Quantity or quality?

August 12, 2010

This might seem like an odd question, especially given the vast (vast) quantity of effort that goes into digitisation, rights checking, caption authoring and so on. But I’m also a fan of taking a step back at least every so often and asking odd, obvious and possibly stupid questions.

The question is in part prompted by an (apparently controversial) post on Read Write Web (I Don’t Know Much About Art But I Know What’s Online). I say “apparently controversial” because it seemed to kick off a fair-sized discussion on the MCG list, at least one blog post and a bunch of tweets from people who seemed to be a bit cross about it.

FWIW, it seemed to me to be an interesting and mostly fair post, albeit with moments of obvious silliness. Defining a single “museum experience”, for example, is easily as foolish as defining a single “shopping experience” or single “reading experience” or single any experience – it seems blindingly obvious there is no single experience, no single context, no single person. At the same time the point – that there is, really, nothing quite like seeing the real thing, no matter which way you cut it – is a fair one.

All of that aside, the interesting questions asked by the post seemed to be:

1. Is the Holy Grail of collections online to get THE LOT up on the web?

2. What makes for a good online collections experience, especially if you’ve delivered 1) and your collections number tens of thousands?

And of course, underling these two questions is, for me, the interesting one: why? Why do it at all? Why spend hundreds of thousands (actually, millions upon millions..) of pounds digitising collections for distribution to a digital audience?

Clearly, the use-cases for online collections are as varied as anything else but there must be some answers here, right? If you’re a medium-sized museum considering your digitisation strategy, how do you choose what to do? Is it all about quantity, about some kind of “number of collections items online up 400% this year!” box-ticking exercise? And if it isn’t about quantity but quality, how do you go about measuring the impact of your strategy?

I find it hard to see past my own perspective on this one: personally, I’d always prefer a tiny number of objects (hundreds, or even tens!) where each has been given real, personal attention. Seeing enormous great lists of stuff where QUANTITY IS ALL seems somehow to miss the entire point. For me, this isn’t about the mass of objects but is somehow about the “gaps” between the objects: the relationships between them, the relationships to people and, most importantly, the stories. George Cavan’s now-famous matchbox means nothing without the story attached to it: with it, it has a huge and tear-jerking impact.

There again, I’m a punter and not a researcher. Maybe they’d think very differently.

Update: see Frankie Roberto’s post: “..what an art museum experience might feel like online”

3 thoughts on “Quantity or quality?

  1. Frankie Roberto – Some thoughts on what an art museum experience might feel like online

  2. Picking up on your last sentence. Certainly when it comes to Archives and University Special Collections, a Researcher is after material related to a specific topic/area/person/etc. So for us (a University), putting a very items up online *really* *well* if of little use when the researcher (who could be anywhere in the world) is after something else in the collection.

    It will be different with Art sure, but I imagine the undergrad in Brazil trying to do their dissertation on some less known works from an artist, let us say one of which is held in a UK museum. Being able to access one of those art works online when they have no local copy of the work, I presume, must be incredibly useful. Though this seems argue for the long tail of works being put online. I guess it is a very different use case from a random person who just wants to browse some collections.

  3. hey Mike,

    this really isn’t an either/or question.

    and it’s a difficult one, as it cuts right to the heart of the challenge of identifying the ‘museum audience’. the reality is that there really isn’t one audience: there are many with different interests, and levels of subject and technical literacy.

    one thing is clear, though. the research community *wants* access to museum collections information online. all of it. warts and all. for a recent UK-based articulation of this see “Discovering physical objects: Meeting researchers’ needs” at http://bit.ly/cfba9C

    ideally, digital documentation about collections in its ‘raw’ form becomes the foundation for authored and interpretive features. it’s a fallacy to think that these are directly competing and interchangable approaches because they serve different user communities and needs.

    /jennifer

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