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Friday, 27 April 2007

Apolitical correctness.

Turns out I had a lovely time in London. The Future of Web Design was a lot of fun, although the night before I was still so jet laggy I was wide awake at 3am, so got very little sleep. Not so bad, considering my brain was churning over what to say the next day.

I was also thrilled to speak to people from most of the major museums in London in a talk at the National Maritime Museum. Many thanks to Fiona Romeo for asking me to come along.

I had participated in a talk at South by Southwest this year called Tag, You're It, where I presented a summary of some of the interesting ways that Flickr manages to support the "normal" activity of human social networks and language: mimicry, attraction and infection, as well as ways in which - with a handy Russian genius, a few computers and time - we can use tags to bubble up timely content which surrounds events, which often turns into news, at least for some viewers.

Using that presentation as a basis, I filled out some ideas around Flickr as a collection, and made a point of differentiating our enormous corpus on attributes like volume and the speed with which the collection is added to and updated. Contrast this with the clichéd dusty basement full of ceramics in boxes which, sadly, is often the story with many museums around the world. Those objects which have been classified are often done so by one person working within a classification system specific to the institution.

I did a very small bit of research around some online collections, where I quickly found that searches were somewhat unsatisfying, probably because I was just searching blindly, but possibly because of the classification system itself. There simply is no sense of a popular view - one that many may understand. In fact, something that came out of the Q&A at my talk was that museums are actually held accountable to provide a source of truth about its collection's contents.

The Q&A was fascinating. How is a museum able to offer its collection to the general populace? How can it make its collection useful and searchable to a visitor who has no knowledge of the classification system used to catalogue and describe the collection? How can a museum maintain this sense of correctness, and yet possibly enable "popular classification"? Can the "popular vote" aid in a correct classification somehow? Where do we start??

Fiona directed me to a project run by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where Seb Chan is initiating several interesting projects about increasing digital accessibility to resources (blog), particularly with his flagship endeavour to open the museum's collection to public contribution, by adding keywords to describe objects. (See Chan's recent conference paper: Tagging and Searching – Serendipity and museum collection databases, delivered ironically in San Francisco just before I was about to leave for London!)

The simple idea that there could be a concept of serendipity when searching a dusty old collection is hugely inspiring - not just for me - the appeal is obvious to museums around the world.

The challenge is to relinquish to the great unwashed the great power and authority that these institutions hold. Actually, I suggested in the talk that children be thrown at the problem, and be put to work in those dusty basements with an old Commodore 64 and some red lollies to get the leg work done.

The more projects like Seb's (and Flickr!), the stronger the evidence that those great unwashed actually can generate some sense of "correct", even if it is just by sheer volume. The other thing that's missing is the folkloric, songline-esque description of artifacts that officials may never have, but that great unwashed just might; a slant on an artifact that could only emerge from someone who knew a tale about it, or someone who had actually made it, or someone's mother who made the wheel that the artifact was thrown on. Delight was had in the Powerhouse project when an artifact was described with the keyword "innocence". An emotive keyword, not likely to be included on a dusty old index card.


Oh, and Mum? I'll completely understand if you disown me for swearing on the soon-to-be-added-to-the-museum-archives recording of my talk. I tried very hard, but a "shit" just popped out. I may have been referring to those great unwashed, then again, I may have been throwing a question back to the audience..."But, why do you give a...?" etc. :)
Posted at 2:54 am

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