Social media Web metrics

Virtuous circle – from visitor to speaker

This short post is for everyone who naively asks about the “ROI of social media” and whether “websites can be proven to result in museum visitation”.

Two years ago Bob Meade wasn’t a regular visitor to the Museum (despite being directly in one of our “target demographics”) let alone a user of our website.

Then we released a bunch of photographs to the Commons on Flickr. These peaked Bob’s interest and reminded him that the Museum existed in his very own home town. (You can read more about that in an interview with Bob from last year – part one, part two.)

Now he’s speaking at one of our weekend talks!

Bob is blogging the prospective content (and museum favourites) of his talk over at his own blog.

It is important to understand that this wasn’t the result of a (social media) “marketing strategy” – it was the result of making valuable museum content broadly available and then engaging our communities in honest, personal conversations.

If you are in Sydney, then come along and hear him speak on September 6.

Policy Wikis

Help out with direct input into the Australian Government 2.0 Issues Paper

As regular readers know I am on the (Australian) Government 2.0 Taskforce.

We’ve just released an alpha version of our Issues Paper and we’d like you to add your comments and input.

I’m especially interested in input from the web developers and creative nerds, as well as from the government-funded cultural sector – who I’m working to ensure will be explicitly included in the final report.

It doesn’t matter of you are from Australia or not – in fact, I’d really like to get input from those overseas. It is the Internet after all, and a lot of great Government 2.0 thinking is happening all over the world.

We’ve used a great WordPress theme called CommentPress developed by the Future of the Book people. This allows you to add comments to any paragraph of the issues paper. I’ve found that CommentPress is better for tightly time-constrained projects than a wiki and allows for more focussed discussion and commenting.

You can also download the Issue Paper in offline formats.

Powerhouse Museum websites

Make some slime!

Here’s something completely non-digital that you know you really want to do . . . make some slime!

Fortunately one of my team, Kate Lamerton, has been brewing up some amazing slime in the office and she’s popped the recipe up on our children’s website. (Kate is the childrens’ producer in the web team so she gets to make and play with all sorts of cool stuff!)

The team can vouch for its ability to ‘mature’ with age. 4 days old and it is even slimier than day 1!

Digitisation open content

Electronic Swatchbook version 2 – lots more public domain swatches, search by colour


We meant to launch our Electronic Swatchbook v2 last year but it got buried in a slew of server upgrades and other projects.

But here it is, now with nearly 2000 public domain patterns available for you to use and re-use. There are a whole lot of new swatches some dating as far back as 1837. And you can now search by colour.

Electronic Swatchbook initially launched way back in 2005. It was our first experiment with user tagging and also with releasing archival material into the public domain. The first iteration was always meant to expand but other projects got in the way.

Back then Electronic Swatchbook proved to us that, on the whole, you – the public – don’t come in and trash the place if we turn on tagging, and that releasing these materials as public domain gave these swatches new life, a new life that was often attributed back to the Museum (even though attribution wasn’t required). The comfort level that resulted led to the Powerhouse’s current range of online practices and pursuit of broader open access.

It should also be restated that the initial Swatchbook was, in part, a response to the demands of fashion design students to get access to the fragile swatchbooks for inspiration – a process that was time consuming, damaged the objects, and led to them being digitally photographed by lots of students.

Better to do this once and service them all. After all, that’s what digital is good at.

Since then we’ve noticed them appearing in all sorts of re-uses. And that warms the cockles of our hearts – and also provides good evidence of the worth of having the collection in the first place.

Giv Parvaneh (now at the BBC) worked on the original 2005 project when he was at the Powerhouse and again he helped on the rebuild and designed the ‘colour search’ feature. It works by analysing each swatch for a core set of colours – determined by breaking the original into smaller chunks then pulling the most dominant colours from each chunk. A colour hash for each image is stored in the database and this makes for quick cross-collection searching. As we add new swatches to the pot they need a once-only colour analysis.

(The site will be tweaked a bit over the next few weeks – the interface was never properly finished but here it is as a 80% done site – better late than never!)

Collection databases User experience

Will schools use collection content? The Learning Federation Pilot Report

Over the last 12 months the Powerhouse, along with the National Museum of Australia and Museum Victoria, has been involved in supplying collection data to joint pilot project between the Le@rning Federation (TLF) and the Council of Australasian Museum Directors (CAMD) from March 2008 to May 2009

Museums have always had difficulty preparing material to service education audiences and there hasn’t been a great deal of specific work done looking at how schools actually end up using museum materials. Nor has there been an emphasis on developing ways of speeding up the process of delivering collection records to schools in usable formats and (re)written appropriate for classroom integration. Instead, museums have tended to focus on developing separate areas of their websites holding bespoke content made for schools and aligned with State and National curricula – in many ways mirroring the, often divisive, split in museums between curatorial and research areas and ‘education’ areas.

This pilot project looked at changing this. First it trialled programmatic ways of integrating existing collection content into the everyday teaching in school environments and then evaluated the relevance and use of museum collection records in these scenarios.

Each institution selected a bundle of collection records (643 in total – 2300 were initially envisioned) for the trial and then supplied them using the ANZ-LOM schema. These records were quality checked by Learning Federation specialists and then integrated into their Scootle platform where they could be mixed with other learning assets, tagged, shared, remixed and brought into lesson plans.

Schools, teachers and students discovered the objects with an ‘educational value statement’ through the Scootle portal and then could visit the museums’ own records directly (via persistent URLs) for further drilldown. This added a useful layer of contextualisation, discoverability, and syllabus mapping rarely found on the museums’ own websites (and never in collection databases).

Focus groups were then held with schools who were using the materials to look at exactly how museum objects were being used, and more importantly how teachers and students evaluated their usefulness.

The obvious hurdles of Copyright, content suitability, writing style at the museum end, and the teacher training at the schools end were far greater than any of the technical data supply issues.

Tellingly –

Of the 643 digital resources provided to schools as part of the new model of collaboration between TLF and the three museums, 55 digital resources were selected by schools to include in collaborative learning activities. Of this number, six resources were used more than once. (pg40)

. . .

Even though only a limited number of digital resources were available for the Trial, teachers were generally positive about the quality of these materials. While 73 per cent of teachers believed that the museum content was comparable in quality to other TLF resources, 100 per cent believed that it provided important background information and was well described for their purposes. (pg 41)

The report is available as a PDF from the Learning Federation directly (2mb).

Whilst the report is huge, it is important reading for everyone involved in trying to ensure museum content is written and delivered appropriately for the education sector.

Imaging Social media

Digital graffiti or derivative art? Notes on a skeleton

Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentwood chair

A pretty innocuous and humorous image from our Phillips Collection in the Commons on Flickr with a lot of views – nearly 33,000.

A quick mouseover reveals this hodge podge of notes.

Is this graffiti? Should they be removed? Would removal just be ‘feeding the trolls‘?

Are they doing it for the lulz?

Or is this some kind of emergent co-collaborative net-art?

Even the Flickr community isn’t quite sure. Here’s a few comments from the image.

mrsvenerdì says:
what a pity all that notes on it!

LandKat says:
What made people decide to hijack this lovely/hilarious photo with notes? I love the effect, I just wonder how it happened.

Big Lion Head says:
Personally speaking the adding of multiple boxes and notes works marvelously on a number of levels. There’s the level of obvious frivolity and humor which ties in nicely with the original theme of the image itself ie. a bit of a laugh. There’s also a privacy factor in that eventually, the sheer volume of notes/boxes will render the image impossible to see and thus affording the subject a little privacy, dignity and respect because let’s face it, setting up a human skeleton in this way doesn’t exactly display a huge amount of respect for the dead. That is of course unless the ‘sitter’ knew well the ‘placer ‘ and indeed asked for that picture to be set up for him. (Doubtful but possible all the same)
There’s also the fact that the adding of notes is adding to the impact of the image from a contemporary artistic viewpoint. Some of the comments are very thoughtful and left-of-center, the massive volume of opinions somehow gives the image a whole new dimension otherwise forgotten, unseen and unimagined by the original creator. I personally would be ‘chuffed to bits’ if one of my own images took on such vibrant attention. (edited)

Personally I’m happy that this sort of interaction is able to take place on Flickr but doesn’t need to travel with the image everywhere else it goes. It is clearly part of Flickr culture and illustrates why an organisation might expect and tolerate different forms of interactions with their ‘assets’ in different environments.

Interviews User experience

Fictitional narratives & visitor-made labels – The Odditoreum

At the Powerhouse we’ve just launched something called The Odditoreum. An incredibly low-tech “exhibition” with no technology-based interactive experiences and minimal web presence, The Odditoreum feels remarkable for the level of participation it is engendering. Visitors are actively writing their own labels for the objects and even before launch there was a lot of interest when Paula and Erika blogged about seeing some of them in the workshop.

I spoke to Helen Whitty, Public Programs Producer, about the project.

F&N: What is The Odditoreum?

HW: The Odditoreum is a moveable feast whose essential ingredients are a selection of collection objects and a well known author – Shaun Tan. Combined they have made a small exhibition, book, limited edition print and the core of the July school holiday program.

The Museum allocates significant resources to our quarterly school holiday programs and on the whole I think we do great holiday programs and we work hard to maintain the standard regardless of whether that particular holidays are minor or medium size.

The motivation for the theme of the July period came about because the Museum did not have a new temporary exhibition to promote. Nor had we changed much of our permanent exhibitions for children for many years. The specialist facilities of Zoe’s House and The Magic Garden are an exception and had both already been covered in prior holidays.

The Odditoreum’s small exhibition component is 18 ‘odd’ objects that are not currently in storage. Shaun Tan, a celebrated author was invited to write ten of the labels (in fact that’s all he said he had time to write – then wrote eleven). Seven labels were written by young children (from Stanmore Public School) to inspire other visitors to write their own ‘labels’ during the holidays.

The brief for Shaun was to write about 100 words for each object and he could write whatever he liked about each one. I sent him a package with about 20 objects to choose from, each with a photo and extracts from their official documentation file.

He selected those with the most potential to respond to his touch.

F&N: Tell us a little bit about Shaun Tan. Where did you come across Shaun’s work before?

I love children’s books and could barely resist purchasing stacks for my own children. For years I’d been angling to incorporate children’s authors into my programming.

Shaun Tan’s work is a particular family favourite and I thought the imagery in The Lost Thing could have had the Powerhouse in mind. His stories are often simple, elegant and profound – with extraordinary illustrations. I had contacted Shaun a couple of times to work on projects but whilst interested, he was always too busy.

He told me he was attracted by the name (Odditoreum) and ’10×100 word’ labels felt achievable within his busy schedule. The possible material he was sent to work with intrigued him.

Shaun’s writing style can be quite dark as a way of being thought provoking. He told me that happy, or at least fully resolved endings don’t stay with the reader, don’t prompt them to look for alternate scenarios. I like that.

As for the reader – he doesn’t see himself as an author for children necessarily. He describes his audience as:

‘…anyone who is curious, who enjoys strangeness, mystery and oddity, who likes asking questions and using their imagination…[I always ask myself] what are the ways that something can be represented to most effectively invite us to think and ask questions about the world we live in.’

I think he describes the spirit of what we try to do with our work with visitors.

F&N: How were the objects chosen?

At the end of the day the final selection was going to be determined by –

– the available showcases (my initial planning submission referred to ‘within existing infrastructure’ — I love that expression, basically saying ‘its gunna be cheap’ in business plan speak).
– the location and whether it was easily moved (there goes the front window of the passenger jet)
– conservation and display requirements (did I mention cheap?)
– was it intended to be lent out or used in a planned exhibition (unlikely)
– part of a tour for our offsite open storage (yes, the prawn on a bicycle is part of the schools technology offer – sigh)
– sensitivity of donors and/or curators

And ultimately Shaun’s selection.

There were certainly a few of my favourite things in the array.

I don’t claim to know the collection but I have prowled the basement on many occasions for books I’ve authored for the Museum. And not being a curator I wasn’t tied to any particular area (though I do find myself strangely attracted to Z4). I used OPAC. I even circulated an email titled ’31 odd heads are better than one’ to our curators, and sent begging emails to registrars. Many responded.

Suggestions came from carpark conversations, voice messages (“have you seen what’s sitting outside the Transit Room lately?”) and so on. I didn’t actually look in the stores this time, as to be honest I was fitting all this in between too many jobs — but in the end this chaotic series of conversations threw up a lot of interesting stuff.

I gathered up a little selection team (Rebecca, my champion from Exhibition Coordination, Judith, a Casual Assistant and mother of young children (nothing casual about her), Alison (an expert Registrar), Malcolm (our ‘silk purse out of sows ear’ exhibition designer) and we sorted through the piles of images, object numbers and descriptions.

In my head I was looking for things that had some familiarity to a child but looked a bit strange or were made of strange materials. I felt I wanted the selection to come from different collection areas (rather than, say, all clothing) and also from different time periods — so things weren’t odd just because they were old.

I also felt the backstory should be interesting (“oh that’s what it is!”).

The most obvious thing we should have done was to invite children to make the selection. I thought about it but time was slipping away and in retrospect I let go of this idea too easily.

What we all found hilarious was what people thought was odd, and not.

Someone had suggested the barbed wire display which I found a bit odd, but at which a curator commented …’what’s strange about that? Its not even the best collection of barbed wire in Australia’ and I imagined the label could simply read “The second best collection of…”. We didn’t present the barbed wire to Shaun as the Conservators all shuddered, though I think he would have loved it.

And I paused to think about oddness being about lack of familiarity – who know, rural kids may have found the barbed wire too ordinary for words!

In the end things were dropped as they wouldn’t fit or they just got left behind. I miss Lucky Starr’s star shaped guitar as I would have liked a musical instrument

Maybe there’s a bit of ‘curator’ in us all.

And even then some peculiar things arose after the final choice was made.

Sue Gatenby writes “A slide collection of unusual microscopic specimens were selected for display in the Odditoreum exhibition. Amongst this collection was a microscope slide containing a blood smear from an Anthrax patient from the 1890’s. This slide was assessed for its risk. Several specialists were contacted including Dr. Andrew Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Molecular Microbial Ecology at the University of Sydney and the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) – transport of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). The risk assessment and management, including the storage and handling guidelines. It was determined that the Occupational Health & Safety risk was low and with the recommended storage and handling guidelines the slide can remain in the collection.”

F&N: How did Shaun approach the labels?

When I first approached him I sent him about 6 images to whet his appetite and with out me asking he sent back labels for the prawn on the bicycle; the shirt from Cameroon covered in human hair and the giant model of the garden pea. I think these objects caught his eye or in the case of the shirt it just sounded weird.

He was interested in the official file information I sent him and the back story did inform his writing. He was less interested in the objects that were made by an artist or designer. He argued that these already had the overlay of an interpretation which he would need to break through. So he didn’t do the Encyclopaedia of Dresses or the Vivienne Westwood shoes.

The exception was the Liquorice Allsorts Shoe (a parade bicycle made for the Sydney Olympic Games Opening Ceremony). In Victoria they still use Guard Dog Collection boxes. Shaun often throws change into the one at his local shop and Somehow the two images folded together into this combinatory label text:

Guide dog testing device number 6

This enormous liquorice all-sorts shoe is one of several outlandish objects used to test young guide dogs for their susceptibility to distraction while on duty. A tricycle inside the shoe allows a rider to manoeuvre this colourful vehicle while prospective guide dogs are put through their paces. The shoe appears at the moment an important task needs to be performed, such as crossing a road, laying quietly in a restaurant, or entering a lift. Dogs are then assessed on their ability to maintain composure and focus, thus preparing them for the challenges of the real world.

Other ‘canine distracters’ commonly used by training staff include a Volkswagen covered in sausages, an ice-cream van that spills colourful rubber balls, and a litter of kittens riding on a miniature steam train.

Shaun wrote them up and Judith Matheson (Editorial and Publishing — “all authors are edited Helen. I’ll only do a light edit…”) did indeed tidy them up expertly for their final label.

The actual format of the label was chewed over as they were to be larger and we did think about appropriate reading fonts for children and included a picture of the object. Christina Fedrigo was the Graphic Designer across all media and had a wonderful feel for the spirit of the project.

F&N: The exhibition is very frugal – it uses an otherwise vacant gallery, and there is a lot of ‘space’. Tell me about this. How cost effective was it?

The Odditoreum did not start out as an exhibition. It was put up as a public program with a small display for school holidays. Being a public program it was more or less in my control and budget. In the past (though this is changing) public programs were not subject to the same level of scrutiny as an ‘exhibition’.

Exhibitions are on longer – they are more expensive, they have donors and sponsors and layers of stated and assumed reciprocal arrangements and protocols that can make them the jewels that they are.

But I also feel they are seen as more significant or of a higher order than their “frivolous cousins” – that is public programs who are mostly doing stuff for families.

I felt I could pull off a program for July whilst an exhibition would need to be scheduled and polished and is so doing quite possibly might disappear. In the end the Project Submission which proposed a gamut of outcomes was enthusiastically approved and supported to a level not previously experienced.

The display of objects was intended to sit within a fairground space in a highly trafficked area of the Museum. It was a decision of the Executive later to move it into a gallery and that is about when I stopped calling it a display.

It took on the persona of a small exhibition which cost about AU$7000 (excluding staff time).

I was nervous when it was decided to move it from a programming area into a gallery as I felt it would need additional funds for an ‘entry experience’ and I wasn’t sure how the objects would sit in another context and whether the ‘existing infrastructure’ would really just ‘look cheap’.

But on the other hand it has been great to run the experiment – which isn’t over yet, it is only just beginning – and so far it ‘reads’ like an incredibly cost effective exhibition.

F&N: I imagine that this is quite a radical shake up of a traditional exhibition – although I understand non-museum types ‘get it’ pretty much straight away. Were there conflicts over objects between the public programs team and curatorial?

Initially I heard that there was concern from some curatorial quarters about this approach, but none directly to me. As curatorial staff apply focused attention to these matters and indeed caretake the collection they were concerned that the proper checks and information wouldn’t be included into the process. I also think that sometimes the ‘caretaker role’ of curators sometimes drifts into an ‘owner role’ (if only unconsciously).

The Cameroon Hair Shirt was put forward indirectly as a potentially problematic object as it may have had spiritual, if not ceremonial, associations for some communities. We simply didn’t know.

My view on this was that we should put any ‘odd’ objects forward without this sort of censorship (the exception being secret sacred objects that we would not be putting on display anyway). The shirt had already been on show. So I decided to try and censor the choices as little as possible. And I had faith in Shaun Tan.

Whilst his labels would be quirky at a deeper level they would still be respectful.

But these concerns did not really eventuate into even a formal conversation, as I think this new method, if you like, was digested.

Directly curators have been extremely positive and curatorial involvement has been to suggest objects and then to check if my ‘real’ object description was correct.

F&N: How did curators and others in the museum respond to the ‘fictional’ labels? How long did it take for them to get on board?

I wanted children and families to be curious enough about the objects to want to find out what they were and demand to know — wouldn’t that be great! But I didn’t want the fantasy label immediately next to the real information, thus spoiling the approach (‘really you thought we were going to fun but really its business as usual’).

We can be so didactic in our approach to the extent that we overstate the obvious, for example directions that say “Look around the exhibition to find out more”.

The Curators and Editorial did want the real information nearby and it was starting to surface as a point of conflict. But after interviewing Shaun and showing children I realised that part of the joke (if you like) was knowing what they really were. At the end we put this info in another format nearby (not on top of) and written in a very child-friendly style.

F&N: How has the public responded? When I visited the entire ‘make your own label’ wall was full!
The public response is amazing. I think we have really tapped into something with this approach.

All ages are writing.

It is clear from their own labels that they are reading all the information and thinking about it. It is as though we have put out the invitation in such a way that they want to respond.

Here is one of the (edited) labels about Object 17431–1, a ball of puree, purchased in 1887, from the children at Stanmore Public School. I think this also gave everyone confidence to write.

Elephant Wee

Elephant’s wee

This lovely little ball is a great treat for all to eat. Made out of pure elephant wee, it is a luxury and only served at the finest of places. It was discovered in Africa in an elephant café when an elephant peed in a glass and another elephant drank and said it was good! So the elephant chef figured out how to make it into a great treat!

It then made its way to humankind and I guess some one drank it and liked it and sold it to the museum where it is now. If you want to try it, eat it now at your closest elephant restaurant shop.

Augustine, aged 9
Stanmore Primary School

F&N: This reaction doesn’t seem to ‘just be kids’ – despite this being clearly identified as a ‘for kids’. Do you think that this sort of ‘fictional’ museum can scale? Could you have an entire museum created as an ‘experience’ in this way?

That’s a good question and I’m not quite sure at this stage.

I think putting something different in makes you relook at it all. By considering what’s odd you consider what is ‘normal’ if you like. It is the juxtaposition of approaches that is effective.

Possibly because it is in a ‘kids exhibition’ it gives permission and confidence for adults to write. Or perhaps Shaun’s own ethos about who he writes for is coming back as who is responding to it;

‘…anyone who is curious, who enjoys strangeness, mystery and oddity, who likes asking questions and using their imagination’

Thanks to Helen Whitty for the interview and Paula Bray for the photographs.

If you are in Sydney, pop in and see the Odditoreum and tell us what you think!

Geotagging & mapping Mobile

Maps are all around us

I was reading Michael Chabon’s piece on childhood last week and one section popped out of the screen –

It captured perfectly the mental maps of their worlds that children endlessly revise and refine. Childhood is a branch of cartography.

Walking my daughter to school we tiptoe “past the wizard’s house” at the top of my street – a rather rundown old building full of props and what, to small people, appears very much like magic equipment. A little further up the road is where the “scary man” sleeps rough. This got me thinking about the possibilities for children’s maps of their neighbourhoods overlaid on ‘official maps’.

So how might this work? Could this work as a game? Well, it also provides an excuse for a stream of consciousness post about a few of my favourite map-related projects.

Since I saw it at MW2009 I’ve been a huge fan of the New York Public Library’s Map Rectifier project. Here historical maps are being ‘rectified’ so that they can be searched, and navigated using contemporary online mapping tools. (The current rectifier uses Open Street Map). This is an incredibly thoughtful way of ‘digitising a collection’ – where the digital copy opens the object up to new uses. I’m looking forward to future projects that emerge from this work and peeling back the layers of historical sediment as maps are laid on top of each other by year.

New maps of the city are being created all the time and here’s a new Nintendo DS game called Treasure World (article) that utilises the environment around the player – the mutlitude of WiFi points around a coty to be precise – as a key element in the game. Players collect in-game content as they explore the city’s WiFi points around them. This is almost invisible ‘augmented reality’ gaming – and I’d wager that many players won’t comprehend that the city around them is the game itself (indeed, the point is that they don’t need to).

Similarly revealing of the digital sediment around us, Flickr’s mobile ‘near me‘ (open on your iPhone) brings to the mass market mobile web what the iPhone application Darkslide (formerly Exposure) had as an ‘extra feature’. With Near Me the mobile Flickr website now can make a call to your location and then return other people’s photos ‘near you’. This creates an uncanny experience of being able to – in place – view the world through the eyes of those who have been there previously. Or, ‘near my home’, it shows me the rather debauched parties that happen in some of my neighbours’ houses (perhaps that’s just my neighbourhood!).

Conversely I’ve been fascinated by a number of art projects that reveal the parts of the world still unmapped by photosharing websites – “the no-go zones of the technorati”.

There’s sonic maps emerging too – the BBC’s Save Our Sounds – and the University of Salford’s Sound Around You have both been in the news recently, and Audio Boo has been around since the beginning of the year too.

One of my friends and sound artist, Richard Fox, has just launched a new augmented reality game in Sydney based on the razor gangs of the early 20th century in Darlinghurst. Called Razorhurst, and adapted from a historical book, Razor, it uses GPS-enabled PDAs (running Windows Mobile and built with MScape) to recreate the period. It runs to the end of July (sponsored by dLux Media Arts) and you can collect your PDA for the game from the East Village Hotel – the significance of which is crucial to the story.

Mscape has been around for a little while to author these sorts of games, and the historical assets are starting to become a little more widely available. It is a pretty easy authoring environment even if it is the equivalent of the CD ROM age – only playable on some devices, closed system etc.

Someone – yes, you dear reader – should probably go and build a Mscape game out of the geotagged content in the Flickr Commons – I would if I had 100 hours.

Of course, there’s another reason why I’ve been really interested in maps but I’ll tell you about that in a week or two . . .