Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Rich collection-oriented curator blogging – an interview with the Australian War Memorial

May 6th, 2008 by Seb Chan

In the Australian cultural sector, one of the best examples of curatorial blogging is at the Australian War Memorial. In a few short years they have created a lot of blog content and blogging has provided a much more efficient way of creating engaging content for exhibitions than standalone resource-hungry web microsites.

They have also done a fantastic job of integrating WordPress into their site with a contemporary use of a persistent footer and some clever use of categories and tags to separate out different types of blog content. Content-wise they are mining a rich vein of historical and contemporary content and connecting these with current day events.

I interviewed Mal Booth, Head of the Research Centre at the Memorial. Liz Holcombe, the AWM web manager and Adam Bell, the technical developer also contributed to the (lengthy) conversation.

F+N: Tell us about the beginnings of blogging at AWM. How did it all start, what came first, and how did it become public?

Mal Booth: We started our external blogging with the Lawrence & the Light Horse blog. I wanted to expose some of the processes behind putting an exhibition together and help generate awareness of this special exhibition before it was opened in December 2007.

One of the first things we did was to start posting on the blog, well over a year before the exhibition itself was opened. From memory I started after my second visit to the UK to negotiate the loans. The blog was a good learning experience for us. It is probably fair to say that it has inspired further attempts in a much broader and innovative sense. I guess it was a good model and experiment (and it continues as a “live” blog for a while still).

The blog has generated an enthusiastic audience, which we know about via Google Analytics more so than comments (which have been minimal). I suspect that has more to do with my rather frightening words about not wanting to get into long debates in the “About” area of the blog. We did that deliberately and probably wisely in hindsight because I knew posting to the blog and curating a real exhibition would be a stretch for us all. It still is, but we’ve pushed all the way along that curators, conservators and historians (in our museum) need to post to blogs and that it cannot just be left to or led by our web team. The public are interested in the real, deep level of content that those professions can generate. The comments we have received have indicated as much.

I had been pushing for us to get involved in using blogs for our exhibitions and needed to lead by example. I must stress though, that even on the Lawrence blog, I was only one of several regular contributors. I was joined by Nigel Steel, Robyn Van Dyk and even a local author, Jenny Horsfield. Those that followed my lead in subsequent exhibition blogs have all been able to quickly establish a different look and feel that was more appropriate to their own exhibitions and also reflected their own imagination. I think the flexibility and simplicity of blogs has allowed us to do many different things with them. There was a much more involved process when curators had to prepare content for web designers just before their exhibitions opened. It was also not the best use of our scarce web programming and design expertise.

F+N: Nina Simon observes that you need about 6 hours a week to run a blog. How much time does it take you? What are the main tasks?

Mal Booth: This really varies on the nature of the blog and the number of people involved in generating content for it. I believe that for a museum blog to generate and maintain a public audience it probably needs to offer features such as:

– regular or frequent posts;
– varied and interesting subject matter;
– a range of different content formats including text, images, video, audio, mash-ups (if possible) and links out;
– reliable, authentic, credible and high quality content (because that is what our users expect from us);
– insights into our “sacred” processes and into the world behind the scenes in our institutions;
– awareness of little known or rarely exposed collections;
– easy to understand context;
– and the occasional surprise.

The more staff involved in posting (as we have now found with the newer AWM Blog, the easier it is to provide all of those features. Any of our staff can post to this blog and we use categories and tags to consolidate posts by subject, exhibition or area of interest.

Given that many staff are generating the content, that task isn’t now centralised in one blog “keeper”, but there is still an administrative load and that is shared by several of us who are more experienced or skilled at the basics, such as editing, moderating comments, ensuring that we don’t break any intellectual property regulations and evaluating use of the blog.

For those generating content, the main tasks are usually researching the blog post and then writing it and generating the special content such as images, video, audio, etc. So, currently, we’d spend a lot more than six hours on the institution’s blog, but there are now probably several dozen regular contributors, so nobody would really be specifically involved for more than a couple of hours per week, apart from a couple of members of our web team.

Recently, we had two different experiences with a public enquiry for photos for our Roll of Honour (which almost overwhelmed us) and by putting up a quick update post on our AWM blog re HMAS Sydney. The public response surprised us as it was so strong, varied and it continues to roll in. The HMAS Sydney post has almost become a public portal for expressions of emotion about the recent discovery. So, resourcing in preparation for such a response is critical, but hard to predict. I think the public who read the blogs or sometimes stumble across them, still are not as familiar with features such as RSS or even the Comment process. As well, I feel that some people still are not comfortable enough to make a public comment that either gives away their identity or may reveal their lack of knowledge in a certain area. This attitude is changing and I think that revealing the personalities of our curators, historians and conservators, just by posting to the blogs in their own name, has helped this process as we are now making much less use of our institutional voice on our website.

When I was running the Lawrence blog, it was rare for me to spend more than several hours per week just on the blog. (I know some colleagues who would disagree with this statement). Curating the exhibition itself was my priority task and after that I still had a staff of over 30 and the national collection of war records to manage.

With my own private blog which also is aimed at those interested in museums, I’d estimate that I spend several hours on it per week.

F+N: How are you measuring the success of the blog? Did you have any targets? What do you report on?

Mal Booth: Google Analytics tells us that we have quite strong readership of the Lawrence blog across the USA and that total numbers by far outweigh those from the UK. I find that surprising. Google also tells me that half of our readers are referred from a comprehensive UK TE Lawrence site that I linked to early on in the blog: TE Lawrence Studies). That is a very interesting demonstration of the network effect and the power and value of links out.

We occasionally look at our Technorati ranking, but I think you get more valuable information from the range of free reports available on Google.

Google Analytics offers me just about all I/we need apart from looking at the range, nature and number of comments received on the blogs. Sometimes I find the extent of that free service to be almost unbelievable: visits; page views; traffic sources; pages viewed per visit; bounce rates; new visits; top content; etc. What more do we really want to evaluate and how much more useful would it really be?

Our executive management have not set any fixed targets for us, but they do keep a keen interest in our web manager’s regular reports of the progress of the blogs and public interest in them as measured by Google Analytics and comments as outlined above.

F+N: In terms of measurement or ROI, do you set regular goals for blog projects? (aiming for X number of comments? Y number of visitors from UK? Z number of ‘mentions’) Or is the AWM still developing this?

Mal Booth: I really hate it that museums now seem to be using terms like “ROI”. I’m also not a big fan of devoting too many scarce museum resources to evaluating what we do.

In most cases the metrics used don’t seem that relevant or realistic to those that have had their efforts “evaluated” and too often we ignore the observations of those who are in our museums or galleries all the time, or those who deal with public enquiries all the time.

Having said that I do recognise the need to explain the benefit of such initiatives to our executive managers, boards, sponsors or the purse holders. Currently, we are still learning about these new ventures and whilst we keep reporting the basic statistics and trends in those basics. They have been pretty understanding that it is new territory for us and that setting too many unrealistic goals would be the quickest way to kill it all off.

I have constantly said that we need to be patient with these initiatives and let them “seed” for a while before expecting to see them “take-off”. Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised by a rapid uptake, but generally I think we need to be patient and learn more about general Australian public attitudes towards making comments on the websites of national institutions like ours.

I suspect we are still seen as the reverential guardians of the ANZAC legend or the spirits of the fallen, and whilst that is probably a respected position to hold and protect, it might also be working against the kind of full scale and frank engagement that other institutions, like say the Brooklyn Museum can attract.

I also think that in Australia, we still really don’t have the affordable fast broadband or cheap wireless or mobile phone coverage that encourages the public to engage as much as we’d like with museums online. If access to such communications plans remains relatively more expensive or scarce, it will primarily be used for the more essential things like online banking, email, news, shopping, (even porn!) and those more recreational or cultural pursuits such as our offerings may have to wait a bit longer for a new web culture to develop here.

F+N: How supportive has the organisation been? Has it had to change or adjust its processes as a result? Has the nature of your own work changed since you’ve become a blogger?

Mal Booth: The AWM has been extremely supportive and very trusting of our efforts. It has helped to have a number of quite senior staff actively involved from the outset as that gave our executive management the necessary degree of confidence in what we were doing.

It became a bit tiring and far too complex for our web team to constantly update different templates for the 5-6 exhibition and tour blogs that we once had, so we’ve decided to consolidate our efforts in one central blog now. That means we are now looking at giving different subjects such as exhibitions which might need to reflect a given design, look or even a sponsor a distinctive feel. We also have far too many categories and sub categories, even for those writing the posts to figure out, so we are looking at a different way of mapping that out for our users, possibly through a tag cloud.

I think blogs have now become an integral aspect of the development of all of our special or touring exhibitions. Most curatorial areas, conservation projects and our military history team now provide regular posts to the AWM Blog (it really does need a new name, doesn’t it – perhaps we need a competition?).

We’ve also started to use the blog a s means to reflect our involvement in, awareness of and response to certain contemporary events, such as the recent discovery of HMAS Sydney and our current battlefield tours. Those (tech-savvy) members of the public keen on keeping up-to-date with the Memorial are now probably using an RSS subscription to the AWM Blog to stay in touch with our progress, events and recent developments.

If use to date has reflected our desire to increase public “understanding” of the Australian experience of war, I think the most recent posts from Gallipoli and the Western Front battlefields will truly show the power of the blogs to also provide a “commemorative” focus. When these concepts are combined, our mission to provide commemoration through understanding is at least in part met by the use of blogs.

The nature of my own work has changed quite a bit as I now have another of outlet for my work, beyond exhibitions, traditional media, magazine articles, public tours and various talks. I find blogs easy and convenient to use, especially when I have something to say that might not easily fit into the other forms of output or outreach. Of course it is also a format that does mean you have to be prepared to engage in a conversation, but usually it is no more difficult than say, questions posed during a talk or tour.

F+N: What are the future plans?

Mal Booth: We are doing an enormous amount of work behind the scenes to implement an enterprise wide content management system, (including digital asset and web content management, as well as federated search) that will provide a very solid basis for us to do nearly anything online in the future. The only limits will be the imagination of our staff and the roll out of more extensive and fast broadband and wireless networks at a price the public can afford to use on various mobile platforms.

We already have very large collection digitisation programs which are developing a range of content suitable for use on our blogs and also by other online means. We can use the blogs to help expose that deep content and to engage our audience in rich conversations about it.

It is important for us to recognise that there is much for curators and others to learn and gain from being part of this online effort. As I said, we are expanding in this direction and hoping to do more along the same lines as Brooklyn Museum’s Community web page – I still think they offer the best model anywhere in terms of community engagement. It is no longer about one to many, or even many to one, it has to go one step further and be many to many. So, we become just a facilitator in all of this and not a beginning or an end point.

The great advantage we have to offer is our rich content (in terms of our collections) and our expertise (in terms of our knowledge of and about those collections). I am currently talking to anyone who will listen about the strong connection that must exist between our digitisation programs and the new web in terms of access, awareness, context and rich community engagement. We cannot, however, be seen as being (or think of ourselves as being) omniscient about those collections (or our digitisation programs) and that is where community engagement and the less institutionally-voiced blog post comes in. I believe that real engagement also has other benefits to us in relation to overcoming the scarcity of our own resources (at least in certain areas). We may even open up a blog or an further areas on our own blog that includes posts (not just comments) from the public.

Thanks to Mal, Liz and Adam for their openness and lovely verbose answers. Now go take a look at the AWM blogs and maybe contact them with a better name for them!

Tags: 5 Comments

  • lyndak

    Seb, did Mal mention whether the AWM has a “formal” written policy about blogging or are they just taking it as it comes for the moment?

  • Seb Chan

    Lynda

    Here’s a bit I edited out that deals with that –

    F+N – Do you and the other AWM bloggers post a lot of comments on OTHER people’s blogs? When you do, do they identify as AWM staff and linkback to the AWM blogs? Have you had to resolves policy issues around this?

    Mal Booth: I’m not really sure on this one. I know of a few colleagues who do, like our web team people, but I’m not sure about the others. I comment on a range of blogs (whenever I have the time or feel intelligent enough to make a reasonable response!) and always use a Blogger identity as it seems effective and links back to my profile which tells you who I am really (serial pest & Head of Research Centre at AWM).

    We’ve not set any silly restrictive policies to prevent AWM staff from engaging in these new communities, but we’ve had open internal discussions regarding appropriate behaviours and attitudes on our internal staff blog and I think it has been effective so far. We are now developing some policies to cover all of this and will probably build on “principle” models from the BBC and the NZ Public Sector blog that you highlighted recently. I liked the general tone of both: not too didactic or authoritarian. I recognise that kind of thing is necessary, but if it happens to early or if we come on too strongly, it kills off staff initiative, exploration and experimentation, so for the time being a bit of real-life risk management is applied here.

  • lyndak

    Thanks. Mal hits it on the head here by saying that restricting too early or strongly kills enthusiasm. I must say I found the BBC policy quite scary – it turned me off! We’re going to look at guidelines for using social networking sites at our Museum Users Group (MUGS) meeting this Friday so will keep you posted.

  • Mal says, “I suspect we are still seen as the reverential guardians of the ANZAC legend or the spirits of the fallen, and whilst that is probably a respected position to hold and protect, it might also be working against the kind of full scale and frank engagement that other institutions, like say the Brooklyn Museum can attract. ”

    Yes, you are all seen as that Mal.

    Perhaps it’s because it is the Australian War MEMORIAL.

    The dichotomy which has been part of the AWM since inception is alive and well.

    Are we a musuem? Are we a war memorial? This has been well canvassed in Ken Inglis’s book “Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape” which, amongst many other topics, chronicles the search for identity of the AWM itself.

    I’m also surprised that Mal was surprised by the huge response to the finding of HMAS Sydney, in terms of blog response. That would seem to me have been completley predictable.

    I would love to see their search figures for HMAS Sydney on the day of the wreck being found.

    After Kormoran was found it was obvious pent up grief and public interest was going to be exhibited if the almost certainty that HMAS Sydney would be found was realised.

    Fromelles is another good example. An obvious parallel to the HMAS Sydney find, obvious to create enormous public interest, yet the AWM blog does not mention it until 18 July.

    However I concede that historians are good at looking backward, not so good at understanding the world in which they live.

    Fromelles, and the remains buried there is/are going to be the hot topic in Australian military history and Remembrance over the next 12 months, but it does not rate a mention on the home page of the AWM website.

    How will it be memorialised and commemorated? What of the debate about repatriation of bodies?

    Of course, the AWM has an interest in this, being the resting place for one of the only two World War One fallen to be repatriated to our soil.

    As C.E.W. Bean said of his beloved AWM, “Here is their spirit.”

    Mal, I hope I’m not being too harsh on you, and I did love your blog on Lawrence.

  • Oh, and Seb. There’s a group blog at the New York Public Library which I think is one of the best by any cultural institution anywhere.

    http://drupal02.nypl.org/