API Collection databases

More on museum datasets, un-comprehensive-ness, data mining

(Another short response post)

Thus far we’ve not had much luck with museum datasets.

Sure, some of us have made our own internal lives easier by developing APIs for our collection datasets, or generated some good PR by releasing them without restrictions. In a few cases enthusiasts have made mobile apps for us, or made some quirky web mashups. These are fine and good.

But the truth is that our data sucks. And by ‘our’ I mean the whole sector.

Earlier in the year when Cooper-Hewitt released their collection data on Github under a Creative Commons Zero license, we were the first in the Smithsonian family to do so. But as PhD researcher Mia Ridge found after spending a week in our offices trying to wrangle it, the data itself was not very good.

As I said at the time of release,

Philosophically, too, the public release of collection metadata asserts, clearly, that such metadata is the raw material on which interpretation through exhibitions, catalogues, public programmes, and experiences are built. On its own, unrefined, it is of minimal ‘value’ except as a tool for discovery. It also helps remind us that collection metadata is not the collection itself.

One of the reasons for releasing the metadata was simply to get past the idea that it was somehow magically ‘valuable’ in its own right. Curators and researchers know this already – they’d never ‘just rely on metadata’, they always insist on ‘seeing the real thing’.

Last week Jasper Visser pointed to one of the recent SIGGRAPH 2012 presentations which had developed an algorithm to look at similarities in millions of Google Street View images to determine ‘what architectural elements of a city made it unique’. I and many others (see Suse Cairns) loved the idea and immediately started to think about how this might work with museum collections – surely something must be hidden amongst those enormous collections that might be revealed with mass digitisation and documentation?

I was interested a little more than most because one of our curators at Cooper-Hewitt had just blogged about a piece of balcony grille in the collection from Paris. In the blogpost the curator wrote about the grille but, as one commenter quickly pointed out, didn’t provide a photo of the piece in its original location. Funnily enough, a quick Google search for the street address in Paris from which the grille had been obtained quickly revealed not only Google Street View of the building but also a number of photos on Flickr of the building specifically discussing the same architectural features that our curator had written about. Whilst Cooper-Hewitt had the ‘object’ and the ‘metadata’, the ‘amateur web’ held all the most interesting context (and discussion).

So then I began thinking about the possibilities for matching all the architectural features from our collections to those in the Google Street View corpus . . .

But the problem with museum collections is that they aren’t comprehensive – even if their data quality was better and everything was digitised.

As far as ‘memory institutions’ go, they are certainly no match for library holdings or archival collections. Museums don’t try to be comprehensive, and at least historically they haven’t been able to even consider being so. Or, as I’ve remarked before, it is telling that the memory institution that ‘acquired’ the Twitter archive was the Library of Congress and not a social history museum.

User behaviour User experience

On ‘farewellers’ and exit marketing

So ridiculously busy right now that there is little time to blog. But stay tuned for some cool stuff over at the Labs shortly.

But here’s a the first of a few quick thoughts on some topics bouncing around the blogosphere.

This week Nina Simon wrote about her ideas of having a staff of ‘goodbyers’ instead of ‘greeters’ in order to better build continuing engagement with visitors. She writes –

We realized from this discussion that we have a huge missed opportunity when people are leaving the museum. On their way in, they are excited, curious, ready to engage. They are not ready to hear about membership or take a newsletter about what’s coming up next time. They bolt right past those tables to the “good stuff.” But at the end, they’ve had a great time, and they want a takeaway from the experience. They WANT to join the email list. If we’re smart, we should be developing a takeaway that both memorializes the visit and leads them to another. In other words, we should be giving them a string for their new pearl.

This reminded me a lot of the efforts we’d go to back in the early 90s putting on all night parties. Before this was a task given to ‘street teams’ (no one had commercialised enough to hire people to do the least exciting tasks), you’d take a stack of flyers to parties at the very end of the night just as the dawn anthems were blasting through the bassbins and start giving them out as people exited. Others would go and plaster the windscreens of parked cars to similar effect. No one would ever give out flyers early on in the party – they’d get forgotten, sweaty, destroyed, or just ‘repurposed’. It was all about ‘exit marketing’ – and it was an important part of building bonds within the subculture. Flyers for the next month’s worth of warehouse parties made for a strong encouragement to ‘stay involved’ – especially as most people would be returning to their ‘ordinary lives’ during the week, saving their living for the weekends. It gave newcomers a sense that this wasn’t just a fleeting ‘temporary autonomous zone‘ but something they could regularly return to, and for the hardcore flyers and their effective distribution became core ‘subcultural media’. I’d argue that they were more effective than the more scattergun street press advertising, and definitely more successful than ‘record shop drops’.

Now museums rarely ignite the sort of passion that subcultures do. Perhaps they should, but that’s unlikely to happen given the age demographics. But there’s plenty to be had in Nina’s idea – the farewelling experience is likely to be the only opportunity to remind visitors that museum visits need not be a ‘one-off occurrence’ or a ‘once a year’ activity, but an essential part of their cultural calendars.

And of course, ‘farewelling’ behaviours are exactly the sort of things that you’d be hoping the staff in your ‘well placed gift shop‘ are doing as just good business.