I went to a seminar at UCL last night, to hear Roy Clare, CEO of the MLA and Carole Souter, CEO of HLF talking about the future, the funding context and how their respective bodies will contribute to curation in the 21st Century. I’m not going to supply a full transcript of the event, but have picked up a key issue about digital strategy.
Carole Souter insisted that the HLF would not fund digitisation (only ‘real people doing real things’). She conceded that there could be some catchy, engaging digital culture projects, for example the Tate’s campaign inviting the public to buy a brushstroke of a painting. A questioner asked ‘Call me naive, but surely if digitisation is what we are crying out for, why do you make these restrictions?’ The response was ‘We’re getting tough with people. You have to look at the breadth of our aims. We’re an additional funder, not a funder of core activities. If you tell us that 200,000 more people are going to look at your website because of it, well, so what? How do you know they have really been engaged?’ So, her suggestion was that if you are going to include digitisation into an HLF bid, it would have to involve people in specific thematic projects of local interest.
Roy Clare highlighted the NOF Digitise project as an example of where we went wrong in assuming that mass digitisation and online publishing of collections would be engaging. He said that when he (when at the National Maritime Museum) and partners were planning Port Cities http://www.portcities.org.uk/: ‘Did we think about how anybody would ever find it? How they would engage with it?’ His response seemed to suggest that we shouldn’t do digitisation because these projects were difficult to market.
However, my argument would be that the NOF projects are an example of the limited thematic trap that the HLF approach to digital culture encourages. The Port Cities project may not be as successful as it could have been precisely because they made too much effort to define a theme, to define a collaboration between several museums, to focus on particular markets and so on.
What is needed is a flexible approach to digitisation that enables collection items to be presented in multiple thematic, social, institutional and technological contexts and to be interpreted in multiple ways and combined with other collections in multiple ways. Investment in a) the continuation of mass digitisation and b) in incubating approaches to tagging, indexing, syndicating are what we need now, and we should see this being championed as the core of 21st Century Curation by bodies such as MLA and HLF.
I posted this to the Museums Computer Group e-list and sparked off a pretty long thread of discussion, usefully summarised and responded to here by Jeremy (to whom thanks)
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.
Nick Poole of the MDA gave a speech http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/nwh/ART41939.html
to the Museums Computer Group and because feedback was invited, I gave some, naturally.
The paper suggests that we have catered too much for the researcher, focusing on digital catalogues a) without being certain what researchers want and b) without catering enough for the second category of user. Two user groups are defined 1) People who do detailed research about collections 2) Millions of people who don’t visit museums of their own volition, who visit museum websites even less. Which actually means that only one web user group is defined (researchers), the others being mainly non-users. We surely know that our users are more varied and numerous than this. Up to 114 million people last year visited UK museums. And many millions visit museum websites too. There must be a big middle ground between serious researchers and casual accidental visitors. For those working in education the web is invaluable in being able to converse with teachers and learners, and sustain and share the outcomes of projects.
The analysis of markets for culture is complicated by the fact that culture is at the top of the heirarchy of human needs, needs to do with nostalgia, traditions, emotions, ‘just looking’, enjoyment, free time, conversation and play. Cultural needs are not seen as functional. Museums are split in their views about the main purpose of their websites, between supporting study and business (fuelling the knowledge economy) and supporting informal popular engagement. In many ways, multimedia & the web are offering more opportunities to make a museum experience full of play and conversation, and reach a wider range of visitors (potential researchers), whereas the curation of a real space can be bound by scholarly fastidiousness and may only reach a narrow audience.
The paper contains a paradox, perhaps unintended, in saying that we focus too much on researchers and that we are too technology-led, yet are spending too much on experimenting with Web 2.0. I’m not so interested in technology per se, but very interested in the educational and social potential of Web 2.0 (including trying to work out what it is!). It seems to me that Web 2.0 is less about geekery, more about ordinary people being able to use the web because it doesn’t feel like technology any more. It helps more of us become researchers. I disagree that we should step away from Web 2.0, mainly because there are free services out there with information storage capacity. We shouldn’t always spend money trying to replicate those within museum sites, but use them whenever we can, for example in education projects.
I particularly endorse the proposal for a national marketing strategy, with a proviso that the museum sector should be well defined (museums, libraries and archives? museums and galleries? digital cultural archives which have no visitor building?)
A 2 year moratorium on projects is a very radical suggestion, which I disagreed with on first sight, as major initiatives do encourage join up between several museums. However, I believe that many national partnership projects are too rushed, and less joined up and strategic than they should be.
If there is major investment in 3 or 4 key museum sites, it is important that all museums (of all types, including archives) are involved and consulted in this. If these meta-sites do employ Web 2.0 approaches, in a broad sense, it is more likely that smaller museums, archives and heritage societies can contribute content and expertise to these meta-sites, and that user needs can be better understood.
If you Google for ‘digital storytelling’, the top links focus on training in storytelling and multimedia tools ( e.g. http://dsi.kqed.org/index.php , the best of this bunch) and it’s hard to find public free databases dedicated to distributing heritage and cultural histories. So I did a bit of digging.
Please comment with more examples if you have them.
1 Digital storytelling & community archiving sites
A database for small heritage archives and community groups.
It costs quite a bit to sign up to it: http://commanet.org/English/C_What_you_need.htm
Cultural Objects in Linked Environments. This is a demonstration project, aiming to enable community groups/schools to tell stories using cultural images. Partners vary from schools to villages to museums across Europe.
An online community for sharing digital stories. The description sounds great but the site seems to be offline.
Schools can upload digital stories if they are within the National Education Network (UK broadband consortia)
Community groups can currently upload stories to Moving Here, not just the groups that were part of their Routes to the Future project, which has added 400 more stories from more migrant groups.
2 Generic tools that allow community & learning groups to create their own websites:
These tools are easy to use. However, your own story site wouldn’t easily be connected into a wider community that is about the history of places and cultures. (Comments are invited on whether or not this matters.)
http://lotsofbigideas.blogspot.com/ is a good example of a community blog, allowing refugees to post & share ideas & experiences
http://pbwiki.com/ Wikis can also be useful for making freeform hypertext stories.
http://elgg.net/ You can use a variety of tools to run your own learning network. ELGG Spaces is a new service that means you don’t have to download the software to your servers.
Drupal with CivicCRM is the best for a large Community website and has extensive audio and video uploading facilities.
For families’ to share information and their history/stories
Flickr, YouTube, of course, are also good distribution sites. Flickr isn’t just photos but can be for writing projects e.g. http://flickr.com/groups/nycwp/discuss/162532/
Ubuntu seems a good open source Operating System, especially if you’re doing projects with underfunded groups and other countries, because it’s available in many languages and there are 14,000 packages all with no cost (seems hard to believe).
My blogging style is like London buses, you wait for ages then four come along at once. I’ve added so few posts lately so was rather shamed to find my blog so blogged. To get motivated to write more on mine I’ve been looking at other people’s blogs.
The best place to look is http://www.museumblogs.org/ – it’s good to see some from museum staff like the Science Museum and the National Museums of Liverpool.
And some funny ones like this list of wierdly specific museums
I like the Museum of Giant Shoes and the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.
And I was stimulated by this piece about the difference between museums and libraries, in terms of how visitors/users are trusted, in a context of increasing convergence between them. You can see for example from this summary of research by MLA North East http://www.mlanortheast.org.uk/nemlac that the term used for the public is ‘users’, which has never been applied to museums (who use ‘visitors’) and galleries (who tend to use ‘audiences’). There is such a great difference between public libraries and cultural exhibitions & programmes that it is hard to apply the same policies about engaging the public.
I recently went to this conference, which was pretty intensive and useful, being not too theoretical but still thoughtful. The presentations are on the website so I won’t summarise them. I left wondering about the dynamics of collaboration between cultural collection institutions, Government initiatives, regional networks (e.g. broadband consortia, MLA’s), creative companies and the generic or neutral Web 2.0 tools that are growing apace.
There’s a long set of responses to Jackie Ashley’s article on Susan Greenfield’s warning to the House of Lords about the need to research the effect of technology on our brains and the way children think and learn.
Here’s my post to the Comment is Free blog on the Guardian site:
I thought I’d have a proper read of Susan Greenfield’s piece rather than pick over Jackie Ashley’s muddled article. Greenfield skims over a lot of ground, conflates lots of ideas and begs loads of questions, but I think she means well in arguing, ironically, that the key skill in education is learning how to ‘pose appropriate, meaningful questions’. She also supports Futurelab’s work, which is good work because it positively embraces the potential of new technology to generate enquiring minds. She is calling for an open debate and I would suggest that an agency like Futurelab is best placed to articulate the questions. However, it’s fun to pick holes so I can’t resist pointing out where she begs some questions: 1) She assumes that young people aren’t reading sustained narratives anymore. But I remember seeing that there had been a huge increase in children reading fiction (need to check that though). In my schooling, 23-34 years ago-ish, we didn’t read sustained narratives but bits of text on the blackboard and in worksheets. My sustained reading was voluntary. If you look at the 50 years of mass secondary education, much of the effective learning would be through crafts, science experiments, physical and social activity. Very few children learn mostly through reading and writing, although some do and then they may find the time for sustained reading out of school. 2) She says that in a multimedia presentation ‘you would be having an experience not learning’. But doesn’t brain-based learning theory say that you learn through sensory reinforcements and experiences? 3) She assumes that children are spending most of their time learning via screens and seems to have wiped teachers and other mentors out of the equation. I understood that access to ICT and multimedia presentations in schools was still too limited. 4) She assumes that children or teachers don’t make time to reflect or talk during or after seeing a multimedia presentation or film. She suggests that films (e.g. films of books) will make us lose our imaginations, but films can inspire children to read books, write books, write comics, invent new stories, imagine other worlds, want to travel, want to solve the world’s problems. The heart of the issue she raises is the ‘wow’ and ‘yuck’ factor, that our responses to stimuli will become too superficial. The way to avoid this is to invest in education, to ensure that education enables young people to develop critical thinking skills, to take ownership of their learning and to learn through experience, through problem solving, and to have as much access as possible to web-based information, films, books, sounds and more to help them solve these problems.