Tag Archives: web 2.0

What difference does a website make?

A website that presents the collection through gorgeous visuals is now considered a must for any self-respecting museum. Photographs of objects, of exhibitions and of the museum itself are increasingly frequent interfaces, linking museums, visitors, experts, collections. How are users engaged by these interfaces? Which skills and strategies are needed for this engagement? What are the consequences of visually mediated interfaces for users of digital knowledge in/about/from museums, archives, and other collections? These developments are discussed in terms of their consequences for how museums view their role in a recent article written with Sarah de Rijcke, Image as Interface: consequences for users of museum knowledge. It appears in a special issue of the journal Library Trends on ‘Involving Users in the Co-Construction of Digital Knowledge in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.’

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Discovery of a Journal

A wonderful publication, called Études Photographiques, brought to my attention by one of my informants in the Flickr case, who noted that an article on image sharing would be of interest to me. This journal is published by the Société française de photographie, in collaboration with CNL, CNRS and Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada). Interestingly, this bilingual journal has both a paper and web-based edition, though the articles on the web generally do not have images, due to copyright restrictions.

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Museums and measuring performance, part II

This brings us back to  last week’s debate. There were 3 discussants: Gitta Luiten, director of the Mondriaan Foundation (supports projects in the visual arts, design, and cultural heritage); Arnoud Odding, head of the National Glass Museum; and Marc Jacobs, senior advisor Culture and Cultural History for one of the Dutch provinces. Their job was to set the stage for a discussion with the audience, consisting of representatives of heritage institutes, researchers, Reinwardt Academy students and a strikingly small number of new media people. While all discussants agreed that museums needed to innovate, and traditional performance indicators did not suffice, they differed in their analysis of the situation, and in the kinds of alternatives they brought forth. Luiten and a small number of other people in the audience stressed that museums could be more flexible in the way they account for past performance – they tend to come up with numbers (of visitors, acquisitions, etc.) themselves, while for instance the Mondriaan Foundation would be open to other formats. If it fits a particular project, Luiten argued, why not send in a video instead? Marc Jacobs took a pragmatic position. He argued that museums would do well to think very thoroughly about their audiences, and just simply focus on what delivers. This is where he diverged from Arnoud Odding’s position. Oddding was invited because his museum is successful in engaging new audiences, in experimenting, and in making smart use of new media. Odding’s position was clear: Don’t go looking out for a particular audience, don’t focus on numbers, just focus on what you as a museum think is exciting and stimulating. In a network society, museums can benefit greatly from the many communities of interested people already out there. Maybe that means that your number of visitors to the museum declines, but that’s too narrow a focus anyway, he argued. He himself experienced that, indirectly, smart new media use created new and unexpected partnerships with craftsmen and companies. This is perhaps hard to capture in numbers, but certainly no less relevant.

The debate afterward again highlighted that while museums realize the need for change, they also feel that innovation conflicts with the way their performance is now usually measured by for instance governmental grant providers, etc. These parties, they argue, keep asking for traditional performance indicators like amount of visitors, number of times mentioned in the press, number of exhibitions or publications, or number of website visitors.

While it is interesting to bring to mind what Gitta Luiten said about the Mondriaan Foundation being open to, even challenging institutions to come up with, alternative indicators of past performance, the centrality of the relationship between performance and numbers was striking. Coming from the field of science studies (where researchers analyze ‘science in action’, to borrow a phrase from Latour), it struck me how much the debate resonated with similar discussions in the sciences. There, too, quantification is the ‘preferred’ way to measure performance or ‘output’. I think it is worth translating  some of the work done in sciences studies to the current debate in the cultural heritage field. The work of historian of science Ted Porter was the first that came to my mind. In his book Trust in Numbers, Porter argued that using numbers to judge and measure quality is a way to manage trust between parties that are at a distance. Numbers travel over larger distances (not only geographically, but also more ‘psychologically’) and are today seen as more ‘objective’ than other ways to build trust, based on more informal rules and agreements.

A related issue: administrators themselves usually have to justify their own work and their decisions in impersonal terms. When decisions about distribution of funding etc. are made, they try to avoid arbitrariness by using instrumental, standardized tools. In Policy Paradox, Deborah Stone tackles this rationalist approach by laying bare the complexity of policy making. She shows that policy making is a “constant struggle over the criteria for classification, the boundaries of categories, and the definition of ideals that guide the way people behave” (Stone, p. 11).  Stone contends that there are multiple ways to define a problem, present relevant issues, creating relevant categories, leaving things out. This is not, and can never be, a neutral process. Policy making is done by parties with a vested interest in presenting the problem in a certain light.

When I translate the above to the topic of the debate on performance indicators and changing roles of museums, I think that further interaction between institutions and funding agencies would benefit from explicitating the following points:

  • What particular policy is supported by this portrayal of information via numbers?
  • Which categories are constructed behind the numbers, and what are the consequences? A simple and seemingly innocent example: counting the annual number of visitors implies that you define what you consider as a ‘visitor’ first. These decisions are not neutral, and shape all kinds of work processes in and outside of museums (hiring staff or technologies to register these numbers, defining what a visit is, how that changes when a museum ‘goes virtual’ etc).
  • What shape do the trade-offs take between the goals of different parties?
  • If this is clear, what would be workable alternatives to deal with the inherent ambiguity in these particular decision making processes?

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Attending Kom je ook?2

Sarah and I attended a very interesting meeting at the Hermitage yesterday, Kom je ook? 2 (preceded and followed by other Kom je ook? meetings). From the 350 curators, new media designers and artists and cultural sector actors who attended, many already reported on twitter, Facebook and Flickr on the event, which leaves me to add here my own reactions.

Mobile polling stations

Originally uploaded by maaikelauwaert


First, there was an amazing energy in the room. That buzz of people being excited to see each other, unsure and curious about what they were about to hear, and grasping at new input with the goal of doing something–very enjoyable! (And the sugar from the ubiquitous candy probably helped too…) The atmosphere probably also struck me because of its contrast with most (academic) events I attend, which have other pleasures, but not that kind of energy (nor spontaneous participatory opera!)

Parade of Platforms

The audience was promised an afternoon free of techno-enthusiasm, and given the means to punish any offending speaker (toeters were handed out at registration). And indeed, there was little of that kind of talk. There was, however, a strong tendency to focus on platforms, and to draw out their design advantages (several fantastic-sounding tools were shown).  We heard very little about actual uses and users, about variations and creativity in the way the platforms were used, etc. With the exception of Gillian Moore who spoke eloquently (but somewhat generally) about the values needed for creating relationships with audiences (honesty, respect, integrity, commitment, innovation), there was little about people and meaning and interaction.

Beyond ‘public’, ‘audience’, ‘community’

So I came away feeling there was a big role for social science and cultural studies to fulfill in this emerging arena. For example, we can provide a vocabulary to talk about the kinds of engagements with cultural institutions, via these platforms. The words community or audience were mentioned once in a while, but these terms are very broad and general. It gets you about as far as talking about a museum collection as ‘containing paintings’, or saying of a website that ‘it has hyperlinks’. True and relevant, but quite poor as a way into a good description and real understanding!


So, what can be done? Also involve people who are not only creating, but also studying these new modes of interactions.  And ask the speakers to talk not only about the best practices of their designers, but also to address the following points, which I think would bring out users and uses:

1. surprises–ways in which their tools/sites/platforms were used in unexpected ways, and by whom?

2. dynamism-ways in which visitors or users get involved in different ways with institutions and platforms, and how they might go through different kinds of involvement (i.e. from information-seeker to produser?)

3. new skills–the issue of needing new expertise and to dedicate human power to developing relationships came up several times yesterday. Might this also be true of visitors and audiences? Are they developing new skills and new knowledge?


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Crossmedia @ the museum

Yesterday and today, I joined in on a Crossmedia workshop for employees of the Tropenmuseum, Tropentheater, and Tropenmuseum Junior, led by Jim Stolze and Rob Prass.  Among other things, participants were introduced into the world of Twitter, RSS, blogging, Igoogle, learned why the sender-receiver model of communication is no longer applicable, how to the museum can get into Google’s top 3, etc. To most of the participants, this was all new information. The museum is not an early adopter, and needn’t be for that matter, but most employees seem eager and interested to engage in and with these new technologies and find out how they can be of use in the museum or theater.

This is part of the group, as photographed by Rob. Doesn’t look very interactive, but that’s deceiving. The group was also invited to brainstorm sessions, for instance about how to put visitors first, take their perspective, seduce them into informed (‘coming from experts’ ) story-telling experiments via new media.

It was the second time the workshop was held. The first time around, I learned, one of the ideas that came out of the brainstorm session was the ‘Object of the Month‘.  On the museum website, visitors are invited to help the museum find out more about the object. The object itself is also displayed in a showcase near the entrance. Unfortunately, I can’t be there for the afternoon session, when the new ideas are presented. Anne and I are attending “Kom je ook? 2” at the Hermitage, a symposium about innovation and participation in art, culture, and heritage.

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23 ways to engage new audiences

The Tropenmuseum is one of a host of cultural heritage institutes currently hopping on the Web 2.0 train.  The museum wants to engage new audiences, and increase the number of visitors. The task to increase visibility on multiple platforms is taken pretty seriously. The museum has a multimedia producer, and has  recently hired a new project manager for museum digitization. Naturally, it is their job to be interested in new media. But employees from other departments are also encouraged to reach out to users in new ways. Today, a first group of employees received an invitation to participate in a webcourse called 23 dingen voor musea. From September onwards, participants will be taught the basics of blogging, twitter, rss, social  bookmarking, tagging, etc. I am very curious to see what this will lead to.

A very playful example is set by the Brooklyn Museum, one of the leading institutes when it comes to audience engagement via new media. They recently came up with a game called Tag! You’re it!. First, you have to become a member of the museum ‘posse’. Once you’ve registered, you’re ready to play with objects in the museum database, displayed on the screen via a picture and a short description. Basically, the idea is that you tag images, and get as many matches as possible with existing tags. The museum website states  that the tags are meant to help people find specific objects in te Brooklyn Museum collections. Increasing the visibility of the collection is of course an interesting goal. Still, if we also take tagging to be a way of creating user-generated content, tags could also serve another purpose. Who knows, perhaps the information could serve as input for the registration and documentation of the museum collection.

On this note: Dutch readers may be interested in the evaluation the National Archives recently published on their pilot project with Flickr the Commons.

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Museums and web 2.0

The past couple of weeks, I have been using the web to get a sense of what is going on in the museum world as to web 2.0 developments. It’s part of the fieldwork for the Tropenmuseum case. My general impression is that there is a large, active community of professionals in the museum world interested in social media.  The Smithsonian appears to be a big player. That said, I am becoming more and more aware of the fact that as reseachers, our own search strategies, the mailing lists we are on, the blogs we follow, etc. are also shaping the field we are studying. For instance, I learned of a very interesting blog through an indicommons rss feed. The feed had a link to a talk given by Nina Simon at the Smithsonian, on The Multi-Platform Museum. As is the case in my own current blog post, the link directed me to Simon’s blog on musea design and web 2.0 (the field Simon works in. By the way, the blog is excellent and an inspiring source of information, also because she interlaces theoretical and ‘hands-on’ remarks).  One blog led to another, and I noticed that a lot of talk on the web concerned a certain conference, Museums and the Web 2009 (“international conference for culture and heritage on-line”). As said, the circularity of this search process doesn’t escape me. There might be a whole world of cultural heritage museums not interested in new media. The Tropenmuseum is not one of them. Although they don’t seem to be a member of a social networking environment related to the Museums and the Web conference called conference.archimuse.com (“a collaborative space for professionals creating culture, science and heritage on-line”), they are for instance using Twitter. Interestingly, some tweets are in English (“Working on a map for WikiLovesArt. 11:51 AM May 25th from web”), some in Dutch (“Voorbereiding voor vertoning documentaire Dwars door de Sahara (zondag 24 mei) in het Tropenmuseum 1:23 PM May 20th from web”). One of the things that may be interesting to look into during the fieldwork at the museum, is how they define their audience.

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