Museopunks episode 3 – The Shape of Punk to Come – is online

This year, I’ve been super lucky to embark on a few different collaborative projects. One of the major ones was the paper that Danny Birchall and I co-wrote for MW2013, which kicked off a whole new line of investigation for me in research, and the other is the museopunks podcast that Jeffrey Inscho and I launched in April.

Both projects have been super rewarding, and I think it’s because they’ve eached pulled me out of my own headspace and the set of assumptions I port around, and forced me to push my work in new directions. Danny summed up similar feelings when he wrote about the experience of collaboration earlier this year:

When you’re working with someone towards a definition of a shared project, there are many modes in which you can operate. Sometimes you try to write down what you think they’re already thinking (and sometimes fail); sometimes you get to try your ideas out before they’re fully formed; you can take it in turns to lead the process. Most importantly, your paper or presentation goes beyond just trying to fill your audience’s cup with the knowledge you have, and moves towards making and thinking new things.

With that in mind, I’m super pleased to announce that the third episode of museopunks is online. In this episode, Jeffrey and I chatted to Bridget McKenzie from Flow Associates about future scanning and museums. It was a subject I was super keen to dig into a little further after being part of a session on Shaping the Future of Museums at Museums Australia 2013, and when I noticed all the Tweets from Bridget’s talk on a similar subject at MuseumNext, I knew we had to talk about the shape of punk museums to come.

This episode is actually the first of two with a focus on museum futures. Next month, we’ll be talking to Elizabeth Merritt from the Center of the Future of Museums, so if you have any particular questions you’re keen for us to investigate, feel free to send them through.

In the meantime, you can subscribe to Museopunks via iTunes, or check out our first two episodes. In Episode 1, we spoke to Michael Edson and Paul Rowe about museums in the Age of Scale, and Episode 2 focussed on museums, design and design thinking, with Dana Mitroff Silvers and Scott Gillam. If you have any ideas for topics you think we should dig into, or potential guests you’d love to hear from in future, please drop me or Jeffrey a line. We’re always eager to have our own ideas pushed a little further too.

Should museums just give up now and let Google take responsibility for knowledge?

Wow – so the introduction of Google Knowledge Graph today has some fascinating implications for museums, knowledge, and everything else. As the Mashable account of the new move by the company explains:

Starting today, a vast portion of Google Search results will work with you to intuit what you really meant by that search entry. Type in an ambiguous query like “Kings” (which could mean royalty, a sports team or a now-cancelled TV show), and a new window will appear on the right side of your result literally asking you which entity you meant. Click on one of those options and your results will be filtered for that search entity.

…In addition to the window which will help users find the right “thing,” Google will also surface summaries for things, which, again, will try to be somewhat comprehensive by tapping into the various databases of knowledge. A search for Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, will return a brief summary, photos of Wright, images of his famous projects and perhaps, most interestingly, related “things.” People who search for Wright are also looking for other notable architects. It’s a feature that may remind users of Amazon’s penchant for delivering “people who liked this book also bought or searched for this one” results.

And from the Google blog post on the Knowledge Graph, comes this little nugget:

We’ve always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want. And we can now sometimes help answer your next question before you’ve asked it, because the facts we show are informed by what other people have searched for. For example, the information we show for Tom Cruise answers 37 percent of next queries that people ask about him.

This is fascinating. And in some ways quite monumental for museums. How on earth can museums compete in such an environment? Why would anyone come to a museum (or at least, an online collection) for information when they can go to Google and get information that is likely to be tailored to their needs? And at the same time, how can we find information that runs against this “official” line? Is this simply grand narratives on a much grander scale, only controlled by a commercial entity? Google argues that this will lead to serendipitous discovery  – but surely the potential for truly serendipitous discovery is actually reduced, not improved?

During Koven’s Ignite Smithsonian talk from 2011, he said

however you may feel about content farms like eHow, wikiHow, whatever, what they do do very well is they find questions that people are actually looking for, and answer them directly and completely.  And so what we need to do is, by combining content from lots of sources, we can actually really focus on what people want, and worry just exclusively about making that content that’s unique to us.

But what on earth is unique to us? We aren’t the only institutions for whom history is our domain. Nor are we the only ones that tell stories. We have objects, yes, but objects maybe don’t mean all that much online, when all that they can present is a simulacrum of the physical. So what can we offer that Google cannot? Authority? I think that most people would think that Google was fairly authoritative for the majority of information that they are looking for (particularly if it does point to sites like museums and libraries).

So should museums simply give up trying to find better models for presenting their own collections, and work with Google? Or can we instead prove to be an effective counter-point to the global meta-narrative that Google is writing for us using algorithms? Does this move by Google have the potential to essentially change what a museum is or does online in the Internet age?

This is obviously a very quickly bashed out post, filled with first reactions rather than deep contemplation. But I would love to hear what you think about this more too. Lots to discuss on this issue.

What do you think? What could the implications of Knowledge Graph be for museums?

A throwdown about the term ‘curator’

Lately, questions about the bastardisation of the term curator have been emerging around the blogosphere. The Hermitage Museum wrote An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet, and Digital Transformations recently asked whether DJs are curators, and vice versa. Their opening volley caught my attention:

The word ‘curator’ gets used liberally these days to talk about stuff people do on the web. But does that devalue the term? Is there any way what someone does on Facebook is comparable to the years of training and knowledge which goes into curating collections in museums and galleries?

But here’s a proposition for you. I think that the liberal use of the term curator makes it stronger and more valuable. Some of our sector’s lingo is making its way beyond the walls of our institutions, and getting picked up by the mainstream in a positive way. If the way people understand that being a cool taste-maker who can select and define the zeitgeist is a “curatorial” trait, let them. If the hip and awesome are associated in some way with museums, great.

In museums, we often ask about how we ensure that we are relevant in people’s lives. But when something like this happens, where an idea that is absolutely associated with us does take on that role, we start arking up and trying to reclaim that space. And I’m not sure we have a right to demand that we have it both ways. If we want to be relevant to people, then let’s allow them to define some of the space in which that interaction takes place. If they want to take one of our words and bastardise it a little, but use it, then isn’t that better than it always being perfectly and correctly applied, but never used?

You will notice this argument has some very similar themes to those we use when justifying putting our collections online. We want those things we’ve spent time collecting and preserving to actually be used and meaningful to people, and so we move them into the space where people actually are – even when we cannot always control the reuse of those digital objects. Why can’t we allow the same thing to happen to our language?

Of course, this idea of “allowing” someone to take over our words is a false one… people do these things with or without us. But maybe if we stop fighting it, we can capitalise upon it. Maybe we can use this as a way to reach new people (“Who is the best ‘curator’ you know? Come and introduce them to our curator!”). If we stop trying to take possession over something we never actually owned in the first place, and instead look at it as a new point of entry for a plethora of possible new relationships, maybe we will be delighted by the results.

What do you think? Can museums use this movement towards curation as a platform for new types of engagement, and to talk to new audiences? How can we exploit this?

Hey girl – (S)useum edition

If you are a museum person who is reading this, I am hoping by now that you have seen Hey girl. I love museums. My awesome friend Erica had one of her own images posted on it the other day, and that has kicked off a little Ryan Gosling creativity amongst the other geek gals I know. So here is my own contribution to the site. I’ve sent it in, but in case it doesn’t make the cut, I thought I would post it here, too.

hey girl

PS – Ten points to any museum that can actually get Gosling to do a guest voice on their audio tours in 2012!

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.

‘Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power.’

I came across the title for this post in the comments section of an article discussing the recent releasing of JSTOR academic documents by Aaron Swartz, where fred_bauder writes: Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power.

It’s an interesting sentiment. Around the time of the wikileaks US diplomatic cables leak I remember reading an article about privacy in this age where the author asserted that the only way that people could now guarantee that secrets would be kept secret was to ensure they were never recorded or written down; that governments, businesses and individuals could all now be called accountable for everything ever committed to paper/email/device. In some ways, this has always been true… people have always been held accountable by what was recorded – be it on paper or tape – but things are publishable now with renewed vigor and ease, and that changes the game somewhat. The relationship between secrecy and power seems to be shifting.

Shortly after the wikileaks scandal, I had a conversation with a psychiatrist about the implications of the above, and he mentioned that for similar reasons he no longer records (non-critical) material in someone’s files that could one day be used against them. He no longer trusts in the sanctity of the files, because there is the possibility that with time, anything recorded could become public (if in doubt, check out this article about the Mug-Shot Industry [That] Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again).

Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power…

So why do I think this is important for museums? As museums put their collections online, they may be held newly accountable for what is and is not recorded within them. The public may (if they choose to look) become aware of ways in which museum records are incomplete, or even contain information that has been shown to be false since it was initially written down. This is not necessarily a negative thing. As Seb Chan noted in his MW2007 paper Tagging and Searching – Serendipity and museum collection databases on the Powerhouse Museum’s OPAC2:

the exposure of these records, and their increased searchability, especially through Google, has led to the Museum receiving additional contextual information about objects, or corrections to research. Sometimes this additional information comes from international experts, collectors and researchers, but at other times, as was the case with a convict love token, it comes through community members researching their family histories – and simply searching for a series of family names in Google.

But it is indicative of the fact that as museum collection documentation becomes available online, it is open to new scrutiny.

Paradoxically, this openness does little to challenge the fact that museums are, and have always been, secret societies filled with people who have special knowledge about the objects in the collection that not everyone is privy to. In their earliest iterations, museums were places for philosophical societies to meet, serving as a locus for research about the world. Even once museums became public institutions, the aim was to teach those without knowledge about the world and the collection. However, there is always a power imbalance between those with knowledge (and power) and those without it. All knowledge is secret knowledge if it is not freely and fairly available to all parties, and to some extent this is precisely where museum power is drawn from.

Museum knowledge is stored not only in our artefacts and documentation but importantly also in our people. We speak in secret languages (taxonomies) and have often-silent rules of accepted and acceptable behaviour that can be daunting to the ‘uninitiated’ (a term which is itself loaded with implications). Museum power is not in the things that have been committed to print – it’s in the knowledge of staff and their intuitive understanding of objects and collections. It’s in the judgements made when curating exhibitions. It’s in all the silent things that can never be fully recorded.

Julia Noordegraaf, in her book Strategies of Display: Museum Presentation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Visual Culture, writes about a similar schism that occurred in museum display in the nineteenth century. She writes (emphasis mine):

There is a paradox in the fact that most nineteenth-century museums were designed to accommodate large groups of visitors, while at the same time provided little information about the objects on display. Whereas the museum was thought to be a civilising and cultivating institution, its presentation was aimed at people who could find their own way through it and could interpret the objects on display by themselves. According to James Sheehan, this tension between the general and the exclusive lay at the code of nineteenth-century culture and society, ‘[…] the tension between the aspiration to have institutions that would be open to everyone and the structural inequalities that made these institutions inaccessible to all but a minority of the population.’

The paradox can perhaps be explained from the fact that in the nineteenth century, museums were conceived as places as much for the research or the advancement of knowledge as for popular instruction or the diffusion of knowledge. Until the end of the century, when museum innovators like Henry Flower recognised the need for different types of display for these different aims, museums were trying to fulfil both aims with one and the same type of display. It seems that in the nineteenth century, museum managers designed the script of museum presentation from the idea that educating the people simply meant opening the museum doors to everyone.[1]

Museums may be opening the virtual doors to their collections to everyone. However, this doesn’t mean that the audience is equipped with the same knowledge as the museum curator or educator. Even with digital openness, museums still have secret knowledge – and secret knowledge is also power.

[1] Julia Noordegraaf, “Strategies of Display: Museum Presentation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Visual Culture,” ed. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam (Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, 2004). 80. Noordegraaf quotes from Sheehan: Museums in the German Art World 2000: 115.