Museums and the Web 2008 guest blogger Bryan Kennedy here. For those who haven't attended, the Museums and the Web conference brings an international audience from art, history, cultural, and science museums together to talk about new ways to engage with their audiences via the web. Because of the dynamic and changing nature of the internet this conference serves as a good barometer of new and innovative approaches in the museum world.
If you want the quick and dirty look at the conference, check out the ephemera tagged #mw2008 (twitter posts, flickr images, a blog entires). The back-channel was an especially active and important part of the conference this year.
And now, on to the exciting bits.
...or prying it from the clenched fists of staunchly opinionated old-schoolers. It was refreshing to see a wide array of projects and presentations that put sharing authority at the center of the visitor experience. Who's sharing authority and how?
- Flickr's Commons project - Flickr is offering up its powerful community tools for museum photo collections. Institutions like the Library of Congress and the Powerhouse Museum are getting thousands of quality tags and comments on previously hidden away images. (paper). And apparently people are also discussing how this will mesh with more nuanced approaches like the Steve.museum project.
- The Walker Art Center is turning its teen website over to the teens. Recognizing the power of the mullet, they put the business-end up front and the party in the back. You can drag a literal splitter bar across the page and view a community-created site blinged out by the teens or the business site for funders and professionals. Sure, they need both, but take a guess which one is a more compelling read.
- Developers of the ECHO project are exploring new ways to use web technology to bring native voices into museum exhibits and research. Their task is both especially important and challenging. If the new web is about a spirit of openness and sharing how do you incorporate a group of people into the process who have historically shared to the point of exploitation? Many native groups are not eager to offer up their cultural stories and history for mash-ups on the web. This multi-museum collaborative is undertaking a thoughtful process to tackle these issues.
The last couple years at Museums and the Web were dominated by discussion about the need for museums to engage with visitors in new social spaces like facebook, blogs, flickr, and the like. Our argument was that if we didn't participate we would be defined in these spaces in our absence. Many institutions that have experimented in these new social realms have seen that this isn't only an imperative but also enormously rewarding. So what's next?
A New Trend: Diggin' Data
The new year brings some new trends in how people are using the web and with them brings new realms for museums to explore. Some of the largest web ventures are opening the doors to their content by giving savvy scripters direct access to the databases that drive these sites using programatic interfaces or APIs. Want to plot all the Wal-Marts on a map over time? You don't need Wal-Mart's permission, just an API and a source for the data.
Data is also getting stored in new places. Efforts like Freebase, which hopes to be the wikipedia for data, are giving communities the ability to collaboratively share data. If these trends continue museums will need to adapt. Museums hold the objects in our collections in the public trust, but will we trust the public with our object's data? Would you post your entire collections database as a downloadable file on the public website? What if the government said you had to?
Frankie Roberto from the London Science Museum gave what I thought to be the most compelling talk at the conference on this very topic. By submitting Freedom of Information Requests he was able to get listings of several major UK museum collections. He then set out aggregating and displaying this data in a unique fashion, "eschewing details in favor of high-level overviews and visualizations." (public site coming soon) Frankie was able to create compelling maps and graphs of many interesting aspects of these collections in aggregate.
But what is truly interesting about this research project was not what he did but how he did it. Even though this was done by a museum employee it could just as easily been undertaken by a museum visitor. Once acquired, the data could have been placed in a public site such as Freebase. Maybe the data could even have been improved upon making the public copy more accurate in some ways than the version in the museum's enterprise collections database. This seems simultaneously exciting and terrifying for those who manage this data.
What exciting mashups will our visitors create if we open up our collections data? One of the Best of the Web winners, IMA's Dashboard, goes a step further than collections alone, exposing all kinds of data about their museum online to give visitors a unique look into the organization, from memberships sold to energy consumed.
P.S. Hire Programmers
As a final note I want to remind everyone out there in museumland that the people writing the code (programmers, scripters, those computer nerds on level 2) are at the core of many of these new initiatives. Aaron Straup Cope of Flickr presented on this very idea and wrote that:
Computer programming is the acid bath of the Internet. In its purest form it can be harsh and threatening but it is also the vehicle that allows a cold sheet of metal becomes a lush and absorbent canvas.
More museums should be building these programming skills in internal teams that grow expertise from project to project. Far too many museums small and large rely on outside companies for almost all of their technical development on the web. By and large the most innovation at Museums and the Web came from teams of people who have built expertise into the core operations of their institution.
I fundamentally believe that at least in the museum world there isn't much danger of the technology folks unseating the curators of the world from their positions of power. I'm more interested in building skilled teams within museums so that the intelligent content people aren't beholden to external media companies but rather their internal programmers who feel like they are part of the team and understand the overall mission of the museum as well as how to pull UTF-8 data out of a MySQL database.
Did any other Museum 2.0 readers attend the conference? Like any conference there were entire threads of thought (specifically some exciting discussions about the semantic web) that I simply wasn't able to attend. Please post any other reactions in the comments below.