On a recent balmy July evening, a number of people gathered in a pub in London to discuss ‘linking museums’.  Described as ‘a meetup for people interested in the applications of linked data, microformats, RDFa (etc) for museums and the cultural heritage sector’, it was organised and publicised largely over twitter and on the ‘museums and machine-processable data’ wiki (with a few emails and mailing list posts).

I’d tried to make sure the event was open to linked data sceptics as well as the converted, and to people who worked in museums but didn’t consider themselves technical, so that the discussions could be grounded in the reality of quotidian museum work.  The original event page talked about who might come and why the meetup was being organised, but I’m not sure anyone quite knew what to expect.

After some time to introduce ourselves and mingle, we broke up into smaller groups to discuss topics suggested by the group. Topics included ‘find all paintings by Stubbs (or Boucher or Picasso)’, real world use cases and ‘what is useful for real people and audiences?’, ‘ useful types/formats of museum data’ and ‘interestingness’.

There were varying levels of experience with and understanding of linked data, so some discussions included an overview of what linked data meant to various people. You may be wondering yourself, so I’ve included Rhiannon’s description from her ‘interestingness’ group discussion:

Linked data means the idea that it would be really great if everyone (museums and anyone who has information in a digital format either about their collections or about their events) released it to an agreed standard so that developers could build really cool things with it that would be really useful to the general public in the real world.

Each discussion has been written up in more detail on a wiki page, Linking Museums write-up, and comments are still being added. If you’re interested in the technical discussion or helping out, that’s the best place to start.  I’ve summarised my thoughts briefly, and also included those of two other attendees, Gemma and Rhiannon, in order to bring the less geeky museum voice into the discussion.

Personally, I was delighted by how well it went.  The discussion was beautifully challenging and provoking, and I learnt how much people want our data to be out there for them to play with.  Getting a glimpse of how people saw museums was interesting (even when I felt I had to apologise for how slow we are at some things). Before the event I’d said I wanted to break out of the ‘chicken and egg’ problem of not knowing what format to publish in to reach a critical mass of potential users – the message I got very strongly from people there was:

stop worrying and start doing

It’s too soon to worry about formats, just get your data online – ideally as one structured page per ‘thing’, then link to other things. Include a licence so that people know whether or how they can use the data.

Talking to people who weren’t familiar with museum work forced me to examine assumptions I held about our audiences and our data. Explaining the contexts in which we worked – often with limited resources, and little time to experiment or think beyond the current project or task list – hopefully helped others understand why museums move slowly despite the best intentions of their staff.

To me, it also shows that we need to do a better job of outreach to tech people – they don’t know how to get in touch and offer to help, we’re still working out how we can make the most of their expertise and energy; but we also need to explain exactly how bad or messy some of our data is and why ‘just getting it all out there’ won’t necessarily help if a record consists only of an accession number.  You can help here – leave a comment with your favourite example of crap data in your collections database.

Gemma’s report

“Our group was given the fantastically broad title of interestingness or serendipity.  We spoke about the ways people could stumble across museum data or information. This developed into talking about how to keep people exploring data and staying on your site.

The ways people could come across your data hinged on making it accessible to developers, using a common language.  For example using thesauri such as Getty’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) or Union List of Artist Names (ULAN).

Although there are difficulties in getting museum staff to agree on terminology or choosing a thesaurus, there are clear benefits to organising data in such a way.  For example drawing together works by the same artists.  We then speculated about the ways people would enjoy being able to search for all of an artist’s work using one site.  And how eventually they may even be able to select a work and order a print, thereby generating income for the institution.

We discussed how people enjoy playing games such as six degrees of separation, and how this could be a way of drawing in visitors to a site to see if, using museum data they could find ways of linking themselves to famous historic people or people associated with museum collections.  We speculated about tapping into the genealogical sector to attract people to such sites.

We spoke about foursquare type games where people can collect awards or keep people drilling down through data, and using metadata to keep them interested and continuing to search or play a game on your site.

I found the evening inspiring, and really enjoyed spending time with such knowledgeable techies who were so interested in using museum data.”

Rhiannon’s report

“I was a little nervous about attending this event because my knowledge of Linked Data was sketchy to say the least (I required, for instance, a refresher on what it actually meant!). I was persuaded to attend however and I’m glad that I did. 

I was on a table that was discussing ‘what might real people use it for’? There were about 8-10 of us on the table and I think the majority were coming at the question from a developer rather than a museum perspective.

I took a few things away with me which I hope sound more realistic than negative.  The first was that it seemed to me to be a great knowledge divide between the people who want the data and the people who have the data.  The message from developers was very much ‘we could do such cool stuff, it would be so useful to so many people, and would really benefit museums, why aren’t more museums publishing the data for us to do this?’  The immediate answer that sprung to my mind was ‘because they don’t know that they should be for a start’.  Now I’m not talking about bigger museums here, I’m possibly not even talking about London museums, but I’m talking about your regional museum, which might only have a couple of members of staff, or even, one voluntary curator who only comes in once a week.  It seems to me that those museums might not even think of themselves as having data, let alone know that other people might want it, or how to go about publishing it.  Even if they do know these basic things, they may have other worries.  We all know museum professionals who are still quite skeptical about digital, and about web 2.0, and about the risks to authority, copyright etc etc and it felt to me like there was a colossal amount of work to be done in explaining to these people why releasing their data would be a good thing.

There is also, however, a probably-equally important explanation that needs to happen (and this evening was very important towards that) so that the world of developers understands the worries of these museum professionals, which, whilst they can seem frustrating, are often very real and important.  There are also some very practical reasons why museum data just may not be in a state to be released either because it’s not that detailed, or because it’s not in a state to be made public, for whatever reason.

The second big thing I took away occurred once the discussions began to round up, when discussion turned to ‘so what are you going to do now?’  It seems to me that two key barriers that need to be overcome before any of us can effect any real change are a) the lack of influence and b) the lack of time that most people who believe that all this is a good idea has to actually influence any national or international change.  It may be that these things can change, but my feeling is that there is a lot of work to be done at this basic level before we can really start achieving the undoubtedly more exciting and useful goals that linked data could achieve.”

What next?

If you want to help get some more real examples out there in the wild, I’m trying to get some object pages published based on the suggestions, sample markup and concrete examples collected at Sample NMSI objects as Linked Data and Thoughts on linked data and the Science Museum.

If you want to ‘stop worrying and start doing’ there are also some good examples of use cases and possible solutions in the ‘What is useful for real people and audiences? (Use cases)’ section of the event summary.

The first event went so well that a number of people asked for another one – get in touch if you want to help, or organise one yourself if you’re feeling impatient! All you need is a space and some way to tell people about it.

The wiki is useful as a place for publishing information, but would a mailing list or some other way of working together also be useful?


My thanks to Paul Rowe, whose visit to London inspired the timing, and Ian Davis, whose response to a tentative tweet reassured me that linked data people would be interested in meeting with museum people…  And more than anything, thanks to everyone who turned up and participated, and to those who’ve kept editing and commenting and sharing on the wiki.

About the writers

Gemma is Assistant Collections Officer, Croydon Museum Service. Rhiannon is E-Learning Officer (Web), Museum of London. Mia is Lead Web Developer, Science Museum. We’re all committee members for the Museums Computer Group.  Sign up to the MCG email list for discussions between museum, gallery and higher education professionals about the various uses of computing in museum contexts and advance notice of any future events.