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?

Do deaccessioned items belong in the online collection?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum collections and the “rhetoric gap”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

If a tree falls in a museum, and no one is there to hear it…

Australian IT policy advisor Pia Waugh has just posted the first of a series of four posts on online culture. This one, titled Unicorns and Doom, investigates some of the ways that the Internet is changing mainstream culture. As she writes

Using the Internet changes your expectations of the world around you, and importantly your expectations of how you can interact with the world.

The entire post is compelling, and I would recommend that everyone should read it. However, I am going to pull out a few of her key points now and dissect them a little bit for what they mean for museums.

Waugh argues that there are four expectations/behaviours that we develop when we engage online. These are the expectation that we can route around damage – or find new paths around any form of artificial interference; healthy skepticism – that we can examine and question information, particularly official information that doesn’t necessarily gel with other evidence; an expectation of transparency and accountability; and an expectation that through “do-ocracy” or people power, it really is possible to make significant changes to the world.

In her post, Pia expands on each of these ideas considerably. However, I’ll now just grab a couple of her ideas in brief for closer examination. She writes:

When we want to know about something, we automatically look it up online. We expect to be able to get information on any subject we choose and when information is not forthcoming we ask why.

This is one of the very real and compelling reasons why I do think that museum collections do need to be online… When Koven asked what’s the point of a museum website at MW2011, and again in his Ignite speech, my first answer was (and continues to be) that as we become more and more reliant on the Internet as the storage space for the sum of human knowledge and information (as seems to be happening) then if something is not online it will almost be as if it doesn’t exist. It’s the tree falling in the woods argument reframed… 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? How can it tell us anything about ourselves/our past/culture if we don’t even know it exists?

Now this is a very different question of how we make that information useful and useable – and I think that is an entirely unresolved problem (see Mia Ridge’s post on death by aggregation). But as our social expectations regarding information change, it really is becoming the case that if information about something is not accessible online, then we look for other information. Even as a researcher, I will look online at my library’s collection to see what books they have that I might be able to use well before I make the trip into the physical location. That’s not to say that serendipity won’t guide my search once I’m there, but the initial impulse usually occurs when I’m not in situ – and my future actions are predicated on the information that I find online.

Waugh’s post continues:

The Internet has democratised both access to and “publishing” of knowledge. The control of knowledge has always been a power mechanism, and we are now seeing a significant struggle as traditional knowledge and power brokers find themselves continually flanked by individuals and communities.

This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a little while now. The publishing of knowledge, and control over information, is something that has obviously been important for museums historically. It was a key aspect of how museums maintained their authority, by making some claim to control over the objects of our past and the information about those objects, and therefore about our past.

However, authority online comes from (appearing to have) visibility of process, rather than from hiding behind safe institutional walls. This means that organisations need to be work harder to ensure consistency between what they say they do and what they actually do, since they will be called to account if people notice gaps between the rhetoric and the action.

Pia argues that the ease with which we can access, engage with and hold accountable anyone online makes it easier for people to make informed choices, and I would agree. This article by Richard Smith from the Journal of Financial Transformation provides an interesting perspective into transparency and trust in the ‘post-Gutenberg era’, or the era of social media (although focussed on business institutions and brands). He writes:

In the Gutenberg world, trust was institutionalized. Organizations worked to establish reputations such that people would trust anything and everything they did without feeling the need to interrogate it for themselves. This worked because it was efficient, from the organization’s perspective, and because individuals recognized that they could not (or could not be bothered to) comprehensively interrogate all the organizations they dealt with. They would accept an organization’s ‘institutionalized representation’ of itself (its brand) — provided they could have a level of reassurance that this representation was reasonably accurate.

Trust within social media is not vested in institutions, it is vested within visible processes. The best way to explain this is to look further at the Wikipedia example and its battle with Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Encyclopaedia Britannica is a classic example of institutionalized trust. You trust its entries based on your knowledge of the reputation for accuracy it has established and carefully nurtured over the years. You do not feel the need to look behind or interrogate this reputation in any way. Wikipedia is totally different. You trust its entries purely on the fact that it has made visible the way that entry was produced and refined. Even if you do not choose to examine the history of every entry, the simple fact that you can do this and there is a process in place which means somebody is doing this, gives you a level of trust. Critically, an element of this trust is based around the need for you to make your own assessment of the process and how much trust you will decide to allocate to it.

It is not that people are going to reject institutionalized trust, but the task of sustaining it is going to become much harder in the world of transparency brought about by social media. Organizations will, therefore, find that ultimately the only efficient way to maintain trust is to switch to a model based on process, which will mean creating the ability to see in much greater detail how an organization goes about its business.

As Pia’s post indicates, mainstream culture is changing as a result of the Internet. What this means for museums – particularly online – is still open to significant debate. But it is important to look at the significant and apparently lasting trends occurring within technology and the ways society is changing as a result to get a sense of how and where the museum website fits.