Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Battle of 2.0's - Web versus Phone

A great week's news cycle for technology buffs. For me, the week's reading reminded me that the next generation of technologies and users haven't been decided nor even clarified; there are so many balls in the air right now in terms of the technology horizon for the ensuing decades.

  • For those that would say that desktop computing and traditional networks are here to say, there was plenty of fodder surround the RIM and Blackberry outages. How could such a Wall Street darling still manage basic service failures?
  • But then again, as the NY Times pointed out in a special section, there is big money to be made on phones. All the usual suspects are pouring money into phone services and remarkable changes are on the forefront when it comes to voice, mobile search and GPS-synergies.
  • In spite of this reality, somehow, Microsoft claims that the iPhone is irrelevant to business. Of course they have a point, the iPhone is a consumer-electronics product, not a enterprise technology. But, this pervasiveness at the consumer level of the Apple brand can only strengthen demand and parallel business-class services. Microsoft should fear Apple. And besides, big talk and criticism coming from the same company that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop an operating system that is rebuffed, critiqued and viewed otherwise sceptically by consumers. When Dell forces you to revert back to XP, you have a problem with long-term strategy and nourishing demand in the marketplace, consumer or otherwise.
  • To top it all off, MySpace finds itself enmeshed in a flap (not quite a scandal) regarding its newly release user-generated news and information service, MySpace News. The real scandal here, it seems is that the service is being reviewed as subpar, or as Mashable states - "it kinda sucks". Business 2.0 had an interesting spin on how newscorp seems utterly clueless when it comes to delivering and marketing high quality web services. Yet, the Web 2.0 hegemon can't help but benefit and succeed. How? Tim O'Reily in his blog has an interesting take on the real power of Web 2.0 and it isn't user-generated content. The tile makes the article in this case: "remove the web developer and the web gets developed".

What happened to all the hype around Web 2.0? If this were a heavyweight bout, it seems phones definitely won this round (at least in the news cycle). Of course, next week could be another story entirely. As Tim O'Reily pointed out in his article, "It's also an important reminder that the winners and losers of the Web 2.0 revolution aren't clear yet. This is still very much a moment in transition."

The Long Slow Death of Web 2.0

OK, so the title is a little over the deep end - more provocative than anything else.

But perhaps it is partially justified. Reuters reported today that participation on Web 2.0 sites is weak. For media conglomerates that are heavily invested and can pay for a long, slow ascendancy for Web 2.0, there is no news here. However, for museums, this news is earth-shattering.

Take for instance, a recent presentation from Museums and the web. Mike Ellis and Brian Kelly make a great case for museums to leverage new tools and services online. Their presentation, entitled "Web 2.0: How to Stop Thinking and Start Doing: Addressing Organizational Barriers." In their slides, the list of barrier that the presenters highlight includes the following:

  1. “Simply, Why Should We Bother?”
  2. Cultural and Political: “It’s My Content…”
  3. Technical
  4. Resource and Cost
  5. Content: Legality, Privacy, Liability
  6. Measuring It

Yet, ironically, the barrier to Web 2.0 might have more to do with user and market barriers than with the organizational variety. Agreeing with the presentation, the fact is that yes, museums do have great content, do already syndicate that content and have audiences that are interested. However, the scale of that audience is debatable.

According to the Reuters story, participation on Web 2.0 sites like Flickr and YouTube is measured in the tenths of one percent of visitors. Granted, this is a large number of participants, but it does bring into question how widely adopted and feasible (and replicable) Web 2.0 services are.

So while there may be great potential for Web 2.0 services and sites, I would be careful about advocating for capital funding or donor-sponsored projects just yet. Though in time this projects may make sense, right now there is just a very real question about how viable these truly are in serving as education and outreach mechanism for museums and other cultural institutions.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Technology Tour 4/11 - 4/17

  • Live from Google: Time for Philanthropy 3.0? - Google puts some of its technological muscle to aid a worthy nonprofit. This is noteworthy for two reasons: 1) the usage of Web 2.0 (via mashups) in the aid of social causes and fundraising and 2) the Internet titans are publically partnering with nonprofits to improve the world in which we live. There has not been enough of this cooperation between the new tech. sector giants and the nonprofit sector.

  • Museum Mashups - A worthwhile presentation from the Museums and the Web Conference, Jim Spadaccini explores mashups including emerging best practices, design challenges and inherent usability issues for this upcoming staple of web content.

  • Repairing the Guggenheim - The New York Times has an interesting info-graphic on the deterioration of the Guggenheim.

  • Best of the Web 2007 - Museums - Every year, the MW-community nominates sites to be considered for the Best of the Web awards. Congratulations to the winners, but every year I am disappointed with how few major museums are on this list. This is to say nothing of the list, rather every about the institutions.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Technology Tour 3/28 - 4/10

  • The Tech Museum of Innovation Announces That School Field Trips Are Now FREE - I continue to be impressed by this institution.
  • Virtual Typewriter Museum - Great article from Boing Boing featuring another low technology. My question, is the Internet actually extending the conversation about technology that would have previously disappeared from memory? The quote, "technology's development to its social relevance to typewriter art". Interesting stuff, but is it meaningful?
  • New immersive platforms for museums and education! - Well, maybe. A interesting article about immersive entertainment and education platforms. This sounds like second life gone academic. The question will be whether people want to pretend to be Paul Revere (because there can only be so many Paul Reveres) in an immersive world or whether they want to design fake brand name clothing and design digital equivalents to famous museums.
  • Radical Trust: The State of the Museum Blogosphere - A conference paper on the breadth and depth of museum discourse amongst bloggers presented at the Museum and the Web conference.
  • Art museum raffles a house raise funds - The Tuscon Museum of Art is raffling a home worth $600,000 or $400,000 cash. This hardly seems in line with a spirit of philanthropy, but it beats de-accessioning world-class Picasso's from a collection. Interesting note about this story, they are also selling raffle tickets on the web. It would be a truly great story if this news story caught fire and ticket purchases went through the roof. Who knows? Time will tell.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Jackson Pollock and the Internet

In honor of the week's news involving Jackson Pollock, I have decided to use the inspired artist as my own muse in an exercise of searching for art and interpretation resources on the web. I limited myself to highlights of the first 10 results (sorted by Google Ranking).

What does this tell us about the artist? Not much. Results 1 - 10 were comprised of 7 bios on various aggregate sites, 1 personal "fan site", 1 Flash animation and 1 museum web feature. Only 2 of the 10 pages were hosted by museums. 1,171,000 pages returned, and I don't think the results differ that much as you travel down the search results long tail. Sure, you could extend the search analysis to 11 - 20. It gets a little better; 4 museum pages, 3 biographies, 2 Amazon book reviews and 1 selling unauthorized posters and prints.

What does this tell us about the web? A good deal more than it tells us about Pollock.

It is amazing, the fact that Pollock is one of the most exciting, creative and avante-garde artists in the last century makes no difference to a search engine. The algorithms fail the users in this regard. But it isn't just Google. They are just the messengers.

Where are museums in the education and positioning of artist's works online? Why aren't institutions working together to form vertical search cooperatives that give users an authoritative and engaging destination for art content? And, given all the new ways of presenting and relating content and media out there, it is unforgivable that one of the most influential artists of the modern era would receive such a low-fi and downright boring treatment on the web and one that does virtually nothing to increase appreciation or understanding the artist's time or work.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Open Source Decisions

Bravo to the Guggenheim!

According to the Linux PR newswire, the New York museum has chosen the open source library system Koha for their special collections and archives. This is a great step for those advocates of open source solutions within the community of museum professionals.

What I like about the Museum's decision for open source is the valuing of flexibility as a core system requirement.

"The Guggenheim's future development ideas include creating an interface that allows selected library special collections to be searched online as well as creating a bibliographic "crosswalk" between the catalog and the Museum's collection management software. "

The variables in the management selection matrix are shifting. 10 years ago, this decision (and criteria) would have been unheard of within any cultural institution. I was talking with the DigiComm group last night and we were reveling in the old days in which IT's sole function was keeping servers up and running. With that mandate, open source is the last responsibility that any CTO would into consideration. The refrain is memorable, "I value reliability first and foremost. Who is on the line if the technology fails? That is why we purchase Microsoft because I know that there is always someone to call when things go bad." And so on... As platforms, servers and networks have grown more reliable, IT has been freed from this tyranny of unreliable technology to really become a the natural partner in connecting departments and bridging information/service gaps.

Though the museum world has been slow entering this phase (see my post on the challenges of entrenched vertical managment), the adoption of open source technology in a major cultural institution points to sector-wide shifts that will surely cascade in the coming decade.

Though it is just the library system, this is a start. Publically-accessible standards and platforms have a great way of leading to other, more pervasive open solutions.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Smithsonian For Sale

It is so easy to pick on the Smithsonian right now.

Verizon Foundation Announces $31 Million Investment in - From the newswire, it seems Verizon is investing in wireless technologies to aid and reinforce learning and one of their newest partners will be the Smithsonian.

“Smithsonian's National Museum of American History was announced as Thinkfinity's 11th content partner. The museum's electronic outreach program creates experiences that incorporate qualities of a museum visit with the flexibility and interactivity of online tools. As a partner, the museum plans to help create family and after-school offerings on”

Wow, technology, educations, kids and museums... does it get any better? And the name, doesn't thinkfinity sound so much better than Verizon? Much less corporate.

Sarcasm aside, this newest deal with Verizon underscores their greater management problems. The current (and now former) executive team has time and time again failed to understand how public institutions can serve the public in the online and media world without selling vital resources and programs to private interests. As a management decision falls into the same traps that the institute has stumbled through before - misunderstanding the relationship between the public and private sectors (see examples such as content licensing, exclusive corporate access and for-profit tourism partnering) What makes me uncomfortable in this whole stream of services is that the institute continues to hand over viable program mediums to private entities.

In this case, wireless infrastructure and technology are a promising emerging opportunity for organizations to create their own footprint and level of service, not sell it to the first bidder.

So what if this is being routed through a corporate foundation. Given Verizon's vested interest in the infrastructure and direction of the wireless world, I am a little cynical about this "investment" and the idea of philanthropy here. Why the cynicism? In 2002 Verizon effectively abandoned the opportunity to provide wireless coverage of New York City; its parks, citizens, students and museums. Apparently, it was neither visible nor profitable enough to pursue? Why the about-face now?

Two reasons, 1) the Smithsonian undervalued its brand, audience and services and 2) the growth of WiFi has lit a fire under the communications company. As wireless service reaches a critical saturation, the next communication medium (WiFi) is the newest frontier. How better to corner that market than to make kids think Verizon when they education, museums and WiFi services. Remember Apple's committment to education 20 years ago? It was a brilliant strategy for fostering a grass-roots user-base and brand recognition that is paying dividends today. Verizon has taken a page from their books. Great marketing it is, philanthropy it is not.

The Smithsonian should have known better; hopefully increased government oversight will.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Technology Tour 3/19 - 3/27

No particular theme this week, just a lot of general commotion; the Smithsonian under scrutiny, the NY Times with a great feature on Museums around the US (As I noted in previous posts, see how much more effective geo-tagged data can be?) and the Museums & the web conference just around the corner. There's alot happening in the museum and technology worlds, so on to the tour...

  • One Picture, 1000 Tags - Pamela LiCalzi O’Connell of The New York Times catches up to the museum trend of social image tagging. As you may know this is a topic I have devoted many a keystroke to here, here and here. And while the analysis is pretty lowest-common denominator, I thought this quote framed social tagging in quite an effective way "If you try to find those paintings on the museum’s Web site you will probably fail unless you know the title or artist. You can’t search based on what you see." Or what you remember for that matter. The elephant in the room here is still platforms for increasing the scope of tagging and usage. That is, answering the question of what is in it for me in terms of the end user.

  • Six Vital Questions Every Web Site Owner Should Be Asking - Tony Baker on his blog provides a good breakdown of how museums can analyze their web presence, traffic and experience. His point on the disconnect between museums and their websites? "Yes, they can walk through the museum and wander around if they want, but you should have an obvious tour that is available to them." This is no less true online.

  • Cosby Taps YouTube for Slavery Museum Donations - and no one seemed to listen. Bill Cosby has created a website called where he challenged website users and social video addicts to edit a video and post it to YouTube. Check it out because it is intriguing (and a good cause). The goals of this campaign was the "soliciting donations toward the building of a $200 million slavery museum." This is big goal and unfortunately, the campaign has had little success. Clearly, the approach is groundbreaking, using social content as a direct platform for philanthropy.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Museums and Web 1.0 Lessons (i.e. Usability)

Museums & the Web 2007 - It is almost that time again. Museums and the web will be held in San Francisco April 11 - 14. (This is one blogger that is still awaiting his invitation.)

From the advanced scoop that I have heard I think this year will prominently feature the new web; second life, avatars, web 2.0, social tagging, user-generated content and taking social networking to the next level. Great quote about the conference this year: “There's a theme running through the MW2007 papers, about enabling access to museums using the technology of choice. What's intriguing is that those choices may not be as generationally bound as we are thinking. The phone / i-Pod / audio tour continuum might soon be perturbed. It doesn't seem to take very long for a medium to become 'conventional'.”

I certainly don't disagree with the idea of the narrowing technology generation gap. In fact, I have advocated for its eulogy. Still, while all the stuff mentioned abot is really "cool", what about the lessons of the old web, that forgotten Web 1.0 world? Personally I would love to hear a renewed call for usable, intuitive and mission-driven websites. Enough about services that will lead our visitors away from our sites, redefine the museum or online experience. Let's committ to getting collections online (in total) and creating indexes and services to make them actually usable. There is still a great amount of work to be done in this realm. Jakob Nielsen or Steve Krug care to take a trip to San Francisco and teach these kids a thing about websites?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Technology Tour - 3/8/2007 - 3/14/2007

This week's tour offers current news items that overlap with some topics I have covered in the past: license-free access to museum images for students and scholars, RFID's ability to enhance visitor experience (and commerce) and the increased stress of multiple profiles, communication mediums and contact information that have arisen.

  • On the licensing front, The Metropolitan Museum of Art this week announced that it has formed a partnership with ArtSTOR to serve license-free images to the scholarly and academic community. This was the very crux of my criticism of the Smithsonian and Corbis deal. It did not make any allowance for fair use. Bravo to the Met for its foresight and advocacy of cultural capital in the service of public good.

  • In international news, the City of Amsterdam has become the first municipality on the globe to create an RFID infrastructure for tourists. Once purchased, the RFID-enabled I Amsterdam Card enables users to receive free admission to museums and unlimited access to public transportation. The expansion of this technology reminds me of my post this week on Web 2.0 and social good. For whatever reason, Web 2.0 services are most successful when they closely mirror an offline activity. For museums looking to build RFID-enabled collection portals that bridge offline and online visits, a more robust emergence of RFID with personal experience represents a strong step forward. Via RFID, first comes the management solution for access control and ticketing, next comes curatorial opportunities for accessing content. I hope to see similar programs here in the United States.

  • Social network fatigue comes to phone. This article from the New York Times (subscription required) points to user communication fatigue across communication channels. Not only are people being swamped by their online social networking profiles, but the communication devices of real-world social networks (personal and work email, personal/home/work/IM/skype phone numbers) are becoming increasingly difficult to manage. The arrival of services to merge phone numbers into one should come as no surprise. Next is the question of how communication network fatigue can be solved online.

  • Given their revenue problems (current and future), why isn't big media designing online radio and streaming services? Another NYT article, this time discussing the emergence of a new online radio site catering to a no-hassle model for the young and on-the-go technology users. This new service, called slacker, builds greater personalization and recommendation features beyond what is currently offered by sites like pandora. Funny, the record, media and broadcasting industries seem content to let new developers and syndicators create online services, build user bases and then complain about losing revenue. Hardly a proactive stance, no?

  • Finally, I've tried to highlight an interest website now and then. I got word of the Museum of Lost Interactions from 24 Hour Museum. This mini-museum site is a competently design effort that features old and obscure technologies that have helped define the experience of content and media. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Social Good and Web 2.0

A new ride sharing service to and from New York City airports is attracting some attention for its online platform, hitchsters. I remember a couple of similar efforts have been floated the last couple of year for commuting and national ride-sharing; commuterlink and ridester. These types of Internet services, though plausible, seem to never quite get off the ground. While the community and social good from these services are clear, overall these websites never attain any critical mass and are generally pretty localized.

This seems so odd.

Web users are willing to date online, manage their banking, order groceries and books and intimate apparel, even rent movies and pay bills. Yet, somehow, we can’t quite turn the corner for sharing a ride with another person when the arrangement is facilitated online. If we are unable to build an online connection to share a vehicle, it seems fair to question whether we can build anything else more structured, impacting or longer lasting. This challenge strikes at the very root of those that see Web 2.0 as a method of fostering new communities and modes of discourse.

Amongst the positive examples cited above, the common thread seems to be connecting with a base physical experience or need. Think about how this impacts cultural institutions. In order to build powerful collaboration and community tools, it is first necessary to identify the interactions and activities that already exist and would best port to an online medium. Image tagging or social networking, while amazingly powerful activities online, do not carry a natural compliment in most peoples’ visit experience to cultural institutions.

I applaud reinvigorated effort to bring offline collaboration and social good to the web, but it remains to be seen if these can truly be successful. The execution is the key here. For the user, the benefit must be clear and the payoff immediate. As the O’Reilly Radar recently pointed out, “one of the secrets of success in Web 2.0 is to harness self-interest, not volunteerism, in a natural "architecture of participation." This will hold doubly true for commercial and cultural sites that seek to build community not only online, but offline as well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Museum Director Blog - Opportunity and Liability

The Director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is blogging. As far as I am aware, Mr. Vikan’s blog is the first and only effort being written by a museum director.

Checking out the couple of entries there, I was amazed at how engaged I felt by his writings and the experience he lent to various topics. Though it is only being contributed to once a week (which is still an amazing feet), the depth on each of the blog’s topics is remarkable. Unlike journalist or critics that tackle museum issues like curatorial structure, antiquities or accessioning from the outside (where most readers already are), a director’s thoughts on these topics were enlightening, relevant and crisp. It just underlined the power of blogs as a medium.

When done well, a blog can enable specialists to create dialogue in a volume and scope previously unimagined. Yet, while engaging, I cannot help but think that a directorial blog represents a huge liability as it offers museum detractors even greater ammunition and text from which to build criticism. Especially since the museum director has come to personally embody many institutions...

This is part of the downside to blogs in the Museum realm. The information posted can just as easily serve against the institution. For example, another item that I ran across recently is this art blog from This entry struck me as exemplary of how blogs also represent a communications challenge to cultural institutions. In her blog, Ms. Pearce attempts to extend controversy over an Associate Curator’s firing via the employment section of the Museum’s website. While her initial post and controversy were interesting and helped further dialogue about the institution, this additional writing represented nothing but noise. Note that even the most banal information on the CAM website can be discussed and taken out of context. In this situation, the blogger believed that the Museum’s employment section was meaningful, but as one commenter pointed out, “The job ad means nothing.”

Another example, recently, I had applauded the use of kiosks at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Having mistaken their blog entry for a press release, I received a comment from a member of the NA staff. Ironically, the marketing department produces the blog. The lesson here is that if blogging just looks like marketing and PR, the audience will know it. Authenticity in subject matter, content and tone are crucial.

These two cases, the Nelson-Atkins and the Cincinnati, make clear the liabilities of Museum blogs. This new medium, like any other public-facing communication device, can be used to delight or annoy potential visitors. The increase in public content is not inherently good or bad. This is perhaps the greatest cause for anxiety if a director decides to start a blog. To be successful, blogs must be approached strategically and not as just another website.

It is essential to see where a Museum blog can increase the message, dialogue and transparency of an institution with its public. The Walters is a good case study in how this can be accomplished. In the future, I hope that it does not also come to embody the downside of this medium.

Friday, March 09, 2007

RFID and Museums

Last night I had the great opportunity to drop in on the Brand Experience Lab. For this group, the challenge is to create memorable experiences that seamlessly pair consumer expectations with new technologies. Seeing some of the next generation technologies in marketing and interactive media, I was reminded just how far behind the cultural sector had gotten with even current technologies. RFID being a prime example of a solution that is way past due.

RFID in Museums is by no means a new idea, it just isn't being fully explored and leveraged to maximum effect. Back in 2003, RFID was making the rounds of Museum technology conferences and research papers. While there are institutions out there that are using RFID, these tend to be rooted in collections management. After my own epiphany at BEL, I became even more aware of how far RFID could enrich and inform the in-Museum experience for visitors.

I will not pontificate too much on this. Instead, I'll let my readers review some of the resources and links out there relevant to RFID and Museums and hopefully guide some great research and services to the right audiences.

  • Cleveland Museum of Art - The publication CIO describes the Cleveland Museum's ventures in active visitorship to their encyclopedic institution.

  • The Walker Art Center currently leverages RFID in its collections management and location tracking systems.

  • eXspot: A Wireless RFID Transceiver for Recording and Extending Museum Visits - A great research and case study on how RFID can be combined with visitor systems to improve and extend the user visitation experience.

  • Another eXspot article. This one presented at the ACM conference. All articles relating to RFID and Museums on the ACM portal can be explored here.

  • The National Museum in Tokyo explores RFID in coordination with a PDA-type user guide. This would open up a host of applications and devices from wayfinding to audio guides and other self-guided tour options.

  • Far and away a leader in Museum and attraction-based uses of RFID, LEGOLAND implants RFID into tickets and bracelets for admissions and visitor tracking. They also use it to locate lost children.

  • Another LEGOLAND case study.

  • Finally, two articles on different handheld technologies that read RFID tags in Museum contexts. One at Engadget the other from a university in Germany.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Location, Technology and Cultural Patrimony

Out of Virginia came this very interesting story about a website that enables users to contribute submissions to and track small, local suburban cemeteries. The website of the African-American Cemeteries in Albermarle and Amherst Counties is a superb example of what happens when cultural heritage meets the Internet age.

Though it is not completed, the mashup that maps where these small cemeteries are helps to tell the story of this regional community, the cemeteries themselves and the families linked to both. What an amazing amount of forethought on the part of the site’s creator to connect this finite data to the ground (and locations) in which the objects are rooted – literally.

I wonder if similar technologies could be used to enhance other situations involving cultural heritage and patrimony such as tracking archeological sites, museum objects or repatriation candidates. The challenge, it seems, is enabling the data itself to balloon and feed these types of services and mashups. The flexibility and extensibility of object records and data sources are the technical constraint on how far the geo-representations can mature.

(To get a sense of how far mashups and visualzation can go, check out Infosthetics. They have a number of great threads and conversations regarding the visualization of various information sources.)

Currently, within the cultural sector, the biggest push in the preservation realm seems to be digitizing and cataloging objects. This is essentially a first-order concern; how do we preserve and index digital copies of objects to make them accessible. And while this itself is noble, the question of what will happen next with the data must be asked. You've got the data, great. Now what? In answering this question, a foundation must be laid now of the possible future uses of the information. In digitization projects, the groundwork that is laid at the data level today, will define how the objects engage and interact on the web in the future.

The impact this can have is fantastic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Timeline of Art History is an award winning website that maps the trajectory of art and culture across all continents and 5,000 years of history. This suggests possible directions localized object data can lead.

Another example from outside the cultural sector, Transportation Alternatives manages a site that presents the 10 most dangerous intersections for pedestrians and cyclists in New York City. Link The impact of this service is the convergence of both search and indexing services along with the visual representation. And while this mashup does not include, say a picture of the intersection, it still makes an experiential impact that the data by itself would lose. For a much weightier example, check out the Map of Sex Offenders.

The point of these two advocacy sector examples is that location and local context can be extremely powerful allies in educating and raising awareness. When developing data sources and services that digitize an object, additional consideration should be given to how this data can be recapitulated. I can imagine any number of organizations that would benefit from such an approach, World Monuments Fund, National Trust for Historic Preservation or even the Smithsonian Repatriation Office.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Technology Tour 2/25/2007 - 3/7/2007

A couple of bits from the Museum and technology worlds...

  • Sting Uncovers Illegal Military Equipment Sales … to Museums - File under oops. When making acquisitions, be sure that your F-14 is catalogued and registered with the government. An ironic twist on cultural patrimony. The New York Times makes some observations regarding the use of military equipment in air and space museums.

  • The Nelson-Atkins Museum highlights its new rollout of kiosks. As the article states, aside from standard transactions, visitor will also be "looking up certain works of art". Funny that this press release is also a marketing message - "Members will be able to experience this new technology at upcoming member preview events. If you're not a member, join today and be part of this historic moment at the Museum." They have more notes and specifications on their technology here.

  • The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has an open proposal to study the cost and benefits of free access to computers, the Internet, and wireless services. Sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it sounds like they are looking to really measure whether technology access through public institutions is worth is philanthropic weight. Though it is specifically focused on libraries, I'll be curious to see how this plays out and whether any museum libraries or museum-affiliated archives respond.

  • Tangentally related, a research article on non-profit benefits of wireless access was recently posted by NTen.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

It’s the Experience Stupid

A couple of readers replied last week with some great questions in response to my post on the graying of the web. These could be summarized as follows: if it isn’t innovation or new media that makes a good museum website, what is it? I tried to reply to this question with the examples I used in my followed-up. But, to no avail. I will spell it out…

Museum websites succeed when they offer visitors an online experience that marries the wonder of museum visitation (engaging the objects) with the opportunity for further exploration and surprising insights. Successful websites are those that create a space for experience that is not feasible in a physical museum environment.

In other words, it is the experience created that defines the success of Museum websites, not the technologies embedded or leveraged therein.

This might seem antithetical to my usual rants on Web 2.0, innovation, API’s and open access in the context of museum and cultural institutions. However, this is not the case. Web 2.0 is innovative not because its new fangled technologies, but rather because it has fundamentally shifted the paradigm of the web from eyeballs to hands. Web 2.0 and its extensions (Mash-ups, API’s, social production, tagging) have traded passive site visitorship and information broadcasting for tools that enable content creation, sharing and manipulation. This is the core innovation and it is rooted in the site visitor's experience.

Ironically, it is the experience that Museums tend to gloss over when they are wrestling with their websites. With the hype over technologies, the essential lesson is missed along with institutional mission. For example, while people certainly enjoy having access to Podcasts and tours in MP3 format, the technology itself is value-neutral. It is not the MP3 format itself that is driving people to download. The true power of the technology is in its redefining of where and how visitors interact and experience a Museum’s work.

A great analysis of the power of experience can be found in Max Lenderman’s Experiencing the Message. The author discusses the emergence of experiential marketing and what it offers brand managers in terms of both greater control and return for their efforts. And though Lenderman is primarily focused on the corporate retail and tourism sectors of the economy, the lessons are valuable for the cultural sector as well. “…reaching them might not be enough. They need to be inspired by the brand, product or service… An experiential approach – one that emphasizes a personal or sensory interaction - is proving to be the best way to reach the elusive influentials and connecors…” And while there is a real bias away from technologically-based approaches to experience in this work, his point on creating experience and not passive receptivity is important and points to the other essential benefit of experience-rich websites; the marketing and revenue return.

When experiential programming is embraced, there is a breakdown of the traditional silos of marketing/fundraising versus education/curatorial. Engaging and experience-driven websites create opportunities for loyalty, buzz and revenue where none previously existed.

The inclusion goSmithsonian on my current list of favorite Museum websites underscores this point. While it offers some surprising technologies – it is also extremely rooted in experience of the visitor. The ability to build your own itinerary (and subsequently share it with others) is a great utilization of technology to allow users to interact, build and share the experience of the Smithsonian. Its personally created and socially distributed structure reflects the web 2.0 paradigm completely. This platform, in turn, enables scheduling, reservation and other services essential to cultural tourism. (Now if only similar services like this would be developed for collections and exhibitions)

Another example, I really enjoy the public television station Channel Thirteen’s inclusion of their director’s blog on their homepage, weekly newletter and fundraising emails. One could validly ask how this is experiential. The point here is that the blog underscores the overall mission of the organization while complimenting other outreach that this institution performs - it does this by highlighting the activity, conversation and dialogue with the director.

The connective tissue here is the experience. Cultural institutions that are successful online are not just broadcasting their schedules or exhibitions to the web. These institutions are creating online spaces for exploration, conservation, sharing and connection that are rooted first in a user-centric understanding of mission.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Follow-up: Museum Websites

After my post yesterday on the importance of expanded conversation of Museum websites, I wanted to follow-up with examples of successful sites out there.

  • - Although I have railed against the Smithsonian in other contexts, the interactive maps and features of this website are to be commended. They obviously developed this website with the end user's Museum experience in mind and created web services to maximizing this experience.

  • Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has barely changed in the last 60 years, yet somehow it has learned that creating a dyanic, engaging website can offer the institution opportunities for new connections and insights and relavance. As this article points out, it is not the size of the institution that defines the quality of the web experience. Reviewing the website, one of my favorite parts is the section that describes the Isabella lifetime Membership in which anyone named Isabella may receive a complimentry lifetime Membership to the Museum.

  • The Modern Art Museum - Fort Worth recently unveiled its own website redesign that merits a look. The sparse, clean site digitally mirrors the lines and layout of the Museum's new architecture. A well-designed intent, I would have preferred to see content and exhibitions take center stage on the Museum homepage, not an array of house-ads and special event notices. I did appreciate the Museum's blog being front and center though.

  • The SFMoMA also recently released a subsection presenting the research to uncover a hidden picture in a painting by Picasso. While neither of the paintings strikes me as overly magnificent, the content model here is fantastic.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Aging Museum Websites

This week, I ran across an article (login required) by Andrew Marton in the Dallas Star-Telegram and winced. In the piece, Mr. Marton writes "a more robust online presence is an attempt to entice a potentially huge number of younger patrons." This perspective is more than a little simplistic in its understanding of the demographics of web users and websites.

Taking a step back, the polarity presented here between grey-heads and cyber-babies is just blatantly false. According to comScore, Internet usage increased by over 24 percent last year. Of particular note here is the list of fastest growing properties for web user over 55. This list of sites includes MySpace, Wikipedia, Washington Mututal and Craigslist. A rhetorical question: what then is the older audience doing online? Well, the same thing as younger audiences. They are finding ways to communicate, research, educate, transact and connect themselves through the online channel.

Though the reality is interesting, it is the misconception of whom the web serves that is essential to understand and dicuss. From my own experience, it is exactly this mode of thinking that drives many Museums to keep websites and online services on the back burner in terms of priorities and strategic thinking – especially when it comes to discussions of funding projects and returns on investment.

The results are easy to see - most museums that I have reviewed are recycling the basic HTML containers they have used for the last five years. This is a pity because, as the comScore survey makes clear, audiences are maturing, growing and moving on. While museum-goers often cherish a more traditional experience of Museums and exhibitions, website visitors do not cling to a similar sensibility. As technology raises the bar of possibility on the web, Internet users raise the bar of expectation.

No Director would permit an exhibition hall to inspire a ho-hum reaction, yet this is frequently the net impact of museum websites.

This is an incredible resource to let go to seed. For perspective, according to the annual report of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, their website enjoyed almost 20 million visitors in the 2006 fiscal year. That is almost five times as many "visitors" than the actual Museum hosted. It is impossible to imagine that all 20 million of these visitors are “younger patrons”. Clearly, how that Museum represents itself on the web impacts a substantial portion of its in-person visitorship across demographic segments.

Lesson: We (technology practitioners and managers) need to be very careful of how we frame discussions on website technologies and whom they serve.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Vertical Management: A Barrier to Innovation?

This article by Chris Anderson really caught my eye. Speaking to the conference of CIO’s Anderson underlines the extent to which Web 2.0 applications, hosted services and social production sites are driving IT departments generally and CIO’s in particular towards obsolescence.

Translating this story to the Museum world is not difficult. The proof is in the pudding. Take the cultural sector’s general lack of Web 2.0 production. In this new age of content, users and web tools, notice how absent museums and cultural institutions are in defining how users interact with content on and offline. Looking across the cultural spectrum, there is almost limitless opportunity to develop access via API’s, cross-institutional collaboration, Web 2.0 tools or Public/Private technology partnerships. Yet, none of this is taking place at any meaningful level.

As Anderson notes, there is a new day on the web as “a zillion free hosted services on the web have replaced the functionality of the IT departments service by service…” These are the types of services and access that Museums should be leveraging – not just as cool outreach mechanisms but also as a way of increasing staff productivity and transparency. This shift is a realignment in sensibility, responsibility and priorities for IT departments.

Yet, these routes are barely being explored and, when they are, only being done by smaller institutions – take, for example, the Maxwell Museum’s build your own movie web tool.

Why is the majority so far behind? Why are there so few Web 2.0 leaders in the cultural sector?

There are two overwhelming reasons for this. The first, as Anderson notes, is the lack of understanding amongst the current generation of technology and institutional executives. These leaders, though “mildly interested” in new technologies and trends, are often threatened by these technologies and the paths to democratized and distributed production. (Anderson certainly isn’t doing any favors here labeling the CIO as “one step above Building Maintenance”)

The second reason for the lack of Museum adoption is the nature of the cultural sector. In the Museum world, the sector is incredibly stratified in terms of collections and resources. The general direction of adoption of both exhibitions and museum-practices is a trickle down from the resource and collection-rich institutions. It is a vertical sector in this sense.

This structure is mirrored in institutions’ management in an almost linear relationship. As resources grow, so do organizational charts. Amongst the most resource-rich institutions, there are immense bureaucracies to help coordinate the complex operations and priorities. This is significant because fortified bureaucracies only magnify the managerial layers with this power of “No” and lockdown. In Anderson’s musings, he narrows the institutional role of the CIO to the “unpleasant job of mopping up data spills when they happen, along with enforcing draconian data retention policies sent down from the legal department. They respond to trouble tickets and disable user permissions. They practice saying "No"…” These responsibilities are inherently conservative and dampening in reference to innovation and are distributed when middle managers rule an institution.

The trouble with this state of affairs is that it effectively negates technology innovation first within major institutions and subsequently across the sector. This can be seen not just in the vetting of new projects and resources but also at the staffing level. Because of the dampening affect, some of the best institutions face very real problems retaining talented and visionary workers. One reason, the sisyphus-struggle to build buy-in and momentum on new ways of delivering content when technology managers are only able to respond “No.” (See my previous post on Museum innovation)

This is a sad situation. It is these very same large institutions that have the most to give and gain from agile development teams and open-ended technical strategies. As the sector takes its cues from the funding/programming priorities of major institutions, there is a self-realizing cycle of stifled innovation.

There is another route though. As the STEVE project makes clear, committed Museum workers can adopt a form of social production that rises above individual IT departments and institutional priorities. The tools developed by this consortium have the ability to create new paradigms for Museums, their collections and the public that these serve. Clearly, websourcing and user-generated (augmented?) content benefit the entire cultural sector as both a content model and a development structure.

It is time for more Museums and practitioners start asking “What if…”, even if they have to do step outside their organizational chart to do so.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Weekly Tour 2/2/2007 - 2/25/2007

I know, 23 days is a bit more than one week worth of touring. Many apologies to reeaders. I did get a little backlogged with some of the posting these last few weeks. I think the MoMA scandal is worthy of some devoted time and converation. Hopefully, the tour will return to its regular schedule this week and next (unless any other startling revelations hit the press).

  • Artful Manager had an interesting look at the economics of nonprofits and how they differ from the private sector (duh!). Buddhist Economics is one approach that he claims offers insights on nonprofit motives and missions. I am still waiting for Buddhist Technology to explain why the cultural sector is such a technology laggard.

  • Though not exactly a Museum piece, I found this article on Org. Charts and Social Networks fascinating. "Org charts are not just about putting people in their place. They are the basis for a social network of professionals. And now that social networking tools and software are advanced enough to express complex relationships between people, projects, and ideas, we should be integrating these technologies into our workplaces." Great idea, but once you've spent capital on this software (ROI anyone?), it seems to me you haven't even begun your task. The real challenge is linking the 75 year-old curator of mideveil art with the visionary project manager and the gifted web developer and somehow finding some common professional ground and vision upon which to build services. Overcoming the silos is only the first step.

  • A cute by rather naive piece on how art informs technology was posted on queeqegs. The one lesson that I did enjoy was "Lesson 7: Experiment with small studies and prototypes. When Monet painted outdoors, he made many small studies and then would return to the studio to climb up onto scaffolding to create the wall-sized panels of water lilies. When Henry Moore developed bronze sculptures, he developed many small prototypes. When you’re building something enormous, build many small, quick prototypes before you’re ready to embark upon the real thing." My hesitation with this analogy? Monet wasn't being ridden by finance offices to produce results or drive revenue. Further, few technologists have the freedom and executive buy-in to go dark and develop projects of genius on their own - outside the confines of their departments.

  • Museum 2.0 asks a great question: who owns visitor-generated content in a Museum setting? As interactive exhibitions and sharing tools turn content production over to users, who owns the work that these Web 2.0 tools generate. How do we even talk about this phenonmenon in terms of rights, licenses and ownership? Is it fair-use that is applicable here or do Museum and other institutions need to develop robust creative commons or ownership policies. This question may arise as the Web 2.0 equivalent to privacy policies and opt-in regulations that arose with the web's last wave.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

MoMA and the Importance of Echo Chambers

Less than one week into it, there have already been many words written about the MoMA compensation scandal. I think the weeks to come will see an ever growing and widening scope of discussion and facts from Strom's initial revelations.

Before the next round of spin and fallout related to Glen Lowry's compensation hits the news, I thought this lulled moment might be a good opportunity to present some of the best blogs related to the scandal. In the weeks to come, it will be interesting to see to what extent user-generated sources serve to extend this debate.

In the political world, the resilience and echo chamber of blogs have been able to wreck havoc on otherwise robust political personalities and careers. We saw this throughout the 2006 election cycle between John Kerry's comments, macaca politics and Conrad Burn's perspectives on race. What made those controversies powerful was a combination of factors: the volume of political blog watchers, the media's attention to these grassroots sources and the sheer intensity of the campaign. Does the museum world have that kind of intensity? Do that many people care about the future and integrity of an American institution with enough force to override the wax and wane of the news cycle?

Time will tell. I am sure you will find that the following blogs will have plenty more words to spill before it is all done.


  • Modern Art Notes - Tyler Green puts the current compensation issue in the greater context of MoMA's other recent lapses. He also puts forth quite a few suggestions to finding resolution.
  • Artful Manager - In an ironic (purposeful?) twist, the day after the MoMA story broke, Andrew Taylor put forth this great post on IRS guidelines for maintaining tax exemption. I hope that the museum can avoid that ordeal, but once the regulatory and oversight wheels start rolling, it is difficult to say what it will take to stop them.
  • Looking Around - Richard Lacayo writes a follow-up piece in the Time Blog covering much of the same ground as the original article. The notable addition his writing makes is the potential conflict of interest this would create between the director and trustees. Given some of the nasty criticism MoMA has received regarding its exhibition planning, MoMA's institutional government and decision-making seem entirely relevant.
  • CultureGrrl - Lee Rosenbaum authors a revealing post providing additional details going back to 1995 relating to Lowry's pay package. Some of the more revealing details here include NY State auditors' complicity in this affair. She also makes clear that Sen. Charles Grassley might have been the initial impetus for this controversy and is committed to finding the truth in this matter. Given government's power to subpoena, this could be a very bad for the Museum.
  • Bloggy - On a lighter note, there was a great post submitted on the site bloggy. A fine piece of satire, web or otherwise.
  • New York Intelligencer - One final post, this time from New York magazine's blog. Basically just another repetition of previously disclosed facts. One thing it reminded me of though... the $20 admission fee. I have a feeling this is going to get worse before it gets better, not just for MoMA, but for the entire cultural sector.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

User-Generated Content and Artist Copyright

After my numerous posts on copyright issues tangentially related to Museums (Viacom, Google), I decided to contact the Artist Right Society for a better insight into digital copyright as it relates directly to artists, Museums and user-generated content sites. I spoke with the associate counsel for ARS in the New York Office, Ms. Adrienne_Fields, who gave me a great perspective on how copyright holders (and their representatives) view the trends of the information age.

Below are some snippets from our conversation:

  • NM: What is the ARS’ position in relation to artist copyright material propagating on the Internet (especially user-generated content sites like YouTube, Flickr and MySpace)?
  • Answer: Our response depends on the situation. We look for the uses that offend our members. We target specific types of [image] use rather than specific websites.
  • NM: When you say specific types of use, what does this usually entail?
  • Answer: Commercial uses mostly. Merchandise. Products. Sometimes a band will have an image of a licensed work on its cover or in its video and one of our members finds offense in its use. Sometimes a book cover will appropriate an image without contacting us first.
  • NM: It sounds like there is a lot of investigation and analysis for every specific use.
  • Answer: And, not all uses are infringing uses… we certainly have to be sensitive to fair use whenever we explore a member’s complaint.
  • NM: With the different ways content is distributed on new user-generated websites, I imagine that makes the process even more complex. How can you measure the interests of private fair use, like education or research, when it is performed on for-profit platforms? Do you feel like the law is keeping pace?
  • Answer: The law is fine. It is the facts that are always changing. Actually, most uses are covered by existing regulations and precedents, though we do monitor case law for new applications and extensions of these regulations.

So initially, it sounds like user-generated reproduction of artist material is a relatively minor issue for the society. From my conversation, I understood that they track and investigate complaints on an as-needed basis when prompted to do so by a member (i.e. an artist or estate). Mostly, these complaints seem to center on outright commercial uses rather than incidental reproduction - a la video phone Museum tour - and they have little interest in getting wrapped up in blanket cease-and-desist orders for entire websites.

This made me wonder about the recent case of Google and Agence France Press that has recently been in the media. Out of curiosity, I forwarded Ms. Fields a copy of the New York Times article discussing the case. As she explained it, the issue at stake was more a protection of private individual's "right to display" or "right to publicity", not the search engine's somehow inherent freedom to link.

And while it seems possible that an artist could file an ARS complaint for links from Google or images on MySpace, the stakes and damages seem incredibly small when compared to those of outright reproductions of a work.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

MoMA and Museum Accountability

It was not a good weekend news cycle for Museums in the context of public accountability.

Stephanie Strom of the NY Times lambasted MoMA for its covert executive compensation scheme. According to the times, two MoMA trustees established an independent foundation for sweetening the compensation for Director, Glen Lowry. It seems odd to step outside the Museum's bi-laws and structure for compensation since it is the trustees themselves who define and approve salaries for the Director. What possible reason could the trustees have had for this action except seeking to obscure the size of the Director's compensation package as reported in the Museum's public tax record - its 990's.

This behavior sounds familiar doesn't it - like the various excessive compensation schemes, creative accounting, back-dating options and general tomfoolery that has run amok lately in the corporate sector. It would seem MoMA's latest gaff points directly to the sad thesis of Paul Werner's book Museums Inc. - that Museums are increasingly corporate and as a public institution have served their purpose in society and are now in decline.

The proof is in the pudding here - there is a cost to slipping Museum accountability. In another NY Times article, this one by Carol Kino, the newspaper explores the rising trend of private art museums. Wealthy collectors are abandoning the obscured decision-making and politics of major museums in favor of a more grassroots and democratic approach. In order to get their art collections to the public, individuals are creating their own galleries and spaces. One of the most insightful quotes here is that "this new crop of exhibition spaces suggests a power shift within the art world — one that is leveling the playing field between collectors and museum professionals, driving up art prices and allowing wealthy private citizens an ever greater say in terms of how their gifts will be used."

Who can blame these collectors?

Museums seem increasingly insulated from their public roots. As Modern Art Notes reported, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have chosen to host the privately-sponsored King Tut exhibition. The question of accountability here turns on the exhibit's educational and cultural significance. Tyler Green, like other art critics, claims "The AEG Tut show has no scholarly merit. It doesn't belong in a respectable art museum". So what then is it doing at a major museum? Where are the museum's executives and trustees in defending this decision?

It is disappointing, in both of these cases, that the mechanism for public oversight is silent. Trustees are meant to serve as the oversight and will of the public in insuring institutions are accountable and pursue their missions. At MoMA, Tyler Green has made some suggestions for first steps. Each of the suggestions, start at the very top of the institution.

While I agree with these steps, there is something more fundamental that needs to be achieved. Before the cycle of blame, finger-pointing, scape-goating and spin - these Museums need to engage the public in a full and transparent dialogue, and then seek to make amends. I would like to see these institutions embrace an executive blog. While this is perhaps not the most elegant or theatrical devices for social accountability, that's OK. They would be a start and one that would last beyond the initial binge and purge of PR cycles.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Museum-Generated Video

This week, I read some great analysis on the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. In their presentation of photographic works by John Collier Jr., the Museum created an online tool for creating "patriotic films" up to 40 seconds in length. As Ideum pointed out, the technology behind this project is exceedingly complex, but for the user, exceedingly usable. A good example of the end result, a user-generate film, can be found on bavatuesdays.

I cannot commend this work more highly. As I have previously written, this approach represents the future of online content delivery - especially given the rash of litigation related to content delivery. We have seen copyright news of Google in Europe and YouTube receiving its weekly cease-and-desist. The problems with these cases, is not the delivery mechanism (Web 2.0 tools) generally but rather disagreements of the source materials and content specifically.

Archives and Museums, as the maintainers of public domain images and cultural content, stand at the nexus between the content and distribution/public disbursement. Once these rich information sources are opened and the tools of creation have been turned over to the people to propagate and distribute as they like (via blogs, email, personal websites) the content itself is freed from the hegemony of the platform, the institution and the limitations of the geographically-determined audience. Think the long tail writ large...

But, to make this happen, technology professionals need to change the terms of the discussion. A recent article in Artful Manager makes clear the disdain that persists amongst Museum executives. Andrew Taylor makes the following point, "Computer and communications technology is extraordinarily cool and often powerfully effective. But if it's easier, cheaper, faster, and more effective to use a pencil...use a pencil." Though framed amusingly, the reality is that important Web 2.0 tools face an ever-increasing challenges: budgets shrink, technologies increase in complexity and the power of individual perspective is seen as threatening instead of liberating.

This is a barrier to adoption that must be overcome. In conversations with senior leadership, technology professionals need to move beyond discussions of specific technologies. We must engage a fuller, more professional dialogue on what these technologies mean to the experience of cultural content and the execution of institutional mission. It is only when directors and curators are informed of the true reach of Web 2.0 (In September 2006, YouTube had 34 million monthly visitors) and how this represents a watershed moment for Museums and cultural institutions. At this moment, we can exponentially expand audience while also making previously obscure content accessible. Amongst technologists, once we can get over our love for the technologies (the cool factor) and treat these services as the strategic outreach they are, only then will the adoption rates for these tools truly blossom.

As Queequegs pointed out, "technology changes everything." Given the opportunity at hand, we certainly hope so. But first, we the early adopters, must change a little as well.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

What is a link?

"Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed." - William Shakespeare

In the information age, one could just as well which is a link? Is it the purse or the good name? Can it be both?

The question is especially pertinent given the most recent round of Internet copyright news. Google is facing a lawsuit in Europe, initiated by Agence France-Presse, that alleges that links to copyrighted material equate to infringement. Does a copyright holder own the initial work, the license to reproduce that work and also an inherent license to any HTML reference to said work. Are we, as a society, approaching an age in which the publication of a URL can be construed as theft? As this trend matures, will all usage of HTML links be monitored and regulated - forcing artists, private collectors and Museums to rethink their own websites and thus further restricting public access to art and performance? This would create an even greater chilling effect on culture in the information age.

This question strikes at the heart of intellectual freedom and has even greater ramifications for the future direction of the information age. The claim of intellectual property to the reference of a link (linkage, hyperlink, anchors, etc...) represents a push by private interests - here in the name of copyright enforcement - to control a vertical layer of the Internet. This is a greater issue than just one article, journalist or image. Tim Berners-Lee, a web pioneer and the leader of the World Wide Web Consortium, explicitly avoided ownership of any layer of the technology that makes the Internet possible. That is why the W3C exists and why Internet standards are developed by the community. They are the property of all. The result of this anti-proprietary model has resulted in unforeseen innovation, economic expansion and communication distribution across the globe. Yet, by creating a framework of legal control over the reference of a link, the court is effectively handing control of an essential part of the HTML standard to copyright holders.

(Bloggers, students, artists and scholars, create linkage at your own risk!)

It is easy to understand how this has come about. Social networks and content creation are throwing massive losses to industries that specialize in content creation. The profit motive will continue to push the publishing industry to fracture and close down publically available information on the Internet. Yet, it is ultimately the state of online public discourse that suffers. The dark internet grows and open access and public discourse are eroded.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Gross Clinic: Success and Distress

Make no mistake, I am excited that the Eakins painting is remaining in the care of the the Philadelphia Museum. By any measure, the Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins is an amazing acquisition, one of which any Museum or city would be proud.

However, there are other issues than Jefferson, Philadelphia and Thomas Eakins. There are ramifications for the field of philanthropy as a whole in this case. In the media, the prospect of losing the Eakins was framed as the equivalent to a natural disaster for the art and history communities in Philadelphia. What is troubling in the whole affair is that the museum had to tap a crisis-psychology across its cross-channel fundraising campaign (View Pages). As successful, creative and unique as this approach to marketing and fundraising is, there exists a real possibility that the public response may also be unique.

If Museums are able to garner such philanthropy around the maintenance of a single piece of art in crisis, it is disheartening to ponder how cultural institutions (in general) have such difficulty with ongoing fundraising. Last October, Bloomberg noted the recent trend of declining funding for the arts (-10.6% between 2005 and 2006). Further, in today's Wall Street Journal there is an article by Robert Hughes entitled "Firms Funding Arts Seek a Return". Echoing the Bloomberg report, Hughes also notes that donations to performing arts organizations have declined by 25% since 2000. From Hughes' perspective, this decline is meaningful because it forces Museums to offer greater visibility, benefits and premiums in exchange for support from top institutional donors. He labels this philanthropy "transactional".

The bottom line is that the cultural sector is having to find ever more market-driven angles for supporting their institutions. This raises serious questions of how institutions consider fundraising initiatives that the public might value. Because, let's face it, Museums need lights, guards and heat. These, however, are not great or flashy marketing causes.

In the final analysis, it is disingenuous that the arts are funded generously in support of "keeping works" but not to keep these same works cleaned, guarded and open to the public. I certainly hope that the Philadelphia Museum is able to build on the Eakins success (both symbolic and economic) by increasing its visitorship and Membership roles. That is, that the interest and support that the Gross Clinic has attracted will be stewarded to create deep and meaningful relationships with the public. This is a great opportunity to do it. The first challenge was keeping the important work, the next is remaining important.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Google Drive: Cure for Social Network Fatigue

In recent years, it seems social networking sites arise and fall in ever-shortening intervals. Perhaps for the newest crop of teens and tweens, this frenetic pace of technology migration makes sense - MySpace has become old news, passé or too mainstream. These users are able to flitter (with their offline social networks) to whichever service or platform is a la mode.

But then there are the rest of us. Jon Udell wrote a great piece yesterday on social network fatigue. It is clear that advertisers and technology venture capitalists may bend over backwards to find the next big thing, the next killer social platform, for the majority of technology users and practitioners it is increasingly difficult to navigate and discern what these sites can offer in terms of either connection or investment (whether personal or institutional). In the non-profit and cultural sectors, more times than not, this quandary has translated into a certain level of paralysis when considering social networks. Yet, the sheer size of these networks make them impossible to ignore (as does the general trajectory of Web 2.0 adoption in the last two years).

What is missing, as Mr. Udell points out, is the convergence across networks. Each user can only manage a finite number of profiles, bookmarks, sites and blogs. And, given the distribution and varying layers of log-in and personally identifiable information that exist for each site, the onus for managing the varying social networks falls on the user. Not a particularly user-friendly scene. There is no unified credential or login management resource to make using the various platforms easier. And while some writers have called for greater interoperability between sites - all signs point to a more to monolithic rather than distributed solution.

The rumors of the Google Drive reflect a possible form and structure for what the next (perhaps final?) step may be in integrating social networks. More information Google already has Blogger and YouTube under its belt - the leveraged acquisition of Facebook, Friendster or LinkedIn (or some other social content site - Digg?) when paired with a personal storage drive, would represent a wholly trinity of Web 2.0 resources. Not to mention the economic enginge already represented by Google's search services.

Currently, users, technology nor law seem quite prepared for a Google drive. There are still too many privacy and copyright/licensing considerations that need to be defined before this endeavor could be successful. If and when this does happen though, I believe it ultimately will help purveyors of cultural content to better exist and serve in the digital world. Finally, there would be a single place and standard to apply in making culture available to as many individuals as possible. Resource deployment, platform interoperability and content management would have a single umbrella standard for which to aim, and thereby hit the mark with a greater number of users.

Information users (and managers) of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your social network fatigue!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Museums: To Flickr or Not To Flickr

The Brooklyn Museum has done a fantastic job of late leveraging some of their internal images while also enabling users' to upload and tag images of the Museum. They have leveraged the Flickr platform to give an inside look both into the creation and experience of their exhibitions - most recently the critically acclaimed Ron Mueck show. Though this feature has now been taken off the Museum's home page (it still lives on here, along with their other blogs) - the exploration into image serving and tagging provides a great insight into how Museums might serve cultural content on Web 2.0 platforms.

This is a topic worth discussing. Below is a short review of two image tagging sites. One commercial, (Flickr) the other, a joint museum research project called Steve.


Flickr is a fully integrated platform whose primary purpose is not a folksonomy or image catalog, but the more basic storage and sharing of images amongst a diverse community of users. Social tagging is a by-product in all this. Tagging, from a functional perspective, is one of many ways in which friends and guests can comment on an image – tagging here is analogous to “comments-light” – a deprecated form of user feedback and dialogue.

What I find most intriguing about Flickr is that it points to a velvet revolution for the semantic web. The emergence of a descriptive, meta-data driven web will emerge not through killer app’s but ‘smart platforms’ that allow people to choose, create, share, comment and interact with content. Clearly, with 5.5 Million registered users and 20 Million monthly visitors - the sheer size of the network insures the platform's relevancy - but its power lies in replicating users' "natural" interactions on the web.

This is exactly the model that Museums need. Though the platform may be proprietary, the social content model leaves plenty of room for the cultural sector to define its own space and requirements.


Steve is a joint research project of technology practicioners of SFMoMA, the Met, Indianapolis Museum of Art, LACMA and Guggenheim. It is an interactive tool designed for Museum researchers, curators, technology practitioners and librarians. Steve is based on the concept of folksonomy. According to Wikipedia, a folksonomy– antithetical to taxonomy – is a labeling system created and maintained by the end-users, not a class of outside experts. In theory, a folksonomy creates more natural and user-centric search and aggregation systems.

I recently had a great discussion with a technology developer at a major art Museum regarding the life of information in peoples' actual lives. He pointed out that tagging, bookmarking and information storage is personal. With sites like , part of the user's value is the
ability to choose and create networks of personally relevant resources and references - remarkably similar to the personal value of Museums. Yet, the experience of Steve is far from personal. I greatly admire the goal but the execution leaves something to be desired.

2/7/2007 UPDATE: I recently caught up with a contributor to Steve and he mentioned that the project has received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences and would soon be unveiling a site update. This is a great development and demonstrates the sheer possibility of this project. It is certainly worth following. I'll check back on Steve after that redesign has gone live with some further thoughts, perhaps even an interview (fingers-crossed).

Sunday, February 04, 2007

YouTube and Artist Copyright Infringement

The YouTube/Viacom news this week appear to be the beginning of the next battle over copyrighted material distribution over social networks. However, there are real and significant differences between YouTube and the Napster and P2P networks conflicts of old. These differences expand beyond just new technologies and ownership issues and touch on the very nature of public participation in culture.

On one hand, while the Viacom request does signal an awareness of Web 2.0's ability to perpetuate the unauthorized capture, storage and distribution of intellectual property, it also reflects the company's embrace of the medium as powerful, proprietary tool. Reading related news, I could not help thinking that Viacom's cease and desist move is not a battle against the innovation of Web 2.0, but rather is the first logistical step towards the creation of its own video and interactive media platform to rival YouTube. Content creators have gotten smart to the power of democratized distribution in powering new brands and innovations. The catch is, they want to control the terms and discourse of that democracy.

This creates some profound dilemmas for cultural institutions. While Viacom has the ability to develop their own video and rich media platform, Museums and cultural institutions are hard-pressed to deliver platforms for even static images of their collections on the web - most institutions are worlds away from tools for interactive media and video. Unfortunately, the inabaility to develop their own tools for distributing cultural content does not resolve issues of copyrights and licensing for Museums. This issue is rather platform independent - and given the prevelance and breadth of material that can be distributed via social networks is virtually unbound. Many museum goers now have cell phones with video, image and sound capture. A bit of informal research indicated that searching "Metropolitan Museum of Art" uncovered over 140 unofficial videos of its collection online at YouTube. Many of these videos contain material to which the artist or the artist's estate still maintains a copyright.

To probe this question more deeply, I contacted the Artist Rights Society (ARS), the foremost licensor, regulator and protector of artists' copyrights in the United States. Indeed, the question of cultural content on sites like YouTube or Flickr will most likely turn on the enforcement of image copyright by the ARS. Below is a portion of my open letter to the society.

"I am inquiring as to whether ARS has an official position is in relation to artist copyrighted material propagating on the Internet (specifically on user-generated content sites like YouTube, Flickr and MySpace)."

"... in terms of enforcement, in whom is the ARS most interested; the institutions where the image capture occurs, the public who personally store and transmit copyright materials or the websites (such as YouTube) that broadcast this material to millions of users without permission?"

I look forward to reporting on the response, as these are essential questions for how Museums ride the Web 2.0 wave. It will define the future direction cultural institutions can explore social network and media websites for their own publicity and exhibition outreach. In the end, it is ironic; if cultural content on the social media sites represents an improvement in terms of Museum and art accessibility, i.e. it expands the reach and scope of Museums to more diverse audiences, then ARS would be performing a public disservice by entering legal action. This would signal yet another instance in which intellectual property and copyright acted as a barrier to both innovation and the free movement of ideas and beauty in society.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Weekly Tour 1/27/2007 - 2/2/2007

There was a lively offline discussion with the DigComm users on the new (im)potency of video online. As a follow-up to that discussion - this week's theme is Images: Moving, Social and Interactive.

  • On the moving image front, there were a couple of great stories this week discussing video, YouTube and social networks. Frantic Industries discussed the impact of tagging and bookmarking on the YouTube platform. Supposedly, users can post YouTube videos to networks like Digg and through the click of an icon. This functionality points to the ever-increasing social tendancies of images and videos on the web.

    Perhaps the pressure for increased social value, reference and meaning, is making up for the otherwise short attention span of most web video. Editorializing on this trend, two great articles discussed the democratizing (or shallowing) content model of YouTube - discussed here on Wired and here on O'Reilly.

  • On the interactive front, there was an interesting amount of buzz related to the Bumptop desktop prototype released this week on the web and specifically featured on YouTube. Link Though this project is just in its infancy, the redesign of the user interfaces for desktops will most likely translate sooner or later to other platforms - website, phones and PDA's. For Museums, the question will be whether better, more natural interfaces hinder or help the development of educational and interpretive content on digital devices. Does handheld technology as "life's remote control" (as envisioned in Howard Rheingold's book Smart Mobs) free the Museum to explore new methods of interaction or present yet another possibility and budget drain on already strapped technology departments? Hype versus reality on this front - time will tell.

  • Another entry on this interactivity front, the San Jose Tech Museum has begun exploring DAVE, a next generation handheld to be used in their tours, guides, displays and exhibitions. Can't waite to see whether this type of interactive handheld is paired with RFID and other smart tags to increase accessbility and content retention for visitors in Museums.

  • One final note: according to the Associated Press, the Louvre in Paris set attendance record for the 2006 calendar year. How did they do it? Engaging programming, winning exhibitions and publicly relevant interpretive and marketing strategies. It isn't all technology which is a wonderful thing - otherwise the technology would be meaningless - a vessel containing nothing.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Museum Software Merger

It was with the great surprise that I stumbled upon the announcement of the merger of Convio and GetActive companies this week. Though mergers may be commonplace in the general technology sector – especially after the Internet bubble – in the cultural sector, corporate mergers and acquisitions amongst companies that serve Museums (and non-profits generally) is a note-worth occurrence that has an immediate impact.

The topic of interactive marketing software may seem trite, but the companies that produce software and systems that serve the Museum-world are important and merit critical consideration. There are no Museums in the United States that have the luxury of full application-development and support departments. Museums are fully reliant on third-party administrative and collection software in order to perform their public mission. Further, for public-facing systems, these email and web marketing platforms (with their own delivery models and technical limitations) define how the public is introduced to exhibitions and culture. In effect, the available platforms define how institutions announce exhibitions, garner support, steward to Members, reach out to the community and market themselves globally.

Though this acquisition cannot be considered anti-competitive (PatronMail remains the top software firm in this market vertical and Blackbaud is the unchallenged heavy-weight in the non-profit sector as a whole), the consolidation in the software market bodes ill for the Museum sector.

Convio and GetActive are two of the top service providers for integrated content management, email marketing and hosted CRM systems in the nonprofit sector. For institutions looking to integrate systems, reduce overhead/administration and remove the communication barriers between programming staff and constituents, both these platforms were well positioned. In the long-term, the loss of either of these forward-looking companies (at least in relation to the sector as a whole) can only be considered a loss of choice, innovation and competition for Museums and cultural institutions.

Further, there are always the practicalities arising from any loss of competition in a service industry; the leverage these companies will gain in terms of controlling pricing, system customization and upgrade flexibility. These too are important issues for Museum technology managers as they impact total resources, budgeting, staffing and strategic planning.

So, given that context and the newly shifting technology landscape, I thought it might be useful to outline a list of email and web marketing companies that serve the Museum sector (with some of their respective clients). This list is by no means exhausitve, so if anyone has additions and/or experiences to add, I'd love to hear from you.