Friday, April 18, 2008

Guest Post from Museums and the Web: Bryan Kennedy

Thanks to Bryan Kennedy from the Science Museum of Minnesota for providing this overview/reflection on the Museums and the Web conference that recently concluded in Montreal. I was particularly interested in the ECHO project and Bryan's comments about the lack of in-house technical staff in museums and how that affects ability to innovate.

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.

Sharing Authority

...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 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.

New This Year: Life After Facebook

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.

7 comments, add yours!:

Mia Ridge said...

Good round-up! The point about having permanent in-house developers is really important and I was glad to see it discussed so much at MW2008.

It's particularly on my mind at the moment because yesterday I gave a presentation (on publishing from collections databases and the possibilities of repositories or feeds of data) to a group mostly comprised of collections managers, and I was asked afterwards if this public accessibility meant "the death of the curator". I've gathered the impression that some curators think IT projects impose their grand visions of the new world, plunder their data, and leave the curators feeling slightly shell-shocked and unloved.

One way to engage with curatorial teams (and educators and marketers and whoever) and work around these fears and valuable critiques is to have permanent programmers on staff who demonstrably value and respect museum expertise and collections just as much as curators, and who are willing to respond to the concerns raised during digital projects.

Troy Mc said...

The link to Freebase does not link to a Freebase website.

Anonymous said...

You had me until the PS. Hiring programmers is a nice thought, and I'm sure most museums, libraries and non-profits would love to do so, but in my experience most good programmers don't want to work for the wages those type of institutions can afford to pay. Which is why many turn to outside agencies for help. And although it is not without its downside, as far as budget constraints go, some agencies will even take on pro-bono work for a good cause and the publicity. I'm just not convinced having an in-house IT staff is always a prime solution, nor do I think the lack of internal IT has anything to do with a fear of losing a position of power. I agree that in a perfect world having internal staff who understand the nuances of the institution is what everyone would wish for, but in the real world it's simply not often practical. And besides,having a different (yet professional) "outsider" perspective can save an institution from the myopic viewpoint you mention under "sharing authority". It's hard to have it both ways.

Nina Simon said...

Bryan and I got into a discussion on the very same topic--and hope to do a longer post in the future about that issue.

My experience, like yours, is that most museum IT people are not paid competitively for their field, and therefore are less likely to be the kind of creative, highly skilled folks we want helping lead these kinds of projects.

I wonder if there shouldn't be more emphasis on young would-be exhibit and program developers gaining some technical skills so that they can be better integrated into the content side of the museum business. I worry about the siloing of IT vs. content and would prefer for us to see the web as one of many tools used in content development (and therefore more integrated into the content teams).

Museum IT/web folks, what keeps you at museums instead of going to places that offer better pay (and potentially, more creative control)?

Unknown said...

I totally understand that museums often have a hard time attracting top talent to high tech jobs because of the lure higher paying for profit world. However, there are a substantial population of people with expertise in programming and web development who are looking for meaningful and engaging projects that generate positive social change first and a big paycheck second (or third or fourth). We shouldn't discount the allure of getting to work in our diverse and multi-disciplinary field.

I would also argue that hiring outside firms can sometimes seem like the cheaper option but that in the long term it can often be much more expensive and doesn't build capacity at your institution. It really isn't an either/or option anyways. We ought to be doing both; hiring talented teams in house to drive quality projects with a technology perspective and contracting with outside experts when we need to bring in innovative ideas or specialized skill sets.

I totally agree with Nina that we should be emphasizing technical competency in content developers and general exhibits folks. However, the skill and expertise needed to create innovative, accessible, and education experiences using technology in museums is often underestimated. The internet and web tech has been sold to us as an easy as pie tool that anyone can do. But to be frank there is a grand difference between some one who can tap out a song on the piano and a grand performance of a professional.

Unknown said...

I'm with Bryan here. If you don't bring the skills in-house, you never expand your reach. Contractors tend to sell products, and in a 2.0, perpetual beta kinda world, that's death. The cool thing you buy is generally one you can't tinker with, because contractors stasy alive by selling you the finished product.

What I think outsiders are great for is identifying new skills, platforms, etc. that you want to play with, but aren't ready to commit to. If it works, you can bring it aboard, if it doesn't, you move on.

Lynda Kelly said...

Thanks for the round-up Bryan. Some of the themes I took from the conference were: the critical role digitisation will play in the future; measuring impact of web work on the user not just via quantitative means but finding more qualitative approaches; focus on task not technology; using established open-source and web sites; the rise of social technologies and museums' experiences with those; the importance of standards; content is key and finally collaboration - between organisations, within organisations and with users.

I think this last point goes some way to contributing to the debate around your point on internal developers. Perhaps new models of organisational structures need to be found in order to develop the right mix of people for the range of projects that are on the go at any one time. There is a parallel debate in my own field of audience research, with those organisations that have gone the consultant-only route not building the in-house skills, but more importantly the buy-in and corporate knowledge to actually implement research findings and recognise their value.