Tag Archives: social media

Twitter as a challenge to curators of medical museums

29 Sep
Tweeting through the conference

Tweeting through the conference

On the matter of twitter, I consider myself a philosophical sceptic with an unfortunate personal compulsion; I feel roughly the way about ‘social media experts’ that Bill Hicks did about people who work in advertising, but this doesn’t mean I don’t also throw my stream of consciousness into the public void.

Tweeting through conferences is getting increasingly popular, and Thomas Söderqvist encouraged it at this week’s European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Science workshop. It was, I think, a qualified kind of success.

On the negative side conference-tweeting tends to be personally distracting (and possibly insulting to a speaker forced to regard an audience gazing deep into their phones and laptops); susceptible to triteness and glib summation rather than reflective thought; and elitist: it excludes from a conversation those without the appropriate technology or ability to cope with distraction.

On the positive side, it provides a kind of collective note-taking, accessible even to those not involved; it provides for an additional, multiplicitous and open conversation, not directed through a chair; and sometimes allows for people not present at the conference but connected to its participants, to join in the conversation and bring new information and perspectives to it.

Despite the fact that only four of us tweeted throughout the conference, and that for half of it there was no wifi available, we did a not not bad job, and towards the end of the conference did indeed begin to get others chipping in, asking what ‘the problem of the medical museum’ was, and questioning our assertions about the situatedness of art.

Thomas has posted a link to the tweets via twitter itself, but twitter’s long-term archive is reputedly flaky. For the record, here is something like a complete transcript [pdf] of all the tweets on #EAMHMS over the course of three days. They were far from the best thing about the workshop, but if you can read in tweets they give an interesting, if inconsistent, overview.


Twenty Questions

2 Sep

Being a little disappointed that my own institution couldn’t take part in the ‘Ask a Curator‘ day on twitter (lack of available curators), I thought I’d try it out as a punter.

So I asked twenty individual questions of twenty different museums or archives. All were ones which I’ve personally visited sometime in the last five years (most much more recently than that, and two of which I’ve worked for). The questions were off the top of my head: there was no strategy to ask any ‘big’ questions, but they were all genuine questions that I’m personally interested in the answers to. I also tried to ask genuinely ‘curatorial’ questions, and not ones about my own professional concerns of websites, social media or online presences (I failed in a couple of cases).

Personally, while I understand twitter’s incredible ability to reach lots of people very quickly, I’m quite sceptical about its ability to transmit or exchange meaningful intellectual information. I tend to sympathise with Thomas Söderqvist’s vexation that Twitter is a distraction from the reflective thinking that we were just beginning to find in blogs.

The questions and answers are listed below. I’ve tried to detwittify them, so they can be read as simple questions and answers, shorn of addressees and hashtags; some answers are several tweets run together.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Q. Could you ever expand your remit to become a museum of the Lower East Side through all ages?

A. Our long term plan is2 expand interp of LES history past ’35 w/ exhibits in new Visitor&Education Center @ 103 Orchard St

Barbican Centre

Q. How would you curate a show that consisted of the peculiar architecture of the Barbican Centre itself?

A. We’d tell the story of the Centre, how it came to be & commission new work in response to the space. This is also the aim of our Curve Art commissions

Institute of Contemporary Arts

Q. What do you consider to be your most successful shows of the last five years? How do you measure success?

A. Experience of the artist and the feedback from public, my colleagues and the quality of discussion the exhibition generate

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Q. Is there a natural connection between open-air sculpture and land art?

A. Hi Danny. Land art can be direct intervention or it can engage with landscape ephemerally, i.e through photography… Open-air sculpture is, simply, any work outdoors, but when sited well it has the same very direct relationship with landscape.

Birmingham Museums

Q. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about how people use the Pre-Raphaelite resource?

A. Probably that schools use the resource as it was meant for FE/HE, but feedback is they love access to images. Don’t think there have been any surprises in how resource is being used otherwise, audience research was spot on.

New Museum

Q. How important has the legacy of Rhizome been to the ‘artworld’ in general?

A. That’s a hard one to answer in 144 but, I think it is safe to say VERY

Baltic Mill

Q. Is the converted industrial space of the mill an ideal space for exhibitions, or does it have problems?

A. It’s a fantastic space thanks to a well conceived conversion, ready to take up the unusual challenges artists throw at us.

Whitney Museum

Q. Have the ‘general public’ really had as much contemporary art as they can bear?

A. No, they can probably handle a little more.

London Transport Museum

Q. Has the development of TFL and an integrated London transport policy helped you in collecting or exhibiting?

A. Yes, the museum’s collection has grown since the development of TfL. Now we cover taxis, cycling, streets, river & much more!

Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Q. What’s the expected lifespan of the taxidermied animals in your displays?

A. Our taxidermy mounts are expected to last somewhere over a century. Our oldest specimens on display are over 85 yrs old.

Science Museum

Q.  Is there a future for blockbuster science exhibitions?

A. ‘Blockbuster’ is a tricky term but we are planning two major galleries for 2014 (PDF)

Brighton and Hove Museums

Q. How much influence have grassroots local history movements like QueenSpark Books had on your new displays?

A. The voices of local people shaped the local history galleries which feature quotes and sound recordings

Imperial War Museum

Q. Do you ever get negative reactions to the large display of guns in your main exhibition hall?

A. It’s important for us to put on display, without any sense of glorifying them, some key weapons of WW1/2 & other conflicts. When HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, then Duchess of York, came to the opening of IWM London in 1936 she said ‘It is a very good thing that people should know and realise how horrible war is’

National Maritime Museum

Q. Are the sea and the sky inextricably linked, or could RO/NMM ever become two entirely separate museums?

A. When ROG became a mus in 1950s it was nearly taken over by Sci Mus. But maritime navigation is key for NMM/ROG

National Portrait Gallery

Q. When you programme your Lates, what informs the connection between the collections and eg the musical events?

A. We respond to Collection & exhibitions in creative way to help visitors engage & offer new interpretation. Good eg is event on 10/2 questioning the idea of portraiture with workshops, music, debate.

Australian War Memorial

Q. Has the memory of Gallipoli overshadowed all other aspects of the ANZAC legacy?

A. Am not sure I understand your question about Gallipoli overshadowing ANZAC legacy. Could you explain a bit more please?

Q. When ppl think of ANZACs, do they too often think only of Gallipoli; are other campaigns sufficiently remembered & commemorated?

A. Thanks. Yes, it does seem that Gallipoli often overshadows what happened on the Western Front, for instance.

British Museum

Q.What’s going on with the Bassae Frieze at the moment?

A. Plan is to improve access by having video of the frieze at ground floor when mezzanine gallery is closed & for visitors who can’t climb stairs

Te Papa

Q. Is Te Papa a museum of *everything* NZ, or are there some things you can’t/won’t collect or display?

A. A museum of everything NZ, if sig to NZ or NZ communities we collect /display, cultural considerations imp. esp human remains.

British Film Institute

Q. Where do you think the biggest gaps in the NFTVA’s collection are? What would you most like to have that you don’t?



Q. What would be your ideal in-gallery photography policy?


Given the prevailing ethos of ‘you have to mean it’ around cultural organisations’ use of social media, even 18/20 doesn’t feel quite satisfying enough (and particularly disappointing that heavy hitters Tate and BFI were the two that didn’t respond) – I was really hoping for a full house.

While it’s nice receiving a flood of answers to all your questions, disentangling the stream of tweets enough to even present them as a list of questions and answers in this blog was a job in itself (and a trending hashtag is by definition not worth following; it’s not merely spam that makes this so). Given also the @you method of most replies, the rudimentary  representation of ‘conversation’ in Twitter’s web interface & the ephemeral nature of the individual tweet, Ask A Curator wasn’t a very communal experience. You could see a lot of it going on, but seeing what was actually being asked and answered was much harder. It would be interesting to see whether museums will end up presenting their own Q&A lists in more readable forms.

Though the success of projects like this is usually measured in amplitude rather than quality of signal (and also speed of reaction: I’m conscious that if I don’t publish this post today, the level of interest in what it has to say will rapidly wane, as people move on to new things), the real question is whether the project achieved its own aims of giving the public direct access to curators:

“I hoped that this project could give the public unprecedented access to the passionate and enthusiastic individuals who work in museums and galleries and also break down barriers within these institutions, where all to often social media is still the remit of the marketing department.”

I’m not sure it has.

Five answers contained what I’d classify as ‘interesting facts’ – nuggets of useful/intriguing information. About half the answers I feel could have come straight from a marketing or press department without having to ask a curator; a few were almost offensively woolly (but then some of my questions were also a bit lame).  Answers I found particualrly disappointing  were ICA’s refusal to pick a favourite show (no-one can really disagree if you say Nought to Sixty), and the British Museum, who answered about the Bassae Frieze only in terms of access and specifically not with curatorial/conservation information. Only with Yorkshire Sculpture Park & IWM did I feel like there was anything approaching a momentary  ‘conversation’ around a shared subject of interest.

Only three included links to useful parts of the organisation’s website. About half the new museums that I followed did the creepy thing of following me back; two sent me a DM.  It definitely made a difference when a named curator was answering, like Whitney’s Gary Carrion-Murayari or the National Maritime Museum’s Rebekah Higgitt, who answered from her own Twitter account.

I don’t think Twitter quite does the job. The phenomenon is interesting enough to want to see it done properly. But do the infrastructure and resources exist for museums to have really in-depth conversations about their collections and exhibitions? How would you do it? Do museums have to forge these greater depths of communication alone, away from the shoutfest of a designated day?

Another question is whether ‘Ask A Curator’ only exists because Twitter offers this peculiar combination of individual communication and mass event, or because people really want to talk about collections. Organiser Jim Richardson says he’d “be unlikely to use Twitter again for this kind of event”. I definitely think it’s worth trying again, differently.

Great Tate?

14 May

Lots to think about in Tate’s Online Stategy. A few things extracted from it, that I think are worthy of contemplation & emulation:

  • We should move on from considering Tate Online as ‘Tate’s fifth gallery’ to making online, quite simply, a dimension of practically everything Tate does, from research and conservation to fundraising and public programmes.
  • Tate will become more porous though a move to the emergence of individuals within Tate expressing their views and engaging directly with audiences
  • The graphic design will be clean and contemporary. There will be few individually designed microsites
  • A single user login will be built across all systems so that users can administer all their site preferences (collection perspectives, email bulletin settings, online course progress, My Collection, ecommerce logins, membership, patrons, shop, comments, forums etc.) and push notifications to email and social media in a single place.
  • The online collection will be moved back to the heart of the website making it the hub around which much of the website radiates.
  • The site will integrate with existing social networks (Facebook, Flickr, YouTube etc.) and partner them on specific projects rather than trying to create a competing social networking website.
  • Each research centre and major project will be provided with a project blog to update their specialist audiences on developments and findings and to invite contributions from third parties. The blog will exist for the period of each project and then be mothballed as a record of the project.
  • Unmediated interaction with online audiences will be new to almost everyone involved and therefore training, new policies and new skills will need to be developed to help Tate staff shape communities.
  • Key to our approach must be a recognition that social media websites are not just a new platform to advertise our activities or promote our brand. We must transparently interact with audiences and, though this is labour intensive, the result will be an engaged audience with whom we have a deep relationship.
  • Consumption of online content has shifted towards users as authors and editors, especially through social media and online publishing platforms (blogs, YouTube, Flickr, etc.). We shall embrace audience creativity and personal ambitions, though new end user licences, empowering them to reuse and remix Tate content.
  • Most of the content on Tate Online is published under restrictive end-user licences. We shall audit these and review what content could be released under a more permissive licence that would enable users to reuse and remix this content as part of their own creative projects or research.
  • User-generated content will be pervasive throughout the website in the form of user comments, discussion threads, crowdsourcing of data and creative online communities, including Tate Kids, Young Tate and Creative Spaces. One of the challenges this raises is how to communicate the authority of Tate’s research and scholarship amongst a myriad of voices and opinions. However, we see this as a problem that can be resolved with design rather than with architecture, and thus user voices and Tate voices will be intermixed.
  • The web will continue to evolve rapidly and Tate must be in a position to take advantage of these changes and move with the times. It is therefore critical that a scalable technical and information architecture is developed that will allow the website to grow and change quickly.

Museums and the Web 2010

26 Apr

Denver, April 13-17 2010
A slightly-edited version of my institutional reportback

One of the gratifying things about Museums and the Web was finding that as well as data enthusiasts, digital managers and social media experts, there were a good number of curators, librarians and other professions at the conference. It seemed like proof to me that the web is becoming ever-more intimate with the everyday practice of museums, and that the boundaries between old museum professions and new are not so much being broken down as producing new hybrids: geeks who are intimately familiar with collections, and curators for whom web 2.0 is second nature.

The conference was multi-stranded, and many topics and ideas of interest were repeated; therefore, rather than sequentially describe every session I went to, I’ve tried here to group things together, bringing out highlights and connections.


Using Flickr

Aaron Cope, a  former Flickr developer discussed the introduction last year of Flickr galleries, a feature which allows users to select and annotate others’ photos. A restriction on the number of photos was deliberate, forcing users into making small, considered selections rather than longer lists, and also moving users away from promoting their own photos and towards the intellectual understanding of others’ work. Aaron described this as the discovery of a ‘curatorial muscle’: without fetishising the word ‘curation’ or suggesting that the role of museum curators has been supplanted by the crowd, everyday web users are creating the kind of connections and interpretations that can’t be done by machines.
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/cope/cope.html

Joe Dalton from the New York Public Library discussed their Flickr commons project: in adding a large amount of material to the Flickr commons, how to merge existing subject headings into Flickr tags seemed problematic. The answer was to break down subject headings by delimiters into tags that made sense, update the archaic language of some subject headings, and use only what made sense.
: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nypl/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/dalton/dalton.html

Natasha Waterson of the National Maritime Museum presented their use of Flickr as a platform for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. Though Flickr offers a ready-made place to submit photographs, making the costly build of a separate submission mechanism unnecessary, it also has its own rules, oriented more towards community than competition, which have to be respected; working directly with Flickr itself was also helpful. The quality of the content was very high, and an important lesson learned was that niche participation (a limited number of people engaging in astrophotography) can have popular appeal (many people fascinated by pictures of the stars). The reward of being on display at Greenwich itself was a pull, and the physical displays also included comments from Flickr users.
: http://www.nmm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/astronomy-photographer-of-the-year/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/romeo/romeo.html

Paula Bray from Powerhouse and Ryan Donohue from George Eastman House presented Common Ground, a global day of meetups at cultural heritage institutions involving Flickr Commons users who had been active in enriching the Flickr commons. Slideshows were presented and projected, curated by Flickr users rather than the institutions.
Website: http://www.flickr.com/groups/flickrcommons/discuss/72157622022156667/
Paper: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/bray/bray.html



Nate Solas from the Walker Art Centre showed how on the Arts Connect Ed site, research into what people searched for showed that they were effectively using search as a roundabout way of browsing the collection. The introduction of a browsable interface to the collections and facet browsing not only increased the specificity of what people were searching for but also made the site much more indexable by search engines; a reminder also that search starts outside the site.
: http://www.artsconnected.org/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/solas/solas.html



Martha de Vit and Edith Schreurs of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam presented the mobile iPhone application they built in collaboration with Antenna Audio around the publication and exhibition of Van Gogh’s letters. They found it gained a wide an international audience, with downloads peaking around the touring exhibition visiting new locations. Contrary to assumptions, multimedia applications didn’t interfere with appreciation of the actual exhibition; but it’s also important to remember that building mobile ‘gadgets’ is not a simple process.
: http://www.vangoghmuseum.com/letters
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/peereboom/peereboom.html


Projects & evaluation

Richard Morgan from the V&A presented the V&A’s Search the Collections project. Drawing lessons from the overall project experience, he recommended making new projects like projects you’re already good at, being realistic to the point of pessimism, and planning for dependencies. Search the Collections was broken down into smaller sub projects (eg, IT building virtual servers) and built iteratively (in an almost Agile fashion), bringing working prototypes to each meeting of the project board. Richard also made the point that it’s important to distinguish between creating a thing, and creating an organisational capacity: a thing can be outsourced  more easily, while a capacity is much more important in the long term.
Website: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/morgan/morgan.html

Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum presented the results of research into how the Powerhouse online collections are used. The Powerhouse, a science and technology museum in Sydney, is funded directly by the local state, and its primary audiences are the local public and children. Growth in traffic for the website in general is mostly local, but the increase in access to the collections online is only 50% Australian. Microsites remain popular, but as a means of exposing the collections they are unsustainable silos. The Powerhouse’s collections online includes interpretative text as well as tombstone data, and in order to understand how this text might be being used, Powerhouse used Tynt (http://www.tynt.com/), a JavaScript-based copy-and-paste tracker to heatmap what had been selected, discovering that over 3m words of text had been copied. Seb concluded by saying that setting data free by itself is not enough. We have to understand which audiences are most important to us, and educate educators in how to use the materials if necessary.
Website: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/chan/chan.html

Allegra Burnette of MOMA, Dana Mitroff Silvers of SFMOMA and Charlotte Sexton of the National Gallery made a three-way presentation on websites post-launch. The post-launch phase, they argued, is as critical as the development phase, and should be planned for. A website redesign shouldn’t be considered as a standalone web project but as an initiative of the entire organisation, because important decisions about audiences have to be made; a relaunch may even highlight the lack of a shared vision for the organisation.

The combined launch of a new site and a new CMS will not deliver an efficiency miracle: indeed, everyone on the web team could be working harder after project staff are lost. It’s tempting to make the pitch for the budget to implement a new CMS on this basis, but along with separating content from presentation, next-generation CMSes demand more data and more complex metadata like tags. A new CMS is a lot for non-technical staff to learn, and is not going to make anyone engage with the website by itself, and so iterative rollouts and simplified interfaces for infrequent users should be applied. The role of the web team in providing systematic oversight and documentation does not disappear either.

A redesign won’t necessarily provide more traffic, either: content and the programme drive traffic. Analytics can be time-consuming but important. Post-launch user-testing is essential: you should have the capacity to test and tweak the final design. There’s a lot of invisible admin in bug and feature tracking, and post-launch budgets are typically 10% of the development costs. Ultimately the launch of a new site is only a line drawn in the sand of a larger strategic process, but when the camaraderie of the launch build-up dissipates, disillusion can set in.

Paper: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/burnette/burnette.html



Liam Wyatt, Vice-President of Wikimedia Australia and a small group of volunteer wikipedians came to the conference for an invitation-only workshop to thrash out some the tensions between cultural heritage institutions and Wikipedia. The results of the workshops, with opportunity for further discussion, were disseminated through an conference session and discussed in an un conference session (an unconference involves self-organised mini-sessions and discussion on shared topics  of interest).

Rather than a homogeneous entity, Wikipedia is made up of overlapping communities. The Wikimedia foundation owns the framework, and volunteers form national chapters and project groups. One way for cultural heritage institutions to engage with Wikipedia is to consider it a community rather than a resource and look for local groups to engage with. Volunteer wikipedians aren’t that different from museum volunteers. Adding a note to the talk page of an article, finding an appropriate subject-based project, or a local editor to form a relationship with are all ways to begin improving the interface between Wikipedia and the institution.

Museums are primarily interested in objects, while Wikipedia is all about subjects; this is one of the reasons why museum content isn’t an immediately perfect fit for Wikipedia (though with the correct licensing and accompanying notice, museums’ own texts can be incorporated directly into Wikipedia articles). Liam’s desire to forge better relationships between museums and Wikipedia comes from a recognition of some content deficits in the encyclopaedia itself. As he put it ‘Wikipedia is good at Pokemon, and not so good at what museums do’. Wikipedians are primarily interested in content, and museums should look to meaningfully enhance articles, rather than garnish links to their institution. Deep links to objects and their interpretations as citations are desirable: they increase the quality and usefulness of Wikipedia itself. Adding links to the ‘notes’ section as footnotes, for instance, is preferable to adding links to the ‘external links’ section at the bottom of the page.

This special Wikipedia page, created by Liam, discussing meaningful and useful ways to work between Wikipedia and the cultural heritage sector is worth reading:



Social media & community

Wayne La Bar presented a social media site for the Liberty Science Centre built on the Ning platform (there was some discussion of Ning during the conference, as they have just announced a switch from a free to a paid-for model) for a forthcoming cooking exhibition at the liberty science centre. The aim was to involve the public in planning the content of the exhibition, and some users were successfully integrated into the exhibition planning team
Website: http://www.cookingexhibition.org/
Paper: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/labar/labar.html

Mia Ridge from the Science Museum presented their Cosmic Collections project, a data mash-up competition challenging coders to build new websites based on a collections data API. Though opening up data doesn’t always mean that people will use it, the competition was successful and produced sites that are still live. The possibility that no-one will enter always exists, said Mia: acknowledge that, plan for it, and then go ahead.
Website: http://sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/galleries/cosmos_and_culture.aspx
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/ridge/ridge.html

Jeff Gates from the Smithsonian discussed the opportunism of social media. The Smithsonian’s long-running email enquiry service, Joan of Art, seemed to be a rights-bound silo of inaccessible material until Joan of Art herself started tweeting, and the best of her answers were re-posted in a blog.
: http://americanart.si.edu/research/tools/ask/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/gates/gates.html

Ailsa Barry of the Natural History Museum presented Nature Plus, a system to tie together physical and virtual offers at the new Darwin Centre. Given a barcoded ticket, visitors can pause at several interactives, manipulate and collect information, which they can then retrieve from the website and use to set up a personal page and profile. This was a project in which many others inside the NHM also saw opportunities for marketing, development and education. The system has 10.5k users, with a high level of loyalty.
: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/index.jspa
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/barry/barry.html

Erika Dicker from Powerhouse discussed the museum’s curators’ blogs, set up by the Powerhouse web team, but with all content controlled by curators themselves. She also surveyed museum curators and found that 60% of them were using one form or another of social media. Some curators use blogging as a means of raising their personal profile, others are uncomfortable with the medium, still others find obstacles to it. It’s also worth asking whether curators have access to the right tools to make the most of opportunities.
: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/blog/
Paper: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/dicker/dicker.html

Gail Durbin from the V&A ran a workshop around the V&A’s intention to make a transition from contributions to their websites to a community around the museum. Many user-generated content projects involve a contribution, after which there is a dead-end. The V&A is looking to replace its 30-odd different sign-ons with a single sign on across all sites, and the ability for users to create profiles for themselves. Gail noted that Flickr, a photographers’ site, allows you to say where you’re from and your relationship status, information not immediately germane to photography, but which might begin to foster a sense of community; workshop participants were asked to come up with a comparable, unobvious question to ask V&A users to add to their profile. Then, looking at two things close to the V&A: Body Art, and drawings and sketches made in the galleries, we were asked to consider how we might best build a community around the activity or subject.
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/durbin/durbin.html



Though the conference was mostly about news ways of doing things, rather than new ways of configuring computers, there wasn’t a lot of talk about platforms and CMSes. Open source CMS Drupal was mentioned more than once (some of the conference attendees went on to Drupalcon in San Francisco) as well as the Python framework Django, and the PHP framework Symfony. I had an interesting chat with the developers of GLAMkit (http://www.glamkit.com/) a Django-based framework developed specifically for the needs of galleries, libraries, archives and museums.



The Brits didn’t sweep the board at the Conference’s Best of the Web awards, but they did much better than an average Oscars. Royal Observatory’s Solar Stormwatch won the Innovation award; Culture24 won the Long-lived award; the V&A’s Search the Collections won the Research award; and Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Dulwich OnView won the Small award

Full awards listing: http://conference.archimuse.com/forum/congratulations_mw2010_best_web_winners