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.

My talk for the Digital Culture Public Sphere

On Monday night, I found out that I had been slated to talk at the Digital Culture Public Sphere, which ran on Thursday 6 October 2011. This was both a fantastic opportunity, and responsibility, and I’d like to thank Senator Kate Lundy and Pia Waugh for inviting me to be involved. Below are rough notes from my speech. Get involved on the Wiki or Tweet to #publicsphere to contribute your thoughts.


My colleague Tim Hart painted a broad picture of the current state of digital culture in GLAM institutions. He illustrated the close ties the sector has to education, and the role we must play in telling our local, state and national stories. Of particular note was Tim’s salient point that even if we don’t engage online, our communities do; we still live in a world that is shaped by digital.


Theoretically, the Internet enables new opportunities for developing and delivering Australian cultural content to the world. The National Broadband Network will enable organisations in regional areas notable opportunities for connecting with national and international audiences and markets.

However, there are some simple yet significant realities that prevent many cultural institutions from being able to fully engage with digital opportunities.

There are cultural institutions within Australia that are locked behind strict Internet Use policies, which prevent staff from accessing social networking sites including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Although permission can be sought to access these sites, such policies create immediate barriers to adoption of simple technological advances in the creation of cultural communities. Similarly, such policies ensure that only one or two members of staff are designated as the online intermediary between the institution and its online publics.

Similar policies also prevent some institutions from accessing online cultural resources, including Flickr Commons, where photographic collections from the National Library of Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum, Australian War Memorial, the State Library of Queensland and the Powerhouse Museum are made available for use.

Despite increased access to the Internet, these simple Use policies prevent affected cultural institutions from developing a strong digital proficiency.

These are local issues, but they still provide simple barriers to access mean that cultural professionals in affected organisations are dissuaded even from participating in today’s Public Sphere consultation. While no doubt many of you are Tweeting even as I speak, cultural professionals trapped behind limiting Internet usage policies are not enabled to engage in these conversations.

Local issues do impact upon our cultural institutions’ abilities to meet the global marketplace.


There are instructive lessons from a recent study conducted by Infoxchange, with the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund, which examined the capacity level and use of information and communication technology in small to medium community sector organisations.[1]

The study found that organisations with low digital proficiency were excluded from new ideas and innovation delivered by digital means. These organisations accept and expect slower systems and response times and have less access to information and less capacity to advocate for their needs. Such organisations were unlikely to improve digital proficiency, because it was not required or valued internally to the same extent as it was by organisations that had already developed digital proficiency.

Similarly, increasing digital proficiency within cultural institutions will lead to new opportunities to link to global networks and ideas from around the world; to greater potential to connect with donors and funding organisations; and provide important new opportunities to serve Australia’s communities and participate in the telling of local, state and national stories.

In order to develop an active and proficient digital cultural sector, there must be increased access to better training, and a more open online environment.


One innovation that could lead to way that such change draws inspiration from the Geek in Residence program; a pilot grant scheme run by the Australia Council for the Arts through the Arts content for the digital era strategic priority. The program places artistically confident technicians, and technically confident artists into host arts organisations on a subsidised secondment. The idea is to create a cultural shift within that host arts organisation, increasing their digital skills and confidences.

Similar programs could be created that would see technologically minded “geeks” inserted into cultural organisations to teach staff within the organisation how to better adapt to advances in digital technology.



Global advances in technology today shape the expectations of cultural audiences. This is a key point made in the 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition, by the New Media Consortium. The Report lists six significant challenges for technological adoption in museums, among them the fact that:

Many in museums still fail to grasp the notion that audiences have high expectations with regard to online access to services and information. It is often difficult enough for museums with scarce resources to serve their physical visitors and to keep audiences in their geographical region satisfied; the notion that museums must, in addition, provide information and services via the Internet and mobile networks is too often seen as frivolous or unnecessary.[2]

The Report goes on to identify other key challenges to technological adoption, as well as four key drivers to adoption in the lead up to 2014. These are the increasing value of ‘rich’ media – images, videos, audio etc – in digital interpretation; the expectations of museum visitors to be able to work, learn, study and connect with their social networks in all places and at all times using the device of their choosing; the abundance of resources and relationships offered by open content repositories and social networks challenging us to revisit roles as educators; and significantly, that digitization and cataloging projects will continue to require a significant share of museum resources.[3]


As the report notes, museums – and with them, other collecting institutions such as libraries and archives – are distinguished by the content they keep and interpret. As discussed in the National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper, collecting institutions perform a central role in preserving and making Australia’s art and culture accessible.

According to the 2007–08 Survey of Museums, museums held a total of 52.5 million objects and artworks. Of these, about 5% were held by art galleries, 1% by historic properties, 11% by social history museums and 82% by natural, science and other museums. Museums which had 100 or more employees held 77% of these 52.5 million objects, with approximately 1.3% of the objects on display.[4]

In order to meet the growing expectations of visitors to be able to readily access accurate and interesting information and high-quality media, collecting institutions need to plan strategically for the digitization and cataloging of collections. However, undertaking this process, particularly at institutions that have low digital proficiency, requires hard choices in the allocation of money, personnel and time.[5]


So why should we as a sector commit to such a task?

The Internet has become the true cultural hub of our time. At no previous time in history have people been so connected to so many opportunities for information, entertainment and communication. Now ubiquitous, expedient and on-demand information is available via seemingly endless sources at almost any time, and on virtually any subject. Because of this, the nature of knowledge itself is shifting, and the effects of this change will be far reaching.

If cultural institutions do not engage, if our collections are not online and able to be used, interpreted and reinterpreted by the public in ways more vital than anything we have hitherto imagined, then we risk being accused of irrelevancy to this changing world. If our collections are not made available as freely as possible, then our nation’s most significant objects and stories will risk being lost.

The Australian Library and Information Association lists first amongst its core values that it promotes the free flow of information and ideas through open access to recorded knowledge, information, and creative works.

Similarly, the Museums Australia Constitution states that

A museum helps people understand the world by using objects and ideas to interpret the past and present and explore the future. A museum preserves and researches collections, and makes objects and information accessible in actual and virtual environments. Museums are established in the public interest as permanent, not-for-profit organisations that contribute long-term value to communities.[6]

We cannot now even imagine the full possibilities that might come from the uploading of our collections to the Internet.


Only last month, Kalev H. Leetaru published research that showed that “computational analysis of large text archives can yield novel insights to the functioning of society, including predicting future economic events.” He applied tone and geographic analysis to a 30–year worldwide news archive and discovered that global news tone is found to have forecasted the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, amongst other things.

Similarly, citizen science projects like the Galaxy Zoo project have made significant developments in helping solve the world’s scientific and medical problems. The delightfully-named Zooniverse is home to the Internet’s largest, most popular and most successful citizen science projects.

With Galaxy Zoo, participants were asked to help classify galaxies by studying images of them online and answering a standard set of questions about their features. In the first year, 50 million classifications were made by 150,000 people. Galaxy Zoo became the world’s largest database of galaxy shapes.

Likewise, it was recently announced that crowdsourcing online gamers playing a protein-folding game called Foldit helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade.

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, such as has been done by the Powerhouse Museum and Museum Victoria, who have each uploaded their collection API for use by the public, will lead to incredible new opportunities for cultural institutions to gain new relevance in the global knowledge economy.

We need to look at new partnerships for this process, and new skills for staff (I’d love to see data visualization specialists working in museums).

The arts and creative industries are fundamental to Australia’s identity as a society and nation, and increasingly to our success as a national economy. The National Broadband Network connects us to new global opportunities for engaging with communities and telling out national, state and local stories.

But unless digital proficiency is increased right across the sector, we will never meet the lofty ideals of being cultural world leaders. Planning for digital culture must by included right at the start of the strategic planning process. Too often, it is an afterthought, both in terms of planning and funding.

The Internet liberates our public cultural institutions to be truly public. But we need to address this across the sector, not just in those few institutions that already have high digital proficiency.

[1] Infoxchange, “Digital Proficiency in Small to Medium Community Service Organisations: Consumer Report, Executive Summary and Key Findings,” (Infoxchange with the support of the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund., 2010).

[2] L. Johnson et al., “The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition,” (Austin, Texas.: The New Media Consortium, 2010). 5

[3] Ibid. 4.

[4] Brian Pink, “Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview,” (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010).

[5] Johnson et al., “2010 Horizon Report.” 4.

[6] Museums Australia, “What Is a Museum?,”

Australia, Museums. “What Is a Museum?”

Infoxchange. “Digital Proficiency in Small to Medium Community Service Organisations: Consumer Report, Executive Summary and Key Findings.” Infoxchange with the support of the Victorian Department of Human Services Community Sector Investment Fund., 2010.

Johnson, L., H.  Witchey, R.  Smith, A. Levine, and K. Haywood. “The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition.” Austin, Texas.: The New Media Consortium, 2010.

Pink, Brian. “Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview.” Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010.

Public Sphere: Museums 2022

This post is the first in a series over the coming weeks that will address some of the questions/issues being raised as part of the Digital Culture Public Sphere. This public consultation process is seeking input from the GLAM community in creating a vision for a long term sustainable vision for the sector, and so I am going to use my blog as a bit of an open thinking space in which to develop my own ideas (ultimately leading to comment/submissions in the online discussion). These are particularly interesting questions to be addressing now, given how quickly the world and technology are both changing.

These formative thoughts are not yet fully developed, but hopefully by writing – and inviting comment from you lovely readers – I will be able to clarify my own position.

So… what would I like to see for Australia’s digital culture ten years into the future?

Well, to start with, I’d like to see a lot more of Australia’s digital heritage online. As more and more information/communication/knowledge becomes based online, those things that are not online are at risk of being written out of history and becoming irrelevant. Obviously, museums and galleries will still have the physical objects in their collections – but what use are those things if no one knows they are there (after all, who are you collecting for?)? Already, many GLAM organisations have undertaken digitisation projects, but for others – particularly smaller institutions – time and resources have ensured that this is not a high priority (or, if it is a priority in intention, it does not always eventuate). I worry that if we leave our collection knowledge offline, it will lose its meaning. As Jennifer Trant writes, in Curating Collections Knowledge: Museums on the Cyberinfrastructure (p289, in Marty & Burton Jones, Museum Informatics: people, information and technology in museums 2008), “The vitality of collections derives from their use, interpretation, and re-interpretation.” I’ve asked previously whether a collection have any impact if no one interacts with it, and I think this issue will continue to be important for cultural institutions.

In the same book, Trant (p289) further argues that museum collection documentation should be curated just as museum objects are curated. She writes:

Reconceptualizing the role of museum documentation as active curation of collections knowledge created inside and outside the institution enables museums to fulfill a broader role in society… The museum information curator’s selection, arrangement, and care have as their object the cultural memory of the institution, a legacy to be guarded along with the physical preservation of objects themselves.

I agree with this. I think that for Australia to excel in this sector, we need to make the curation of collections knowledge a priority. However, this is something that would probably require the creation of new positions within our museums (which obviously takes funds).

Having said that, I’m not sure that simply putting collections online is enough to make them relevant to anyone… We need to find new models for our online collections to make them meaningful and easy to interact with for broader audiences than just those trained in museum language and conventions. If we do want people to interact with our collections online, then we need to lower barriers to entry and maybe even think of new ways of visualising collection knowledge, and I think that’s only something that can be done from inside the industry. That’s not something that can be done with better cultural policy, but is what the success of any movement towards digitising culture hinges on.

Similarly, we need to find a way to put our collections online in a way that allows others to find meaning in them, but also allows the museum to maintain its authority. I have spoken to curators who mention that they don’t use collection websites for authoritative information, since they are often inaccurate and untrustworthy. If we don’t trust the information from our own sector, how can we expect anyone else to do so? So in the coming decade, I’d like us to find a way to have online collection knowledge become something that’s useable, relevant and trustworthy – not a small task, I know.

There will no doubt continue to be difficulties associated with copyright in displaying/uploading images of works of art and certain other museum artefacts which cannot be resolved within the field, with the international legal implications involved (particularly since things shared online have no physical borders to prevent their spread). But these are issues that will impact the ability of many cultural organisations to make their collections available online in a meaningful way.

Internally, as a sector, we need to continue to confront the fact that opening our collections up to interaction will challenge the museum to reexamine the role it – and the role audiences/visitors/users – play in constructing collection knowledge, and that doing so may change the institution itself. It is these changes that I am exploring, at least philosophically, in my PhD research, but the sector as a whole will likely need to focus on and address what these changes mean on both a practical and theoretical level in the coming years. While there certainly are many in the field doing so already, there remain others for whom this is merely background noise, and who have not yet come to accept that museum websites in the information age might need to be about more than marketing. And I don’t think we as a sector will be truly relevant to anyone in the digital age until our online place is not simply to tell people how to find our offline presence.

What do you think? Where would you like to see digital culture – in any country – be in ten years time? How can we make it happen?

Australia’s Digital Culture Public Sphere consultation

Last week I got a call from the awesome Pia Waugh, tech advisor to Senator Kate Lundy, to give me a head’s up about the Digital Culture Public Sphere consultation – an initiative being run in Australia by the Office of Senator Lundy in collaboration with the Office of Minister Simon Crean.

The Digital Culture Public Sphere consultation will “look specifically at the digital arts and industries as well as opportunities for cultural institutions around digitisation, public engagement and collaboration [and] will result in a submission that will be presented directly to [Minister Crean] as part of the broader National Cultural Policy consultation.” The industries at the centre of the discussion are games development, film & animation, media & music, digital arts and GLAM institutions.

As iterated on the Digitculture Wiki, the focus for Cultural Heritage is on the following key areas:

Ideas for a Long Term Sustainable Vision
How do you imagine the sector could look in the future? How could Australia excel? What would a 10 year plan look like?

Ideas for What Success Would Look Like
What are some tangible ways we could measure progress in this area?

Ideas for How to Get There
Ideas to achieve the vision for Australia.

Additional References
Any additional information you think might be useful, including case studies, success stories, research papers.

Case Studies from Around Australia
Leading case studies from the sector to help contextualise Australian innovation in this area.

It’s really exciting to have a chance to think about these issues, and to work towards a broader vision for the country’s digital culture future. I don’t really know what I think a long term sustainable vision would look like yet, nor how we could measure success. But over the next couple of weeks on the blog, I might try to explore a few of these issues and come up with my personal vision (which I will then contribute to the discussion). I’d love your thoughts/feedback too – even from overseas readers. You can comment here on the blog, or touch base with me on Twitter.

On the 6 October 2011, the Public Sphere consultation is going to culminate in a Live Event which should facilitate discussion within and between the different sectors being targetted here. I would LOVE to be a part of the event in Sydney – but I think my local arts community might be better served by having its own roundtable to discuss the issues as they will be affected, and I might have to host that. One thing I’ve noticed about digital culture is that for all its possibilities, there are still a lot of people who haven’t embraced it, and who still don’t have a voice in these conversations. After all, if you don’t tweet or blog, it’s a lot harder to make noise and impact in a digital environment. And while their concerns will not always be my concerns, I do think it’s important to make sure they are included in this discussion. After all, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, it’s important to talk to people who have different ideas and priorities from your own. If this Digital Culture Public Sphere is to be truly inclusive, we need to ensure diversity of input.