Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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David Bearman on the “the inside out museum” / geo-tagging and location-aware museum data- NDAP2008, Taipei

April 2nd, 2008 by Seb Chan

I’ve recently been in Taiwan visiting the National Digital Archives Project where they were holding a conference to examine ways forward for international collaboration with Taiwan’s incredibly rich array of digitised resources. The sheer volume of digitisation work that the Taiwanese have been doing is quite incredible.

Through many of the presentations there was an understanding that the next important phase for the cultural heritage sector is location-aware geo-tagged content. This is not just because of coming world of ubiquitous geo-aware portable devices, but also because location-sensitivity radically changes how audiences/users will come to expect to be able to interact with digital content.

David Bearman from Archimuse has been considering these matters for a while. His paper with Kati Geber last year at ICHIM07 began to describe the possibilities in a broad sense, and at the NDAP Bearman delved deeper in to the implications for museums. His Taiwan paper on ‘Geo-Aware Digital cultural Heritage‘ was a good overview of where we are heading and what the cultural heritage sector needs to do prepare.

Whilst ‘location’ and geo-mapping has been crucial in the documentation of natural science collections, it has been under-appreciated other museums. Many of the others looking at geo-aware cultural heritage consider it more as an extension of existing work – not seeing its potential for interconnectivity.

Bearman’s view is far more radical. As he says, geo-aware museum content allows “turning the museum inside out and the embedding of the collection in physical space”. At one end of the spectrum this raises the question of whether museums should or need to retain their current role in society as a centralised storehouse and presentation venue, whilst at other points along the spectrum it gives museums the potential to –

– share authority and interpretation
– repatriate ‘stolen’ museum objects virtually rather than physically
– engage communities in new ways far away from our museum sites
– re-contextualise objects and collection in time and place
– allow for the recombination objects from one museum with another to restore temporal and spatial relevance to groups of objects

It is clear that in returning objects, virtually, to their original contexts and combining them with similarly temporally and spatially located objects from other institutions offers incredibly rich opportunities for both museums and audiences.

Here at the Powerhouse Museum we have been doing quite a bit of work around geo-tagging content and have been grappling with the tensions between access and privacy, the granularity of geo-data need to make it useful, and numerous presentation layer issues.

Last year we produced an ‘alpha’ version of a geo-map of our collection, and today we opened up an Opensearch feed of location data which allows us to return a search result as RSS for an area bounded by latitude and longitude, as well as for any radius around a point (for example – ‘show me everything made in 1971 within 3 kilometres’).

A beta release will happen soon which will pull all this together into an early interface, and I will be talking at length (and demoing some prototypes) of these at Museum and the Web 2008 in Montreal.

I hope to see you there (otherwise I will be blogging the conference here as well).

Tags: 1 Comment

  • Thanks for the thoughtful post Seb. What I find most interesting about this is that the location-aware infrastructure is a new communications environment as radical as the Web itself was 15 years ago, and that it shifts the way we interact with the museum even more radically than the Web did. A website, after all, is simply a museum publication and we refer to it as a site and another ‘location’ of the juseum. We expect people to search it, and come to it, and as you have pointed out in your Museums and the Web metrics article [ ] ‘visit’ it. The new infrastructure is one in which our collections seek out the public where they are most apt to be receptive to it, but they don’t see ‘our’ collection, but rather a collection comprised of the contents of all museums worldwide with holdings that are relevant to the location. If we can participate in this new infrastructure, it enables us to repatriate the world’s heritage and contextualize our individual holdings with those of other museums, but it radically de-institutionalizes the experience.