By Nick Poole, CEO, Collections Trust
I was invited last Saturday to speak at ORGCon 2012, the conference of the Open Rights Group, on the subject of 'Should Digital archives be open?'. It was a fantastic opportunity to engage with the ORG community, which seemed to span everything from Government technologists to privacy experts, copyleft evangelists and even a smattering of museum, archive and library people.
The title of my presentation was 'The Culture Paradox (or why Shakespeare is Spanish)', and I used it as an opportunity to explore the barriers that stand in the way of the GLAM sector embracing the principle of 'open'. I was specifically asked to look at the fact that when called upon to deliver more open data, the sector frequently cites poverty and funding as the most fundamental barrier - a defence which I suspect may be far more symptom than cause.
I kicked off by looking at the excellent analysis of 60 art museums' Mission Statements, provided by Art Basel. If you haven't read the full analysis, I really suggest you do. I know of few better ways of inferring the self-identity of museums (specifically art museums, admittedly) than by looking at the words they use to describe their aspirations.
The Art Basel wordle highlights the importance of phrases like 'collect', 'preserve', 'educate' and 'experience', but has very little to say about openness or sharing.
It is the vocabulary of the situated experience much more than the vocabulary of distribution or co-production. It is redolent of controlled contexts and the one-way transmission of knowledge.
I'd argue that as we face the new era of digital transmission and massively decentralised ownership of the means of digital production, this core identity is creating a profound intertia. It is a challenge that is compounded by the traditional edifice of the museum - slightly cheekily, I used the imposing facade of the British Museum and the now-famous photograph of an allied-forces tank parked on the lawn of the Baghdad Museum as a metaphor for the protectionism of the museum experience.
Of course, this is a simplistic characterisation, and of course there are many museum technologists who believe ardently that the physical, situated idiom of the museum needs to change, and is changing. But there are many more museum people for whom the Cultural Imperative is fundamentally to select, to collect, to interpret and to conserve.
In this 'traditionalist' model of cultural delivery, the creation of experiences in highly-controlled contexts is still prime. There is still a premium on our role as trusted intermediaries between the user and their culture, and particularly in the creation of 'high-end' knowledge which stands in stark opposition to the glorious diversity of user-generated knowledge.
It is not helpful to point out that this self-identity is, largely, illusory. That all taxonomies start life as folksonomies. That all content is generated by a user.
And indeed, in our recent provocations about the role of Curatorship, it seems that there is a resurgence of the fundamental role of the curator as expert. And it is also true that many users come to our services precisely because of authoritative interpretation based on deep subject knowledge, but we must not mistake authority for neutrality or objectivity. The selection of collections for acquisition was highly political throughout the past century and now the re-selection of collections for digitisation is equally political in nature (we had some fun at this point with the selection of Tony Blair for inclusion in Islington Museum's display of 'Islington Radicals').
I also took the opportunity of sharing with the ORGCon audience the current Mission Statement of one of the UK National Museums, which I reproduce below:
The Museum's responsibilities are to safeguard and enhance the value of its pre-eminent assets:
- Its collections
- Its expertise
- Its buildings
The Museum's objectives are to spread the benefits of these assets by:
Maximizing access and inspiration for all users
Satisfying stakeholders, locally, nationally and internationally
Effective organization and sound financial management
I find the language of this statement fascinating - words like 'responsibility' and 'safeguard' speak of a civic duty founded in protectionism, while the repetition of 'its' in 'its collections, its expertise, its buildings' could not be a clearer expression of the singularity of ownership and therefore of voice. By the end of the statement, the 'spreading the benefits' is almost like giving alms to the poor and the unwashed. I have always railed against the word 'access' - being a passive donation rather than an active, even proactive, conversation. Overall, it is a titanic expression of ownership and self-perception (I am not going to say which National museum it is, but you can Google it!).
The central tenet of my argument is that when you get right down to it, the inertia displayed by museums is not fundamentally a problem of cost, nor is it a question of capacity or copyright. It is a question of mission. The creation of an open, distributed ecosystem of re-use of digital content is not fundamental to our mission as museums. Indeed, given that many museums still labour under performance indicators which prioritise situated, on-website hits, the social web actively runs contrary to our primary purpose and to our vision of success as a sector.
The problem, for me, is that our mission *sounds* identical to many of the aspirations of the open content/open access lobbies, but the meaning of the words, and the intent that lies beneath them is fundamentally different. Museums are willing to flirt with openness on the Wikimedia/Flickr commons frontier in the name of marketing and engagement, but safe in the knowledge that there is always a solid home to return to.
Given this, the future looks really interesting. Either, enough experimentation will encourage enough museum pioneers to make the crossing into this brave new territory or, as I suspect, we will exist in a semi-permanent state of oscillation between the two. I noted the emerging idea (discussed earlier via the Museums Computer Group list) that most museums will operate an 80%/15%/5% rule - that 80% of the collections data will be of minimal financial potential, and is therefore relatively 'safe' to be shared openly, that there is a 'grey area' of roughly 15% of the collections which will be protected because they might generate some income one day, and that there is 5% which should be locked-down and licensed as a bankable revenue stream.
Of course, the problem with this is that it's very hard to be a 'little bit open'. There is an argument to say that in the wider consumer sphere, an event horizon has been crossed - that the distributed nature of the web, and the characteristic of the network in routing around copyright as a point of failure have fundamentally devalued the business model of controlled access to digital content. It might be that the smartest play at this point would be to leap in with both feet and to revel in a new-found role as curators and collectors of the social web. That we are unlikely ever to do so is, to a large extent due to the very profound difference between the people who lead museums an the people who are responsible for technology in museums.
For now, though, we will continue to exist in this slightly awkward compromise whereby we speak the language of openness and engagement, but fail to deliver it on the terms in which the consumer increasingly understands it (the paradox I mentioned in the title). This compromise position will continue to give rise to strange anomalies - Shakespeare is arguably the greatest English playwright. As an ambassador for the language, its people and our history as an island nation, you'd think he'd be perfect. And so why is it that when you go to http://www.europeana.eu and search for 'Shakespeare', all you will find is digitised folios from the University of Madrid and the Freie Universitat in Berlin?
I shared my session with Ben White, Head of IP at the British Library, and I addressed this question to him. 'Ah', he said, 'there are lots of issues with that'. Given the articulate and empassioned pleas by Corey Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig at ORGCon that day, I'd suggest that these are issues we urgently need to resolve.
View my slides here:
And my post-match interview on Digital Archives and privacy here: