Local museums shine a light on their environs and experimenting with location-based digital heritage offerings in this setting can act as a petri dish for germinating local insights. An early foray was Map The Museum, which centres on the public adding and correcting location data about items drawn from Brighton Pavilion and Museums’ collections to an online map of the city. So what did it tell us?
Launched in 2012, the project emerged conceptually and then in practical delivery terms from a partnership between Brighton Pavilion and Museums (BPM), and an external agency, Caper. But the delivery-end side of the partnership was actually three-way, with the public being the third key player. It’s whole purpose hinges on civic input.
Unlike the apps I’ve written about before, it’s an example of location based heritage that doesn’t, for its keystone activity, require a smartphone or the physical presence of participants at the geospatial point of reference. What is does rely on however – in tapping latent public knowledge and bringing it into the collections ecosystem – is a curiosity or passion for relating heritage material to place and locality.
In turn, as we’ll see, Map The Museum prises open the premise of how user-generated geospatial referencing and other place-based digital participation in the heritage sector can be understood to matter – showing what interaction pivoting on such criteria unlocks the potential for, and what public motivations are at play.
Crowdsourcing location data or heritage engagement outside the museum?
The service hones the practice of crowdsourcing down to two simple goals:
• adding to and correcting collection records information from a geospatial perspective
• creating a dataset that is publicly reusable.
But putting this task in the public’s hands was informed by a broader motivation than just outsourcing the creation of a new reusable geospatial dataset. According to Kevin Bacon, the museum’s Digital Development Officer:
Map the Museum came out of my thinking behind the initial concept of what eventually evolved into our Story Drop app, which was really about how can we engage audiences through re-contextualising our collections outside of the museum walls. It was very much an experiment, and aside from the technological aspirations, I always saw its potential value being more in the form of engagement rather than the narrow benefits in data harvesting. (Bacon, 2014)
The overriding goal, then, was to see if public mapping of museum objects was a fruitful new pathway to connecting the public with the local history residing both in their local museum’s collections and out on the city streets.
As with the Loughborough Junction WW1 app, it wasn’t geared particularly to visitors, tourists or a global audience, but rather to local residents in the immediate vicinity of Brighton, Hove and the surrounding county of Sussex. But in contrast to LJWW1, the type of locals Map The Museum initially pursued were somewhat different.
Lessons of crowdsourcing heritage data elsewhere
While for Brighton Museum experimenting with online engagement took primacy over enriching collections, the benefits of crowdsourcing a new collections dataset are not insignificant – especially when the results provide new, more accessible and enriched perspectives on collections, records and other historical information on a scale that would not otherwise be possible for institutions alone to do.
Some other crowdsourcing projects in the heritage sphere with a locative emphasis – both prior to and contemporary with Map The Museum – achieved success in attracting large scale participation, particularly in regards to digital transcription-based work.
A case in point is Old Weather, a ‘citizen science’ initiative which “invites members of the public to assist in digitising weather observations recorded in US log books dating from the mid-19th century onwards” (Wikipedia).
Operated through the Zooniverse digital platform by a wide consortium of museums, archives, universities and other bodies, in their first 22 months they garnered input from 16,400 volunteers, transcribing the weather data from 1,090,745 pages of old log books of 302 ships, generating 1.6 million weather observations.
Other online historical crowdsourcing projects with a location-based dimension have embraced more subjective and personal aspects of heritage alongside collating geospatial information about objects – virtualising practices more akin to the disciplines of mass observation and oral history.
One in this vein is Britain From Above – a four year project coordinated by English Heritage in partnership with heritage bodies from the three other nations of the United Kingdom. It’s deemed to have succeeded in its aims, which were to “populate the website with memories and personal photographs and provide essential information for the cataloguing process through identifying unlocated photographs” for their digitised Aerofilm collection (Museums Computer Group, 2013).
In various ways, enabled through digital platforms (but also supported, at times, in-person through community outreach programmes and events) such projects aim to augment culturally and scientifically important bodies of knowledge through coordinated public involvement in providing, transcribing and checking information resources in which location often plays a significant part.
From the point of view of Brighton Pavilion and Museums however, the level of “virtual volunteering” input to Map The Museum by summer 2014 had not been enough to warrant calling it a success.
This is thought, in part, to be due to the fact that the potential audience of participants with local knowledge is not big enough.
We have never been able to attract a significant user base. In the two years it’s been live, only 235 items have been located; of the 2000 or so users who have engaged with it, 85% come to the website from outside of Brighton & Hove, which does not really support a website that ideally requires local knowledge for a person to participate. To be frank, it’s a crowdsourcing experiment that has never appealed to a ‘crowd’ – I strongly suspect most of those who access the site are people with an interest in crowdsourcing / community participation.
Had we seriously considered its effectiveness as a crowdsourcing tool at that stage, we would have recognised that there were some major flaws in the idea. The most obvious one is that Brighton is a fairly small city of 270,000 or so people: it simply doesn’t scale in the way that the idea might in London or Birmingham. Map the Museum simply didn’t have enough impact to really change the culture around community participation. (Bacon, 2014)
Another inescapable fact is the vast difference in partnership size and likely outcome: Map The Museum + Caper would be unfairly compared with the large consortiums and associated audiences and communications channels that powered Britain From Above and Old Weather.
Building a public community: history enthusiasts or data geeks?
A further reason Map The Museum didn’t connect with a sufficiently large audience motivated to participate, Bacon reflects, was a lack of attention to already evidenced user behaviours in the local heritage and history online volunteering domain – resulting in a focus on the wrong audiences:
It was drawn up as a technological prototype… Part of its aim was always to simply see if people would use it, but user behaviour wasn’t factored into the design very much at all. The emphasis was very much on building it first, which is one of the big flaws of this type of approach, and why I’ve grown quite wary of hacks and prototyping sessions over the last year or so. Having promoted it through several community groups, the Open Data Cities conference in Brighton in 2012, and in Brighton Museum at the 2012 Brighton Digital Festival, it’s pretty clear that there is very little public interest in the idea. (Bacon, 2014)
The stress on “creating open data” in the frontline presentation and promotion of the service also worked against attracting participants who were enthusiastic primarily about history and local cultural heritage rather than technology and content re-use factors, and to whom ‘open data’ is an unfamiliar concept. Bacon explains why this happened.
The initial focus on promoting Map the Museum to technologists was driven by wider ambitions and, in part, guidance from the Arts Council… as they have a strategic desire to link cultural / arts organisations with the growing creative industries in the UK. Also, as Map The Museum was based on the idea of enhancing and distributing open data, its primary purpose was only really meaningful to technologists.
If developing a crowdsourcing project in the future, I wouldn’t look to technologists or the creative industries in the first instance at all. From my experience of the last couple of years, these people rarely see the links between cultural data and other forms of data. (Bacon, 2014)
Even if what is judged as adequate participation levels and local involvement have not materialised, the participative approach of Map The Museum still synchs with Brighton Pavilion and Museum’s overall current strategy and was feeding into the new digital strategy Bacon was preparing when I was in touch with him in 2014:
Its creation pre-dates our current Forward Plan and the digital strategy I am currently working on. It would support those ambitions very easily, especially given that our 2013 mission statement expressly acknowledges that [Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums] “operates in a digital world making collections and knowledge available on line and providing a platform for user generated content and debate.” But Map the Museum is not a workable model for carrying this forwards.
Upsides of open heritage platforms and experiments
In spite of the participant community shortfall that limited Map The Museum’s uptake, the project had some clearly positive outcomes, not all of them expected.
In my view the biggest barrier to citizen or community participation is not organisational culture, but finding willing participants. However, where Map The Museum did trigger a small culture change was in making colleagues aware that data can be repurposed.
Some of my colleagues were very impressed by the potential of using it as a visualisation tool, and the idea of crowdsourcing as a way of completing documentation tasks… but what was more arresting for some of my colleagues was that data could be taken out of our Content Management System and turned into something new. Encouraging more data awareness was probably the one significant success of MtM. (Bacon, 2014).
Another productive outcome was that the mapping platform developed with Caper was planned to be re-used for a local archaeology project running from April 2014 to March 2015.
This envisaged repurposing the map as the online visualisation platform of the Heritage Lottery Fund-backed ‘Whitehawk Camp’ community archaeology project which centred on the 5,500 year old Stone Age monument and collection of objects excavated from the site in the 1920s and 1930s.
Supported with a series of outreach events, volunteers would learn “how to catalogue and examine archaeological finds, undertake geophysical survey, excavate archaeological remains and undertake conservation work to the monument… The results of the project will be interpreted through varied digital media and an archaeological archive report.” (UCL, 2014).
In fact, beyond the timescale of my dissertation’s research, the collaborative digital action moved to Brighton Museum’s Story Drop app.
Whitehawk Camp volunteers added artefacts and landmarks data and information from the Neolithic camp for a new archaeology tour featured alongside Story Drop app’s many other citywide object-themed tours (Orange, H. et al 2015). However, the momentum to involve the local community in co-creating content for the app was rooted in the Map The Museum experience.
This outcome is another example of the myriad benefits that can be unlocked from treating virtual heritage experiments flexibly. In turn, it highlights the potential value that can be realised at the local level in digital location-based heritage services imbued with a community mission. As a petri dish experiment, Map The Museum was fruitful.
Taken together, these inspirational and reusable results of the three-way collaborative partnership struck with creative technology partner Caper and the public are in line with Weil’s stress on the emergence of a “refocus on the museum public service function… releasing the museum from this [collections-centred] disciplinary straightjacket”. (Weil, 2007, p. 35, 40)
Takeaways from a digital public engagement experiment
Far from casting a shadow, its engagement shortcomings are a key part what makes Map The Museum such a valuable project. The misplaced focus on data technologists and creative industries specialists – while it mightn’t be a problem in less heritage-focused projects or ones with more resources and longer timeframes – was here salutary as a future guidepoint for the museum sector and others.
Reviewing the experience lends credence to the scenario wherein, if Map The Museum had focused on what motivates public participants in comparable projects to get active had been put at the centre of their online engagement and offline outreach tactics, perhaps what John H. Falk (2011) calls peoples’ “situated identities” could have brought activity to life at a more sustainable level given the project’s resources.
For similar initiatives in the future, a strategy geared more resolutely to mobilising what Falk (2011) categorises as the ‘heritage explorers, facilitators and hobbyists’ in the local and national community could mitigate the issues of scaling linked to population levels and an insufficiently interested digerati that Bacon cites, increasing the likelihood of success.
Location based heritage and mobilising online co-creation
What emerges from this project retrospective is a portrait of a museum willing to experiment in its drive to find new ways to engage with audiences, colleagues who’ve been switched onto the possibilities of repurposing collections data, and an institution that sees potential in renewing and cooperating openly with its local community through experiences that are about pooling local knowledge, sharing technological resources and creating a more tangibly shared sense of meaning.
Map The Museum shows that – whether as a public platform for augmenting collections records with geolocative information, or as a map or app-based canvas for community heritage activities to be visualised – the disciplines once preserved inside museum walls and professions are now being expanded by location-centred digital services to engage and foreground the importance of multidisciplinary, community and public action.
With its approach in Map the Museum and its associated reuses, impacts and spins-offs, Brighton Pavilion and Museums joins the ranks of those who have both moved the dial on institutional attitudes to opening up museum data and set out to engage audiences as citizen co-creators with the “meaningful work” Proctor (2012) cites as among the principles and functions of the “museum as a distributed network”.
Source note & thanks:
This post is based on one of four case studies featured in the dissertation for my Masters in Digital Heritage taken at University of Leicester, Department of Museum Studies, which I graduated from in 2015.
The dissertation title was ‘Heritage Everyware: How does location based pervasive digital media alter the conception and function of the museum as the collector and curator of shared cultural experience?’
Thanks go to Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer at Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove, for his participation in this element of my dissertation and his permission to reproduce his input here.
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