Interviews open content

Commons on Flickr: an interview with one of our Flickr friends, Bob Meade (part one)

Bob Meade has been one of our most prolific ‘friends’ on Flickr. He has done an enormous amount of tagging, added a great deal of additional research to our images, and was the man behind the discovery of the Mosman Bay Falls.

Paula Bray (the Museum’s Image Services Manager) and I conducted a long face to face interview with Bob who very generously agreed to speak to us about his background and motivations.

It was an incredibly revealing interview that demonstrates the power of museums and cultural institutions opening up their collections to ‘amateur’ researchers and enthusiasts. It also explores the Flickr and the Commons experience from the perspective of a user – the motivations that drive participation, frustrations and expectations – as well as touching on Flickr etiquette and Copyright.

I am posting this with the permission of Bob, with the intention of helping other cultural institutions learn more about behaviour online, and to also begin to understand the opportunities that now exist to engage audiences around collections and other content. These stories, ultimately, are far more powerful and important qualitative research than raw usage figures.

I have made only minor edits to the transcript so bear with the conversational tone and flow.

If you find this useful and would like to cite it in research papers and the like, I would appreciate it if you would tell me about it in the comments or via email.

To read more about the Museum’s experience of the Commons on Flickr read our three month report.

Here is the first part.

Further parts will follow.

On blogging, photography, and discovering the Commons.

Bob: One day, my wife, told me that she’d been to a Hill & Knowlton Breakfast Bytes presentation, at which Frank Arrigo had spoken. Frank Arrigo works for Microsoft. He used to work in Australia. Now, he works in Seattle. He’s a very keen blogger and one of his jobs was to be a Microsoft evangelist.

My wife was very excited telling me about blogging. She came home and told me something, “You know Bob, look this up.” I looked up Frank Arrigo’s blog, and thought it was very interesting, what he did was a mixture of things to do with his work; things to do with IT, also, things to do with his family; a mixture of his personal views on things; a mixture of what his children were doing.

I thought, yeah, this blogging is interesting. I need to know what it’s about. I thought the best way to understand it was to do it. I wanted to start a blog, and I thought about what I could blog about.

Because the conventional wisdom is that, a blog should have a theme. I thought I’d blog about my life as a stay-at-home dad, and also to document my son growing up.

Even now, just looking back a few years, I like to look back at some of the things I wrote about when he was a one-year-old, or a two-year-old. Now, he’s four-and-a-half.

Being a blogger led me to interest in reading other people’s blogs. One day, I was reading a blog post by Jason Kottke, who, as we know is a well regarded blogger who writes about design and ideas.

Kottke mentioned that Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker, had a blog at The New York Times. On it Morris was talking about a photograph by Roger Fenton, in the Crimean War, and having a discussion about these two, almost identical, images taken by Roger Fenton in 1853, or thereabouts.

One had cannonballs on the road. One had cannonballs off the road.

I don’t know if you are familiar with both these photographs. Apparently it was like pretty famous, because that was sort of one of the first cases of documenting war in photography.

One image appears to be more dramatic because the cannonballs are on the road, and one image is less dramatic because the cannonballs are sort of spread about kerb side in the gutter of the road.

Morris read a book by Susan Sontag, where she referred to this picture and referred to a guy, who is an expert in the history of photography who said that the photograph with the balls on the road was taken after the one without the balls on the road.

The balls must have been put there by Fenton’s assistants to create more drama in the photograph. And Morris, thought, “That’s interesting; I wonder if that’s true?” And then he started researching it, got the two images then thought, “you ought to know, maybe this photograph came first.” So then he talked to other experts in the history of Fenton’s photography, who said, “Yeah, we don’t agree with that guy. We think that the photograph, without the cannonballs on the road, was the second photograph, because it was known that cannonballs were harvested and recycled.

And then this like caught fire on his blog in The New York Times. He had people from all over the world analyzing it, looking at the angle of the shadows on the cannonballs, counting the cannonballs, which is very hard to do.

A huge debate over which photograph came first ensued, and that got me to thinking, that there can be a lot behind the surface of a photograph and also close analysis of a photograph can reveal information that’s not apparent at first glance.

And also, taking into account the historical factors that are known at the time can reveal something about the photograph.

For example, the idea that cannonballs were harvested. Yes, maybe that means yes, the ones with “balls off” as it was called, came second.

He also drew into the mix, a lot of historical documentation, letters of Fenton that were written at the time to his wife, memoirs of Fenton’s assistants, all those sorts of things. And, ultimately, Morris went to these places near Sebastopol, finding the exact same place and sort of did a bit further analysis about what he thought had happened.

I found it very fascinating, and the contributions of people who were not designated experts made to these sorts of discussions. The comments were really extremely valuable, which Morris, himself acknowledged.

That idea in my head lay dormant for awhile.

Another blog that I read is the Library of Congress blog by Matt Raymond, who is nominally the PR director of communications (for the Library of Congress) and he blogs about different things.

Earlier this year, he blogged about the Library of Congress putting images up on Flickr. I didn’t really pay much attention to it, at first, because the pictures that he chose to illustrate it with on his blog, revolved mainly about baseball, so I thought it was going to be mainly all about baseball.

But then, he blogged again later, maybe it might have been a few weeks later, where he talked about the fantastic response that they had had and the rich information that they had derived from the community, adding details, tagging, all that different sorts of things.

And I thought, “I don’t really understand what he is talking about”, because I don’t really understand about the value that people were adding by tagging.

So I went back and had a look at Flickr.

I had started a Flickr account in 2005 and uploaded maybe four or five pictures of my son, just so I could understand a little bit how Flickr worked. I had never touched it again.

However when I was looking for at the Library of Congress photographs and seeing how people were like contributing information, I saw something. I can’t remember exactly what it was but I thought, hey, I know something about this. I think I might put that in there. So then I had to work out, how you put a comment on, and sort of go back and try and remember the password to my Flickr account and things like that.

So then I started out, doing it on the Library of Congress Flickr photostream.

I thought, “maybe, I know a bit about some of the things here”, but they’re, of course, USA-centric in the main. Although in the Bain collections, the Library of Congress has got that, there’s a lot of historical figures who were prominent in, early 20th century, late 19th century also appear there.

I thought it would be interesting if something like this was happening in Australia. Then lo and behold, the Powerhouse Museum started putting up the Tyrrell collection of photographs. So I started commenting there too.

Now I still have a look occasionally at the Library of Congress photographs, but now that there’s the Powerhouse Museum, the Library of Congress doesn’t hold as much interest for me.

On the Powerhouse and cultural institutions

Seb: Were you a regular visitor to the Powerhouse?

Bob: An occasional visitor. I’ve been here, once in the last five years before my recent visit with my son. So then I’ve been here maybe twice, three times, maybe four times in the last 20 years.

Seb: So the Powerhouse wasn’t top of mind.

Bob: No.

Paula: What about using the Powerhouse website? Have you searched our collection online?

Bob: Only once before, in the middle of last year.

Bonhams and Goodmans Auctioneers were auctioning off a piece of memorabilia belonging to Sir Isaac Isaacs, who was first of all, one of the fathers of the Constitution of Australia. He then went on to become an Attorney-General, a High Court judge, and ultimately Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, and then Governor-General of Australia.

The memorabilia was a medal that had been presented to him at the time of Federation. It was up for auction.

I was vaguely interested in how much it would be worth and thinking it might be a good investment. So I started researching about those particular types of medals and it so happened that the Powerhouse Museum has several of almost identical medals in its collection.

I started searching online for the medal, and that led me to the Powerhouse Museum’s online collection. There’s a lot of photographs up of various medals like that and I was using the zoom function to zoom in and get a good look at them.

There were also a couple in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales and other similar institutions around Australia.

However they appear only as a medal, but the one of Sir Isaac Isaacs also had a ribbon attached and a bar saying somewhat Isaac Isaacs M.L.A.

So that was my, really only other contact with the Powerhouse Museum website.

Seb: Do you visit other museums or cultural institutions?

Bob: Yeah, I’ve gone to New South Wales, State Library of New South Wales, The Royal Australian Navy Museum at Garden Island and that’s about it here, recently.

Seb: Would you describe yourself as a museum-goer or as a causal visitor when there’s something special on?

Bob: Occasional visitor.

Seb: Has the Powerhouse’s participation changed your opinion of the Museum or engaged you more with the Museum overall?

Bob: Oh, it’s engaged me more, yes. But it doesn’t change my opinion. I’ve always thought there was a lot of valuable things here and, obviously, incredible depth to the collection. Engaged me more – but it hasn’t changed my opinion.

Part two coming soon.