Wednesday 7 March 2012

Creating compelling collections

An interesting older article (via Mia Ridge) on 'Understanding Compelling Collections'. In it, John Coburn talks about the experiments the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums did in 2010 with sharing their collections online.

Coburn writes eloquently about facing the challenge of finding audiences and attention in social spaces. What will be compelling?
The short answer, in my view, is anything that How To Be a Retronaut would share.
The site defines itself as a time machine with ‘capsules’ of historic image collections uploaded every day. The capsules are carefully curated. They are era-specific, event-specific, moment-specific. Abandoned New York movie theatres. Mug shots of destitute Victorian criminals. 1920s Egypt in colour. Yugoslav war memorials. The last surviving witness of the Abraham Lincoln assassination.
It’s a popular site averaging 30,000 visitors a day, and over a million a month. Each capsule is generally shared a thousand times by viewers. The likely reach for each capsule is beyond calculation.
These images are the stuff museums and archives have in abundance. So neatly sidestepping the interminable question of copyright, why are many museums reaching only a fraction of this audience with our collections online.
Chris Wild of How To Be a Retronaut suggests the following “(Museums and archives should) forget about history and think about imagination. (Focus on) the images that tap into magic and the sublime. The images that disrupt people’s model of time, fracture it, break it apart. Looking at these images, viewers should encounter eternity and their own mortality”.
I agree with Coburn. I think digitisation should be promiscuous. I think people should be just flinging this stuff through the digitisers (by which I mean, whatever machine they're using) and bunging on the minimum amount of metadata, and then getting them up online. Stop agonising over the quality of your descriptions, over how to prioritise your programme, and just get the presses rolling. Digitise old stuff, so you don't have to worry about copyright so much. Take a risk and put stuff up; clearly post a take-down notice in case anyone objects. Allow people to add information to improve searchability - not squitty little tags, but proper big text fields. Even better, if you have the resource, do something like Brooklyn Museum's Posse and let QA'd contributions enter the metadata.

Making these collections compelling takes a lot of work though. When I was working at the National Library, getting our collections up on The Commons on Flickr was such a rush - so many barriers jumped in such a small amount of time. But the stuff we could share was so carefully vetted that we were (initially at least) restricted to innocuous landscapes and photos of ships - i.e., anything that didn't have people in it. We did the best with what we had, but it hurt knowing what great stuff - what magical and sublime things - we had in the collections.

Even now, I'm entranced on a regular basis. Photos of instructions for a wool-processing machine. Of awkward looking wanna-be models in the 1970s. Of a display of tire treads, or lightbulbs, or lampshades.

Or my recent obsession, photos of children from the 1870s and 1880s taken in the Whanganui studio of William James Harding. The children change, but the two rockinghorse props stay the same (I'm also beginning to suspect the beret and boater were studio props as well). And the children themselves, solemn, rarely cracking that cheeky, knowing grin of children who grew up with little cameras in the home. Often doughy, lumpen. Wearing these voluminous clothes, petticoats poking out, big black boots on their small feet. I've started a little board on Pinterest for my favourites, just to see if other people find them compelling too.

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