The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 56









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Morphing museums and the media

by Paul Bentley


Edited version of article originally published in Museum Matters December 2011 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Museums Australia (NSW).


The online juggernaut continues to reshape industries. Broadcasters have become newspapers. Newspapers are now more like broadcasters. Search engines have grabbed ground from both. Major information industry players are dragging museums, libraries and archives along for a new ride.  

Viewers, listeners and readers have become curators and commentators. As online consumers become more mobile, the latest Sydney Morning Herald advertisements offer an iPad app as a news experience like no other. The nature of the experience is underlined every time I flip through my Flipboard. Headlines, images, sound and video are seductive elements that lift an item from the sea of tweets.  

What are some of the implications of these trends for museums and other memory organisations?   

The converging media landscape

The Federal Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband, Malcolm Turnbull, examined media trends in a recent speech to the Advanced Centre of Journalism at Melbourne University.    

Newspaper circulations have declined in most developed countries – by up to 30% in the United States. Hundreds of newspapers have closed. Many more are struggling to survive. Yet most newspapers have more readers now than they have ever had. The problem is not lack of readers, but declining revenue caused by the shift to online advertising via tablets and smartphones. Readers now receive written news without paying. Those who benefit most from advertising in the online world - Google and Facebook – create very little content of their own.  

As newspapers experiment with new business models, the possible threat to the quality of the media is, Turnbull said, a threat to democracy. There are fewer newspaper journalists. Journalists have less time to do investigate stories. Opinion is gaining precedence over news. Important matters of public interest are either not covered at all or are covered superficially. 

Against this backdrop, he said, we need to look at philanthropic tax-advantaged support for quality media, based on the precedence of publicly-funded media enterprises such as ABC and SBS in Australia and ProPublica in the United States. 

“At times like this,’ he concluded, “when the establishment shaken to its foundations and the old order changeth. yielding place to new, the young and the enterprising have the chance to take what is enduring – objectivity, accuracy, fearless independence – and build new platforms from which to launch their journalism.” 

David Throsby, at the Museums Australia (NSW) symposium in April, highlighted the way cultural institutions in general are moving out of their physical spaces into new channels for promoting their work and assets. His report with Hasan Bakhshi, Culture of Innovation: An Economic Analysis of Innovation in Arts and Cultural Organisations (NESTA, 2010), analysed the impact of digital strategies on audience development, art forms, and ways of doing business, using recent work of Tate Modern and the National Theatre as the centerpieces for their attention.  

In Australia, the Sydney Opera House and Opera Australia are among local cultural institutions that are taking the arts out of the theatres and concert halls and into online channels and cinemas. 

Museums, too, are finding new ways of amplifying their collections and they are forming relationships with new partners to engage audiences.

Museums as newspapers

In a blog on 3 December, Seb Chan, who has moved from the Powerhouse Museum to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, applauded the new website of Walker Art Center ( as a paradigm shift in the way museums use websites.  

After reflecting on the challenges, about five years ago, of maintaining editorial resources for the Design Hub website at the Powerhouse Museum, he interviewed Nate Solas, Paul Schmelzer and Eric Price about the thinking and resources behind the Walker website.  

The site turns over three to five top stories a week and adds five to ten stories a day from other sources. To assess the impact of this effort, new metrics have come into play. In addition to capturing time on the site and page views, things like the depth of the experience, time taken to investigate other news items and repeat visits are taken into account. 

Content harvesting has been and will continue to be one of the major challenges. As an indication of changing attitudes about copyright, Walker says it does not seek permission to publish and item: it regards attributing sources as fair use. The links drive readers to the external sources. This is a good solution for everyone. 

The site uses Apache Solr as an open source enterprise search platform. Genre and type categories are used to assist browsing. Decisions about search terms are made on the run.  

While the new newspaper style website has absorbed their time, they continue to work on other IT strategies for the museum. They are working with Getty Museum on the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative. They are implementing CollectionSpace for the Walker collections. They are sorting out a new digital asset management system. And they are looking at building a new collections site with the aim of opening up their data and connecting them to other online collections and resources.  

Picking up the discussion, Nina Simon, on Museum 2.0, said she had been converted to the idea of museums as media players after viewing the Walker site. She said the site  breaks a lot of conventional rules about museum home pages. It is an online experience about contemporary art that goes beyond the Walker's walls: it is not subservient to the physical institution. But, she said, it is not something that all museums will be able to or want to emulate. The Walker site employs a team of four editors and five people in its new media group. The journalist approach is just one pathway. Other museums may find inspiration in restaurants or music venues or online schools or community bulletin boards or shopping sites.expectation is that most museums will continue to present brochure websites with a few modest bells and whistles. It’s still OK, she said, to have a physical museum with a website that supports it.

Working with broadcasters

In the United Kingdom, Culture24, a non-profit digital publishing enterprise (, supplies information on cultural activities to the BBC Things to Do website ( Culture24 began in 2001 as the 24 Hour Museum and works to bridge the gap between government policies and the arts, heritage, education and tourism sectors. It produces two websites, Culture24 ( and Show Me (, aimed at children. It coordinates the Museums at Night campaign. It make available information packages such as How to Evaluate Success Online, Social Media Metrics Toolkit, Social Media Tools Comparison, and Google Analytics Health Checklist. And it is now working with Google on a series of practical Make it Count workshops for cultural sector workers.

The secret five, an image contributed to ABC Open by Richard Gates, Evans Head Living Museum

In Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has formed a relationship with Museums Australia in recent years to present the regional museums awards, which it incorporates in its programming activities. Of wider significance is the burgeoning ABC Open (, which employs a team of producers in regional towns to run workshops aimed at producing and publishing stories and multimedia through the national broadcaster.  

ABC Open currently has 11 general projects on the boil and 13 regional projects. 

General projects include Now and Then, capturing local history, Laid Off, a discussion space for people who have lost their jobs, DreamBox for Indigenous Australians to share their dreams in a single photograph, Aftermath, with stories of resilience and recovery after disasters, Portrait of a Stranger, a photography project that challenges you to talk to strangers and capture each subject in a portrait and short story, and Moment Behind the Photograph, a project that invites you to share a photo from your collection and the story behind. Far North Coast Chapter Co-odinator Marea Buist and Orange City Library manager Jan Richards both report positive experiences from the Moment Behind the Photograph project and utilising ABC Open training opportunities.

NSW regional projects include One On One: River Stories, which picks up narratives along the Hunter River. Starting with interviews recorded by ABC producer Phil Ashley-Brown ten years ago, the project has created new stories with partners Hunter Councils Inc, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, and ABC Newcastle. Acting Deputy Director of Newcastle Museum, Julie Baird says museum, local library, arts gallery and university archives also participate in the monthly radio program Local Treasures on ABC 1233 to talk about objects and related matters and that live broadcasts are presented from different museums in the region.  

Somewhere in Between is an ABC Open project based on the NSW South Coast exploring the stage of life between being a kid and an adult. The Illawarra Sound project sets out to create a soundscape of the Illawarra and Southern Highlands from the ranges to the escarpment and sea. Wollondilly Heritage Centre's exhibition development officer Doreen Lyon says the Centre has participated in the Now and Then project, using as a subject Mowbray Park and the Dr Barnardo’s Farm Training School. Apron Strings was another project, built around Seniors Week, in which  the stories of owners of aprons were recorded in front of a live audience. One thing led to another, when it became a book, launched during NSW History Week, and a DVD. 

Laid Off: Grafton documents the stories of recently laid off Telstra workers from Grafton. presented in the form of blogs and slideshows. 

ABC Online has produced a number of short online tutorials on digital storytelling, audio recording and photography. Check the events on the website, get in touch with the ABC Open Producer in your region or participate in the ABC Open Summer School workshops

Other online partnerships

Historypin ( is a project developed by the British non-profit organisation We Are What We Do ( in partnership with Google. It is seeking to bring generations together around local histories.  

The Historypin platform enables contributors to upload photographs, videos and audio recordings to Google maps, where they are then geo-tagged and dated. Users are encouraged to add descriptive information and personal narratives to illustrate how familiar environments have changed over time. 

Historypin is collaborating with over a hundred libraries, archives and museums around the world to help them share their content with a global community of users. The US National Archive, for example, recently became a partner by launching a selection of Mathew Brady Civil War photographs, mages from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica photographic documentation project of the 1970s, and photographs relating to Washington, DC. 

Last month the Powerhouse Museum announced it was working with Historypin to build a shared Australian Memory Project with other contributors leading to a series of events in 2013.  

Google is building on its experience of working with libraries, museums and others in developing Google Books, Google Newspapers and the Google Art Project. It recently assisted the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to digitise the Dead Sea Scrolls using ultrahigh resolution imaging technology ( 

Through the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, it has formed new partnerships with the Palace of Versailles and the Nelson Mandela Foundation in South Africa. It plans to work with other individual museums and archives and to develop a standard set of digital tools for institutions large and small.  

In the light of negative perceptions from its book and newspaper digitisation projects that it was stripped heritage to the benefit of company, Google says it is providing its services to cultural institutions at no cost, with no immediate expectation of a financial return, but with the long-term hope of forging a win-win outcome for those involved. 

Ancestry is another online player strongly linked to the Who Do You Think You Are? television series. Its partnership with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s World Memory Project involves crowdsourcing to index documents. Over the last six months, more than 2,000 people from around the world have indexed more than 700,000 records. 

The voice of the people

In an online age, the writings and conversations of ordinary people like you and me generate questions and opportunities for museums, hawkers of social media services and others. How do we now manage objects that are now on a computer rather than stored in a cupboard? And how do we manage information that is now on the sites of other organisations? Are our efforts making it easier to find information? Or are they muddying the waters of an increasing larger digital data universe?   

Questions about personal digital archives and family histories have been explored in a number of projects and forums. In 2004, UK university libraries with funding from JISC produced a report and guidelines as part of the PARADIGM (Personal Archives Accessible in Digital Media) project. In 2010, the British Library in partnership with other UK libraries, published findings at the end of a Digital Lives Research Project, which aimed to find ways to ‘harmonise’ the acquisition of digital personal archives with traditional archival processes.   

Issues surrounding the management of content in social media are being explored by OCLC, which aims to produce three reports on the subject. The first report, Social Metadata for Libraries, Archives and Museums Part 1: Site Reviews, by Karen Smith-Yoshimura and Cyndi Shein (September 2011), provides an environmental scan of sites and third-party social media sites relevant to the three sectors. Among other aspects, it comments on user contributions sought by libraries, archives and museums, including data enhancements, tagging, collection and content building, and promoting activities outside the site. And it  covers the use of third-party sites such as LibraryThing, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.  

The second report will analyse the results focusing on motivations for creating a site, moderation policies, staffing and site management, technologies used and criteria for assessing content. And the third report will provide recommendations on social media features most relevant to libraries, archives and museums and factors contributing to success. 

In Australia, the National and State Libraries Australasia (NSLA) has been involved in a Community Created Content project ( to encourage the public to contribute to the collections of their national, state and territory libraries by creating films, writing, stories, pictures and other web content using their resources and those of the collections. A report on the project has just been published. 

In 2010 the Library of Congress announced that it would be archiving all public tweets made via Twitter accounts. Eighteen months down the track it is still wrestling with the challenges of making this vast body of information available to researchers and the public at large. 

Developments in this arena will no doubt receive an airing in February 2012 at the Personal Digital Archiving conference in San Francisco, which aims to tackle the growing size and complexity of personal collections and the implications for memory institutions. 

Questions on its slate invite further reflection. Do libraries, museums, and archives have a new responsibility to collect digital personal materials? How can we effectively preserve social network data? What tools and services are needed to better enable self-archiving? What are viable existing economic models that can support personal archives?

Future challenges

For Museums Australia, development of more coherent sector-wide online strategies calls for more considered attention to evolving standards, systems and services in Australia and overseas. The future will be partly shaped by further collaboration with media and major online players.


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