I was talking to Tom Steinberg the other day, the founder of http://www.mysociety.org/, a community of developers who have made really useful social tools like Pledgebank, Groups Near You etc, oh, and I should mention the brilliant Freedom of Information site that lets you file information requests to government departments. Anyway, Tom made an interesting point that museums could promote themselves as much more about exchange or gifting, rather than a one-way experience where you are allowed in to see the great riches of the nation’s heritage. It would be far more compelling, he said, if when we visit a museum (or museum website) we gain something e.g. knowledge or enjoyment but we are also invited to give some small piece of culture or history. I liked this idea, and since then came across the idea of gifting explored in sociological and web 2.0 terms by Nina Simon on her blog, Museum 2.0 She raises the question about how we can extend gifting to museums and culture online. It would be interesting to gather and share some examples.
Brooklyn Museum is trying an interesting experiment in crowd-curation of a photography exhibition http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/click/
Click has three phases: 1) A call for entries, now ended 2) A phase of audience evaluation, just begun 3) the hanging of the favourites, ranked in order of audience preference, on show in the Museum from June 27th.
The great thing about the process is that it is international – we are all invited to evaluate photos wherever we live, via the website. Many participatory projects about particular localities feel more exclusive. I felt motivated to try the evaluation because I knew that I’d be contributing to the curation of a real exhibition, not just adding comments onto something that will only live online. And inside many museum & gallery educators there’s a curator wanting to get out, or at least there is in me.
I can see this kind of experiment taking off elsewhere. For more detailed commentary on it see the must-read Museum 2.0 blog: http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2008/04/brooklyn-clicks-with-crowd-what-makes.html Nina writes about how the exhibition is informed by research into the power of the crowd and how the Brooklyn curators wanted to avoid evaluators being influenced by others. So, there is no visibility at all of anybody else’s ratings. It’s just you, and a sliding scale that you apply whilst keeping some questions in mind.
I spent half an hour this morning, merrily wielding the sliding scale up and down in instant judgement on 350 photos. Some of them were terrible. Some of them were mediocre. A tiny few were really quite good. (But I was quite generous in my ratings.) The only way to improve the quality of the photos submitted, and to discourage crowd-influencing and cliche in the images, is to repeat or extend the project and to enable plenty of critical debate about what makes an effective photograph.
I just got sent this mystery story. This news report in Now Public (which is another story, about crowdsourcing of news) is of a large white pod that appeared in an infant school garden in Leicester. Crime scene tape and people in white suits surround the pod. The pod seems to contain living organic matter, so it looks as if it could be an alien life form. The people in white suits ask the children to help with their enquiries, ‘as their thinking is so much fresher than our own’.
Even to understand the news report you have to be a bit of a detective, but it looks like the work of artist of Anne-Marie Mulchane and it’s Creative Partnerships. This is a brilliant example of a creative enquiry project. It kicks off with an extraordinary event or stimulus and then the children’s own curiosity and creative ideas will take it on to more or less unplanned directions. I love it.
On Tuesday 22nd April, Channel 4 organised an interesting one in their series of events reflecting on education, young people, media and culture. This was The Big Trip, providing the first public opportunity to discuss the Government’s Cultural Offer, which is a requirement that children have access to 5 hours culture a week in and out of school. Peter Jenkinson, the previous director of Creative Partnerships was the chair (and expressing embarrassment that current director Paul Collard, who was present, wasn’t there in his place) raised the questions that had been seen in media reports: Isn’t this draconian? Will this work for culture as it is so different from sports, which was also subject to a 5 hour injunction but supported by £300 million and much more definable? If culture can be defined as anything-ish (web games, listening to your i-pod, learning in science etc) is it meaningless and on the other hand, if it is defined as access to quality culture through mediating services and artworks that are dedicated to children, is that impossible without greatly increased funding for the cultural sector? And how would it be monitored?
Margaret Hodge stressed that this is just at pilot stage and that they want to use the pilots to answer these questions. They received 150 applications for 10 pilots. The successful applicants will be very diverse, so that they can maximise the learning from the pilot phase. She said that the Youth Sport Trust’s 5 hours a week scheme was working and that they felt it would work for Culture too. She did admit though that the 5 hours was random – it could have been 2, 5, 10, 15.
Jeremy Hunt (Tory Culture spokesman) said that planting seeds for the appreciation of culture is very important but he questioned the potency of the Cultural Offer, pointing out that no money is assigned beyond the pilot stage. He said that we haven’t measured how many hours a week access to culture there already is so how can we know 5 hours a week is aspirational. It’s just spin, just as earlier initiatives such as Creative Sparks were announced and then died.
Tony Lyng, head of Brockill Park School (see here for his contributions to a debate about creative learning) was, as usual, inspiring. He said that perhaps the packaging of the Cultural Offer is flawed but that it gives us reasons to be positive about the future of cultural learning, that “we’re moving out of 15 years of being glum and dull in a standards-driven agenda”. One opportunity is the loosening up of the curriculum at KS3. He also mentioned the Clore Duffield Foundation’s consultation on Culture and Learning, which he described slightly narrowly as being about trying to define what cultural learning is. He offered his own definition: “Cultural learning is a journey from where you are now and what you know, through a creative process, to become something new.” At Brockhill Park, they have a thread of creative learning in every subject. He knows it inspires children because he sees it every day in all his kids. He reminded us of the connectedness of science and culture and also that 5 hours is only 5% of our waking time, and that “culture is what we are, creativity is what we do” so it is not a problem to deliver 5 hours. It should be fundamental. It’s not a problem if you work together in strong networks and you don’t need a lot of funding.
Helen Reddington, a musician and creative educator said she had problems with the term creativity getting wrapped up with the word ‘talent’ (in the Cultural Offer’s title ‘Find Your Talent’) Talent implies exclusiveness and competition, which is connected to the notion that art is something you consume.
Anna Cutler, Head of Education at Tate Modern, told a story about how her early experience of high culture was not very promising. She didn’t understand it, wasn’t dressed for it and children weren’t welcome. She is angry that everyone doesn’t have access to the codes, conventions and systems of knowledge in the arts, and wants to see the Cultural Offer addressing that.
Estelle Morris made a sensible contribution. She said that some heads thought culture and creativity wasn’t allowed, but those who did just got on and did it. She said that the levers of Government are very clunky and don’t apply as easily to culture and learning as they do to mending roads. It is logical to say that we need to increase access to 5 hours but the policy makers still haven’t found the right language to define it. We tend to conflate culture (which is good art) and creative learning (which is good pedagogy). She feels that we’ve passed the starting point for enabling access to culture but not there with the much more difficult task of pedagogy. (I would say that is debatable of course – the cultural sector may feel that if they were not so under-resourced they might be able to enable the development of good creative learning.)
Then questions from the floor:
Every child has the right of access to a public library, so couldn’t there be a similar obligation to have access to culture? (In my mind I was thinking: Surely public libraries enable access to literature, digital culture, film, music etc, and libraries could be made even more culturally rich in their programmes and environments. They aren’t in opposition to culture.) Ironically, Margaret Hodge’s reply misunderstood this question, in assuming the questioner meant that libraries were a cultural resource. She waxed lyrical about libraries, and said ‘how can we recapture libraries as a community resource?’
Other questions included:
- Can we learn from the STEM agenda?
- Robin Doveton of The Paul Hamlyn Foundation asked about how to enable young people being in charge of their own learning.
- What can broadcasters do to support the Cultural Offer? (considering the reduction in funding for good arts programming and children’s programming.
- Isn’t good art dependent on deprivation?
- Is there a role for cultural brokers? (Anna Cutler’s answer reminded us of the existence of Creative Partnerships and Paul Collard was invited to comment. He mentioned ‘the Mongolian syndrome’ which is that cultural learning happens despite no funding, and what can we learn from that? Mainly teachers need help to take risks. CP is most successful in schools that are in special measure and have nothing to lose.)
There was more, but I’ve already gone on too long. By the way, it’s intriguing to see how differently we blogpost about events. David Jennings post is the short sharp read for those who have less time.
Fiona Romeo ( http://foe.typepad.com/ ) posted to the Museums Computer Group a message about Ofcom’s second review of public service broadcasting: http://ofcompsbreview.typepad.com/summary/
She says that the ‘Arts, culture and heritage’ chapter (see link below) of the review of public service content online is a sobering read, quoting from it:
* “The genre appears poorly resourced overall, and heavily reliant on time-limited and unsustainable government grants, although the BBC and some major museums and institutions appear to have substantial budgets.”
* “Overall, the content in this genre is highly fragmented, and while the major institution sites are easy to find on Google it is extremely difficult to find the most innovative and exciting content.”
* “The majority of major and minor museums and galleries have web sites; taken in the round, these sites feel underresourced and out-of-date, and even the stronger sites display limited functionality and ambition beyond cataloguing and providing background information on their catalogues.”
As Flow is delivering the National Collections Online Feasibility Study this is very pertinent. We know that parts of its assessment are true although there is a great deal of room for further gloss and perhaps some challenge.
Is it really true that the genre overall appears poorly resourced? Many sector professionals would say that it is the sector itself that is under-resourced and that digital projects (especially the more innovative and exciting ones, but also the large-scale boring ones) eat up money that should be spent on more valid core functions. Does UK online arts, culture and heritage content (from subsidised non-commercial bodies) look less well resourced than that elsewhere in the world? Is it helpful to comment on the budgets of the BBC and the major museums in the same sentence? Last year the average BBC salary was £35-£40k whereas the vast majority of museum and gallery staff earn less than £25k (http://www.museumsassociation.org/ma/9528 ).
It is the case that the museum sector relies on time-limited and unsustainable grants for digital content, but the same is not true of the BBC. The study we’re working on is aiming to address this issue about limited funding, by exploring the possibilities of collaboration, more lightweight solutions and learning from the commercial sector. But we can’t make any assumptions that this will be easy given the constraints the museum sector faces.
The second point is also true, that cultural content online is fragmented and that innovative content is difficult to find. Again, this is another issue addressed in the National Collections study in asking how we can collaborate to make collections and learning materials more accessible. However, on reading the ‘Arts, culture and heritage’ chapter, the impression is given that the researchers spent no more than 15 minutes Googling, and they make no distinctions between types of content and supplier. They found Tate, Universal Leonardo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which is not UK), Sound Junction, all good, but not a great deal else. There is no reference to the major online initiatives in the cultural sector. It is useful to offer a glimpse into the experience of anyone searching for arts and cultural content, but it is not a detailed analysis.
The third point which focuses on museum and gallery sites, surmising that even the stronger sites display limited functionality and ambition beyond cataloguing, is debatable. On the one hand, our study so far is showing that museums are still struggling with the task of critical mass digitisation, which represents an enormous challenge for them. Online cataloguing in itself may not seem very exciting but it is a sine qua non of what can follow, but yet museums say that they have very little resource to develop further experiments because they still need to get to first base. On the other hand, museums could do a lot better at creative thinking and small-scale lightweight experiment. The technologies have largely been solved but the sector is lacking in positive volition to try them out. We are trying to explore alternative solutions that are not human resource intensive, to overcome this major barrier.
Fiona’s posting was followed by two very thought-provoking responses from:
1) Nick Poole, CEO of the Collections Trust (MDA)
Reading the review, there are some strong and consistent themes emerging:
1. We have so far failed to create a consistent baseline expectation of the information a user can access on a museum site;
2. Our criteria for quality of museum sites are set too low relative to developments in the marketplace and the expectations of our users;
3. Our web publishing still feels peripheral to the delivery of ‘core’ services, and hence standards are allowed to slip;
4. Museum information is not sufficiently apparent in mass-market services such as Google and digital TV.
We all know that these accusations are true of some museum sites, and dead wrong about others. I have been really impressed by some of the strides we have taken in the past 2-3 years and doing a trawl of museum sites via Culture24 now is a far less depressing experience than it was 4 years ago.
The fact remains, however, that these statements are true of a sufficient proportion to drag down the public perception of the industry as a whole. Bearing in mind that this review comes at the end of a decade of totally unprecedented public investment in museums (and as we enter what is likely to be a very lean period indeed) it is, frankly, pretty embarrassing.
So…what do we need to do to ensure that we have turned this perception round by the time of the next Ofcom review?
There is certainly work to be done on a National scale. There remains the anomaly that digital service delivery forms part of Local Authority performance assessment but is nowhere to be seen in the Accreditation Scheme. There is also a clear problem that most of the available cash has come in the form of ‘monsoon’ funding for projects rather than long-term stable investment in skills, standards and infrastructure. On a UK level, we should be creating a clear point of entry to cultural content and using this focus to broker our stuff into services like Google in a sustainable and structured way.
Equally, though, I think we need a change of culture within individual organisations. I know that funding is constrained, but far too often web delivery is marginalised within museums to the point at which the website finds itself at the bottom of a heap of other priorities. If online really is becoming our frontline, we are going to need to get our priorities straight.
I have spoken elsewhere about the weird economy of mass-digitisation, but I honestly believe that we need to put the brakes on our current behaviour and spend some time prioritising the basic elements of ‘where is it, when is it open, what can I see and can I feed the kids there?’ before we address the arcane (and cash-poor) needs of the specialist researcher.
One clear issue is that, much as I say ‘we’ and have a view on what needs to happen, there isn’t really anywhere to put this at the moment. It is 10 years since the publication of Netful of Jewels and although there are promising initiatives (such as the NMDC/Culture24-sponsored National Museums Online Project), there doesn’t seem to be a single point of focus for digital strategy. The Collections Trust (formerly MDA) obviously has a stake here, but I would welcome your thoughts on specific, concrete actions we could undertake to move this agenda forward.
So…I put the question to the list – since we all have a stake in raising the game of museums overall, what could we do to sort this situation out?
2) Seb Chan, Web Services Manager, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney
The changes that need to be made in the museum world are very much about organisational structure. The web needs to be core business now and no longer seen as just an adjunct or extension of education or exhibition programmes. The best initiatives that I have seen around the world have occurred when web units are taken out of IT, taken out of marketing and placed across multiple verticals within an institution.
The web also needs to be core business in so far as staff and resources needs to be re-deployed from other areas to supplement what are usually ridiculously small web teams. Likewise, at the very least in the national museums, 90% or more of all web development should be done in house – not out sourced, so that the skills and knowledge remain in the institution and continue to build capacity rather than leaking out into the commercial sector – again this needs massive organisational restructuring.
Inside the core web team itself the skillsets required are changing rapidly and again, flexibility and an awareness of the need to keep talented staff beyond single projects needs to be internalised.
One of the greatest things to come out of our work at the Powerhouse with our OPAC2 has been that *every single curator* is a content creator – and they do so without learning a new application or logging into a new system. The web *is* now their core publishing platform – even if they don’t realise it.
In comes news of a nice participatory project called Future Self. The invitation to participate is described below. I’d be keen to see more projects where museums and galleries invite you to submit work for exhibitions and collections. This one is good because it invites everyone from anywhere of any age, and there is no competition. I like the idea that participation actually creates the exhibition, for example with Tate’s How We Are Now http://www.flickr.com/groups/howwearenow/
I only have one quibble, or muse, about this project, which is that it tells you to draw and then it says write a message. They want an exhibition of artworks but your message must be legible. If you try to think what you would say to yourself in 10 years time, it is very hard to think how to communicate that message visually, so you are likely to produce a piece of creative writing. If anybody adds anything visual to their card, that is likely to be secondary. I’m not arguing against text-based art, rather that people need clearer guidance between writing and drawing. They need to be encouraged to use text visually and to use visual metaphors. Quite often, we suggest that workshop participants or visitors can either draw or write their responses, but we sometimes need to give them more help. People have very opportunities to explore a wide variety of visual devices and metaphors (as most art in schools is either schematic in a limited way or imitative and observational). But, a quick peek at the website shows that artists are, happily, working with 100′s of children to develop their postcard art, so let’s hope that it will be a richly visual exhibition.
You are invited to send a postcard message as part of a group art project.
You must write a message to your future self – 10 years on.
What to do:
• Take a normal A6 size postcard
• Draw your message on one side to your future self
• Add a stamp and send the postcard to The Study Gallery of Modern Art, North Rd, Parkstone, Poole, Dorset, BH14 OLS, by June 2008
• Be creative – express yourself, let the postcard be your canvas!
• Be legible – we need to be able to read your message
• Don’t make the message too long
• Your message can be anonymous
For more info visit www.thestudygallery.org/exhibitions/community/futureself.html
Your message will become part of an art exhibition at The Study Gallery of Modern Art