Cooperative conservation? On Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition of a ‘living object’

On 27 August, the Cooper-Hewitt made public news of an interesting acquisition: its first piece of code. If you haven’t yet heard about the acquisition, let me fill you in with the briefest of details: Planetary is an iPad app. The Museum has acquired the app itself, and its source code. In itself, this feels important; an attempt made to combat the rushing waters of time that seek to drive apart software and the hardware that once supported it by holding onto at least the record of what was; the thought processes behind it. But that’s just the beginning…

Where things get compelling for me is what the Cooper-Hewitt has done with that code. They’ve made it public, releasing the source code on GitHub under an open source license, and putting the graphical assets online under a Creative Commons (non-commercial) license. In so doing, the Museum is treating the acquisition as a kind of ‘living object’. As Clive Thompson puts it:

Geeks worldwide can then download and modify it—visualizing collections of books, perhaps, or a constellation of genomes. Public-minded nerds years from now will be able to create “emulators”—software that runs on modern computers but emulates today’s iPad, so people eons from now can see how Planetary appeared in 2013.

Why has Cooper-Hewitt taken this approach? To preserve it. As Seb Chan and Aaron Cope describe in their post about the acquisition, the Museum hopes that making Planetary‘s source code open, it will encourage developers, scholars and enthusiasts to help develop new versions of the app, which can work on different operating systems.

Open sourcing the code is akin to a panda breeding program. If there is enough interest then we believe that Planetary’s DNA will live on in other skin on other platforms. Of course we will preserve the original, but it will be ‘experienced’ through its offspring.

This move, and the associated language used by Chan and Cope to describe it, makes me wonder whether this is the first example in a museum context (beyond zoos, acquaria or other natural living collections) of ‘cooperative conservation’? In an environmental context (which seems appropriate, given the panda metaphor employed by Chan and Cope), cooperative conservation has been defined (by George Bush in a 2004 Executive Order) as:

actions that relate to use, enhancement, and enjoyment of natural resources, protection of the environment, or both, and that involve collaborative activity among Federal, State, local, and tribal governments, private for-profit and nonprofit institutions, other nongovernmental entities and individuals.

Cooperative conservation, then, is a form of collaborative action taken by various entities and individuals with the aim of conserving a species. A cooperative conservation program is:

a breeding and/or management program that aims to conserve a species (in the wild or in captivity, or both) and applies best practice to the management of husbandry, genetics, biology and behavioural needs of the species. The program’s objectives must be based on the conservation status and needs of the species, and the program must not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

This language feels almost applicable to the Cooper-Hewitt’s decision to conserve Planetary as a physical object (a copy of the source code is also preserved in a machine-readable font on archival paper), and their tag-and-release program, which has seen the code re-enter the wild. The institution has taken the approach to tackle the needs of the species as a living object. Ideally, this will mean that the code can be adapted to suit different purposes and environments, preserving Planetary not simply as app, but as ‘an interaction design that found its ‘then-best manifestation’ in the iPad.’

This raises a few questions, including who exactly is going to be responsible for participating in this cooperative venture, and under what conditions. How will individuals be recruited to invest their time and energy in this kind of cooperative conservation project, and what will compel them to remain part of the Museum’s efforts to preserve Planetary and future projects of this kind?

This morning, I’ve been reading Mathieu O’Neil’s Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes, in which O’Neil describes the relationship between authority on the Internet and autonomy. In a section on distributed or cooperative production in free-software projects, O’Neil notes (p44)  that:

The availability of source code makes it possible for an unlimited number of individuals to collaborate in its development. This, in itself, it not enough to guarantee that it will be developed: the possibility must be realised by a community of people willing to invest their time and energy. The capacity of project leaders to successfully attract and retain participants and integrate their contributions is crucial for the survival of the project.

Similarly, there is an interesting piece in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment journal, on The Promise and Challenge of Cooperative Conservation, which has relevance here. Terrie Klinger and Virginia Dale observe that cooperative conservation has some inherent difficulties in its application, due to the challenges in moving from a system dominated by top-down, regulatory processes to one motivated by shared goals and accomplished through cooperative action. They write:

Efforts will be idiosyncratic, and likely will be motivated by the desire to conserve iconic species, restore special landscape features, or avoid federal regulation. Successes will be patchy in time and space, and there will be mismatches in scale between conservation action and ecological process.

Successful action will depend on the leadership of a few strong actors; consequently, outcomes could be driven by special interests, and the predictability and repeatability of successful action could be low. Durability of successful outcomes will depend on the sustained engagement of interested parties.

Effective vertical integration will be difficult to achieve.

Scientific and technical expertise will often be limiting in projects that rely on volunteers or community groups.

Coalition building and cooperative action will take time and the temporal scale required for cooperation may not match the scale of the threat.

Global climate change will add a new and difficult dimension to all efforts and may overwhelm or undo short-term successes.

Cooperative action will not eliminate conflict, but will change the manner in which conflicts are resolved. Unresolved conflicts will delay action and could accelerate loss or degradation of the resource of interest.

Take out the words ‘ecological’ and ‘climate’ here, and substitute in ‘technological’, and I think these challenges may be similar to the ones that the Cooper-Hewitt and other institutions that take this kind of approach to conserving born digital objects might face. This is not to suggest I don’t think this project will work. Conversely, I think that sites such as Wikipedia demonstrate, there is indeed a hunger for these kinds of participatory projects, and this makes Cooper-Hewitt’s willingness to experiment in this area all the more exciting. However, there is a much higher bar for participation in a project that requires people to hack source code than for someone to make a correction on Wikipedia, or to add a tag to a museum collection, so I wonder whether museums tackling these kinds of acquisitions will need members of staff to take on deliberate roles as online project leaders or focal points for such cooperative ventures.

A few weeks before Cooper-Hewitt made this acquisition public, I wrote a post on museums curating the digital world. In the comments, Nicole Cama and Penelope Hyde from the Australian National Maritime Museum drew attention to the fact that curators working in a digital space might have to negotiate roles including Digital Exhibition, Engagement Curation, and Digital Content Curation, while Koven Smith suggested that in a context where objects are essentially nonrivalrous ‘the curator role [might actually be] a collectivist role (as the ‘editor’ role essentially is with Wikipedia), rather than a specialized one contained within a single person’. Maybe what these kinds of acquisitions and community conservation projects might require is not a curator per se (with the top-down knowledge connotations that come along), but an enabler and engager?

Regardless of these questions, I’m really, really excited by this move by the Cooper-Hewitt. As Seb and Aaron write in their post:

Museums like ours are used to collecting exemplary achievements made manifest in physical form; or at least things whose decay we believe we can combat and slow. To that end we employ highly trained conservators who have learned their craft often over decades of training, to preserve what would often be forgotten and more quickly turn to dust.

But preserving large, complex and interdependent systems whose component pieces are often simply flirting with each other rather than holding hands is uncharted territory. Trying to preserve large, complex and interdependent systems whose only manifestation is conceptual – interaction design say or service design – is harder still.

It’s wonderful that the museum is tackling this question head on. This is a project to watch.

There’s still much to be unpacked here (and in my dissertation!), but I’d be really interested in hearing your reflections on Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition, and this idea of ‘cooperative conservation’. Do you think that born digital acquisitions can be conserved cooperatively? Is this an apt metaphor? And if so, what do you think might be necessary to make such projects successful?

#drinkingaboutmuseums – Sydney – 4 September 2013

Today Seb Chan and Aaron Cope dropped news of one of the coolest things I’ve heard in musetech circles in some time. The Cooper-Hewitt has acquired Planetary – it’s first piece of code – to be preserved as a living object. This is such an interesting idea, and one that fits right into my own ideas about what museums need to be doing and confronting in an era of networked knowledge. I am going to spend a few days sitting with their post and thinking through its implications further before I respond fully, but this is a perfect excuse for plugging next week’s #drinkingaboutmuseums in Sydney, because Seb himself is going to be in appearance. This also means that if you haven’t been to a #drinkingaboutmuseums in a while, it will be a really great one to attend.

So, if you’re a museum/art gallery/culture professional – or student – located in or near Sydney, you should come along. If you haven’t been to a #DAM event before, get in contact with me and I’ll send you my phone number so you can locate us. Or you can follow the #drinkingaboutmuseums hashtag on Twitter for updates in the lead-up to the event.

When: Wednesday, 4 September 2013
Time: From 5.30pm
Where: Down the Rabbit Hole (a totally appropriate choice following Seb’s most recent immersive theatre experience.)
Who: You!!

The Cooper-Hewitt’s decision to acquire their first piece of code is a really important one, and bound to spark a significant amount of conversation in the sector. This is a great opportunity to talk about it. It’s also a chance to build stronger internal networks within the museum community here in Australia, which is so important.

Earlier tonight I attended the Sydney Open Research meeting and launch of the Open Knowledge Foundation Network Australia – a really important organisation doing great work to open up knowledge. I’ll talk more on this later, but being in the room tonight with a group of passionate, interested people all working on great projects left me really inspired, and renewed my appreciation for the value of informal connections and networks. It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the fact that #drinkingaboutmuseums has becomes something of a regular thing. So do come along.

And as always, a quick note about the nomenclature… Despite it’s somewhat US-centric name, #drinkingaboutmuseums is not just about object-based museums. It definitely includes art people, or anyone interested in the GLAM and cultural sectors. Hope to see you there!

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?

On data visualisation + algorithmic curating

It’s always a great start to a day when the first two links you click inspire a flurry of fresh thought. I have been getting stuck into some PhD writing this week, and fast losing myself in the doldrums of theory. So waking this morning to a little bit of inspiration was just what I needed.

The first shot of inspiration, that woke me far more than a coffee would, was this super-cool research on What Makes Paris Look Like Paris? (on Openculture via Jasper Visser & Seb Chan). I remember as a child someone telling me that all cities had colours; that some cities were grey, and some brown. Some were blue. These dominant colours reflected the materials that had been used in construction, the fashions that had shaped the way the city was constructed, the natural resources that were available to the builders. And so I often look out at new cities as I approach them, and watch to see what colour they are. This research reminds me of that, for it analyses Google Street View imagery to look for the common visual elements of a city, like its architectural features. It turns out that not only do cities have colours, they also have distinguishing architectural features.

Imagine what kind of new information and understand lies within our collections, if similar techniques were deployed. What kind of features are common to paintings of Paris? Are there common colours used to depict Paris, or are the architectural elements captured in the research above visible? And what else can we learn about our collections through these kinds of techniques? It is easy to think of this (for me) in terms of art collections, but I am sure there is much that can be found in archeological data and other museological data. (Not that most museum data is that great, as Mia Ridge recently discovered when playing in the Cooper Hewitt datasets.)

There is some work being done in this area, of course, but I’m interested in what else we can find in our collections using these kinds of techniques. This morning, I also watched What do they have? Alternate Visualizations of Museum Collections in which Piotr Adamczyk, when he was at the Met, talks about the possibilities for new information that might be possible in collections data. During the question time, he speaks of his interest in using data to look at provenance and figure out the history of the object in order to visualise who had it, when and where. For me, this is exactly the sort of flow of information that I would find so interesting about collections. I am really interested in the power structures and power makers in any sector. When I met curator Helen Molesworth recently, I asked her what I would discover about her influence on permanent collections, were I to look across the course of her career; who and what she had collected consistently or in different institutions over her life as a curator. It was a question that floored her, because it was one no one had ever asked before. But to me, this is the interesting stuff of museums. Who are the individuals that change the shape of our collections, and indirectly then, the shape of our material wants and expectations? Who has shaped the art market by collecting the works of an individual and increasing their value for other collections? Which individuals have really changed the shape of our cultural heritage, its value and its impact? Who has championed the work of previously unknown artists, and turned them into a hot commodity?

So my other early moment of inspiration in starting the day was watching Koven Smith’s MuseumNext talk, which was just gone online. In it, Koven speaks about curators using algorithms to produce collection narratives – interpretive algorithms. Now it seems to me that this idea starts to coincide with the work being done above, whereby collection researchers and communicators working in a museum could have a focus on a whole collection, and how it relates to the rest of the world, rather than only having curators (or researchers) whose focus is on exhibitions and material culture.

When I last wrote about big data and museums, I quoted from Mia Ridge, who mentioned that there are probably lots of other people who can do great things with museum data, much more than museums can and potentially should. And I agree with that. But I also wonder if making sense of our collections at a macro level with these sorts of techniques and possibilities isn’t also something museums should be doing. I don’t know about that, but I do think it’s something to think about.

What do you think? What would you like to see visualised using museum collections? Are there new ways of looking at the work we do that technology is making possible in ways that weren’t previously available? And should this work be done within the museum, or is it just the responsibility of the museum to enable others to do it?