Collection databases Young people & museums

Light reading – two totally different audiences: researchers and young people

Two interesting pieces of reading for those of you who have to spend time on public transport.

First from the Research Information Network in the UK comes a report that looks at the need of academic researchers in discovering the content of museum collections using online databases. Not surprisingly “their most important wish is that online access to museum databases to be provided as quickly as possible, even if the records are imperfect or incomplete”. Read the report.

Second, and covering a totally different audience, is the long awaited report from the Macarthur Foundation on Digital Youth. This was a major piece of research involving a lot of different research teams and the final report is really quite excellent. If you are time poor then skip straight to the summary white paper (PDF).

Otherwise take the time and read the full report. I’d direct F&N readers immediately to the chapter entitled Media Ecologies. This chapter is particularly important because it reminds us that even the same young person can use different digital media in widely differing ways, and with different proficiencies. This chapter proposes that there is a distinct difference between use of digital media that are friendship-based versus those that are interest-based (in the minority). Often in the cultural sector we conflate these two groups or expect that the friendship-based users are actually interested in our interest-based content.

Interactive Media

Boxee – really social media

One of the projects I mentioned in one of my workshops at the NZ National Digital Forum was Boxee. I was alerted to Boxee by Shannon O’Neill only a night or two ago via his RSS.

Boxee is a good example of the important social side of media use and consumption. It is also a good example of connected media.

At the base level your media files are indexed and connected to their cover art, lyrics, reviews and other metadata from across the web. More importantly, though, the service enables the social element of synchronous watching/listening with your friends. You can alert you friends when you are watching or listening to something, and you can simultaneously watch/listen with your friends.

This ‘sociality’ gets to the core of what media is about – it is about content and the social relationships and meanings that form around that content.

Take a quick look at their promotional video –

AV Related Digital storytelling Digitisation

Exploring ‘The Bandstand, Hyde Park’ – another video experiment with the Commons on Flickr

On the back of the great feedback on the last video, Jean-Francois Lanzarone has made a whole lot of new little video explorations and here’s one that gets incredible detail out of again, a single image.

The original image is available in the Commons and in our online catalogue as well.

These little 90 second videos are a very simple but effective way of ‘digital storytelling’ – something museums should be quite good at, being as they are, repositories of stories. The technology at work here is nothing more than a very high resolution original scan and a copy of the consumer-grade iMovie – something which, for us, is important to emphasise.

Good ideas trump expensive technology every time.

open content

Crossing the 1000 in the Commons

A little while back we crossed the 1000 image mark for our uploads of historic images to the Commons on Flickr.

We’ve just started adding a third distinct collection of images – the Phillips Collection (which joins the Tyrrell and Clyde collections). The Phillips Collection is another set of glass plate negatives taken between 1890 and 1920. We are uploading roughly 10 Phillips images a week and 25 Tyrrell images a week with Clyde images going up less regularly.

Paula Bray, our Image Services Manager writes

This collection of approximately 200 glass plate negatives appears to have be made by a photographic studio from around 1890 through to 1920. Some of the subjects in this collection include portraits, costumes, recreational activities, fencing, women boxing, the Blue Mountains and city scenes. The collection was donated by Raymond Phillips and, although not confirmed, it may be his father who was the photographer. There are some clues we have come across whilst scanning this collection that may prove this but we might let you discover these as we post more over the coming weeks. There are many people featured in these images that reappear in other scenes. Perhaps they were family members.

Paula will be delivering a paper at Museums and the Web 2009 looking specifically at the impact of the Commons on the Powerhouse as well as on image sales. Early evidence suggests that image sales are actually up on last year for the very same images that we have placed in the Commons.

Geotagging & mapping Mobile

ABC Innovation’s Sidetracks – a mobile heritage pilot featuring some Powerhouse content

ABC Innovation has launched their Sydney Sidetracks project.

This is a lovely experiment in developing a mobile heritage application which takes some of the archives of ABC TV and Radio and combines them with static imagery and research from the cultural heritage partners – Powerhouse Museum, State Library of NSW, National Film & Sound Archives, Museum of Contemporary Art, the City of Sydney Archives, and the Dictionary of Sydney.

ABC have sensibly hedged their bets so the diverse content is available as an interactive website with a simple map interface, and as a multi-platform mobile Java application.

Whilst the mobile application is not yet location-aware, it does provide a simulation of the potential experience that awaits in a future version. The phone version can be ‘sideloaded‘ to a huge range of different devices. Being out and about with the content changes your experience of it greatly but suffice to say, mobile is still in a very immature phase – with significant usability issues to be overcome. Partially to get around these, a whole lot of the ABC Archives content can be downloaded, separately, to your phone to be accessed as podcasts.

Importantly for the promotion of Sidetracks, ABC Radio 702 is engaged with the project and will be driving listeners to the website (and hopefully the mobile application) to explore.

I conducted a short interview with Sarah Barns, the producer and researcher behind the project, who worked with ABC innovation.

Q: Sidetracks (re)tells some great stories of our city. How did you choose which stories to tell?

Sarah Barns: I was pretty motivated in my selection by finding archival material that had been recorded on location. The original focus for my research was on ambient audio recordings, and embedding them in whatever ways possible (whether that’s mobile, ipod, hypertag, short-wave radio or whatever..!) to enable the listener to tune in to the sounds of another era while looking at a contemporary environment. Obviously there’s a lot of historical tours and commentary and podtours and the like coming out now, and my interest has been to try to decipher what can be made of actuality audio recordings for such purposes. While additional formats were later included in Sidetracks, I remained pretty focused on material that could be uncovered in a very site-specific way.

I also have quite an interest in ‘lost places’, whether demolished buildings or radically transformed environments, and using archives to excavate an area – an archeology of recorded action, rather than surviving artefact – which obviously becomes more potent the more a place has changed. So a lot of the stories are based on those two premises – ambience and disappearance.

I love this quote from Alec Morgan (Hunt Angels, et al) when he says

“It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that the cultural essence of Sydney lies embedded in its architecture. It’s structures, buildings and monuments. I find this method of interpreting the past, this reliance on concrete and real estate, a faulty and unsound foundation upon which to build an understanding of the forces that shape the distinctiveness of the city…I sense that there is another city lying undiscovered beneath these bloated, familiar carcasses and that cultural interpretation by architecture is too impoverished to satisfy a secret desire to connect to something of Sydney’s past that is more elusive, more sensual, than a pile of bricks and mortar.” Alec Morgan (2004)

It’s a quote that marks out the imaginative potentiality of the ‘invisible’ terrain.

Q: I like it that these stories traverse multiple content pools – the ABC, NFSA, SLNSW, PHM, DoS etc. How important is the cross-silo approach to the project? How has it been working with these partners? Have you been able to greatly enrich the stories as a result of these partnerships? And, are there any stories that could not have been told *without* additional content?

SB: The cross-silo, cross-institutional aspect has been very important as a background motivation – eventually I’d hope to see a more site-specific approach to the way archival collections can be accessed, enabling an interested user to navigate the range of resource available on a given location. All possible in the world of geo-tagging, etc. But it’s technology developments like geo-tagging that have motivated this interrogation of the archives: if geo-tagging is now possible, if mobile phones and ipods mean we can take material with us, have it beamed down to us depending on where we are etc – then what kinds of archival material is best suited for such purposes and what stories can be unearthed? This is a focus of my doctoral research called Jaywalking Sydney, and commenced with my research of the National Film and Sound Archives collection in March 2007.

Initially this project going to launch with ABC-only content, which could then be expanded to include other collections. Starting with the ABC’s collection influenced the selection of a number of the points of interest (POIs), which in turn led to questions about what else was a available on these very specific locations. If I’d started with the PHM collection, for example, there’d be a different set of stories, I think. Having said that I was really motivated by the PHM exhibition on Pyrmont and its wonderful anecdotes about the area as a “place of ferny gullies” and the working conditions of the quarries etc! But the Dictionary of Sydney, for example, they have a very different curatorial approach and so obviously the stories that feature there will be very different.

Q: Sidetracks is impressive for its depth – even in its very first iteration. The ABC Archives must hold many hidden gems. What were the difficulties faced in unearthing them? How have you dealt with IP issues?

SB:I’ll start by saying that the ABC Archives were an absolute pleasure to work in and with – in terms of the super-duper people, the systems they have in place, and of course the amazing content. Difficulties included some frustrations around loss of audio for early TV footage (as this stuff gets dubbed over, the original audio has been lost in some instances), some minor cataloguing anomalies and yes, some rights issues.

Working with rights issues for the web is one thing (and that’s big enough) but for mobile its still pretty prohibitive trying to tackle re-purposing existing ABC content on this platform, and as the cross-platform spread still being worked out at the research stage I obviously had to play it pretty safe. The Sydney Stadium for example – a whole slew of infamous gigs there, but I wasn’t able to include this footage. Documentaries were also difficult (due to production components for mobile) and so I mostly had to stay clear of these. For the moment . . .

Q: Sidetracks is also part of your PhD research. Tell me a little bit about the overall PhD.

SB:The overall PhD is basically looking at this intersection between the emergence of situated technologies like 3G mobile phones and geo-spatial technologies on the one hand, and the history of the city on the other. I’m keen to interrogate the claims of enthusiasts such as Adam Greenfield et al that mobile phones can ‘improve the public spaces of the city’ by exploring the layers of public participation, conflict and change that lie beneath the streets – to connect with a longer history of how ‘new’ media technologies have shaped the urban experience.

And so rather than pursuing the opportunities of mobile phones etc for the sake of the mobile phone industry (!) I guess I’m interested in what the added element of site-specificity might add to way people not only interact with each other, but also with places. I’m thinking here of mobile phones as homing devices to discover the history of a place – in this instance, Sydney. And with a title like ‘Jaywalking‘, well, that gives me a bit of licence to get a bit distracted with all kinds of other interesting topics as well . . .

Q: It seems that you’ve sensibly hedged your bets by offering multiplatform delivery. What are your expectations around the uptake of the mobile app over the web version?

SB:History is an unusual area for mobile content – it’s not so mass market or young. I guess there is an expectation that given the extra steps involved in actually getting the app to your phone, it will have lower uptake. The ideal scenario is that you are (probably a tourist) in a location or area and are offered the chance to access some of this material when you’re there. That’s ideal, but the ABC is not quite there yet in terms of distribution options.

The ABC has also deliberately stayed away from GPS at present due to some potential consumer issues around data charges, they are playing it safe there as they don’t want a user being told something is free and then being stung by a $100 data fee. Not good! But that extra precaution also means you can access the mobile content on your mobile phone anywhere – home or at some of the locations featured, for example – which I expect will also limit the experience a bit, in that fewer people may actually travel to the locations to listen or watch the material. It will be interesting to see what the reaction is from listeners.

Q: I’ve noticed that you are inviting UGC. How do you think that this is going to work? Are there any precursors to this sort of hyperlocal storytelling in Sydney?

SB:Not that I know of…But I’m sure they’re out there, perhaps not so focused specifically on archives. It would be great if this UGC component manages to unearth some gems – I’m struck at times at how little there is of some locations or events available in the public sphere, given their prominence. It would be nice to build more freely available collections based on the principles of ‘public authoring’.

Sarah’s blog contains a number of detailed highlights of Sidetracks to get you started.

Go and dive in and check out Sydney Sidetracks.

We’ve also popped a little landing page on the Powerhouse site in case you want to look at the Powerhouse contributions. Many of the images used are from the Tyrrell Collection which you can grab from our contributions to the Commons on Flickr. I’ve created a set on Flickr that features these.