Tag: virtual museums

Upgrade Now or Become Obsolete!

I try to keep abreast of developments in social media as it relates to museums – the tag cloud on this blog reflects that interest.  There are several blogs and e-newsletters that offer insights on how we do social media at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. These resources include Nonprofit Tech 2.0,  Marketing Profs Today, and Tech Soup.  One of the most relevant social media blogs for museums is Coleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone.

“Upgrade Now or Become Obsolete” is a heading from Heather Mansfield’s newly published Social Media for Social Good: A How To Guide for Nonprofits.   The heading seems a dire warning.  With budget cuts and reduced staffs, how can the medium to small-sized museums be expected to take on the additional social media upgrade?  I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question.  However, Mansfield’s book provides a firm basis to assess a museum or other nonprofit institutions social media presence.  She notes in the Introduction that the book can form the basis of a social media strategic plan.  I agree.

For museums who are beginning to think about mobile apps (Web 3.0), but are still grappling with their social media (Web 2.0), and wondering if the upgrade means they are going to abandon their websites (Web 1.0), Mansfield’s book is ideal.  Mansfield divides the book into three parts based on the noted types of online communication methods.  She clearly demonstrates the interrelationship of the three types.  She argues that one is not better than the other, but serve different purposes.  For example after discussing the Web 1.0 static web page and e-newsletter, the subsequent Web 2.0 discussion of Social Media is viewed as a tool that also drives traffic back to the web page.  At the same time, the web page promotes and is tied to the Social Media.

Each discussion in the book concludes with a list of 5 Must Have and 11 Best Practices for topics such as Website Design, E-newsletters, and Donate Now campaigns.  In discussing Social Media projects Mansfield starts with 11 organizational points to consider before even setting up a Facebook page.  A pleasant addition to the book is that Mansfield provides time estimates that different tasks, such as blogging, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, will take for staff to complete each week.  Although only estimates, I found the numbers a bit on the high side and geared more toward larger institutions than the average museum with only a handful of employees.

Another asset to the book is that each section ends with a list of sites that are Examples of Excellence for the points discussed in the chapter.  “Google This” listings for further investigations are also included throughout the book.  The volume concludes with an appendix checklist to guide the reader through the entire social media process.  Mansfield writes that “To utilize every tool and best practice on this checklist could take 12 to 24 months.  Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by this.  As long as you have the will, you have the time” (p.xiv).  My takeaway is that if one expects to “do” social media in the next month and check it off their task list, they will be disappointed.  As well, Mansfield notes that one should not expect huge returns, whether in visitation or donations, after publishing the first few e-newsletters or fund-raising appeals.  Social media is a process not an event.

Mansfield’s book will be useful to the novice just launching an online social media presence and for those who have worked at it for a few years but need to review, fine-tune, revise, and update their process.  I suspect that the only folks who will find the book too simplistic are those on the caliber of Mansfield’s Examples of Excellence.  For the rest of us, Social Media for Social Good is an excellent resource.  For myself, I have a shopping list of tasks to get busy on.

What are the key resources that guide your social media process?

Museums, Archaeology & Mobile Apps

Got myself an iPad a couple of weeks ago so I am now learning about the mobile app business.  I have to confess that the biggest draw for me in taking the iPad plunge was to use a music/sound making app called Reactable.  At the same, I sufficiently rationalized the iPad’s portability and work applications as factors to justify the cost.  To dutifully follow-up on the rationalizations, I went to the App Store and searched on Anthropology, Archaeology, Museums to see what all was out there.  There is a good bit of cool stuff.  You can tour Roman-era London via the Londinium app produced by the Museum of London, explore the Please Touch the Exhibit app from the Melbourne Museum, view fine art in the Philips Collection multimedia app based in Washington D.C., and on and on . . .

There is a good bit of museum and archaeology app stuff out there.  But are these apps the latest fad, toys, or what?  As is often the case the American Association of Museum provides a good summary overview text on the subject.  Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy edited by Nancy Proctor is a good place to start investigating the applicability of these new mobile applications.  Proctor is the Smithsonian’s Head of New Media Initiatives.

In 100 pages, the volume contains 12 brief overview essays on almost all phases of mobile apps from the technical to practical considerations.  An additional 12-page glossary interprets the jargon inherent in any such discussion.  Although a careful read of the entire volume is worthwhile, several essays stood out to me:

  •  Robert Stein’s essay “Mobile Content Strategies for Content Sharing and Long-Term Sustainability” deals with the compatibility of museum apps across time and space.  He reports on a paper he and Proctor co-authored at the 2011 Museums and the Web Conference that addresses this issue and references the TourML wiki as a source for ongoing dialogue.  The upshot of the article is recognizing the importance in the early stages of app development that there are industry standards to assure the production of quality and interactive products.
  • Kate Haley Goldman’s essay “Understanding Adoption of Mobile Technology with Museums” is an important first read for anyone considering mobile apps in museum settings.   Goldman astutely observes that “for institutions already using mobile interpretation, encouraging visitors to use the mobile interpretation was the largest challenge.  Yet for others – vendors and researchers, as well as those considering projects – attracting new visitors via mobile was a primary goal.  This disconnect represents a great opportunity for future research” (p. 67).  Goldman speculates that part of the disconnect comes from the validity and reliability of the visitor survey measures.  She argues for visitor based longitudinal studies to help clarify the issue.  This understanding echoes Clay Shirkey’s concern that internet technology must be relevant to existing behavior.
  • Jane Burton’s essay “Playful Apps” provides another layer of insights as the relationship of the museum user to museum apps. She notes that you can explore physics by playing Launchball from the Science Museum of London or learn about human origins by visiting Meanderthal from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  She cites Flurry, a San Francisco based smartphone analytics firm report, in noting that “studying the U.S. mobile gamer, we note that she earns over 50% more than the average American, is more than twice as likely to have earned a college bachelor’s degree, and is more like to be white or Asian” (p. 74).  Like Goldman, she finds that conventional wisdom on app adoption and use in museums might be suspect and counter the conventional wisdom of the typical app user.
The collection of essays provides an excellent starting point and balanced overview for anyone wishing to get beyond the immediate must have hype or the flip side of too quickly dismissing the use of mobile apps in museum or archaeology public engagement efforts.  However, except for an essay on mobile apps at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, no author in the volume considered in a substantive way whether the apps actually fit in with the mission of the museum or organization.  Proposals for adopting such new technology that are thoroughly enmeshed in the mission of the institution will allow justification of the high cost of app development and equipment often needed to operate the systems.  Otherwise, nay sayers (and funders) may argue that we are just jumping on to the latest interpretive fad.

What is your experience with mobile apps?

Museums: Online, Real-Time, or Both?

A couple of years ago there seemed to be a sharp divide between proponents of online vs. real-time museum experiences.  Now the online museum experience is accepted as here to stay.  I was surprised at the lack of hostility from the museum world toward the Google Art Project.  Having gotten past the knee-jerk position of taking sides in the online vs real-time debate, the discussion now focuses on how the two experiences complement each other.  Such is focus of All Together Now: Museums and Online Collaborative Learning by William B. Crow and Herminia Wei-hsin Din, published this year by the American Association of Museums (AAM).

The volume is typical of the AAM publications that offer a general introduction to an area, coupled with an abundance of resources for further study.  The basic premise is laid out in the Preface that states:

We see these changes and innovations as terrifically exciting – not as a celebration of the new media and technologies themselves, but for the possibilities they offer people.  As we shift from the Information Age to the Collaboration Age, these new technologies offer people the ability to work together in ways that simply weren’t possible even 15 years ago.  And, although museums draw strength from their unique physical collections and locations, they also now see themselves as digital collections and communities, located in an increasingly global world (p. 6).

The authors organize the presentation in four parts:

  • A basic discussion of online collaborative learning – the underlying theory, types, resources, and challenges
  • the conditions necessary for implementing online collaborative learning
  • the roles individuals play in the process
  • the tools for building the online collaborative community of practice
A highlight of the book is the substantive case studies that review the methods, successes, and challenges of the online collaborative process.  The case studies include the Smithsonian Commons project, San Diego’s Balboa Park Cultural Partnership of 26 institutions, and other projects both large and small.  The case studies are particularly valuable in that they give equal balance to what worked, what did not work, and future directions.

The message of All Together Now is consistent with that of Clay Shirkey who notes that it is not the media or technology that drives the behavior but rather enables existing interests.  A distinct value of the book takes the collaborative process beyond the online experience to consider collaboration on an inter-institutional basis as well.

Those who are just beginning to explore collaborative online learning will find All Together Now a useful model within which to start their discussions.  For those who have already ventured down this road, the volume contains a framework to assess the efficiency of existing programs.  For all readers, the book has a wealth of online resources to investigate additional online collaborative opportunities.

The authors and case study contributors leave behind the debate of online vs real-time and instead embrace the collaborative reality that marks the current and future phase of museum outreach to the public we serve.  This focus is consistent with the AAM theme for the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Creative Community.

How are you moving your institution or practice toward online collaborative learning?

Are Museums Missing Out on Social Media?

National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C., USA

At the American Association of Museum meetings last month, multiple sessions made clear the growing use and importance of social media in museums’ day-to-day functioning and outreach efforts.  Many institutions are investing considerable resources in their social and virtual media presences.  My recent visit to Smithsonian Institution venues in Washington D.C. affirmed this direction.  For example, at the National Museum of American History website, one can spend hours blogging, interacting, and virtually roaming through collections not on exhibit in real-time.  The same is true of the National Museum of the American Indian’s website.

The internationally based New Media Consortium website contains Horizon Project reports on emerging technologies. One report is a 2010 shortlist for Museums that provides a good overview of potential of social media in museums along with case studies.

Museums increasingly rely on social media and other digital resources to deliver on their mission of public outreach and education.  The web abounds with evaluation tools including simple Facebook insights, Google analytics, and many more to assess the demographics and experiences of those who use the social media resources.

But are museums successful in actually reaching their intended audiences with social media tools?  A survey published by Museum Next provides some interesting data on this question.  I was particularly intrigued when looking at the results broken down by user age.  The table below draws on data from the Museum Next website.

Social Media Use Relative to Museum

Here is some of what stands out to me.  The breakdown by age of those individuals who use social media is not surprising, only confirming conventional wisdom: Young folks use social media a lot but older people do to.  The percentage of individuals who are actually fans, subscribe to, or “like” social media pages declines dramatically with increased age.  But here is where things get interesting.  A solid 70% or greater of all age categories report visiting museums or galleries, but only a small percentage of those people are aware of museums that have social media pages and even fewer follow those pages.  If all those individuals who

  • subscribe/like social media in general and also attend museums
  • were aware of museum specific social media pages
  • and subscribed at the same rate to museum social media pages as they do other social media pages
  • then the followers of museum social media pages would instantly increase by 400%.

I am not a statistician (nor do I play one on TV) and I realize that my assertion relies on a couple of assumptions, but the clear sign is that museums do not presently maximize the potential of social media for individuals who both now follow social media and visit museums.

We have a lot of work to do in connecting social media using visitors who come through our museum doors with the social media and virtual presence in which we are currently investing our resources.

How do you promote your social media resources to your visitors?

Is This Facebook Stuff Still Really Worth It?

About one year ago I posted on relevancy of Facebook (FB) to Outreach work.  I discussed the utility of FB
and some of the analytic tools for assessing the demographics of page “likes” or hits.  In the past year the number of FB pages by archaeologists and museums jumped dramatically with a diversity of applications.  For example, archaeologist Rebecca Bria uses the FB group function as a primary means for organizing her student field crews heading to Peru this summer.  As well, her regular FB page for Hualcayan has more than doubled the number of “likes” in the past month alone.  Organization such as the Small Museum Association continue to use their FB page as a venue for dialogue among members.  The Society for American Archaeology routinely uses their FB page to provide information principally about government policy and organizational concerns.  Archaeological sites such as Cahokia use their FB page as a promotional tool for scheduled events.  At Chucalissa, we are attempting to use our Facebook page as a means of engagement not just by promoting events but through posting information about current projects at the Museum and the Midouth region that might be of interest to those who “like” our page.  For example, we routinely cross-promote with the Parkin Archaeological site located just 45 minutes away in Arkansas.

In the past year, a plethora of new publications addressed the general issue of how to get the most bang for the buck on Facebook.  Given the rapidly evolving technology, most of these “how to” type books are outdated after they are on the bookshelves for a few months.  However, several free online downloads are worth review to fine tune a Facebook strategy.  For example, the Virtue marketing group offers a downloadable The Anatomy of a Facebook Post that considers time of day, keywords and other technical aspects of posting.  Network for Good links to a large number of free downloads such as Is Your Nonprofit Facebook Page Worth It? that explores various forms of FB analytics

I remain a big fan of Beth Kanter and Alison Fine’s The Networked Nonprofit and Clay Shirky’s Here Come’s Everybody and his recently published Cognitive Surplus, less for their up-to-date technical information but more for their discussion of how to conceptualize and use social media such as FB.  A recent article in the New York Times hits the proverbial nail on the head for this point.  The article discusses how the use of social media in museums is not about the technology but about engaging with visitors, both virtual and in real-time.  As Shirky (2010:98) notes in Cognitive Surplus “Interpretations that focus on technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviors, but it doesn’t cause them . . . no one want e-mail for itself, any more than anyone wants electricity for itself; rather, we want the things electricity enables.”

So, all of this comes back to the question – Is this Facebook stuff still really worth it?

In considering this question, at the C.H. Nash Museum, we were somewhat surprised by our recent visitor survey that showed 2/3 of the respondents wanted more content from our museum available via the internet.  As 75% of the total survey respondents were recent visitors to the museum, we conclude that these are individuals who wish to have a mixed real-time and virtual experience of Chucalissa.  Seemingly in contradiction, we receive only a handful of likes and comments to our FB posts.  At the same time, I am consistently surprised by folks who will drop us an email or comment when they visit the museum how much they enjoy our Facebook page and our monthly e-newsletter.  Clearly, relying exclusively on the number of comments and likes for individual posts is not a valid measure of worth?

For both FB and our e-newsletter we never campaigned to increase our circulation.  However, we are certain that visitors we meet online and in real-time are made aware of these media tools to stay in touch and be in dialogue with us.  As a result, all of our subscribers to FB and the e-newsletter are true buy-ins.  As a result we see a consistent increase in likes/subscribers with very few unlikes/unsubscribes.  This trend seems to indicate that we are building a strong communication base.

This leads me back to another post from last summer on how we measure success.  From this perspective, if we take a long-term sustainable approach to our work, then the relative growth and indirect feedback we receive for our FB page is comparable to our steady increase in other measures such as museum visitors and volunteers – both indicators of value.

At the oral defense for my M.A. Thesis a bunch of years ago, one of my committee members, Barry Isaac asked “Why is reading your M.A. Thesis more important than eating a plate of worms?”  I ask myself the same question today relative to the time and energy spent on FB.  The FB stuff still seems worth it, even compared to eating a plate of worms.

How about your experience?

Museum Visitor Survey Says . . .

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we recently sent out a simple 10 question survey to subscribers of our monthly e-newsletter – about 1500 total.  Our immediate goal was to get our visitors thoughts about the general direction of the museum over the past few years.  We also wanted to design a simple survey that could be taken in less than 5 minutes but also gave the opportunity for folks to provide greater detail if they chose to do so.  We wanted a survey that covered the scope of information we needed for the coming period.  That is, we did not want to send out this survey, followed by another in two months, followed by another . . .  and we committed to report the results of the survey and our response back to the subscribers.

We note numerous caveats on interpreting such surveys, but we are assuming the results will represent at least a trend in our visitors thinking about the museum.  So, with that in mind, we composed the survey, submitted the draft to sparked.com for feedback (I have posted before about this fantastic micro-volunteering website.), got some great feedback, and then distributed the survey to our subscriber list.  The results have begun to roll in.   Thus far 50% of our respondents visited the Museum in the last six months and 75% within the past two years.  Therefore, we know that the response was by active visitors to our museum.  Some of the results were very predictable but others are surprising  Here are a couple:

To the statement “I visit the C.H. Nash Museum to experience . . .” we were not at all surprised by those who noted prehistoric Native American cultures and archaeology as the reason for their visit.  We were surprised by the 55% who visit to experience our natural environment.  This result supports the strong response to our bat house installation posting on our Facebook page.   Coincidentally our staff recently discussed the need to pay greater attention to the “natural environment” part of our mission statement.

To the statement “Besides visiting the Museum please note the activities in which you have an interest . . .”  a solid 64% wanted more information made available via the internet.  This result confirms that components of the virtual museum are increasingly desired by even those individuals visiting museums in real-time.  A very surprising 42% of respondents wanted volunteer opportunities they could do from their homes.  Of note an identical 42% of responses wanted more volunteer experiences at the Museum.  Given the comparable requests and our very successful on site volunteer program, we are clearly missing an opportunity to involve more folks from their homes.  The desire to volunteer from home certainly confirms the thrust behind sparked.com and points to a visitor need we are not now meeting at Chucalissa.  Obvious at home volunteer activities might include digital scanning and data entry.

Without reviewing all the survey questions here, and though we expect doubling our responses over the next couple of weeks, we can interpret the initial survey results as:

  • the visitors who responded are pleased with the direction we are taking at the museum.
  • we need to balance our program emphasis more, especially to incorporate the natural environment
  • visitors want a greater digital presence and at home volunteer experience.

So, when all is said and done, we expect that this simple ten question survey will confirm that the general path we are going down at the museum is consistent with our mission and is also supported by our visitors.  At the same time, the survey raises several key points that we have missed along the way.  A great return for a limited effort on our part.

What surprises have you found in visitor surveys?

Google Art and the Virtual Museum Game

It’s been a while since I have posted anything about virtual museums, so here goes with a couple of new offerings and a couple that have been around . . .

Google’s Art Project went online February 1.  The reviews have rolled in that address issues of gendertechnical aspects, accessibility, and those with limited enthusiasm for the concept.  ArtInfo links to a good range of that discussion.  Besides seeing works from institutions I will never likely visit, I am impressed that the Project allows me to examine paintings in considerably more detail than I would in the museums.  I am hard pressed to understand the difference between coffee table art books sold in museum book stores/gift shops and the online Google Art Project.  Both publications are repros that represent the image beyond the original form in the museum gallery.  The latter incorporates contemporary technology.  Neither replace the real visit.  I will never forget the time as a teenager rounding the corner at the Chicago Art Institute and seeing Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles face-to-face.  But my friends in Turkey who will likely never visit Chicago should be allowed something as close to that experience as possible.

The Hampson Virtual Museum has over 400 downloadable 3-D clips of ceramic vessels and stone tools from the late prehistoric Nodena phase sites of Northeast Arkansas, US.  This virtual offering is a truly impressive site with considerable contextual information on the materials present.  This feature is missing from the Google Art Project.  An important feature of the Hampson website is the ability to download the 3-D clips of this phenomenal artistry of the Native American cultures  for later research, educational, or other viewing purposes.  The virtual display of these vessels will certainly be grist for much discussion on the display of objects often considered the private and sacred cultural heritage of Native Americans.

As a kid growing up in Southwest Ohio, I recollect the occasional pilgrimage to the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton for an air show that culminated in a display from the Thunderbirds.  The visits also included a walk through hangars that functioned as museum exhibits.  Today,  The National Museum of the United States Air Force boasts a virtual presence of panoramic views of their modern facilities and a technology ala Google Street View to explore some groupings of aircraft.  The webpage has podcasts of guest lectures and museum audio tours for on-site visits.  Though less visually spectacular than either the Google Art or Hampson Projects, the site is a an impressive resource on aviation history and the USAF.

Perhaps one of the coolest ideas on virtual museums is to create your own.  Rebecca Black brought the Museum Box site to my attention during our Museum Practices class this past fall.  Here you can load your own images, text, video files, and links, in rotating cubes within a compartmentalized box layout.  I scrolled through some of the museum boxes created to date.  I found that lots of schools are using this site for class projects of varying quality and complexity.  For some museum box is clearly just an assignment to get done, like some perspectives on life in general, yet other students and users are clearly inspired to create very cool displays.  Check this one out for possible classroom projects.

And finally, the world would not be complete without the Museum of Online Museums – thanks to Nancy Cook for bringing this one to my attention.

The long and short is that the ability for museum representation in the virtual world is becoming increasingly real.  The above sites represent a range of offerings from the complex to the basic and from simple observation to the fully engaged.  The more Luddite reactions against the virtual presence are on the wane in the same way that adages about “if humans were meant to fly they would have been born with wings” withered away.  Now is the time to consider how this technology may help our institutions to carry out our missions of outreach and engagement.

Your thoughts?

Online Resources for Realtime Museums

Each fall I teach a course in Museum Practices as one of the core courses in the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  Each class period during the 15-week seminar covers some aspect of Museum Practices in everything from Personnel Management to Virtual Museums.  Over the past couple of years, I am increasingly mindful of the number and diversity of resources available online for the weekly topics.  As well, the number of topical areas in Museum Practices have increased dramatically.  Twenty years ago issues of digital technology and virtual museums were not considered.

This year, to cope with the sheer quantity of information available, students are providing three to five annotated references on the weekly topics.  My thinking is that at the very least, by the end of the course students will create a list of more than 500 references including websites, blogs, journal articles, books, and museums.  A bonus is that the class includes Art Historians, Egyptologists, Anthropologists, Historians and Fine Arts students.  This range of interests assures a diversity of perspectives.  I am very pleased with the results in the first month.  I will be certain to the link a compilation of the references to this blog at the end of the semester.  Here are a few of the resources students discovered to date that relate directly to Archaeology, Museums and Outreach:

Samantha Smith reported on  a link from the Smithsonian Institution that provides curriculum standards for all 50 of the United States.  This resource is invaluable for those developing Museum or Archaeology educational programs linked to curriculum standards in their states.  As well, for those developing a virtual program presence, they can be certain their products are suitable for a broad regional audience.

Tiffany Redman found a link at the Metropolitan Art Museum that contained downloadable resources such as Powerpoints, lesson plans, articles, and teaching packets on many of the permanent collections from Korean to Roman art.   Although intended to complement museum visits, the material is a great deal of stand alone teaching resource as well.  This type of information is representative of a growing trend of museums to place pre- and post-visit school group materials online.

One of the resources Becky McGee provided was from the Turkish archaeological site of Catal Hoyuk.  As with the MET link, the Catal Hoyuk webpage represents a growing trend in archaeological sites to provide up-to-date reporting on research, interpretations, and collections online.  The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism is quite active in this arena.

Tameka Townes found that MuseumSpot is an excellent resource for online offerings from hundreds of museums throughout the world.  Again, the focus is on the information that the institutions provide online, whether in the form of podcasts, digital photos, or lesson plans.

Lauren Huber reported on the Global Museum.  Like MuseumSpot, the Global Museum has links to podcasts, publications, scholarly articles, social networking and much more.  You can sign up for email updates that are long, somewhat jumbled, but come out on a regular weekly or so basis.

Here are a few takeaways that I have from reviewing the students work thus far.  First, beyond museums that exist only in virtual space, there is growing trend for museums that exist in physical space to load substantive content online.  This trend goes beyond advertising for real-time visits, but arguably begins to approach building dual institutions.  Second, out of the 150 or so annotated references posted to date, I was familiar with only about 10% of them.  In some ways this is not surprising given that 3/4 of the class this semester are graduate students in art history, not my strength area at all.  But at the same time, I consider myself reasonably savvy about matters online.  This exercise showed me that at mainline resources, such as the Smithsonian that I have linked to often, there is a substantive amount of data in the various nooks and crannies of the online world that is only a click away.

Gordon Wiley, a major figure in New World Archaeology from the last century allegedly stated that with the increased specialization in archaeology, he was the last of the generalists.  I am struck that within the world of online museum resources, the same has become true, and within a considerably shorter period.  Once again I realize that we are not in Kansas anymore.



To Be Virtual Or To Be Real – Is That The Question?

Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota

As a follow-up to my last post, here is a continuum of links that consider one potential of virtual museums in archaeology:

  • Digging Digitally is a blog that discusses “Archaeology, data sharing, digitally enabled research and education” and is an “unofficial” outlet for the Society for American Archaeology Digital Data Interest Group.  The blog posts regularly with discussions on web alternatives to peer review, 3D modeling for digital presence, and a very cool recent discussion and video on prehistoric acoustics in Peru.  The blog reports the wide-ranging discussion of the movement toward online data in archaeological research.
  • In what is described by some as a WordPress for Museums, Omeka.net is in development with a “mission to make collections-based online publishing more accessible to small cultural heritage institutions, scholars, enthusiasts, educators, and students.”  Omeka is a project of the The Corporation for Digital Scholarship that enables free and open-source research and education software.  The power of a resource such as Omeka speaks directly to Rachael Barnwell’s comment on last week’s blog post about virtual museums.  She noted that the Bamburgh Research Project does not have a museum home but must rely on a virtual presence to disseminate information about ongoing excavations.  Her comment leads to considering whether establishing a formal public museum in Bamburgh is a positive and logical next step toward enhancing the public’s access to the cultural heritage discussion of the area.  Conventional wisdom might answer yes.  But would such a venture be a prudent use of resources?  Can a virtual presence supplemented by activities in the broader community space but outside a formal museum venue be the best next step?  Can resources such as Omeka.net allow for the broad dissemination of collections and cultural heritage information without a formal museum setting?
  • A recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts, notes that individuals introduced to an art form via digital media, whether gaming or the Internet, were three times more likely to follow-up with a real-time visit to a museum or other arts venue.  The finding seems intuitive and in line with the intended function of many virtual promotions of cultural heritage.  How does an organization such as the Bamburgh Research Project respond to the “three times” increase in the public’s desire for a real-time experience, if there is no museum to attend?

This is where a recent post, The Decision Before the Decision, from Seth Godin’s Blog might prove useful:

The Decision Before the Decision

This is the one that was made before you even showed up. This is the one that sets the agenda, determines the goal and establishes the frame.

The decision before the decision is the box.

When you think outside the box, what you’re actually doing is questioning the decision before the decision.

That decision is far more important and much more difficult to change than the decision you actually believe you’re about to make.

I suspect there are many “decisions before the decision” we need to question as we move forward in considering virtual and real-time museums and cultural heritage in the coming decade.

Your thoughts?

Museum (of) Heresy

circa 1960s Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa

Here goes with what might pass as a bit of museum heresy, or at least so considered by some of my students, and perhaps more broadly within the museum community as well.  I teach a course in Museum Practices every fall at the University of Memphis.  This graduate level seminar provides a broad overview of theory and method in museum practices on everything from ethics to housekeeping.  The first day of class we look at the similarities and differences in various institutional definitions of a museum.  For example,  The International Council of Museums’ definition of a museum is:

A non-profit making permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purpose of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment.

The class then considers the applicability of the definitions to museums today.  As we are in Memphis, the discussion always includes the mission at Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion that clearly places this pilgrimage destination outside the ICOM parameter.  We then move to more nuanced discussions, such as taking up the plethora of Children’s Museums and the role of edutainment facilities.  (The Independent has an interesting discussion of edutainment placed in both Museum and Archaeological contexts.)

When I pose the following hypothetical, I often get blank stares.   I wonder if some students quickly run through the alternative course offerings in their heads.  Here is the set-up for the hypothetical – via the internet, I review the on-line resources from the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress.  I then navigate to the 1930s era Farm Security Administration Photo Collection and show the iconographic images of Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and others.  I note the very high quality of the images available to download.  I ramble on a bit about the tremendous resource these online materials offer, including 160,000 of the 164,000 black and white negatives in the FSA collection.  I then pose the question:

If the Library of Congress burns to the ground and all the books, photographs and “hard copies” are completely destroyed, but the servers on which the digital images are stored are preserved, do the collections still exist?

At this point, some of the blank stares begin – but please keep reading just a bit further and I will get to the point.

Moving from the hypothetical to the real world, at the Chucalissa site here in Memphis, in the 1950s-60s a trench (pictured above) was excavated through a residential ridge of the Mississippian Culture temple mound complex.  A building was constructed over the excavation as an exhibit for public visitation.  After 40 years, the stability of the trench is compromised to the extent that the building is closed to the public.  The stewards of this Native American cultural resource have an obligation to preserve the integrity and research worth of the excavation trench.  One solution posed is to create detailed digital images of the excavation walls to live in a virtual presence, then fill-in the trench, tear down the building, and let the soils re-hydtrate or go back to nature, as it were.  Question:

If the trench is filled in, and the detailed digital images are available in a virtual environment, does the excavation exhibit still exist?

For me, these two hypotheticals raise a couple of important points about Archaeology, Museums and Outreach.  First, in the excavation trench example, a virtual presence may offer one solution to the museum’s Mission Statement mandate  “to protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site for the benefit of the University community and the public, to provide high quality educational experiences on past and present Native American cultures . . . ” where technical and economic constraints rule out other alternatives.  The Library of Congress example demonstrates how a virtual presence, regardless of whether the hard copies exist or not, allows the 75% + of private homes in the United States (and beyond) with internet access to experience this tremendous repository of cultural heritage, without the need of traveling to Washington D.C.

Certainly, this is not an argument for equivalency in on-line and virtual exhibits.  But consider that some “museums” exist only on-line.   For example, consider the new Adobe Museum of Digital Media and click the “making of the AMDM” link to hear and view the case for this exclusively virtual museum.  Or consider a website I recently ran across of a fellow who took a Polaroid photo each day for nearly 20 years (until his death) and posted them on-line.  A blog from Mental Floss discusses this chronicle of the photographer’s last 20 years.

We are not in Kansas anymore.  I suspect the margins of the museum definitions such as ICOM’s will continue to be pushed in the coming years.  In one week my Museum Practices course meets for the first class of Fall 2010 semester.  I am curious if my hypotheticals will be met with fewer blank stares.

What are your thoughts on virtual museums, especially as a means for Outreach?

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