Museums and the Web 2008: roundup

Posted on April 14, 2008


Ok. Obviously the intention was to live-blog the sessions I went to during Museums and the Web, but in the end it all comes down (unfortunately) to time, of which there simply isn’t enough (except when waiting for a damn plane). I’m working on an API using a RESTful approach to sort this out but I’m having trouble with the bending of spacetime and a glitch in vbscript which means you can’t get at the right bit of the EnergyEquivalence 2.0 DOM. Bear with me. Maybe it’s better in Ruby…

Anyway. Here’s some highlights for me, in rough order of appearance:


Frankie Roberto (Science Museum) and Seb Chan (Powerhouse) gave a hugely entertaining and interesting talk within the topic area “Aggregating Museum Data”. David Bearman introduced it: “I’m not supposed to be biased, but this is my favourite session..”

Frankie’s approach is outlined in his paper, but briefly he asked the question “what if we look at the aggregate of museum collections instead of the detail?”. He got a bunch of data from several museums by submitting a Freedom Of Information request. There were some great moments: the matrix of which museums responded (most didn’t) was one of them; the final application display using Google Maps was another. But most of all he also coined the phrase “Good Enough” around museum data, which is very much aligned with my philosophy of “just do it”.

Seb showed some awesome stuff using Open Calais on museum collections at the Powerhouse and a whole load of other cool stuff around geo-rss, OpenSearch and so-on. He also came out with some great sound-bites: “look closely at order and you see mess” and “tagging: it’s a bit 2007″…

One thing that I really liked was a checkbox he had built into the CMS next to machine-generated data which asked human editors: “has a human verified this data?”. A nice touch, and presumably useful not only for checking (in an aggregate sense) how accurate the machine has been but also possible to tweak the final UI accordingly: “this data is machine generated, don’t trust it quite as much…”, or whatever.

Again, very interesting and eye-opening. Funny, too – I loved the fact that “Ray Oscilloscope” had been identified by the semantic engine as a person…it may become my new pseudonym…


On Friday, Brian and I ran a session on Openness. The people at the session were great: It was a lively and engaging debate, looking at some of the questions around openness in the museum community; how we measure value; how financial gain can be held up next to marketing exposure and so on. Seb made a great point which stayed with me about how museums have got into the habit of ascribing value to individual objects rather than to the bit which actually adds value: the context, the exhibition, the experience.

Search and semantics

Two more sessions stood out for me: first, the NMOLP presentation from the V&A in London. I have a number of concerns about the general approach this project is taking, but on the plus side they’re looking at OpenSearch to deliver cross-museum searching, and that’s (hopefully) going to be a good thing. I just hope that the Google Coop example I put up at a while back can be beaten: the point of me doing this was partly to illustrate the ease with which groups of museums can be added to cross-domain search. I’m worried about NMOLP developing their own search ranking protocol, for example, when there’s a pretty good one out there in the shape of PageRank and the Google Enterprise. I’m sure they know what they’re doing, and look forward very much to the end result. Let’s hope it’s got a public API 🙂

Nate did a rather better post on this session over here with some interesting comments, too.

The final one I’m going to post about here is a session on the Delphi Toolkit which was great because it illustrated with real world examples what these kinds of emerging semantic technologies do for the end-user. And I think the SW is an area badly lacking in examples.

Closing Plenary

The whole conference closed with what I thought was a very disappointing plenary from Clifford Lynch. Obviously only a personal opinion, but I felt that after a hugely positive, buzzing and engaging week, this was a very slow, low-energy and – most importantly – misrepresentative wrap-up to what had gone on. (I also felt at several points that he was just plain wrong about some of the stuff he talked about…)

Here’s my “direction of travel” gut feel for what actually went on during the week:

  • We’re doing some very cool stuff using some great new approaches and technologies.
  • We’re starting to see the benefits of open access to our content, both in terms of Creative Commons and programmatic access via API’s or syndication.
  • We’re – at last – worrying less and doing more.
  • We’re beginning to see the benefits of community, not just the coolness.
  • Finally: we’re up for collaborating and sharing in more open and positive ways than ever before.

So that’s that. Now I’m in an airport, heading homeward. Bye for now…

Posted in: museum