Web 2.0

Some thoughts on disaggregation and museums

Tim O’Reilly writes some words on what he calls the economics of disaggregation. He draws on this quote from the WSJ from Slate on unbundling news,

“Bulkeley explains how the photographic film industry, encyclopedia publishers, the music industry, and the advertising industry feasted on buyers by forcing them to purchase things they didn’t want – prints of all 24 shots from their camera or a whole album to secure one favorite song, for example. “The business models required customers to pay for detritus to get the good stuff,” Bulkeley writes. But digital cameras, the Web, iTunes, and search-related advertising have stripped those industries of their power to charge for detritus.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about museum collections online and those who’ve heard me talk know I keep coming back to the idea of content atomisation which is pretty much the same thing as disaggregation. Whilst in the physical museum space our audiences are shepherded through exhibition spaces and our collections along either closed or semi-closed paths created by curators and exihibtion designers, the online museum space offers an opportunity for users to disaggregate our objects, collections, knowledge and information to suit themselves.

Even if you haven’t put your collection online in the same way that we have you will still know by looking at your web statistics that only a small proportion of your web visitors enter via your home page (I’d guesstimate under 20% across the board) and that a large proportion get to your site via a search engine (again, I’d guesstimate greater than 40% if not much higher).

Still, when presenting web content museums like to bring themselves back to the notion of an expert narrative. Some go further and lock their content in bundles by using Flash or Director to effectively prevent unbundling. I remember speaking to Dana Mitroff and Peter Samis a few years ago at SFMOMA about their work in creating workarounds for users to be able to get into their Making Sense Of Modern Art site without going in the front door. Their driver was Google – which until they unbundled couldn’t spider the rich content held in the MSOMA project.

One of the themes I am working on at the moment is the notion of user narratives – or the individual narratives that users create as they self-navigate the infosphere. You do this every day yourself when you create paths through Google searches and results, RSS feeds and more.

How does this work in the context of a museum collection?

Does disaggregation/atomisation really mean that users will just dip in and out of your site quickly and not stick around at all? (Don’t they do this already when they can’t find what they want?) Or, can you, with tools similar to our collection database’s serendipity features, actually reach out to more and new users and at the same time increase the stickiness of your site despite unbundling?

In other words, like old photo processing, do we still need to force users to get 23 bits of information they have no interest in to get the 1 piece they really wanted, and knew they wanted? Or could they get directly to that one piece and be so encouraged by their experience to actually want to look at some of the other 23?

How does this impact upon physical visitation? Can a visitor know too much from the online experience to no longer want to visit?

3 replies on “Some thoughts on disaggregation and museums”

Which makes me think of the article in todays SMH about you tube.
With up to 35 million views some ‘produser’ content available here is reaching audience numbers unimaginable to major tv networks.
I wonder if the metaphor holds from tv/broadcast over to museum industry – the ‘expert’ narrative becomes less valued as the ‘everyone’ narrative becomes of greater interest to a larger audience.
The expert narrative remains an important voice but not the exclusive voice which should be heard.
Constructivist writers including George Hein have suggested that the visitor experience has really always been “about me” ie about the visitor.

I think that disaggregation is the wrong word. Our site visitors aren’t unbundling the collections as we set them up. Rather, they are creating their own aggregations using bookmarking sites such as, or social networking tools on our own sites.

It =does= matter, I think, that we provide context for our collections. But we should make it as easy for people to create their own narratives as the author(s) and production editors of a well-indexed, well-TOC’d book do.

There’s a second step here that I think can be powerful for users–rebundling. There are a few museums that are offering opportunities on their websites for users to create their own narratives based on collection pieces and rebundle these into mini-flash presentations or similar. This is the appeal of flickr and the like; that you can take the disaggregated content of choice and then overlay a narrative reflecting your own expertise. This is most interesting to me because then a visitor/user isn’t just engaged with our content but is encouraged to layer their own meaning/meta-structure on their selections.

How can we link these back to real experiences in museums? I imagine you could create a very cool installation where you make images available online of pieces from the collection that are not currently on display, encourage users to generate linked narratives based on these items–and then physically realize the collection. I think people will come to the real place if they feel that their personal narrative is respected and that they can somehow connect their experience as a curator with the museum’s “expert” curatorial offering.

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