Should museums still treat the physical space as the most important one? If so, why?

When, a couple of weeks ago, I asked what your dangerous idea about museums is, one of the responses really stuck out for me. Damien wrote:

I do not think we should hasten into the virtual world. There is a place for online content and catalogues, without a doubt, but museums need to be physical spaces containing actual objects. We are already teaching out children to disengage with the physical and retreat into the cyber world.

He is not the first person I have heard make a similar argument. In fact, it is something I have heard articulated by a significant number of people working in museums and art galleries (maybe more than those who believe otherwise). This is something that will come as no surprise to those working in museum tech. There is often a sense that we are trying to push against a tide of people who might agree in theory that museums need some form of online presence, but who also see this as being less important than other museum work at the least, and at worst, actually counter to the museum’s purpose. I have had quite senior people in the field argue quite passionately against me when I talk about museums uploading their whole collections to the web, instead believing that what the public can access should be limited to a few hero works with statements of significance (effectively maintaining the status quo of museum publication, albeit with a change of medium).

For me, this is very interesting because I see museum websites as a completely new kind of tool at our disposal that might actually make the work of museums better and more aligned to the changes that are occurring in the creation of knowledge in other fields. It allows what we do to actually knit into the broader world of ideas in a very different way to what happens in the physical museum space, and a way that actually can make our collections more relevant, inclusive of all their complexities and imperfections.

But there are lots of people in museums who do not agree with my assessment, and I want to know the reasons behind this. I would love to hear from those people who work in museums, or are simply interested in them, who, like Damien, think that museums should indeed avoid a rush into the virtual world. And if so, why that is.

Do you think museums should still treat the physical space as the most important one?

What is your dangerous idea about museums?

A number of years ago, I acquired the book What is Your Dangerous Idea?, in which significant thinkers addressed the question “What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?” According to the book’s preface, the question comes from psychologist Steven Pinker, who wrote:

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea that you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

The question asks for speculation. It asks for wild, instinctual guesses. And there is a very good chance that many of these guesses will be wrong.

However, what is even more thrilling is the possibilities that some of the guesses will not only be right, but that they will themselves shape the very future of the world and of ideas. Often simply be giving voice to something, we start creating it in fact where it previously only lived in imagination.

This is the thrill and terror of speculation. There is the chance that an idea will be wrong, laughable. But making it known (as terrifying as that can be) also brings with it the chance to write the future of the world and make possible things that once seemed unbelievable.

I recently put in an abstract for MuseumNext that dealt purely with ideas. It did not include case studies. It was not filled with practical answers to problems. Instead, it contained one (possibly dangerous) idea that I firmly believe could be true. I’m not going to go into too much depth about it here until I find out whether it made the cut (although with around 200 applications for 30 places, my hopes are not held tightly). However, the question comes up: What is your dangerous idea about museums?

I would love to know.

Why should I believe anything you tell me, you nameless and faceless institution?!?

I had the exceptional good fortune at MCN2011 of coming away with dozens of unanswered questions, and more than a handful of lovely people with whom to try to figure out the answers. My hands have barely left my keyboard in the last couple of weeks, as I’ve tried to capture ideas, exchange emails and make possible some of the grander schemes of world domination that have surfaced. But in doing so, I have alas neglected this poor little blog space.

So, to pick up from where I last left off, with a summary of the emergent issues that captivated me at MCN2011, I’ve decided to start with an exploration on the issue of authority on museum websites. It’s something that Claire Ross has also just written about, in her blog on MCN takeaways – although my discussion will take a somewhat different tack to hers. Claire writes:

This Panel took an interesting perspective to the authority question, asking how we should be building museum websites to gain and maintain authority online, something they argued that museums haven’t really earned in the online space yet, rather relying on the automatic ingrained authority physical museums have built up. But really can physical museum authority transmit in a digital space? And more importantly should it? That’s something I really came away with. Surely participation, dialogue and engagement with visitors breaks down the authority barrier to enable museums and visitors to work together to create an engaging online experience? Rather than a transmission of authority? So should museum websites be authoritarian at all? Right enough of a rant on that.

But here’s what I want to know… Can an institution even be an authority?

An individual can be an expert. An individual can be an authority. But I don’t know that a museum can be an authority on anything. Museums can be authoritative, sure, and point someone in the right direction (like the new Walker site seems to do pretty beautifully). But I am not going to believe something just because “the Tate” told me it was right. There is no accountability there. A blog post on the Tate site could have been written by a work experience kid who happens to be good with words and Google. Even collections information, unless it has a specific author’s name attached to it, gives me nothing I can particularly trust and believe in really (particularly in instances where there is no sense of how, when and by whom changes have been made to the collection record).

In a museum exhibition, I suppose there is a level of trust that the museum display has been created by someone who is an expert in the field. If someone got a job as a curator, I am hoping that they have some level of knowledge/expertise. Within this space, there can be room for intuitive judgement, for creating relationships between things based on experience and instinct.

But the information I get online, I want to be accurate – not accurate within a context. I want to be able to use it for my purpose (whatever that may be) – and so authority becomes more important in a different way.

In our panel, Koven raised the authority issue because he wanted to know how he should be building his museum websites. It’s a really significant question, but authority in an information context comes from more than just SEO and a trustworthy visual space and design. I want to know where the information came from. I want to know who entered in, and when, and why there has been a change in interpretation. If a collection object is re-dated, I want to know what prompted that change in associated information. I want to know who made that call, and why.

Until that happens, I don’t know whether our collections online will be truly authoritative. As some of my own research at the Powerhouse Museum shows, even curators don’t necessarily trust online collections records to be accurate. And if we don’t trust in our own information online, why should anyone else?


***nb obviously institutions have a name, but I’m sure you get my point.

Initial takeaways from MCN2011

I wrote this post on the plane on the way home from MCN2011, trying to wrangle some sense from the myriad of stimulating and interesting conversations and sessions. It captures my first takeaways from the conference, and is something I will no doubt expand on in coming weeks.

This was a very interesting conference. Much of the focus of the sessions and the conversations I participated in seemed to be really about the broad frameworks and implications of the work that is happening in the museum tech field, which was fascinating and useful. I got an incredible amount out of attending, and am already starting to think about how to get back next year.

So what kinds of issues and questions emerged from MCN? Here’s a brief summary of some of the big ones I came away with:

Authority, inclusion and visual language/design choices
In our panel on What’s the Point of a Museum Website?, Koven raised the issue of museum authority online. He wanted to know how we should be visually building our websites to gain and maintain authority online, something he argues that we haven’t really earned in this space (gambling instead on the fact that our offline presence confers us with automatic authority online).

Having said that, I think the issue is bigger than this. Our sector spends a significant amount of time and energy trying to find ways of making what we do inclusive and participatory. It’s one of the findings of the potential benefits of folksonomies and social tagging – to invite and acknowledge other voices. However, if the visual language (and actual language) we use online is one aimed at gaining authority (as might be expected, since this is still an important issue), then maybe that goes against any claim to inclusion. The austere appearance of our buildings is the same thing that makes them at times foreboding to those not comfortable in those spaces… if we design our websites to be authoritative, do we not risk the same thing in the digital space? How can we resolve these seeming contradictions in intention?

Communicating what we do better
Another issue that emerged for me particularly was a growing sense that for all the great work happening in our sector, we often seem to do a poor job of communicating the benefits of it to those outside our immediate community. Therefore, I want to know what big (or small) issues that the museum tech sector needs to become better at communicating to those outside our immediate community? How can we create a compelling framework/language for communicating the value of what we do to funders/directors/curators etc?

New funding opportunities? New models for museum websites?
What new funding opportunities might be available for museum technology projects if we can change the language/reshape the argument? If we can demonstrate our value beyond the financial in more effective ways, will there be new ways for attracting support for what we do?

Similarly, are there new funding models that we could consider for the online space? In the discussion of one session, Nate Solas asked what would happen if we made all of our images available for free, but put a price on interpretation. It’s an interesting idea, and makes me start wondering further on what other new models we could investigate. I recently raved about my love for Bjork’s Biophilia app, which was released a few weeks ago. The app, which accompanies her latest album, brings with it depth, games, essays and ultimately, new discovery. It is super easy to get music for free online with so many file sharing sites. What is not so possible is gaining access to this same experience without paying for it – and it’s the first app I’ve really spent money on. What can museums learn from these sorts of creative solutions to content and context?

Digital conservation/preservation
This is one that came up in the Horizon Report (launched at MCN2011). How can we ensure that works of art that utilise technology (esp ones that might only function on a particular piece of equipment/OS etc) can be preserved? Can we create and set some industry standards for this practice, which individual institutions can then adapt to their own needs? How can we start ensuring that there are conservators adequately trained in both the ethical and technical issues that this will involve? And how can we do it fast, since we are already losing works to the ravages of time and obsolescence?

Career path development and longevity.
This question emerged out of some more personal discussions than actually out of conference sessions, but it is still a very significant issue. How can we create succession lines, and better opportunities for career development so that we don’t lose the best people in our field?

Museum content on external sites
How can we capture and archive our “museum” content that lives offsite, on platforms like Facebook? Is it problematic that so much interpretative content exists in spaces that we cannot necessarily harvest?

Crowdsourcing and exclusivity
In the History Museums are Not Art Museums. Discuss session, one crowdsourced history project was discussed in which people were asked to transcribe old documents. Before being able to transcribe, they were asked to join the site, and were given a short questionnaire that included a question that asked why the person wanted to contribute. It was estimated that 75% of contributors wrote a significant piece on why they deserved to be allowed to contribute to the transcription. It makes me wonder if there isn’t some value in actually raising barriers to entry in some cases of crowdsourcing, particularly when the quality of the work is important. I might be wrong on this, but there is something like the idea of “I would never want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member” is playing in my head here. Maybe sometimes communities want a sense of exclusivity that the easy access of the web takes away? I haven’t thought this through fully yet, but it’s something that I want to explore further.

Rob Stein wanted to know if there was a way to measure for epiphany? Or, do our online metrics measure the right things? And if not, what are the right things, and how can we measure for them?

Following on from that, are we doing enough to provoke epiphanies, rather than just trying to teach people things? This is something I am definitely going to explore at a later stage, but it seems to me there is a particular value in things that don’t have easy answers or ready conclusions. These are the subjects we dwell on, that stick in our minds (or at least in mine). These are the things that we keep coming back to. So why do we, in museums, feel that we have to teach (ie, to provide answers)? Maybe we would be far more compelling if, like the art and objects we display, we asked more unanswerable questions. What if we again became philosophical centres, rather than centres for education. In the History Museums session, there was considerable talk about equipping people with the means to conduct historical research. What if the emphasis of museums becomes less about education, and more about enabling people to think critically through issues – without providing the answers? This is probably something that already happens, particularly in the best museum spaces, but it does seem like a critical issue that could be addressed particularly well in the offline space.

The museum website of the future?
Does the museum website of the future become as critical and central to the museum purpose and mission as the physical building itself? What happens when we start thinking about our data as a collection of digital objects to be curated? Does the position of digital knowledge curator become as essential as that of object curator? Can we reconcieve our online collections data in new ways that can be more beneficial to both museums, and society more generally?

…Ok, I think that is enough to get started. I am obviously going to continue to flesh out and develop these ideas in the coming few weeks, so stay tuned to this blog if you want to gain some insight into the nuance of the discussions that I had whilst at the conference.

In the mean time, thanks to everyone who was a part of my MCN experience. It was absolutely incredible, and I cannot believe what an interesting, supportive and warm community I have become a part of. Special thanks to the ever-amazing and provocative Koven Smith for inviting me to be a part of his panel, and to the MCN scholarship committee and ArtsNSW for their support in making it possible.

I leave you with pandas.

Aren’t they the cutest?

mining the museumgeek – meta-museology in the art show

You museumers have something to answer for! You’ve started getting into my head and disturbing my otherwise sane thoughts and now I’ve spent the last three days installing my first “meta-museological” experiment in my local student gallery.

Every year, my University Art Gallery holds an art prize focussed around a central theme. The exhibition usually passes me by, but this year the theme – Classify Me – caught my attention. The exhibition was premised on a political discussion that took place in Australia earlier this year, when a Senator called for all art to be classified prior to exhibition, in order that age limits (similar to restrictions placed on television) could be imposed. Tantamount to a call for censorship of the arts, it was something that Amy Hill – curator of the 2011 Prize – thought would make a great subject.

And she was right! The topic has garnered some great responses. However, my take on the subject was very different from that of the other participants.

Calling my work Classify Me2.0, I conducted a museological exercise in which I “classified” every work of art in the exhibition according to the ICONCLASS classification system, and through tagging. I then uploaded all of my classifications to a website (the first I’d created!), which could be accessed via either a computer in the Gallery, or utilising proximate QR codes in situ with the works of art themselves.

It has been an incredibly interesting experiment.

First of all, I am not an expert at classification, and so my categorisation of works has been inexact at best. I was armed with very little information about the works themselves. I had not read any artist statements, and so I was only able to make the classification based on the appearance of the work, and its name. In some ways, this is different from the way objects would be classified within a museum – although it did reflect a situation in which a politically driven classification system might work, including some of the difficulties that might be encountered.

I expected that I would find the process of classification interesting, but I didn’t realise that it would significantly affect me. Classifying objects into categories that in no way reflected my feelings about the works was strangely emotive. Of particular note was a small bronze sculpture of a pregnant girl, with one foot shod in a ballet shoe (in a nod to Degas), and the other limb a silver prosthesis. It’s a beautiful sculpture – gentle and delicate. However, the prosthetic limb is the most outstanding element of the piece, which placed the work in the category 31AA4 disabilities, deformations and monstrosities; diseases – AA – female human figure.

It shocked me that something so lovely could be associated with such ugly concepts. Similarly stunning was the fact that disability was, and is, classed as a monstrosity in the classification system. The system is obviously derived from a particular historical art paradigm, but given that it is still used, the grouping together of such concepts is pretty dismal. More than anything else, classifying this work really brought home the fact that classification has no room for nuance.

The second aspect of this experiment that has been fascinating is the conversations that it has started.

During the classification process, the curatorial and installation team in the Gallery (mostly artists) would talk about what I was doing. Until I started classifying works actively in their presence, many had only ever thought about classification in context of censorship. Few were cognisant of the fact that museum objects are always categorised – whether by genre, materiality or era. They had never considered that classifications create proximal relationships between works that might be completely unrelated, and give works different meanings from those originally intended.

One member of the installation team was even concerned for me, worried that in creating this piece and categorising works like the dancer in particular ways (as honestly and fairly as possible) I would be opening myself up to hate in the local arts scene. Although it had crossed my mind that this piece could provoke some small reaction, I had not really considered that Classify Me2.0 could be really controversial.

And is still might not be. Most likely no one will blink. But even these conversations demonstrate that the classification of works of art – in public – has the potential to be very powerful.

Yesterday, too, I chatted to some exhibiting artists and discovered that a painting I had classified as 25G21(+1) fruits (+ plants used symbolically) based on first impressions was both that… and something else. What looked initially like a giant purple apple hanging upside down was also a painting of a well-disguised-but-instantly-obvious-once-you-know-it’s-there vulva. My classification of the object as a fruit was both accurate, and not. Yet to someone with access only to the ICONCLASS classification, this plurality of meanings would be lost.

So Classify Me2.0 has proved to be a great experiment. As a piece of art, it’s terrible. The in-gallery QR codes are inaccessible to audiences who don’t know what they are, or what to do with them (or who don’t own a smart phone). Because I’ve entered the work as part of a competitive art prize, I was not allowed to give too much explanation about the codes in the space (as it was thought to be disadvantageous to the other artists). Additionally, the computer upon which the Classify Me2.0 website is accessible is in an odd place in the Gallery, and people don’t seem to know how to interact with it. The website, too, has faults since it’s my first one. The design isn’t ideal, and the works of art are mis-ordered (because many works changed location between me classifying them and the final hang).

Yet as a conversation piece, and an experiment on the nature of classification, Classify Me2.0 has been incredibly successful. I’ve had rich and deep discussions with people about art and Museology – something that I hope will continue (I’ve approached the Curator and Director to see whether we can organise some kind of forum on classification in the Gallery within the coming weeks). And I’ve learned heaps from putting my ideas into practice in the real world.

The exhibition opens formally tonight, so I will keep you posted on any updates. But regardless, I hold you all accountable for starting me on this path.

Visit Classify Me2.0.
UPDATE: Well, apparently it turns out that Classify Me2.0 actually won the art prize. I wasn’t at the exhibition opening as I was on the train home from the Powerhouse Museum, but I just received a text from the curator, telling me I came first. I think the first prize is a $1500 travel scholarship – which will nicely pay for some of my flights to MCN2011. Um, I’m in a little shock right now.

Who are you collecting for?

Who is your museum collection for?

This might seem like a strange (and even silly) question for a museum geek. After all, I really hope that on some level the objects in your collection are for me! But since last week, when I asked  “if you have objects in your collection that could be useful to human society – whether to a researcher or someone else – and they can’t find or access that information (even just at a basic level to know that the object is in your collection), does that object have any purpose?” I’ve been thinking about just who and what we are collecting for.

At the Art Gallery where I work, we might have at most 200 collection objects on the floor at any one time (and many times, far less than this). This is out of a collection of almost 6000 works of art, and so most of the collection once acquired and preserved is rarely seen. We seem to hold onto some wonderful art objects for no one to use or even see.

And so I want to know for whom this wonderful collection – and all the other great collections of art; of specimens; of useful and not-useful objects – has been created. Is it for the silverfish? Or simply for the annals of history, in the hope that some day someone will have a purpose for it?

I am not the only person asking this. The Centre for the Future of Museums recently held a Twitter chat on the Future of Museum ethics (discussed here), and one of the questions raised was:

“[What are] The ethics of museums having many artifacts in storage which are never shown and are “inaccessible”[?] … In the digital age, with all materials potentially accessible in some way via the internet, what are a museum’s ethical obligations to invest in such access?”

And yet even once people can access a collection online, we are uncomfortable about letting go of control over our objects and collections – something that runs counter to mash-up culture. In 2010, Kristin R. Eschenfelder and Michelle Caswell published research on Digital cultural collections in an age of reuse and remixes that explored the control of non-commercial reuse of digital cultural works, and found that there were three main motivations for cultural institutions to seek control over their collections. These were “Controlling descriptions and representations,” “Legal risks and complexities” and “Getting credit: fiscal and social costs and revenue.”

Each of these does presents a significant reason why museums might seek to control the way that people can use the digital objects in their online collections. Further, Nick Poole recently published an excellent post about the Europeana Foundation’s new licence agreements, which would allow the publishing of Europeana digital cultural content as Linked Open Data. A significant number of museums expressed concern about signing the agreements, and Poole writes on why he thinks this is so:

As a linguist, I am used to talking about the signified and the signifier – broadly, there is the thing itself and the word which points to and describes the thing. For museums, this connection is very significant – there is the object, the material artefact, and then there is the meta-information which describes the object (the object number and its corresponding catalogue record). But this meta-information is neither simply factual nor simply descriptive. It, and the artefact it describes are part of an integral whole, connected by the object number as a persistent identifier.

Ergo, our collections are not simply about the objects. They are also about the history of the object, and even the history of the object’s interpretation. And online, that collection is signified by the way it is presented and represented digitally.

And as such I imagine that many institutions would still be incredibly uncomfortable about a member of the public ‘remixing’ the digital simulacrum of their collection objects (even those objects which are no longer under copyright). Which leads me back to my original question. Who is your collection for? If we feel the need to prevent the public from being able to reuse the digital object in a very vital and contemporary way, then does this mean our collection isn’t for them? And if we are not collecting for the public, then whom are we collecting for? Academics and researchers? Other museum professionals? Abstract people who live in some imagined future iteration of our world?

Early collections started in private homes and to satisfy personal whims. Answering this question a couple of hundred years ago would have been incredibly simple. The answer would have been limited to an individual and his social circle. But I’m not so sure that this question is so straight-forward now, and particularly in light of the fact that we can now make museum collections available to the general public online.

Now, I am not calling for cultural institutions to cede control of their online collections. There are legal, fiscal and cultural implications to such action, and this is not the argument I am trying to make. I guess I’m just trying to work out exactly who it is museums are holding onto their objects for.

Oh – and BTW – if you do know who your collection is for, I’d love to know if that impacts on your online collection, and in what ways.

Visualising the museum collection

I’ve been thinking today about how we visualise knowledge and information.

Since 1735 – when Carolus Linneas first published Systema Naturae  – we have relied on tree-like hierarchical classification schemes to define and enunciate the similarities and differences between things. These strict binary classifications provide us with an incredibly useful and logical way of relating objects to one another, and organising that information.

But in 2005, David Weinberger asked (PDF) (emphasis mine):

Without trees, how would we organize college curricula, business org charts, the local library, and the order of species? How will we organize knowledge itself?

It’s an interesting question. Weinberger’s piece, entitled Taxonomies to Tags: From trees to piles of leaves, examined social tagging and suggested that it provided the possibility of a new form of classification (one that is, it must be noted, unsystematic). He wrote:

Tags are a break from previous ways of categorizing. Both trees and faceted systems specify the categories, or facets, ahead of time. They both present users with tree-like structures for navigation, letting us climb down branches to get to the leaf we’re looking for. Tagging instead creates piles of leaves in the hope that someone will figure out ways of putting them to use – perhaps by hanging them on trees, but perhaps creating other useful ways of sorting, categorizing and arranging them.

Weinberger’s way of looking at the descriptions we attach to objects acknowledges that there can be multiple relationships between things, each of which can be meaningful in their interpretation. At first glance, it seems much more akin to the information experience online, into which people can jump in at any single point, and follow an unfixed and continually unfolding journey to any other point. But while we can dive straight into a pile of leaves and reconfigure them in countless ways, it probably still helps to know what trees they fell from to understand whether you are rolling around in a pile of poison ivy.

However, where Weinberger’s piece is interesting to me is that it starts me thinking about new ways to organise knowledge.

Over the last week or so, I’ve come across a couple interesting conversations happening in the blogosphere, where other people are also thinking about the metaphors we use to describe our music and our museums.

Ed Rodley’s post on Apps as data visualizations reviews two recent apps – Planetary, a data visualisation app for music; and Biblion, the New York City Public Library’s newest app. Planetary is a data visualisation app that uses the metaphor of the galaxy to describe relationships within your music library. But what really captured me in Ed’s post (and ultimately inspired this response) is the challenge that he throws out, to “Substitute your museum’s CMS for your iTunes library and imagine the possibilities.”

Last week, Mia Ridge proposed that we open conversation on new metaphors for museums. She asks,

…what if we were Amazon? A local newspaper? A specialist version of Wikipedia? A local pub? A student blog? A festival, a series of lectures, or a film group? A pub quiz? Should a museum be at the heart of village life, a meeting place for art snobs, a drop-in centre, a café, a study space, a mobile showroom?

These discussions got me thinking about the very question that started this post. How do we visualise knowledge and information? And how could we? Are there new metaphors that have emerged out of the World Wide Web that could provide us with new ways to see the relationships between things? And finally, how could these new metaphors apply to museums, and only museum collections?

If Planetary can imagine music as the dance of the planets, could we visualise museum collections as a subway network with innumerate nodes where people can choose a direction to begin looking (ie American Modern Art), and travel along that line, stopping as frequently as they want or choosing an express past the objects until they reach their desired location; or until they choose to diverge to a side track (Kandinsky’s greatest hits) with new and spontaneous tracks able to be created in a moment.
(BTW – is it obvious I wrote this post on the train)

Or instead, can we imagine a museum as a city, whose buildings are filled with the markers of those who have come before? Peter M Allen, in his paper from the Complexity Theories of Cities Conference 2009 titled Cities: the Visible Expression of Co-evolving Complexity, argues that:

Towns and cities are the visible external evidence of the complex, historical co-evolution of the knowledge, desires and technology of the multiple agents that have inhabited them. The buildings are monuments, some short lived some long, to the activities and identities of successive individuals whose efforts have been guided by the emerging patterns of ‘demand and supply’ of various activities. Physical, psychological, environmental and technological factors have influenced the particular patterns and structures that have emerged that reflected the co-evolution of technology with our changing desires and aspirations.

I feel that this statement could be equally applied to museums, with museum collections seen as  “the visible external evidence of the complex, historical co-evolution of the knowledge, desires and technology of the multiple agents that have [created] them… Physical, psychological, environmental and technological factors have influenced the particular patterns and structures that have emerged that reflected the co-evolution of technology with our changing desires and aspirations.” Now, doesn’t that sound like the way museum collections evolve, pieced together by different people and influenced by different fashions and gifts to the museum?

And if that is the case, maybe the way we need to consider modelling the information within them requires a more complex metaphor than is provided by trees, or piles of leaves. But what do you think? How could you imagine a museum collection, metaphorically?

The end of scarcity and the economics of everything (including knowledge)

Earlier today I read an interesting piece by James L. McQuivey on titled Why the End of Scarcity Will Change the Economics of Everything [OPINION]. In it, he asks:

what happens if the economics of scarcity are exchanged for the economics of plenty? For those industries that provide information or experience as a primary good, scarcity is rapidly evaporating. The media business is undergoing a similar change with the rise of citizen journalists, bloggers, and YouTube performers — all of which circumvent the traditional systems that once dictated production norms and processes. Most of these companies have sought to restore order by reinstating scarcity rather than celebrating its passing. It’s not a good sign of things to come.

McQuivey argues that companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have staked their territories online precisely because they have given their product away. By creating unlimited potential for people to become invested in the product, these companies are renegotiating the rules on the economics of plenty. As he writes, “In their world, the costs to exploit scale revert to zero. The best ideas, no matter how small or underfunded, have the largest potential impact, and a company that gives its value away may stand to gain more value in return.”

Following on from this, McQuivey delivers a fairly bleak outlook for those industries like education that deal primarily in information in the context of an economy of plenty (emphasis added):

Education reformers have long predicted a world where top professors spread their knowledge across the globe through electronic tools. But the knowledge students need is not only located in those few professors’ minds. Once we digitize not just the distribution of knowledge but the production of it, the existing university system loses its raison d’etre. Why would people come to a single physical location at higher and higher costs when the knowledge it houses is no longer scarce?

Now, whether McQuivey’s predictions on the growing economy of plenty come to pass in the way he is imagining or not, it’s still something we should be considering as online museums in the twenty first century. Why would someone visit the Louvre’s website to find out about the Mona Lisa, when they could just click on the first link to pop up in Google? Even assuming they knew that the Mona Lisa was at the Louvre, what would compel them to invest time in learning how an unfamiliar site works, instead of just visiting Wikipedia?

Legona Lisa

In other words, what are we offering to our digital visitors that they can’t get elsewhere on the web? Is it expertise (or access to expertise)? Is it the curation of culture? In an economy that relies on scarcity, museums in their current format make a lot of sense. But what about one that doesn’t?

Examining the Rosetta Stone

As I was writing this post, Jasper Visser from the Dutch Museum of National History sent me a copy of the museum’s vision. The opening page simply states: THE NATIONAL HISTORY MUSEUM STIRS THE HISTORICAL IMAGINATION. Now that’s a pretty awesome goal, and might be just the sort of thinking that can translate to compelling digital content and context in the online museum. Maybe the goal of the digital museum in a content of plenty is not simply to provide content and information – which can indeed be gathered from almost everywhere – but to stir the historical (or scientific or artistic) imagination. Maybe rather than relying on the scarcity of their product, museums online can find a way to do what arguably they have always done extraordinarily well and get people to ask questions, instead of seeking simply to provide answers.

Addendum: I was thinking about this on the cycle home, and I started wondering about whether any museums do include information about what is still unknown about their collections, as well as providing known information. What I mean is, surely there are works of art or objects in the museum that still raise questions. And if so, would providing those questions in context with the work and the associated text give people a compelling reason to invest in museum collection websites? I am guessing that one reason Wikipedia became so popular is that it asked of investment of people’s knowledge, and gave them opportunity to contribute to the collected intelligence of the world. Maybe museums need to do a bit more of the same. Rather than simply allowing people to tag works of art etc, we should actively seek new expertise by opening up about the gaps in our collections, and in our knowledge. Solving puzzles is a pretty addictive thing to do. No doubt that’s why Google have just started their A Google A Day page… The difference is the puzzles on their pages have known answers. Maybe one of the sweet things about museums is that the answers to our puzzles have not yet been found. Just a thought…