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Throwback Thursday: “myCulture” and crowdsourcing museum content

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This Throwback post revisits a theme from CFM’s first forecasting paper. “myCulture” heralded a creative renaissance driven by a generation of young adults who want to loose their creative energies on shared cultural content. (We dove into this further in the “Harnessing the Crowd” section of TrendsWatch 2012.) 

These trends–of crowdsourced input and creative engagement with museum resources–have left deep marks on museum practice in the past few years. Recent examples include the Georgia Museum of Art crowdsourcing a deaccession decision, the Hammer Museum giving weight to public input in awarding the Mohn Award to an outstanding artist, and the Chicago History Museum “History Bowl,” which gave the Chicago history buffs the authority to choose the theme of their next exhibit (“Chicago Authors” won). I also highly recommend the 2011 book “Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World” for a long and thoughtful discussion on the “collaborative making of meaning with the public.”

Even as this trend gains steam,  I hear the arguments–pro and con–summarized in this post continuing to play out, so it seems worth reviving the discussion here.You can read the lively commentary on the original post here, and leave your own comments below.

“MyCulture”: the salvation of museums or the end of excellence as we know it?

Orignally published Wednesday, April 22, 2009
“MyCulture” is the term used in the CFM report Museums & Society 2034 to refer to the growing expectation on the part of young audiences that they should be able to shape their own experience. This generation expects to personalize their museum experience much the same way they personalize their cell phones. They don’t want to be presented with only static content, they want the opportunity to contribute, modify and share. Possibilities for the scope of this involvement run the gamut, including:
• Technologically gloried versions of the old comment book (e.g., opportunities to share photos on Flickr, or comments via a museum-sponsored blog)
• Social tagging (audience contribution to annotating and organizing information about the collections)
• Opportunities to create separate, parallel interpretation (via podcasts for example)
This is a very broad set of options, with huge differences in the implications for the kind of involvement being invited, and the kind of control being ceded by the museum. As Nina Simon points out there is a big difference between participatory design (audiences helping create exhibits) and design for participation (exhibits designed by museum staff to encourage user involvement.)

Let me see if I can summarize what I have heard so far, positive and negative, in reaction to this trend. (These summaries, including the extreme language, are largely taken verbatim from discussions at a session in a conference in Tarrytown as well as commentaries on the CFM blog and “chatrooms.”)

“How wonderful that people want to be involved in interpreting the museum’s stuff! What a great way for museums to promote dialog and remain (or become) relevant. Yes it could be confusing, but exciting, to say the least. The value of collections will speak for themselves when visitors can have meaningful interactions. In the future, museums that survive will be all about dialogue—that is why they will survive.”

“Such practices will only create and extend shared ignorance. Opening interpretation and content to audience input will suck up vast amounts of curatorial time in weeding out what little value might be hidden in the dross contributed by the audience. History and the meaning of artworks, etc., will be revised by hackers and various other nefarious sorts whose only interest in museums is wreaking havoc and professional staff will be unable to clarify/provide “better” or more complete understanding of objects/art to the general public.”

It is clear that museums practitioners are very concerned about the effect of visitor-generated content on accuracy. However, one thing that we as a field are cultivating is a better appreciation of the expertise that visitors bring to the table. Many of the conversations in Tarrytown touched on this. A speaker on social tagging pointed out that users know how they describe and remember paintings, and how they would search for them in a database. (Which, by the way, has almost no overlap with the expert curatorial description.) Another attendee told of how an antique-car buff was able to help the museum pinpoint, within a two-year span, the date of an historic photo in their collection, based on the makes and models of autos in the scene.

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And there are clear models for how such a synthesis of curatorial and user expertise can be brokered. A case in point is the Flickr Commons Project. As I understand it, curators monitor and select comments that go into the official metadatabase in the Library of Congress. This takes advantage of broad input and highly specialized expertise hidden in “the crowd” but still exercises quality control. Now, this does imply a changing role for the curator, from author to editor. Museum subject specialists become moderators of the unruly but immensely valuable process of gathering, filtering and synthesizing user expertise. This might not be the career some people had in mind when they became curators, which, I think, is the source of much of the rancor swirling around this issue.

Good—so the visitors are experts about some things in their own realms. I think we can all agree to that, though we will debate how to identify and validate what levels of expertise. And there are ways for museums to apply quality control standards to user contributed content, if they allocate resources to do so. I want you to consider a more controversial point. How important is it that museums and museum content be right? A lot of the fears I hear about user generated content is that it may be “wrong,” inaccurate or simply unguided. Here is my heresy of the day: maybe it is better to be wrong but interesting than right but boring.

This thought, which had been percolating for some time, coalesced last Sunday as I watching my fencing coach teach the first class of a beginners group. I expected Vitali to demonstrate the correct classical and arcane elements of footwork, armwork, maybe lecture them a bit on the rules. Instead he floored me by suiting them up, putting foils in their hands and inviting them to fence each other…and him. “It will give them an intuitive understanding” he explained later. “They discover for themselves what works.” Almost everything they did in that first half hour was, in any traditional sense, wrong. But they sure were enthusiastic about trying. Maybe enthusiastic enough to plow through the boring and painful job of learning footwork…and getting it right eventually. For me, this demonstrates the importance of welcoming and inviting passion, creating a way to discover or flush out raw talent with the presumption that you can shape and refine it later.

So, call me on this. What are the various levels of “wrongness” or ambiguity that a museum might tolerate or welcome, as a by-product of embracing user-generated content? When are these valuable, or at least tolerable as side effects of winning hearts and minds, and when does it cross the line into mere mediocrity? Your turn…

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