Museums on the Web UK 2007 was held at the slightly rainy and chilly summer venue of the University of Leciester. Organised by the 24 Hour Museum and Dr Ross Parry with the Museums Computer Group the event was attended by about 100 museum web techies, content creators and policy makers.
As a one day conference (preceded by a day long ‘museum mashup’ workshop) it was very affordable, fun and entertaining (yes, in the lobby they had a demo of one of those new Phillips 3D televisions . . . disconcerting and very strange).
Here’s an overview of the day’s proceedings (warning: long . . . you may wish to print this or save to your new iPhone)
The conference opened with Michael Twidale and myself presenting the two conference keynote addresses. I presented a rather ‘sugar-rush, no-holds barred view from the colonies’ of why museums should be thinking about their social tagging strategies. (I’ll probably post my slides a little later). I had been quite stressed about the presentation coming off very little sleep and a long flight from Ottawa to London the night before. But I’ve been talking about these and related topics almost non-stop for the past two weeks so it was actually a good feeling to get it done right at the beginning.
After my presentation Michael Twidale from the University of Illinois reprised the joint presentation about museums making tentative steps into SecondLife that his colleague and co-author Richard Urban had presented at MW07 in San Francisco. Michael (like Richard before) certainly peaked the interest of some in the room who I had the feeling had barely thought about Second Life before – although I notice that the extremely minimally staffed Design Museum in London has just been doing an architecture event and competition in Second Life (see Stephen Doesinger’s ‘Bastard Spaces’).
Mike Ellis from the Science Museum followed the tea break with a presentation that looked at the outcomes of letting a small group of museum web nerds loose for a day without the pressures of a corporate inbox. Using a variety of public feeds the outcomes of such a short period of open-ended collaborative R&D were quite amazing. In many ways Mike’s presentation ended up challenging the audience to think about new ways of injecting innovation and R&D into their museum’s web practices. Amongst the mashups were a quick implementation of the MIT Simile Timeline for an existing project at the Cambridge University Museum tracking dates; a GoogleMaps mashup of all known museum locations and websites in the UK (something that revealed that current RSS feeds of this data are missing the crucial UK postcode information); a date cleaning API to allow cross-organisational date comparison built by Dan Z from Box UK; and an exciting mashup using Spinvox‘s voice to text service to allow museum visitors to call a phone number and be SMSed back information about locations, services or objects.
These were all really exciting prototypes that had come out of a very small amount of collaborative R&D time – something every museum web team should have. Apart from this a couple of problems facing museum mashups were revealed – stability issues and reliance on other people’s data – but as Mike pointed out how does this really compare to the actual stability of your existing services?
Nick Poole from MDA presented Naomi Korn’s slides on rights issues (moral, ethical and Copyright) involving museums implementing Web 2.0 applications. Nick presentation was excellent and had two main points to make. The first being that the museum sector is already going the way of increased audience focus and interaction in real world policy and has been for at least the past decade so why should the web be any different? Further that the recent political climate in which museums in teh UK exist has focussed on the cultural sector being a lead in enhancing social cohesion and the sharing of cultural capital. Secondly, Nick emphasised that as museums “we have a social responsibility to the population to exploit any and all methodologies which makes it easier for them to engage with and learn from their (cultural) property”, concluding that despite the potential legal issues, Web 2.0 offers a “set of mechanisms by which we can enhance accountability and effectiveness in a public service industry”. Excellent stuff.
Alex Whitfield from the British Library then presented an interesting look at an albeit extreme example of the tensions with implementing Web 2.0 technologies with certain exhibition content. Alex demonstrated some of the website for the Sacred exhibiton which shows some the key religious manuscripts from the faiths – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The online exhibition shows 66 of 152 texts and includes a GoogleMaps interface, expert blogs, podcasts and some nice Flash interactives (yes, I did ask why Flash? apparently because it was a technology choice encouraged by the IT team). Alex then proceeded to look at a few examples of where tagging and digital reproduction can cause community offence or at the very least controversy, before closing referencing from Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ where Sontag claims that there is a reduction of ‘the subject’. (see an interview with Sontag where she explains this concept). Alex’s example was certainly provocative and reminded me, again, that the static web and the participatory web both carry their own particular set of implicit politics (individualistic, pro-globalisation, and pro-democracy although to differing depths of democracy).
After a light lunch Frances Lloyd-Baynes from the V&A gave an overview of some of the work they have been doing and some of the challenges ahead. She reported that the V&A has 28% of their collection online but that the figure reduces to 3% once bibliographic content is excluded. Of course they have been working on other ‘collections’ – those held by the community – for quite a while as evidenced by their Every Object Tells A Story and the new Families Online project.
She also mentioned the influence of the MDA’s ‘Revisiting Collections‘ methodology which focuses on making a concerted effort to engage audiences and bring user/public experiences to museum collections content. This and other concepts have become a key part of the V&A’s strategic policy.
Fellow Australian, now ex-pat who works as a database developer at the Museum of London, Mia Ridge, gave a practical overview of how Web2.0 can be implemented in museums. She covered topics like participation inequality, RSS and mashups, and the need to be transparent with acceptable use and moderation policies. it was a very practical set of recommendations.
Paul Shabajee from HP Labs then gave a very cerebral presentation on the design of the “digital content exchange protoype” for the Singapore education sector. The DCX allows for the combination of multiple data and metadata spread across multiple locations and sources, as well as faceted browsing and searches for teachers and students allowing for dynamic filtering by type, curriculum subject area, format, education level, availability, text search, etc. It was a great example of the potential of the Semantic Web. He then went on to explain the CEMS thesaurus model of curriculum and the taxonomies of collection, and how actual users wanted to do things in a more complex way such as finding topic for a class then find real world events and map them against topics. And because everything had been semantically connected, building new views in line with user needs did not mean massive re-coding. More information ont eh project can be gleaned from Shabajee’s publications.
Then after some very tasty micro-tarts (chocolate and raspberry, of which I must have partaken in five or six . . ), we moved on to the closing session from Brian Kelly of UKOLN. Brian is a great presenter although his slides always seem so lo-fi because of his typographic choices. Brian managed to make web accessibility for Web 2.0 are compelling topic and his passion for reforming the way we generally approach is ‘accessibility’ is infectious.
Brian is a firm believer that ‘accessibility is not about control. rules, universal solutions, and an IT problem’. Instead he asks what does accessibility really mean for your users? And rather cheekily ‘how can you make surrealist art accessible’? Accessibility, for Brian, is about empowering people, contextual solutions, wideing participation, blended solutions, all the things that Nick Poole and Frances Lloyd-Baynes (and the rest of us) were pushing for earlier in the day.
Brian has come up with a model of approaching accessibility that uses as a metaphor the tangram puzzle (for which there is no single ‘correct’ solution) rather than a jigsaw. He advised that we should focus on content accessibility because a mechanistic approach doesn’t work. How do you make an e-learning resource 3d model? It is just not possible and instead we should be focussing on making the learning objectives/outcomes accessible instead. If we see things in this way then there is no technical barrier for doing museum in projects in say, Second Life, citing the reasons that it isn’t ‘accessible’ by some disabled users, but that we should focus on providing alternatives as well that achieve or demonstrate similar outcomes for other users. Michael Twidale also provided the example of the paralysed Second Life user who can, in his virtual world, fly when in the real world he cannot walk.
Brian closed by advising that at a policy level we should be saying things like “museum services will seek to engage its auidences, attract new and diverse audiences. The museum will take reasonable steps to maximise access to its services”. By applying principles of accessible access across the whole portfolio of what the museum offers (real and virtual) we can still implement experimental services rather than using accessibility as a preventative tool. After all, as he points out the BBC has a portfolio of services for impaired users rather than ensuring access on every service.