Presentation to the NMDC (National Museums Directors Conference) March 08

Below is the text and slides from a presentation I was invited to make to the National Museums Directors Conference meeting about what I see as the current digital issues and opportunity that national museums need to know about.

There have been huge changes in recent years online such as the hype about Web 2.0, the blogging boom, delicious, Flickr, etc. Including some high profile projects from museums like the Launchball game from the Science museum whose popularity on the social bookmarking site DIGG took out their server.

Too much to talk about in ten minutes, so going to concentrate on three examples of interesting work that is happening at the moment that encompasses some of the key issues.

1. Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

Put online over 70,000 of objects from storage.
Built a system that invited and allowed users to tag objects with words that meant something to them.
The tags not only add meanings that sat alongside the curators tags but also created better links between data and search engines.


Within first three months every single object had been viewed.
Since launch in June 2006 over 25 million collection records viewed.
300% increase in overall traffic.
Proportion of website traffic engaging with collection up from 8% to 65% (collection is now integral part of why people visit the museum website)


They have developed a very nice way of treating the viewing of objects online (above).

Result is that they have in effect turned their museum inside out.
Opened up access and improved visibility to search engines.

Through their interaction with people, have brought knowledge back into the organisation about their collection.

At Powerhouse the success is driving organisational change- puts the collection back at the centre of the organisation (why they exist, why they are different to other ‘leisure attractions‘). Most popular three objects have never been on public display, up-turning internal perceptions about collections.

Culture24 is working with the lead developer at Powerhouse who is doing this work – Sebastian Chan – because we are working with him on our international project Culturemondo Seb writes an excellent blog called Fresh + New about their work that is well worth following.

Through my conversations with him, I know that it is not about big budget, but clever use of technology.

Their *particular* system is also giving them new ways of understanding their audiences.
Software their team has built to present the collection (recommendations engine, social tagging, smart ranking) is generating an enormous amount of business intelligence around their collection and how people use it.

The intelligence allows the Powerhouse to rethink its real world exhibitions, classification and documentation processes, and will lead to more effective communication to their audiences. It isn’t just that the collection is online … it is that it is usable, user-centric, self-learning, and dynamic.

Another project, just gone live that also uses tagging of collection but in this case they have put their collections into an existing online community.

1. Flickr ‘Commons’ project

The Library of Congress Pilot Project
Show the hidden treasures in the huge Library of Congress collection.
Show how with audience input, a tag or two can make the collection even richer.


Within the first *month*:
– Over 5 million page views for LoC Flickr account
– 60,000 tags, 10,000 unique (So, a tag “woman” added to 5 photos)
– About 400 people added one tag, all the way up to one person adding 5,000!
– Roughly 5,000 comments


This is where the gold is in terms of useful data. The LoC has already made about 12 updates to their catalogue based on corrections they’ve received via Flickr!

Also created so far about 10,000 new contacts to the Library’s account in Flickr, so new photos they publish will fall into the “photos from your friends” page, and into RSS feeds and such.

This project interconnects the historical and contemporary, creating relationships between the two, effectively making Flickr a huge record of living social history photography.

Third and final example if much closer to home.

3. Integrated Architecture project – Partnership with MDA and MLA.
– Vision for a unified ‘infrastructure’ for creating; managing and sharing information across the sector
– Way to bring together different systems to share data openly easily
– Delivering locally-based services from a national platform
– Uses what exists, cost-effective framework, greater impact and reach

This builds on work Culture24 have done championing data sharing across sectors. Things like our RSS feeds and our agreement with Visit Britain to provide them with all our event data for inclusion in their own site.


It is also informing our current work with LOCOG to provide them with UK wide event information about Cultural Olympiad for inclusion in all their online projects.

As well as our work that has just received support form DCSF and BECTA to get stuff in front of teachers, kids and families.

For me, the Integrated Architecture project is about collaboration and an understanding that the future of the online world resides in the ways that information comes together into services and structures that meet the needs of different users in different ways.

So could museums in UK do what Powerhouse has done?
Yes of course, but why not go further?
How about browsing across collections and institutions.
Searching across different organisations. Bringing together meanings?
I see this as the big opportunity and the recent changes at MLA I think offer a chance to be bold.

To work across sectors with ACE, Tourism, Creative Industries and address the fact that there is still a lack of any digital strategy in the UK cultural sector.

I think a good starting point is with the National Museums Online Project, which I am sure you all know about – as you have helped to support the consultancy work that is just beginning. As you know it initially brings together a few of the nationals – Science Museum, National Maritime Museum and V&A, with Culture24. Bridget Mackenzie from FLOW has been appointed to explore the possibilities for online collaboration between different nationals and their digital collections.

There are very exciting opportunities here to bring on board an even wider set of partners, people like, MLA, PCF, Art Fund, Arts Council and DCSF, and set a national agenda that is focussed on needs of users.

Getting culture into social networking sites

Getting museum and galleries to share content openly is problematic for a lot people in the sector. It challenges the boundaries of their institution, their curatorial control and their sense of the authority of their data. It forces then to be open to the idea that knowledge comes from different places and to accept that people may want to use their cultural content online in many different ways that have value to them specifically.

There are some institutions that already understood this challenge and are are beginning to be proactive and actively push their content into social networking sites. An article about how the Brooklyn Museum in the US illustrates this point.

The Museum are letting stuff flow out into social networking sites like Twitter, Flickr and it is having an impact on the level of active user engagement through the posting of videos, pictures, comments etc. What is particularly good is that the museum has put back onto their own site the many pictures their visitors have taken of their institution and posted onto Flickr.

They are embracing the community and being very open about its interpretations of their stuff, they are also improving their own search engine optimisation (SEO) which is always a big challenge for any website.

Curate more and create less

Jeff Jarvis’s Guardian article sets out some pretty good advise for the future of media … the group hug. He says “it is less about products – that is, controlling content and distribution – and more about networks”.

How true is that? There are not many sites which have enough money for large editorial teams to create online content. Surely the only really sustainable option is to find ways for your content to actually come from your network – either the people who you represent or the people who the site serves?

For the work I am doing at the 24 Hour Museum, this is what we call our direct data entry system – where cultural institutions put their own information onto our system themselves. For me, this network of over 1,500 organisations is at the heart of our sites success and all of our future plans.

We need to nurture our network so that it is a rich living thing that produces content for us. We can then curate our own front end websites or services for different audiences using that content and hey presto … we have something that is sustainable and can evolve (as well as all the other benefits).

As Jeff says ” curate more and create less. Or as I have said in my PowerPoints: Do what you do best and link to the rest. And: gather more and produce less – but encourage others to produce more so you can gather it. And how do you do that? Pay them.”

Sharing advertising revenue with your network is a great way to keep them active in the network. I don’t think it is the only thing but is a business model worth looking into. I have ever seen this done in the publicly funded online world. But why not? Why not let income sharing be an incentive along with shared advocacy, cultural entitlement and straight up cross promotion?

Surely this is what Google have done?