Old-ish Content Warning!
You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.
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:
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.