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Collection Impossible: Distributed curatorship and crowd-sourcing as alternatives to centralised collecting

Posted Oct 24 2011 6:41am

Let me start with a quote:

We need to acknowledge at the outset that museums are in the object acquisition business. New acquisitions are the lifeblood of museums. Like sharks that will die if they stop swimming, museums must collect to stay alive.

These were the words of Tufts University art historian Andrew McClellan in a book review a couple of years ago — words that echo Robert Anderson’s in an interview after he retired as director of the British Museum:

Acquisitions are the lifeblood of museums … The identification of significant material, which has perhaps been overlooked, is something that gives energy to museums.

I couldn’t agree more. The acquisition of new artefacts is for museums what empirical studies and new data are for universities. Imagine if scientists’ and scholars didn’t have access any more to empirical data — the universities would then recede into scholasticism. Similarly, museums that don’t acquire new artefacts for curation and display will recede into mausoleums.

So collect, collect, collect. There are many of us who think this should be the clarion call for all museums that want to stay alive.

In real museum life, however, collecting new artefacts from the contemporary world is often pretty far down on the priority list. Why? In a discussion paper a couple of years ago, Christian Sichau, then curator at Deutsches Museum, identified three circumstances that often make museums downgrade their collecting efforts:

• The political focus on blockbuster shows, events, and the web puts the collecting and preservation of the contemporary material heritage in the shadow.

• Exhibition curators often don’t know what to do with contemporary objects, because such objects don’t have the spectacular qualities that older artefacts have

• Museums notoriously have limited storage facilities, so curators reject donations and new acquisitions for lack of space.

Which made Sichau conclude that, when confronted with a potential new item for the collections, he would usually have to say ‘no’ (“werde ich, als Kurator, ‘Nein’ sagen müssen’).

I guess most of us can sympathise with this pessimistic view on collecting. But I don’t think we need to be so defaitistic after all. It all depends on how the problem of collecting contemporary science, technology and medicine is framed.

If we think about collecting the contemporary heritage as something done by professional curators employed in state-financed museum institutions, and then safely placed in centralised museum storage facilities — then Sichau is right, of course.

Because even if museums could find ways of making the contemporary world of science, tech and medicine palatable to their visitors, they would never be able to employ enough professional curators to describe, register, and evaluate the avalanche of artefacts and images that are produced and used today— and we would surely not have the space to keep them for future generations.

But I don’t think Sichau’s pessimistic frame for collecting is the only alternative. My aim with this presentation is to shift the frame. Instead of saving the contemporary heritage in terms of professional curators and museum institutions, I think such rescue operations are better pursued in terms of distributed curatorship and curatorial crowdsourcing.

I guess most of you are familiar with what crowdsourcing stands for:

Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones (from here ).

Crowdsourcing comes in many varieties. Some people consider Wikipedia a splendid example of crowdsourcing, although the founder, James Wales, seems to disagree. More specific examples from our own fields include:

Foldit  — a citizen science project, which engages hundreds of thousands of people to play games to help optimize the three-dimensional structure of proteins; a project which has recently resulted in an article in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology written by scientists and gamers together.

The Great War Archive project at the University of Oxford in which members of the general public digitised artefacts from the First World War and uploaded them to a purpose built website (over 6500 items and stories were published online) and they have now received funding from Europeana to run a similar crowdsourcing initiative in Germany.

And there are many others, e.g., Galaxy Zoo , which engages hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers to classify galaxy images from the Hubble telescope.
I think we can learn a lot from these and similar crowdsourcing projects.

One of the consequences of shifting the frame for saving the contemporary heritage is that the notion of ‘curator’ changes to include a significant portion of the crowd of scientists, engineers, medical doctors, lab technicians and nurses. They must be seen as curators in their own right. They have the expertise. They know what these things have been used for. They know the technical details. A frame-shift implies that the crowd has to take the main burden of saving, collecting and curating the exploding number of artefacts from contemporary science, technology and medicine.

An immediate counter-argument would be that “in my museum we’ve been consulting scientists, engineers and medical people all the time”. But that’s not the point. The point is not to continue using external professionals as mere assistants to the museum professionals. The point is to train them to become curators in their own right.

Distributed curatorship doesn’t by itself solve the problem of space. On the contrary, it seems to accelerate the problem. I shudder at the thought of having hundreds of medical engineers sending in thousands of well-curated medical devices to Medical Museion each year. We would soon be flooded with medical devices.

But being ‘flooded’ is only a problem as long as we think in terms of the traditional framing of the problem, that is, thinking of collections as physically located in the storage rooms of a central museum building. An alternative framing of the problem is that if curators and curating can be distributed, so can their collections. (And beware, I’m not talking about distributing already existing centralized museum collections from the last 500 years, but about how to store the avalanche of things from contemporary science, technology and medicine.).

So in addition to thinking about the contemporary heritage in terms of distributed curatorship, I suggest we also shift the frame from centralised museum collections to distributed museum collections, each managed by its own local curator.

In this scenario, what would the role of the professional museum-based curator be in collecting the contemporary heritage? There are lessons to learn from history (I mentioned biological standardisation in the 1950s in my abstract), and there are also lessons to learn from contemporary crowdsourcing projects: What the professional astronomists do in Galaxy Zoo and the biophysicists do in Foldit is that they inspire, train and coach the crowd of amateur curators. Similar relations exist between professional and amateur botanists, and so forth.

In other words, instead of spending their time on collecting and curating inside the walls of the museum building, museum-employed curators should rather spend most of their time:

• Helping organize the crowd’s work in the field.

• Developing guidelines for the collecting, curating and handling of artifacts.

• Developing protocols for registration in wiki-based collection databases and secure the quality of the metadata.

• Developing the theoretical and cultural perspectives on collecting and raise discussions among the network of distributed curators about why the scientific, technological, and medical heritage is worth keeping and the role of the heritage in the creation of cultural identity.

The last point is what I think is the most important one, because in doing so, museum curators will hopefully help raise the awareness in the scientific, technological and medical communities about the importance of saving the artefacts of contemporary science, technology and medicine for the future (this is what I call heritagemindedness in the abstract to this presentation). Here too Foldit and Galaxy Zoo are inspirational: Never before in history have so many people been engaged in understanding proteins; never have there been so many amateurs deeply engaged in astronomy and cosmology.

Let me end by saying that much of what I suggest isn’t particularly new. Many local and regional museums have worked along these lines long before the notion of the participatory museum was coined. Many big science, technology, and medical museums once started as participatory collecting projects initiated by enthusiastic practitioners, who created small local collections of what was then contemporary artefacts, some of which still remain in the custody of departments and scientific societies.

Medical Museion is a case in point. Today the museum has one of Europe’s largest, richest, and most varied collections of medical artefacts of all kinds — but actually it once started as a private initiative by Copenhagen doctors on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Danish Medical Association in 1907. Initially conceived as a collection of contemporary medical devices for a temporary exhibit to commemorate the progress of medicine, the collection was made permanent and the museum continued to grow, largely thanks to the enthusiasm of the contributors, and it continued to do so for at least two or three generations. It was the amateurs who saved the medical heritage. The state museums couldn’t care less.

Today, from the vantage point of professional science, technical, and medical museums, such initiatives may look amateurish and antiquated. But the thrust of my argument is that the enormous amounts of artefacts produced and used in contemporary science, technology and medicine, combined with the financial crisis of the modern welfare state, will force museums to rethink the role of the amateurs.

It’s not so much a question of inventing a new curatorial practice, but rather to return to the basic idea of participatory acquisition practices that have largely been abolished in the short historical period when museums could live well on state subsidy. Now we have to go back to business as usual.

Here social media come into the picture. They offer a social technology that can rejuvenate this old practice of distributed curatorship. Social media embody the new role of amateurs in knowledge formation, and they will undoubtedly play a central role for organising curatorial crowdsourcing and distributed curatorship of the contemporary scientific, technological and medical heritage. But that’s the topic of another presentation, at another meeting.

This is the manuscript for my presentation at the Artefacts meeting, Boerhaave Museum, Leiden, 25-27 September 2011 — see also the programme for the Artefacts meeting and my live-tweets from the sessions .

The presentation draws partly on my paper “The participatory museum and distributed curatorial expertise” in NTM: Zeitschrift für Gescichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin, vol. 18 (1), pp. 69-78 (2010)


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