Museum blogging

Six weeks in and Cooper-Hewitt Labs launches

The last six weeks have been a bit of a blur – settling into a new city, a new job, trying to find proper coffee nearby (still unsuccessful!). As you do in a new job, my first weeks have been spent looking at the lie of the land and analysing the data available about the land itself (and configuring better data collection tools if the data you have isn’t suitably illuminating).

The Cooper-Hewitt has just closed its last exhibition for a little while and the focus is firmly on the museum’s re-building and getting all the back of house digital infrastructure up to date and in order.

The question that underpins most of what comes after that is clearly – “how can a museum make the most of online and digital operations when its buildings are closed?”.

So . . .

Today we launched a new blog over at the Cooper-Hewitt – Cooper-Hewitt Labs. This one focusses on the work my team is doing – and the challenges that lie ahead. Being the Labs, we’re going to be undertaking a range of experiments that we’re going to need your help with, as well as offering some opportunities to intern with us (hint! hint!).

Go check out the Cooper-Hewitt Labs. (And don’t forget to leave a little offering for the tanuki while you are there.)

(awesome animated gif by Fealoki!)

API Collection databases Developer tools Museum blogging Tools

Powerhouse Museum collection WordPress plugin goes live!

Today the first public beta of our WordPress collection plugin was released into the wild.

With it and a free API key anyone can now embed customised collection objects in grids in their WordPress blog. Object grids can be placed in posts and pages, or even as a sidebar widget – and each grid can have different display parameters and contents. It even has a nice friendly backend for customising, and because we’re hosting it through WordPress, when new features are added it will be able to be auto-upgraded through your blog’s control panel!

Here it is in action.

So, if you have a WordPress blog and feel like embedding some objects, download it, read the online documentation, and go for it.

(Update 22/1/11: I’ve added a new post explaining the backstory and rationale for those who are interested)

General Museum blogging

Fresh & New(er) is 5 years old!

Fresh & New(er) has just turned 5!

This blog started back in May 2005 as a storehouse of all the links and commentary that the Powerhouse web team of the time used to send around via email. It wasn’t until one of the posts got picked up and commented on by some enthusiastic educators that it became properly ‘public facing’. It was the first Powerhouse blog which was followed in 2006 by the Sydney Observatory blog.

Now, 5 years on, Fresh & New(er) is one of the top ten most popular parts of the Powerhouse Museum website attracting a wide global audience.

I had a look at some of the early posts and it seems that even back then we were concerning ourselves with mobiles, Copyright, open licensing and new models of interactivity.

Some things never change.

I wonder where we will be in 5 years time (and, more importantly, where we hid the party bags!).

Museum blogging

The Powerhouse Museum library now blogs

Another thing I’ve neglected to mention is that our Research Library now has a blog. They are the fourth internal unit to blog publicly about their day to day work (joining our Image Services and Photography team, Conservation team, and of course the Digital group – which you are reading now).

The Library is home to a great collection of books and journals with a particular speciality in design all of which can be browsed in a ‘research visit’. Other libraries can make an inter-library loan request.

The Library is a bit of a hidden treasure known primarily to researchers, although we do a brisk trade for design students doing courses at the nearby UTS. The blog is intended to document some of the results of the ‘specialist research services’ our reference librarians undertake. This research is often fascinating and has, until now, been locked away in monthly reports and the like.

Now we hope some of the great discoveries and interesting people – filmmakers, designers, writers – who ask our library to undertake research for them, will be revealed to the public.

Enjoy another side to the Museum’s research work and services.

Museum blogging

Sydney Observatory as ‘one of the best 15 business blogs in Australia’

The Sydney Observatory blog has been listed by Smart Company magazine as one of the ‘best 15 business blogs in Australia‘.

It is great, if a little odd, to see the Observatory – a non-profit – listed in amongst blogs that are overtly commercial in orientation.

I did a few calculations and worked out that in the last two years, Nick Lomb the Curator of Astronomy, one of the two main bloggers behind the Observatory blog has written 100,000 words in his blog posts. Now that’s the equivalent of an (Australian) PhD thesis!

If you’d like a glimpse behind the scenes, I interviewed Nick a little while back about the success of the blog and the amount of time it takes him to write all those words.

Museum blogging

A new look Fresh & New

I’ve taken the plunge and upgraded WordPress and at the same time changed themes, upgraded plugins etc. And, bar a few fiddly errors, it went pretty smoothly. One word of advice for others lagging on really old versions of WordPress – take the time to upgrade version numbers one at a time (major stable version by version) rather than jumping straight to the latest – it saves a lot of pain.

I hope the new look makes posts a little more readable and navigable.

A number of readers who have been lumbered with SOEs (standard operating environment) that still insisted on an outdated version of Internet Explorer were complaining that the last redesign left them unable to read all the comments on longer posts should now be happy too.

Museum blogging Social networking

Beth Kanter at the Powerhouse

We were very lucky to have non-profit and NGO social media trainer Beth Kanter drop by to run a whirlwind seminar for us on Friday. Beth lives social media and technology. My team’s first words with her were captured and streamed live to the web on her Nokia N95 phone via – even us technophiles were surprised by her gadgets! I had never met Beth in person myself before Friday although we’d exchanged ideas and methodologies over the past few years; most recently for a piece on ‘Effective social networking‘ over at Techsoup.

Lynda Kelly from the Australian Museum took copious notes and blogged during Beth’s 2 hour micro-workshop – which was held with a mix of Powerhouse staff and those from other arts agencies. Lynda’s notes capture the overall flow of the workshop and covers the main points that were discussed – it should be noted that the focus of the workshop was on social media in marketing and fundraising for non-profits.

In her work Beth emphasises the value of the network of people with whom she is loosely and electronically connected. She places a lot of trust in that network – a trust that has paid back many times over – as her fundraising is a testament to. Her blog is her diary of her explorations, trials and discoveries and as such provides a very accessible entry point to everything from video blogging to NGO web strategy.

Many of the strategies Beth outlines are applicable within the museum and cultural sector – especially amongst those developing next generation marketing strategies.

Interviews Museum blogging

Rich collection-oriented curator blogging – an interview with the Australian War Memorial

In the Australian cultural sector, one of the best examples of curatorial blogging is at the Australian War Memorial. In a few short years they have created a lot of blog content and blogging has provided a much more efficient way of creating engaging content for exhibitions than standalone resource-hungry web microsites.

Museum blogging MW2008 Policy Social networking Web 2.0

Updating your social media and staff blog policies

At Musuems and the Web 2008 in the Planning Social Media workshop I briefly talked about the need for organisations to engage with, rather than ignore, the reality that their staff are using social media – even if not in their professional lives, and that this can cause occasional issues.

One year ago we launched our blogging policy at the Museum. This was to cover the behaviour of staff on the offical Museum blogs as well as outline the approval processes for other blog activities. Already we are finding that it is in need of an update. As they say, one year is a long time on ‘teh internets’.

Not surprisingly we are not alone in this. There have been plenty of corporate blogging policies made available publicly however the best fit, in my opinion, are the recently updated policies of the BBC which now extend into covering social network participation and more.

The BBC’s new policy for its staff on using social networking services like Facebook, writing and commenting on blogs, contributing to wikis including Wikipedia, are all covered in detail. The over-riding principle in the BBC policy is one of ‘awareness’ rather than censorship. The BBC realises that their journalists and staff are enriched by participating in robust community debate (more and more of which now occurs online), and also, that to attract younger generation staff (who are growing up with the expectation of participation in online communities), they need to be proactive.

So the BBC encourages awareness amongst staff that their private comments and opinions need to be kept in check and balanced if they are identifying or associating themselves in any of these public forums as BBC staffers or journalists.

The Internet provides a number of benefits in which BBC staff may wish to participate. From rediscovering old school friends on Facebook or Friends Reunited or helping to maintain open access online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.

However, when someone clearly identifies their association with the BBC and/or discusses their work, they are expected to behave appropriately when on the Internet, and in ways that are consistent with the BBC’s editorial values and policies.


The intention of this note is not to stop BBC staff from conducting legitimate activities on the Internet, but serves to flag-up those areas in which conflicts can arise.

For those agencies considering introducing policies I would also recommend the fantastic work of Jason Ryan from the NZ Network of Public Sector Communicators. Jason has been at the forefront of developing and implementing sensible and realistic strategies for social media within government.

Interviews Museum blogging Powerhouse Museum websites

Sydney Observatory blog – lessons from the first 2 years, an interview with Nick Lomb

The Sydney Observatory blog will turn 2 in June. It has been an enormous success for the Observatory with its traffic now accounting for at least half of all traffic to the Observatory website each months. Since its launch there have been 291 posts to date and 1073 filtered comments.

The Sydney Observatory blog is one of the quiet success stories of museum blogging and ‘easy’ social media. The Observatory itself is an important heritage site in Sydney and is run by a small dedicated team of staff. Whilst the public can visit small exhibition spaces during the daytime the Observatory is best known as a historic building and a place for star gazing. Night visits are extremely limited in capacity because of the size of telescope dome, and the static Sydney Observatory website was established almost solely to promote through-the-door visitation.

The blog was started as a strategy to expand the Observatory’s online content and to expand its potential audience. We knew that there was a large online audience for astronomy and that the Observatory staff were extremely knowledgeable, well-connected and able to produce some fantastic astronomical content tailored for a southern hemisphere and Sydney audience – but they lacked a quick publication method to do this efficiently.

To celebrate the upcoming anniversary I spoke to Nick Lomb, Curator, Astronomy, who is one of the two bloggers who post to the Observatory blog. Nick has written 209 posts so far.

The blog has been an enormous success. How much time do you allocate to blogging each week? How has this impacted on your other work?

Nick: A post takes me between 20 minutes and one hour to put up. It all depends whether I am preparing it from scratch or it is material I already prepared for another person. It could also be material from someone else such as an amateur, but sometimes editing material from someone else takes longer than writing my own. This is especially the case when I have to work on images that have been embedded inside a Word file and need to be extracted or if four or more images have been put into one and I need to untangle them before posting.

The time spent on the blog does mean I need work extra hours to be able to complete my other work. However, I find that I get more satisfaction on having put up a well laid out and informative post than almost anything else I do.

How do you choose what to blog about? What impact, if any, has there been on content choices as a result of questions from the readers of the blog?

Nick: I am an astronomy educator so I my posts tend to contain worthwhile astronomical information. At the same time I do not want to repeat news items, but want to provide information that people generally would not come across elsewhere. For example, if there is an event in the sky such as an eclipse or a conjunction of a couple of planets I would write about that from a southern hemisphere perspective. It is important as our [local] news media often quote reports from the United States or Europe without noting that the view from our part of the world can be very different.

Other posts can be triggered by a question from a member of the public. If a question is of interest to one person then it could also be of interest to others. Recently, I had a long email discussion with someone about dark matter and, after obtaining approval from my correspondent, the discussion went on the blog. Still other posts are related to what I see on the rare occasions I have the opportunity to travel. And, of course, it always helps if I have a suitable image in my own collection to illustrate a post and I enjoy being able to reuse my own photos in this way.

How have you engaged amateur groups in the blog? WHat has been the response from the amateur groups and particular individuals like Monty?

Nick: There is an amateur group long associated with the Observatory called the Sydney City Skywatchers. A few members of the group not only make excellent and useful observations, but are happy to tell people about what they do. Occasionally, others have sent me their work from other groups such as the Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group and even from the Irish Astronomical Society. I encourage these amateurs to send me their reports to put on the blog as it not only provides a useful outlet for their work, but it shows others what useful and fascinating work can be done as an amateur astronomer.

You have added a ‘Report your sightings’ section. What is this for? Why did you do it? Have you found that conversations emerge between readers/contributors?

Nick: Sydney Observatory often gets reports of meteors or other strange lights in the sky. In the past these were often written down on scraps of paper and lost. I did prepare report sheets placed in a folder so that my colleagues could keep all reports in the one place. That worked well though sometimes the folder went AWOL and then for a while the reports went unrecorded. The idea was for us to keep the reports so that if there were many reports for a particular bright fireball then they would be sent to an interested astronomer who could use them to work out the path of the object and the possible location a remnant may have fallen.

The ‘Report your sightings’ page does the same as the folder and the report sheets. Except, of course, it does not go missing and the media and other astronomers can look at the page to check the sightings of any event.

Many of the events relate to sightings that are clearly not astronomical. A common one is the sighting of small backlit clouds or aeroplane vapour trails in the west at sunset. People are often disappointed and hard to convince when I explain that that their sighting is not of something unique. A recent amusing one was the case of someone who observed two bright lights in the sky very close together and claimed that they were moving all over the sky. I commented that two planets were in fact very close together in the sky that morning and were slowly rising in the east, but otherwise they were still. The original correspondent was unconvinced.

There are sometimes comments and support for particular sightings from other readers. Generally, however, people expected an authoritative reply and explanation [which the Observatory is more than happy to give].

Do you read all the comments? How do you choose what to respond to? Roughly what proportion have you had to remove because they have innapropriate (except for spam of course!)?

Nick: I do read all comments and respond where I can say something useful. For instance, I respond to comments on the ‘Report your sightings’ page if I can explain what people saw – it could have been a planet, a backlit cloud (as mentioned above) the International Space Station (if I determine that it made a pass at the right time), an Iridium flash or a genuine fireball. However, if the description is not clear enough to determine what the sighting was then I do not answer.

How has the astronomy community, especially fellow academics, responded to the blog? Do they admire it or find it rather frivolous? Do you feel that it has reinforced the Observatory’s reputation/brand or undermined it in any way?

Nick: I presented a paper on the blog at a professional astronomical conference at Macquarie University last July and I had very good feedback from the professionals. Soon after the conference I was highly gratified when accidentally coming across the webpage of a high-profile Australian research astronomer and noticing a link to the blog with the comment “a really cool blog”. So I think the blog has helped the Observatory’s profile both with the public and with the research community.

The monthly podcasts are a fascinating addition to the blog. What audience needs are you trying to serve with them? Has it had any positive or negative impact on visitation?

Nick: The best way to learn about the night sky is for people to go outside on a dark night together with an astronomer to point out interesting sights and tell them about what they are looking at. The podcasts provide the next best thing that people can download to their iPods or MP3 players and listen to outside. The blog also provides monthly star maps that they can use while listening to the podcasts to help them become familiar with the night sky. And, of course, the more people know the more they want to find out. A good way to do that for people in Sydney is to visit Sydney Observatory.

Thanks to Nick for the interview. Visit the Sydney Observatory blog .