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Archive for the ‘New Technology’ Category

I am traveling in Italy at the moment, and earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit the new Museum of the History of Bologna, which opened in January of this year. It’s housed in the former palace of the Pepoli family, and it’s part of a larger project, Genus Bononiae, initiated by the Carisbo Foundation to restore and link together eight cultural sites in Bologna. The Museum of the History of Bologna is a particularly interesting city museum for several reasons, one of which is that it’s a distinct departure from the “museo civico” model found in so many Italian cities. At some point I need to write a proper blog post about my experience there. But as is often the case when I visit for the first time a museum I really like, the seed of a new idea is planted in my head and I feel compelled to spend my post sharing that instead.

The idea I had in Bologna was sparked by a gallery at the city museum called “Your Museum” (pictured above). Its goal is to involve Bologna residents by inviting them to bring their own objects to be exhibited in the museum. Massimo Negri, the museum’s scientific director (i.e. chief content developer), told me he had originally hoped this gallery would be much bigger, with a system where people could bring in their objects and on the spot have them added to the display. Unfortunately, due to space and logistical constraints, he had to settle for the iteration I saw.

Many museums are now interested in public participation, and they have been experimenting with the best ways to do it; Your Museum in Bologna is one example. At the same time, we also acknowledge that the museum collections we have inherited, formed in previous centuries, were assembled haphazardly, with major gaps in the stories they can tell. They leave out large groups of people and do not adequately represent the breadth of our history and culture. In short, the objects that have made their way into our museum collections represent only a tiny fraction of our entire material heritage. I’ve been thinking about these challenges a lot recently, as have many of you, I’m sure. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my recent visit to the Museu da Maré, a community museum in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Museu da Maré has a much more flexible collections policy than museums are normally used to: a member of the community can donate an object to the museum and then, if later he or she wants it back, the museum gives it back. Community members might also technically give the museum an object but still keep it in their home. I have heard that the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa has a similar policy. Mix all of these concepts together and you end up with my Idea du Jour:

Can a city museum catalog the material life of its city without actually acquiring and owning it? Imagine a zoo that collects animals from the wild and puts them together in cages. Currently, our museums are like zoos. Now imagine a biologist who tracks and studies animals, but never takes them out of the wild. We have sophisticated RFID tags and we have extensive object database software. Why not conduct a material culture census, or inventory, of a city, but not actually collect anything?

This may seem like a lot of work for nothing. I would have said that too five years ago, but the museum landscape has changed enough that I think we could start to see the potential. There are so many opportunities here for public participation. Residents can catalog their own objects, with or without the help of a curator. People can “like” the objects they are particularly drawn to, or contribute additional information about objects posted by other people. Curators can put out a call for certain gaps in the “collection” that need to be filled. But perhaps also a resident can recommend that her neighbor’s object be added to the collection because it has a great story. And perhaps if an object gets many, many likes, it is then recommended for physical acquisition by the museum (subject to the owner’s approval, of course), a kind of crowdsourced method of determining which artifacts are most important to preserve, combined with some gentle community pressure for public ownership of them. Individuals could also recommend a neighbor’s object for exhibition at the museum, and so on. The role of the museum curator, then, is to highlight really interesting objects, monitor and improve accuracy, draw connections, and start conversations.

Because, as you know, I am obsessed with geotagging objects, I think it would be great to have a mapping component where you can see all these objects existing out in real space, out in “the wild,” across the city. Although that may present a security risk that could serve as a deterrent to community members. If people know you have special things in your home then maybe they want to steal them. (And who knows what other practical considerations this idea raises since I’m really just thinking it off the top of my head.) On the other hand, many objects no longer live in the place where they had the most geographic meaning, so the tags on the map don’t necessarily have to represent current location, just location of meaning. Also, it would be easy enough to hide the identity of object owners so that only the museum has personal contact information.

But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happens when the material culture of a place is collectively exposed in this way, regardless of whether it is owned privately or publicly? Would it make us rethink what cultural heritage means, and perhaps assume a different kind of shared responsibility? I wonder if anyone out there has already experimented with this concept–if so chime in and let me know. Otherwise, let’s make it happen somewhere as a pilot project.

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An outdoor exhibition about the Berlin Wall, Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Could we go one further and not even put the objects in cases?

You know how I’m obsessed with geotagging objects, right? We lost a lot of meaning when we separated artifacts from their places of origin in order to assemble our museum collections—especially in the case of our local history collections—and geotagging gives us a chance to get some of that meaning back. I preach about this concept to anyone who will listen, and I’ve even played around with pinning some objects from New-York Historical Society‘s collection to the Google Map in historypin (until historypin told me to stop because they want people to stick to photographs).

This evening I had a conversation with Chris Chelberg, a library science grad student I met back in May at THATCamp Museums NYC. We were following up on a session Chris led at THATCamp about disruption theory, Clayton Christensen’s argument from the business world that the real threat to established companies comes not from their conventional competitors—the companies selling the same product they are—but from products brand new to the market that offer a “good enough” solution to fill the consumer need at a much cheaper price. At first these new products are so shoddy that the established companies don’t pay any attention to them, but eventually they improve to the point where they take off, and by then it’s too late to do anything about it. Christensen cites a number of real world examples, the most interesting of which (to me at least) is that online degree programs like University of Phoenix have the potential to disrupt universities like Harvard and Yale: online learning might seem like no match for such prestigious schools now, but it’s getting more and more sophisticated with time, and it fills the need for a credential at a fraction of the cost. If disruption theory is new to you and you want to get caught up, you can read Christensen’s books, or I recommend this short and sweet New Yorker article by Larissa MacFarquhar.

Chris and I were talking about potential disruptions to museums; can we anticipate them and how they will affect our work? One of the big challenges museums face is the burden of caring for their collections. This is an essential function of museums, mind you, but it is so expensive that it leaves us particularly vulnerable to disruptions from cheaper, more flexible sources. We talked about the things that museums think are poor quality but that the general public often thinks are good enough, and cheaper: popular historical fiction, video games, anything labeled edutainment. Community-curated exhibitions. Pop-up projects. Reproductions.

This last one elicited the most interesting conversation. Right now, reproductions are no match for the real thing, and museums hold tight to the notion that authenticity is their trump card. I firmly believe this myself; In fact I wrote about authentic objects in History News last year. But maybe it’s just that reproductions are no match for the real thing yet. Is it possible that in 5-10 years they will be good enough? Are you following what’s happening with 3-D printers these days?

What Chris and I came up with is that maybe 3-D printing, as it evolves, can finally address some of the major access challenges museums have been grappling with for years. So we put everything in glass cases because we don’t want visitors handling and stealing our precious artifacts. But who cares what happens to the 3-D reproductions? Let them get breathed on and licked and caressed to death, Velveteen Rabbit-style. Put them in a room without climate control; heck, put them outside.

Which leads me back to geotagging. I would love to see a city museum take 100 of its most significant objects, partner with a 3-D printer manufacturer (or better yet, as Chris suggested, crowd-source it to the local maker community), and then install these 3-D reproductions out on the streets, where the original [authentic] objects came from. What would we learn from such an experiment? Could we own the disruption? Let me know if you want to find out.

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In October I flew to Aarhus, Denmark, to give a paper at an urban history conference hosted by the open air museum Den Gamle By. The Aarhus City Museum just merged with Den Gamle By, and the conference was organized in part to guide strategic planning efforts under the new management structure. This is a video of my talk; it’s a half-hour in length. Hardcore city museum folks will also want to check out the other conference presentations, not only from Aarhus but also Copenhagen, Rotterdam, and Ghent—each one has a different take on urban history.

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Map of the City of Brooklyn, 1855, NYPL Collection

Like old maps? Have a little time on your hands? Maybe you want to participate in the New York Public Library’s Map Rectifier project. NYPL put its collection of historic maps online, and is asking the public to help align all the old maps against a more precise contemporary map. The rectification process not only allows everyone to compare then and now, but it also helps resolve inaccuracies in the old maps. The contemporary map NYPL is using for this project is Open Street Map, which is sort of Wikipedia for cartography. By tagging “control points,” specific coordinates that are constant for both maps, the historic one is brought into alignment with Open Street Map. At the NYPL site, in addition to actually doing the rectifying, members of the public can browse all the historic maps and also view the rectified ones in Google Earth. A video tutorial on the NYPL website, using an 1860 map of Central Park as an example, makes the process seem easy enough for anyone with basic computer skills. This project is an interesting example of crowdsourcing, and a great way to get to know a city better.

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Walking Through Time

Walking Through Time screenshot, via ITunes

In my continuing effort to keep abreast of urban history-themed apps for mobile devices, today I’m featuring a new IPhone app developed by a team from the Edinburgh College of Art and University of Edinburgh, Walking Through Time. It syncs historical maps of Edinburgh with the current, GPS-enabled map on your IPhone so you can navigate both geographically and chronologically as you stroll around Edinburgh. You can set the application to follow maps from a range of different time periods, 19th and 20th century. You can also toggle back and forth between old and new, or customize the transparency level to view both maps at the same time. A set of walking tours gives the application some structure if you don’t want to wander aimlessly. (more…)

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I finally had a chance to try out Historypin, the website that lets you link old photos to Google Street View. Historypin was developed, in partnership with Google, by We Are What We Do, an organization in the UK that takes big goals like a cleaner environment or better schools and breaks them into small, manageable steps they call “actions.” Historypin represents action #132, Share a Piece of Your History, as part of a goal of strengthening intergenerational relationships.

I was home in North Carolina this week for my 20th high school reunion, so I rooted through my childhood photo album and found an image that seemed perfect for Historypin:

It’s the house I grew up in, just after an ice storm in 1979. The house was torn down in 1984 to make way for a baseball stadium, so the site looks radically different today. I was able to successfully pin the photo to Street View and upload a brief story about the house. You can view the results here.

(more…)

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One of the eight Fontayne-Porter daguerreotypes of 1848 Cincinnati, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Wired Magazine recently ran a feature on Charles Fontayne and William Porter’s 1848 photographic panorama of Cincinnati’s waterfront, owned by the Cincinnati Public Library. Conservators at the George Eastman House have been working on the eight daguerreotypes that comprise the panorama, and in the process they have done a couple of interesting things. First, using a stereo microscope, they figured out just how far they could zoom without loosing resolution—according to Wired, “the panorama could be blown up to 170 by 20 feet without losing clarity.” They also created high-resolution digital scans of each 6.5” x 8.5” plate and trained a computer to “clean” them of spots left by dust and other deterioration, pixel by pixel. Looking very carefully, the conservation team has been able to discover all sorts of new information embedded in these views: faces in windows, shop signs, the time on the clock tower, clues to a imminent cholera epidemic. The panorama even provides early documentation of Cincinnati’s free black community. On the Wired site you can see all eight images, and zoom in on one of them at 10x. (more…)

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