The week at Museums Australia 2010 of formal talks and social networking opportunities has been deep and the action and interaction moved at an incredible pace. This is the second MA conference I have been to and in one year there seems to be a noticeable difference in the Australian museum community. The air of the conference was positive and energised and with all my technical interests put upfront, the digital initiatives and projects seemed more numerous – and the dialogue seemed more about the how and what-next rather than the why. The presentations I attended were enlightening, slick, tightly focused, well chaired and the clustering of topics was well managed. Museums Australia (Victoria) have done an incredible job and deserved all the applause and gratitude shown at the end of Friday. The reason I put “pace change” into the title of this post was I got the distinct sense that the Australian museum sector has shifted gears when it comes to using technology. There is always plenty of getting down to business in the museum world, but from last year to this, there seemed a noticeable confidence and capability with technology, aided I think by those already engaged in the social media world – to wit Museum3 and MANexus – and those interested in joining in. If it is an ancient Chinese curse to be told “may you live in interesting times” – it is an opportunity that the passion of museum practitioners never seem to fail to make the most of and here in Australia.
The #ma2010conf Twitter stream had a slow start but by Friday it was crackling with activity as more and more museum people jumped on board and they’re tweeting away still. Some quick reflections on the conference from the sessions I attended:
The plenary session on Wednesday with Professor Richard Sandell from the University of Leicester was a wonderful kick-start to the conference. Richard talked about museums using a human rights framework as the lens through which to engage museum audiences. He highlighted the work done through the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. It seems self-evident that there is a social role in museums, this framework though offers much food for thought, particularly in the UK where there is legislation to aid with addressing issues of equity in society. The Equality Act 2010 will require public funded organisations to address issues of equity through their work.
Professor Warren Bebbington’s (University of Melbourne) presentation raised the issue of support for university museums particularly within their own academic community – also known as Cinderella collections – see the report on Collections Australia Network. Amanda Burnitt and Dr Andrew Jamieson from the Ian Potter Museum of Art at University of Melbourne are doing incredible work with providing an environment to enable hands-on classes with students and supporting object based research. Their success seems to stand out as the exception that is sadly proving the rule with regard to the welfare of university museums and their incredible collections. It was encouraging to hear about the success of their work and to learn that the model that they are using comes from Harvard University Art Museums and that Amanda was actively working to engage the scholarly community there at Melbourne in that framework. In the same session that day I learned about the Museum Appreciation Society (MAS) set up at Macquarie University by some active and interested museum studies students. Using Facebook and the lure of cake they have really mobilised interest, specifically with international students keen to make the most of their time studying in Australia and of course socialising! I’ll be interested to see how MAS extends its reach to museum and material culture studies students across Australia. Seems the network has extended already up from Sydney to Newcastle and my suspicions is that is only going to grow using the simplicity of social networking to do the information transfer and enable people to connect. It is utterly wonderful to see enthusiasm, passion and pragmatism in action and watch technology operate so obviously as an enabler to a community of practice (and study and cake consumption).
I spoke in the Friday morning session – Keeping Up, or Leading from the Front? New Technologies – about this project and the role of museums (with cultural and historical collections) in object (and collection data) based research with a presentation called Tracing History and Contemporary Patternmaking. Then in the next session on the New Roles of Technology I chaired the audience had three challenges presented by David Demant, Liam Wyatt and Kate Chmiel to consider. David put digital preservation on the agenda and showed a short video of two of the volunteers working at Museum Victoria on transferring data from paper tape to floppy disc and onto USB to upload onto a network. Liam talked about his experience as the Wikipedian in residence at the British Museum. He talked about how positive the interaction was between the Wikipedian community and those from the British Museum working to put content about the museum’s collection online and showed some pretty convincing figures about the power of online exposure of this rich content and the knock on effect of driving traffic to the Museum’s. This pilot is a great example of how the volunteer workforce (Wikipedians) can help to put rich cultural content online working alongside museum practitioners. Liam also mentioned that the UK government has decreed that all public sector generated content developed for public consumption can now go out under Open Government licences with the help of a UK Government Licencing Framework for public sector information. This seems an obvious but also radical move in many regards – it took me some time to absorb the implications of that decision and then the questions started popping up. I began to think about what policy changes and operational mechanisms would need to be reworked to enable that to happen. I then asked myself what a decision like that would mean here in Australia and if the new government is likely to take the gov2.0 initiative in this direction. Food for thought most definitely for cultural institutions. Given the discussion in one of the workshopping sessions in #ADF2010 at ACMI on Tuesday had moved in the direction of asking museums to publish their collection data capture schemas (for academics to get a sense of how collection data is captured and used). The next step is one the Powerhouse has already taken, to put a subset of its collection data up online. The Powerhouse Museum is in the process of getting a description of that dataset put together so sense (or as David put it in his session on digital preservation, an important key like the Rosetta stone to unlock that which is encoded) the collection data.
Last but not least Kate Chmiel talked about the #collectionfishing weekly game happening online via the micro-blogging site Twitter. Kate talked about the pleasure taken, learning gained, interest shown and social networking enabled every week by a bunch of people enjoying working with collections but not getting much of a chance (or a reason) to duck into the collection store and take a look around. These diverse and playful GLAM practitioners from around Australia and New Zealand in organisations large and small, urban and regional, spend a few minutes fishing in their collections (and in others) looking for interesting collection items to show each other based around a theme. The rules are essentially there are no rules, except it seems two: that once a week someone who has an idea on a Monday sets a theme and anyone can join in. Kate talked about the range of topics and the intriguing, lateral approaches we all have to take sometimes to find collection items to draw to each others’ attention. She used the example of the “hats” theme which turned into a competition of whose hat is bigger game and the “hooks and loops” theme (there was a hung parliament at the time) that draw all manner of objects virtually out of the store: corsets, ropes, and meat hooks. What a great series of talks and that doesn’t mention the astounding PhD work of Dianne Fitzpatrick in her paper entitled “A Management Plan for Near Eastern Artefact Collections” looking at finding a methodology to help archaeologists to consider how to “manage” up to 4-5 tonnes of artefacts being dug up in incredible sites such as Tell Ahmar in Syria – and what framework for assessment (for long term retention) is appropriate. The magnitude of that conundrum made me very glad that Dianne was doing such incredibly useful research.