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1. INVENTING THE DIGITAL WHEEL

“However far modern science and technics have fallen short of their inherent possibilities, they have taught mankind at least one lesson: Nothing is impossible.”
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1934


Do you remember your first mobile phone?

How heavy was it? Did it have buttons? A visible antenna? Did it have a camera? Was it online?

Back in the 1980s my father, who is a furnace technician, had an Ericsson mobile phone in his service van. This was back before the network went digital. The telephone itself consisted of a large black box, a so-called relay station, mounted on the front panel of the car; the box was connected to the handset by a spiral wire. Today we would hardly classify this as a mobile phone. But it allowed customers to reach my father instantly, even when he was out on service calls. Some years later that mobile phone would be pressed into service during the Gulf war 1990-91. The American forces were keen to have any surplus mobile phones with relay stations and even offered to pay for them, so my father’s phone was replaced by a new Ericsson HotLine model with a market value of ,400, which was wireless and weighed less than a kilo. [1]

Most of us have an anecdote like this to tell. When I think about my father’s first mobile phone and look at my own presentday smartphone I see an example of incredible technological development and evolution. Digital technologies are exerting ever greater influence on life in all its aspects – right from the Danish NemID digital identification scheme to the bike ticket I bought on the train this morning via my smartphone. If I want to know anything about the history of the mobile phone, or if I have forgotten whether Vivaldi wrote his last opera in 1737 or 1739, I simply Google my inquiry on my smartphone. In seconds the entire accumulated knowledge of the Internet is at my fingertips.

[1] A selection of mobile phones from the Ericsson brand 1990, displayed by head of research Nils Rydbeck and campaign manager Flemming Örneholm. The new Hotline model, which my dad received in exchange for his old mobile phone, is the one that Mr Rydbeck is holding in his hand.
CC BY-SA 4.0 Ericsson’s Historical Archives/Centre for Business History, Stockholm

I am used to that now. I wasn’t just a few years ago. Just as I was not used to posting status updates, to taking pictures with my telephone, instantly sharing them with my network, holding Skype meetings with people I have never met in real life, sharing work documents in the “cloud”, using Twitter to actively participate in conferences that take place halfway across the globe, being able to watch whatever obscure music video happens to spring to my mind while commuting, verifying that I’ve used a stock phrase correctly by checking the number of hits it has on Google, or finding new inspiration for tonight’s dinner on my mobile rather than in a cookbook. [2]

I note that my personal habits and expectations are constantly changing as new technologies become available. And I have no idea what habits I will adopt in future. I bring this awareness with me to work every day at Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), the National Gallery of Denmark and the country’s main museum of art. Perhaps museums are not the first things that spring to mind when you think of ongoing and restless change; rather, they tend to be associated with tradition and permanence. [3] We work with cultural heritage; one of our key tasks is to safeguard objects from the past along with the memories and meanings that go with them, preserving them for future generations. However, the ways in which we do that must be in keeping with life as it is lived outside the museum walls. When we try to envision the things we might experience and do at museums in the future our imaginations are, quite naturally, hampered by the constraints of our present-day experience. If someone had said, 25 years ago, that we could now access the collections at MoMA by swiping the surface of a mobile phone we would have dismissed the very notion. So what might we be able to do 25 years from now? Making predictions is difficult, but it will always be useful to monitor the latest developments with an inquisitive and open mind, actively helping to shape and direct them so that new technologies support and strengthen our mission and our role in society. Technology should not govern the museums’ work. But in order to learn and understand how we can use new technologies and benefit from the opportunities they open up to us we must explore and incorporate not just the technologies themselves, but also the changes in behaviour and expectations they prompt in users. We must think like users.


Catalysts for user creativity

GLAM. That is one acronym you’ll remember. GLAM is short for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums, a sizable portion of the cultural heritage sector. In just a few years GLAM has become the umbrella term for what is also called Memory Organisations. The concept of GLAM has been consolidated via digital initiatives such as Europeana, the EU Commission’s joint portal to European digitised libraries, archives, and museums; The Digital Public Library of America, a US equivalent initiated by Harvard University; and GLAM-Wiki, which cooperates with cultural institutions worldwide to share digitised resources on Wikipedia.

At present the international GLAM sector is confronting rapid and radical developments in the media, platforms, and channels used by us all. Over the course of a few decades, the Internet and social media have turned firmly established practices and roles upside down. Audiences have become users who may no longer be satisfied with passively receiving information and content; they have become accustomed to participating actively themselves, contributing their own knowledge, attitudes, and creativity. All this has created the basis for OpenGLAM, an international grassroots movement which endeavours to make openness the standard for the GLAM sector and to establish shared principles for a new OpenGLAM practice based on the culture of sharing found within the social Internet. [4]


Here, openness should be regarded in two ways:

• An open and welcoming attitude towards the users’ approaches and contributions to the work of GLAM institutions (such “user involvement” encompasses popular designations such as crowdsourcing, crowdcuration, citizen science, citizen exploration etc.)
• Open access to the museums’ digitised assets in the form of images, data, etc.

This article is mainly concerned with the latter aspect – which can, indeed, also be viewed as a prerequisite for the former.

The GLAM sector constitutes the overall context for this article, with special focus on the M for Museums. Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK) is the specific case studied, and the subject under particular scrutiny is the slow incorporation of OpenGLAM principles into SMK’s DNA. The central leitmotif – which can be traced from the article’s introductory bird’s eye view of the challenges and potentials faced by the GLAM sector today all the way through to the presentation of the specific case – is that we must take on a new role as catalysts of the users’ knowledge and creativity. In order to achieve this we need a new foundation for our work, one that comprises digital infrastructure and a digital mindset in equal measure. This article addresses how these foundations are currently being built, bit by literal bit, at SMK.

The literature serving as the basis for this article reflects a GLAM sector in the dazzling sidelight cast by external sources. References are made to Lawrence Lessig, Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, Tim O’Reilly, Don Tapscott, and Anthony Williams – some of the most well-established thinkers within Internet culture and economics. Their analyses of new scenarios for development

and growth, for the production of knowledge, information, and culture have come to define how the Internet and digital media are described and perceived worldwide. Many of these writers are American, but their analyses have won global acclaim and use: The Long Tail, Social Media, Crowdsourcing, Cognitive Surplus, and Wikinomics are now firmly established concepts used across the world about the Internet, digital media, and the ways in which they affect our culture, economy, and self-image.


On foreign turf

This article presents six years of studies in, and development of, digital museum practice at SMK. Here, ‘digital museum practice’ encompasses museum work that uses digital tools or is realised on digital platforms – i.e. everything from entering artworks into collection databases, digitising works, building websites, developing digital presentation and interpretation efforts in the galleries, to webcasts of museum events, and the use of social media. Over the course of these six years I have worked as a project researcher at SMK, focusing on the digital presentation of the museum collections. During this period, openness and sharing have won increasing attention as strategic options for the cultural heritage sector. This has become a focus area for my studies and has been translated into a range of initiatives intended to demonstrate the potential inherent in transforming SMK into an OpenGLAM institution.

Let me be entirely honest; I’m not on my home turf here. My professional qualifications consist of a degree in Art History, and I have no digital background – neither practical nor theoretical. My university thesis described how a canon of art history is established and changed over time, leading to a critical analysis of the exertion of power that a canon imposes on the art scene – and, very importantly, how this can reduce diversity in contemporary art.*1 At first glance this subject may seem miles apart from the digital field that has now become my professional focus at SMK. Nevertheless, a red line connects my background in canon criticism – a critique of the power structures determining what is included in and excluded from art history – to the ways in which digitisation and the Internet allow open access for everyone. My fundamental position is that museums should always endeavour to present art in all its diverse manifestations and be in constant dialogue with the surrounding world about which decisions inform their collecting and curating practices – what is on display and what is put away, and why. My work at SMK has slowly revealed the potential of digital media to me. Piece by piece I have found that the Internet offers almost ideal opportunities for realizing the paradigm of diversity that I described in my thesis, long before digital media became a central part of my profession. As a result, I have dedicated my efforts to the core task of exploring and developing digital museum practice that can bring my profession – art history – into a strengthened position in the digital media culture of the 21st century. “Sharing is Caring” has become my professional stance; I see tremendous potential in the GLAM sector sharing digitised collections without restrictions, co-operating rather than competing, and demonstrating trust in our users and respect for their knowledge and creativity. And, very importantly, in the realisation that what does not regenerate, will degenerate. [5]

During my time at SMK, I have noted increasing political expectations that state-subsidised museums co-operate, share their digitised assets, and incorporate user perspectives in an ongoing interplay with a new social Internet culture. Often, this is a requirement to gain access to state funds. As the nation’s main art museum, SMK has a special obligation to act as co-ordinator and guide for other Danish art museums.*2 In other words, I have a pragmatic approach to the technological development and how it affects my profession. Having said that, my professional background in art history has also presented something of a challenge at times. In Plato’s Symposium Aristophanes relates how man searches for his complementary half. Similarly, my position as an art historian occupying a job within the digital field makes me painfully aware that my professional qualifications only meet some of the real requirements of the job. At times I have felt that, with my limited insights into the realms of technology, I have been trying to reinvent a wheel that had long since been developed and put into production by someone else. At the same time, however, my background in art history has allowed me to fulfil an important role at SMK, bridging the gap between traditional and new approaches to museological work.

My work on examining and developing digital museum practice has not rested on any formal theoretical basis. Digital museum practice was not defined from the outset as a proper professional field at SMK; rather, it has been perceived as an experiment, an add-on supplementing the museum’s core activities. Classic parameters of academic study, such as choosing a specific method and carefully delimiting the area of study, were not defined from the outset; such issues have gradually come up and been addressed on an ongoing basis. Indeed, rather than research, my real task was practical in scope: Creating a vivid and engaging presentation of the SMK collections online. As this article will show, this task would expand and change along the way. This has created unforeseen challenges. The strategy at SMK has been to try out various digital media and platforms in order to learn from specific experiences. I am not an expert on digital infrastructure, copyright, or business models. Even so, over the course of the last six years I have ventured into these fields because they create new opportunities for the ways in which museum work is conducted.


Mutable practices

The process at SMK is in no way unique. GLAM institutions across the world are trying out various digital technologies, platforms, and working methods; they experiment, share the lessons learned, and seek to adapt to their users’ changing needs and expectations. There are no firm guidelines in place for digital museum practice for the simple reason that the field is still in its infancy and undergoing rapid development. Knowledge about the wildly prolific field of digital media and technologies and how they can be used in a museum context is very much generated through DIY learning. [6] A surprisingly large number of people working with digital media in the GLAM sector are DIY learners. Our ranks include everything from artists to anthropologists to experts on English literature – but we rarely have formal IT qualifications on our diplomas. [7] This is first and foremost a pragmatically focused field, but even if it had been more academically inclined, the field is moving too quickly for traditional print publishing to keep up. For those reasons most of the sources for my studies are not traditional printed publications, but a wide range of wikis, blog entries, tweets, emails, presentations shared via Slideshare, online videos and interviews, etc. It is a liquid, expansive body of information and insights.

Digital museum studies is an emergent academic discipline, with Digital Heritage at Leicester University being the most firmly established example, and Digital Humanities constituting a wider, interdisciplinary field of study that looks poised to gain influence in the GLAM sector in the years to come.*3 However, digital work is still quite far away from being an established professional discipline within practical museum work – certainly in a Danish context – which means that most of the work is done on a project basis and only slowly finds its way into the operating budgets. Pioneers within the field have paved the way for ‘best practices’ by being the first to adopt new technologies, media, methods, platforms, and tools in their museum practice; by demonstrating value, benefits, and drawbacks; and by sharing their experiences with international peers. At SMK we have sought to learn from and build upon these pioneering efforts, but as yet the specific examples are so scattered – and the variations between the institutions so great in terms of size, collection area, user demographics, etc. – that it can be difficult to simply transpose a given practice from one museum to another. The cases I use to elucidate the process at SMK come from the international GLAM sector, and together they present a picture of scattered developments. Some of the most extensive examples come from American GLAM institutions, as well as museums in The Netherlands, Great Britain, and Australia. Furthermore, the Internet and digital technologies are only just now reaching a level of maturity where their potential can truly unfold itself in substantial and sustainable ways. Only now have they become ubiquitous in our everyday lives, always at hand and utterly indispensable.

Setting up digital museum practice at SMK has in itself been a DIY process. The process has received only limited managerial direction; the museum has no digital manager equivalent to its head of research and head of education. Rather, our work has taken the form of practical field studies and concrete development, driven by a desire to explore digital technologies and media, and how we can use them in our museum practice. Our method has consisted in thinking big, starting small, and moving fast, all based on the tenet “Fail Forward”.*4 We have made a virtue of experimenting with new technologies and platforms that we found interesting, not always knowing exactly where they would take us. For us, it was crucially important to let digital technologies and media become a part of our everyday work life, to learn what they can – and cannot – do, using this insight to prompt further development in directions that support our mission.

We have learned a lot from this process, but at times it has been an expensive way of growing wiser. The approach has given us lots of experience that contributes to the shared pool of digital museum practices, that we ourselves have drawn on so heavily during our development process. We have been driven by curiosity and desire, but also by a sense of pressing need. Our work has prompted a growing awareness within SMK of the fact that openness, sharing, and co-ordinated efforts across the sector are what make our institutions robust and relevant in the digital age.*5 These properties can help us transform into platforms – physical and virtual – that have meaning and value to our users, the very people we are here to serve. If we do not evolve along with the technologies that shape user behaviour, then the institutions for which we are responsible will at best become relics of a bygone era, at worst stagnant and forgotten cultural archives. [8]


Focus, format, and aim

My article is conceived as a case study describing the process of how SMK, inspired by a growing international OpenGLAM trend, has become aware that we will better be able to fulfil our function as a publicly funded cultural heritage organisation by opening up and sharing our digitised collections – particularly if we co-ordinate such efforts with colleagues, reaching across institutional boundaries. It relates how we have experimented with opening up and sharing, how we learned our first lessons – and what will be required in terms of changes and additions to scale up our efforts, transforming pilot projects into an established, ongoing practice. Finally, the article outlines how SMK plans to work with digital museum practices in the future. The article lays down two parallel tracks. The main track consists of a case study, presented in chronological order, focusing on SMK’s initiatives to promote openness and the sharing of digital resources. The other track consists of images, references to literature and sources of inspiration that proved crucial at various stages of the process. The main track can be read independently of the side track; however, it intends to add a multivocal dimension to the case study, accentuating how SMK’s development stands on the shoulders of giants, based as it is on the great efforts already made by colleagues within the international GLAM sector.

The article – and the anthology as such – is aimed at Danish and international GLAM professionals working with research, content, presentation, and education activities at museums, libraries, and archives, as well as at professionals who work in ministries, agencies, boards, and professional organisations that contribute to creating the basis for the GLAM sector’s work, in Denmark and abroad. The article is based on practices seen within the framework of a single, specific institution, and so it does not claim to provide a general analysis of the field of digital museum practice. However, the case study touches upon subjects – such as Public Domain, copyright, image licensing, Creative Commons, and user engagement – that will be recognisable and relevant across the GLAM sector.

Most of all, my article is dedicated to the museum users. They are the ones we are here for, and the various thoughts and ideas presented here have been conceived, and translated into action, in order to meet their needs in the best ways possible.


NOTES

*1  Sanderhoff, 2007, p. 190-201.

*2  This was recently consolidated in the new Museum Act.
http://www.kulturstyrelsen.dk/institutioner/museer/ny-museums-lov/bekendtgoerelser-for-museumsomraadet/

*3  According to Ross Parry, Senior Lecturer in Museum Studies at Leicester University, there has until very recently been a striking lack of me- thodical stringency within the branch of Museum Studies known as museum computing (Parry, 2010, sp. 457). Digital Heritage is a field of study offered as a Masters Degree or Postgraduate course under Museum Studies http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/postgraduate-study/digital-heritage. On Digital Humanities, se http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_humanities

*4  Both expressions stem from members of the international advisory board that is associated with SMK digital. “Think Big, Start Small, Move Fast” is a basic idiom in Michael Edson’s work, while “Fail Forward” comes from Shelley Bernstein. More on the advisory board p. 41-44.

*5  The term “The digital age” leans to Ross Parry’s definition and use of the term in Museums in a Digital Age, 2010.

Updated: 18.nov.2014
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