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Making a mess with Map the Museum

April 1, 2012

Last Friday, in my day job, I launched a new website called Map the Museum, developed with the help of Caper. I won’t say too much about it here, because it’s fairly self-explanatory if you play round with it, and I’m running an ‘official’ blog on the site that will tell you much more. But what I want to talk about here, is precisely what I can’t talk about through the official channel. And it’s a story about nerves.

When Map the Museum went live, I was unusually nervous. I nudged it on to the stage like an embarrassed parent, with a rather meek tweet announcing the URL. The only project I’ve ever worked on which has caused me anywhere near as much anxiety was the Indian Military Hospital gallery in the Royal Pavilion, which I co-curated a couple of years ago. My nerves then were fairly explicable: it was a small gallery receiving national publicity in a building that receives 300,000 odd visitors a year. Yet Map the Museum will probably only be used by a couple of thousand of users at most. Why did this project make me feel so nervous?

There are two reasons, I think. The first is fairly obvious, but the second is more interesting.

  1. Map the Museum is an experiment. Like all experiments worthy of the description, it could trot out of the stables and fall flat on its arse. Released in beta, with very little user testing before going public, that’s always a danger. Although it’s a very manageable danger, it’s hard not to be a little nervous.
  2. Map the Museum is messy. Not the site itself, which is surprisingly polished for a ‘hack’ project, but its content. The object data used in Map the Museum is unusually raw: it’s pulled direct from our collection management system with very little checking before publication.

If you have never worked in a museum, you may not find the second point very shocking. Even if you do work in a museum, you may still be fairly unmoved. But from the perspective of someone who has spent several years working on carefully prepared projects for public consumption — ranging from edited web text, to exhibitions designed to cater for a range of learning styles — this ‘dirty data’ approach is unnerving. It also seems to have spooked one or two of my curatorial colleagues. So why the hell did I do it?

Again, there are two reasons. Again, the second is the more interesting one.

  1. One of the aims of Map the Museum is to begin the development of an open data strategy. I’ll be writing more about this on the ‘official’ blog at a later date, but if we are to develop a genuine open data strategy then we will inevitably be in the position of releasing information which has not been verified or edited. This not only goes against many museum professionals’ instincts, but museum collection data is inherently problematic because it is an historical record. As any professional historian will tell you, you should always treat your sources with suspicion; as the Royal Pavilion and Museums collection data has been gathered and processed over 150 years, reflecting shifts in personnel and attitudes, there will always be factual errors and awkward expressions of information.
  2. I was intrigued by what it would be like to release a project which was stripped of professional interpretation. Interpretation is a fundamental element of museum practice. Part of their role is to engage and educate visitors, and objects don’t do that on their own. Interpretation has been a big part of my work over the last five or six years. So throwing it out of the window for this project feels like going into professional free fall.

At the time of writing, I still have absolutely no idea whether this was the right thing to do or not. I still feel uncomfortable with the idea. Yet it is refreshing to question my own assumptions, even if I expect to find a flurry of furious emails when I return to work tomorrow.

The public reception of this ‘dirty data’ will be fascinating. If it annoys people, it will confirm my assumptions. But if not, and if museum open data projects like this become more commonplace, they could pose a new and challenging question. If there is an audience willing to consume and re-use the sort of raw data that would previously be kept unpublished, does that change the value of interpretation? Will interpretation be seen as less of a skill and more of a means of withholding public information?

I hope not. There is no necessary tension between professional interpretation and open data. But there is often a tendency for debates to collapse into misleading dichotomies, and I often find discussions about digital technologies disappointingly unnuanced.

In most instances, such as gallery development, the need to educate visitors and engage with new audiences will always demand careful interpretation, and this debate is unlikely to arise. But it may become apparent in the development of online collections. Should you release 5000 records with well produced photographs, and meticulously edited text? Or should you simply dump 50,000 online, warts and all?

There is a bigger debate that surrounds this, of course, about the value of museums as trusted institutions, and the public right to information. But I suspect that one element of this discussion will always be conducted at the level of professional instinct: to shamelessly publish with only caveats for protection, or to remain a point of valuable authority in the digital domain?

My instincts are presently scrambled. I’m not sure they’ll be unscrambled any time soon.

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