history museums still rate very highly with the American public. “What people say they’re excited about in terms of history museums is contact with real stuff of the past,” he explained.

They also want to find themselves — spiritually, socially and intellectually — among all that material

“In the visitation research that’s been done for many years,” Ms. Davis said, “the thing that we hear most is that people want to see something about themselves and that they trust information the museums are giving them even more than they trust what schools are telling them and even the stories their grandmothers are telling them.

“People want to see themselves in the exhibit. And the research done at individual museums suggests that when they do find themselves there, they fare much better.”

All fair enough. But the article concludes with a quote, “The greatest danger is not that people get a version of history that is dramatized. It’s that people don’t pay attention to the past at all” but to me that contradicts the responsibility museums have as trusted institutions. The stories we present should be real; if they’re not real, both the sources and the areas of fabrication or uncertainty should be clear.

History’s Real Stuff (Sorry, Miss Grundy)

Funding for major heritage projects to be slashed by £60m

Lottery money for major heritage projects in Britain is set to fall to £20m a year, down from £80m last year. … The most important reason for the cuts is the London Olympics. Originally HLF was set to lose £143m to help finance the games, but last March a further £90m was taken, making a total of £233m up until 2012.

From The Art Newspaper.

In the same edition of The Art Newspaper, Giles Waterfield, former adviser and a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) asks “What will happen to Britain’s museums now?“:

The HLF is—or has been—the only body in this country capable of making multi-million awards to museums for building projects or acquisitions.

While the Fund will continue to play an important role as a funder, as a result of pressure from the Olympics it will become just one more organisation dispensing helpful, but not crucial, sums to a great variety of bodies including museums. A highly efficient and discriminating funding mechanism is being junked.

England’s DCMS never has the funds to make major grants, and apparently never will. The situation is highly ironic since the Blair administration has loved grand gestures such as the Millennium Dome and now the Olympics. Museums, clearly, are not big enough to excite Government interest, in spite of the huge numbers of visitors they attract. While this Government has been quite generous in funding running costs for national museums, over acquisitions and capital projects they have sheltered behind the Lottery. Asked for financial support, whether for building projects or acquisitions, the Department refers applicants to the large and generous body which until lately has dispensed over £300m per annum: the HLF. Well, no longer.


The next decade looks to be a dim one for British museums: let’s hope the Olympics will show that the sacrifice was worthwhile.

“Open Source Museum”?

I came across this fascinating ad somewhere in my RSS feed: Open Source Museum Project Leader at The Tech Museum of Innovation.

The Tech is seeking an energetic and innovative Project Leader to launch its “Open Source Museum” project. This is a unique opportunity to “reinvent” the exhibit development process at one of the world’s most innovative technology centers, and to make a lasting impact on the museum field.

Using the power of the Internet as a venue for designing and prototyping individuals
will be able to create a space where they can design and develop an exhibit based on a specific theme. They will be able to link with others from around the world to share ideas and knowledge, create teams and refine their design.

The project leader will engage a jury of professionals who will select the top virtual exhibits generated by these teams. These exhibits will then be developed and built in the real world.

I’d love to know how the exhibition design process works in practice.

More on the F word

I was thinking about all the fuss in the cultural heritage sector about Facebook on various museum-y discussion lists at the moment, and thought perhaps the off-line equivalent would be posts saying

“I’ve discovered this place where lots of young people hang out, interacting with each other in a really natural way. The thing is, institutions can’t go there, only individuals. But this place is full of audiences we want to reach. So how can we engage with this new-fangled ‘pub’ thing?”.

I guess what I’m asking is, is Facebook ‘fit for [our] purpose’ or are we just chasing it for the same reason marketers love youth social networking sites – it’s a place where a hard-to-reach demographic hang out.

With that in mind, here’s what Facebook does well:

…just how intrinsic the use of Facebook is today among younger scholars – grad students and junior faculty – in their scholarship and teaching. Facebook, for now, is often the place where they work, collaborate, share, and plan. Grad students may run student projects using Facebook groups; they may communicate amongst each other in inter-institutional (multi-university) research projects; they may announce speakers and special events to their communities.

I’ve been enmeshed recently in increasingly agonized conferences that concern themselves with “re-thinking scholarly communication” and grappling with understanding what tools might be used to facilitate new models of peer review, or facilitate research collaboration, or teaching — and all the while – of course – it has been happening anyway, using widely available tools that provide the flexibility and leverage that scholars have been seeking.

And here’s why it’s relevant to the cultural heritage sector:

…regardless of the ultimate fate of Facebook, the set of characteristics that it has established – the sense of community; user control over the boundedness of openness; support for fine grained privacy controls; the ability to form ad-hoc groups with flexible administration; integration and linkage to external data resources and application spaces through a liberal and open API definition; socially promiscuous communication – these will be carried with us into future environments as expectations for online communities.

From Working in Facebook, O’Reilly rader.

There’s a post on Museums and Social Networking Sites that is nicely timed given the ‘should museums be on Facebook’ discussions on the UK Museums Computer Group and Museum Computer Network mailing lists. I particularly liked the following:

[M]useums that venture haphazardly into the wilderness of social networking sites may end up looking stiff and frozen. Institutions need to enter these spaces with firm answers to these questions:

  • What audience(s) are we trying to reach, and why?
  • What information do we want to convey to these people?
  • What actions do we want them to take?
  • Demographically, where do these constituents congregate online?
  • Do these virtual spaces provide the tools that will allow us to circulate our message?
  • Do the sites then provide ways for users to circulate our message without too much futher effort from us–that is, do the sites allow for percolation, or will our message merely appear for a moment and then pass quickly from users’ radar?

I would add, is it an appropriate space for instutitions or is it a personal space?

The post also points out one of the major problems with Facebook groups that’s been irritating me for a while – they don’t notify you of new content, whether as an RSS feed, Facebook notification or in email. The Groups page doesn’t even order groups by those with the most recent wall or discussion posts. No wonder groups languish on Facebook – most seem to collect members easily, but hardly anyone actually posts any content on them. There are always barriers to participation on social software or reasons why more people lurk than post, but if people don’t know new content has been added, they’ll never respond. It’s a step backwards to the world of checking to see if sites have new content – who does that now we have RSS?

And just because I like it: when xkcd and wikipedia collide.

Is Web 2.0 user-centred design in action?

An interesting perspective from Mike Ellis and Brian Kelly at MW2007:

Trawling the Web finds the following phrases recurring around Web 2.0: “mashup”, “de-centralisation”, “non-Web like”, “user generated content”, “permission based activity”, “collaboration”, “Creative Commons” … What sits at the heart of all of these, and one of the reasons Web 2.0 has been difficult for bigger, established organisations (including museums) to embrace, is that almost all the things talked about put users and not the organisation at the centre of the equation. Organisational structures, departmental ways of naming things, the perceived ‘value’ of our assets, in fact, what the organisation has to say about itself – all are being challenged.

Web 2.0: How to Stop Thinking and Start Doing: Addressing Organisational Barriers

More on Web 2.0 post-CAA

Some more quick thoughts as conversations I had at and after CAA UK settle into my brain. This doesn’t really apply to anyone I talked to there, but as a general rule I think it’s worth saying:

Don’t chase the zeitgeist. It’s not a popularity contest and it’s not a race to see who can cram the most buzzwords into their site.

Also, here’s a link to the blog of the AHRC-funded Semantic Web Think Tank I mentioned, and the original announcements about the SWTT.

Finally, what’s hopefully a quite useful link for those considering official institutional blogs: Sample guidelines for institutional blog authors.

Via the Museums Computer Group list, the Emerging Technologies Initiative 2007 Horizon Report has just been released. It “highlights six technologies that the underlying research suggests will become very important to higher education over the next one to five years. A central focus of the discussion of each technology is its relevance for teaching, learning, and creative expression. Live weblinks to example applications are provided in each section, as well as to additional readings.”

CAA UK 2007 Chapter Meeting

Last week I went to the Computer applications and quantitative methods in archaeology (CAA) UK 2007 Chapter Meeting in Southampton. There was a range of interesting papers and it was really exciting to talk to people with similar passions.

I managed to overrun and didn’t get to the last few slides of my paper, which were some random suggestions for cultural heritage organisations looking to get started with Web 2.0. They’re based on the assumption that resources are limited so the basic model I’ve suggested is that you think about why you’re doing it and who you’re doing it for, then start with something small. I would also suggest matching the technology to your content, using applications that meet existing standards to avoid lock-in, ensuring you backup your data regularly (including user-generated content) and taking advantage of existing participation models, particularly from commercial sites that have User Interface and Information Arcitect specialists.

  • Start small, monitor usage and build on the response
  • Design for extensibility
    • Sustainable
    • Interoperable
    • Re-usable
  • Use existing applications, services, APIs, architectures, design patterns wherever possible
  • Embrace your long tail
  • It’s easy and free/cheap to create a blog, or a Flickr account to test the waters
  • Investigate digitising and publishing existing copyright free audio or video content as a podcast or on YouTube
  • Add your favourite specialist sites to a social bookmarking site
  • Check out Myspace or Second Life to see where your missing users hang out
  • Publish your events data in the events microformat so they can be included in social event sites
  • Geotag photos and publish them online
  • Or just publish photos on Flickr and watch to see if people start creating a folksonomy for you

Are small museums the long tail?

On the way home from the Semantic Web Think Tank last week (see previous post), I suddenly thought: are small or specialised museums the long tail?

Each museum by itself would represent a tiny proportion of the overall use of museum collections online, but if you put all that usage together, would their collections in fact have a higher rate of use than those of more ‘popular’ museums?

At the moment I don’t think there’s any way to find out, because so many small or specialised museums don’t have collections online, through a lack of expertise, digitisation resources or an easy-to-use publication infrastructure. Still, it’s an interesting question.