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.
Friday, March 30, 2007
Bravo to the Guggenheim!
Thursday, March 29, 2007
It is so easy to pick on the Smithsonian right now.
Verizon Foundation Announces $31 Million Investment in Thinkfinity.org - 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 Thinkfinity.org.”
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
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 eightbucks.org 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 & 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
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
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
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 Cincinnati.com. 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
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
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
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
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
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.
- GoSmithsonian.com - 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
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.