Reflections on NaMu: Day 1

Between 16th-18th June, the University of Leicester hosted the fifth in a series of six workshops on the subject of Making National Museums. This was, despite helping to organise last year's Leicester workshop, my first NaMu workshop. Having heard lots of good things about the previous sessions, I was interested to take part even though the subject, 'Re-imagining the National Museum: Traditional Institutions in an Era of Technological Change' was not directly relevant to my research area. Not least, I thought, it would offer a great opportunity to network with other museology research and postdoctoral students based around the world.

The first day kicked off at midday with registration and lunch (always welcome!). The afternoon was taken up with inspirational keynote speakers on a range of related subjects. Ross Parry, from the Department of Museum Studies, gave the introduction, 'Framing Digital Heritage'. His argument, that the history of museums is inextricably linked to technology, from the most basic methods of display and information management, to - increasingly in the last forty years - digital media, set the scene for the workshop. Lee Iverson, from the University of British Columbia furthered this point, by setting forward his persuasive viewpoint that technology should serve the people and that museums need to consider relinquishing control of the message inherent in their presentations - with direct reference to websites - to their audiences. This would bring 'life' to museums: national museums would become for the nation, instead of of the nation (as the situation currently stands).

Lee was followed by George Oates, Senior Programme Manager for Flickr. I have to admit that this was the presentation that I found most exciting; I've recently become quite obsessed with photography (thanks to my lovely new camera!) and regularly upload the more artistic of my shots (ha!) to the photo-sharing site, so I was very interested to hear about its origins (in 'Game Neverending') and its potential applications, in particular collaboration with museums and archives (see The Commons) to democratise their photographic collections, by allowing users to tag and organise institutional collections in much the same way as they can currently 'curate' their own uploads.

Following George was Paul Marty, from Florida State University. His key note presentation considered 'Digital Heritage and the Future of the National Museum' and, in particular, how - by relinquishing some of their control over information (there was a real theme developing here!) - museums can refocus their websites towards a person-centred approach; one which allows users to navigate online exhibitions and interpretation according to their differing needs and wants. Central to this argument was the traditional authority of the museum, in Paul's words, a comfortable illusion. To remain relevant museums should work towards exposing the decisions, currently hidden, that led to the creation of 'authority' in the first place (I started to think about Latour's 'black boxes' here) and to assess and meet the changing information needs of their audiences.

The final key note speech of the day was given by Alexandra Bounia, of the University of the Aegean. Her paper, 'National Museums and New Technologies: A European (Union) Perspective' gave an overview of EU-funded digitisation projects in museums. The EU took the decision in the mid-90s to support the use of ICT to promote European citizenship and improve quality of life across the union. To these ends, a regulatory framework has been constructed which embeds the relationship between culture and information technology. Currently, the primary concerns of the EU, vis-a-vis technology is to remain competitive in the global economy, by using ICTs to 'learn better' and enrich shared and local cultural heritage. I have to confess that my mind began to wander at this point, which is by no means a reflection of Alexandra's paper, I should add. It just happened to be scheduled for the end of a busy, exciting and, thus, tiring day.

To be continued...


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