Yesterday as a prelude to the Transformations in Scientific and Cultural Communication conference I’m speaking at today, the Directors of Australia and New Zealand’s largest museums and libraries gathered for a boardroom session. I joined the group to give a presentation on social media in organizations and was very interested to hear their perspectives.
The general tenor of the afternoon was examining the rapidly changing environment, perhaps most notably changed expectations from audiences in how they interact with exhibits and content.
One of the directors commented that institutions that are often over a century old and perhaps by definition embedded in tradition can find it hard to change. However in the course of the afternoon I saw some fantastic examples of what is being done by museums today. It made me think that perhaps the underlying mindset of (some) museum directors is one of engaging people, and thus seeing the openness of the web as being an opportunity to fulfill their role of ‘democratizing knowledge’ .
However perhaps these are not representative. Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum, talked about the potential for a ‘dignified slide into irrelevance’. What had prompted his thoughts was an article that talked about the critical role ‘connoisseurship’ in museums. The implicit view is that the authoritative communicate to the unknowledgeable. While there is absolutely a critical role for expertise in curating content, having that as the central perspective on the role of museums risks resulting in irrelevance as people increasingly seek to engage with content.
Here are just a few of the extremely interesting things I heard about that during the afternoon :
Ourspace is an 18 meter long interactive wall at the museum, on which people can post their own text , images, videos, or draw on a massive library of images from Te Papa and other museums, as well as video from TV New Zealand. People can then mash up and interact with the content on the wall. While they have the facility to moderate uploaded images and the ‘graffiti’ on the wall, they have not yet had any reason to edit anything.
Collosal Squid Project is a site dedicated to the largest squid ever found, including a webcast of its thaw and defrost. Discovery Channel wanted exclusive rights to the scientific analysis of the squid, but Te Papa negotiated rights to provide part of this online. This meant that the media went direct to the web to get images, however the online community generated by the site flowed into more visitors and merchandise sales. The site includes a Build a Squid game where people can create their own squid that will continue ‘life’ in a digital environment.
“with user-generated content, the role of the museum shifts to moderators and facilitators”
- Dr Seddon Bennington, Director, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
When Shelley Bernstein took over her role as Information Systems manager (Chief geek) at Brooklyn Museum she faced massive problems, including a highly dysfunctional website. She saw the rise of Flickr and other social media sites and ended up effectively becoming an online evangelist.
Initiatives now include 1stfans, which is a socially networked museum membership, including the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed. a private Twitter feed for members where contemporary artists write. Brooklyn Museum also runs Target First Saturday, which is a massive event first Saturday of every month sponsored by Target that helps link online and face-to-face communities.
The Museum also created a project called Click based on the principles of The Wisdom of Crowds, seeing what would happen in a subjective domain such as art. Photographs on the changing faces of Brooklyn were submitted and then evaluated by visitors to the museum and people on the web. The evaluation site provided random single images, so bloggers could not link to their favorite images. Over 400,000 evaluations were provided by 3,000 people, with an average view time per photograph of 22 seconds, far more than the time spent by people looking at images when visiting museums. Evaluators ranked their expertise, providing the key insight that the ratings were very similar irrespective of their degree of knowledge.
This initiative by Flickr enables institutions to put up images of and from their collection, so the world at large can contribute by describing and annotating the photos. There are 21 institutions involved globally, including The Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and five Australian museums.