Building a museum from scratch

I posed a quick question on Twitter this morning (or this afternoon, for those of you east of the Rocky Mountains) that I feel needs a bit more clarification than I could squeeze into 140 characters, so I thought I’d log into the ol’ blog (for the first time since July) and do some old fashioned clarifyin’.

Anyway, the question I posed was this:

What things do museums do *exclusively* because of tradition? If you were building a museum from scratch, what would you do differently?
Koven J. Smith

While it’s easy to think of all kinds of things that museums could do better (and indeed, since asking this question, I’ve received a bunch of excellent replies to this effect), what I’m really trying to get at here are identifying processes that we (perhaps grudgingly) accept as givens, but that we would never enact if we were just starting from scratch today. Continue reading Building a museum from scratch

“A great place to plan your visit!”

Disclaimer: This is something that I’m still trying to figure out, so a lot of what follows is still kinda half-baked and rant-y (just your typical post, I suppose). I welcome better-informed opinions than my own…

I often hear museum staff talk about museum websites being places for visitors to the buildings to “plan their visits” and/or to “follow up after their visits.” For some institutions, it seems that this is the primary purpose of their websites. I’m willing to be convinced if someone can show me hard data that proves otherwise, but my gut tells me that this kind of activity rarely, if ever, actually occurs in the way we so often discuss it. Continue reading “A great place to plan your visit!”

It IS about the technology

“It’s not about the technology.”

I hear this meme invoked all the time at “museum tech” conferences nowadays. Indeed, I myself have said this a bunch of times when developing (or at least contemplating) a new content-based technology project at the Museum. A big drive in my work at the Met has always been to get constituents talking about the content first and foremost, and worrying about the technology platform(s) later. (Aside: Nancy Proctor makes this point better than I do in her recent Museums and the Web paper The Museum Is Mobile.) This hasn’t always been an easy task, as often it’s excitement about the technology that has caused the constituent to contact me in the first place, but I have nevertheless always endeavored to put content first and tech second in any discussions about a possible project.


This approach only goes so far, and we need to be careful about where and when we apply it, lest our thinking become too prejudiced. My concern is that thinking this way causes us to act as if content is always inherently platform agnostic, which is rarely true.

I think the issue here really is context, which is unique for each technology platform, even when the content is similar. A kiosk has the context of a museum around it, a mobile device has the context of location, the web has the context of (possibly) no context at all. Each of these situations demand different approaches to developing, filtering, and presenting content.

I don’t mean to say that the “it’s not about the technology” idea has no value–it’s still a bad idea to jump into a project with no reason for being other than exciting technology. However, we do need to be cautious about understanding the nuances of each platform, and adapting our content strategies accordingly.


Serendipitous and Disposable

I’m becoming more and more interested, lately, in exploring the implications of interacting with museum content outside of the museum building itself. Nancy Proctor, the head of mobile strategy for the Smithsonian, led a great unconference session on the topic at this year’s MW conference, and Chris Ubik recently postulated how the location-based app Gowalla might facilitate interesting tours outside of the museum. We’re starting to see some interesting real-world examples of this kind of thing, whether it’s home-grown stuff like Richard McCoy’s tour of public art in Indianapolis or some of the cool stuff the dudes over at Scvngr are doing. As much as I’m excited about these ideas, they are essentially using location-based services to expand the traditional museum tour model (albeit over a larger geographic area) rather than upend it. These experiences assume that the user has made a deliberate decision to interact with a museum and/or its content, and there’s an assumption that the user will follow through with that decision. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but what excites me about location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla is that they enable us to pursue an entirely different kind of interaction model, one that substitutes serendipitous and disposable experiences for the more immersive, intentional ones that museums are accustomed to. What might this kind of experience look like? A relatively straightforward example is from the History Channel’s Foursquare profile. If you follow The History Channel, and check into a location for which it has supplied a “tip,” an interesting historical factoid will be displayed to you. So, for instance, if you check in at the Met Life building in Manhattan and you follow the History Channel, you will learn that the building was “originally called the Pan Am Building & was the largest commercial office building in the world when it opened on March 7, 1963.” It’s a short leap to imagine museum content being presented this way. A user who follows the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, could check in at the Black Canyon in Colorado and be presented with this photograph and accompanying data from the Museum’s Timeline of Art History:

In essence, this approach takes content that was originally designed to be experienced as part of a museum visit (whether physical or online), and re-purposed it as a contextual/interpretive layer on a user’s experience out in the world.This approach is interesting to me for a few reasons:

  • The decision to interact and actually interacting are disconnected events. In a traditional museum experience, the visit itself follows directly from the decision to visit. Not anymore. The decision to visit (read: “follow”) a museum is now separate from the experience of interacting with that museum’s content. The interaction now only occurs when it’s most relevant.
  • The object itself is used primarily as a means of delivering information. Most online collections essentially attempt to replicate the experience of viewing an object, with a digital image as a stand-in for the real thing. In this experience, however, the experience of viewing the object is downplayed in favor of its relevance as a means of connecting one information node (location) with another (whatever information you wish to provide to the user).
  • The user has not made a deliberate choice to access museum content. This is the critical difference between this approach and a more tour-based model. The user isn’t going on a museum-curated tour of “famous painted landscape vistas” or whatever, but is instead only encountering that content serendipitously. (ed note: I might have made that word up.)
  • The actual interaction with museum content is short-lived. Once the content is viewed, the user moves on with his or her life.

All of these factors contribute significantly to a completely different type of “visit,” and an entirely different value proposition for museums (or at least art museums, in any case). In this scenario, the museum is now less an enabler of visits and more of a provider of information. The centerpiece of the museum experience–interaction with objects–is almost nonexistent, and factors that barely warrant mention on an object’s label–the location in which it was produced–are critically important. —————– And P.S., to the five of you who read this blog regularly (hi, mom!), sorry for the long gap in not posting. A lot going on these days that has prevented me from posting as (ir)regularly as I might like. Hopefully I’ll be back on a more regular schedule from here on out. As always, thanks so much for stopping by and reading!

The iPod tour at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Milton Glaser’s 1966 Bob Dylan poster, on display at the Cooper-Hewitt. Image from the Museum of Modern Art.

I just came back from seeing the “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation” show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design museum, and taking some time to check out its much-ballyhooed iPod Touch tour, which was designed by New York design house 2×4. I was curious to see the device in action, after first hearing about it through the #museummobile Twitter stream and then via the positive review of the tour in the New York Times. I arrived with somewhat high expectations. Would this finally be the mobile handheld implementation that I and others have been dreaming about?

Well, yes and no. I found myself somewhat frustrated by the experience–the tour does so many things right, that it makes the things it does poorly just that much more glaring.

I’ll start with the good stuff first (for a change). First, the amount of content available on the device is absolutely staggering. For each of the 78 designers with work represented in the show, there was some kind of multimedia content available. At minimum, a slide show of the designer’s work was presented, but more often than not this slide show would be accompanied by an audio interview or artist statement. Many of the profiles featured YouTube videos illustrating aspects of the designer’s work. In some cases, there were multiple videos, multiple interviews, and multiple slideshows. The devices were light on text content (there was virtually none at all, as I recall), but this didn’t feel like a critical omission, given the inherently visual nature of much of the work on display. Given that my call has always been for more, more, and more content, the amount of stuff to get into here was fantastic.

I was also excited that much of the content on the devices was not (as far as I can tell) created expressly for the exhibition. Some of the most interesting content on the devices was delivered via YouTube videos, most of which I think were not created for the exhibition or even posted by the Museum itself. I would love to see more museums start to do this–taking content that’s freely available from other sources, and incorporating it into an in-gallery interpretation strategy.

The devices also handle comments quite well. Visitors are given the ability to comment directly on a given designer’s profile, or on the exhibition generally. These comments show up on the exhibition’s Web site, on a series of iMacs on display at the end of the exhibition itself, and, apparently, on Twitter (though it’s unclear to me how this is done). Comments received from the gallery are merged with comments received from the Web site pretty seamlessly, which is a nice feature. My only real dissatisfaction with the comments feature was the inability to respond directly to previous users’ comments. I guess I’ve become so used to the idea of an @ reply that I expect a little more asynchronous conversation than was really possible here. That’s a pretty minor point, though.

And generally speaking, the interface works nicely. After a moment or two of playing with it, it was pretty clear how to get around, how to search, and how to comment. I’d be curious to test this with someone who is less familiar with the iPhone model; I wonder if to an iPhone newbie, the navigation would have been a little daunting.

And now on to the not-so-good stuff…

Something I had not really considered before is how having to pick up a device from a museum, versus bringing in your own and downloading an app, changes how much and what kind of content one might be willing to tolerate. Many of the videos linked from the device were longer than three minutes, with some clocking in at eight minutes or more. I would guess that while I was in the exhibition, I never watched any more than perhaps a minute-and-a-half of any one video, mostly because I felt a need to move on to the next designer’s display. Had this been an application on my own device, however, I could have saved any of those videos for later viewing, or shared them with friends immediately. I wouldn’t have been frustrated by not being able to watch entire videos, because the app would have essentially been leveraging the arrangement of a physical exhibition to point me to a sea of content I could explore later. Instead, I watched pieces of a few videos, most of which I’ll never get around to finding and re-watching on my own.

This problem could possibly have been mitigated by the “send my visit” feature, in which one can e-mail a summary of his or her visit to someone else. I e-mailed my visit to myself, in the hopes that maybe there would be URLs for the videos I had viewed in the e-mail. No such luck. All that appeared in the e-mail was a statistical breakdown of what I saw (number of designers’ profiles viewed, number of videos watched, number of images viewed, and number of comments added). I’ve never been a big believer in the “e-mail me this object” features that were ubiquitous on museum kiosks for a while, but here was a situation where e-mailing this information to myself actually could have been helpful.

I think my biggest beef with the iPod Touch tour, though, and the one that the reviewer touched upon in the NYT article, is that it doesn’t seem that well-integrated into the exhibition. And here I don’t mean well-integrated in a design sense; the physical exhibition design and the app design on the iPod were well-coordinated. What I mean is that it seems that the exhibition experience and the iPod experience were separate, parallel types of engagement, in which one had to stop doing one in order to experience the other.

I found myself either focusing entirely on the device, to the exclusion of all else, or focusing on the work on display, without any of the additional interpretive content from the device. Fundamentally, the experience I had on the device seemed like it would have been more fulfilling almost anywhere other than in the gallery. Both the exhibition itself (exclusive of the device) and the iPod tour each felt like complete experiences on their own–they didn’t really appear to need each other.

This issue was probably best exemplified by the thumbnail images used in the main navigation. Each designer’s profile, when shown in the primary list-style navigation, is associated with a thumbnail image of a representative work. However, this representative work was often not the work that was on display in the gallery. There was thus no visual shorthand one could use to assist with finding the appropriate profile. This seems like such an obvious integration point between the physical exhibition and the iPod tour, that its absence was striking.

Aaaaaanyway, there you go. On the whole, the handheld tour was a good effort, probably the best of its kind I’ve yet seen, but not quite ideal. I’d be really curious to hear others’ thoughts about this, particularly if you’ve seen the show and had a different reaction to the handheld tour.

On pilot projects and other things that don’t work

“If your organization requires success before commitment, it will never have either.”

-Seth Godin, Tribes

So first, a confession. I’ve done pilot projects before. As recently as April of this year, I said that museums should be doing “better pilot projects.” It’s an idea with powerful appeal—you’re having trouble getting a technology project off the ground, so you propose a fact-finding pilot project as a way to convince the powers that be of the merits of your proposed idea. But after seeing more and more museums stumbling through their own pilot projects, I realize now that I should never do another pilot project again, ever. And neither should you.

First off, the whole concept of the “pilot project” itself is a fantasy. It’s rarely a project in the conventional sense; it’s a hedge. More often than not, a pilot project is undertaken as a way for technologists to slide a potentially controversial (and yet often technologically mundane) idea past museum administration. It’s a way to fail without actually incurring the costs or benefits of actual failure.

But of course, real failure is built into most pilot projects from the beginning, for one or both of the following reasons:

  • Pilots usually take place in rarefied “test” environments that bear so little resemblance to actual use as to make the “findings” of the pilot project virtually useless.
  • Because the pilot project usually has a short engagement period, museums typically will not commit enough resources to the project to sustain it should it turn out to be successful (as described—heartbreakingly—in this recent post by Nina K. Simon about a successful crowdsourced library cataloguing project in the Netherlands).

So this is the problem in a nutshell. Because pilots are rarely given the resources necessary to succeed, they are doomed to failure (or at least some sort of permanent beta status) from the beginning.

And what are these pilot programs designed to prove, anyway? At least as far as museums go, technology is one of the few areas in which pilot projects are ever undertaken. We rarely, if ever, see pilot publications, pilot exhibitions, or pilot educational programs. That alone tells me that we do pilot projects not because we truly need to prove out the technology, but rather because our institutions aren’t as comfortable with technology as they are with exhibitions, publications, etc.

This just seems like bad practice to me. I’m sure there are plenty of successful projects that have arisen from pilot projects, but looking at the evidence from my own experience, I tend to think that this is despite their previous status as pilots, rather than because of that.

We need to stop this hedging, and own up to our failures when they occur. If you’re pushing a technology project at your museum, make the case for it at the beginning, rather than hoping that a successful pilot will make the case for you. If you’re proposing the project in the first place, it’s probably because you already have some faith that it will be successful. Don’t ensure that project’s death by committing it to the pilot project graveyard.

Listening to: Pharoah Sanders – Love Is Everywhere
via FoxyTunes


Earlier this year, I posted some in-progress music for a short film I’d been asked to score. Well, the film is now finished, and it is called “Homunculus.” The film was produced by Humble and conceived and directed by Sam Stephens. I love it. Check it out:

Homunculus from HUMBLE TV on Vimeo.

…aaaand just for fun, here’s the score alone, for those of you who want to check to see if the math works out (it doesn’t):

There’s a little bit more about the thought process behind some of what you’re hearing in my original post from March. From the more overtly 12-tone approach described in that post, I added in some chopped-up found-sound recordings of music boxes, and some hot blaxploitation-style drums for the “chase” parts of the film. All in all, I’m pretty happy with how the whole thing turned out. There’s more about the making of the film on Humble’s Vimeo page.

Museums In the Digital Domain, Part Four – Generative Assets

This is the last in a series of posts (and sorry for the delay in getting this one up; sickness followed by the Museum Computer Network conference prevented me from getting this up sooner). Part One, with a brief introduction, is here, Part Two is here, and Part Three is here. You can read all four parts together here.

New means of producing content are only part of the equation; to claim attention from audiences both new and traditional, museums will need to experiment with different kinds of engagement in both the online and physical spaces. Because content-plus-reputation is no longer a compelling enough reason for garnering attention, museums will need to focus on types of engagements that are not easily copied. Tech writer Kevin Kelly refers to these as “generative assets,” which he breaks down into eight categories, four of which are critical for museums at this juncture in their history: immediacy, personalization, accessibility, and findability.


Museums need to demonstrate value by providing up-to-the-minute content and information. Immediacy here could take a number of different forms, depending on the medium and the situation. Immediacy for many users might resemble something like what TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington termed “process journalism,” in which a story is chronicled in near real-time as it unfolds, before all the facts are completely known (which, by its very nature, necessitates corrections and clarifications later on). A great recent example of this in the museum world would be Brooklyn Museum’s real-time chronicling of the CT scanning of four of their Egyptian mummies–between regular posts on the Brooklyn Museum blog and literally up-to-the-minute Twitter updates, users were made to feel that they were witnessing a story unfold right before their very eyes. The fact that the museum was willing to admit that it didn’t (yet) have all the facts was somewhat arresting, and meant that readers of the Museum’s blog felt that they were part of something developing. A simple summary of this process, delivered via a few paragraphs after all the facts were in, would not have been nearly as fascinating.

Another interesting example of immediacy would be NPRbackstory, which was created by Public Interactive, a division of National Public Radio. NPRbackstory is a service that combs Google’s “Hot Trends” data for trending search topics, searches for those topics in NPR’s own news archive. If a story in the archive matches the trending topic, a link to the story is posted in NPRbackstory’s Twitter feed. What is interesting about NPRbackstory is that the process is completely automatic; the service runs without any intervention from human beings at all, and yet it provides an immediate value by providing context and background to an emerging topic. With their vast content reserves, this is the kind of approach that museums could very easily take.


Personalization involves tailoring content and content delivery methods based on user characteristics or selections. Personalization will continue to be the most difficult generative asset for museums to work with until their content repositories are finally deep and diverse enough to truly account for user preference.

A good example of personalization comes (again) from NPR. NPR introduced, at the end of 2008, a means by which listeners could create their own podcast streams based on preferences they select. Because NPR’s podcast archives are both deep and well-catalogued, it is possible for users to create not only personalized podcasts based on categories, but even on keywords. So, for instance, a user create a podcast feed that is updated any time an NPR-affiliated program runs an episode in which the term “MoMA” is featured. The ability to tailor this content specifically to a user’s preferences gives that user a powerful incentive to return to NPR’s archives for more content.


Accessibility refers to the ability to access a resource when and where it is needed. Because much digital content is free, there becomes less and less reason to physically house this material on one’s own desktop, laptop, or mobile device. Instead, many content creators and aggregators are pursuing a strategy in which all content is stored remotely “in the cloud” such that a user can access that content from any device. The most exciting recent development in this area is Spotify, a music player that is similar to iTunes, except that no content is housed on the local device–it is accessed entirely via an Internet connection. What this means is that a user’s mp3 library is always available anywhere with an Internet connection, regardless of the device.

Museums have already begun to make tentative steps in this direction with “my virtual gallery” features (a good example being the Met’s “My Met Gallery“), in which users are able to create a personal account to which they may save collection objects of interest for later perusal. The content in these personal accounts is stored entirely on the museum’s own servers, so theoretically, at least, the content is available wherever the user is able to access the museum’s Web site. This is an excellent start, and this idea should be expanded to include content outside collections such that a user, whether engaging with the museum’s information online or via a mobile device, is able to access contextual content “just in time.”


Findability is key to asserting value in the attention economy. Resources that are not easily findable may as well not exist, no matter how interesting or vital they may be. It is interesting to note in the last several years that although museums have continued to publish new information resources as they always have, albeit now digitally, the real response from the community only appears when museums actually create new means of accessing those resources that the community takes notice.

Increasing the findability of resources on the Web at least partially rests on simply having more content available, and ensuring that that content is identified such that it can be properly indexed by search engines. But this alone is not enough. Any findability strategy should be aimed at not only making resources easily obtainable, but also at ensuring that those resources are available when they are needed. Delivering information “just in time” has the net effect of increasing what Peter Samis refers to as “Visual Velcro,” or the likelihood that a user will spend more time with a given content resource.

Improving findability may also mean accepting that many of the most interesting experiments with museums’ information may happen downstream, outside their control. A good example of this recently would be with the Brooklyn Museum’s release of their collections API. Being one of the first institutions to make its collections available in this manner, there were no use cases out there demonstrating what value doing this might provide. But the Museum’s community itself provided that when a developer in Brooklyn (unasked, I might add), used Brooklyn’s collections API to build an iPhone application that would allow users to browse its collections.

But findability could have significant meaning in the gallery space as well. If we still seek to deliver information “just in time,” it is important that this information be available in the physical space as well. Lightweight finding protocols, like the QR (Quick Response) codes recently printed on wall labels at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, could theoretically be resolved to any Web-available resource. A museum without the resources to put its own content on a device could easily seek out high-quality content on the Web and use QR codes to make that content available in the gallery via a visitor’s mobile device. Doing this helps to foster the increased “stickiness” between visitors and objects that Peter Samis refers to (because information is being provided when it is needed), while also emphasizing a museum’s role as a “distributor of attention.”


It is time for museums to finally begin transforming themselves from “buildings with Web sites” into different types of institutions altogether, in which the physical visit is but one of many possible engagements. This transformation will not be easy, as it will involve recognizing the truly disruptive impact that the Web has on museums’ traditional modes of information delivery. Competing in this environment means going beyond simply finding new ways of presenting content digitally, but also learning how to properly distribute attention to that content. By focusing on the “generative assets” of findability, personalization, accessibility, and immediacy, museums have a way forward, if they choose to follow this path.

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, etc., etc., etc.

Allow me to take a moment away from my thrilling and dynamic series of posts on “Museums and the Digital Domain” to post a photo of my costume from from this past weekend’s Halloween shenanigans, courtesy of Ms. Morgan Holzer:

Oh yeah, that’s me, your humble narrator, dressed like freaking Number Six! Although I ended up having to explain all night long who I was supposed to be, and the balloon I was using as Rover flew away during the day, it was still totally worth lining my good jacket with gaff tape and wearing white pants. You can clearly see from the expression in my face that my life is my own, and that you won’t hold me.

So if next year, I finally get David Byrne’s Big White Suit together for Halloween, the circle will be complete.

Museums In the Digital Domain, Part Three – Producing for Niches

This post is Part Three of a series of posts. Part One, with a brief introduction, is here. Part Two is here.

By choosing to assume that the audience for online engagement is the same as that for traditional in-gallery engagement, museums are failing to nurture and develop new audiences. Instead, museums continue to produce new content based on (potentially) flawed assumptions of what their audiences might want. These flawed assumptions cause museums to spend a significant amount of time worrying about issues regarding content ownership and authority that are–at best–less important, or–at worst–completely irrelevant for online visitors, and ignoring issues of findability that are critical.

This is nowhere more apparent than on the typical museum Web site. The average museum site assumes a protracted engagement with the visitor in which the a deliberate choice has been made by the visitor to visit the site and look for information. This type of engagement is clearly modeled on a physical visit, in which the visitor enters through the front door of the building and is “captive” for a certain length of time. In this scenario, the visitor has already sought the specific museum Web site out, likely based on the museum’s reputation, and is willing to accept even unattributed content as all coming backed by the “full faith and credit” of that institution.

Some visitors may indeed seek this form of engagement from museum Web sites. The problem is that the average museum Web site gears most of its content entirely in the pursuit of this one type of engagement. With more effort devoted to research (“plans to learn”) than to production (“plans to execute”), museums may find that there are other niche types of engagements that individually represent smaller numbers of visitors, but collectively represent a significantly larger number. This is what author Chris Anderson refers to as “the Long Tail.” In the old days, the cost of producing print or in-gallery materials that would appeal to these niche audiences was simply too high to warrant even considering it. Digital production, however, enables museums to publish materials for as easily for these audiences as it does for traditional audiences. Adding up all of these possible niche markets makes for a larger number of total interactions than do the hits.

There is also the possibility that what was always assumed by the museum to be a niche audience in fact turns out to be an entirely new, previously untapped market. In fact, most disruptive technologies begin as niche markets and then evolve into something much larger. This is to museums’ advantage now that producing content is now a low- or no-cost proposition. Rather than spending years and thousands of dollars producing “perfect” publications that may never find an audience, museums can instead begin to put out smaller bits of content first to see what “sticks.” If that content finds an audience (that is, if the material begins to be linked to, referenced, and read), then the museum could decide to produce more content on that topic. The key here is that decisions around content production should be based on actual returned data (website hits, incoming links, etc.) rather than assumptions about what the largest audience wants. In this way, emerging and as-yet-unknown audiences can be turned into assets before they have a chance to look somewhere else.

Producing materials for niche audiences and adopting a research-driven content strategy means contravening many long-held production practices in museums. Most critically museums should forgo the concept of waiting for perfection before publication. Perfection is a standard far more suited for the print medium than today’s digital domain. By the time a museum has thoroughly perfected a resource, that potential audience may have already moved on and found the information elsewhere. Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently made a similar case for immediacy over perfection:

“I arrived [at the IMA] and heard, as is so often the case, the mantra that we’re only going to put stuff online when we’ve done data clean up…Actually, what we’re going to do is we’re going to put everything online now and see how much we have to clean up. And that seems to be working better…than holding back.”

In trying to avoid “holding back” while simultaneously attempting to find and exploit new audiences, museums will have to re-configure their content-production strategies to be significantly more flexible and responsive. In the main, this will involve the removal of the traditional editorial process in favor of more direct and ongoing communication. In this model, the publication of a given resource is the beginning of a process, rather than its endpoint. Some approaches that many museums are already using successfully include:

  • Allow staff to speak to visitors directly. As many museums with blogs are finding, allowing staff to speak out directly about what interests them is a relatively painless way of quickly creating volumes of interesting, colorful content. These staff postings are inherently niche-based, tending to focus on tiny area of museum practice, but often build dedicated, loyal audiences. Nina K. Simon asserts that being more overt about content authorship can also have the side benefit of increasing trust, by in essence demonstrating an author’s willingness to engage in a conversation about content he or she created with his or her community.
  • Use content that already exists. Not all content has to be built from scratch. Plenty of information is already available in digital format in museums, but many museums still withhold this information until it is deemed suitable for public consumption. What Wikipedia and similar resources have taught us is that the public is remarkably tolerant of mistakes when the information is copious and findable. Put information out as soon as it is created.
  • Worry less about completely owning all of your content. Museums should not be afraid to reference materials not produced by them. Museums can still provide valuable context, and acquire value over time as good pointers to interesting information. A museum that is willing to own up to incomplete knowledge, and ask its own communities to fill in those gaps, is a museum that (paradoxically, when viewed in the context of earlier paradigms) is increasing trust with its community and ensuring that it will be a “first source” of information for that community.
  • Digitize your archives. This is probably the least attractive option for most museums, as the process of converting archival assets from analogue to digital carries with a relatively high price tag. But because much of this information already exists, digitization can enable the creation of large amounts of “new” content without (again) having to create content from scratch. And, like all digital production, the cost of digitization is only decreasing.

Objection to pursuing any of these strategies in museums typically takes one of two forms. The first is the concern that this kind of content represents a significant decrease in quality, and the second is that creating a too-engaging online experience will cause a drop in visitorship to the physical site. Both of these arguments represent an incomplete understanding of what disruptive technologies mean in terms of creating new audiences.

For these new audiences, there is no quantifiable drop in quality with these new production methods. With more rapid and personal content deployment, museums are actually providing more value for an audience that responds to availability and findability more than perfection. For a visitor hungry for information that can be found nowhere else, any information, even incomplete information, is better than none at all. The ability to engage directly with a curator, conservator, or educator might be far more important to this audience than comprehensiveness. Museums have to ask themselves whether by fretting over being completely authoritative if they are stymieing their content-production efforts merely to satisfy the needs of a small group of scholars. As Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood said about high-quality audio formats like FLAC: “…if you even know what one of those is, and have strong opinions on them, you’re already lost to the world of high fidelity and have probably spent far too much money on your speaker stands.”

And it is highly unlikely that producing more engaging online experiences will “cannibalize” existing visitors. It is far more likely that more interesting online presences will in fact help museums to find entirely new audiences that had heretofore not had an interest in visiting at all. Sebastian Chan, Head of Digital, Social & Emerging Technologies at the Powerhouse Museum found this to be true when the Powerhouse posted images of its Tyrell photographs collection to the Flickr Commons. Powerhouse found that the images posted to Flickr received more page views in the first four weeks of availability than they had for the entire previous year on the Museum’s own Web site, and that the museum was receiving licensing requests from entirely new entities that had never contacted them before.

This is an instructive case because the Powerhouse could have just as easily not have made these images so easily available, and instead put a few highlights on their Web site, strongly urging visitors to come to the Museum to see the collection personally. Had the Powerhouse done this, these new audiences would have been far less likely to have found this collection at all. The “cannibalization” would have been reversed–an over-emphasis on the museum’s physical presence would have prevented interesting and engaging content from being made available for new audiences to discover.

Part Four should be up later this week.