Deconstructing the online collection: creatively repurposing museums and archives


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What is the public value of an online collection? Why should museums and archives invite digital artists to deconstruct and rebuild their online collections experience?

This paper argues that the traditional online collection- a database of object records- is fundamentally designed for research audiences, and presents very few opportunities for serendipitously engaging the casual browser. It will propose that in order to reach new audiences online, museums and archives should be less concerned with technical innovation and more interested in enabling and publishing creative reuse of collections; they should promote their collection as a resource bank to creative practitioners who design compelling digital experiences; and that designing digital heritage experiences to inspire curiosity and wonder is more important than facilitating learning.

This paper will refer to the innovative Half Memory project as a case study. The project, developed by TWAM with Tusk Music and Pixel Palace, invited musicians, sound artists and film makers to use TWAM’s collections as a resource for creating engaging (digital) heritage outputs; outputs that recontextualised historical material in order to inspire new audiences.

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  • Letters, diaries, scrapbook, illustrations, ephemera, human associations.
  • Engineering and architectural plans, documentary photography
  • Creative freedom- not linked to exhibition
  • Rich material used on the basis of audio/visual match with artistic approach
  • Museums are often tempted to provide all the details, tell the full story, provide context. Artists willing to focus completely on 1 isolated detail and discard the rest.
  • Using the object, image, historic context as a starting point for an imagined idea, story or concept
  • How the fidelity of an object creates impact
  • Deconstructing the online collection: creatively repurposing museums and archives

    1. 1. Deconstructing the online collection: the value in creatively repurposing museums and archives John Coburn @j0hncoburn
    2. 2. 9 museums and galleries 1 archives 1.1 million objects 450,000+ records online
    3. 3. The role and public value of the museum online collection…
    4. 4. Functions as an educational resource for people who know (roughly) what they’re looking for
    5. 5. Objective historical context Dates and chronologies Audiences who are satisfied with meaning extrapolated by museums Representative thumbnail images Object production data
    6. 6. Overstating the value of the online collection…
    7. 7. Online= new, diverse audience with incentives to explore
    8. 8. Online= Enormous database= new, diverse audience with incentives to explore rich, navigable content
    9. 9. Online= new, diverse audience with incentives to explore Enormous database= rich, navigable content Object record= engaging museum experience
    10. 10. Online= new, diverse audience with incentives to explore Enormous database= rich, navigable content Object record= engaging museum experience Innovation= technologies that duplicate the “object record experience” as social media/ apps/augmented reality etc
    11. 11. “(the value of) digital in the museum is not about endless collections web development it’s about developing new forms of curatorial practice”. Seb Chan, Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum
    12. 12. How do we enable the development of richer, more compelling collections experiences online?
    13. 13. Pilot project with Tusk Music and Pixel Palace arts programme. Inviting film makers, musicians, sound artists to identify resonant collections areas and create new work we can publish online. Published work intended to inspire new audiences with collections.
    14. 14. Promote the collections as a starting point/connection point for ideas and creativity. Audiences who• Have the motivation and passion to create. • Ruthlessly apply new critical perspectives to collections. • Deconstruct collections and objects, connect their meaning with ideas and concepts. • Create experimental, ambitious work with a captive audience in mind.
    15. 15. Public engagement aims• Not teaching history but inspiring wonder, stirring imagination, sparking empathy for the past. • Compel a new public exploration of collections. • Inspiring new proposals for creative reuse of collections.
    16. 16. “An album of songs concerned with the functions and consequences of violence. Family. Opposing forces of creation and destruction, memory and time, birth and death, body and soul”. Richard Dawson
    17. 17. “We’ve created a film and a suite of new songs, which is not about the Metro’s construction as such, but takes and holds on to some of the spirits conjured by these pictures. It’s an experiment in the pairing of sound and music, using rhythm and repetition to evoke and entrance, and think about the position of hope in civic life, forty years and a lifetime on from the origins of the photographs”. Warm Digits
    18. 18. Open call for sound and music responding to a broad North East historical theme; work that disrupts an understanding of the past. “35 hour broadcast hoping to rearrange and create new meaning from the past”. Imagined soundtrack to the construction of the Tyne Bridge, montage of oral histories and electronic music, field recordings, performance, found sound.
    19. 19. Creative processes for identifying resonant collections
    20. 20. The remarkable, beautiful, buried story
    21. 21. Harmonious aesthetics (post-war technological modernism and European urbanism)
    22. 22. Illuminating the one compelling detail
    23. 23. Playing with poetic gaps in an object’s narrative
    24. 24. Thematic, visual search (and museums are usually terrible at this)
    25. 25. The voice of the museum is silenced; objective historic interpretation is erased. Animated concepts, ideas, stories, questions create impact, not objects.
    26. 26. Impact
    27. 27. 10,000+ people accessed the produced work via online platforms and live stream High depth of public engagement- dwell time and interaction 40,000+ subsequent visits to (raw) collections material online Disseminated by diverse audiences, evidence of non-museum audiences (affinities to music/museums/sound/transport/local history)
    28. 28. Provide the right collections access and people will dedicate themselves to reusing it: 491 hours (daily rate of £250= £17,535)
    29. 29. Museum as ideas enabler, not experience designer?
    30. 30. 11 subsequent proposals submitted independently Museum exploring role as “ideas enabler” Museums as a home for good ideas, a space to develop creative practice and seed innovative outputs.
    31. 31. Recreating “aura” from objects: drawing machines continually sketching the collection.
    32. 32. Documentary film exploring social activism of the Spence Watson family
    33. 33. An examination of 3D printed objects and the effects of various stages of fidelity
    34. 34. The Man Who Thought The Moon Would Fall Out of the Sky (already developed, performed and touring independently of TWAM)
    35. 35. Success is not the quality of what’s produced but audiences understanding they have permission to create with collections. Creative space and freedom has high value and exists more often outside the museum! Emphasis is on meaningful experimentation not technology; original format could be digital or physical. Not a commissioning process. No declared funding. The kernel of each proposal is our collection and what’s created gives it new meaning.
    36. 36. John Coburn @j0hncoburn