Quantity or quality?

This might seem like an odd question, especially given the vast (vast) quantity of effort that goes into digitisation, rights checking, caption authoring and so on. But I’m also a fan of taking a step back at least every so often and asking odd, obvious and possibly stupid questions.

The question is in part prompted by an (apparently controversial) post on Read Write Web (I Don’t Know Much About Art But I Know What’s Online). I say “apparently controversial” because it seemed to kick off a fair-sized discussion on the MCG list, at least one blog post and a bunch of tweets from people who seemed to be a bit cross about it.

FWIW, it seemed to me to be an interesting and mostly fair post, albeit with moments of obvious silliness. Defining a single “museum experience”, for example, is easily as foolish as defining a single “shopping experience” or single “reading experience” or single any experience – it seems blindingly obvious there is no single experience, no single context, no single person. At the same time the point – that there is, really, nothing quite like seeing the real thing, no matter which way you cut it – is a fair one.

All of that aside, the interesting questions asked by the post seemed to be:

1. Is the Holy Grail of collections online to get THE LOT up on the web?

2. What makes for a good online collections experience, especially if you’ve delivered 1) and your collections number tens of thousands?

And of course, underling these two questions is, for me, the interesting one: why? Why do it at all? Why spend hundreds of thousands (actually, millions upon millions..) of pounds digitising collections for distribution to a digital audience?

Clearly, the use-cases for online collections are as varied as anything else but there must be some answers here, right? If you’re a medium-sized museum considering your digitisation strategy, how do you choose what to do? Is it all about quantity, about some kind of “number of collections items online up 400% this year!” box-ticking exercise? And if it isn’t about quantity but quality, how do you go about measuring the impact of your strategy?

I find it hard to see past my own perspective on this one: personally, I’d always prefer a tiny number of objects (hundreds, or even tens!) where each has been given real, personal attention. Seeing enormous great lists of stuff where QUANTITY IS ALL seems somehow to miss the entire point. For me, this isn’t about the mass of objects but is somehow about the “gaps” between the objects: the relationships between them, the relationships to people and, most importantly, the stories. George Cavan’s now-famous matchbox means nothing without the story attached to it: with it, it has a huge and tear-jerking impact.

There again, I’m a punter and not a researcher. Maybe they’d think very differently.

Update: see Frankie Roberto’s post: “..what an art museum experience might feel like online”

“Can I find it on Google?”

Let’s ask this: Just what do museum website users want?

Actually, before we do that, the biggest question is “who is our audience?”.

Wait. Before we do that, let’s assume that – what – 70-80% of museum website users want to find out some logistical stuff: “what’s on? how do I get there? how much is it?”. Let’s assume that this bit is solved with a page or two of dull but useful information. Let’s ignore the 70-80%. They’re boring. There’s only so much you can do with a map and some opening times, right?

Now let’s consider the other stuff – the content – the collections, the exhibition stories, the richness. Just who are these people, what do they want, and where do they come from?

Determining audiences for museum websites is a slippery game which generally involves phrases like “lifelong learners” (everyone) or “educators” (teachers, parents, children – oh wait, everyone) or just “everyone”.

I’m being slightly mean, and actually the definitions are a little bit better than that, but still there is an underlying tension which is something to do with deeper questions about success, publicity, depth of resources, marketing, integrity – and that horrible, horrible phrase which frequently does the rounds: dumbing down.

When a curator oversees a website, for instance, he or she often fights the dumbing down thing tooth and nail. Curators are about depth, about academic rigour and cleverness. Curators aren’t (often) about publicity, traffic, sound-bites and volume. This is fine, and museums should be about quality and richness and integrity. If it wasn’t for this, they wouldn’t be the respected institutions that they have become.

The problem is that museums online want (and increasingly need) to be mainstream, too. We see Flickr and Facebook and Google and viral marketing and Twitter and….[etc] and, frankly, we want some ‘o’ that. And the tension there becomes more intense. Can you build traffic and volume and virality online and still manage to “not be dumb”? Can these deep, rich, academically sound experiences also be mainstream? Is – getting to the crux of the question – a mainstream user shallow or deep?

One of the big, enduring discussions, for example, is about how Google provides search into museum collections. Museum people tend to twitch if you suggest they should focus on exposing their collections sites to SEO best principles and forget the in-house search (or even just stick their stuff on Wikipedia and forget the whole in-house piece altogether), because they say that Google doesn’t provide the granularity that is required. For some researchers – those who want to find out the year an object was invented or the country of origin, for example – this lack of granularity is indeed a problem. For many others – those who just want a picture of any old steam engine for their desktop or wherever – it isn’t.

Balancing this requirement / audience / success equation is in itself a game. The best solution (do both) is clearly the answer, but many institutions fail to realise this, tending to focus on arcane in-house terms and interfaces rather than trying to find ways of building SEO via common content entrance points like Google. It becomes a user interface question, yes, but it is also about much bigger-picture strategic issues about success.

What each museum needs to decide is what this success looks like. And if – as is usually the case – success is about museums becoming more used, more embedded in people’s lives, more human – then success is, frankly, about Google. There, I said it. Where else does anyone begin a search for – well, anything? Do we really think that people come to museums to begin their search? Really?

So success – in the case of Europeana, for example – seems to me to be about asking the question: “can I find Europeana stuff on Google?”, not “can I find Europeana stuff on Europeana?”. When I’m looking for information on Leopold Mozart, I’m not – ever – going to start my search on one of our individual museum sites or any of the aggregators, federators or whotsitators that have been developed, including Europeana. I’m going to Google. Firstly, because I clearly don’t know who knows stuff on Mozart’s father and I can’t go there if I don’t have that specialised bit of information yet (and Google (currently) provides the single best starting point for my query); but secondly, because Google is there as my homepage, a hook in my Chrome browser search bar and as a known entity in my consciousness. Why would I start my search looking at detail in a single book when I’ve got access to general information about the whole library?

This is grandmother / eggs for many people working in museums, but I’m not sure it is as obvious to the big projects we’ve seen emerging from the museum sector. For some of these projects, specialised audiences are their success, in which case local approaches do work better. But for the majority, success is increasingly about making enough SEO noise for more general audiences.

And is this “dumbing down”? Yes, I suspect it probably is.

Creative Spaces – just…why?

There’s been a fair bit of buzz around the launch of the NMOLP (National Museums Online Learning Project) – now apparently renamed as “Creative Spaces” for launch.

I’ve known about this project for a long while – when I was at the Science Museum, very initial discussions were taking place at the V&A about how to search and display collections results from more than one institution. The Science Museum were invited to take part in the project, but in the end didn’t because of resourcing and budgetary issues.

My second touch on the project was from the agency end – the ITT briefly crossed my desk at my current employer, Eduserv. We considered bidding, but in the end decided that it wasn’t a project we could deliver satisfactorily given the particulars of the scope and budget.

Back then – and I think now, although someone from NMOLP will have to confirm – the project was divided into two main sections: a series of “webquests” (online learning experiences, essentially) and a cross-museum collections search. The webquests can be seen here, but I’m not going to consider these in this post because I haven’t had time to spend enough time playing to have an opinion yet.

The Creative Spaces site is at http://bm.nmolp.org/creativespaces/ – at first glance, it’s clean and nicely designed, with a bit of a web2.0 bevel thing going on. It’s certainly visually more pleasing than many museum web projects I’ve seen. The search is quick, and there’s at least a surface appearance of “real people” on the site. I hesitate to use the word “community” for reasons that I’ll highlight in a minute.

Design aside, I have some fairly big issues with the approach that is being taken here:

Firstly, this site, much like Europeana (which I’ll get my teeth into in a future post…) seemingly fails to grasp what it is about the web that makes people want to engage. I’m very surprised that we’re this many years into the social web and haven’t learnt about the basic building blocks for online communities, and are apparently unable to take a step back from our institutional viewpoint and think like a REAL user, not a museum one. Try looking at this site with a “normal person” hat on. Now ask yourself: “what do I want to DO here?” or “how can this benefit me?” or “how can I have fun”? Sure, you can create a “notebook” or a “group” (once you’ve logged in, obviously..). The “why” is unclear.

I’m also interested at how underwhelming the technology is. Take a look at www.ingenious.org.uk – a NOF digitise project which I worked on maybe 5-6 years ago. Now, I’m not over-proud of this site – it took ages, nearly killed a few people from stress, and the end result could be better, but hey – it has cross collections search, you can send an e-card, you can save things to your lightbox, you can create a web gallery. And this was more than five years ago. Even then, I was underwhelmed by what we managed to do. NMOLP doesn’t seem to have pushed the boundary beyond this at all, and as museums I think we should always be looking to drive innovation forward.

Secondly, I’m not sure that there is a reason why. Why would I possibly want to create a profile? Where is my incentive? Here’s Wikipedia talking about the Network Effect:

“A more natural strategy is to build a system that has enough value without network effects, at least to early adopters. Then, as the number of users increases, the system becomes even more valuable and is able to attract a wider user base. Joshua Schachter has explained that he built Del.icio.us along these lines – he built an online system where he could keep bookmarks for himself, such that even if no other user joined, it would still be valuable to him

The other day, I had a Twitter conversation with Giv Parvaneh, the Technical Manager at NMOLP regarding this post, which talks about “monetizing” media. He blogged his response here. Now, we had a minor crossed-wires moment (it’s hard to discuss in 140 chrs) – but my point was not that museums should “monetize” everything (although, I DO think that museums should learn about real business practices, but that’s another post altogether). My point was that users need to feel special to take part. They need to be part of a tribe, a trusted group who can do and say things that they find personally useful. They need experiences with integrity. If you’re not sure what I mean, just spend some time on the Brooklyn Museum collections pages. These guys get it – the “posse“, the “tag game“, the openness. Compare this back to what feels like a shallow experience you get on NMOLP. Now ask yourself – “where would I spend MY time?”.

The second major reason is that, once again, we’re failing to take our content to our users. This is a huge shortfalling of Europeana. People want experiences on their own terms, not on ours. Let’s not have another collections portal. Spend your social media money adding and updating entries on Wikipedia, or create an object sharing Facebook application. Or just put everything on Flickr. And, please, please create an API or at the very least an OpenSearch feed. If the issue is something around copyright – go back to your funders and content providers and sit them down in front of Google images for an hour so they can begin to understand how the internet works, before renegotiating terms with them!

The final reason hangs off the search facility. My vested interest here is of course hoard.it – and if you want to hear our rantings about the money spent on big, bad technology projects, then keep an eye out for our Museums and the Web Paper. We aren’t necessarily suggesting that the hoard.it approach should be the technology behind cross-collections searching. But we are suggesting that the approch that NMOLP have taken is expensive, old, clunky and ultimately flawed. Although it is a trifle over-simplistic as a response, why not just spend £20-30k on a Google Search Appliance and simply spider the sites. Why re-develop the wheel and build search from scratch?

If I was less of a grumpy old man, I’d feel bad about being this negative – I like the people involved, I like the institutions, and I understand the reasons why (museum) projects spiral into directions you probably wouldn’t ever choose. But then I remember that this site cost taxpayers just short of £2 million pounds, and that Europeana will cost €120 million. And then I realise that we have an obligation to keep badgering, nagging and criticising until we start to get these things right.

At the end of the day, Frankie sums it all up much more succinctly in his email to the MCG list than I do in this post. He simply asks: why?

RSS search results

A quickie (as I’ve only got a week to go until Museums and the Web and I have workshop on blogging, a workshop on mashups, a professional forum on “openness” and a “blogathon” to prepare…)


I’ve been playing about with Yahoo! Pipes a fair bit this week and preparing some stuff for the mashup workshop. In doing so, an idea I’ve floated before (see slide 33 “provide alternative routes” on the presentation below) came up to the surface again with a very, very simple suggestion:

All museums (everyone, actually) should provide their search results as RSS

Now I can hear some people at the back shuffling around uncomfortably and muttering things like “shoehorning technology”, “RDF”, “Z39-50″…I have my anti-makelifemoredifficult earplugs in, though, and I can’t really think of any practical reasons why this isn’t a hugely good idea.

Searching the web for things like “museum search RSS” doesn’t get me anything useful. From a previous bookmark I had a link to the AADL catalogue – they do it and here’s a search for “Montreal” delivered via RSS.

I’m immediately able to mash this up using Pipes, hack about with the URL, style it using my own XSLT.

Assuming this isn’t an original idea (and Owen Stephens seemed to think it was a good one and had been done within some library systems) – why aren’t more institutions doing it?

Comments please!

[slideshare id=176658&doc=web2-and-distributed-services-mike-ellis-v2-1195806210354162-3&w=425]

Ceci n’est pas une tag

There’s an interesting post over on the conference.archimuse.com blog where Jennifer reports that research they’ve been undertaking on the use of the steve.museum tagger shows that greater than 75% of all new tags given to images in the experiment weren’t words originally associated with the image by museum staff when cataloguing.

It’s a tag!That’s a pretty extraordinary statistic, and says something deep about the ways in which museums interpret and communicate their assets. I’m sure Jennifer will be drawing her own conclusions from this, but the first and most obvious response (without having read the research in depth, so shoot me down if you have..!) is either that museums are badly out of touch with how their users interact with their assets, or that findability isn’t that important to curatorial staff. Neither of these is a particularly positive conclusion to draw.

Ultimately of course, this comes down to a user-focussed (or not) approach, both to the way that assets are presented online, and the way that folksonomies and taxonomies are applied to collections in-house. Understanding the end-users of your product is one of those holy grail things which so many people (including me) preach about, and yet is missed time and time again. So often, it’s the organisational perspective which ends up being presented, and not that of the user. Inevitably, it’s users who end up losing out.