Collection databases

Powerhouse wins Gold at AAM 2008 Muse Awards

We’re very excited that we’ve won the gold award in the 2008 AAM Muse Awards in the category of ‘Online Presence’ for our collection database.

It is particularly exciting because for the Powerhouse the collection represents our core reason for being. The collection is not only what differentiates us from other institutions, but also what differentiates us from other leisure venues and social spaces. In every museum the collection, traditionally, has been the preserve of scholars, researchers, and experts and in most museums the only time it appears on show is through the highly interpreted space of exhibitions, or limited run print publications. Online, the traditional way of presenting the collection has also been highly interpreted – specialist microsites, ‘virtual galleries’ for the ‘general public’; and for the researcher – collection databases overloaded with complexity only an information scientist would appreciate.

We took a different approach – one that placed the casual user at the core, and attempted to simplify and inject a degree of pleasure into the experience of navigating the collection (much like the pleasure we hope that visitors through our doors experience in browsing our showcases). Behind the scenes we also broke the unsustainable level of ‘extra interpretation’ (additional curation, editing, etc) that we applied to collection microsites – opting for a direct publication of as much of our raw content as possible. Far from undermine the Museum’s ‘authority’ the exposure of this rich but uneven data has enhanced the Museum’s reputation and brand (“oh I didn’t know you had such a wonderful collection of . . “), as well as lay bare the reality that any museum’s collection is always a ‘work in progress’.

Judges said:
The Powerhouse Museum’s new relational search and collections database is a model for organizing, exhibiting, and promoting museum collections. Alongside detailed traditional search functions, the site invites users to add their own metatags (folksonomy), search, and browse by tag cloud, by “relatedness” of items/objects, or by special collections in an easy-to-use, transparent interface that offers consistent and near-instantaneous feedback and results.

Beyond the metadata and search functionality, the depth of database entries “opens the bank vault” of the museum to visitors, enthusiasts, and researchers as many entries are presented with not only tombstone metadata, but article-style contextual information and one or more images — with three-dimensional objects photographed from multiple angles and accompanied by an indication of scale/size. This not only makes the site rewarding to casual browsers and researchers alike, it provokes thought about the function and purpose of museum collection and preservation. The Powerhouse has already begun to to realize the value of lay expertise via its embrace of folksonomy (an innovation alone worth emulating throughout the museum community), as online users have brought to the museum’s attention objects for potential physical exhibit that were previously considered to be only of ephemeral or specialized interest. An exemplary site.

When we first made our tentative steps with our new collection database that some readers might remember went public as a ‘beta’ site in mid 2006, we had no idea that it would be the success that it has been. We are continually astonished by the volume but more importantly the diversity of use the site gets. It is this evolving usage that drives our continual addition of new features, and hopefully ‘improvements’ to the site.

Collection databases Geotagging & mapping MW2008 Search Semantic Web

MW2008 – Data shanty towns, cross-search and combinatory approaches

One of the popular sessions at MW2008 in Montreal was a double header featuring Frankie Roberto and myself talking about different approaches to data combining across multiple institutions.

Data combining was a bit of a theme this year with Mike Ellis, Brian Kelly and others talking mashups; Ross Parry, Eric Miller and Brian Sletten all talking ‘semantic web’; and Terry Makewell and Carolyn Royston demonstrating the early prototype of the NMOLP cross search.

Copyright/OCL Imaging

50 new images on the Commons on Flickr

As promised we’ve just added another 50 historical images from our Tyrrell Collection to the Commons on Flickr. In the first week we had nearly 20,000 views and an enormous amount of tagging and ‘favouriting’ activity combined with many congratulatory messages and support for the Museum’s release of these images into the Commons.

The new additions include historical shots of the Art Gallery, areas around Bulli, and this great photograph of the Great Hall at Sydney University.

Museum blogging MW2008 Policy Social networking Web 2.0

Updating your social media and staff blog policies

At Musuems and the Web 2008 in the Planning Social Media workshop I briefly talked about the need for organisations to engage with, rather than ignore, the reality that their staff are using social media – even if not in their professional lives, and that this can cause occasional issues.

One year ago we launched our blogging policy at the Museum. This was to cover the behaviour of staff on the offical Museum blogs as well as outline the approval processes for other blog activities. Already we are finding that it is in need of an update. As they say, one year is a long time on ‘teh internets’.

Not surprisingly we are not alone in this. There have been plenty of corporate blogging policies made available publicly however the best fit, in my opinion, are the recently updated policies of the BBC which now extend into covering social network participation and more.

The BBC’s new policy for its staff on using social networking services like Facebook, writing and commenting on blogs, contributing to wikis including Wikipedia, are all covered in detail. The over-riding principle in the BBC policy is one of ‘awareness’ rather than censorship. The BBC realises that their journalists and staff are enriched by participating in robust community debate (more and more of which now occurs online), and also, that to attract younger generation staff (who are growing up with the expectation of participation in online communities), they need to be proactive.

So the BBC encourages awareness amongst staff that their private comments and opinions need to be kept in check and balanced if they are identifying or associating themselves in any of these public forums as BBC staffers or journalists.

The Internet provides a number of benefits in which BBC staff may wish to participate. From rediscovering old school friends on Facebook or Friends Reunited or helping to maintain open access online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.

However, when someone clearly identifies their association with the BBC and/or discusses their work, they are expected to behave appropriately when on the Internet, and in ways that are consistent with the BBC’s editorial values and policies.


The intention of this note is not to stop BBC staff from conducting legitimate activities on the Internet, but serves to flag-up those areas in which conflicts can arise.

For those agencies considering introducing policies I would also recommend the fantastic work of Jason Ryan from the NZ Network of Public Sector Communicators. Jason has been at the forefront of developing and implementing sensible and realistic strategies for social media within government.

Collection databases

Opensearch – it isn’t all that hard

Finally I’ve started to see more museums picking up the absurdly easy to implement Opensearch method of delivering a live search result from their website as RSS/XML.

The National Maritime Museum in the UK is one who has recently made their implementation of Opensearch available. Here’s a feed of a search of their collection for compasses.

Folksonomies Metadata Web 2.0

24 hours later – Powerhouse on the Commons on Flickr

The first 24 hours of our presence on Commons on Flickr has been fascinating. I wrote about the launch yesterday but now let’s take a look at what has happened over night.

In short, we’ve been excited by the response. Here’s some quick figures.

Plenty of views (4777), and stacks of tags (175) – in such a short time. That’s more views in one day than the entire Tyrrell Collection would have previously gotten in a month. I’ve been really excited by the types of tags and the diversity of tags that have been added. One user has even added postcodes as tags. And, although we’ve had tagging available on our site for those same Tyrrell records, these tags far exceed those added on our own site in quantity and, arguably, quality. Obviously this has a lot to do with context.

Collection databases Imaging Web 2.0

Powerhouse Museum joins the Commons on Flickr – the what, why and how

Yes, you read that right. The Powerhouse Museum is the first museum to join the Commons on Flickr! And we’re excited because it went live today!

In the tradition of ‘slow food’ we have decided to do a slow release of content with an initial 200 historic images of Sydney and surrounds available through the Commons on Flickr and a promise of another 50 new fresh images each week! These initial images are drawn from the Tyrrell Collection. Representing some of the most significant examples of early Australian photography, the Tyrrell Collection is a series of glass plate negatives by Charles Kerry (1857-1928) and Henry King (1855-1923), two of Sydney’s principal photographic studios at the time.

(Sydney Cricket Ground)

We have also done something a little different to the Library of Congress – we have also started geo-tagging as many of the images we are uploading as possible. You can jump over to Flickr and see the images plotted on a map, then zoom in to browse and navigate. We are really excited by the possibilities that this opens up – suddenly ‘then and now’ photography becomes possible on a mass public scale. Because these images are being added to the Commons they are provided as having “no known Copyright” allowing maximum reuse.

We joined up with Flickr because we knew that the Tyrrell Collection were still largely unkown by the general public. This was despite fully catalogued sections (275 images) of the collection having been available on our own website for many years, as well as some of the semi-catalogued images (680 images) more recently in our collection database. We had also syndicated a feed of the fully catalogued Tyrrell images to the National Library of Australia’s Picture Australia. There are nearly 8000 Tyrrell images in total.

(Bondi Beach)

What Flickr offers the Powerhouse is an immediate large and broader audience for this content. And with this exposure we hope that we will have a strong driver to increase the cataloguing and digitisation of the remaining Tyrrell glass plate negatives as well as many more the previously hidden photographic collections of the Powerhouse.

There is a little bit of a back story here too. Joining the Commons happened rather by luck. Thanks to Maxine Sherrin and John Alsopp at Web Directions, George Oates from Flickr and I were speaking at the same event (Web Directions South) last year and were introduced. George visited the Museum during her time in Sydney and met the Image Services, Web Services, and Photography teams and we resolved to do something together. At that stage, the Commons was not public knowledge, and after it launched, George, being an ex-pat Australian, and I planned to get the Powerhouse Museum involved as soon as possible. Thanks to the swift work of Paula Bray and Luke Dearnley at the Powerhouse, as well as the support of internal management, the Museum has been able to seize this fantastic opportunity and react quickly.

George has blogged about the Powerhouse in the Commons over at the Flickr blog, and Paula will be blogging it over at Photo of the Day in a couple of hours.

Collection databases

OPAC2.0 – New search result interface

Today we launched our new-look search results page for our collection database.

Finally we have been able to implement many of the minor UI changes that have been sitting in a long list of ‘fixes’ – fixes that have become more and more critical as we have added new types of search.

When a search is now performed the results are broken up into five categories – each of which are reported in a yellow box at the top of the results.

Selecting any of these categories automatically displays the category – quickly and neatly – with no additional page load.

The ‘result browser’ box now gives us additional room to add future search categories (such as semantic tag types – people, places etc), and the right-hand side has been re-organised as well. The ordering of search filters has been changed and we feel that it is now more logical and responsive.

Take a look.

Conceptual Geotagging & mapping

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

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).

Collection databases Web metrics

OPAC2.0 – Top search phrases and statistics for 2007

Here’s some of the latest figures from our collection database for the calendar year 2007. Because our search tables run on a rolling 3 month basis we have had to wait until April to generate the results for 2007.

In 2007 there were 15,121,291 objects viewed in our collection database (including views on dHub and via Opensearch). 5,447 tags were added during this period.

Here’s some more interesting facts and figures.