Friday, March 27, 2009

Understanding climate change – the museum view

With Earth Hour upon us for another year (and what a fantastic ‘ground up’ project that is proving to be), all eyes are on Copenhagen, and whether the world can pull us back from the brink. I liked Prince Charles’ identification of the 100 months that we have to sort this out or it will be too late, as it makes it all very here and now

The role museums can play in educating the public on the issues of climate change is major, both because they are seen as trusted providers of information, and because by their very nature they can draw on years of research knowledge to set current data in context. The Australian Museum continues to lead debate on the issues from the effect of climate change on the Barrier Reef to how species are adapting to changes in heat. One of the most pressing issues is how low lying Pacific islands cope with rising sea levels, one immediate example being Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas). On the basis that it is inevitable that such a country whose average height above sea level is 3 metres, will succumb to the waves, and that therefore the entire population (c100,000 people) will need to be relocated, it is vital that museums take a role to document an entire society and culture, before it literally dies out. There are various cultural mapping projects being considered by bodies such as the Australian Museum to allow this to happen.
But at the end of the day, these so called ‘primitive’ societies are proving to be so much more in tune with the planet than our developed world. Kirk Huffman, writing in the latest edition of the Australian Museum’s members Explore Magazine reminds us of how had we listened to these traditional cultures we might not be in the mess we are in. He cites the North American Cree tribal elder, Wolf Robe, speaking in 1909 , ‘Only when the last tree has died and the last river poisoned, and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money”.

With the joint mess of human induced climate change and financial melt down upon us, never has a truer word been spoken.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Collection data on line or Seb Chan in action again

I have blogged before about Seb Chan and his pioneering work at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in understanding how people use information on the web. I was part of a seminar in Melbourne last week on the broad story of museum communication via the web, and Seb was in full cry.

Seb as always was full of new ideas, one of his latest being an interesting one about how to screen out noise on the web. It has been a recurrent theme that I have heard from museum and gallery curators that they do not want to post information on the web as all it will do is create more work for them in responding to queries. The underlying theme is also that they are concerned that the information itself will have, god forbid, errors in it (this is particularly a gallery curator concern) and that the gallery’s scholarship will be shown up as a result. There is an associated (and reasonable, in my view) concern that the data is ‘dirty’ i.e. it has been misinterpreted during the process of digitization and is factually wrong.

In reality we are moving inexorably towards a moment when all collection data will be on line (alright, perhaps not all the donor information and financial values) with a rough date of 2020 likely in Australia. We shall therefore reach a stage where collection data is in the public domain, and being constantly reviewed and added to by the public.

Now back to Seb’s point that this will create a fair amount of noise (read idle comment) of no value to the collecting institution and which they need to screen out to get to the stuff of real value. The Powerhouse Museum is currently getting 50 email comments/queries a day as a result of web searches on their site. These are currently going to curatorial staff to try and answer. Seb showed how Flickr can help to screen some of this noise through self comment, i.e other Flickr participants answering the query.

And whilst I am on the seminar, do have a look at the Brooklyn Museum’s on-line crowd curated exhibition, entitled CLICK. Shelley Bernstein of the Brooklyn Museum took us through this extraordinary event where 389 photos were taken of the Brooklyn area by local photographers, and then evaluated on line by anyone interested. The most popular 70 were then exhibited with their print size dictated by their popularity. Fab work.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The dangers of the latest technology

I note in the latest UK Museums Association Journal, in an interesting article on newspaper digitisation, that the British Library’s collection of the Daily Express from the late 1950’s is now unreadable. This probably goes for wide parts of their collection as they took the decision at some stage in the 1970’s to record all these newspapers onto microfilm, and dispose of the originals.

No doubt the laudable thinking at the time was that this would ensure the long term record of these newspapers, whereas the originals themselves were likely to progressively degrade. We all know how quickly newspapers do deteriorate partly due to the high lignin content in the paper (one of the nightmares for paintings conservators is trying to preserve highly valuable David Hockney collages which often contain newsprint).

But despite, we can be sure, assurances from the technology providers that microfilm would ‘last for ever’, the British Library now finds itself with the unenviable situation that the first 10 years of their collection that has been microfilmed is now unreadable, even when using the latest "cutting edge" technology to read the faded characters and "join the dots".

There’s no doubt that digitising newspapers makes them far more accessible and must be continued. However, let’s keep a set of originals as we do so, as we can be pretty certain they will last a lot longer than their digitised versions.