New museum web project Creative Spaces sparks debate among web experts

The Museums Computer Group, the major web expert group within the UK museum sector, recently saw a passionate and erudite exchange of emails all provoked by the unveiling of the new Creative Spaces web project. (That’s the Wallace Collection node of the project)

Writing as a committee member of the MCG, I think this has been one of the best ideas threads we’ve had for a long time. Yes, it’s been passionate, and that does indeed get people thinking, and firing up laptops in reply.

I think voices who advocated tact in the exchange (Nick Poole, myself via Twitter, and others) did so because we’re already engaged in working with museum people all over the regions, not always in the most glamorous places; we’re all working for peanuts, doing about ten million things at once, including managing that puzzling interface between museum directors and the onward march of digital technology…

To me, that’s one of the reasons there needs to be some tact in the way we review each other’s projects; if you’d been behind the scenes of projects like NMOLP you’ll have seen the sort of passion it arouses. I also saw people (like Terry and Carolyn, and the teams of writers like Rachel and Rowena L) working like absolute stink to get the project done, and ploughing through all sort of effluent to manage relationships across and through the project. Those who stuck the course deserve medals.

I think the emotionality was also caused by the big fees funding the project – big ticket jobs like this cause a certain amount of envy, and that too, leads to comment that doesn’t always please. One gets a picture sometimes of vast (National museum) battleships manoevring around a smallish patch of sea, each one guarding it’s own flanks, carefully manning the bulwarks, in case a stray shell cuts the rigging, or someone jumps ship.

Best things coming out of the Creative Spaces debate for me?

A) The emerging discussion about ‘the plumbing’ (nice metaphor from Paul Walk) being the first job to tackle when working on these complex cross collection projects. Yep. Of course the data scheme underneath is critical. The website (if there needs to be one!) should be sat on top of the database well down the line of projects like this. How you get the data, on what (copyright)terms it’s given, and how the data is related and relational is the first key task.

B) Another plus has been the thread (from Frankie, Mike E, Kate Fernie and others) about how social nets work in reality, and why you might want, or not want, to play for a while, culturally. This stuff needs to be explored more. Already one or two culture orgs have made abortive attempts at trying to get things going, and they mostly failed ’cause they didn’t spot that sites get massive visits when they get the bigger publishing picture about mass audiences, massive budgets and massive human resources and tech support. That insight mainly comes from expertise that’s mostly, at the moment, outside the museum sector.

C) We’re starting to get the idea too, that the cool culture venture we dream about here might not be a big project, but smaller-scale, evolutionary, more experimental, more informal. There aren’t any more big pots of money (like ISB)now for this kind of work. We’ve got to be coming up with sustainable and scaleable ideas, so some wisdom about the scope and depth of project concepts needs to be found when ideas are still at the back of an envelope stage.

My interests in this?

I’ve long evangelised (and written about, in 2005)’the inside out web museum.’ At my former workplace, my enthusiasm for a more’datacentric’ publishing offer drove quite a bit of our re-design thinking, though the final realisation of those ideas is still in the pipeline. But look outwards at recent tech trends and think about how near we are to some sort of breakthrough. We’re wrong to expect a ‘killer app,’ but continuous development and playful experimentation like the (Mike Ellis) Mashed Museum sessions at UKMW08 will get us nearer to some sort of nirvana.

Where to go now, post-Creative Spaces? We ALL need and deserve (as a sector, everywhere) access to data channels that come to us, and do the neccesary spidering and data mining to make the most of all the content we might choose to expose and share. And, importantly, let it be live data exchange, not a day old, or a week old, or some such OAI-harvested old hat. The next culture web must be live; after all we have come to expect that through our day to day fun with Twitter and FB.

To get live, we need APIs; they are, of course, the way forward as Richard Light, Mia and Mike all say. API’s need standards, and Collection Trust work with DACS and towards the new BSI data standards is excellent.

Sharing freely and offering culture content to others for their own use opens doors to commerce and business models, so some movement there gets us towards a more commercially-geared culture web.

And finally? The success of #hashtags on Twitter (check #fakeanimalfacts) proves people can come up with vocabs and impromptu syntax that bind humour, culture, conferences and news together using simple XML. My research interest now is to see how we can map some simple #-like tagging and vocab structures (and maybe the National Curriculum) so we can have cultural fun without needing to build big and expensive portalised web projects…



About Jon Pratty

Human - for now
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2 Responses to New museum web project Creative Spaces sparks debate among web experts

  1. Jon,

    Just to comment on your “stale OAI” metaphor. Personally I don’t worry too much about how up-to-date the information is: I’m more concerned about how useful it might be when it arrives. If your perspective is “human history”, the last few minutes are really neither here nor there.

    I think the key question is what are we trying, as a cultural sector, to deliver. There are two possible answers: data or stories. My worry is that current offerings fall between these two, and satisfy neither expectation. Certainly your average catalogue record isn’t a “story”, i.e. a compelling narrative. But then, could you expect the output from a collections management database to be that? Nor is it “data”, in the sense that you can take it and merge it with other “data” to learn things you didn’t know before, or ask questions you couldn’t ask before.

    I think Linked Data offers us a route towards the “data” paradigm, but we will only get there if we accept that our precious museum data is going to lost its identity as it swims in a much larger pond.

  2. I’ve followed this discussion from a bit of a distance, and I’m not sure I have much to offer to the discussion about Creative Spaces – but I’m involved in not dissimilar discussions in the library sector.

    All of what you say here makes sense to me until ‘APIs need standards’. One of the things that libraries could be accused of in the past is over engineering our APIs. For example, most library catalogues support Z39.50 as a search protocol – but it is overly complex as an API, which means it hasn’t seen any significant adoption outside libraries.

    What we can see now is that lightweight APIs, not necessarily ‘standardised’, but using common data formats (XML, JSON), protocols (http) and architectural style (REST) have proved very successful, because they make it possible for a large community to engage, and although they aren’t necessarily ‘standard’, they have enough in common to make implementation against them straightforward.

    I’d suggest that this lightweight approach is better than trying to define standards across the board.

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