Museums and the Web 2008: roundup

Ok. Obviously the intention was to live-blog the sessions I went to during Museums and the Web, but in the end it all comes down (unfortunately) to time, of which there simply isn’t enough (except when waiting for a damn plane). I’m working on an API using a RESTful approach to sort this out but I’m having trouble with the bending of spacetime and a glitch in vbscript which means you can’t get at the right bit of the EnergyEquivalence 2.0 DOM. Bear with me. Maybe it’s better in Ruby…

Anyway. Here’s some highlights for me, in rough order of appearance:


Frankie Roberto (Science Museum) and Seb Chan (Powerhouse) gave a hugely entertaining and interesting talk within the topic area “Aggregating Museum Data”. David Bearman introduced it: “I’m not supposed to be biased, but this is my favourite session..”

Frankie’s approach is outlined in his paper, but briefly he asked the question “what if we look at the aggregate of museum collections instead of the detail?”. He got a bunch of data from several museums by submitting a Freedom Of Information request. There were some great moments: the matrix of which museums responded (most didn’t) was one of them; the final application display using Google Maps was another. But most of all he also coined the phrase “Good Enough” around museum data, which is very much aligned with my philosophy of “just do it”.

Seb showed some awesome stuff using Open Calais on museum collections at the Powerhouse and a whole load of other cool stuff around geo-rss, OpenSearch and so-on. He also came out with some great sound-bites: “look closely at order and you see mess” and “tagging: it’s a bit 2007″…

One thing that I really liked was a checkbox he had built into the CMS next to machine-generated data which asked human editors: “has a human verified this data?”. A nice touch, and presumably useful not only for checking (in an aggregate sense) how accurate the machine has been but also possible to tweak the final UI accordingly: “this data is machine generated, don’t trust it quite as much…”, or whatever.

Again, very interesting and eye-opening. Funny, too – I loved the fact that “Ray Oscilloscope” had been identified by the semantic engine as a person…it may become my new pseudonym…


On Friday, Brian and I ran a session on Openness. The people at the session were great: It was a lively and engaging debate, looking at some of the questions around openness in the museum community; how we measure value; how financial gain can be held up next to marketing exposure and so on. Seb made a great point which stayed with me about how museums have got into the habit of ascribing value to individual objects rather than to the bit which actually adds value: the context, the exhibition, the experience.

Search and semantics

Two more sessions stood out for me: first, the NMOLP presentation from the V&A in London. I have a number of concerns about the general approach this project is taking, but on the plus side they’re looking at OpenSearch to deliver cross-museum searching, and that’s (hopefully) going to be a good thing. I just hope that the Google Coop example I put up at a while back can be beaten: the point of me doing this was partly to illustrate the ease with which groups of museums can be added to cross-domain search. I’m worried about NMOLP developing their own search ranking protocol, for example, when there’s a pretty good one out there in the shape of PageRank and the Google Enterprise. I’m sure they know what they’re doing, and look forward very much to the end result. Let’s hope it’s got a public API 🙂

Nate did a rather better post on this session over here with some interesting comments, too.

The final one I’m going to post about here is a session on the Delphi Toolkit which was great because it illustrated with real world examples what these kinds of emerging semantic technologies do for the end-user. And I think the SW is an area badly lacking in examples.

Closing Plenary

The whole conference closed with what I thought was a very disappointing plenary from Clifford Lynch. Obviously only a personal opinion, but I felt that after a hugely positive, buzzing and engaging week, this was a very slow, low-energy and – most importantly – misrepresentative wrap-up to what had gone on. (I also felt at several points that he was just plain wrong about some of the stuff he talked about…)

Here’s my “direction of travel” gut feel for what actually went on during the week:

  • We’re doing some very cool stuff using some great new approaches and technologies.
  • We’re starting to see the benefits of open access to our content, both in terms of Creative Commons and programmatic access via API’s or syndication.
  • We’re – at last – worrying less and doing more.
  • We’re beginning to see the benefits of community, not just the coolness.
  • Finally: we’re up for collaborating and sharing in more open and positive ways than ever before.

So that’s that. Now I’m in an airport, heading homeward. Bye for now…

13 thoughts on “Museums and the Web 2008: roundup”

  1. That session with Frankie was by far the funniest and most enjoyable talk on any subject I have attended in a while. It is also very helpful for us in Amsterdam, since we work with approx. 40-45 museums. ‘Doing something’ with their collections online is one of our plans for the future, perhaps by using the data we generate from large scale public events such as the Museum Night to create intelligent guides (“you rated this lecture on Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum in November 4/5, now see this exhibition at the Rembrandthuis in March”).
    Last year was more about public contribution and somewhat more radical trust, listening to our audiences for the first time instead of just sending one-way info to them. This year we are going towards what we are going to do with all of this information and answer the audience back, based on our curatorial and educational expertise as museum professionals. This is where the curators and directors can come in again and be happy. If I can judge it Web 3 onwards is going to more and more resemble the traditional activities and functions of museums.
    Time was a problem for me too: could not find a moment to say hi to you. I enjoyed your talk on Openness. Had missed the closing plenary, had to run for my flight, but this looks like I left at a good moment with the right energy/feeling. I am working on doing something in Amsterdam in October, a bit broader than just the Web, and more about the future of museums in general. Will keep you informed.

    All the best.

  2. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the post and your take on what actually went on from your perspective…. inspires me for a post too! One thing I really appreciated was the scope of the conversations that are going on and the collaborative spirit. And Happy 1st Birthday to Electronic Museum!

  3. Hi Zuha

    Shame we didn’t hook up – would have been good to chat. I was pretty hectic 🙂

    I don’t know if you followed but I’m just getting together to try and encourage some sharing around the API/lightweight/mashed-up approaches. On there is a link to a Google Group to which you are welcome…

    Let me know about Amsterdam – sounds interesting



  4. Thanks Rebecca. I agree very much about the collaboration. Each year it seems to get better and more open.

    I’ll check your blog out and will be in touch soon!



  5. I have to agree about the closing plenary. I’m hoping it had to do with whatever he alluded to at the beginning about wanting to attend more of the conference but being unable to…

    Working up my own post on the Delphi toolkit, I’m hoping to grab a copy of that tomorrow and start throwing our metadata at it to see what it can see.

  6. Hi JT

    Personal opinion, but the “tagging and social media are going to die out” line didn’t ring true to me, and is actually a bit of a dangerous thing to say to a group of people starting to invest (and invest in a “good” thing IMHO) in this stuff. I also think that the “copyright is a major issue” position – although true from some angles – really badly needs qualification within a framework that now contains Creative Commons. Quite a lot of what Brian and I talked about both at the blogging workshop and at the Openness session was about ways in which the community can start to embrace fair ways of working; how these *really* work, how they don’t; how we ascribe “value”; and issues like scarcity vs scale. To continue with the “ooh, copyright, let’s be really scared” line as we have for the last few hundred years just won’t move anyone any further forward…

    What did you think? (reply via email if you’d prefer :-))


  7. i don’t think Clifford was discouraging museums from engaging in social media, so much as he was saying that we need to engage in a conscious way, aware of what they are, and what we don’t know they are. his cautions were primarily about longevity [if i remember correctly; i wasn’t taking notes].

    same is true for tagging. we don’t know how it will scale, how it will age, or what happens when really diverse groups of people tag over time. that’s why watching what’s going on is so important, as is adjusting strategies in response.

    do you really think he dwelton (c)? other than nods to the fact that it’s an issue that’s important in some contexts?


  8. Hi JT

    Sure, and do agree in general re. eggs / baskets, particularly around making “THIS IS THE FUTURE OF TECHNOLOGY” type sweeping statements. Enough people have made that mistake…

    Maybe I’m too deep in it to see the edges, but (and of course, I *will* regret saying this..) I see social media as being -much- deeper than “just web2.0”. I’m much happier saying this than espousing the next big technical standard, language or data format because it has people at the heart of it. Social media, including tagging, make the web better and more personal. And that is why I see this as long-termisim rather than short-term hit.

    re. copyright – this just feels like a fragile area which needs some stroking, rather than increasing of fear levels. Of course there are huge issues, but there are also huge opportunities, too. I guess I didn’t feel that those got enough exposure.


  9. IMO, copyright is scary enough to be a big red stop sign for most museums. Tracing copyright holders (let alone getting decent permissions from them) is a big and expensive part of many digitisation programs – at least for the kinds of objects museums like the Museum of London tend to hold.

    I don’t know what to do about this. ‘Instant takedown’ might be a bit too maverick for many museums (and rightly so if it exposes them to a real risk); but the ogre of the lawsuit from an angry copyright holder also prevents us from really exploring the possibilities. IANAL – I’m a geek, and I can’t make that call on ‘copyright unknown’ images, but is there anyone in our institutions who can?

  10. agreed…

    it’s a shame that UKOLN’s anniversary celebrations kept CL from being at all of mw2008 [he had agreed to be right up until just before] because one of the real differences between museums and libraries on the web is that museums have always embraced the social. there are discussions from the outset of mw that explore connecting people, building communities, enabling alternative interpretations, empowering users. …. all things that are enabled by the tech that marketers call web 2.0.

    it’s easy if you come from the academic community, to think that museums are only about supporting scholarly research. or as a librarian to think that museums on the web are more collections databases to be searched [caricatures, i know]. but most museums’ programming swings another way, towards engaging the general public. strategies and goals may be different, even if tools and techniques are shared.


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