Online collections, hey! Online collections, what?

Another year, another Museums and the Web conference that has left me completely hoarse and unable to talk. Wooo! I had a lovely bunch of people show up for my “Blow Up Your Online Collection” impromptu unconference session, and I wanted to attempt to get a few of the ideas that came out of that session down here before I start forgetting things again.

The gist of my original proposal for the session was about focusing in on a key area of the “What’s The Point of A Museum Website?” Ignite Smithsonian talk and subsequent MCN panel session: online museum collections. If we’re all having trouble defining what the purpose of museums’ digital presences should be (though the Walker’s bad-ass–and award-winning!–new design is certainly helping to point the way), we’re having particular trouble trying to determine what role museum collections and objects serve in that space.

I don’t think any of us walked out of this discussion feeling that we’d solved the problem, but some interesting threads (some more immediately obvious than others) did come out. I hope that those who were at the session might chime in with some additional comments, but for now, in no particular order, here are a few of the things from the discussion that I could remember:

  • The after-market for collections data may be the most important one: There was much discussion about the real value of our collections data existing largely outside of the museum’s purview. We’ve already seen some of this with outside app developers building interesting stuff on publicly available collections data (with the apps built during MW’s “hackathon” being the most recent examples).
  • Attenuation to our audience(s) is key: Our current online collections typically aren’t deep enough to really serve scholars, nor are they friendly enough to serve casual visitors who don’t know what they are looking for (see Nate Solas’ older–but still relevant–presentation on collections findability strategies for more on this phenomenon). Knowing what audience we’re actually reaching would help us design an experience for that audience that might actually (gasp!) be useful.
  • Make collection records actionable: It’s astonishing how few museums make objects from their online collections easily share-able and comment-able. Giving users something they can do outside of your domain makes those objects useful. I had an interesting discussion with Tim Svenonius and Suse Cairns about the idea of people going to see the Mona Lisa–it often seems less important that visitors see the Mona Lisa, than that they have seen it. Everyone goes and takes the same exact photo, but it’s the sharing of the experience that has more value than the experience itself.
  • Timelines: Charlie Moad of the IMA had an interesting proposal, which is that something like a Facebook Timeline might actually be a really interesting way to present information about our objects. Being able to show an object’s entire history, including its creation, acquisition, movement, even changes in data like attribution, would give a more complete picture of what the object is about than just a simple collection record, while also giving the online user an experience that cannot be replicated in the gallery space. This is a pretty interesting idea to explore, and one I might try to write a little further about when I do my next blog post twelve months from now.

After the session, I started putting together a thought experiment that helped me to focus the issue a bit more. Imagine if we took a common dataset–the images, data, and objects in the Google Art Project would be an ideal test case–and were to have several museums each develop their own online collections around it. Working with a common dataset would remove any individual institutions’ ability to fall back on the “our objects are awesome, and therefore our online collection is also inherently awesome” approach. Everybody has the same objects, so everybody has to figure out how to make their approach to those objects unique. The second is that it would force museums to really think about what it means to interpret their online collections, rather than simply present them. In this thought experiment, every museum’s collection would be the same, but every museum’s interpretation of that collection would (hopefully) entirely different.

This may seem weird, but it’s actually not that far off from what is about to effectively happen. As more an more institutions make their collections data available via APIs, we are effectively heading towards a place in which every museum will (theoretically) have access to every other museum’s data. The obvious worry is that an approach like this would simply turn the curator (or scientist, or educator) into little more than a list-maker, but I don’t think that’s actually how this scenario would play out. Putting the emphasis squarely on interpretation (rather than on simple interestingess of collection) would simply exaggerate the impact of exceptional curators. Those who are gifted interpreters would find their work even more highly valued, and those who simply compile objects and put them in catalogs would quickly recede into the (digital) background.

So, I dunno. I can’t tell whether we’re getting closer or further away with this, but I’m liking the conversation around it. Hoping we can keep this discussion and the ideas flowing.


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6 thoughts on “Online collections, hey! Online collections, what?

  1. I love Charlie’s idea! I’m not sure how it would work in practice, particularly for objects that have little existing documentation, but I think it’s got some interesting possibilities. Recently I had a guest blog on my post, looking at the idea of running a CMS more like Facebook (, but this continues that discussion into an interesting new way.

    The idea that you could have an interpretation timeline, which includes new information as it comes to life and shows/makes visible the process of interpretation is a really cool idea. It would radically open the museum/art industry in a way that might be quite confronting, but I think that only makes it more interesting.

    Lots to think about here. I look forward to continuing this discussion. Thanks for posting this round up, since I had to miss your session in order to run my own.

  2. There are several great directions to go with this. I’m regretting not going to your unconference session (embarrassment of riches at MW2012!). Some quick thoughts:

    Actionable collections: Yes! Art is a great social object. Go beyond making it shareable in the chiclet icon sense. Encourage visitors to embed items from the collection in blogs, on Tumblr, WordPress, etc. (Thinking of Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube–those other popular collection sites–as models.)

    And not just single items–let’s embed small personal sub-sets of the collection–shown as galleries or slideshows. These might illustrate a point, or accompany an article, or just float in someone’s sidebar, much like an rdio playlist, etc., saying “This is what I like/This is who I am” (See Suse’s “Collection as identity formation”

    I love the idea of innovating on the presentation layer…while sharing the plumbing (I’m thinking of something like TAP, with a common spec as the foundation–and authoring tools to output to spec, if needed–but with freedom to build creatively on top.) Perhaps in addition to a common dataset, we structure an API, and we all work from that? 

    Maybe I’m just dreaming of a common museum tool that will turn collection/TMS data into a useful open API, and perhaps integrate tagging and personal collection-making. That would be swell…not to mention the benefit of a common API, which might get really interesting fast. (Was that the dream of the Steve project?)

    Timelines: Fascinating…imagine automatically adding culture-specific historic events to add context, as well. (Thinking of ways to fill in the gaps in my collection history…)

    Thanks for getting the juices flowing.

  3. Hi Koven, Thanks for “un-chairing” a good session at MW2012.  And well done for getting your thoughts out so quickly before the steam-roller of daily work took over. Can’t believe it’s a week back at my desk already.
    The Facebook – Timeline thing came up the day before in the pre-conference workshop I attended, led by Jill Sterrett (SFMOMA) and others.  Ostensibly about intra-museum collaboration, the conversation usefully moved into the sharing of collection data and more significantly the importance of finding ways to gather, store and share a wider range of collection information.  More than the “tombstone” and collection management data most of us accept as the standard, what about the meanings, the relationships, the interviews, audience reactions, and the evolution of these things over time.  I wondered out loud, if instead of running a Collection Management System what we really need is a Context Management System.  What would it be like if each item in our collection had its own Facebook page?  Works of art (or social history objects, or natural history specimens for that matter) could have photos, biography, relationships with each other and with people, friends, be “liked”, join groups, attend events … 
    There are of course one or two reasons that we might not use Facebook itself but conceptually a tool that allows organic growth and communication of contexts is important, with permeability between the institution and the crowd.
    The breadth and depth question – how can we be useful and friendly to both scholars and casual visitors?  It’s hard but few museums can afford to focus only on one end or the other, somehow we have to do both, and everyone in between.  The trick might be in understanding the motivation and various purposes that different audiences bring to our online collections.  It’s the after-market thing, a bit.  What do people want to do with our online collections?   –  share with friends, include in wider research, get a general impression of what we are about, answer a specific query, purchase a copy, respond or re-use.  If all of these are true for one segment of our users or another then the challenge is to provide a range of search and interaction options – which then relates to the point about making online collections (or at least some of them) actionable.  Clearly understanding user motivation and purpose as always the best start I think.
    Cheers, David

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