Thursday, January 24, 2008

Logging On: Culture, Participation and the Web

A(nother) really interesting report from Demos is just out. This one is called Logging On: Culture, Participation and the Web
It is an evaluation of Culture Online, or rather "A moment of reflection is provided by the coming to an end, in March 2007, of the Culture Online initiative funded by [DCMS]. Culture Online provides both an interesting case study, bringing together lessons learnt about how to organise online engagement, and a point of departure for asking questions about future directions." As an evaluation, it is very complimentary about the way Culture Online was managed. It promotes its 'commissioning model' and holds up the finished projects as successful, and therefore as proof of the management model. In many ways it was a good model, as the strong project management clearly delivered results. Also the emphasis on learning & innovation over the functional needs of each institution means that the results are much more engaging than many of the NOF Digitise sites (now on )

If this is a chance to raise a few questions, I'm going to do so. Cultural institutions were criticised by the Culture Online team for not dealing well with this commissioning model. To be clear, this model meant that a national museum (for example) was not applying for a grant to develop a cultural product online for the nation. Rather, the national museum was acting in a role as supplier, theoretically responding to a call to tender, and then delivering a product to the commissioner, including working with partners they may not have chosen and signing over the copyright. Non-commercial cultural organisations have never acted in this role so they understandably struggled to adapt. What made it trickier was that Culture Online was promoted as funding rather than an invitation to tender to deliver to a specific brief. Cultural organisations are pressured to raise funds other than from core sources and it is seen as sensible management to use such funds to achieve planned core developments (e.g. digitisation, acquisitions) rather than entirely squander them on tangential experiments. Once many cultural organisations realised the implications of applying for Culture Online money, for some after expensive deliberations, it became very difficult to pursue the opportunity. Only one museum was able to proceed as lead applicant, the V&A (including the Museum of Childhood.)

One feature the Culture Online team were very keen on was sustainability. However, it isn't clear how the investment in these 20 websites provides a resource for the thousands of cultural organisations across the UK to boost their engagement with audiences through digital means. One project, OOKL (previously My Art Space) is based on an invitation to museums and galleries to join the scheme. However, the link about how to join is broken and the cost of hiring the programmed mobile phones must be the prohibitive factor. Another, ICONS (the most expensive project at circa £1 million) highlights some key items from museums such as the Magna Carta but it doesn't appear to invite or involve those museums in the nominations or interpretation of the icons. Meanwhile many small museums, galleries and archives have only a minimal web presence.

Strong commissioning is a good model if a) cultural organisations have adequate funding for core functions and b) if the commission is a very clear tender. To offer a clear tender to make a commissioning process work, Culture Online needed a vision that was more than just principles about how to manage online projects. A future Culture Online (because we still need one) must be crafted through audience research and through consultancy with cultural organisations.

It should have the following features:

- fewer websites, fewer projects, bigger ambition for each

- build on the 24 Hour Museum

- coverage of a full variety of forms of cultural engagement, enabling audiences to discover all artforms and collections wherever they are (there is no national cultural 'what's on' - I think?)

- overcoming barriers to partnership between cultural organisations by ensuring that no single cultural organisation is a lead partner, whilst also bringing them 'on side' and inviting their contribution, offering them tools so that they can engage better with their audiences

- boosting strategic work to achieve interoperability of digital collections and searches, and acknowledging that collection-based organisations need to digitise before they can interpret and engage online

- supporting digital arts, or innovative arts online (only manifest in one Culture Online project, The Dark

- learn from other countries, for example the Virtual Museum of Canada, which is a result of a strong partnership between Canada's vast museum community and the Department of Canadian Heritage

And several more. Comments welcome...