Thursday, 23 June 2011

The rise of the non-museum (and death by aggregation)

A bit of an art museum/gallery-focussed post... And when I say 'post', I mean 'vaguely related series of random thoughts'... but these ideas have been building up and I might as well get them out to help get them out of 'draft'.

Following on from various recent discussions (especially the brilliantly thought-provoking MCG's Spring meeting 'Go Collaborate') and the launches over the past few months of the Google Art Project, Artfinder and today's 'Your Paintings' from the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, I've been wondering what space is left for galleries online.  (I've also been thinking about Aaron's "you are about to be eaten by robots" and the image of Google and Facebook 'nipping at your heels' to become 'the arbiter of truth for ideas' and the general need for museums to make a case for their special place in society.)  Between funding cuts on the one hand, and projects from giants like Google and the BBC and even Europeana on the other, what can galleries do online that no-one else can?

So I asked on twitter, wondering if the space that was left was in creating/curating specialist interest and/or local experiences... @bridgetmck responded "Maybe the space for museums to work online now is meaning-making, intellectual context, using content to solve problems?"  The idea of that the USP of an museum is based on knowledge and community rather than collections is interesting and something I need to think about more.

The twitter conversation also branched off into a direction I've been thinking about over the past few months - while it's great that we're getting more and more open content [seriously, this is an amazing problem to have], what's the effect of all this aggregation on the user experience?  @rachelcoldicutt had also been looking at 'Your Paintings' and her response was to my 'space' question was: "I think the space left is for curation. I feel totally overwhelmed by ALL THOSE paintings. It's like a storage space not a museum".  She'd also just tweeted "are such enormous sites needed when you can search and aggregate? Phaps yes for data structure/API, but surely not for *ppl*" which I'm quoting because I've been thinking the same thing.

[Update 2, July 14: Or, as Vannevar Bush said in 'As We May Think' in 1945: "There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record."]

Have we reached a state of 'death by aggregation'?  Even the guys at Artfinder haven't found a way to make endless lists of search results or artists feel more like fun than work.

Big aggregated collections are great one-stop shops for particular types of researchers, and they're brilliant for people building services based on content, but is there a Dunbar number for the number of objects you can view in one sitting?  To borrow the phrase Hugh Wallace used at MuseumNext, 'snackable' or bite-sized content seems to fit better into the lives of museum audiences, but how do we make collections and the knowledge around them 'snackable'?  Which of the many ways to curate that content into smaller sets - tours, slideshows, personal galleries, recommender systems, storytelling - works in different contexts?  And how much and what type of contextual content is best, and what is that Dunbar number?  @benosteen suggested small 'community sets' or "personal 'threads'" - "interesting people picking 6->12 related items (in their opinion) and discussing them?".  [And as @LSpurdle pointed out, what about serendipity, or the 'surprising beauty' Rachel mentioned?]

I'm still thinking it all through, and will probably come back and update as I work it out.  In the meantime, what do you think?

[Update: I've only just remembered that I'd written about an earlier attempt to get to grips with the effects of aggregation and mental models of collections that might help museums serve both casual and specialist audiences in Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets - towards audience models about collections? - it still needs a lot of thought and testing with actual users, I'd love to hear your thoughts or get pointers to similar work.]


  1. This conversation is so important.
    I'm an art researcher and for almost 3 years I've used Facebook as my main platform to share and grow the major ethno-historic view on Mark Rothko. The Mark Rothko Southwest History Project explores Rothko's unreported but transformational experiences with American Indians. I have developed a diverse and participatory following including many of indigenous descent. The museum like the Tate and the US National Gallery will not engage in any dialogue in contrary view.

  2. Popping back to share a relevant post: in post You don’t get anything for free, Dan Ramsden says:
    'Automatic is a dirty word':

    'Aggregations require design, whether they’re created by a search engine or an integral part of your content format. Reusing content requires effort. The benefit is that this effort is often worth it. Using content in more than one place gives you value for money, but you still have to spend money in the first place. You need to design and create the content with each representation in mind. ... As we come to leverage semantic technologies and linked data, computers will be creating more and more pages for us. But it’s unlikely that they will be designing them too. Dynamic publishing isn’t magic, it obeys rules and requires design. Content publishing can be automatic, new forms of content can be derived from relationships between content formats and templates. And reusing content might get you 3 pages for every bit of content you create. But don’t be surprised if takes you twice as long to design and create the content in the first place. The benefits are still substantial. The thing to remember if you’re going to rely on automation and aggregations is that you don’t get anything for free.'

    Noah - thanks for posting, and belated apologies, I meant to ask for the link and clearly forgot! Is the project only on Facebook or does it have an institutional presence as well?

  3. And another post on aggregation in which Martin Doerr and Dominic Oldman compare CIDOC-CRM and Europeana's EDM: 'The Costs of Cultural Heritage Data Services: The CIDOC CRM or Aggregator formats?'

    'The preoccupation of providers and aggregators with a common set of fields has the result that they only support rudimentary connections between the datasets they collect and as a result reduce the ability for researchers to determine where the most relevant knowledge may be located. As with the library, the aggregator’s infrastructure can only support views of the data (search interfaces) that reflect their own limited knowledge because the data arrives with little or no context and over-generalized cross-correlations (“see also”, “relation”, ”coverage”).

    The common aggregation process itself strips context away from the data creating silos within the aggregator’s repository. Without adequate contextual information searching becomes increasingly inadequate the larger the aggregation becomes.'