Social media + the shifting pace of museum discourse

Ed Rodley has just started the coolest museum blogging project I’ve come across lately. He is asking the museum/blog community to imagine making a museum from scratch.

I thought it would be a fun thought experiment to build a new museum, one with no baggage, no legacy systems, no entrenched staff of Generation ___ who need to understand ____.  If you were going to build a museum in 2012, what would it look like? How would it be organized? Who would work there and what would their work lives be like? Want to play along?

The first post is only a few hours old, but already it is bringing to the surface some interesting questions. If somehow you read my blog and don’t already follow Ed’s, I suggest you head over there right now.

This concept of co-building or co-creating an idea-museum together in this way really brings home to me just how powerful social media can be for encouraging really engaged discourse that can reshape our sector in a very fast and dynamic way. Right now, after reading Ed’s post, all I want to do is think about my first steps in making a museum. Those questions and ideas are sure to stick with me for days at the least, and likely much longer. And in response, I am participating in Ed’s discussions, and additionally starting my own over here. And all it takes is a few more people doing the same, and the entire discourse of the field starts to shift.

In the pre-Internet days, new ideas must have taken so much longer to filter through and be engaged with. Print media and conferences would still have allowed new ideas to flourish, but the call-and-response must surely have taken more time. I am curious about what that meant for museums, then, and the way the sector was reshaped through conversation.

The theme for INTERCOM 2012 is #museumchallenges. The brief starts with this statement:

Museums have always operated in times of change, yet the challenges and pace of change over the last five years has been unprecedented. Globalisation, environmental issues and climate change, relationships with Indigenous and creator communities, diversity of audiences, different employee mindsets, new skill sets, new media and technologies and the global financial crisis, have placed increasing pressure on the ways museums are managed and led.

I wonder if it’s not so much that the pace of change has altered, but the pace at which that change is communicated internationally via blogs, Twitter, video-streaming etc. Is it simply that the discourse can now shift within a matter of days, whereas previously it would have taken far longer? Is social media then creating an illusion of unprecedented change, or is it in fact a contributor to that change? And do you think a new museum theorist could be truly impactful on the sector these days without participating in social media?

Social media has been implicated in political revolutions. To what extent do you think it is playing a role in museum revolutions?

Do deaccessioned items belong in the online collection?

As regular readers would know, in the last week or two, I’ve been reading Rethinking the Museum by Stephen E. Weil. In the latter sections of the book, Weil addresses the issue of deaccessioning in museums, and it prompted me to think about how museums deal with deaccessioned objects in their online collections.

What happens to the public documentation of a museum object once it is deaccessioned? Does it remain as part of the collection database, now that it is no longer part of the collection? Or does it (should it) sit alongside, but not integrated with, the collection database?

In 2009, the IMA made public their Deaccession Database, which includes “a searchable list of deaccessioned artwork recently sold, transferred or exchanged, and corresponding sale results when applicable, as well as deaccessioned works awaiting sale, transfer, or exchange and their assigned valuations.” Clicking on a deaccessioned work within the database links to the object in its original designation (ie–271), which I think is a useful approach, including the work both as part of the collection, and in its own particular space for “deaccessioned” works.

But what does this mean for our sense of what a collection is? If the online collection contains both current and past objects, are those objects that have been deaccessioned still part of the active collection? If they are included in the online collection and can be used for the creation of new knowledge from this space, then I think they are. At the same time, if the object is no longer in the physical collection, arguing that it still plays a role as part of the collection could be problematic, particularly if it has gone to a new institutional home. Whose collection does it belong in at that point? Is it both? From an academic perspective, I would argue that being able to see the documentation of each institution, to be able to compare and contrast scholarship and information attached to each, is important. But I don’t know what this means for understanding online collections and their place in the museum of the future.

If we can argue that at least some of the value that institutions can bring to their objects in the online collection is through interpretation, then each institution is likely to bring a different understanding to the object. Similarly, if meaning is made by context, then interpreting a set of 5 slat-back side chairs in the context of the IMA’s online collection will be different than seeing the same set of chairs in the context of the Cumberland County Historical Society collection. And does it make a difference if the institution that originally owned the work has an online collection database – like the IMA – and the receiving institution doesn’t? Does this privilege a public interpretation of the object that may no longer be current over a newer interpretation that is not easily accessible? Does that matter? And what does all this mean for donor’s rights?

There are a lot of questions here, and not really any answers. I don’t even know that there are any answers to these sorts of questions, because the issues are so complex, and each individual institution will have to address them separately. But I’d love your input on this, so that I can try to get my head around some of the complexities of this issue a little further. What does your institution do with the public records of deaccessioned objects? What should it do?

How does your institution do with the public records of deaccessioned objects? Do they remain part of the online collection (if they were part of it to begin with)? What do you think should happen to the online collection records of deaccessioned objects? 

P.S. If anyone who was part of the IMA’s original discussions to put the deaccession database online reads this and wants to comment on the process, I would love to hear from you.

Museum collections and the “rhetoric gap”

There are a couple of questions that have started nagging at me when I look at museum websites, and particularly when I look at online collections. With the American Association of Museums annual meeting on in the States this week, it seemed like a good time to start asking them.

Are museum collections actually as important as we often say they are? I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone in a museum argue that the most important thing about the museum is its collection – and why wouldn’t they? Each museum’s collection is unique. It is here that museums can differentiate themselves. A local art museum can collect works of national and local importance, and use each to speak of its place in a community. A history museum can define its very purpose by those objects that it has acquired.

Even more than this, as Steven E. Weil points out in his excellent book Rethinking the Museum, the justification makes “a kind of strategic sense to stress what it is that is most distinctive about museums – that they acquire and care for collections.” (p29.) In doing so, museums craft out a niche for themselves.

In Managing Things – Crafting a Collections Policy from the AAM’s Museum News, John Simmons writes:

It is clear that what distinguishes the museum from other educational, scientific, and aesthetic organizations is its relationship with its collections. “Museums exist,” writes Morris Museum Director Steven H. Miller, “because of an assumption that physical objects have value.” In Museums, Objects and Collections, Susan M. Pearce writes, “The point of collections and museums . . . revolves around the possession of ‘real things’ and . . . essentially this is what gives museums their unique role.”

But when I look at the message I get from museums on the Internet, the collection rarely sits front and centre. Many institutions still don’t have their collections online, and although I realise there are often both financial and time constraints, this just reinforces my sense that the collection has fallen down the priority list.

When even a major collecting institution such as the Met – whom have clearly invested a lot of time, thought and money into their online collection, and who were just awarded MW2012 Best of the Web for Research/Online Collections – does not obviously feature their collection on the front page of their website except in the navigation bar, it does not reinforce the message that the collection is what is essential and unique to the museum.

I know that we don’t really know who or what online collections are for, but maybe the Internet exposes the fact that we don’t actually know why our collections would be valuable to anyone for reasons other than the ones we provide in our existing displays and scholarship.

As regular readers would know, I firmly believe the Internet is actually the perfect vehicle for making museum collections more useful and more valuable, by ensuring that the collection can be found, used and reconnected to the ever-deepening well of online information. We might be able to ensure that the ideas anchored by our collections are be able to be put to worthwhile use externally to the museum, as well as within it. We are only just beginning to imagine how and why the Internet will be useful for the production of new knowledge and new memories, but it seems to me that there is richness to be found here.

Still, we contradict ourselves when we speak of the importance of our collections, and then act as though our programming is the centre of our existence, as is often the case online. Certainly, programming is easier to quantify and market. Our audiences know what it means to look online for events and changing exhibitions. It’s something they understand. But it’s also something we understand and know how to talk to.

Weil continues (p.29.), writing (emphasis mine):

The difficulty is that somewhere along the line too many of us – and here I must include myself – have too frequently misapprehended what has been a strategy to be the truth. We have too often taken what is a necessary condition to the work of museums – the existence of carefully-acquired, well-documented and well-cared-for collections – and treated that necessary condition as though it were a sufficient condition. In developing justifications for the public support of museums, we too have forgotten that their ultimate importance must lie not in their ability to acquire and care for objects – important as that may be – but in their ability to take such objects and put them to some worthwhile use. In our failure to recognize this, we run the danger of trivializing both our institutions and ourselves.

It seems to me that the Internet is exposing the fact that the rhetoric about the importance of collections to museums is not necessarily matched by actions that support that narrative.

Obviously each individual institution is different. Some institutions do emphasize the importance of their collections on- and offline, while others no-doubt place greater emphasis on other things in their missions. Non-collecting institutions are surely exempt from this issue (are they the institutions most honest with themselves about the reasons for their existence?). But what does this say about us as a field, that our rhetoric does not necessarily match our actions. And if we are lying to ourselves, should we change our actions to match our words, and actually find ways to put the collection front-and-centre online, or do we alter the stories we tell ourselves?

What do you think? Is the Internet exposing an internal inconsistency between what we say and what we do in museums? And if so, is it our rhetoric that should change, or our actions?

Do museum staff have the right to be offline?

There have been a number of interesting and important discussions taking place around the ‘Net in the follow up to Museum and the Web, and hopefully over the coming week or two we’ll get to explore a few of them. One post that I keep coming back to, however, is Koven Smith’s Leave tech in the conversation, in which he writes:

Technology (or, as I’ve said before, the set of practices and materials we currently define as “technology”) is the lingua franca of the world in which we now live. Museums resist acknowledging this at their peril. Any moment in which a curator/educator/director/CFO/whomever is allowed to continue to be ignorant of how a given pervasive technology works is just pushing your institution’s adaptation further down that timeline. Any method of working in which ignorance is allowed to persist is one that is, frankly, suicidal for institutions that are trying to figure out what their place is in this new world.

Not long after reading Koven’s post, I came across a post by Kate Carruthers, meditating on organisational changes surrounding technology, in which she asks about workers and their right to be offline in the new technological environment. It is with this question in mind that I want to address Koven’s post.

If we accept Koven’s proposition that technology is the lingua franca of the world in which we now live, and that a failure to accept this and act accordingly is suicidal, two questions emerge. The first is about institutions and whether they have the right to be offline. For me, this seems pretty clear cut. Not every institution in the world needs to be, or even should be, online. Small, specialist (volunteer-run) museums with a limited and clearly defined local audience may gain little-to-nothing from being online. For some of these museums, the cost in resources to be online will be far more than the benefit of doing so… joining a project like the Museum Metadata Exchange might be enough to satisfy the urge to digitally document the museum’s collection. The choice not to be online might threaten the longevity of that institution, but in some cases that might be ok and even appropriate (do all museums have the right or need to live on indefinitely?).*

But what about the people who work within institutions? Do museum employees have a right to be offline? Can they refuse to participate in an institution’s online engagement? Should they be able to? In Carruther’s case, she was thinking through the implications of our 24×7 social media culture, but I wonder if the question doesn’t extend beyond this into issues of digital engagement more generally. Can a curator refuse to participate in blogging? Can someone who has chosen not to participate in social media in their personal life similarly opt-out at work? Conversely, can an institution force someone to start a social media account if they have chosen not to do so previously for personal reasons?

Vickie Riley, a commenter on Koven’s post, writes:

I don’t know how it works in other museums but in mine, the curator calls the shots. I don’t. For me to expect that he’s going to embrace what I do is a bit naive.

I genuinely don’t know what I think about this. On one hand, if (for instance) a museum educator’s job description did not explicitly indicate that they would need to hold or develop digital skills, then surely they are absolutely at liberty to refuse to do online work (maybe by passing it off to another staff member?). But equally, the context of museum work has changed and is changing. Failure to engage online can impact not only the individual and their own career prospects, but also the museum’s ability to innovate and stay relevant online, and therefore an individual’s refusal to take part in online engagement could have greater implications than simply the personal. So, do museum employees have the right to be offline?

In the comments of Koven’s post, he writes:

…a big part of the problem is that many museum position descriptions haven’t evolved with the times. There are exceptions to this, obviously, but I can’t think of many curatorial job postings that begin with “please send a resume and link to your personal blog.” I fear that until this changes, we continue to send the signal that it’s okay to not speak this language.

This seems to be at the crux of the issue. As noted in the 2010 NCM Horizon Report – Museum Edition, audience expectations of museums online are changing, particularly with regard to “online access to services and information.” In the musetech world, too, our expectations of other staff and the way they should be engaging are also changing. But these desires are not necessarily being reflected in institutional position descriptions. And if those job descriptions are not specifically asking for applicants to be digitally competent, is it fair for those of us working in museum technology to expect that they will take on such duties? Realistically, it’s probably not. But how do we move forward from this?

Do you think that museum staff whose job descriptions did not specifically call for digital skills should have the right to stay offline? Have digital competencies started to become a core requirement of jobs at your institution? Do you think they should be? For which positions?

*(nb, I wonder whether this becomes any less clear cut if the question is whether public institutions have the right to be offline?)

Misconceptions about museum technologists

Last week I left the safe confines of museumgeek, and entered the wilds of the Internet, when the UK Museums Association republished my post Can a technologist get ahead in museums? on their site.

I was a little scared about ceding control over the post, and allowing it to sit without the context of my other writing (particularly as it was not written specifically for that purpose). However, there is often discussion within museum tech circles about the dangers of merely talking to ourselves, so I grit my teeth and let it loose.

The post has been live for little while now, but it was the second comment that immediately grabbed my attention. I’ll post it in full, so you have the context, though the emphasis is mine.

Of course museums and museum leaders should engage with new technology and digital media, but this is not going to lead anyone to a holy grail. It is a medium not a message, and useful though the web and social media may be they will not guide anyone to run a great museum. I suspect the ultimate aim of museum technologists is to run everything virtually. You could digitise everything, keep it on a cloud, dispose of the real stuff, close the museum down and tweet all day to your virtual friends. How relevant is that? Well at least it wouldn’t cost anything, so it might catch on. But wait a minute…aren’t museums supposed to be looking after and presenting collections and getting people engaged with real things or is that just too tediously old fashioned for the twitter generation? I hope there never are career paths for museum technologists who love their i-pads more than their collections.
Oliver (MA Member), 21.03.2012, 18:19

Now, it turns out that what motivated this comment was (at least in part) a lack of familiarity with the terminology, and the lack of clarity of what a museum technologist actually is (nb – can we come up with a better term to describe someone who deals with – or even thinks about – the implications and applications of technology in a museum context?).

However, even if it was written to provoke, Oliver’s response reveals insight into what could be legitimate fears for some people working in museums – that museum technologists (however they are conceived) have no respect for the ‘real thing’.

Maybe such people have happened across Seb’s post advocating for born digital collections, or my own questioning about whether museums should still consider the physical space as the most important one, and assumed that by arguing for digital we were simultaneously arguing against the physical. I don’t know anyone in this field who would honestly advocate getting rid of collections (do I?). If anything, there is a general desire to make museums more – more useful, more connected, more relevant.

But what if we aren’t communicating that? What if there is a sense from those who aren’t part of our discussions that technology (and technologists) actually presents a threat to collections specifically, and museums more generally? What if the greatest common misconception about museum technologists is that the long tail consequences of what we do and advocate for leads to the end of the museum itself?

Obviously I am overplaying this a little bit. It’s likely that Oliver is an outlier, and that his expressed views are more extreme than his real ones. But it still provokes the questions: as a museum technologist, what misconceptions have you faced? Have you been confronted by attitudes like Oliver’s, or struggled to communicate with more traditional staff because they misunderstood your motivations? And if so, what did you do about it?

***Bonus points to anyone who can give me a better term to use than ‘museum technologists’, because it’s likely that at least part of the problem is a semantic one.

Can a technologist get ahead in museums?

A couple of weeks ago, The Art Newspaper published an article on How to get ahead in US museums. The article addressed the increasing call within the museum sector for curators to take on management positions, focusing on the New York-based Center for Curatorial Leadership. It mentions fears of a leadership crisis occurring in the field in the US, with 60 or so museum directors expected to retire by 2019.

But I think the leadership crisis in museums might be bigger than this. It’s not merely about those museum leaders who might retire, but whether those coming through to replace them (and also those who are not slated for retirement) have an understanding of the emergent technological landscape in order to lead confidently in this arena.

Ed Rodley recently posted on digital interactivity, new media literacy and skills development, and some of what he wrote is pertinent in this discussion. He wrote:

Professional development is essential in new media, because most of us learned nothing about it. If you graduated from university with a museum studies degree five years ago, you wouldn’t have learned about Twitter. Youtube was a new thing and Facebook was moving out of colleges into the wild. If you graduated ten years ago, social media in general would be an alien thing. If you’re a late Cretaceous dinosaur like me, computers were a novelty, and if you’re older, say an early Jurassic dinosaur like many museum directors, computers in general are something that happened after formal schooling.

The implications of what this means for museum leadership as both museums and technology move forward are fascinating. If we have museum directors who understand museums but do not understand (and commit firmly to) the altered technological landscape, how can museums possibly adapt to changing expectations?

A natural answer that I could offer up to this problem would be to seek leaders within the museum technology field (something I would love to be seriously considered – I know some people who would be amazing leaders). However, I don’t think that idea is quite as simple as I would like it to be.

The museum sits, as we know, on a cusp between its nineteenth century beginnings, in which knowledge was made through expertise, vetting and reduction, and its twenty-first century present, in which knowledge is becoming networked, open and created by experts and non-experts alike. The philosophical differences between these two approaches are significant, and as much as I love the idea of a museum built for agility and responsiveness, it cannot be ignored that museums are somewhat change averse. The Art Newspaper article finishes with this statement:

Change is not what happens naturally in the museum world; the Met is a risk-averse institution and for good reason.” That is how it built its reputation as one of the world’s great museums[.]

If museums are risk adverse, and museum technologists are (often) those who advocate change, then putting a museum technologist at the helm of a museum might be considered somewhat risky by those doing the hiring.

I admit in writing this, I am assuming that leaders from museum tech would drive museums forward towards a particular philosophical direction – and that might not be entirely true. Still, this is an important issue to consider, if only because we need to think about career paths for museum technologists (how can we attract and keep good people if there is no real opportunity for career development in the field?). But beyond this, of course, there are questions about how museums will be able to continue to be relevant (and in fact, become more so) if leadership in the field does not engage with the issues that the changing technological landscape is bringing to the field.

What do you think? How can the sector approach these questions of leadership in the changing technological landscape? And have I correctly characterised the problem, or are there issues here that I haven’t yet thought of?

*NB – I made some changes to this post after conversation with Mia Ridge on Twitter, as I think my initial version was slightly convoluted in message. I will return to some of the other issues I raised in that first version in a later discussion.

What is your favourite museum tech idea or project?

I’ve just been asked to give a guest lecture at my university next week, which I am super-excited about. The talk will be a casual lunchtime lecture pitched primarily at Fine Art students, but will also include others from around the University. Because the talk isn’t for a particular subject, I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about all the interesting projects and ideas that are emerging out of the museum tech field.

Obviously I have my own favourite projects, ideas, blog posts, talks etc that I will be discussing, but this seemed like a really lovely opportunity to ask for your favourites too. Which muse tech projects are rocking your world right now? What is your favourite use of mobiles in museums, or your favourite website? Which blog posts should I direct people to, so as to inspire them to think further about the issues? Which talks/youtube videos have left you thinking and rewatching them time and again for inspiration? Whose work are you loving? Which books/journals etc are you reading?

With the nominations for Best of the Web closing last week, many of you will have already been thinking about some of these questions anyway, but if not, now is a great time. And although recent projects are great, I’d also love to hear about any older projects that inspired you and led you to rethink your work practices or your next project. Where have you drawn inspiration from? What work in other fields has influenced you?

I’d love to hear exactly what inspired you, in the hope that it can inspire other people to be excited about this field too. My hope is that by catching the interest of these hapless young university students early, I can convert them into being totally pro-tech museum-lovers, goers or workers.

So… What is your favourite museum tech idea or project? And what do you love about it?

Thinking differently and making change

Museums are pretty strange. They exist simultaneously as a conceptual space, an actual physical place and as a kind of practice, which means there is constantly a sense of redrawing the borders of what a museum is, and why a museum is. Because the context in which museums exist is always fluctuating, museums too are subject to perpetual evolution. These interconnected elements of theory, practice and place make the museum a very interesting world in which to work, because what works for one area (say, the museum as concept) might not marry with the other elements.

Despite this, the theory of museums does have very real impact on the business of museums (if not always immediately). As our conceptual ideas of museums change, so too does museum practice (often later down the track). This is why now is such an interesting time to be working as a museum theorist, because the Internet is raising so many interesting questions about what a museum should be, and how it should conduct its business, in the age of information. New theories, new discussions are emerging, and these discussions impact on museum practice itself. It really feels like there is a chance to shape the museum of the future, through ideas. Amazing.

With this in mind, I draw your attention to Koven Smith’s latest blog post, which is also the abstract for his upcoming MuseumNext talk. The post is titled The Kinetic Museum, and in it, Koven asks:

What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around? What would a museum built from the ground up for speed and agility, rather than stability and longevity, look like?

This is a fascinating line of thinking, because it really starts to question the very foundational processes upon which museums are constructed and their appropriateness in an age of networked knowledge and endless connectivity. Rather than relying traditional models for museum practice and hoping they still suit the external context in which museums now find themselves, these sorts of questions prompt a complete rethink not only of how museums do business, but also of why and what a museum is. They are the sort of conceptual questions that could impact the physical and practical elements of the museum too. (This means they are also very important questions, given the changing state of information and knowledge – the stock and trade of museums.)

The very process of questioning these ideas in a public forum raises the possibility that the museum itself will change as a result (a question asked cannot be unasked); that it will be re-conceived in a new context. Such large-scale abstract questions remind me of an article that did the rounds recently about the mission that Steve Jobs set his first iPhone development team. Jobs

wasn’t focused on conceiving a device that would run all sorts of apps and media but instead laid out a simple mission to his team: to create the first phone people would love so much, they’d never leave the house without it.

In response to these somewhat idealised goals, Apple designed something that changed the marketplace. The article continues:

Apple’s success largely stemmed from focusing on only a handful of fundamental concepts: break the rules but do so in an exceptionally well manner, pay attention to detail and make people “think differently” about the relationship they have with their device, especially given that smartphones already existed in the market.

Questions like Koven’s, that ask us to rethink museum practice in a connected world, are so important, because they actually open the possibility that we can remake this essentially nineteenth century institution in a way that is far more suited to our time. If we were to take the fundamental elements of a museum (say, the selection, preservation and dissemination/communication of elements of the past and present for their potential future use), and be willing to discard the rest if it was not useful, I wonder how we would design a museum for today’s circumstances.

In Mia Ridge’s round-up of our MCN2011 panel, she includes a Titter quote from Bruce Wyman that “current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us.” The way I see it, it is through asking these questions and thinking of the practice and concept of the museum in new ways that we will make those great leaps.

What do you think? Are we asking the right questions? And if not, what questions should we be asking?

One provocation for Big Data

I’ve started thinking a lot about Big Data and what it could mean for museums in a time when, as Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford write “The era of Big Data has begun.”

The two have put forward an excellent and provocative paper about some of the weaknesses and problematics associated with the use of Big Data, titled Six Provocations for Big Data. Chief amongst these is the idea that Big Data is changing the very way we research. They write:

Big Data not only refers to very large data sets and the tools and procedures used to manipulate and analyze them, but also to a computational turn in thought and research (Burkholder 1992). Just as Ford changed the way we made cars – and then transformed work itself – Big Data has emerged a system of knowledge that is already changing the objects of knowledge, while also having the power to inform how we understand human networks and community…

We would argue that Big Data creates a radical shift in how we think about research. Commenting on computational social science, Lazer et al argue that it offers ‘the capacity to collect and analyze data with an unprecedented breadth and depth and scale’ (2009, p. 722). But it is not just a matter of scale. Neither is enough to consider it in terms of proximity, or what Moretti (2007) refers to as distant or close analysis of texts. Rather, it is a profound change at the levels of epistemology and ethics. It reframes key questions about the constitution of knowledge, the processes of research, how we should engage with information, and the nature and the categorization of reality. Just as du Gay and Pryke note that ‘accounting tools…do not simply aid the measurement of economic activity, they shape the reality they measure’ (2002, pp. 12-13), so Big Data stakes out new terrains of objects, methods of knowing, and definitions of social life.

This is merely one of the fascinating propositions that the two put forward, as they argue for a serious interrogation of the way Big Data will shape research, and problematise the problems of both the nature of the data, and the way it is used in analysis.

It is a very interesting paper, and one that discusses a very real issue that I think museums will more and more have to confront in coming years, vested as we are in “the nature and the categorization of reality.” Museum collection databases are a significant cultural resource – and a knowledge asset in their own right. However, to date, they have rarely been treated as such. Museum collection data is still generally considered as secondary to the object itself as an interpretive tool. It merely supports the object.

However, as we move further into this new era – an era when data can be related, mined and aggregated with new viscosity, when the value of data for knowledge production increases, then museums need to address this issue. We need to think about the quality of our data, and how we want people to be able to access and use it. We need to ask who should manage and take care of our data, and what data should be included. If it has the potential to be as valuable (maybe even more so?) to society as our objects, then surely it needs to be taken care of with the same level of priority.

In my recent post on whether museums should still be treating the physical space as the main one, Mia Ridge made the following comment:

And to play devil’s advocate… there are probably lots of people who can do more interesting things with museum content online than your average museum can currently manage. That might be because of resourcing or recruitment issues, a lack of imagination, because the organisation doesn’t know how to value or get excited about online content, whatever… but maybe if they’re not going to do digital well, then museums should just open up their data and let other people get on with creating the next wave of museums online.

This too raises interesting issues for museums about how to best make their data available for others to use, however, because effective data modelling is often complex. As Daniel W. Rasmus writes, in his article on Why Big Data Won’t Make You Smart, Rich, Or Pretty

Combining models full of nuance and obscurity increases complexity. Organizations that plan complex uses of Big Data and the algorithms that analyze the data need to think about continuity and succession planning in order to maintain the accuracy and relevance of their models over time, and they need to be very cautious about the time it will take to integrate, and the value of results achieved, from data and models that border on the cryptic.

So, if Big Data is becoming increasingly important in research and the constitution of knowledge, and yet museums are not themselves necessarily likely to be the ones using it internally (assuming that our expertise lies elsewhere) how can we then think of continuity and succession planning for our data, to ensure it is useful for other researchers? Is this something we can even achieve?

The Linked Open Data movement is obviously going to be a part of this, but I wonder how much further we need to go. Surely the notion of moving from object-based knowledge to knowledge that integrates Big Data starts to essentially change the very core of how museums function as a knowledge institution? And if it does, what does that mean? Is it even possible for museums to tackle this without knowing what an anticipated end result might be? Or is this something that is too complex to be dealt with for all but a very few institutions (if any)? And if so, do we just withdraw from what some believe will be the fifth wave in the technology revolution?

This zippy little article shows what 100 million calls to 311 revealed about New York. What patterns could emerge from our collections if we could analyse information about our collections on such scale? Would it become feasible to see both the trees and  the forest of the museum collection – the objects, and the large-scale contexts in which they exist. Could utilising museum  collections data in this way recomplexify museum objects and collections, adding new layers of meaning and reconnecting them   back to the wider world of information?

I have no answers here. These are still ideas in sketch, and there is much more to be discussed as my ideas evolve on this subject. But I think it is something we should be talking about.

What would you be prepared to sacrifice for a better online museum experience?

Monday’s post, asking whether the physical space of the museum should still be the most important one, brought all kinds of new readers to the blog, and has started the richest discussions on museumgeek to date. While I had been trying to get a little more into the heads of those who are not enthusiastic about museums’ move into the digital space, I primarily received passionate comments from those who are.

However, as they so often do, Seb Chan’s comments cut right to the very heart of the question. He wrote:

Each medium has different affordances.
The problem is not so much whether museums ‘should’ but whether they are structurally organised and resourced to be able to – even if they want to (which, to be honest nowadays, most do).

While most commenters on the post were arguing for increased digital presence, I wonder how quickly those same calls would dry up from all but the most passionate if people were asked to actually make choices about what would have to be sacrificed in order to have a more significant and inclusive web presence.

What would you be prepared to give up in order to ensure that your favourite museum had a really great web presence (and what does that even look like?)? Some public programming? Would it be ok to have a slightly less active (or interactive) physical museum if it meant that the online presence offered more than simple marketing, like a really strong community space for discussions about art or history that included regular interaction with museum experts and curators?

Would you be prepared to argue that a museum might need to lose a position somewhere else (curatorial? Education? Public art?) in order to fund the position of digital curator, for instance? And if so, which position?

Maybe we could better train our existing staff, to ensure that they were equipped to deal with the intricacies of being online more. But then, if we wanted every curator to consider dealing with the public as a priority, that might mean that some institutions (particularly smaller ones) might end up having one or two less exhibitions a year, because the curatorial time would be so divided. Would that be ok?

And this is where this whole thing gets difficult. It is easy to argue for the importance of being innovative online, but how do we actually make it happen? Is there something we can learn from the shift in emphasis in museums towards education in the wake of the New Museology? Were new positions created (and funded), or were old ones lost? How can we apply what was learned from that experience to this situation?

Or maybe it’s not about sacrificing anything, but instead finding new and more responsive structural models?

I don’t know. But until museums have truly compelling web experiences that are publicly (and politically) regarded as being as valuable as their physical spaces, then the online aspect of the museum will probably continue to be a nice addition to a museum’s core work, but will not be part of that core work.

In a 2010 interview for the Huffington Post, museology’s own Twitter celebrity MuseumNerd said this.

Museums have historically been slow to adapt. In the present day this is tied up with the way they are funded. Basically, the ones holding the funds often have to be forward thinking before a museum can afford to be. It strikes me that this should maybe be the other way around.

I cannot help but agree.

What do you think? Is there something you’d be prepared to sacrifice to ensure your favourite museum had a better and more compelling online presence? And what do we do if the answer to that question is no?