Museums: Setting the Context

The previous posts discussed how libraries are responding to the opportunities presented by digital media. As noted, these opportunities also bring new responsibilities and dilemmas. For example, consider the different purposes of an archive. Is the purpose of the archive to serve as a repository of valuable materials? To create a persistent collection that is accessible to a wide range of users? To curate a collection that reflects and manifests a set of values about quality of content? OR to preserve important cultural material for posterity? Once an archive or collection is digitized, it still remains the business of the institution to define its philosophy in terms of its the purpose of its archive. What we learned is that the initial creation of digital collections and archives have prompted library professionals to engage in new discussions to clarify the core mission of their institutions in light of a changing information landscape. As a consequence, all libraries, from the largest national collecting institutions to the smallest community branch now find themselves having to address issues pertaining to digital content management, rights of information ownership, and the balance between privacy and access. As these discussions unfold, they yield new visions for libraries in the future: as portal, as repository, as a knowledge-making enterprise, and as a critical public service.

Just as community libraries are reconsidering how to best address the opportunities and responsibilities made possible by the widespread availability of digital media, so too are museums grappling with the possibilities promised by new technologies. Libraries and museums face similar questions in how to incorporate digital technologies in the service of the institution’s core mission. The Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS) has as it’s core mission to “create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.” The IMLS provides guidance and funding to several U.S. libraries (122,000) and museums (17,500) in support of programs and activities that encourage lifelong learning. Digital technologies are crucial to these efforts:

Libraries and museums help create vibrant, energized learning communities. Our achievement as individuals and our success as a democratic society depend on learning continually, adapting to change readily, and evaluating information critically. As stewards of cultural heritage, information and ideas, museums and libraries have traditionally played a vital role in helping us experience, explore, discover and make sense of the world. That role is now more essential than ever. Through building technological infrastructure and strengthening community relationships, libraries and museums can offer the public unprecedented access and expertise in transforming information overload into knowledge. (Quoted from website)

The IMLS has developed several initiatives to realize this mission.

  • The Connection to Collectionseffort is a “national initiative to raise public awareness of the importance of caring for our treasures, and to underscore the fact that these collections are essential the American Story.”
  • The Engaging America’s Youthinitiative has been developed to create and sustain a Nation of Learners.
  • The International Strategic Partnership initiative is designed to strengthen cross-cultural connections between U.S. museums and libraries and their global counterparts.
  • IMLS also sponsors an annual event called the WebWise Conference that brings together representatives from museums, libraries, archives, systems science, and education interested in the creation of high quality online content for inquiry and learning. The first WebWise conference held in 2004 focused on the the notion of “sharing” online content. Key issues addressed during that first conference included discussions about technical interoperability, the formation of collaborative partnerships to foster greater access to shared information collections, and funding and sustainability of technology-intensive services. Subsequent conferences continued these discussions and branched into other areas of consideration such as: how to create digital resources for effective teaching and learning, how to engage learners of all ages, the meaning of metadata, the changing nature of stewardship and the preservation of digital collections, and the implication of Web 2.0 social networking applications. Every conference has included presentations on the legal and policy implications of new digital media for the purposes of information sharing, information ownership, rights of privacy, and changing models of copyright and licensing.
  • The 2009 WebWise Conference was structured around the theme “digital debates” and included several talks on the need to nurture more robust collaborations among institutions and between an institution and members of its public. The talk by Nancy Proctor (from the Smithsonian America Art Museum) focused on how museums could foster creative collaborations using new technologies.


Nancy Proctor, “The Museum as Agora: What is Collaboration in Museums 2.0.” WebWise 2009, Washington D.C.

Proctor begins her talk with the question: what is the museum in the web 2.0 world of information on demand? In her talk she reviewed several projects that represent innovative attempts to create novel forms of collaboration among museums and members of the public. She notes that these efforts did not begin with the development of Web 2.0 applications, but had been going on over the past decade. Noteworthy projects that she discussed included:

Save Outdoor Sculpture: This project took shape before the advent of social networking applications. The aim was to collaborate with individuals to gather user-created content about outdoor sculptures. The collaboration involved the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Heritage Preservation Organization who worked with 7000 individuals to catalog condition reports on outdoor sculpture across the U.S. The project data was recorded on paper, through email and photographs. The result was the creation of an extensive database on outdoor sculpture that is now being imported into Google maps.

Fill the Gap: Sponsored by the Luce Center at the American Art Museum, this project enlists the collaboration of photographers to “fill the gap” in empty art display cases. When an art object goes out for restoration or on-loan for an exhibition, there is a gap in the museum display cases. This project asks photographers to upload images artwork to Flicker that might “fill the gap” in a particular display case. The aim is to engage the members of the public in dialogue about the nature of the collection and to demonstrate the kinds of discussions that go on among curators about the presentation of art within the museum context.

The Wikipedia Loves Art Project: Led by the Brooklyn Museum, in collaboration with twenty other international museums, this project is structured like a scavenger hunt in that it invites people to visit museums and take photographs of artworks on certain themes. The photographs are uploaded to a Flickr site, and are then evaluated in terms of quality and thematic appropriateness. The winning images are used to provide illustrations for Wikipedia articles. Photographers (or teams) get full credit for any image used.

The Handheld Wiki: This project allows museum professionals to share expertise and experience on the use of handheld devices and mobile media.

In reflecting on these efforts, Proctor identifies the key elements of collaboration: 1) The creation of community and sharing practices, 2) the development of dialogue and storytelling, 3) integration efforts and the creation of relevance, 4) the development of trust and interdependencies, and 5) (most of all) the creation of fun experiences. She notes that these project also highlight the significant challenges to fostering collaboration—including the fact that people are sometimes stingy with their contributions, that tasks must be prioritized, that intellectual property and brands must be respected and managed, and that quantity does not guarantee quality. In her conclusion, she returns to her original question: what is the museum in a 2.0 world of information on demand? To this she responds that the museum might best be considered as a distributed network of networks. The Web 2.0 Museum is staged on different kinds of platforms: onsite (at physical brick and mortar locations), online (at digital environments and sites created by the museum), online elsewhere (at digital environments and sites created and governed by others such as Flickr and Wikipedia) and on mobile devices. As she reminds us, audience members and visitors might access the museum through any (or all) of these sites. In reflecting on this phenomenon, Proctor asserts that the museum is transforming from the Acropolis (the remote shrine that keeps cultural treasures safe) to an Agora—a space for community, encounter and exchange. For this reason, she argues that the museum is preeminently a collaborative space in digital age.

Indeed, the postings in this next section will consider a range of practices that museums are using to create new collaborative experiences for and among their visitors. We focus on the use of digital media in two general types of museums: the art museum and the science/technology center. Art museums with large collections are strongly aligned with libraries in providing archival services and face issues similar to those of libraries relating to the digitization of collections, providing access, and protecting ownership rights. While other museums such as science centers and technology museums are less focused on the collection of artifacts as they are on the staging of particular experiences with new technologies or the demonstration of basic scientific principles. We consider the efforts going on in art museums as separate from those that are happening within the context of the science/technology museums only for the purposes of organization of the background research. The postings will discuss how museums have moved from a focus on digital collections to the project of creating a web presence for visitors. One posting will look at a variety of on-line museums experiences including museums in Second Life and teen web sites. A later post will examine new practices of media making, playing, and tinkering that are now offered by various museums as a way to connect the physical and the virtual for the purposes enhancing visitor learning experiences. The final posting in this section will consider specific edge projects that are designed to explore new learning opportunities in a digital age. The trajectory of these postings track the changes going on in museums from providing access to information to staging new forms of participation.