Notes from ‘How Can Culture Really Connect? Semantic Front Line Report’ at MW2008

These are my notes from the workshop on “‘How Can Culture Really Connect? Semantic Front Line Report” at Museums and the Web 2008. This session was expertly led by Ross Parry.

The paper, “Semantic Dissonance: Do We Need (And Do We Understand) The Semantic Web?” (written by Ross Parry, Jon Pratty and Nick Poole) and the slides are online. The blog from the original Semantic Web Think Tank (SWTT) sessions is also public.

These notes are pretty rough so apologies for any mistakes; I hope they’re a bit useful to people, even though it’s so late after the event. I’ve tried to include most of what was discussed but it’s taken me a while to catch up.

There’s so much to see at MW I missed the start of this session; when we arrived Ross had the participants debating the meaning of terms like ‘Web 2.0’, ‘Web 3.0’, ‘semantic web, ‘Semantic Web’.

So what is the semantic web (sw) about? It’s about intelligent and efficient searching; discovering resources (e.g. URIs of picture, news story, video, biographical detail, museum object) rather than pages; machine-to-machine linking and processing of data.

Discussion: how much/what level of discourse do we need to take to curators and other staff in museums?
me: we need to show people what it can do, not bother them with acronyms.
Libby Neville: believes in involving content/museum people, not sure viewing through the prism of technology.
[?]: decisions about where data lives have an effect.

Slide 39 shows various axes against which the Semantic Web (as formally defined) and the semantic web (the SW ‘lite’?) can be assessed.
Discussion: Aaron: it’s context-dependent.

‘expectations increase in proportion to the work that can be done’ so the work never decreases.

sw as ‘webby way to link data’; ‘machine processable web’ saves getting hung up on semantics [slide 40 quoting Emma Tonkin in BECTA research report, ‘If it quacks like a duck…’ Developments in search technologies].

What should/must/could we (however defined) do/agree/build/try next (when)?

Discussion: Aaron: tagging, clusters. Machine tags (namespace: predicate: value).
me: let’s build semantic webby things into what we’re doing now to help facilitate the conversations and agreements, provide real world examples – attack the problem from the bottom up and the top down.

Slide 49 shows three possible modes: make collections machine-processable via the web; build ontologies and frameworks around added tags; develop more layered and localised meaning. [The data (the data around the data) gets smarter and richer as you move through those modes.]

I was reminded of this ‘mash it‘ video during this session, because it does a good jargon-free job of explaining the benefits of semantic webby stuff. I also rather cynically tweeted that the semantic web will “probably happen out there while we talk about it”.

Notes from ‘Everything RSS’ at MW2008

These are my notes from the workshop Everything RSS with Jim Spadaccini from Ideum at Museums and the Web, Montreal, April 2008. Some of my notes will seem self-evident to various geeks or non-geeks but I’ve tried to include most of what was covered.

It’s taken me a while to catch up on some of my notes, so especially at this distance – any mistakes are mine, any comments or corrections are welcome, and the comments in [square brackets] below are me. All the conference papers and notes I’ve blogged have been tagged with ‘MW2008‘.

The workshop will cover: context, technology, the museum sector, usability and design.

RSS/web feeds – it’s easy to add or remove content sources, they can be rich media including audio, images, video, they are easily read or consumed via applications, websites, mobile devices.

The different flavours and definitions of RSS have hindered adoption.

Atom vs RSS – Atom might be better but not as widely adopted. Most mature RSS readers can handle both.

RSS users are more engaged – 2005, Nielsen NetRatings.

Marketers are seeing RSS as alternative to email as email is being overrun by spam and becoming a less efficient marketing tool.

The audience for RSS content is slowly building as it’s built into browsers, email (Yahoo, Outlook, Mac), MySpace widget platform.

Feedburner. [I’m sure more was said about than this – probably ‘Feedburner is good/useful’ – but it was quite a while ago now.]

Extending RSS: GeoRSS – interoperable geo-coded data; MediaRSS, Creative Commons RSS Module.

Creating RSS feeds on the server-side [a slide of references I failed to get down in time].
You can use free or open source software to generate RSS feeds. MagpieRSS, Feed Editor (Windows,; or free Web Services to create or extend RSS feeds.

There was an activity where we broke into groups to review different RSS applications, including Runstream (create own RSS feed from static content) and xFruits (convert RSS into different platforms).

Others included,, (prototype by Ideum), and (OPML generator).

OPML – exchange lists of web feeds between aggregators. e.g. museumblogs site.

RSSmixer – good for widgets and stats, when live to public. [It looks like it’s live now.]

RSS Micro – RSS feed search engine, you can also submit your feed there. Also feedcamp.

Ideas for using RSS:
Use meetup and upcoming for promoting events. Have links back to your events pages and listings.

Link to other museums – it helps everyone’s technorati/page ranking.

There was discussion of RSSmixer’s conceptual data model. Running on Amazon EC2. [with screenshot]. More recent articles are in front end database, older ones in backend database.

RSS is going to move more to a rich media platform, so interest in mixing and filtering down feeds will grow, create personalisation.

Final thoughts – RSS is still emergent. It won’t have a definitive breakthrough but it will eventually become mainstream. It will be used along with email marketing as a tool to reach visitors/customers. RSS web services will continue to expand.

Regular RSS users, who have actively subscribed, are an important constituency. Feeds will be more frequently offered on websites, looking beyond blogs and podcasts.

RSS can help you reach new audiences and cement relationships with existing visitors. You can work with partners to create ‘mixed’ feeds to foster deeper connections with visitors.

Use RSS for multiple points of dissemination – not just RSS. [At this stage I really have no idea what I meant by this but I’m sure whatever Jim said made sense.]

[I had a question about tips for educating existing visitors about RSS. I’d written a blog post about RSS and how to subscribe, which helped, but that’s still only reaching a tiny part of potential audience. Could do a widget to demonstrate it.

This was also one of the workshops or talks that made me realise we are so out of the loop with up-to-date programming models like deployment methods. I guess we’re so busy all the time it’s difficult to keep up with things, and we don’t have the spare resources to test new things out as they come along.]

Notes from ‘The API as Curator’ and on why museums should hire programmers

These are my notes from the third paper ‘The API as Curator‘ by Aaron Straup Cope in the Theoretical Frameworks session chaired by Darren Peacock at Museums and the Web 2008. The slides for The API as Curator are online.

I’ve also included below some further notes on why, how, whether museums should hire programmers, as this was a big meme at the conference and Aaron’s paper made a compelling case for geeks in art, arty geeks and geeky artists.

You might have noticed it’s taken me a while to catch up on some of my notes from this conference, and the longer I leave it the harder it gets. As always, any mistakes are mine, any comments corrections are welcome, and the comments in [square brackets] below are mine.

The other session papers were Object-centred democracies: contradictions, challenges and opportunities by Fiona Cameron and Who has the responsibility for saying what we see? mashing up Museum and Visitor voices, on-site and online by Peter Samis; all the conference papers and notes I’ve blogged have been tagged with ‘MW2008‘.

Aaron Cope: The API as curator.

The paper started with some quotes as ‘mood music’ for the paper.

Institutions are opening up, giving back to the communitiy and watching what people build.

It’s about (computer stuff as) plumbing, about making plumbing not scary. If you’re talking about the web, sooner or later you’re going to need to talk about computer programming.

Programmers need to be more than just an accessory – they should be in-house and full-time and a priority. It boils down to money. You don’t all need to be computer scientists, but it should be part of it so that you can build things.

Experts and consumers – there’s a long tradition of collaboration in the art community, for example printmaking. Printers know about all the minutiae (the technical details) but/so the artists don’t have to.

Teach computer stuff/programming so that people in the arts world are not simply consumers.

Threadless (the t-shirt site) as an example. Anyone can submit a design, they’re voted on in forum, then the top designs are printed. It makes lots of money. It’s printmaking by any other name. Is it art?

“Synthetic performances” Joseph Beuys in Second Life…

It’s nice not to be beholden to nerds… [I guess a lot of people think that about their IT department. Poor us. We all come in peace!]

Pure programming and the “acid bath of the internet”.

Interestingness on Flickr – a programmer works on it, but it’s not a product – (it’s an expression of their ideas). Programming is not a disposable thing, it’s not as simple as a toaster. But is it art? [Yes! well, it can be sometimes, if a language spoken well and a concept executed elegantly can be art.]

API and Artspeak – Aaron’s example (a bit on slide 15 and some general mappy goodness).

Build on top of APIs. Open up new ways to explore collection. Let users map their path around your museum to see the objects they want to see.

Their experience at Flickr is that people will build those things (if you make it possible). [Yay! So let’s make it possible.]

There’s always space for collaboration.

APIs as the nubby bits on Lego. [Lego is the metaphor of the conference!]

Flickr Places – gazetteer browsing.

[Good image on slide 22]: interpretation vs intent, awesome (x) vs time (y). You need programmers on staff, you need to pay them [please], you don’t want them to be transient if you want to increase smoothness of graph between steps of awesomeness. Go for the smallest possible release cycles. Small steps towards awesome.

Questions for the Theoretical Frameworks session
Qu from the Science Museum Minnesota: how to hire programmers in museums – how to attract them? when salaries are crap.
Aaron – teach it in schools and go to computer science departments. People do stuff for more than just money.

Qu on archiving UGC and other stuff generated in these web 2.0 projects… Peter Samis – WordPress archives things. [So just use the tools that already exist]

Aaron – build it and they will come. Also, redefine programming.

There’s a good summary of this session by Nate at MW2008 – Theoretical Frameworks.

And here’s a tragically excited dump from my mind written at the time: “Yes to all that! Now how do we fund it, and convince funders that big top-down projects are less likely to work than incremental and iterative builds? Further, what if programmers and curators and educators had time to explore, collaborate, push each other in a creative space? If you look at the total spend on agencies and external contractors, it must be possible to make a case for funding in-house programmers – but silos of project-based funding make it difficult to consolidate those costs, at least in the UK.”

Continuing the discussion about the benefits of an in-house developer team, post-Museums and the Web, Bryan Kennedy wrote a guest post on Museum 2.0 about Museums and the Web in Montreal that touched on the issue:

More museums should be building these programming skills in internal teams that grow expertise from project to project. Far too many museums small and large rely on outside companies for almost all of their technical development on the web. By and large the most innovation at Museums and the Web came from teams of people who have built expertise into the core operations of their institution.

I fundamentally believe that at least in the museum world there isn’t much danger of the technology folks unseating the curators of the world from their positions of power. I’m more interested in building skilled teams within museums so that the intelligent content people aren’t beholden to external media companies but rather their internal programmers who feel like they are part of the team and understand the overall mission of the museum as well as how to pull UTF-8 data out of a MySQL database.

I left the following comment at the time, and I’m being lazy* and pasting here to save re-writing my thoughts:

Good round-up! The point about having permanent in-house developers is really important and I was glad to see it discussed so much at MW2008.

It’s particularly on my mind at the moment because yesterday I gave a presentation (on publishing from collections databases and the possibilities of repositories or feeds of data) to a group mostly comprised of collections managers, and I was asked afterwards if this public accessibility meant “the death of the curator”. I’ve gathered the impression that some curators think IT projects impose their grand visions of the new world, plunder their data, and leave the curators feeling slightly shell-shocked and unloved.

One way to engage with curatorial teams (and educators and marketers and whoever) and work around these fears and valuable critiques is to have permanent programmers on staff who demonstrably value and respect museum expertise and collections just as much as curators, and who are willing to respond to the concerns raised during digital projects.

There’s a really good discussion in the comments on Bryan’s post. I’m sure this is only a sample of the discussion, but it’s a bit difficult to track down across the blogosphere/twitterverse/whatever and I want to get this posted some time this century.

* But good programmers are lazy, right?

Notes from ‘Who has the responsibility for saying what we see?’ in the ‘Theoretical Frameworks’ session, MW2008

These are my notes from the second paper, ‘Who has the responsibility for saying what we see? mashing up Museum and Visitor voices, on-site and online‘ by Peter Samis in the Theoretical Frameworks session chaired by Darren Peacock at Museums and the Web 2008.

The other session papers were Object-centred democracies: contradictions, challenges and opportunities by Fiona Cameron and The API as Curator by Aaron Straup Cope; all the conference papers and notes I’ve blogged have been tagged with ‘MW2008‘.

It’s taken me a while to catch up on some of my notes – real life has a way of demanding attention sometimes. Any mistakes are mine, any comments corrections are welcome, and the comments in [square brackets] below are mine.

Peter Samis spoke about the work of SFMOMA with Olafur Eliasson. His slides are here.

How our perception changes how we see the world…

“Objecthood doesn’t have a place in the world if there’s not an individual person making use of that object… I of course don’t think my work is about my work. I think my work is about you.” (Olafur Eliasson, 2007)

Samis gave an overview of the exhibitions “Take your time: Olafur Eliasson” and “Your tempo” presented at SFMOMA.

The “your” in the titles demands a proactive and subjective approach; stepping into installations rather than looking at paintings. The viewer is integral to the fulfilment of a works potential.

Do these rules apply to all [museum] objects? These are the questions…

They aimed to encourage visitors in contemplation of their own experience.

Visitors who came to blog viewed 75% of pages. Comments were left by 2% of blog visitors.

There was a greater in interest in seeing how others responded than in contributing to the conversation. Comments were a ‘mixed bag’.

The comments helped with understanding visitor motivations in narratives… there’s a visual ‘Velcro effect’ – some artworks stay with people – the more visceral the experience of various artworks, the greater the corresponding number of comments.

[Though I wondered if it’s an unproblematic and direct relationship? People might have a relationship with the art work that doesn’t drive them to comment; that requires more reflection to formulate a response; or that might occur at an emotional rather than intellectual level.]

Visitors also take opportunity to critique the exhibition/objects and curatorial choices when asked to comment.

What are the criteria of values for comments? By whose standards? And who within the institution reads the blog?

How do you know if you’ve succeeded? Depends on goals.

“We opened the door to let visitors in… then we left the room. They were the only ones left in the room.” – the museum opens up to the public then steps out of the dialogue. [Slide 20]

[I have quoted this in conversation so many times since the conference. I think it’s an astute and powerful summary of the unintended effect of participatory websites that aren’t integrated into the museum’s working practices. We say we want to know what our visitors think, and then we walk away while they’re still talking. This image is great because it’s so visceral – everyone realises how rude that is.]

Typology/examples of museum blogs over time… based on whether they open to comments, and whether they act like docents/visitors assistants and have conversations with the public in front of the artworks.

If we really engage with our visitors, will we release the “pent up comments”?
A NY Times migraine blog post had 294 reflective, articulate, considered, impassioned comments on the first day.

[What are your audiences’ pent up questions? How do you find the right questions? Is it as simple as just asking our audiences, and even if it isn’t, isn’t that the easiest place to start? If we can crack the art of asking the right questions to elicit responses, we’re in a better position.]

Nina Simon’s hierarchy of social participation. Museums need to participate to get to higher levels of co-creative, collaborative process. “Community producer” – enlist others, get
cross fertilisation.

Even staff should want to return to your blogs and learn from them.

[Who are the comments that people leave addressed to? Do we tell them or do we just expect them to comment into empty space? Is that part of the reason for low participation rates? What’s the relationship between participation and engagement? But also because people aren’t participating in the forum you provide, doesn’t mean they’re not participating somewhere else… or engaging with it in other forums, conversations in the pubs, etc not everything is captured online even if the seed is online and in your institution. ]

Notes from ‘User-Generated Content’ session at MW2008

These are my notes from the User-generated content session at Museums and the Web, Montreal, 2008. All mistakes are mine, any corrections are welcome, my comments are in [square brackets] below.

The papers presented were The Art of Storytelling: Enriching Art Museum Exhibits and Education through visitor narratives by Matthew Fisher, Alexandra Sastre, Beth Twiss-Garrity; The Living Museum: Supporting the Creation of Quality User-Generated Content by Allison Farber, Paul Radensky and Getting ‘In Your Face’: Strategies for Encouraging Creativity, Engagement and Investment When the Museum is Offline by Martin Lajoie, Gillian McIntyre, Ian Rubenzahl, Colin Wiginton.

The “Art of Storytelling” project at the Delaware Art Museum.
The paper covered visitor-contributed content (VCC), the key factors to success, and the motivations behind allowing visitors to contribute. The paper goes into more of the theoretical foundations.

The key findings of the Art of Storytelling project evaluation:

What’s the value to the visitor who contributes? It engages visitors in thinking critically and creatively about and in response to art.
What’s the value to the museum? They get feedback and to engage new audiences
What’s the value to the other visitors? There is some confusion, but also it can be inspiring, enriching, and encourage others to participate.

It’s not appropriate or appealing for all collections, but it’s hard to predict which in advance.

[When looking at models of participation:] Allow the motivated to contribute, allow the rest to benefit; don’t penalise for non-participation.

Simplicity – remove barriers to entry (engage first, login last if at all).

Promote in traditional and non traditional venues; have a clear invitation to participate.

Motivating factors included curatorial encouragement (have curators there encouraging people), juried selections, stipends for selected storytellers.

What’s in it for the audience? They get 15 minutes next to an Andy Warhol. Establish an audience for your visitor-contributors – affiliation with an institution is valued, even if comes with caveats. [Theirs is an art museum – does that work for all audiences, or for all types of content?]

Don’t try and create communities beyond the your collections (because others with bigger budgets are after the same eyeballs).

They gave lots of examples from a summary of evaluation of other projects (but the slides were hard to see):
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston – thinking through art. Active looking skills.
The Wolfsonian Institute in Miami – Artful Citizenship Project.
Guggenheim – Learning Through Art.
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum – Round by Halsey Burgund.
Denver Art museum – Frederic Remington exhibit, Hamilton building programming.
Philadelphia area art museums; art, literacy, museums.

They then provided some background information about the Art of Storytelling at the Delaware Art Museum – story telling kiosks in the museum.

Their ‘a-ha’ moment was realising that the experience was more transformational for the original story tellers (i.e. the adults) than the audience. Transcend traditional ideas re lack of authority.

In conclusion, visitor-contributed content programs are valuable to the original contributors and museums get valuable insight into audiences, but it’s an open question as to whether they’re valuable for other visitors.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage, supporting the creation of quality user-generated content in the “Living Museum”.
The project started as outreach project for Jewish communities without local museum.

The process: students visit a local museum, learn a bit about how museums are structured in terms of display of objects and organisation. The students choose an artefact to represent Jewish heritage at home, then write labels at school. They then organise artefacts into galleries, create gallery title and text panels, then create in-school and online exhibitions. Students research artefacts and tell their own stories. They include measurements because you can’t get a sense of scale on the internet. One piece of text tells story of artefact and the other tells significance of artefact to family.

[They aren’t promoting it until they feel the site is ready – a familiar story!]

They run seminars with teachers to help them submit quality content, but they still get objects unrelated to Jewish heritage, text with spelling and grammar errors, incomplete labels, unclear photos, factual errors.

The goals included: educational – a connection to Jewish heritage, parental involvements, museology, improve writing and research skills; institutional – high quality images so people can see what they’re looking at; privacy of students; motivation of students.

Teachers say students are motivated to get stuff right because it’s going online.

Unlike other user-generated content sites, the content is pre-reviewed, as the project has very specific educational goals. They control who creates content on the website (anyone can use but only teachers from Jewish schools can post content) and check that kids can’t be identified. They are trying not to expose the kids and their personal stories to comment or modification by other users.

They are going to implement a spell checker.

How can they help users to contribute quality content? Convey expectations, consider needs of both kinds of users, offer support, concentrate on process and product of exhibition creation, review submitted content and offer recommendations.

“In Your Face”, Art Gallery of Ontario
In Your Face: The People’s Portrait Project.
While the Art Gallery of Ontario building was under construction, they were interested in rethinking the way the organisation worked, and how to keep people connected to the institution.

They got the idea from UK’s National Portrait Gallery BP prize, but they didn’t want a contest.

They advertised on back of the national paper for a few weeks as they had free space. They wrote a copyright statement that people had to sign, specified a size, and said they would hang every piece that came in. They received 17,000 portraits.

First they got lots of entries from rural areas, then the rest of Canada and the world. There was an extraordinary variety in portraits, and also in the parcels. They also arrived with stories.

It was a one way thing – people knew they weren’t going to get the portraits back. It mattered to them to get them exhibited in the AGO.

There was more diversity in portraits and in the people who came to see them than usually seen in the gallery. People paid money to see the portraits as they were ‘after the gate’. It was lots of work for staff on top of their normal job cos it turned out to be huge, but gave them (the staff) energy. It also made their audiences real for the staff and helped make the institution inclusive.

Contemporary artists from their collection also sent in portraits, but their names weren’t shown so it was all egalitarian.

They also created a Flickr group (but weren’t able to get that projected in the gallery). It now has 10,000 portraits in it.

They had a parallel project – Collection X. It was an online project where visitors could make their own exhibition. Collect, connect and create. ‘Open source museum’ [- the online paper goes into more detail, including the use of RSS.]

Partly [?] as a result of the project, guiding principles developed for institution include relevance, responsiveness, creativity, transparency, diversity and forum.

Questions asked:
How do you balance museum’s agenda with visitor expectations? Is it possible to assert control and foster programming that is open-ended? How do we think about expertise, quality and standards? How do we integrate and manage creativity in ways that are dynamic and long-term? Is curatorial expertise or audience experience paramount? Some things curators are uneasy about. Dynamism also means some volatility – how does that work?

Lessons learned:
Take risks, experiment and be willing to make mistakes
Museums can function as catalysts for creativity [my emphasis, this was the meme that ran through the whole session, for me]
A critical mass of creativity asserts its own kind of aesthetic
There is value in integrating user-generated content that is actual as well as virtual
Museum and the public can function as producers and consumers of culture to create a shared sense of ownership
The public will be invested if programming is authentic and they feel respected.

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.]

Museums and Clayton’s audience participation

A comment Seb left on Nate’s blog post about “master” metadata got me thinking about cognitive dissonance and whether museums who say they’re open to public participation and content really act as if they are. Are we providing a Clayton’s call for audience participation?

If what you do – raise the barrier to participation so high that hardly anyone is going to bother commenting or tagging – speaks louder than what you say – ‘sure, we’d love to hear what you have to say’ – which one do you think wins?

To pick an example I’ve seen recently (and this is not meant to be a criticism of them or their team because I have no idea what the reasons were) the London Transport Museum have put ‘all Museum objects and stories on display in the new Museum’ on their collections website, which is fantastic. If you look at a collection item, the page says, “Share a story with us – comment on this image”, which sounds really open and inviting.

But, if you want to comment, they ask for a lot of information about you first – check this random example.

So, ok. There are lots of possible reasons for this. UK museums have to deal with the Data Protection Act, which might complicate things, and their interpretation of the DPA might mean they ask for more information rather than less and add that scary tick box.

Or maybe they think the requirement to give this information won’t deter their audience. I’d imagine that London Transport Museum’s specialist audiences won’t be put off by a registration form – some of their users are literally trainspotters and at risk of believing a stereotype, if they can bear the kind of weather that requires anoraks, they’re probably not put off by a form.

Or maybe they’re trying to control spam (though email addresses are no barrier to spam, and it’s easy to use Akismet or moderation to trap spam); or maybe it’s a halfway house between letting go and keeping control; or maybe they’re tweaking the form in response to usage and will lower the barriers if they’re not getting many comments.

Or maybe it’s because the user-generated content captured this way goes directly into their collection management system and they want to record some idea of the provenance of the data. From a post to the UK Museums Computer Group list:

We have just launched the London Transport Online Museum. Users can view
every object, gallery and label text on display in our new museum in Covent Garden.

Following on from the current discussion thread we have incorporated into this new site, the facility for users to leave us memories / stories on all objects on display. Rather than a Wiki submission these stories are made directly on the website and will be fed back into our collection management system. These submissions can be viewed by all users as soon as they have passed through moderation process.

We will closely monitor how many responses we get and feedback to the group.

Please have a look, and maybe even leave us a memory?

[My emphasis in bold]

Moving on from the example of the London Transport Museum…

Whether the gap between their stated intentions and the apparent barriers to accepting user-generated content is the result of internal ambivalence about or resistance to user-generated content, concern about spam or ‘bad data’, or a belief that their specialist audiences will persist despite the barriers doesn’t really make a difference; ultimately the intentionality matters less than the effect.

By raising the barrier to participation, aren’t they ensuring that the casual audience remains exactly that – interested, but not fully engaged?

And as Seb pointed out, “Remembering that even tagging on the PHM collection – 15million views in 2007, 5 thousand tags . . . – and that is without requiring ANY form of login.”

It also reminds me of what Peter Samis said at Museums and the Web in Montreal about engaging with museum visitors digitally: “We opened the door to let visitors in… then we left the room”.

(If you’re curious, the title is a reference to an Australian saying: Clayton’s was “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink”, as as Wikipedia has it ‘a compromise which satisfies no-one’. ‘Ersatz’ might be another word for it.)

It’s a wonderful, wonderful web

First, the news that Google are starting to crawl the deep or invisible web via html forms on a sample of ‘high quality’ sites (via The Walker Art Center’s New Media Initiatives blog):

This experiment is part of Google’s broader effort to increase its coverage of the web. In fact, HTML forms have long been thought to be the gateway to large volumes of data beyond the normal scope of search engines. The terms Deep Web, Hidden Web, or Invisible Web have been used collectively to refer to such content that has so far been invisible to search engine users. By crawling using HTML forms (and abiding by robots.txt), we are able to lead search engine users to documents that would otherwise not be easily found in search engines, and provide webmasters and users alike with a better and more comprehensive search experience.

You’re probably already well indexed if you have a browsable interface that leads to every single one of your collection records and images and whatever; but if you’ve got any content that was hidden behind a search form (and I know we have some in older sites), this could give it much greater visibility.

Secondly, Mike Ellis has done a sterling job synthesising some of the official, backchannel and informal conversations about the semantic web at MW2008 and adding his own perspective on his blog.

Talking about Flickr’s 20 gazillion tags:

To take an example: at the individual tag level, the flaws of misspellings and inaccuracies are annoying and troublesome, but at a meta level these inaccuracies are ironed out; flattened by sheer mass: a kind of bell-curve peak of correctness. At the same time, inferences can be drawn from the connections and proximity of tags. If the word “cat” appears consistently – in millions and millions of data items – next to the word “kitten” then the system can start to make some assumptions about the related meaning of those words. Out of the apparent chaos of the folksonomy – the lack of formal vocabulary, the anti-taxonomy – comes a higher-level order. Seb put it the other way round by talking about the “shanty towns” of museum data: “examine order and you see chaos”.

The total “value” of the data, in other words, really is way, way greater than the sum of the parts.

So far, so ace. We’ve been excited about using the implicit links created between data as people consciously record information with tags, or unconsciously with their paths between data to create those ‘small ontologies, loosely joined’; the possibilities of multilingual tagging, etc, before. Tags are cool.

But the applications of this could go further:

I got thinking about how this can all be applied to the Semantic Web. It increasingly strikes me that the distributed nature of the machine processable, API-accessible web carries many similar hallmarks. Each of those distributed systems – the Yahoo! Content Analysis API, the Google postcode lookup, Open Calais – are essentially dumb systems. But hook them together; start to patch the entire thing into a distributed framework, and things take on an entirely different complexion.

Here’s what I’m starting to gnaw at: maybe it’s here. Maybe if it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck (as per the recent Becta report by Emma Tonkin at UKOLN) then it really is a duck. Maybe the machine-processable web that we see in mashups, API’s, RSS, microformats – the so-called “lightweight” stuff that I’m forever writing about – maybe that’s all we need. Like the widely accepted notion of scale and we-ness in the social and tagged web, perhaps these dumb synapses when put together are enough to give us the collective intelligence – the Semantic Web – that we have talked and written about for so long.

I’d say those capital letters in ‘Semantic Web’ might scare some of the hardcore SW crowd, but that’s ok, isn’t it? Semantics (sorry) aside, we’re all working towards the same goal – the machine-processable web.

And in the meantime, if we can put our data out there so others can tag it, and so that we’re exposing our internal ‘tags’ (even if they have fancier names in our collections management systems), we’re moving in the right direction.

(Now I’ve got Black’s “Wonderful Life” stuck in my head, doh. Luckily it’s the cover version without the cheesy synths).

Right, now I’m off to the Museum in Docklands to talk about MultiMimsy database extractions and repositories. Rock.

Questions from ‘Beyond Single Repositories’ at MW2008

I’m still working on getting my notes from Museums and the Web in Montreal online.

These are notes from the questions at the ‘Beyond Single Repositories’ session. This session was led by Ross Parry, and included the papers Learning from the People: Traditional Knowledge and Educational Standards by Daniel Elias and James Forrest and The Commons on Flickr: A Primer by George Oates.

This clashed with the User-Generated Content session that I felt I should see for work, but I managed to sneak in at the end of Ross’s session. I expected this room to be packed, but it wasn’t. I guess the ripples of user-generated content and Web 2.0-ish stuff are still spreading beyond the geeks, and the pebbles of single repositories and the semantic web have barely dropped into the pond for most people. As usual, all mistakes are mine – if you asked a question and I haven’t named you or got your question wrong, drop me a line.

Quite a lot of the questions related to ‘The Commons‘.

There was a question about the difference between users who download and retain context of images, versus those who just download the image and lose all context, attribution, etc. George: Flickr considered putting the metadata into EXIF but it was problematic and wasn’t robust enough to be useful.

Another question: how to link back to institution from Flickr? George: ‘there’s this great invention called the hyperlink’. And links can also go to picture libraries to buy prints.

[I need to check this but it could really help make the case for Commons in museums if that’s the case. We might also be able to target different audiences with different requirements – e.g. commercial publications vs school assignments. I also need to check if Flickr URLs are permanent and stable.]

Seb Chan asked: how does business model of having images on Flickr co-exist with existing practices?

Flickr are cool with museums putting in content at different resolutions – it’s up to institution to decide.

“It’s so easy to do things the correct way” so please teach everyone to use CC licence stuff appropriately.

Issues are starting to be raised about revenue sharing models.

[I wonder if we could put in FOI requests to find out exactly how much revenue UK museums make from selling images compared to the overhead in servicing commercial picture libraries, and whether it varies by type of image or use. It’d be great if we could put some Museum of London/MoLAS images on Commons, particularly if we could use tagging to generate multilingual labels and re-assess images in terms of diversity – such an important issue for our London audiences; or to get more images/objects geo-located. I also wonder if there are any resourcing issues for moderation requirements, or do we just cope with whatever tags are added?]

Update: following the conference, Frankie Roberto started a discussion on the Museums Computer Group list under the subject ‘copyright licensing and museums‘. You have to be a member to post but a range of perspectives and expertise would really help move this discussion on.