May 23, 2007

Post Conference Thoughts

First let me add my thanks to our participants and audience who made the two sessions possible. Some quick thoughts. The audiences from both sessions indicated, during a show of hands (the rooms were filled), that they were supportive of employing visitor authored techniques in the museum setting. Our sense is that the audience was already predisposed to embrace these techniques and probably not fully representative of the entire museum community. Matthew and I did hope for a lively debate on the subject. The absence of any vocal skeptics in the audience may indicate that many in the museum community may be hoping that this issue is a passing fad and will just go away. Hard to tell.

I have also been pleasantly surprised by the number of museums already experimenting with these techniques. We have managed to list over fifteen links so far on this site.

It is our hope to keep this blog active as a resource and a forum to continue the conversation regarding visitor-authored experiences.

Conference follow-up

Thanks to all who participated in our panel, presenters and audience. Hopefully you found it enlightening. We had hoped for more time for questions, so if you do have questions for any of the panelists, feel free to contact one of us directly. You can find the session handout and presentations on the Media & Technology Web site.

May 15, 2007

folksemantic web tools

The Center for Open and Sustainable Learning is in the process of building a number of tools that help users reuse and remix openly available web resources. All tools let users tag, share, and manipulate web resources. Tools are lightweight and generally single purpose. They are focused on developing semantic web applications based on folksonomic data. They are completely open and free to use. You can find a list of all these tools at our website...

Send2wiki lets users click a button and send the content of any web page to a wiki so that they can make a derivative work. Any content licensing metadata is inherited and retained.
Makeapath allows users to sequence web pages and share their "paths" with others.
Annorate lets people rate and annotate any web page, sharing those annorations with other users.
Ozmozr is a collaborative filtering system, a sharing tool, and an identity management tool that is about to be chopped into bits. We found that a large system will overwhelm users, so we are pulling it apart.
ContentLicensing is a plugin for Plone that allows users to license their works with a Creative Commons or GFDL license. It also lets site managers set a default site copyright license.

May 8, 2007

Experts and Amateurs

One of the core questions behind Web 2.0 and user participation (especially in the museum context) is this: what is the proper role and relationship of experts and amateur enthusiasts? As writer Steven Johnson stated in Time’s 2006 “Person of the Year” issue, “How you feel about the broader cultural implications of the Web revolves around the response this permanent amateur hour triggers in you. For some, it has power-to-the-people authenticity. For others, it signals the end of quality and professionalism….”

This issue can play out in very concrete ways. For example, expert catalogers have a great deal to say about the notion of letting users apply their own taxonomy to museum objects (social tagging), which could result in an index that is messy, idiosyncratic, or just plain wrong. For opposing viewpoints on this issue, see here and here. Any populist form of interpreting or arranging objects which seems to encroach on the prerogatives of museum professionals is bound to be controversial.

I think any discussion on this issue needs to be grounded in the well-documented fact that users value the expert interpretation that museums provide. To that we may add an assumption that there are good reasons for making museum experiences more participatory and collaborative. Thus it becomes not so much an either/or issue (expert commentary vs. amateur input), but rather, how can we create experiences where both comfortably exist side-by-side? And how might that alter traditional relationships between museums and their audiences?

It seems to me that this is an area begging for more experimentation and evaluation (and the good news is, many are going to work doing just that).

May 6, 2007

Collection X is Online!

On April 25, 2007 the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto launched a new online initiative called Collection X ( This project, which has been in development for six years, represents a huge leap forward for the AGO not only because it makes works from the permanent collection available online but also because it makes it possible for the public to upload their own collections and to create exhibitions using the same application. As it has been conceived, Collection X is meant to function as an open-source museum that features public collections presented alongside collections created by the public.

Interestingly, when work first began on this project back in 2001 things like blogs, podcasts and wikis did not exist. The notion of "Web 2.0" was yet to emerge, however, the desire to integrate public collections with user-generated content had still been identified. In the intervening years the Internet has changed to such a degree that it is now possible to create an online application like Collection X that gives anyone with access to a computer the ability to upload images, video and audio as well as to create and publish exhibitions, and to connect with other users, all within a virtual environment.

What Collection X offers is a range of functionalities similar to websites like Flickr and YouTube but functionalities that encourage the emulation of practices specific to museums and galleries. As a first step visitors to Collection X are invited to search and browse artworks, artifacts, videos and audio clips that make up the collection and then to become registered users so that they can create, collect and curate content using a combination of our resources as well as their own. As part of this process users are also provided with the tools necessary to:
  • contribute their own content in the form of images, video and audio;
  • create exhibitions using content drawn from public collections as well as collections contributed by the public;
  • connect exhibitions together around common themes, issues or ideas to create connections;
  • use tags to describe themselves as well as all levels of content including collections, exhibitions and connections;
  • share thoughts and engage in dialogue through published comments and e-mail exchanges;
  • subscribe to RSS feeds and podcasts.

Similar to other Web 2.0 applications the success of Collection X is entirely dependent upon the interest and inclinations of its users as well as the kind of content they choose to create.

In order to generate interest and to model the kind of content that can be created using Collection X, the AGO is working with its project partners over the next two years to seed the collection and to create exhibitions and connections based on that seed content. To ensure that this work happens Collection X has evolved in tandem with another project initiated by the AGO, the ArtsAccess Project, an inter-regional outreach program designed to bring together artists, community members and cultural organizations through arts education. Together, ArtsAccess and Collection X are meant to encourage participation, foster creativity and build relationships through a combination of community-based and online experiences.

While the appeal of Collection X remains to be seen it already provides an interesting case study that highlights the many issues at play when a museum takes on a web-based project this complex. In recent months the AGO and its partners have had to grapple with issues almost too numerous to mention, including copyright, censorship, liability, accessibility, bilingualism, institutional buy-in and support, the challenges inherent in community-based partnerships and the constraints of government funding. These are all the things that have made this project both challenging and interesting at the same time and will likely continue to be debated within the context of "Museums Re-Mixed" at the AAM but also in the long term as Collection X finds its audience.

May 2, 2007

Do users want to be active participants?

Sometimes the assumption is made that most Web users want to take a more active role if given the opportunity. What else explains the meteoric rise of sites like MySpace and YouTube? But is that what users of museum Web sites want? The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History attempted to find out in a survey they conducted in preparation for a new Web portal on oceans - the survey results are available here (for the time being anyway). It’s worth taking a look at what potential users rated as important (or not) to their online interaction with the museum.

Now that social networks and other collaborative sites have been around for a few years, people are taking a closer look at the dynamics of those communities. What they tend to find is that relatively few users undertake the more intense forms of participation, while most of us “lurk” and remain fairly passive. (See relevant blog posts by Ross Mayfield and Seb Chan.) The most successful applications leverage the efforts of the few into an experience that benefits the many. An oft-mentioned online example of this is Wikipedia; a good museum example is the Conversations exhibition from the L.A. County Natural History Museum.

The practical implications of this are that the participation of even a small sample of our audience can have benefits far beyond the small group of direct participants.