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Is Front End the new Back End for Museums?

Right, bear with me on this. This is one of those posts about museum systems which I know may only appeal to a tiny cross-section of humanity. You might want to go and make a cup of tea or watch 'Strictly' or something.

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a post about a methodology called 'COPE' (Create Once, Publish Everywhere), which prompted a discussion on the museum computer group e-list about content, data and publishing in museums.

A few days after that discussion, I happened to be at the GLAM-WIKI Conference at the British Library (which is worth another post in its own right). The wonderful Mia Ridge gave a presentation on the history of open data in museums, which included the richly evocative phrase 'are museums drinking their own champagne?' - by which I think she meant that in addition to using open cultural data to power customer-facing applications, museums ought also to be making use of it in our own work of interpreting and managing collections.

Mia has helpfully posted the text of her talk 'An (even briefer) history of open cultural data' on the Open Objects blog. 

And then, last Friday, I was invited to join the Advisory Board for the ResearchSpace project at the British Museum to witness the unveiling of the latest iteration of their software platform. Dominic Oldman, the Lead Investigator on ResearchSpace, calls it a 'collaborative online humanities research environment using semantic linked data', and has posted a really useful introductory video which demonstrates the power of what it can do (see below!):

And it was while sitting there enjoying tea and biscuits in the Boardroom at the British Museum that it struck me - there really isn't a difference between 'front-end' and 'back-end' for museums any more, and that the long-term impact of this is likely to be quite profound.

I'd better explain. We're used to talking about museums in terms of 'front-of-house' and 'back office'. Front-of-house is the bit the customer sees, and is geared towards creating quite a stylised experience in which they can enjoy the collections, spend time together, buy things and generally get on with the business of being a museum visitor. It's usually the bit that's most recently been painted.

'Back office' on the other hand is more or less the pit at the base of the all-seeing eye of Mordor. It's (mostly) cardboard boxes containing marketing materials for exhibitions that nobody can remember actually being put on, offices that look like they were kitted out with remaindered furniture stock in the 1970's and notes of barely-suppressed anguish about teabags NOT BEING YOURS.

The point is that, so long as the front-of-house experience is shiny and exciting, we can live with a degree of chaos, disorder and underinvestment behind the scenes. As long as the public sees the graceful swan gliding serenely across the waters of history (or something), they don't need to concern themselves with the ugly feet and frantic paddling that make it all happen. 

And in some senses, we took this world-view into the digital age. The website, and latterly the app, is the front-of-house experience for our visitors. It has to be all design-ey and swipeable, giving the air of infinite infallibility and authority. It has to 'enhance our brand identity', and 'extend the visitor journey, so that key touch points with our brand values can be fully leveraged'.

The murky world of our collections data - those millions upon millions of catalogue records that have travelled with us from handwritten card to punchcard, to typewritten card to database record, that have been annotated and scuffed and enhanced with illustrations and marginalia, that's the back-office where we keep the real knowledge about the treasures in our care. 

But now, as museums begin to virtualise their information systems into the cloud and embraced the crowd as a partner, the distinction between front and back, inside and out, has become less and less meaningful. Customers - real human beings - are being allowed behind the scenes with our knowledge. And collections managers, curators and registrars, inculcated with 20 years of being digital consumers at home are demanding more, richer, better-integrated functionalities from systems which are coming less and less to resemble back-office databases and more and more consumer-ready applications. 

ResearchSpace is an interesting case in point - it is, at heart, a linked open data documentation system on steroids. But its look and feel wouldn't be out of place in a high-end enterprise application. Not quite as much effort has gone into the user-interface and experience design as the under-the-bonnet data-wrangling, but it's not far off. The end result is an environment which is neither front-of-house, nor back-office, but both at the same time. It does a hardcore, complex museum job, but it does it in an environment which would (I think) feel as comfortable for a casual user as it would for an academic researcher or expert curator. 

Within ResearchSpace, a considerable amount of effort has gone into things like user session ID's and version control, in order to provide a stable environment within which different audiences can collbaorate. But it is not just in ResearchSpace that these boundaries start to be blurred. 

As I sit here in the Costa Coffee at Heathrow Airport, I look across the table at one of those ageless, placeless technology company advertisements (I am still trying to figure out on what layer of marketing hell it made sense to unleash the slogan 'Our company just open-sourced the Cloud' on the unsuspecting London Underground traveller). This one reads 'Infor's business applications let you work the way you live'.

And that's kind of the point. In a world where technology increasingly presents as applications that enable interaction with knowledge across multiple platforms, there is an increasing expectation that the platforms we use will be inherently flexible, open and adaptive.

When we recently published the draft of 'SPECTRUM Digital Asset Management' (SPECTRUM DAM), we posited 5 different bodies of material which museums need to manage:

1. Physical collections

2. Digital assets, including surrogates of collection items

3. 'Authoritative' or research-led knowledge about the collections

4. Narrative and user-generated responses to the collections

5. Administrative information to manage the above

But no sooner had we committed this to paper than it raises the question of why we throw an arbitrary perimeter around 'collections and collections-related knowledge' as distinct from 'everything else'. What the logic of COPE demands, what tools like ResearchSpace point towards, and what linked open data makes possible is a world in which all of the knowledge, tangible and intangible assets of the organisation can be stored, preserved, managed and used in a coherent context and overlaid with layers of application and interface which repurpose these assets for different contexts and uses.

In other words, rather than having a collections data set that is migrated, tidied up and titivated for public consumption, both the public and the curator (and the academic and the developer) will all drink from the same champagne. 

This approach is already apparent in the burgeoning generation of tools which sit above (or extend the functionality of) your Collections Management System, permitting the user to draw on multiple sources of knowledge, curate them in a single context and interface, and reflow them to suit the needs of different outputs. Many of the leading software providers are already in the process of evolving and adapting their systems from highly task-oriented collection systems to more multi-valent publishing, asset and workflow management systems.

For our systems, then, the logic of the crowd appears to lead inexorably to a world in which there is no front-end and no back-end, but instead an ecosystem of more or less specialist applications drawing on a body of structured open data, derived both from our own knowledge, the knowledge of our users and knowledge drawn from other contexts across the linked data cloud.

And finally, this leads me to wonder whether the values and behaviours of this new model will make the return trip into the way we run museums, in much the same way as we brought the values of physical collections management into the digital context. Will we one day see a museum in which there is no back-office, in which the public are free to roam, to help out in the conservation studio and to crowd source next year's exhibition programme? In which it doesn't matter that the knowledge about collections is ours, yours or theirs, but that it is captured, contextualised and built on to help us make sense of the chaotic progression of history?

In short, is front-end the next back-end for museums?

Right, got that out of my system. How was Strictly? No, you didn't miss much.









Comments (3)Add Comment
What Jim Blackaby might have answered to this
written by Klaus Bulle, April 24, 2013
15 years ago, Jim Blackaby made a remark about this question and said:
'There is no reason to think that the tools we use to gather and manage information will be the same ones we use to present or distribute it.' He explained it with this image:
So the question is not just layout or design, but functionality. Jim explained it by saying that, yes, you can eat directly from the slaughter stand or you could try to a kill a pig with a sauce boat. But it's smarter to use the tools for the purposes they are designed for.
Does the museum audience really need the same tools that e.g. a registrar needs?
written by Veronica Bullock | Director | Significance International | , April 30, 2013
What a wonderful world this would be Nick! It comes across as a world in which priorities don't have to be set or managed due to finite resources (human or financial), in which all human skill and ethics levels are optimal, and where software has no bugs. In short it is Museovana! smilies/smiley.gif
fully leveraged, indeed
written by Kevin, June 15, 2013
I especially enjoyed 'extend the visitor journey, so that key touch points with our brand values can be fully leveraged'. I received that memo...

To your point regarding information, this is the premise of the web at its outset, an objective I find laudable and worthy, yet it all depends upon the intentions of the participants. (c.f. many wikipedia entries.) As regards other tasks, (conservation?) perhaps not. specialized skill is precisely that.

The interpretation of the museum is already 'crowd sourced' -- although not institutionally acknowledged -- in that every cohort conducts their own conversation about what they experience and what it means.

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