05/04/10 The week in cultural heritage online

Jeremy Ottevanger[This week’s guest post is by Jeremy Ottevanger, Web Developer at Museum of London

Pecker up, Buttercup!
Following the uplifting experience of the 2009 Jodi Awards, I vowed to stop being such a miserable sod and to blog some optimism. Well, due to some duplicity on the part of the space-time continuum that never happened, so now is my chance to set that straight. I have to confess upfront that I suddenly have my own particular reason for feeling optimistic (I’ve got a new job), and in contrast I know some of you may be facing all sorts of work-related strife of your own, and you have my heartfelt sympathy. I hope you can see it through.

For you more than anyone, though, you who are struggling with motivation or threatened by the state of public finances and politics, as well as those of you in happy and healthy organisations, why not stand back for a moment and say “this is digital heritage, ain’t it grand?” So here’s are three overlapping reasons why I think digital heritage is in good shape, and getting better. I’ve picked out big-picture things and largely neglected more specific and enervating stuff – cool apps, innovative ideas, exciting content – but why not add a comment with the top 3 things that excite you? Be as broad or specific as you like, and we can crowd-source a list of guaranteed-to-titillate digital heritage slam-dunkers to go along with the Best of the Web awards coming up at Museums and the Web 2010 next week in Denver.

#1 An awesome community
I’m sure many other professions have vibrant communities of practice, but it’s striking in ours where expertise is spread so thinly across the globe. The Museums & the Web conference, those of the MCG and MCN (call for papers out this week) along with their mailing lists, and many other irregular meetings worldwide really do seem to bust the bounds of geography that make it unlikely there’s more than a handful of practitioners in any given city. Together with Twitter, blogs, social sites like Museum 3.0 and conference.archimuse.com, LinkedIn and all the rest it can sometimes even become too intense (right?). A few years ago I was content in my job and was part of a good, motivated team, but didn’t really participate much in a bigger community; since waking up to what I was missing I feel better informed, more engaged and networked, and I would hope I am a stronger museum technologist and more valuable asset to my museum. It’s a pretty healthy ecosystem, it’s growing all the time, and we all benefit from it.

My big caveat to this, or what I want to see change, is that the networks on my radar are composed almost entirely of practitioners in the English-speaking world. There are some invaluable exceptions – especially people from countries where speaking excellent English is as common as speaking the native tongue – but when it comes to sharing experience with Asia, Africa, South America or much of Europe we’re at the stage of sending and receiving the occasional diplomatic mission, not of building truly global communities (Taiwan is the exception here in having its own thriving chapter of MCN, and Europeana is also a network as much as a project). Digital heritage being what it is, in principle we have the opportunity to do things that can’t be done in the real world, like creating new or impossible intercontinental collections, services and aggregations of knowledge and creativity. This sort of collaboration, though, really needs to start with networks of people, and we need to make these more global. Of course, starting (relatively) small and then trying to scale is a way to approach this. Which takes us smoothly to Thing 2…

#2 Networked knowledge
I’m not going to do an API/Linked Data/Semantic Web/federated search thing here, only say that after a decade of stuttering starts I believe that we are seeing the true beginnings of properly networked (or at least massively aggregated) knowledge. This has been built on top of hard-won standards, and has recently been given a huge boost by a number of governments opening up their data and encouraging people to find ways to hook it all together. This includes UK.gov opening up big-time (Ordnance Survey, you can come out now, you need no longer be ashamed of yourself. It’s worth remembering that this is the Dr Jeckyll aspect of the UK government: Mr Hyde, on the other hand, just passed the Digital Economy Bill, and who can love that?

Why is this important? Well cultural heritage data is fine on its own terms, but I think we’ve come to realise over the past few years that hooking it together with more of the same is great in itself but limited: knitting it into a wider ecosystem of data is what will really make the network effects take off, so the a glut of new non-heritage data sources appearing now really could provide that impetus.

You may not be surprised to see me mention Europeana here, too. Whatever else it is, it’s the grandest experiment yet in what happens if you mass structured cultural heritage content together from many different countries and lanaguages, and how you do it in the first place. The challenge is every bit as much about gaining consensus from participants who always have the option to pull out, as it is about technical problems, and I don’t know of another project that has braved quite this challenge before in
digital heritage. Anything we learn is good, but with any luck we’ll end up with a core of content massive enough to attract all sorts of unexpected attention and novel uses. That’s the strength of networked knowledge.

#3 Professionalisation, recognition and integration
Lots of the people I know in this game got into it in the same way as I did: entirely by accident. Many picked up their tech skills on their semi-random walk from somewhere in the arts, the sciences, maybe a museum studies degree (but a few have built on a proper education in computer science). As a result my peers have amazingly diverse backgrounds and each brings a unique perspective to digital heritage. This is surely partly why we have such vibrant discussions and creative ideas zipping about.

And yet, it’s also time for professionalisation, and it’s coming. In the UK I know of several universities running courses in digital heritage and digital preservation or relevant modules on museum studies courses*. A deepening literature and progressive theorisation of the discipline all play a part too, as do the communities of practice and partnerships I mentioned before. We need museum management to recognise that our work is a valid branch of museological practice, peopled by skilled specialists possessing knowledge you can’t find in a coder plucked off the street, and that we can shine a new light on the museum’s mission.

So whilst it would be a shame if we lost all the diversity that the first colonisers of this “museum computing” space brought over its first couple of decades (ok, Ross, let’s say four decades), I’m sure that professionalisation and recognition are worth a bit of a trade-off in that regard. But not too much, I hope.

For an example of professionalisation and recognition we can probably look at the overlapping field of archaeological computing, where some of the most proactive people in the digital heritage community actually work. From my glancing acquaintance with academic and commercial archaeology it strikes me that practitioners are recognised as another kind of archaeologist, just like geoarchaeologists, finds specialists, osteologists or geomatics folks, rather than being seen as the necessary nerd in the corner. Museum computing and archaeological computing are twins serving different masters, but the one is regarded quite differently to the other and it will be good if we see that situation improve.

*check this distance learning MA out: http://www.le.ac.uk/ms/study/digitalheritage.html. I must declare an interest (like half the MCG board), but it’s a ground-breaking beast.

#4 the iPad
Ah well why not have an unplanned fourth thing? I’ve been way too serious so far, and anyway the iPad is the talk of the week I’m meant to be covering. Whether it turns out to be the long-awaited paradigm-shifter and market-maker for slate-style gizmos, or merely a cool toy we’ll have forgotten in a couple of years, well, it’s certainly got us talking about what we can do with something like that – when it finally reaches these shores, of course. And I imagine there’ll be a small glut of them coming over at the end of MW2010…

That’s it, then. A list of things that make me think “hmm, this is a great profession and it’s getting better”, despite the Sisyphean sensation we often feel at the chalk-face. So, if your director thinks “social media” means a growth substrate for bacteria; if open data equates to an invitation to IP theft in the mind of your information managers; if, at your museum, any chance of failure is seen as worse than never developing; if your IT manager can recall their yearly targets but doesn’t know the museum’s purpose or values; if your manager is a marketer for whom “digital sustainability” means how long they can hold up two fingers at you; you have my sympathy, nay, my empathy. But surely these people are on borrowed time. No cultural heritage organisation that sees digital media as anything other than integral to achieving their purpose will succeed and grow – perhaps this is even more true during financially straitened times, which is one inference I take from both Nick Poole’s and Günter Waibel’s excellent recent posts – and so these myopic attitudes must inevitably die out. Funders will look at examples of places large and small that do it well and will ask searching questions of those institutions that haven’t worked out their place in this fast-evolving world. At that point, when a dazed-looking director knocks at your asking how your museum can “lead at digital” or some such vapid nonsense, as the realisation dawns that they’ve been missing something and no one’s going to pay them to fail their audiences forever, it falls to you, me, we to be prepared with a plan, a feel for what’s out there and what your gaff could be doing with some imagination, some support, and some cojones. Then you can show them a profession with rigour, cohesion, vitality and loads of whizzy stuff, and more opportunities than you can shake an accounting package at. I think that’s a pretty good place to be.

I can’t help but end on a selfish note that is a little at odds with the tenor of this post. As I mentioned earlier, my own reason for optimism is chiefly that I’ve been offered a really exciting new opportunity to work at the Imperial War Museum, which has put a spring in my step. Which means that, whilst I’m sure that attitudes to digital heritage will mature, accompanied by a recognition of the validity of the discipline, I’m not waiting around for that change to come to my present place of work. But maybe after 8 years of me they need me gone as much as I need to move on and it will do us all good to start again.

So, comment away with what gets you excited in digital heritage, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

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Posted in Article, Guest posts on cultural heritage technologies
5 comments on “05/04/10 The week in cultural heritage online
  1. Woop woop! Great post Jeremy! I feel great about my job and my profession now! :-)

  2. There are people in your current work place who do understand this and very much appreciate what you do and will miss you Jeremy! Let’s hope that attitudes to digital heritage across all sectors do mature – but most of all that spring in your step stays :)

  3. Janet E Davis says:

    Interesting post, Jeremy. Yes, digital heritage is a sparsely populated world. You’ve made me realise that I’m rapidly becoming one of the ‘oldies’ since I first started using a computer & working out how it could be used more widely in heritage 24 years ago.
    Something that I find stimulating is connecting with other digital people outside heritage. I thoroughly enjoyed Rewired State: Culture event because we had more of a mix (though would have loved to have seen more heritage people there).
    If the Digital Economy Bill doesn’t kill all Web use and work in the UK, I am hoping that some digital heritage people may come to the next LocalGov unconference in York in June – not least because the venue will be the National Railway Museum. I found it very useful and enjoyable talking to lots of different people involved with local government IT. So many archives and local museums come under the aegis of or have a connection with a local authority’s IT department, and it’s important that they understand each other.

  4. Günter says:

    Jeremy, your post captures the moment in time really nicely. We do have a tight-knit professional community, a real opportunity to act at the network-level, and an increasing move to professionalize our field. All of these things ring true in a US background as well. I also agree that it’s regretful that our professional network seems to screech to a halt where English is not the prevalent language for exchanging ideas, and I think we’re all the poorer for it. Congratulations on your new job, and good luck!

  5. Jeremy says:

    Thank you all. Lovely to come back from an invigorating evaluation session for my last MOL project to read all these.
    Bilkis, Rhiannon, you’re two voices of reason there, keep it up.
    Janet, good point about Rewired Culture, it’s exactly the right illustration of how mixing data from across and outside heritage mulitiplies its value. The DE Bill, well, I’m expecting it to be as ineffectual as most legislation but it could be a real disincentive to risk-averse organisations to do all sorts of things.
    Günter, thanks for the wishes. I wonder what we can do about the language thing. I don’t even know who needs to be talking together to work this one out, though I believe MCN is into the idea of widening its geographical reach. It’s a tricky one to crack.

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The MCG is for technologists, curators, educators, marketers and more in and around museums. Posts and event news by Mia (Chair), Jess, and the Comms team