We’re supporting EXPLORE YOUR ARCHIVE

Logo, Explore Your Archives campaign
Explore Your Archive, http://www.exploreyourarchive.org, developed by The Archives and Records Association (UK and Ireland) and The National Archives, is the biggest ever public awareness campaign by the archives sector of the UK and Ireland.

From 16 November there will be hundreds of events and activities taking place in all kinds of archives. Those who work in archives will also be sharing some of their wonderful stories and amazing treasures. The public are being encouraged not just to visit an archive or explore archival collections online, but to understand more of the vital role which archives play in education, business, transparency and identity.

How the Hub fits in

The Archives Hub is a gateway to archives held at over 220 institutions and organisations across the UK.

Explore…

Using our map to discover archives close to you:
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/contributorsmap/.

Search….

Using the Hub search at http://archiveshub.ac.uk/search.html to uncover other collections.

Discover…

Image: Ballerina advert.
© TSB savings advert, c. 1950. Lloyds Banking Group Archives.

A rich variety of content: The breadth of content on the Hub highlights how archives are integral to historical and cultural awareness. Our contributors include Universities, business archives, charities, local government, libraries, museums and cathedrals.

Here are just a few of the collections you can find:

From the Ancient…

Canterbury Cathedral: Records of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral, c800 to present. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb054-cca/dcc

The collection of records of Canterbury Cathedral includes material dating from the early Middle Ages right up to the present day. The material relates to the Cathedral’s estates and reflects the activities of the Dean and Chapter and its staff.

… to the Contemporary

Archive of the National Theatre of Scotland, 2006 to present.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb247-stants

Launched in February 2006 and billing itself as a ‘theatre without walls’, the National Theatre of Scotland has no building of its own and operates within the existing infrastructure of Scottish theatre. Material is held at Glasgow University Library and includes programmes, press-cuttings, reviews and scripts.

From the Large…

Royal Greenwich Observatory: Records and Papers, 1675-1998.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb012-ms.rgo

With around one kilometre of material, the records consist of all the surviving historical paper records of the Royal Observatory. Collections include: papers of the Astronomers Royal and telescope construction projects, management and observations, including the William Herschel Telescope and Radcliffe Observatory.

… to the Small

Gaelic Manuscripts, c. 1732-c. 1869. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb752-gm

One reel of microfilm comprising images of 23 original Gaelic manuscripts, relating to Ireland and to the activities of Irishmen at home and abroad, held at Queen’s University Belfast. It consists largely of fragments of both religious and secular verse, topographical poems and other tracts and tales dating mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries.

From the Young…

Children’s Society, 18th century – 21st century.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb2180-tcs

The Children’s Society Archive comprises the records created and managed by The Children’s Society (titled The Waifs and Strays Society from 1881 to 1946). The majority of the collections date from the organisation’s founding in 1881. This includes a large quantity of visual material in the form of photographs and publicity material, as well as some audio-visual material.

… to the Older generation

Scrapbooks of Barking and Dagenham Branch of Age Concern, 2002-2008.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb0350-bd58

This collection comprises six scrapbooks, containing newspaper cuttings on the Barking and Dagenham Branch of Age Concern, relating to events, as well as issues affecting elderly people in the borough.

From Northern Scotland…

Thomas S Muir, Architectural notes on churches on Scottish islands, 1850-1872. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb227-msbr783.m9

Thomas S Muir (1802-1888) worked for most of his life as a book-keeper in Edinburgh. All his spare time was devoted to his passion for early Scottish churches, visiting all the locations where ruins were to be found, including even the most inaccessible islands. The volume, ‘Ecclesiological notes on some of the islands of Scotland’, comprises detailed architectural descriptions, with line drawings, of features of churches and other ecclesiastical remains.

… to the Southerly Channel Islands

Image: Jersey Archive.
Image: Jersey Archive.

Archive of the States of Jersey, 1603 – 2010.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb1539-c

The States of Jersey collection includes the minutes, correspondence, reports and acts of the States of Jersey. Also, the minutes of the different Committee’s of the States including Agriculture, Education, Defence, Housing, Social Security, Finance, Harbours and Airports, Health and Social Services, Tourism, Home Affairs, Planning and Environment, Economic Development and Policy and Resources.

From the Frozen Antarctic…

British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, 1929-1934. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb015-banzare

The collection comprises of press cuttings relating to the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, 1929-1931.

…to the Heat of Africa

Africa 95, c. 1957-1996. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb102-africa95

Africa 95 was founded in 1992 to initiate and organise a nationwide season of the arts of Africa to be held in the UK in the last quarter of 1995. Printed material, photographs, and slides of the work of artists from Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda,Tanzania, Tunisia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the USA.

From the Fire brigade…

Fire Brigades Union, 1919-1997. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb152-mss.346

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was founded in 1918 as the Firemen’s Trade Union. The union began its life as a body very much based around the London area but soon expanded to include provincial brigades. The collection includes: Executive Council minutes, annual accounts, subject files (including Sizewell Public Inquiry, 1980s) and the national strike, 1977.

…to the Water board

Records relating to Derwent Valley Water Board, 1899-1974.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb159-dvw

The collection comprises a full series of indexed bound minute books (1899-1974) containing annual statements of accounts, and other specific reports. Also, maps and plans relate to specific elements of intended works such as the building of Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire.

From the Arts…

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) Collection, 1865-1999.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb159-la

The Lawrence Collection contains extensive materials by and about D.H. Lawrence, ranging in date from his childhood and including original manuscripts and his correspondence.

… to Science

Clifford Hiley Mortimer Collection, 1937-1980.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb986-morc

This collection contains river and lake data in rivers in Britain, and correspondence regarding flows, inflows, chemical analyses and chemical stratification. It also includes mud samples!

From War…

Image: Poppy, World War One
© Image is in the public domain: papaver in High Wood, [tinelot@pobox.com Tinelot Wittermans]
Daniel Dougal First World War Diaries, 1914-1918.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb133-ddd

Diaries of Daniel Dougal, which detail his service as an army doctor on the Western Front during the First World War. Dougal rose to become Deputy Assistant Director of Medical Services, 34th Division of the British Army, and his diaries provide important information on the operation of Army medical services.

… to Peace

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), 1958-2008.
http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb097-campaignfornucleardisarmament

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) is a non party-political British organisation advocating the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide. Includes papers relating to the CND’s constitution, minutes of National Council, National Executive Committee annual conference papers and papers relating to Aldermaston marches and other demonstrations.

These are selected descriptions: there’s much more to discover by exploring the Hub! And we’re adding more descriptions every week. If you’d like to add your descriptions to the Hub, now’s a great time! See Be part of something bigger for information on how we can help you expose your collections to a worldwide audience.

Also of interest:

Work in an archive and want to be involved in the Explore Your Archive campaign?

It’s not too late to take part, visit: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/yourtoolkit.

More on Collections

Image of Guardian staff
Guardian billing room staff, 1921. From the Guardian News and Media Archive. Copyright: Guardian.

Browse our Features pages to learn about the breadth of material described on the Hub: http://archiveshub.ac.uk/features/

Linking Cultural Heritage Data

Last week I attended a meeting at the British Museum to talk with some museum folk about ways forward with Linked Data. It was a follow up to a meeting I organised on Archives and Linked Data,  and it was held under the auspices of the CIDOC Documentation Standards Working Group. The group consisted of me, Richard Light (Museum consultant), Rory McIllroy (ULCC), Jeremy Ottevanger (Imperial War Museum), Jonathan Whitson Cloud (British Museum), Julia Stribblehill (British Museum), and briefly able to join us was Pete Johnston (worked on the Locah project and now on the Linking Lives Linked Data project).

It proved to be a very pleasant day, with lots of really useful discussion. We spent some time simply talking about the differences – and similarities – in our perspectives and in our data. One of our aims was to start to create more links and dialogue between our sectors, and in this regard I think that the day was undoubtedly successful.

To start with our conversation ranged around various issues that our domains deal with. For example, we talked a bit about definitions, and how important they are within a museum context. For example, if you think about a collection of coins, defining types is key, and agreeing what those types are and what they should be called could be a very significant job in itself.  We were thinking about this in the context of providing authoritative identifiers for these types, so that different data sources can use the same terms.  Effectively identifying entities such as names and places are vital for museums, libraries and archives, of course, and then within the archive community we could also provide authoritative identifiers for things like levels of description. Workign together to provide authoritative and persistent URIs for these kinds of things could be really useful for our communities.

We talked about the value of promoting ‘storytelling’ and the limitations that may inhibit a more event-based approach. DBPedia (Wikipedia as Linked Data) may be at the centre of the Linked Data Cloud, but it may not be so useful in this context because it cannot chart data over time. For example, it can give you the population of Berlin, but it cannot give you the changing population over time. We agreed that it is important to have an emphasis on this kind of timeline approach.

We spent a little while looking at the British Museum’s departmental database, which includes some archives, but treats them more as objects (although the series they form a part of is provided, this contextual information is not at the fore – there is not a series description as such). The proposal is to find a way to join this system up with the central archive, maybe through the use of Linked Data.

We touched upon the whole issue of what a ‘collection’ is within the museum context, which is often more about single objects, and reflected on the challenge of how to define a collection, because even something like a cup and saucer could be seen as a collection…or it is one object?…or is a full tea set a collection?

For archivists, quite detailed biographical information is often part of the description of a collection. We do this in order to place the collection within a context. These biographical histories often add significant value to our descriptions, and sometimes the information in them may be taken from the archive collection, so new information may be revealed. Museums don’t tend to provide this kind of detail, and are more likely to reference other sources for the researcher to use to find out about individuals or organisations. In fact, referencing external sources is something archives are doing more frequently, and Linked Data will encourage this kind of approach, and may save us time in duplicating effort creating new biographical entries for the same person. (There is also the move towards creating separate name authorities, but this also brings with it big challenges around sharing data and using the same authorities).

We moved on to talk about Linked Data more specifically, and thought a bit about whether the emphasis should be on discovery or the quality and utility of what you get when you are presented with the results. We generally felt that discovery was key because Linked Data is primarily about linking things together in order to make new discoveries and take new directions in research.

book showing design patterns
Wellcome Library, London

One of the main aims of the day was to discuss the idea of the use of design patterns to help the cultural heritage community create and use Linked Data. It would facilitate the process of querying different graphs and getting reasonably predictable information back, if we could do things in common where possible. Richard has written up some thoughts about design patterns from a museum perspective and there is a very useful Linked Data Patterns book by Leigh Dodds and Richard Davis. We felt this could form a template for the sort of thing that we want to do. We were well aware that this work would really benefit from a cross-domain approach involving museums, archives, libraries and galleries, and this is what we hope to achieve.

We spoke briefly about the value of something like OpenCalais and wondered whether a cultural heritage version of this kind of extraction tool would be useful. If it was more tailored for our own sectors, it may be more useful in creating authorities, so that we can refer to things in a common way, as a persistent URL would be provided for the people, subjects, concepts, that we need to describe. We considered the scenario that people may go back to writing free text and then intelligent tools will extract concepts for them.

We concluded that it would be worth setting up a Wiki to encourage the community to get involved in exploring the idea of Linked Data Patterns. We thought it would be a good idea to ask people to tell us what they want to know – we need the real life questions and then we can think about how our data can join up to answer those questions. Just a short set of typical real-life questions would enable us to look at ways to link up data that fit a need, because a key question is whether existing practices are a good fit for what researchers really want to know.

Online Survey Results (2011)

We would like to share some of the results of our annual online survey, which we run each year, over a 3-4 week period. We aim for about 100 responses (though obviously more would be very welcome!), and for this survey we got 92 responses. We create a pop-up invitation to fill out the survey – something we do not like to do, but we do feel that it attracts more responses than a simple link.

Context

We have a number of questions that are replicated in surveys run for Zetoc and Copac, two bibliographic JISC-funded Mimas services, and this provides a means to help us (and our funders) look at all three services together and compare patterns of use and types of user.

This year we added four questions specifically designed to help us with understanding users of the Hub and to help us plan our priorities.

We aim to keep the number of questions down to about 12 at the most, and ensure that the survey will take no longer than 10 minutes to complete. But we also want to provide the opportunity for people to spend longer and give more feedback if they wish, so we combine tick lists and radio boxes with free text comments boxes.

We take the opportunity to ask whether participants would be willing to provide more feedback for us, and if they are potentially willing, they provide their email address. This gives us the opportunity to ask them to provide more feedback, maybe by being part of a focus group.

Results of the Survey

Profile

  • The vast majority of respondents (80%) are based in the UK for their study and/or work.
  • Most respondents are in the higher education sector (60%). A substantial number are in the Government sector and also the heritage/museum sector.
  • 20% of those using the Hub are students – maybe less than we would hope, but a significant number.
  • 10% are academics – again, less than we would hope, but it may be that academics are less willing to fill in a survey.
  • 50% are archivists or other information professionals. This is a high number, but it is important to note that it includes use of the Hub on behalf of researchers, to answer their enquiries, so it could be said to represent indirect use by researchers.
  • The majority of respondents use the service once or twice a month, although usage patterns were spread over all options, from daily to less than once a month, and it is difficult to draw conclusions from this, as just one visit to the Hub website may prove invaluable for research.

graph showing value of the HubUse and Recommendation

  • A significant percentage – 26% – find the Hub ‘neither easy nor difficult’ to use, and 3% of the respondents found it difficult to use, indicating that we still need to work on improving usability (although note that a number of comments were positive about ease of use) .
  • 73% agree their work would take longer without the Hub, which is a very positive result and shows how important it is to be able to cross-search archives in this way.
  • A huge majority – 93% – would recommend the Hub to others, which is very important for us. We aim to achieve 90% positive in this response, as we believe that recommendations are a very important means for the Hub to become more widely known.

Subject Areas

We spent a significant amount of time creating a list of subjects that would give us a good indication of disciplines in which people might use the Hub. The results were:

    • History 47
    • Library & Archive Studies 33
    • English Literature 17
    • Creative & Performing Arts 16
    • Education & Research Methods 10
    • Predominantly Interdisciplinary 9
    • Geography & Environment 5
    • Political Studies & International Affairs 5
    • Modern Languages and Linguistics 4
    • Physical Sciences 4
    • Special Collections 4
    • Architecture & Planning 3
    • Biological & Natural Sciences 3
    • Communication & Media Studies 3
    • Medicine 3
    • Theology & Philosophy 3
    • Archaeology 2
    • Engineering 2
    • Psychology & Sociology 2
    • Agriculture 1
    • Law 1
    • Mathematics 1
    • Business & Management Studies 0
  • History is, not surprisingly, the most common discipline, but literature, the arts, education and also interdisciplinary work all feature highly.
  • There is a reasonable amount of use from the subjects that might be deemed to have less call for archives, showing that we should continue to promote the Hub in these areas and that archives are used in disciplines where they do not have a high profile. It would be very valuable to explore this further.

graph showing use of archival websites

  • The Hub is often used along with other archival websites, particularly The National Archives and individual record office websites, but a significant number do not use the websites listed, so we cannot assume prior knowledge of archives.
  • It would be interesting to know more about patterns of use. Do researchers try different websites, and in what order to they visit them? Do they have a sense of what the different sites offer?
  • There is still low use of the European aggregators, Europeana and APENet, although at present UK archives are not well represented on these services and arguably they do not have a high profile amongst researchers (the Hub is not yet represented on these aggregators).

Subsequent activities

  • It is interesting to note that 32% visit a record office as a result of using the Hub, but 68% do not. It would be useful to explore this further, to understand whether the use of the Hub is in itself enough for some researchers. We do know that for some people, the description holds valuable information in and of itself, but we don’t know whether the need to visit a record office, maybe some distance away, prevents use of the archives when they might be of value to the researcher.

What is of most value?

  • We asked about what is important to researchers, looking at key areas for us. The results show that comprehensive coverage still tops the polls, but detailed descriptions also continue to be very important to researchers, somewhat in opposition tograph showing what is most valuable to researchers the idea of the ‘quick and dirty’ approach. More sophisticated questioning might draw out how useful basic descriptions are compared with no description and what sort of level of detail is acceptable.
  • Links to digital content and information on related material are important, but not as important as adding more descriptions and providing a level of detail that enables researchers to effectively assess archives.
  • Searching across other cultural heritage resources at the same time is maybe surprisingly less of a priority than content and links. It is often assumed that researchers want as much diverse information as possible in a ‘one-stop shop’ approach, but maybe the issues with things like the usability of the search,  navigation, number of results and relevance ranking of results illustrate one of the main issues – creating a site that holds descriptions and links to very varied content and still ensuring it is very easily understandable and researchers know what they are getting.
  • The regional search was not a high priority but a significant medium priority, and it might be argued that not all researchers would be interested in this, but some would find it particularly useful, and many archivists would certainly find it helpful in their work
  • We provided a free text box for participants to say what they most valued. The ability to search across descriptions, which is the most basic value proposition of the Hub, came out top, and breadth of coverage was also popular, and could be said to be part of the same selling point.
  • It was interesting to see that some respondents cited the EAD Editor as the main strength for them, showing how important it is to provide ways for archivists to create descriptions (it may be thought that other means are at their disposal, but often this is not the case).
  • Six people referred to the importance of the Hub for providing an online presence, indicating that for some record offices, the Hub is still the only way that collections are surfaced on the Web.

What would most improve the Hub?

  • We had a diversity of responses to the question about what would most improve the Hub, maybe indicating that there are no very obvious weaknesses, which is a good thing. But this does make it difficult for us to take anything constructive from the answers, because we cannot tell whether there is a real need for a change to be made. However, there were a few answers that focused on the interface design, and some of these issues should be addressed by our new ‘utility bar’ which is a means to more clearly separate the description from the other functions that users can then perform, and should be implemented in the next six months.

Conclusions

The survey did not throw up anything unexpected, so it has not materially affected our plans for development of the Hub. But it is essentially an endorsement of what we are doing, which is very positive for us. It emphasised the importance of comprehensive coverage, which is something we are prioritising, and the value of detailed descriptions, which we facilitate through the EAD Editor and our training opportunities and online documentation. Please contact us if you would like to know more.

Arrive in Wonder, Leave in Wisdom!

Roll Up Roll Up for Open Cuture!

image of open culture banner

I arrived at the Open Culture conference just in time to grab a cup of tea and dash along to hear Malcolm Howitt’s talk on Axiell. He focussed on Axiell Arena,
software, a new content management option. It provides for a more interactive experience, complete with tag cloud and the ability to add comments.  It looked pretty good, very much in line with where things are going in terms of these kinds of websites. However, from our point of view as an aggregator what we are keen to see is an API to the data to enable others to engage with it more flexibly, something that has yet to happen on CALM. Maybe this raises the whole issue of the challenge of open data to commercial suppliers – it does rather appear to threaten their business model, and I can see that this would be of concern to them.

The second presentation I saw was from Deep Visuals on ViziQuest, ‘a new way to explore digital collections’. They used natural language processing to extract the concepts from the text.  So the system uses existing metadata in order to enable semantic browsing.  The idea is to provide a different kind of search experience, where the user can meander through a collection of images. You can flip over image to find metadata about the image, which is quite neat.

Deep Visuals have worked with the Scott Poloar Research Institute, one of the Hub contributors, and there are some wonderful images of expeditions. For some images, the archivist has recorded an audio and there are also some film clips  – I saw a great clip on board a ship bound for the arctic.  Currently the software is only available for users within the institute, but it may be made available through the website. You can see a small demo here: http://www.deepvisuals.com/Demo/.  In addition, ViziQuest have taken some expedition diaries and recorded some audio with actors.

The morning was rounded off with a talk about Culture Grid. The importance of Culture Grid being part of national and international initiatives was emphasised, and there was reference to RDTF (now UKDiscovery) and the whole HE agenda, which was good to hear.

Currently Culture Grid contains about 1.65 million item records, mostly referring to images. There are also about 10,000 collection records and 8,000 institution records. We were told that ‘Cuture Grid site and search is not a destination in itself.’  This slightly surprised me, as I did think that this was one of its purposes, albeit only one and maybe not the primary one.

I was impressed by the way Culture Grid is positioning itself as a means to facilitate the use of data by others. Culture Grid has APIs and we were told that a growing range of users do take advantage of this. They are also getting very involved in developer days as a means to encourage innovation. I think this is something archives should engage with, otherwise we will get left behind in the innovative exploration of how to make the most of our data.

Whilst I am very much in agreement with the aims of opening up data, I am not entirely convinced by the Culture Grid website. It does appear to prioritise digital materials – it works much better where there are images. The links back to resources often don’t work. I did a search for ‘victorian theatre’ and first of all the default search was ‘images only’, excluding ‘collections’ and non-images based materials. Then, two of the first four links to resources I clicked on got an internal server error.  I found at least six links that didn’t work on the first two pages of results. Obviously this is not Culture Grid’s fault, but it is certainly a problem. I also wonder about how intuitive it is, with resource links going to so many different types of websites, and at so many different levels of granularity. Quite often you don’t go straight to the resource: one of the links I clicked on from an item went to the Coventry Council homepage, another went to the ‘how do I?’ page of the University of Hull. I asked about the broken links and didn’t feel that the reply was entirely convincing – I think it should be addressed more comprehensively.  I think if the Hub was to contribute descriptions to Culture Grid one of my main concerns would be around updating descriptions. I’m also not sure about the need to create additional metadata. I can’t quite get the reasoning behind the Culture Grid metadata, and the way that the link on the title goes to the ‘resource’ (the website of the contributor), but the ‘view details’ link goes to the Culture Grid metadata, which generally provides a cut down version of the description.

The afternoon was dedicated to Spectrum, something I know only a little about other than that it is widely used as a framework by museums in their collections care. Spectrum is, we were told, used in about 7,000 institutions across Europe. Nick Poole, the CEO of the Collections Trust, emphasised that Spectrum should be a collaborative venture, so everyone needs to engage in it.  Yet maybe it has become so embedded that people don’t think about it enough.  The new Spectrum 4 is seen as providing an opportunity to re-engage the community.

There was an interesting take on Spectrum by the first speaker as a means to actually put people off starting museums…but he was making the important point that a standard can show people what is involved – and that it is a non-trivial task to look after museum collections. I got the impression that Spectrum has been a way to get curators on board with the idea of standards and pulling together to work more professionally and consistently.

Alex Dawson spoke about the latest edition of Spectrum in her capacity as one of the co-editors. Spectrum is a consensus about collections management procedures, about consistency, accountability and a common vocabulary. It is not supposed to be prescriptive; it is the ‘what’ more than the ‘how’.  It has 21 procedures describing collections management activities, of which 8 are considered primary. We were told that the link to accreditation was very important in the history of spectrum, and other milestones have included the introduction of rights management procedures, establishing a clear link between procedures and policy and greater recognition of the importance of the knowledge held within museums (through Spectrum Knowledge).

There has been an acknowledgement that Spectrum started to become more cumbersome and information could get buried within this very large entity, it was also starting to get out of date in certain areas. I can see how Spectrum 4.0 is an improvement on this because it contains clear flow diagrams that bring out the processes much more obviously and shows related procedures. It also separates out the procedural and information requirements.  The advisory content has been stripped out (and put into online Spectrum Advice) in order to concentrate on procedural steps through flow diagrams.

The consultation on Spectrum 4 was opened up via a wiki: http://standards.collectionslink.org.uk/index.php/Collections_Link_Standards_wiki

The main day of the conference included some really great talks. Bill Thompson from the BBC was one highlight.  He talked about ‘A Killer App for Culture’, starting with musings on the meaning of ‘culture’. He talked about digital minds in this generation, which may change the answers that we come up with and may change the meaning of words. Shifting word sense can present us with challenges when we are in the business of data and information. He made the point convincingly that the world is NOT digital, as we often state; it is reassuringly still organic. But digital DATA is everywhere. It is an age in which we experience a digital culture, and maybe the ways that we do this are actually having an effect on the way that we think. Bill cited the book ‘Proust and the Squid’ by Maryanne Wolf which I would also throroughly recommend. Wolf looks at the way that learning to read impacts on the ways that we think.

Matthew Cock from the British Museum and Andrew Caspari from the BBC presented on A History of the World in 100 Objects.  We were told how this initiative gradually increased in scale to become enjoyed by millions of people across the world. It was a very collaborative venture between the BBC and British Museum. There were over 2.5 million visits to the site, often around 40,000 in a week when the programme was not on air.  It was interesting to hear that the mobile presence was seen as secondary at the time, but probably should have been prioritised more. ‘Permanent availability portable and for free’ was absolutely key said Andrew Caspari.

It was an initiative that really brought museums together – maybe not surprising with such a high profile initiative.  The project was about sharing and a different kind of partnership defined by mutual benefit, and most importantly, it was about closing the gap between public engagement and collection research. It obviously really touched people’s imaginations and they felt a sense of being part of something.  It does seem like a very successful combination of good fun, entertainment and learning. However,  we were told that there were issues. Maybe the digital capacity of museums was overestimated and longer lead in times were required than the BBC provided. Also, the upload to the site needed to be simpler.

Cock and Caspari referred to the way the idea spread, with things like ‘A history of the world in 100 sheds’. Should you be worried that this might trivialize the process, or should you be pleased that it caught on, stirred imaginations and controversy and debate?

David Fleming of National Museums Liverpool followed with an equally absorbing talk about museums and human rights. He said museums should be more aware that they are constructs of the society they are in. They should mirror society. They should give up on the idea of being neutral and engage in issues.  He is involved in the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, and this is a campaigning museum. Should others follow suit? It makes museums an active part of society – both historical and contemporary. Fleming felt that a visit to the museum should stir people and make them want to get involved.

He gave a number of examples of museums where human rights are at the heart of the matter, including:

District Six in South Africa: http://www.districtsix.co.za – very much a campaigning museum that does not talk about collections so much as stories and lives, using emotion to engage people.

The  Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Victims in Cambodia, a building that was once Pol Pot’s secret prison. The photographs on this site are hugely affecting and harrowing. Just seemingly ordinary portrait shots of prisoners, but with an extraordinary power to them.

The Lithuanian Museum of Genocide Victims . This is a museum where visitors can get a very realistic experience of what it was like to live under the Soviet regime. Apparently this experience, using actors as Soviet guards, has led to some visitors passing out, but the older generation are passionate to ensure that their children understand what it was like at this time.

We moved on to a panel session on Hacking in Arts & Culture was of particular interest to me.  Linda Ellis from Black Country Museums gave a very positive assessment of how the experience of a hack day had been for them. She referred to the value of nurturing new relationships with developers, and took us through some of the ideas that were created.  You can read a bit more about this and about putting on a hack day on Dan Slee’s blog: https://danslee.wordpress.com/tag/black-country-museums/

What we need now is a Culture Hack day that focuses on archival data – this may be more challenging because the focus is text not images, but it could give us some great new perspectives on our data. According to Rachel Coldicutt, a digital consultant, we need beanbags, beer, pizza, good spirit and maybe a few prizes to hand out….. Doesn’t seem too hard. ….oh, and some developers of course :-)

Some final thoughts around a project at the New Walsall Art Gallery: Neil Lebeter told us that the idea was to make the voice of the artist key. In this case, Bob and Roberta Smith. The project centered around the Jacob Epstein archive and found ways to bring the archive alive through art – you can see some interesting video clips about this process on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/newartgallerywalsall.

I found Open Culture was billed as a conference meeting the needs of museums, libraries and archives, but I do think it was essentially a museums conference with a nod to archives and maybe a slight nod to libraries. This is not to criticise the conference, which was very well presented, and there really were some great speakers, but maybe it points to the challenges of bringing together the three domains?  In the end, they are different domains with different needs and interests as well as areas of mutual interest. Clearly there is overlap, and there absolutely should be collaboration, but maybe there should also be an acknowledgement that we are also different communities, and we have some differing requirements and perspectives.