Notes from THATCamp Museums NYC

The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey, Fellow at the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

The Humanities and Technology Camp, or THATCamp, is a model for holding low-cost, collaborative “unconferences” at which professionals from a range of different communities can share tools, knowledge, and ideas to support the relationship between the humanities and technology. One outcome of the flexible THATCamp model has been the variety of THATCamps, from thematic events like the upcoming THATCamp Theory  to location-specific ones like THATCamp Caribbean  (sign me up, please). A few weeks ago, I was able to attend the first museum-focused event, THATCamp Museums NYC, which was organized by Kimon Keramidas and students and staff of the Bard Graduate Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

THATCampers at Bard Graduate Center during THATCamp Museums NYC. Photo by author.

The first day consisted of nine workshops on museum-related tools and projects, including one we conducted on Viewshare, our free, open-source tool for building dynamic, interactive interfaces to digital cultural heritage collections. Other workshops demonstrated Omeka , Smarthistory.org , TourML and TAP, and other tools and projects to expand the accessibility and appeal of museums and their collections. The full THATCamp Museums NYC schedule can be seen online.

The following two days featured an eclectic mix of sessions in which campers participated in free-flowing conversations about the intersection of technology and museums and included discussion of additional tools and initiatives, such as the OSCI Toolkit  and BGC and NYPL’s collaborative Visualizing Nineteenth Century New York  project. Other sessions worked to build tablet apps for museums and to better understand the role of digital imaging and online exhibitions. Notes from a number of the sessions are available online . There were over two dozen sessions total, but of the ones I attended, a number of themes emerged:

Initiatives go locative: Geolocation will play an increasingly large part in the way that museums implement technology to support their overall mission. Online geolocation interfaces like Viewshare offer a unified entry point to distributed collections and location-based mobile apps such as TourML help patrons navigate a museum’s physical space by providing additional information about nearby objects and exhibits. Other tools could allow patrons to create a personalized pathway through a museum based on preferences about object type, period, or other characteristics. Locative data matched with existing descriptive and contextual data has the potential to create new ways for patrons to interact, both online and on-site, with museum collections.

Flexible organizational structures: Museums are still working to find the best way to situate technology resources organizationally. Relatively recent efforts such as NYPL Labs  or the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Digital Media department  are indicative of efforts to centralize digital services within the organization and enhance their exposure to other units. Other flexible organization ideas, such as cross-department working groups or detailing tech staff to curatorial units can continue to strengthen the relationship between technology departments and those focusing on traditional museum services.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. LC-D4-42981

Iterative project models need to become iterative program models: The iterative workflow that often drives web projects needs to be applied programmatically to the use of technology across museums. Large-scale or exhibition-dependent implementations of online tools will be difficult to maintain in the current budget climate and may crowd out more nimble, patron-driven projects. As digital services and patron expectations evolve, museums will need to remain flexible and iterative towards their use of technology.

Magnifying curatorial expertise: The role of the “curator” has been besieged lately by the terms appropriation by those outside the museum community. Within museums, however, the curatorial expertise is recognized as fundamental to giving meaning and import to collections. But museums are still understanding how best to utilize curatorial expertise online. Emerging technologies offer the potential to develop novel ways to connect curators and patrons and to provide innovative ways of experiencing and interpreting collections.

Sustained advocacy: Technology can often seem a disruptive force; this means that adopting digital tools and emerging technologies requires a special attention to advocacy. Remaining engaged with patrons, co-workers, administrators, and colleagues in the professional community can help employees articulate a strong, sustained message that advocates for the benefits of technology in museums. Events like THATCamp help foster a discussion of how best to formulate that message.

Many of these themes manifest the “space versus place” tension underlying the relationship between technology and museums. While the access, linkage, and connectivity possible in the online space provides an exciting new means by which to interact with patrons, enhance collections, and build upon the knowledge of curators, computer screens, networks, and online exhibits cannot replace the unique, visceral experience of seeing works of art in person – the thrill and power of the “place-ness” of museums. THATCamp Museums NYC offered a convivial, informal format for participants both to explore those differences and to collaborate on how best to bridge them in order to improve the overall museum experience.

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