Thursday, March 06, 2008

MuseTech Central: A New Resource for Museum Technology Projects

Who's doing audio tours on iPods? Which museums have experience creating collection tagging systems? Who tried GPS Twitter craziness and failed? To find the answers to these questions, you used to have to send emails out into the void, hoping you might hit someone who can help you find your way. I know; I send and receive plenty such emails.

But fear no longer! The Museum Computer Network and Museum Software Foundation have teamed up to bring you MuseTech Central, a site where you can share your own technical projects and search through a growing resource list of others. They make it very simple to add your own project (takes about 5 minutes), and the best part is that each entry is linked to a person--a human being who you can contact to find out more about the project. I sat down with Susan Chun, cultural heritage consultant and member of the all-volunteer team who developed this resource, to learn more.

How did this project come into being?

It was a volunteer effort. We thought it would be a good idea, no one had all the resources to do it, but we figured we can all chip in and get stuff done. The Museum Computer Network (MCN) is hosting the site, but all the work was done by volunteers.

That's really impressive, especially considering that other similar projects like ExhibitFiles, which are not volunteer-based.

I think there's a real value to volunteer projects. We opened MuseTech Central, then got blogged by our friends at the Walker the next day. Nate (the blogger) asked for a bookmarking feature, and then I responded by asking him to contribute to the programming of the site. When the project is all-volunteer, you can reach back out to the community with requests for help. It helps sidestep any sense of entitlement of what MCN ought to do for people.

What are your goals for the site?

I hope the registry will help us understand the trends in technology use. The person who is most served by the registry is the one who is planning a project, considering a project, or seeking funding for a project. It's fairly shocking that we don’t have any resources that can do that in a comprehensive and ongoing way.

Also, as the site grows, the aggregated knowledge can help us share resources, reduce redundancy, and come together as a museum community. Finally, I see this as a way to connect museums to the growing community of people studying museology. We need to bridge the gap between academics and museum professionals by being more open with our processes, so that their research is informed by us, instead of living in its own realm.

How do you see it growing? One of the challenges I've perceived with ExhibitFiles is the overwhelming percentage of members who are lurkers, not contributors.

Yes, that's a huge issue. I see us as having an uphill battle to convince people that as part of their normal project management practice, they need to put things into the registry. Technology professionals don’t really understand that they need to contribute to the information economy. There are so many who have registered or browsed but have not contributed a record. I don't really understand what the value is of being a member of something like this and not contributing.

What are some of the changes you'd like to see that might help encourage contributions?

We’d like to beef up the person side of this. Adding a way for people to contact each other, to have discussion threads, is another wish list item. We also want to make it easier to enter a new project; I want it to be a 3 minute process.

I found it quite a quick process, and even though the project descriptions are short, having the contact person listed makes a huge difference. Do you see this evolving more into a social networking site, or a reference that people use as a resource when needed?

I see this as a reference tool in which the user and the contributor are identical as a community.
I'd like to see our field evolve such that as a matter of habit, we record our projects into this repository. I'd like to see simple projects, like updating the phone system, in there as well as the sexy ones. We update our records when the projects change. You’re a good citizen if you are contributing, and if not, you’re not.

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I came out of this discussion thinking about Susan's comments about how museum professionals should treat references like this. As someone managing a technology project at a museum, my immediate impulse upon hearing about MuseTech Central was to go there and add my project--it's free advertising for what we're doing, and a great way to hook in with others who might be doing related projects or have questions about museums and virtual worlds. It's great to aggregate this kind of content in one place, so you don't have to scramble from the bowels of one museum website to another looking for information on that crazy membership database you heard about. But I can understand the basic issue: why spend extra time publishing your work on an external site?

The answer is the same as the answer to why people post videos to YouTube, write papers for conferences, heck, it's why I blog. You do it to be famous. To give back to the community. To learn more and be part of something.

How else can we incentivize good information economy citizenship? I think that game mechanics, like those employed by Ebay (your star changes color the more you buy and sell), Paperback Swap (for each book you offer, you get a credit for a book), or Nike+ (you can "race" people in remote locations) would help. But until MuseTech finds the right volunteer to implement them (you?), I'll offer up my own Nike+ style challenge:

Go check out MuseTech Central. But don't just look. Add something. It doesn't have to be fancy. Write about your ticketing system, your podcast, your interactive kiosk. Then, come back here and post a comment. I'll publish a full list of the new projects you add in a post next week.

2 comments, add yours!:

Cynthia Graville said...

Okay....so it WAS painless to add projects. Very cool resource- thanks for letting everyone know!

Tim said...

I was actually just thinking about setting up a similar blog-based site. This seems like a much better idea than what I had in mind. I'll try to contribute this summer when I get back to work.