A museum collection that never ends? Cooper-Hewitt’s new online collection

I keep getting lost.

It’s not just my newly-found geekout obsession with Geocaching either. It’s been happening on the pages of the Cooper-Hewitt collection alpha, launched last week and designed to let you lose yourself in its pages. For me, at least, it’s been working. But there’s lots at play in this collection, so I thought I’d run you through some of the elements that catch my eye and mouse-clicks.

A collection that’s “of the web”
The opening gambit that the collection makes is that it’s the first one self-proclaimed to be “of the web”, linking to (edit – and pulling in from) outside sources like Wikipedia, Freebase and other museum collections. This idea that a museum can gain authority by pointing to/sharing other useful and authoritative content is something that Koven Smith, Nate Solas and others have been talking about for sometime (the Walker being the first to take this approach to their website more generally), and it’s exciting to see it realised on a collection. Just as interesting is the way Cooper-Hewitt reaches out to its users to build the knowledge around the collection via external links, asking:

Do you have your own photos of this object? Are they online somewhere, like Flickr or Instagram? Or have you created a 3D model of one of our objects in SketchUp or Thingiverse? If so then then tag them with ch:object=18452119 and we will connect ours to yours!

This is an exciting move, and I will watch with interest to see how it develops (I cannot yet find an example of an object where a user object has been incorporated in with the museum record, so I don’t know what it will actually look like in practice). This doesn’t seem to actually invite the audience voice into and onto the collection record directly (ie through comments); but it holds promise to weave in external interpretations and iterations of the museum object with the museum’s own interpretation, acting as a form of digital citation. The museum collection record can then act as anchor for discussions/interpretations around the object itself, which to me seems to be an interesting take on the idea of “authority”.

I am curious to see how people react to the invitation to link their images and interpretations of collection objects with the museum’s. Will amateur collectors share their images and knowledge about the objects, and if so, will that force more attention onto the collection itself as the centre for a bigger conversation? (An aside – the museum asks people not to steal their images, so I wonder what the implications are of providing links to other people’s own photographs of collection objects. Does this provide an interesting way to make available images of collection objects without the museum providing them itself?)

A collection that speaks using a natural tongue
While I think the inclusion of externally-derived links/information on the collection is the big move that will get museum people talking, there is much more to like in the collection alpha. One of my favourite touches is the plain-text descriptions of works (often also accompanied by images). I am totally charmed by these textual descriptions. Not only does the language seem far less confronting than traditional museum-ese, but in the cases where an image of the actual work is unavailable, this conjures up a beautiful sense of the object itself. I have a peculiar urge to create tshirts and art products from these descriptions, and hang them on my body or my walls (before photographing them and linking them back into the collection, of course). This is my current favourite.

Night scene of a skyscraper consisting of a massed cluster of low tiered sections below culminating in a monumental tower. The structure is illuminated by the city street lights below and streams of light from a chapel- like central section. A white cross is visible at the top of the tower. Pedestrians walk among silhouetted leafless trees below.
Photostat #1964-5-13

How beautiful is that? Wouldn’t you love to get 50 different people to draw or create a work of art that met this description, and see what they all looked like?

Simple design solutions
These descriptions also serve as a stand-in (as do other natty little invisible design objects) for images where they are unavailable, in a gorgeous response to the problem of digitisation and permissions, otherwise spelled out in this disclaimer:

We can’t show you any images of this object at the moment. This may be because we have not yet digitized this object or, if we do have a digitized image, we don’t hold the rights to show it publicly. We apologize for any inconvenience.

The Cooper-Hewitt has found seemingly simple design solutions to the problems that all museums are facing, of digital rights and access and the cost of massive digitisation projects.

Working with what you’ve got
What else? I think it’s great that this collection has been done as an ‘alpha’ release, a minimally viable product. I like that the eccentricities of the raw data are acknowledged. I enjoy the nomenclature used when acknowledging the “village of people” involved in making an object, and the focus on people/creators as well as objects. I love the way that the inconsistencies in data are explained, such as in the “Periods” section.

These sorts of descriptions explain why an object fits under the umbrella of a particular term, and why some of the descriptions are imprecise or less than perfect. It allows for imperfections in the data, but also acknowledges why they exist. Each period description also includes the number of objects you’ll find within it, and the percentage of the online collection that it holds, ie “American Modern — there are 531 objects made around this time which is about 0.43% of our online collection” which helps give context and proportion to the period in comparison to the larger collection.

Navigating a dozen ways, but still delightfully lost
There are nice ways of navigating this collection, which give credence to both what the museum thinks is important (ie departments), some classic parameters (countries, periods, media), and also the options for searching by people, their roles, or random. I also like being able to click on a time period, like “1900”, and getting a page that says this “We may not know what everyone in our database, did during the 1900s but we know about a few of them.”

At the moment, the display seems to be weighted towards those individuals or periods with the most number of objects, and therefore the largest percentage of the online collection, which would be a logical choice in terms of highlighting collection strengths or at least the weight of the collection. I’d be interested in whether there were future ways to weight the collection that might put emphasis on individuals in the collection who were considered to be important, but who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of objects, but right now the approach is logical.

Because there aren’t many images at the centre of the navigation, I tend to click on the most interesting or random words, and I wonder whether this is typical search behaviour or not. I will be interested to see how other people navigate this collection, and whether they get as sucked into it as I do. But so far I have indeed been wandering serendipitously.

There is much more I could write about, but I’ll leave it here. This is a very exciting step for the Cooper-Hewitt, and for online museum collections in general. I look forward to seeing how it develops and is received. Congrats to Seb, Aaron and Micah on the launch. Also, I think that both Aaron and Micah will be at MCN2012, and Aaron is a keynote at NDF2012 in New Zealand. Now is the time to swot up on questions to ask at these conferences on both sides of the world next month.

Have you had a play in the Cooper-Hewitt collection yet? What do you think?

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.

Takeaways from THATCamp Canberra, 2011

The last few weeks have been very intense. Between attending Reprogramming the Art Museum, presenting work at the Powerhouse Museum, speaking on a panel at Critical Animals, preparing for and presenting at the Digital Culture Public Sphere, and more, I have been pretty exhausted.

Thus it was that I was in two minds about attending THATCamp Canberra. I had been looking forward to going to THATCamp for ages, ever since I first heard about the concept in relation to THATCampMCN. But by the time the event actually rolled around, I was so brain-sore that I didn’t think I would have anything left in me to contribute (and that is, after all, the point of an unconference).

But fortunately, the event was so stimulating that I didn’t need to worry. There is no way that I can write a post that sums up everything I learned however, so here are some of the highlights and takeaways that I got from attending.

The first day was bootcamp, and it brought with it an awesome opportunity to find out more about data visualization in a big double-session with Mitchell Whitelaw. I recently learned about Mitchell’s cool commonsExplorer project (with Sam Hinton), which visualizes the relationships between tags and images on Flickr Commons, so I was pretty keen for this session. Data visualisation is something that I think has a great place in relation to museum data as we move towards increased linked data, and I was super glad to have the chance to learn more about the back end of the process.

It turned out that I was entirely in over my head, because the session was pitched at people who had some basic coding experience – and I still don’t really have any. Since my post on wanting to learn to code, I have started trying to master some of the basics, teaching myself a little Ruby after borrowing a book on it from the PHM web team library. However, Mitchell’s bootcamp session was the first time I’d really had a chance to sit in a class with people going through this type of thing, and it was so cool to start to get the sense of how the thought patterns develop when actually coming up with programming. I’d heard people talk about coding as being about problem solving, but in my mind, I didn’t really understand the extent to which that was true. I’d been so conscious of my lack of programming language that I hadn’t really clicked into the fact that programming really is about using the code as a tool. It’s such an obvious takeaway, but something that I didn’t really understand until I was in that context.

I managed to hold my own for the first half of the class, when Mitchell ran us through some basic ideas in Processing, and helped us create our first data visualizations, but completely lost my way in the second half of the session. Having said that, I am more and more starting to see the value in visualization, and the session really got me thinking about new ways to use and conceptualise data.

Really basic coding, but it's a start.

Thinking about museum data rather than simply museum objects is probably one of the things that I’m starting to do a lot more in recent weeks, and I think it’s really beneficial to my PhD research. One of the sessions on Saturday at THATCamp built upon this, as it looked at visualization from a broader perspective. Some of the real benefits of visualisation were seen to be the way it could help tease out new findings from data, and create big picture perspectives. Although there was some debate over the use (from an academic perspective) of visualisation, there was a general sense that it could lead to the asking of new questions, which is always a worthy pursuit.

The other sessions that really rocked my world and got my mind cogs ticking over were the ones on “Stories in Shoeboxes” about community storytelling websites and the conditions that lead to engagement; a session that I organised on authority and control in the Internet age; and a session to follow up on the Public Sphere.

Each of these sessions led to some really interesting discussion and thoughts, although no real conclusions (which is natural, due to the complexity of the issues at stake). The session on community storytelling/history/culture websites was very interesting. We discussed the fact that communities are generally self-selecting, and so it can be difficult for outsiders to really create an appropriate online space, even with the best intentions. It was also acknowledged that there needs to be something compelling, some ‘hook’ to get communities to engage online – there has to be something in it for them. In many cases, Facebook now seems to fulfill this role for self-forming communities, so maybe we need to learn from that and create simple and engaging spaces and leave the rest to the community?

The other two sessions that I loved and had great discussions in were both sessions that I proposed. The first session, which was on authority, was inspired by my coming panel on What’s the Point of Museum Websites, coming up at MCN in only a month. This session started with a seemingly simple question: what is authority, and how do you get it? In trying to answer just this, we ended up tangled in knots. Authority can be earned with time, it is culturally contextual, it can be conferred by another with authority. It is tied up with respect, but precisely how it is earned or maintained is unclear. In some ways, authority seems able to be likened to porn, in that it might be difficult to define, but is able to be known when seen.

The most interesting question that came out of the session however, and one that has certainly left me thinking ever since, was on the authoritative nature of Google online and whether “if you can’t find something on Google, do you trust that means it’s not online?” This brings up very interesting issues around transparency and manipulation of information, and also just on how much currency we are giving to this company that has no clear reason to be trusted, except that we have learned (rightfully or wrongfully) to trust it. After all, to Google is now shorthand for searching online, which is a great responsibility for a single company, and one that had interesting implications in a conversation about authority.

Finally, on Sunday morning we had an excellent (sober, rational) conversation about the Digital Culture Public Sphere that everyone who was attending THATCamp participated in. The discussion was quite different from the roundtable events on the day itself, because there were people drawn from a wider field at THATCamp. There were very useful contributions from people who would not necessarily self-identify as being from the digital culture sector, whose knowledge and experiences were very relevant. We’ve drawn up some results and will publish them to the digiculture wiki shortly, but it was generally a good and interesting session.

THATCamp whiteboard notes from our Public Sphere session. Thanks to Cath Styles for capturing the board.
Whiteboard notes #2

Of course, the best things about something like THATCamp are the new relationships that accompany the new conversations, and I met lots of interesting people working in very different areas to me. With an emphasis on the digital humanities, this was a far more academic conference than I’d been to in many ways, with lots of other Uni-focussed people in attendance. What was missing however was ego, as everyone seemed incredibly open to new ideas and new perspectives. What was particularly beneficial to me was the openness that surrounded the conversations, that left space and headspace for playing with ideas not yet fully formed. THATCamp felt like a place for incubating ideas, not just publicising fully-formed ones. Even in the last two weeks, despite my increasing busyness and lack of formal research, I’ve really found that playing through ideas in my head and working out how to describe and discuss them with others has made a very significant impact upon my PhD thinking. Yesterday I looked over some of my existing notes, and was aware of a number of gaps that I need to work through and include that had not yet been articulated in my work. I think this has been the greatest benefit to me of THATCamp – the chance to still engage with ideas but with a little critical distance from my more formal research.

THATCamp was also a place for karaoke (woo!), which was also beneficial, although maybe in different ways.

Thanks to the generosity of the Kress Foundation and THATCamp for awarding me a THATCamp Fellowship to attend the unconference. It was a brilliant experience, and I cannot wait to attend again next year.