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Building a Better Fishing Pole: how technology-focused organizations can help their museum community

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
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Many museums are struggling to navigate the expanding universes of social media and digital content with the slim resources available to them in constrained budgets. Fortunately, some entrepreneurial museums are breaking trail—pooling resources to develop shared tools, investing in free and open source software that can be adopted by the rest of the field. In today’s guest post, Perian Sully, project manager: online access and digital asset management at the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, reports on some of these projects.
Balboa Park Online Collaborative is an unconventional organization. BPOC was founded two years ago to provide a host of technology services and support for 27 (and growing) organizations in San Diego’s Balboa Park. We provide IT support, build new websites, help with iPad kiosks, digitize collection items and video archives, and act as a resource for museum staff with various technology questions. BPOC’s partners include organizations that represent natural history, science, history, anthropology, craft, fine art, performing arts, locomotion, a zoo, archives and libraries; yearly budgets range anywhere from $500K to over $200 million.
Because of the diversity of partners, BPOC strives to develop tools that allow organizations to duplicate our efforts, with or without our direct assistance. This also reflects the belief in collaboration and sharing that the BPOC staff hold dear. We are an organization that has the knowledge and ability to promote technology use in the museum field, and we have been hard at work developing at least two Drupal website modules (not yet ready for prime time, but we’re polishing them now), as well as an image uploader that takes metadata exports from collection management systems and matches the records to their images and uploads to Flickr. We’ve called this uploader Sammu: Synchronized Automated Metadata and Media Uploader.
San Diego Air and Space Museum images preparing to be uploaded.

For many organizations looking to put their collections online, the options are either confusing, expensive, labor intensive or a combination of all three. And even if the museum already has their collection available on their website, they may wish to share their images on social media sites to encourage awareness of the collection and drive traffic back to their website. Here at Balboa Park, we encourage our partners to put their collections on Flickr because it’s inexpensive, easy to use, has a very large and active user community and it’s easy to use Flickr’s built-in tools to display the collection back on the museum’s website. People are much more likely to stumble upon the images via Flickr because of its robust tagging and search tools.
One BPOC partner, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, has released over 170,000 images into the Public Domain through the Flickr Commons, and has garnered nearly 4 millions views in 18 months. The Museum of Photographic Arts, joined the Commons in May of 2011—as of this writing MPA has only 585 images online, but nearly 200,000 views. Last year, the SDASM and MPA websites had 768,124 and 385,788 pageviews, respectively. Clearly, these organizations are gaining broader exposure among the community that uses the Flickr website.
However, we also know how difficult it can be for organizations to get their images and descriptive text into Flickr. It was important to BPOC to develop a tool that we could use and also share with our community in order to duplicate these successes. We hired a developer, John Fox (maker of the MemoryMiner software some museums are using), to create Sammu. He created an elegant tool that takes tab-delimited text files exported from collection management systems, looks for the image filename, matches the record information, and smushes the record fields together into Flickr’s description field before uploading.
Sammu in action
Developing freeware like Sammu takes a fair amount of care and feeding by the developers and clients alike, and at some point the software needs to be tested by the community at large. We’re at that point now, and (if you’re running MacOS 10.6 and up) we could use your help with testing Sammu and providing feedback.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art Lab, the Center for History and New Media and the New Media Consortium regularly release new open source or free software tools to the community. Other museums offer their collection data and images in formats appropriate for hacking, research or remixing via API or download (like the Powerhouse Museum’s Electronic Swatchbook and the Brooklyn Museum’s images in the Wikimedia Commons) or provide standards and other resources (ex. the Getty Research Institute’s vocabularies).
The institutions I’ve provided as examples here are large, it’s true, as it does take a fair amount of resources to create these tools. But as our culture of sharing and collaboration becomes the norm, small institutions can join in, too. By using these tools, and offering their images and data to each other and to the public, we can capitalize on access to these materials and make even better tools.
Perian and CFM would like to know how successful your museum’s Flickr efforts have been. Please use the comment section below to share links to your Flickr stream and tell us how it has worked for you.

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  1. Thank you very much for sharing this tool, and various museums' participation in the Flickr Commons. I'm from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and we run the Smithsonian Flickr Commons, which features over 2,200 images from 12 different Smithsonian museums and research centers ( The Flickr Commons has been very successful for the Smithsonian–not too long ago, we were going on 5 million views, with over 55% of our images featuring comments, and over 87% of our images "favorited" on Flickr. I encourage you to check out Effie Kapsalis' (Head of Web and New Media at the Archives) recent presentation on the Flickr Commons:

    We also have had many success stories in terms of crowdsourcing the identities of people and places in our images; and we've had many interesting examples in which having our images up on the Flickr Commons has led to family members of those pictured contacting us, and in one case, donating images to us precisely because we made images available to the public on the Commons. You can read more about these stories on the Archives' blog:

    As your post notes, there's already an active and engaged audience on Flickr, and so by putting our images up there we've reached a community that is a great fit for our content. Furthermore, having our images up on the Flickr Commons allows members of the public who might not ever have a chance to visit DC to see our collections, and allows archival collections that might not otherwise be exhibited or seen by a large number of people to get thousands of views online.

    Thank you again for sharing!

    Catherine Shteynberg
    Smithsonian Institution Archives

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