Every organisation has a collection now

On Tuesday, I attended GovCamp to learn more about public sector innovation beyond the GLAM sector. As expected, the recurrent themes of balancing risk and innovation, benchmarking and measuring success and impact, and new ways of doing business that include digital as core were central. Although enjoyable, most of this discussion touched on ideas that I was already familiar with.

What I found interesting, however, was just how many of the concerns and questions that I (naively) considered to be largely the purview of GLAMs are being replicated beyond our sector. One presentation on the Australian spatial innovation data structure discussed linked open geolocation data for use in urban planning, emergency management, policy decision making and much more. In it, Helen Owens from the Office of Spatial Policy raised the question of stewardship of fundamental spatial/geolocation data, asking “who are the custodians of spatial data to ensure that it is authoritative?” Soon after, Julie Harris from the Australian Bureau of Statistics spoke about contextualising the ABS “collections”. Although I was aware that the ABS “collected” data and information, I hadn’t considered the implications that online, their data is a collection that needs contextualisation as much as that of a museum.

Monique Potts of ABC Innovation addressed the broadcasting organisation’s movements towards open collections, shared data and collaboration, with particular emphasis on educational content. Almost across the board, speakers address the recurring themes of context, connection, collaboration, and contributing to the global ecosystem of ideas. Many talked about the challenge of engagement and providing interactive and immersive environments online. Adam Carlon, from the Social Innovation Branch, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, spoke about the emphasis on engagement, better educational outcomes and place-based impact initiatives. Questions that to me once seemed particular to museums (if only offline) are certainly not so in the digital space.

Elizabeth Merritt recently wrote about the broken economic model of museums, proposing that:

the visible and profitable parts of being a museum can, and are, peeled off and replicated by for-profit institutions. Travelling exhibits? Check out venues like Discovery Times Square. “Museum quality” merchandise? Not a problem. Places to spend the day with the kids in an edutainment environment? Common and proliferating. And none of these institutions have to bear the costs of collecting and preserving, undertaking research, and making education available in an equitable way both to those who can pay the true costs and those who cannot.

But it’s isn’t only the visible and profitable parts of museums that are being replicated. Even collecting, preservation and public contextualisation of that which is collected is being repeated by a broad spectrum of organisations. Many public sector organisations far removed from the GLAM sector have collections and archives – of data or information – that they now want to preserve, contextualise and communicate effectively, specifically so that it can be repurposed and used to create new knowledge.

It seems to me that those organisations who have data at the centre of their collections are far better prepared for the making them useful and usable in the digital context than are museums, where minimal emphasis has been placed on making and maintaining good data. Beyond this, although authoritativeness was emphasised by the public sector orgs, trying to prevent or limit reuse was not. Multiple speakers mentioned the importance of making available remixing tools so that the data could be actively used. This is certainly an idea that is gaining momentum in our sector too, but I fear museums are pushing against a self-limiting legacy in our perspectives on these issues compared to many other organisations.

I keep returning to a recent post by Nick Poole, who wrote:

When we think of the challenges which confront museums, archives and libraries today, they are not simply challenges of marketing or presentation, funding or political profile. Nor are they challenges of how to ‘go digital’. They are challenges of relevance – our fluency with social media will define the confidence with which we step into the Connected Age. Our comfort with shared authority and interpretation will define the extent to which we empower or disenfranchise our users from creating and exploring their own connections. Our commitment to integrity and transparency will define the extent to which the coming generations will see us as part of the problem or part of the solution. Our deftness with open business models will define whether our future customers understand, and are willing to pay for, the value we can add.

The challenges of relevance are not merely limited to a fluency with, and understanding of, social media. Museums are not just trying to establish new conventions of display and publication online; they first have to break established ways of thinking about the use and value of their collections in an arena where good, remixable data is becoming increasingly emphasised. Koven recently reminded us that “As more and more institutions make their collections data available via APIs, we are effectively heading towards a place in which every museum will (theoretically) have access to every other museum’s data.” I’d argue that we need to remember that it’s not just museums who have collections, and not just museums who are making their collections data available. Everyone has collections now, so what we need to be thinking about is how our collections can and should fit into this context.

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Every organisation has a collection now

  1. I see this as an opportunity as well as a challenge. I’ve said before a few times that much of our software is terrible. I think a big part of the reason why is that we are the only people who have ever sought systems to solve our particular problems, and there just aren’t many people out there who have both the technical skills and domain knowledge specific to preservation and contextualizing of collections to make good systems for what we need. If our needs start to become everybody else’s needs too, we might start to see some better systems get developed that we can learn from and take advantage of too.

    Their collections do not make our collections less relevant simply by existing. Their collections represent very different sets of knowledge and different kinds of relevance. Our collection is just as relevant after as it was before. Better still, being able to draw information from their collections and vice versa may enable us to make even more connections between our collections and the rest of the world, making us even more relevant than before, rather than less.

    Moreover, I think more people are going to be asking us about our specific skills and knowledge gained through experience. We could become more relevant as a result of this because, for now at least, we’re the experts in doing what everybody else is just now trying to figure out. That’s a short term kind of relevance though. Once other people start to figure out what we do and how we do it, they’ll ask us fewer questions about our processes and may even start to develop new ideas of their own.

    Which is all the more reason why we should be pioneering new concepts and ideas right now. It’s also a good time for us to engage in some deep self-examination. Whether we look for them or not, the flaws in our processes are going to start being discovered by somebody in the near future. Best that we find and address them ourselves than let others start to outperform us at our own specialties.

    I don’t think the museum’s purpose in our culture has become or will become irrelevant. But the methods and processes of serving our missions is changing and the more we fight that the more current institutions will close and be replaced, likely many years later and at great cultural and economic cost, by new institutions. Those new institutions may serve the same missions as ours, or they may not. The best way to be sure those institutions serve the same goals is to allow ourselves to become those institutions rather than allow ourselves to be replaced by them.

    I think it’s important to think of it that way. It’s not The Museum that’s struggling to survive in a changing world. It’s just the museums we have now. The museum of the future will be different than the museum of the present. Will your museum become that museum or will it be replaced by it?

    1. Matt, I agree with your assessment. I actually don’t think that the museum is necessarily even really suffering now, but there is an increasing convergence and/or overlap of previously unrelated (or unrelatable) areas, and that will have to have an impact. We only have to look at the way news organisations are having to rethink how/what they do and what are the things that are core to their business due to the changing nature of publishing to see that once clearly delineated sectors are now becoming less so. And it’s in this that I think the real threats and opportunities are.

      There are different sorts of collections now that are becoming public, and they neither override nor replace our own, and ideally should be able to work tangentially with museum collections to make new knowledge and insight possible. But in so doing, the gaps between what we do and what “they” (when they is any one of a number of other sectors/organisations) is becoming less clear.

      I think the Walker’s new web model is indicative of this too. So where things become interesting is in thinking about how these converging or replicating models relate and diverge, and how they sit alongside the physical museum.

  2. I’d highly recommend reading James C Scott’s Seeing Like A State (http://amzn.to/KCwsnr).

    Data gathering inside government and the need for its preservation and maintenance goes to the heart of a functioning state. Cultural heritage data serves no such clear purpose – so although we might share similarities with other institutions we have a very different political context.

    (On the otherhand, you might be interested to know that the roots of at least one notable collection management system lie in a system used to manage births, deaths and marriage records!)

    1. Seb, this is a good perspective to have. Do you think that cultural heritage data does not yet have a clear political purpose because we really haven’t had active emphasis on such data previously? So it’s not so much that it is purposeless politically, but that because the data hasn’t been useful hitherto, it’s purpose is just unknown/undefined?

      I will try to get a copy of Seeing Like A State, and read into it. Useful to have a broader perspective.

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