The Internet, GLAMs and the production of new knowledge

In line with my involvement in the Digital Culture Public Sphere in the last week, one major question that has been surfacing time and time again during the discussions: How do we pitch GLAM organisations as being for the future, rather than simply about old things, and nostalgia? Or, in other words, how can we make GLAMs sexy to politicians?

Museums are often thought of as being about ‘old stuff” and stories. Much of our publicly recognised value still seems to be in the kind of nostalgia or memory arena. We can absolutely see this in the kind of language that was used within the National Culture Policy Discussion Paper, in which cultural institutions have the following “pitch”:

The Government also funds national collecting institutions which perform a central role in preserving and making Australia’s art and culture accessible. These institutions have traditionally centred their activities on collections management which includes documentation, conservation and exhibition. However, changing community expectations of access and service have created additional areas of common interest, including education, interpretation, regional delivery and digitisation of collections.

Even in this policy language, the view of cultural collecting institutions is really only about preservation and accessibility of art and culture. The value of our collections is seen to only reach so far as education and interpretation.

But right now, GLAMs have far greater potential in the creation of new knowledge, particularly with the incredibly rich data that’s held within and around our collections. In a data economy, we are actually incredibly rich with the sort of data that no one else has.

Ben Goldacre at the Guardian published an article on Friday, arguing for the incredible value of everyday government data. He writes

Amazing things happen when you pull individual pieces of information together into larger linked datasets: meaning emerges, as you produce facts from figures. If you’ve ever wished you were born in the 19th century, when there were so many obvious inventions and ideas to hook for yourself, then I seriously recommend you become a coder, because future nerds will look back on this time with the exact same envy. But that leap forward will be tediously retarded if we don’t make the government allow us to use the pavements.

This is the same argument that I’ve started making in regards to GLAM collections. As I said in my Public Sphere presentation:

We cannot now even imagine the full possibilities that might come from the uploading of our collections to the Internet… Who knows what possibilities for new discovery, new knowledge and new insight lie hidden in the collections of our museums, galleries, libraries and archives? Digitising our collections and making them available online in usable forms… will lead to incredible new opportunities for cultural institutions to gain new relevance in the global knowledge economy.

GLAM collecting institutions have incredible information resources that can tell incredible, and hitherto hidden, stories about the development of society and of the natural world. We should be partnering with researchers, scientists and data visualisation specialists. Although we might hold expertise on our collections at an object level, or even a collection level, there is new knowledge that is held within our collections that will be liberated when we can pull together the individual pieces of information, and find new meanings.

The Internet, and Linked Open Data, really do liberate our cultural institutions to be more than just the sum of their parts. Now might be the time that GLAMs really do come into their own, as public institutions that truly serve the public both off- and online.