After more than a decade of innovative research and development, the international museum community has learnt a great deal about how to harness the power of the web to the delivery of rich, meaningful cultural experiences. In this article, Nick Poole explores the new vision of museums as publishers and broadcasters and looks at how the delivery of digital culture is being woven into the daily lives of consumers.
When, in 1977, an expert cataloguer looked at an object and made a few marks about it on a postcard-sized catalogue card, they would little have expected that one day the information they were creating would form the basis of a rich, complex and interwoven cultural experience on the World Wide Web. But fast-forward 35 years, and that is exactly what has happened.
The rise of the internet as a consumer proposition, followed closely by the social web and the use of handheld devices, has transformed the way museums think of themselves. Where once their primary aim was to give people the online equivalent of a brochure, today they are embracing a role as publishers and broadcasters of engaging, educational and authoritative digital content.
Unique value in an online world
In a world in which people have to battle everyday against the signal-to-noise ratio of online information, museums have discovered that they can translate their existing values – stories, uniqueness, breadth, authority and carefully-researched context – to carve out a unique place for themselves in the hearts and minds of digital consumers.
But if the old problem facing museums and galleries was how to display everything in their collections, the new problem is how to scale up to deliver these rich content-based experiences across a huge range of platforms and devices. How can cultural organisations deliver wonder and inspiration across everything from a smartphone to a high-definition internet TV?
The answer might lie in a simple maxim – ‘Create Once, Publish Everywhere’ (COPE) – coined in a blog post by Daniel Jacobson, Director of Application Development for National Public Radio in the US – and some powerful new work being done by the British Museum as part of their ResearchSpace project.
Learning to COPE
The core principle underlying COPE is to separate the process of creating digital content from the specific requirements of how it is delivered. If curators, experts (inside and outside the organisation) can create content simply and quickly that is then capable of being repurposed across many different platforms, then the potential reach of that material is increased hugely.
To understand the power of this model, consider what has happened to the information on that catalogue card in 1977. Over the intervening years, it would have been annotated, edited and corrected. At some point in the 80’s or 90’s would have been computerised, added to a database, keyworded alongside tens of thousands of others. In the 90’s or 2000’s, photographs of the object would have been added and the whole package would have been served up online, most likely as part of the organisation’s website.
More recently, that same information might have found its way onto the Public Catalogue Foundation’s Your Paintings website, or the Google Cultural Institute Platform, or any number of other places. And with each new application, the museum would have had to find a way of paying for it to be brought up-to-date and prepared for its new context. The COPE strategy provides a way of delivering material that can flow naturally to many different points of interaction without having to be repurposed by hand.
Keeping pace with changing technology
Until now, museums have faced a very specific problem in embracing the COPE model – instead of deciding for ourselves how to publish our information, and telling developers and programmers how to use it, we have tended to adopt the structure and model of whichever partnership looks most promising in reaching mainstream online audiences. Now, thanks to work done by the British Museum and the international community, museums are taking control of how and where they publish.
The key to this new approach lies in Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the Semantic Web – specifically, that information that is published online can be tagged (‘marked up’) to help computers make better decisions about the meaning of the content. Imagine a piece of text on a web page. You can read that text and understand what it means, but to a computer it is just a string of letters and spaces. By marking it up, you can give the computer clues to the meaning, which it can then use to deliver better search results, power applications like Apple’s Siri or make better-informed connections between different bodies of information.
Museum information is perfectly suited to this kind of approach – not only can we provide the content, but we have the knowledge and expertise to create rich and interesting connections between different pieces of information. Traditionally, however, we have stripped out this richness in the name of delivering information in the right format for different platforms.
Taking control of museum information
Now, however, the British Museum is pioneering a new approach to publishing their information online which makes it available for everyone to use, but which preserves the richness and connections between its information. Using an international standard called the CIDOC CRM (Conceptual Reference Model), the British Museum has provided a model of museum information which programmers can use to make their own decisions about what to include and what not to include.
This means, in effect, that the information published by the British Museum comes with its own Users Manual, which a programme can use to decide whether to include all of the information, some of it, or only those parts that relate specifically to the application they are building. This enables the British Museum to deploy the COPE strategy to ensure that its information is adaptable to take account of current and future developments in online technologies.
But the story doesn’t end there – taking advantage of all of this context and richness means ensuring that the information is marked up in the first place. This has presented museums and galleries with a huge challenge – already confronted with limitations on their resources for cataloguing and digital photography, they can hardly afford to spend the coming decade hand-making these new connections.
Thankfully, the latest generation of technologies is set to come to their aid. Through ResearchSpace, the British Museum and the Andrew W Mellon Foundation are creating a set of freely-available tools which will part-automate the process of creating meaningful connections between different sets of information. Not only can the ResearchSpace platform help create intelligent connections between different bodies of information within the museum, it enables groups of museums to augment one anothers’ knowledge through collaboration – effectively providing information that grows stronger and richer the more it is shared.
Effectively, the ResearchSpace platform, the British Museum’s implementation of the CIDOC CRM standard and the COPE strategy combine to form a body of cultural knowledge that is, in theory at least, infinitely repurposable, and which is uniquely designed to benefit from the collaborative, open and distributed nature of the Internet.
Our aim is to support museums and galleries in reaching the widest possible audience, now and in the future. This means supporting the development of simple, proportionate tools which unlock the full power of the sector’s information without a degree in Systems Engineering! The long-term aim is to build these approaches into the software tools which museums and galleries use in their everyday work, and in the process to unlock the tremendous value of their knowledge and expertise.
Building on the existing work of our Spectrum Partners, we hope to connect leading software providers with this initiative to ensure that the current and future generations of software tools for heritage management support the COPE approach.