Guest post: Could a Collection Management System be like Facebook?

One of the things I love most about spending time at the Powerhouse Museum is the conversations that occur. Last week, the Registrar for Collection Management Systems, Lynne McNairn, and I had an interesting discussion about CMS’ and their ease of use. In response to that conversation, she has written this post with some of her thoughts.

Lynne McNairn

Could a Collection Management System be like Facebook?
Lynne McNairn
Registrar, Collection Management Systems

This post is partly written in response to recent posts about museums making the digital shift, and partly some observations from working in a museum.

One of the major tools in museums is the Collection Management System (CMS). These systems are very much about the object as a single item– they come from tradition of small white cards in wooden cabinets. But what could happen if a CMS was more like Facebook?

One problem faced by CMS administrators (I’ve spent many years plugging away at this) is that many people – particularly content providers such as curators – hate using the CMS. At the Powerhouse our CMS feeds directly to the Web as our Collection Search 2.53. When this was implemented (now 8 years ago), I thought it would be the answer to this problem. Surely when content providers could see their work posted online they would now be delighted to use the database! Sadly, although Collection Search has had an enormous positive influence on documentation at the museum, it is still the case that a great deal of useful and interesting collection research and documentation is undertaken that never reaches any sort of central repository and ends up being lost to the organisation.

What is it, then, that curators do with their documentation? I’m of course making sweeping generalisations but a look at an average curator’s PC will reveal many Word files and good number of PowerPoint presentations, as well as an overburdened Inbox. These files contain articles, publication manuscripts, exhibition ideas and the talks they give to groups.

So are there lessons in the huge popularity and ease of use of Facebook, which could make CMS a better tool for the work of interpreting museum collections?

There is no getting around the need for a detailed set of fields that record the acquisition, administrative and storage locations of an object, in order to manage the individual objects in the physical collection – but where does the interpretation of the collection fit?

Here is one idea for a ‘Facebook’ style CMS.

  • Each object gets its own profile (a subset of the fields we have in a CMS).
  • Users have options similar to  “Create photo album” (remember all those PowerPoint presentations). This feature could prompt users for some overall contextual information such as Title, Date Range, and Places etc, and ask them to state “What this presentation is about?”
  • The photos (or videos and other content) are loaded and the user adds the captions. At this point (as in Facebook), the user can tag the photo with any other relevant object profile. This content would not need to be restricted to “official” images of an object. It could include ‘happy snaps’ which a curator may have taken with a donor or maker etc as well as related material which supports the story being told.
  • Much like Facebook, this ‘photo album’ could then appear on the profile page of all the objects that have tagged.
  • The public could also be given access to comment and even create their own slide shows using our objects.

This idea could obviously be developed further. However, I think that for museums to really make the ‘digitisation shift’ there need to be new tools that make it easy for non-technical users to do their traditional work of interpreting and presenting the collection. Facebook has made it so easy for non-technical users of all types connect to their social networks. How could a museum CMS built on the same principles allow for easier capturing and linking together of museum objects and their interpretations?

museumgeek thoughts: Lynne’s post makes me wonder if there are any museum CMS’ that take this kind of social and non-technical approach to capturing collection information? Do you think this approach would work to better capture all that fabulous interpretative information that gets lost when individual curators leave an organisation?

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.

geek speak with Erika Taylor

This month’s culturegeek is museumgeek’s first curator and first Australian. Erika Taylor is the Curator of Science, Technology and Industry at the Powerhouse Museum, and she is one of a whole collection (boom tish) of passionate museum tech people who work at the institution. Before I met Erika, I kept seeing her name pop up on Twitter – and always in interesting conversations – so I thought I would try to find out just how a science curator ended up so interested in the digital world. As always in geek speak, I’ve asked Erika to write a post responding to the question “How on earth did you end up here?” Enjoy her story.

Erika Taylor - Curator of Science, Technology and Industry at the PHM - being awesome.

First and foremost I guess I am a science nerd. I grew up wanting to know how stuff works, I went to uni and found out how much I could drink stuff works, and I discovered a love of teaching other people about how stuff works (except magnets).

After I finished my science degree, I wandered the world for a while working in backpackers hostels, drinking, eating, and visiting museums, until I returned to home to look for a prestigious, well paid, and stable job in science. Shockingly that didn’t work out.

So what could I do with my love of science, learning, teaching, and museums? Masters in Museums Studies fit the bill, so off I went to learn about the history of museums, how to do paperwork, how to dodge bureaucracy and red tape, and that you must wear gloves when touching old things. The best part of the course was the opportunity to do two internships. My first internship was project managing a website build for a special interest group of Museums Australia. My supervisor was none other than the wonderful Ms Lynda Kelly at the Australian Museum. My second was at the Powerhouse Museum, which eventually led to them hiring me as a science curator.

I did what “curators do”. I researched, published, interpreted material culture, put on exhibitions, and gave talks and presentations. This was at a time when museums were just starting to discover social media, and experimenting with its uses, it was also a time when the Museum’s 300,000+ collection had been digitised. I started to become interested in curators and the digital world, and concerned at the growing gap between the two.

I found mentorship under two of the most influential people thus far in my professional life, Seb Chan, and Paula Bray, and began working in that gap between curatorial and digital practice. I wrote a paper about the current state of play between curators and social media and presented it at Museums and the Web 2010, in Denver. I was inspired by some of the most amazing digital and web people from all over the world, learnt that Dutch really is the language of the future, and became Chief Curator in Charge of the Spinny Bar Historical Society.

I was the only curator there. Why? Why were museums doing such cutting edge and amazing things on the web, yet curators were so disconnected from it all?

Since then I have been working at getting curators involved in everything from blogging, basic web editing, using social media for things other than posting photos of yourself drunk on the weekend, making iPhone and iPad apps, and everything in-between.

So that’s me. I work in the gap. I am passionate about finding creative ways to use digital mediums to tell stories and interpret collections. I am specifically interested in how the future will shape museum curators, and plan to be an active participant in its evolution.

Erika Taylor is the Curator of Science Technology and Industry at the Powerhouse Museum. When not developing exhibitions on climate change, historical plastics, or strange medical implements, you can find her teaching someone to write blog posts, making iPad games, or user testing mobile walking tours.

‘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.

Who owns the virtual space in your museum?

Yesterday I crashed my first ever ARDevCamp @ the Powerhouse Museum. Despite being late (buses do not replace trains very effectively) and missing some of the morning talks, the afternoon provided plenty of inspiration and lots of think about. True to form, I used my spidey senses to find some incredibly interesting people to sit next to, and got into some great conversations – some of which will no doubt inform this blog over the next few days.

One of the most interesting questions that arose at the Camp was about digital space and augmented reality (AR). Rob Manson from Mob Labs spoke a bit about the question of who owns the digital space – an issue that will no doubt become more important as more companies and individuals start tapping into the AR potential, particularly for advertising (if this stuff interests you, it’s worth reading this article on Mashable). But it’s also an interesting question for museums to think about.

Last October Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek staged a guerrilla AR intervention at MoMA as part of the Conflux Psychogeoraphy festival. The exhibition not only took over the current six floors of MoMA, it created an AR sculpture garden on the “seventh” floor. Check out the video for a sense of the event.

WeARinMoMA seems more akin to performance art than anything else, in part because of the time-limited nature of the performance. But I’m interested in how museums – and I’m probably thinking about art museums in particular – would deal with more of these kinds of interventions. What if Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek decided that they wanted their exhibition to be permanent?

The Stuckists (talking about the Tate) argue that:

An act by an individual which interferes with an existing artwork is termed an “intervention” and the individual termed an “artist” if they are endorsed by a Tate curator or are dead. The same, or similar, act by an individual interfering with the same artwork (or even interfering with the interference to the artwork), if they are alive and are not endorsed by a Tate curator, is termed “vandalism”, and the individual termed a “criminal”.

So what would happen if someone painted an AR beard on the Mona Lisa? Would the Louvre try to prevent the intervention for being vandalism? It does not harm or interfere with the actual work, although may impact upon its interpretation. Could an artist be prosecuted for digital vandalism?

Or conversely, would the AR addition to the painting be recognised as an important part of the painting’s provenance? Could visitors delight in seeing the painting through another artist’s eyes, and comparing that to the original then and there? Would the interpretation be documented and preserved in the artist file? And how would it be done? Would there simply be videos and photos as per a performance, or would the documentation include recording lines of code as well? Could the AR art be collected, and if so, how? Does the long tail of this end with a curator of AR in the museum?

This guy floated over the Powerhouse @ ARDevCampSyd

The AR might not only take place within the Gallery. Yesterday a giant virtual Lego man stood above the Powerhouse Museum, welcoming visitors to ARDevCamp. This could be a great way for museums seeking redevelopment funding to get people enthused about the project, by projecting the architectural models over the physical building.

But what if the layer had been promoting a commercial product instead? While I can see all kinds of awesome applications for this for artists seeking a little notoriety (like emblazoning their own name on the wall of a Gallery), they might not be the only ones interested in claiming the digital space around museums and galleries. What if Coke decided to as well? Or a political party?

Of course, these are all hypothetical situations and will likely never eventuate. The questions that arise out of real world AR interventions in digital space are likely to be far more nuanced – and far more interesting. But these questions demonstrate just how little we can prepare to respond to technology until we know how it’s actually utilised. While the legal and ethical debates around these issues might be fun to think about, it won’t be until there are cases actually in the courts that the actual implications will become clear. After all, laws are made in response to actual events not hypothetical ones, and individual cases often require individual responses. But until then, it’s interesting to consider just who owns the virtual space in your museum – and around it.