Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Final thoughts from Museums and the Web 2009

The Museums and the Web 2009 conference provided much food for thought as to where the online world for museums is heading, some of which I have covered in other blogs. Some final thoughts from a couple of the more thought provoking speakers:

Maxwell Anderson - Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA):
  • The web provides great tools for accessing the back of house operations of museums, including the on-average 95% of the collections which are not on exhibition at any one time.
  • How can web technology seek to emulate the thrill of proximity, i.e. achieve elements of the real in a virtual way?
  • The IMA has established substantial transparency of operations using its ‘dashboard’ component of the web site to put up a wide range of internal information, such as staff numbers per section, visitor numbers, value of its endowment by quarter ( not pretty reading at present, I imagine), objects proposed for deaccessioning, annual report, tax return. Not sure what this really achieves, beyond making them feel good that they ARE being transparent.

Dan Zambononi – Box ( interesting web site by the way):

Dan reported on an interesting exercise his company undertook, which involved collating collection data that was readily accessible on the web, using screen scraping and spider technology. The driver was that there are currently multiple one stop shops for collection searching from the massive Euro project MICHAEL, to Australia’s own CAN ( Collections Australia Network) project. Whilst this might not exactly be allowed under current copyright rules, he was able to use the existing data and re engineer it to make it more useable. I drew from his paper a couple of issues:

  • Lots of technical variations and inconsistency in the way information is presented, particularly over the format used for dates and locations
  • Ultimately there was not much improvement in the quality of the collated data than that which a well worded Google search could achieve

And my final thought - the conference was full of lots of highly stimulating chat about what is happening in this space and where it might all be going, but the practical driver for evaluating it must continue to be asking the question ‘is it ultimately useful in supporting the building of knowledge and improving access to collections?’. Because what came clearly out of the conference is that there is certainly no pot of gold sitting at the end of the process – the golden grail of seriously monetizing on-line collection data remains as elusive as ever.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Climate change and collections – are we stuffed?

When the effect of climate change on museums and collections hits the New York Times, it indicates that it is being taken seriously. On April 5th 2009 the NY Times ran an article entitled "Keeping Art, and climate, controlled”. It summarises the recent forum held in London at the National Gallery on climate change and collections masterminded by Jerry Podany, the President of IIC and the chief conservator at the Getty. It also discusses the initiative’ of Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate to re-examine the existing guidelines for collection care of 22 degrees C and 55% RH. It is clear that there is movement in the camp on this one, but the question is how fast is it going to happen. It may come down to the question of conservation, and conservators are by nature cautious. That’s how they are taught to view objects and potential treatments, and rightly so as despite the requirement of reversibility in all conservation treatments, in reality there is often no going back once a particular treatment has been decided upon.

So the recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by John Collee, a medic turned climate change expert, makes bleak reading when he says: “the death of the Murray Darling, the drying of SE Australia to a tinderbox, the increased flooding of low lying areas, the defrosting of the Siberian tundra, the dramatic loss of rainforest, and the break up of the Antarctic ice shelf are happening as predicted but – if you believe the evidence - at several times the expected speed. I do believe the evidence. Which leads me, personally, to the bleak conclusion that the human race is stuffed.” Strong words, but it brings home that if we are going to avoid the said ‘stuffed’ state, we need to move a very great deal faster that we are at present.

So when it comes to discussing collections, we need to move quickly past the process of reviewing environmental guidelines and start looking at the whole carbon foot print of museums. If we have to wear coats in winter to save on heating fuel, and avoid the dryness that heating causes (and which then at present requires rehumidifaction to achieve required levels of RH), so be it.

But let’s get moving, past the discussion and into action. We have possibly only 6 years to radically lower emissions before we face calamitous and unstoppable global warming. Every sector must play its part, and museums have a very real opportunity to lead on this one

Friday, April 24, 2009

RFIDs and the Museum sector

RFID use in museums was the subject of an interesting paper at Museums and the Web 2009.

Basically RFIDs are being explored for use in two broad applications at present in museums, one being content delivery for visitors, the other being asset tracking of objects. We are pursuing the latter route with Smarttrack, which we have established to provide software and hardware solutions in this area. RFIDs provide significant benefits over bar codes as they do not require line of sight for reading, can hold a lot more data, and will allow automatic tracking and finding of objects.

The other opportunity is in providing content to visitors, principally through providing them with access to collection information on their PDAs read from a RFID.
This paper by Tim Baldwin at the University of Melbourne combined both uses, detailing a project run at the Melbourne Museum. Passive RFID tags were given to visitors and they were asked to have them read at certain points around the exhibition, thus recording what they visited. The idea is this can then provide the opportunity to enhance museum visits through personalising information, such as profiling the visitor to make recommendations for future activity at the museum.

My view is that the way forward is not to make it too complicated. The green fields opportunities for the use of RFIDs in museums are enormous, but let’s get them up and running in tried and tested areas before we try and push the technology too far, and risk alienating key stakeholders, such as collection managers, before the technology is proven in these new areas.

Unconference matters at Museums and the Web 2009

One of the best bits at Museums and the Web 2009 in Indianapolis was the Unconference or ‘Contributed Content’ Session. The idea is for the agenda to be set by the attendees, so what happened was that a convenor encouraged delegates to propose subjects for discussion, with these ideas being put up on whiteboards.

The ideas were then grouped into like subjects and delegates asked by a show of hands who was interested in joining the group. Whenever more then 8 people were, they were asked to break out into separate allocated rooms. The whole process took no more than half an hour and there were quickly up to 40 groups hard at work throwing around ideas. In fact the process then continued with the breakfast tables next morning being allocated to particular subject matters.
The nature of the web and social media is that we are all feeling our way, so a conference like this was a perfect forum to throw around ideas and share experiences, and these sessions made that possible.

Interestingly, possibly because of this forward looking, an issue I noted at the conference was the lack of whinging – most museum conferences I go to around the world contain too much complaining about the state of the world and of the sector in particular – Not here!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Getting buy-in to the museum world from web 2.0 users

A nagging question at this year’s Museums and the Web 2009 has been what are the benefits of Web 2.0 in the museum context.

Two papers gave examples of projects where social media sites had generated major interest in their museum. Paula Bray, from our very own Powerhouse Museum, which continues to be a place watched for web innovation, talked to the Flickr Creative Commons project whereby the Tyrrell photographic collection of glass plate negatives showing images of Sydney in the late 19th century was placed on Flickr. Starting with 200 images, it has quickly grown to almost 1000. The response from day one has been vast, drawing a whole new audience to the Museum’s web site, and with it increased visitation to the Museum itself. As well, the photographic collection, which has never been on display, now has visibility, and information about it is being provided by the Flickr audience.

Meanwhile at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, a grand plan was hatched to organise a 2008 meeting of YouTube users. The idea came about through the Centre’s pilot project of creating and posting science communication videos. To encourage greater engagement with the Centre, a meeting was planned for 8th August 2008, or 888 as it became known. The Centre laid on a program of events and over 400 Youtubers turned up for the week end, and Youtubed away. Thus not only was a new audience brought in physically, but the existence of the Science Centre became known to a much bigger audience, with some 660,000 views of 888 event related clips in the following month. Even those who live for on-line communities like a bit of the physical interaction now and then.

Interestingly, only a tiny percentage of the clips were about the Centre and its collections, i.e. whilst the Youtubers may have loved the event, they showed little interest in the collections.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Do Twitter and museum conferences belong together?

And it is all go in downtown Indianapolis, home for the next three days to the eager participants of Museums and the Web 2009 600 of us are here busy planning the future of the universe – well at least as far as it relates to museums and the web. There is so much content to write about that I must ration myself in this blog to some overall first impressions:
1) Twitter. Now call me old fashioned, but I have never used Twitter – all I really know about it (from my children, of course) is that Ashton Kutcher is an addict and refers to his good lady Demi Moore as ‘wifey’ on it (hope I got that right). Well today I have really seen it in action and I am not impressed. Imagine, if you will, the plenary speaker, Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art giving his speech with a large screen of his images to the left of him, whilst to the right of him and on an equally large screen there is a running commentary of comments on Twitter (I kid you not). And further to this, the comments were such profundities as "Here I am at Museums and the Web 2009” and “Just realised I have left my glasses in my room”. Now I can see the value of people twittering to send questions through to the speaker for answering off line. But this was live so that in the course of his speech we probably had about 40 twitters posted. As Anderson said, he found himself watching eyes moving to the side screen all the time, and occasionally sniggering at the comments. Never again please, and that at least seemed to be the majority view of the delegates I talked to.
2) Value of face to face meetings: You would think that this lot would be quite happy using Skype and on line forums to communicate, but it is clear there is nothing like a conference to get to the heart of issues and have an in depth chin wag about them. As one delegate said to me, it means we can get a collective feel as where the trends are emerging, and also get immediate feedback as to what the museum and gallery directors think about them.
3) Open source software: I have learnt today that the in-house word for this is ‘cloud computing’. This is a big topic here. It provides potentially a way round having to buy expensive collection management systems, a significant expense both up front and on going for small museums. The consensus seems to be that there will be an increasing market for such, with added benefits of relational searching across other collections, though it will come with some downsides in the areas of security, speed and access.
4) Indianapolis Museum of Art: Check out this impressive web site, particularly the dashboard. This is a museum being truly transparent about its operations from staff numbers to Inland Revenue tax returns.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Museums and the Web 2009

The mecca for those museum bods interested in what is termed ‘informatics’ is the annual Museums and the Web conference. I’m off to be part of it straight after Easter and am looking forward to a complete download (and probably overload) of informatics information over the three days it runs.

This year it is in Indianapolis – it’s been happening since 1997 (variously in the US and Canada), run as a private operation by a couple of inspired individuals out of Toronto, David Bearman and Jennifer Trant through their company, Archimuse. There is regularly a significant contingent of Australians there, not least because Seb Chan at the Powerhouse is one of the key players at the conference.

I’ve had a good scan of the program and it seems to reflect what I am told is the usual mix of papers, with at one end of the spectrum brilliant ideas getting their first airing, and at the other end papers on some pretty sophisticated web-based programs. Check out the nominees for "Best of the Web" awards for an idea of the extent of what is happening in this area.

I remain most excited by what this all means for museums. Despite the trepidations of curators and the need for resolution of copyright and privacy issues, it is the opportunity for ultimate access that it potentially affords and the breaking down of boundaries between institutions that will be so exhilarating to see. I look with some envy at my children, born into a world where the web is a given, who will be around to benefit from the vast amount of collection information on line and the chance it offers to cross reference, research and do all sorts of things with it that we have not yet thought of.

I look forward to blogging from mw2009 in Indianapolis from 14th to 17th April.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Will the recession close museums?

Well that’s what we would all like to know! It’s interesting trying to read this one, particularly as the evidence coming from different parts of the world is different.

In Australia the good news is that so far, at state and national level, there seems to be limited effect. Yes, the sponsorship monies are drying up, so expansionary measures are on hold, but ongoing government funding is remaining reasonably steady (as one would expect given government interest in stimulating the economy). At local council level, again there seems to be only limited reduction in funding, but my guess is that these local museums and galleries will find it increasingly tough largely through their small size, meaning that a staff cut often results in a whole area of operation having to be curtailed.

In the US, the news is not at all good. Because so many museums there are owned by private philanthropic trusts, revenue has literally dried up, and there is increasing talk of institutions closing (though no examples yet cited). This comes at the same time as sponsorship is dramatically falling along with demand for commercial hire of venues, including those lucrative corporate private openings. The American Association of Museums recently ran a web conference entitled Museums Rising to the Financial Challenge covering such pertinent topics as retrenchment, realignment and reinvention.

The UK is also looking worried, especially as it has come at a time that the museum sector, having enjoyed some relatively well funded times (the successful Renaissance in the Regions program being one example), was already facing funding cuts. The cuts were largely driven by the massive blow out of the cost of the Olympics, which is especially ironic given the cultural Olympiad that is meant to go with it.

So overall a bit of a mixed bag. The biggest issue in my view is that the amount of public debt being created by the various fiscal stimulus packages around the world, is going to saddle future governments with massive debt repayment costs, and THAT is where the danger for museums is really going to come from, i.e being starved on funds as we come out of the recession and for years to come.