Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Picnic08 – my presentation in the Open Museum sessions / Open Museum part one

September 29th, 2008 by Seb Chan

Picnic is a large ‘creativity’ conference held annually in Amsterdam. I’ve been here as a guest of n8 talking about the notion of ‘open museums’.

Here is the second set of notes (with only a minor cleanup for the sake of timeliness) which were taken during the Open Museum sessions on Day Two. (More notes on the rest of Picnic still to follow)

Open Museum was billed as “a one-day marathon focussing on the idea of an ‘open museum’, a public institution that engages with its environment. Inspired by the great Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg, the Open Museum symposium looks at how museums in the 21st century can learn from media, and how media can learn from museums”. Organised by n8 who run the annual Museumnacht (Museum Night) in Amsterdam, this was an action packed 6 hours of presentations, which, because it was nestled in amongst the rest of Picnic, drew a very diverse and interested crowd. As a result the Dutch newspapers, the local blogging community and others have covered it in good detail.

The sessions kicked off with Michiel van Iersel from MuseumLab taking a run through the history of museums arguing that museums have always had to adapt to changing times and that, on the whole, these changes over the centuries have transformed museums for the better (at least from our current viewpoint) into more transparent, open-to-all institutions that are even opening sub-galleries in airport lounges (see the Rjiksmuseum at Schipol Airport). Michiel’s introduction placed a necessary historical backdrop behind the day’s proceedings – ensuring that we didn’t get too caught up in the emperor’s new clothes.

I followed Michiel with a rapid fire look at the potentials of an ‘open, collaborative museum’ online. In this I argued that in the digital environment, museums that do not take advantage of the opportunities to connect with other institutions (at the global level) and their publics (at the hyperlocal level) are not only missing out on many opportunities, they are at risk of being leapfrogged in relevance by other institutions or even informal organisations. Online, a singular collection of objects is now rather meaningless and the digital space opens the necessity to connect collections internationally. By the same token, online social media offers the opportunity to connect with and engage with local communities in ways previously only theorised about in the scholarship of the ‘new museum’.

Openness is a way for museums to be seen to be ‘creating new value’ from the old – and to assert their relevance in stimulating new creativity, economic and cultural production. Museums can collaborate with the community to improve findability through tagging of various kinds; and make discoveries, create communities of interest around their collections and in so doing improve their research and collection data.

With each other and other sorts of knowledge providers, museum openness can create richer value for researchers, scholars and even general browsers by connecting collections and research with broader context and richer resources elsewhere – moving from being a singular ‘destination’ to simply a high value node in a knowledge network/web (I equated this to the function of a reference librarian).

Finally I posed the absolute necessity for openness for museums to make the most of location-centric possibilities. Without openness none of the problems of location-centric data will be solved, nor will their promise be reached. In the location-centric space, a single collection is meaningless and is a missed opportunity – only a multi-institutional, cross-disciplinary approach will get anywhere near delivering the necessary user experience to make this meaningful. Think of the current situation much like a tourist map that only shows one chain of hotels on it . . .

I concluded with a series of questions aimed at framing the rest of the day –

1. do audiences really want openness? do we expect to much of them? (early adopter tech communities are far from representative of our audiences)
2. where are the new models of rights and IP needed to sustain openness (I posited CC Plus as one option)
3. how do we build new forms of reputation and trust? (especially within museum with scientific research staff whose reputations rely upon currently closed academic research forms)
4. how do we sustainably support the social needs of communities? (I pose that we should look to the existing structures we use to support offline volunteers etc)
5. how do we transform business models in the sector to encourage institutional collaboration?
6. how do we encourage collaboration between our online and our gallery spaces?

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