23 May 2008

Preservation, Web 2.0 and chamber orchestras (2) - following the lead of the Australian Chamber Orchestra with our cultural digitisation programs

This is most of the text for my recent "provocative paper" at the 2008 Museums Australia Futures Forum in Canberra. The rest of the text was made up as I talked to the slides I used, so if you wanted to hear them you should have come the the forum. My slides are now up on Slideshare (see the post above).

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) brings old music to life with their live performances. Sometimes they challenge the audience with new interpretations or even "mash-ups" of old and new music. Museums succeed in giving their own well-interpreted performance when they go beyond just shovelling huge amounts of scanned material on the web. I think it is a bit like the ACO breathing new life into old music.

Parallels (does anyone know a neater way to include a table in Blogger?):



Instruments, music



Exhibitions & curatorial interpretation

Tours & media broadcasts

Touring exhibitions and content on new online networks

Recorded music

Digitised collections

I think there is a further parallel in what the public expects from both orchestras and museums: a professional, engaging and enthusiastic performance. I think the ACO is a better example than a full scale symphony orchestra as it is easier for curators to identify with the artistic leadership given by Richard Tognetti, who usually leads the ACO from his violin, than the more formal orchestra conductor waving a baton from a podium.

Museum curators need to manage and care for the collections resulting from our digitisation programs just as we manage our physical collections and museum curators need to be interpreting our online content by playing "our own instruments". That interpretation needs to be delivered in many different ways. I don't think we can just assume the public will find and use it on our rather static websites. Blogs, Flickr groups, social networks and applications like Art Share on Facebook, You Tube videos, podcasts or downloadable audio guides are just a few examples of the relatively new means curators should be using to draw attention to our digitisation programs and collections. They're a little like touring exhibitions or broadcast performances, on the internet.

We need to recognise that digitisation of cultural material for preservation is also good for access. Digital assets created and acquired by digitisation initiatives must be managed and preserved. I believe that the provision of free and open access to the digitised collections of public cultural institutions is also an essential part of the process.

Using new online technologies, we can now facilitate the addition of public descriptions to these files. We can even collaborate with the public in the development of online exhibitions. But, I would not go as far as to say that simply allowing our users (or the audience to use the orchestra analogy again) to generate most of the supposed content of our websites is going to please anyone. If we use the new technologies and social networks primarily to allow users to make comments all over our online catalogues then that is the same as the ACO (or any orchestra) inviting those who have paid to attend a concert to get up on stage and have a go themselves. I believe the public want and deserve more from us than just engagement and conversation. We are being paid for our professional skills in museums, libraries and archives and have an obligation to digitise our collections and provide well-interpreted access to them online as well as other rich content for our websites, just as the ACO performs its music on stage.

I am certainly a keen advocate for social networking and going beyond “metadata” and traditional forms of museology, but there is something more fundamental to do before that kind of "window-dressing" becomes the top priority. We still need to be developing and interpreting fundamental digital collection content.

Some of my colleagues attended the first national Summit on Digital Collections in Adelaide in 2006, but despite a draft National Framework being circulated, not much has since changed. So what we have are some words on a page, but no music yet and certainly no instruments to play it with.

What do we need now? I believe we need some kind of national centre of excellence that is capable of encouraging us in the digitisation of cultural materials. But it should also provide research, advice, and facilitate collaboration, cooperation and training. Perhaps it could also coordinate a shared digital repository service (like CAN) for the poorer institutions who cannot afford their own digital storage.

Much of the advice and research is also available online from UK, US and European sites but the situation overseas is vastly different from our own environment and culture. We have different funding models, differing public expectations, different uptake and spread of broadband and mobile coverage and in many cases our national cultural institutions are well ahead of our overseas counterparts. There is nothing in Australia that meets our specific needs or is close enough geographically for us to have shared conferences, seminars and workshops without paying far too much money on overseas travel.

There are many examples of individual Australian digital initiatives that would be the envy of many overseas institutions. A quick list includes the National Library’s Pandora web archive, the Stable Tasmanian Open Repository Service, the Victorian Electronic Records Strategy, Picture Australia, and massive digitisation programs from the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia. Currently, something like a large shared digital repository and research service is really only being progressed in the Australian university sector for academic material in projects such as ARROW (led by Monash University) and Demetrius (at ANU). There is nothing like this in the Australian cultural sector.

Maybe we just need to set up an Australian partner centre under one of the international organisations, but we also need some local presence or we will all just keep moving forward in an uncoordinated manner and using vastly different file formats, standards, and even different preservation metadata. Sadly, I think too few institutions are planning for their digital future by setting up trusted digital repositories for their growing collection of digital assets. In the end, if the world decides that the only real digital repository is a certified “Trusted Digital Repository”, that is audited to standards being developed in the US (by OCLC/RLG and NARA) and Germany, will anyone in an Australian cultural institution have had a say in developing that audit checklist? That will make everything more difficult than it needs to be in the future. The “music” might be lost and even if it isn’t, we might not be able to play it.


Jum said...

Hi Mal,

Long time listener (reader) first time caller (poster). I found this bit of advice regarding tables

Jum said...

The other point I think is important to consider (or perhaps it is my strange way of thinking about these things) is that perhaps considering digitisation as 'access and preservation' rather than 'preservation and access' would be accepted by the greater community (and money givers) more easily.

I know, I know, semantics.

I just feel that, without digging too far into my now fading background in anthropology, people understand things in terms of 'what they (think they) need' rather than 'what museums and archives really need'. Therefore 'access' - for want of a better term - may be a more attractive catch phrase.

I realise this is not exactly what Mal is talking about in this post, however I think that although Mal's point, that "we need to recognise that digitisation of cultural material for preservation is also good for access" is extremely important, we need to consider the language that we use (not necessarily in blog posts, but in the greater public sphere).

People will not care for preserving a record without understanding what it can be used for...and this is where Mal's argument comes in: Using new online technologies, we can now facilitate the addition of public descriptions to these files. We can even collaborate with the public in the development of online exhibitions.

Providing access in terms of public collaboration and contribution, even to a sample of what is available, may encourage a push for digitisation and therefore preservation.