What can museums learn from the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project?

A couple of articles popped into my feed today about US Digital First Media‘s announcement that they were creating a national curation team to

track, collect and distribute curated news in order for newsrooms to focus on local reporting. “Providing context to everything we curate is vital to providing a comprehensive news report,” said digital projects editor Mandy Jenkins. “It’s our responsibility to bring these stories to each of our local markets.”

Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement & Social Media at Digital First, has written a long and interesting post on news curation techniques, types and tips that’s worth reading for insight on the approaches of news organisation to curation. But after reading these two posts, I wanted to investigate a little further. I stumbled upon the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project and its Newsroom Cafe. Now this makes for fascinating reading. The Newsroom Cafe is based in Torrington, Connecticut and it offers more than just food and drink… There are no walls between the cafe area and the newsroom, and “readers are invited to find the reporter that writes about their community or area of interest – or editors – and talk about concerns, ideas, questions.”

There are a number of strategies that the project employs, like allowing public debate of internal policies, fact checking programs, partnerships with other media and non-media organisations, and digital first reporting, that give useful pause for thought for museum organisations tackling the problems of the integration of digital and non-digital. In addition, the Newsroom Cafe offers a community media lab with a full-time community engagement editor. They also make a space for an artist-of-the-month program(!), featuring the work of local artists in the cafe space itself, while the most popular feature of the Cafe has been public access to the newspaper’s archives from their 134 year history – both of which are things that should catch the attention of museum people.

In addition, the Register Citizen holds their daily story meetings at a table on the edge of the cafe, and the community is allowed to sit in, listen or even participate. This is where it gets really interesting.

Video of the meetings is also live-streamed on RegisterCitizen.Com, and we use a live chat to allow readers to watch from home and type in a question or comment in real time. Those words are displayed on a large monitor above the conference table, so editors and readers can interact and respond to people tuning in from afar.

…A funny thing happened after we moved into the “open newsroom” last December. We stopped having “editorial board meetings,” at least in the traditional sense where an outside organization or politician meets behind closed doors with a committee of editors, reporters and the publisher. We were still getting requests, but when we did, we made sure the industry association or special interest in question knew how we do things now. We’ll meet with you, but it will be in public, our readers will be invited to attend and participate, and we’ll be live-streaming it on the web. For the most part, after that became clear, the party requesting the editorial board meeting said “No thanks.” Others, including Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, embraced it, and the public’s involvement, by all accounts, improved and advanced the discussion. An exciting opportunity has emerged for us to create a new kind of editorial board process.

These movements interest me for a number of reasons. For one thing, as a participatory location, The Newsroom Cafe starts to draw together the news room with its community in a far more immediate way. Rather than simply seeking community involvement online, the local community is drawn into the process even in the physical space but integrates that with digital processes.

The transparency and openness of the process has also changed the dynamics of editorial, in a way that seems to have upended previous practice. What would it be like to hold a curatorial or exhibition meeting in the museum cafe, when anyone could join in? Or, what would happen if museums opened up about the evolution of knowledge that occurs around their collections, and allowed the public into that process? Such a question recalls to me a paper by Bruno Latour on the revision of knowledge. He asks

does it distract visitors to know that there were paleontologists fighting one another, that fossils had a market value, that reconstitutions have been modified so often, that we “don’t know for sure”, or, as another label [in the NY Museum of Natural History exhibit A Textbook Case Revisited] states, “While it’s intriguing to speculate about the physiology of long extinct animals we cannot test these ideas conclusively”? The more fossils there are, we feel the more interesting, lively, sturdy, realistic, and provable are our representations of them; how come we would feel less certain, less sturdy, less realistic about the same representations when they multiply? When their equipment is visible? When the assembly of paleontologists is made visible?

It’s here, in the idea of opening up about the changes in museum knowledge, that I think museum transparency could really come into its own. But examples like the Newsroom Cafe further demonstrates the eroding demarcation of roles that were once more easily differentiated. The news becomes situated in space and time, becomes woven into the community. The digital and “real” have joined more seamlessly there, and such moves make it less easy to know what is to be the role of the museum, and what is the role of, well, some other organisation in the connected age. Boundaries are eroding, and while the material culture role of museums seems unthreatened, the experiential, educational and knowledge roles might be up for grabs. Even shopping centres are getting in on the act, taking on the Internet by stressing experience. Such movements could still have implications for museums, which is why I think we need to be looking to these kinds of projects to learn if and how they work.

What do you think about the Register Citizen Open Project? How would you feel if the public was allowed to sit in on exhibition or curatorial meetings? Do you think that museums should make visible the revisions in their knowledge? Let me know.

What happens when geeks design museums?

I’ve started to notice a couple of interesting patterns or trends in the digital museum dialogue over the last couple of weeks and months. Just taking a quick flick around the blogs and looking at some of my favourite museum thinkers, we have Koven speaking at MuseumNext about the Kinetic Museum, and asking What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around?. Ed’s making a museum from scratch series is moving towards imagining a radically transparent museum – one in which labels might include information about who wrote them, objects might have whole histories available, or information that leads visitors back outside the walls of the museum to continue their journey beyond the physical space. And Seb has proposed that “the exhibition as a form needs to adapt. Radically. And I don’t mean into a series of public programs or events.” His great post from last week, too, considered new ways of designing exhibitions as immersive events with digital parallels.

There are two things that I find fascinating about this. The first is that this dialogue is forming a kind of dispersed ‘Koinonia’, or  collaborative thinking. Although each of us is physically removed from one another (in my case, across oceans, and for the others, at least a few hours of travel between), we are all bouncing off, and building upon, the ideas, questions and inspirations being shared by the others.

But the second reason this is interesting to me is that in each case, they we are all starting to reimagine or redesign physical museum experiences with ideas drawn from digital experiences. The museum technology conversation seems to be shifting from merely how does technology impact the business of the museum practice to how should it impact the museum building or the design of museums physically. Of course, there is precedence for these conversations with Nina Simon’s approach to exhibition design, which draws upon Web2.0 philosophies. But these new discussions seem to further explore the concept of creating the physical space of the museum upon the principles and values of the Internet.

So what are these values, and how could they apply to museum/exhibition design?

For me, the immediate ones that come to mind include transparency and openness, agility and responsiveness, customisable and personal experiences, and sharable, social and participatory interactions. Many of these ideas are ones that I’ve spoken about previously on this blog, but I’ve always focussed on how they might/should apply to museum online efforts.

Ed’s concept of radical transparency in the museum is provocative. In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger proffers that one of the basic elements of the Net experience is that “[t]he Net is a vast public space within which the exclusion of visitors or content is the exception.” (174.) He also points out the abundance of the Internet, where “there is more available to us than we ever imagined back in the days of television and physical libraries.” Taking these ideas into the physical museum space could see the size and complexity of working collection made visible and public as default, whilst still being able to distil ideas through the use of selected objects chosen for formal exhibition/display. This approach also puts a contemporary spin on the idea of curation, where the curator draws attention to the things worth seeing within the abundant content available. As I commented, the recently opened MAS | Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp has a visible storage area that houses about 180,000 artefacts from the collection. Imagine being able to see the entirety of a collection, as well as its details. What kind of public value might such an approach have?
(Of course, such an approach would likely have implications for cost, security etc. – there are many as-yet-unresolved issues here.)

What else? I think one of the most enduringly appealing things about the Internet is that it is highly personal and customisable. My experience online is likely very different from yours. You and I, we will read different things, and be drawn to different sites. We will even visit the same sites, but on different browsers and devices, or at different times of day. So how could a museum make an experience that put emphasis on “immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative“, as Seb has been asking? What kind of approach to exhibition design is needed to give individuals ownership over their experiences and yet still maintain connective narrative tissues to make sense of the core concepts and ideas at play?

Digital experiences are sharable, and frequently participatory. But they are also agile, kinetic, and scalable from global to local, and back again. Our conversations and interactions online are not limited to our physical proximity, but they are often related to it. I chat to people all over the world on Twitter, but also make a point of meeting up with them in person when circumstances allow. There is an overlap between my digital and physical experiences, a parallelism (as Seb recently observed). So how could these parallel experiences be incorporated into museum setting? Could the museum tap into and contribute to global themes and conversations before and after the visit (online or offline), and then focus on the local and particular in the actual space? Would that be the right approach?

Matt Popke, in the comments on Seb’s mixtape post, joins in.

I just think the bar has been raised a bit in the “historical narrative” part of the equation. People live in a google age now. If you encounter something you are not familiar with you simply google it and find out whatever you want to know (or maybe you think you find it, that’s another issue entirely). People are accustomed now to having mountains of information available to them at a whim. Tiny tombstone labels on collection items or informational plaques near an exhibit just don’t satisfy like they used to.

The challenge is finding a way to incorporate *all* of the rich history and context of an item in the display of that item, or otherwise finding a way to deliver more in an exhibition than we’re used to, more context, more data, more story. We need to deliver this information in a way that feels explorative, like the audience is taking their own path through our collection and discovering their own version of the narrative. Hypertext, as a medium, is perfect for this kind of intellectual exploration when dealing with an individual. How do we create a hypertext-like experience in a physical space that multiple people can enjoy simultaneously?

There are lots of ideas here, and most of them are entirely unresolved. Still, this trend in the conversation seems to bend more and more to be broaching the divide between the physical and virtual and trying to rethink or disrupt current approaches to museum or exhibition design. Why this is happening now, I’m not sure. (And does it have implications for museum careers? Will your next exhibit designer be someone with an interest/background in tech?) But it is an interesting line of questioning to pursue.

What happens when museums begin to bring the values and ideas that are normally associated with the Internet into the physical design of the museum?

I’d love your thoughts.