Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Short report on Museums and the Web 2010, Denver

April 27th, 2010 by Seb Chan

Denver is a very high altitude city. One mile up, many of the conference attendees suffered from altitude sickness – especially those who had flown directly into such a high altitude.

This year’s conference was slightly different to previous years. Session formats had changed ever so slightly and the conference venue had had to split some sessions over rooms in adjoining buildings. For the first time, too, there was an extra pre-conference day exploring ways in which the museum community might work with Wikipedia. As one of the most highly trafficked, if not the number one ‘information’ website, it is easy to see why Wikipedia is an attractive site for museums. Thus the pre-conference day was pulled together to explore some of the barriers preventing museums from engaging with Wikipedia and how these might be overcome.

Undoubtedly there are fertile opportunities. It seems self-evident that “publicly funded museums with an educational mission” (not all museums) would wish to have their research and scholarship used to improve the areas of Wikipedia which lacked the correct or most up to date information. On the Wikipedia side, too, there seems to be a broad realisation at the Foundation level (but not necessarily a consensus amongst the editors of Wikipedia) that such information is of great value to Wikipedia – especially as it continues to expand its depth and quality. (Brianna Laugher delved into related issues in a speech at the National Library of Australia a little while back).

By the end of a long day it felt like both the museums and Wikipedia were sometimes talking at cross purposes – with some misunderstandings and misconceptions on both sides. On the positive side, there were a number of experimental projects discussed involving museums and Wikipedia already happening in Australia, USA, USA and Europe – and these were all proving to be working and shared a committed local Wikipedia community respectful of the institutions and an equally committed institution or group of institutions who had dedicated resources to working with the local community. Equally positive was the general consensus that more liberal licensing on museum content as a whole might achieve the same end goals as direct collaboration with Wikipedians – but without the resourcing, scaling and sometimes difficult community management issues.

On the following day – the workshop day – I ran my metrics workshop in the morning then a social media strategy workshop with Dr Angelina Russo in the afternoon both to full houses. Such workshops are always good to run in the conference as they draw a much more diverse group of participants than when I run them with individual institutions. Then it was into the conference proper.

Thursday opened with local serial-entrepreneur Brad Feld talking about the ethos of the entrepreneur. You’ve probably used the technologies that Feld has been involved with over the years, and you probably, as he acknowledged, know someone with addictions to his latest venture – Zynga who make Farmville. Feld’s introduction was what you would expect at a technology event but stuck out a lot more in the museum space – where the kind of risk-tolerant experimentation that is encouraged is a little harder to make a reality.

After Feld’s introduction it was into the split sessions. I followed the collections track starting with Aaron Straup-Cope’s paper titled Buckets & Vessels. Aaron’s presentations at Museums & the Web over the past few years have been highlights – his ability to pull together theoretical and philosophical approaches as well as heavy technical material is completely compelling. This year his paper examined the changes in the practice of ‘curating’ broadly resulting from the Internet. Using Flickr Galleries (and the hilarious Regretsy) as an example, he demonstrated how tools can be developed to encourage and shape the curating of digital content.

Notions of authority are not eroding. People will continue to seek out and reward expert opinion. No one is storming the proverbial gates, and there are still plenty of people who want to get inside them. What is happening instead is the creation of a de facto, rather than de jure, culture of curation to deal with a world that has become more of an abundant present than a considered past.

Nate Solas from the Walker Art Center followed with a detailed teardown of the Arts Connected collection search. Nate trawled through the search logs of the former site and compared the effectiveness and style of searches performed with those on the new site which has alternative ways of navigating the detailed content. This was impressive stuff and very valuable for all of us who are trying to develop better ways of making museum collections discoverable – his paper is essential reading.

I presented my own paper after lunch. The published version looks at some of the data that we’ve been collecting over the past year in our collection database. In analysing the data the focus of the paper shifted from looking more generally at types of use and reuse of content, to highlighting shortcomings with regard to the use of our collection content by schools. In the presentation I focussed a little more on the still unrealised promise of opening up our collections, and the need to keep a focus on the audiences that are most aligned to the delivery of our short and long term goals. I’ll follow this through in more detail in a later blogpost as it needs dedicated space to explain and explore.

The next day was filled with off-conference discussions. One of the best parts of Museums and the Web is the connections that are made between attendees – and it is one of the few museum and technology events that draws a mix of both North Americans and Europeans. (The #ashcloud from Iceland impacted the return travel plans of roughly 1/4 of the conference!)

In between these discussions I popped in to the Crit Room – an annual session where several museum websites are torn down and critiqued by a panel of peers. I’d submitted the Powerhouse’s Play at Powerhouse microsite for critique – the site is due for a rebuild and the Crit Room offered a good opportunity to get some objectivity on the problems. I’d expected worse and the session provided some very useful outcomes for me – several of the elements of the site that we’d thought internally, were superfluous and had outlived their usefulness were well regarded, whilst some things we had overlooked were pointed out. The Israel Museum, MOMA and the Getty’s sites were also examined and the peer review notes from this session are available.

The final day kicked off with a mega-session of mini case studies, again new for this year. Jane Finnis and I had been asked to chair the session and between us we had come up with a way to hopefully make 9 presentations, each of 7 minutes in length, exciting. Presented as a ‘social media circus’, each speaker was introduced with a theme song related to the topic of their paper, and each played a circus character. It seemed to work well and keep a buzz and a pace throughout the long session. In the circus two Powerhouse colleagues presented their case studies.

Paula Bray spoke with Ryan Donaghue (George Eastman House) about the process and learnings from the first Common Ground international Flickr meetup, whilst Erika Dicker presented the findings of her survey of curatorial attitudes to social media and the new pressures of content creation.

I really enjoyed the short form presentations – and they were just the entree to the full paper versions. I’d really recommend checking them out – they cover everything from organisational change and the exhibition process to uses of Flickr, Twitter, and APIs, and an integrated CRM and visit system.

Elsewhere there was a lot of discussion of mobile and every non-American was trying to track down someone with an iPad to give one a go. This year, too, there seemed to be a more sober/realistic assessment of online initiatives. The euphoria of new technologies now replaced with a ‘how does this help us achieve our mission’ and ‘what resourcing does it require’ being regular (and essential) reality-checks.

And much like Indianapolis the year before, a surprise conference meme emerged. This year, in the absence of a revolving restaurant in Denver, the Spinny Bar Historical Society was formed. Perhaps an example of the entrepreneurial spirit gone awry, you can read more about the SBHS’ presence as Museums and the Web elsewhere.

Tags: 1 Comment

  • Nice summary Seb, thanks. From my reading there seems to be forward movement on discussions around organisational change and the roles of curators and other staff? Was this the case? Also, I’d be curious to get your thoughts about which museums are getting that right (if any).