Thursday, May 1, 2008

MLA and HLF views on 21st C Curation

I went to a seminar at UCL last night, to hear Roy Clare, CEO of the MLA and Carole Souter, CEO of HLF talking about the future, the funding context and how their respective bodies will contribute to curation in the 21st Century. I'm not going to supply a full transcript of the event, but have picked up a key issue about digital strategy.

Carole Souter insisted that the HLF would not fund digitisation (only 'real people doing real things'). She conceded that there could be some catchy, engaging digital culture projects, for example the Tate's campaign inviting the public to buy a brushstroke of a painting. A questioner asked 'Call me naive, but surely if digitisation is what we are crying out for, why do you make these restrictions?' The response was 'We're getting tough with people. You have to look at the breadth of our aims. We're an additional funder, not a funder of core activities. If you tell us that 200,000 more people are going to look at your website because of it, well, so what? How do you know they have really been engaged?' So, her suggestion was that if you are going to include digitisation into an HLF bid, it would have to involve people in specific thematic projects of local interest.

Roy Clare highlighted the NOF Digitise project as an example of where we went wrong in assuming that mass digitisation and online publishing of collections would be engaging. He said that when he (when at the National Maritime Museum) and partners were planning Port Cities 'Did we think about how anybody would ever find it? How they would engage with it?' His response seemed to suggest that we shouldn't do digitisation because these projects were difficult to market.

However, my argument would be that the NOF projects are an example of the limited thematic trap that the HLF approach to digital culture encourages. The Port Cities project may not be as successful as it could have been precisely because they made too much effort to define a theme, to define a collaboration between several museums, to focus on particular markets and so on.

What is needed is a flexible approach to digitisation that enables collection items to be presented in multiple thematic, social, institutional and technological contexts and to be interpreted in multiple ways and combined with other collections in multiple ways. Investment in a) the continuation of mass digitisation and b) in incubating approaches to tagging, indexing, syndicating are what we need now, and we should see this being championed as the core of 21st Century Curation by bodies such as MLA and HLF.

I posted this to the Museums Computer Group e-list and sparked off a pretty long thread of discussion, usefully summarised and responded to here by Jeremy (to whom thanks)