Digital Resources for Regional Museums

Last Friday I attended the Hot Science Global Citizens symposium here in Sydney and many of the presentations focused on the problems facing the museum world when it comes to branding itself in the digital age. The presentations made it clear that ‘Climate Change’ was a useful theme from which to approach how well – or not – museums were doing in communicating this contested issue to the broader community.

The speakers conveyed a clear feeling that museums were facing a crisis which demanded a redefining of relevancy, especially in terms of how they resourced current activities and reaching beyond the exhibition model currently driving most of their activities. Reflecting on the talks it also seemed discussion about change, adoption of new technologies, engagement of citizen-scientists and re-branding the museum focused almost exclusively on large museums.

This made me think that if large museums have problems with relevancy and are looking at redirecting funding resources to pre and post exhibition audience engagement, or reconstituting what a museum exhibition is, what did this mean for the hundreds of Regional Museums across Australia?

Already these often volunteer run museums are facing huge issues and my main concern is what will happen if these big institutions change the rules of the game without integrating their regional counterparts?

While larger museums focus on re-inventing themselves Regional Museums have been expected to navigate this new terrain with even less resourcing. Of particular concern to me is some of the current discussion surrounding the ‘end of material culture’ collecting by museums and its replacement with digital technologies, conversations, and interactive web-based projects. (see Stephen Ferber’s LinkedIn discussion ‘The end of material culture collecting – it’s here!’ and post by James Chung, Susie Wilkening and Sally Johnstone, ‘Coming Soon the Future’. Understanding how current technologies can affect the interpretation of museum collections is critical for smaller museums many of whom define the importance of the work they do against their collections.

There are currently many affordable web-based tools for changing museum models. These include Twitter or Facebook, Google docs, Wiki’s, free cloud based software tools for editing, managing collections, free websites, analytic software, and increasing online access to documentation and collections held across the world. But how are these tools being integrated into our Regional Museums?

At the ‘Hot Science’ symposium the final activity was a brainstorming workshop. Our group posited an idea for setting up a fund for Regional Museum staff to develop a travelling exhibition on climate change. In this scenario representatives of the winning entries would visit different types of museums (natural history, science, art) where they would work on a travelling exhibition based around a few objects from the museum but mainly focused on web 2.0 tools (Wiki’s, Google Docs , Dropbox, Twitter and Facebook). The final project would then be travelled by the representative, along with guest speakers (e.g. scientist, miner, farmer, and council officer), to other Regional museums to gather stories of climate variations, engage in debate and post this data to the centralized project site using the web 2.0 tools.

This would see skills and knowledge relating to new technologies shared as the exhibition travels. It could also have spin off benefits if more regional communities were engaged in citizen science projects to contribute to plant insect and animal identification in specific areas.
If there is any interest in developing this, or other ideas, I am happy to set up a Wiki or google group to help develop something more concrete. What do others think?

4 Responses to “Digital Resources for Regional Museums”

  1. Karen Barrett Says:

    I like this idea, it has alot of potential. Kudos to you all for thinking about the regional/volunteer museums/galleries/keeping places etc. I wonder, is there a way of looking at alternative themes (instead of climate change) which might help support local cultural heritage organisations? Taking a broad look at the regional collection theme and using that as a basis. For instance, the Toowoomba region is a transport hub, and the majority of its galleries, archives, museums, societies and libraries have something transport related in their collections.

  2. Marjan Ruiter Says:

    Hello Joy, Your recent update made me uneasy. All the attention we give to social media and Web 2.0 applications seems to create an atmosphere where collections and objects are becoming less important for museums. From my point of view (as director of a regional museum in the Netherlands) this is not right. It seems as if modern media become a goal in itself instead of being a means to an end. The objective should be to attract attention to our cultural heritage or special art collections. If anything our collections are what makes us special and distinguishes museums from other institites and organisations.
    We should be extremely carefull in our decisions on what we preserve from the past and from the present. Although is a very obvious remark but still very true; once lost it is gone forever. We have an obligation towards our own generation and to future generations. We should not lose sight of our aim and purpose.

  3. admin Says:

    Hi Marjan – As a person with a background in curatorial I’m also uneasy about the current lack of clarity arouind museums collections. I posted the article because I think that rather than becoming less important collections need to be acknowledged as being in many ways the things that define museum content from other online content. However the selling of this has not been particulaly well done to date. Why I’m not sure but it is clear that digital tools whether databases, websites or e-publications are inescapable realities for the management of collections.

    I take your point about how current decisions need to be fully aware of the public trust placed in the hands of museums for current and future generation. Perhaps changing old systems of managing collection work flows (which are usually geared to public interface outcomes like exhibitions) into newer ones which understand the importance of detailed documantation of collections, images, online content, greater public access,to objects, and developing exhibitions, will actually enhance the relevancy of collections rather than dimish them.

  4. admin Says:

    Hi Karen, yes I think a number of different themes could work. I guess ‘climate Change’ is one but ransport is another which could be used to pool information from across the regions into a central site.

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