Creative Spaces – just…why?

Posted on March 4, 2009

49


There’s been a fair bit of buzz around the launch of the NMOLP (National Museums Online Learning Project) – now apparently renamed as “Creative Spaces” for launch.

I’ve known about this project for a long while – when I was at the Science Museum, very initial discussions were taking place at the V&A about how to search and display collections results from more than one institution. The Science Museum were invited to take part in the project, but in the end didn’t because of resourcing and budgetary issues.

My second touch on the project was from the agency end – the ITT briefly crossed my desk at my current employer, Eduserv. We considered bidding, but in the end decided that it wasn’t a project we could deliver satisfactorily given the particulars of the scope and budget.

Back then – and I think now, although someone from NMOLP will have to confirm – the project was divided into two main sections: a series of “webquests” (online learning experiences, essentially) and a cross-museum collections search. The webquests can be seen here, but I’m not going to consider these in this post because I haven’t had time to spend enough time playing to have an opinion yet.

The Creative Spaces site is at http://bm.nmolp.org/creativespaces/ – at first glance, it’s clean and nicely designed, with a bit of a web2.0 bevel thing going on. It’s certainly visually more pleasing than many museum web projects I’ve seen. The search is quick, and there’s at least a surface appearance of “real people” on the site. I hesitate to use the word “community” for reasons that I’ll highlight in a minute.

Design aside, I have some fairly big issues with the approach that is being taken here:

Firstly, this site, much like Europeana (which I’ll get my teeth into in a future post…) seemingly fails to grasp what it is about the web that makes people want to engage. I’m very surprised that we’re this many years into the social web and haven’t learnt about the basic building blocks for online communities, and are apparently unable to take a step back from our institutional viewpoint and think like a REAL user, not a museum one. Try looking at this site with a “normal person” hat on. Now ask yourself: “what do I want to DO here?” or “how can this benefit me?” or “how can I have fun”? Sure, you can create a “notebook” or a “group” (once you’ve logged in, obviously..). The “why” is unclear.

I’m also interested at how underwhelming the technology is. Take a look at www.ingenious.org.uk – a NOF digitise project which I worked on maybe 5-6 years ago. Now, I’m not over-proud of this site – it took ages, nearly killed a few people from stress, and the end result could be better, but hey – it has cross collections search, you can send an e-card, you can save things to your lightbox, you can create a web gallery. And this was more than five years ago. Even then, I was underwhelmed by what we managed to do. NMOLP doesn’t seem to have pushed the boundary beyond this at all, and as museums I think we should always be looking to drive innovation forward.

Secondly, I’m not sure that there is a reason why. Why would I possibly want to create a profile? Where is my incentive? Here’s Wikipedia talking about the Network Effect:

“A more natural strategy is to build a system that has enough value without network effects, at least to early adopters. Then, as the number of users increases, the system becomes even more valuable and is able to attract a wider user base. Joshua Schachter has explained that he built Del.icio.us along these lines – he built an online system where he could keep bookmarks for himself, such that even if no other user joined, it would still be valuable to him

The other day, I had a Twitter conversation with Giv Parvaneh, the Technical Manager at NMOLP regarding this post, which talks about “monetizing” media. He blogged his response here. Now, we had a minor crossed-wires moment (it’s hard to discuss in 140 chrs) – but my point was not that museums should “monetize” everything (although, I DO think that museums should learn about real business practices, but that’s another post altogether). My point was that users need to feel special to take part. They need to be part of a tribe, a trusted group who can do and say things that they find personally useful. They need experiences with integrity. If you’re not sure what I mean, just spend some time on the Brooklyn Museum collections pages. These guys get it – the “posse“, the “tag game“, the openness. Compare this back to what feels like a shallow experience you get on NMOLP. Now ask yourself – “where would I spend MY time?”.

The second major reason is that, once again, we’re failing to take our content to our users. This is a huge shortfalling of Europeana. People want experiences on their own terms, not on ours. Let’s not have another collections portal. Spend your social media money adding and updating entries on Wikipedia, or create an object sharing Facebook application. Or just put everything on Flickr. And, please, please create an API or at the very least an OpenSearch feed. If the issue is something around copyright – go back to your funders and content providers and sit them down in front of Google images for an hour so they can begin to understand how the internet works, before renegotiating terms with them!

The final reason hangs off the search facility. My vested interest here is of course hoard.it – and if you want to hear our rantings about the money spent on big, bad technology projects, then keep an eye out for our Museums and the Web Paper. We aren’t necessarily suggesting that the hoard.it approach should be the technology behind cross-collections searching. But we are suggesting that the approch that NMOLP have taken is expensive, old, clunky and ultimately flawed. Although it is a trifle over-simplistic as a response, why not just spend £20-30k on a Google Search Appliance and simply spider the sites. Why re-develop the wheel and build search from scratch?

If I was less of a grumpy old man, I’d feel bad about being this negative – I like the people involved, I like the institutions, and I understand the reasons why (museum) projects spiral into directions you probably wouldn’t ever choose. But then I remember that this site cost taxpayers just short of £2 million pounds, and that Europeana will cost €120 million. And then I realise that we have an obligation to keep badgering, nagging and criticising until we start to get these things right.

At the end of the day, Frankie sums it all up much more succinctly in his email to the MCG list than I do in this post. He simply asks: why?

Advertisements