museums and the web conference

Museums and the Web is an annual conference that draws together about 500 of the world's top museum web designers, directors, and educators every year. In 1999, I chaired a multimedia panel presentation with speakers from Brazil, Kenya, and the U.S addressing the theme of Content and Communities. Our session examined the ways in which  museums are beginning to establish genuinely interactive web content that reflects--and is a product of--their communities.

The museum team from the Museum of the Person in Sao Paulo, Brazil, recounted their experience as they seek to preserve and transform the life stories of ordinary people into organized information (interesting histories--and even more interesting considerations of empowering the individual when suddenly a laborer realizes his or her story is worth telling).

A second group from the National Museums of Kenya discussed issues of connectivity, collaboration and culture and offered a  new perspective on the difficulties of developing a web site in a country that is itself still developing--not only dealing with power outages and modems that disconnect when an incoming call bumps them off-line, but explaining their work within the larger context of getting funding for museum/web projects in a place where issues of health, clean water and enough food, and deadly tribal divisions affect daily survival.

And a third team from the University of Michigan presented their work in broadening access to Native American Collections, offering a virtual museum prototype that encourages museums to consider the role of ethnic communities and  incorporate multi-generational voices and tribal input into exhibit/collection development.

As chair, I used my introduction to place the experience of these very diverse communities into the larger context. I talked about how, as museums invest in providing content to new (as well as existing) audiences via the internet, they are also beginning to investigate how this new venture affects what they need to collect in order to "tell the story." 

Clearly, it's no longer necessary to possess the object in order to tell the story. 

Content and Communities
Introduction delivered at Museums and the Web
March 12, 1999, New Orleans, Louisiana

(Wear headphones)

Good afternoon! And welcome to Content and Communities, a session that deals with museums in the new age--museums that not only welcome input from their communities but that would not exist without those contributions.

You probably wonder why I'm wearing these headphones. I have to admit, I panicked last night when I realized I was going to have to get up in front of an audience and introduce an internationally renowned and respected panel. I am, after all, a shy person. I'm a writer (a storyteller of sorts)--and I also do a radio show back in Ithaca, New York, where I'm from. It's called Nonesuch, and it's a program that features "folk music and music in the folk tradition"--I love talking on the radio and getting calls from listeners, but that's different: I don't have a roomful of people staring at me, waiting for me to deliver!

So I thought I'd wear these headphones, and pretend I'm just talking in front of my microphone in a quiet little studio--you guys can all pretend you're listening on the radio, OK?

You know, the other day I was listening to the radio, (take off headphones here) and I heard someone talking about technology and science creating problems--in this case, he was talking about political problems--and he pointed out that very often these difficulties can be overcome and resolved by the very same tools that technology and science produce.

I don't remember his name, but he'd been a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East, and as I listened to him talk, he made me think about the dilemmas negotiators and diplomats have skillfully dealt with as they attempt to get opposing sides to sit down together at the same table and allow different voices to be heard. Sometimes it's the size of the table; often it's the relationship of chairs that can be major sticking points in negotiations...

These days, the diplomat said, a news network like CNN can play interpreter between, for example, Iraqi leader Tariq Aziz and his enemies--with technology providing the interface live, in real time, as negotiations progress. Recently, this type of CNN diplomacy put U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton and Tarik Aziz virtually face-to-face for a spirited debate. Just because there are no travel or table placement issues, of course, does not mean that the job of the diplomat has been taken over by technology in the role of ostensibly neutral mediator.

But not surprising, the diplomat pointed out, the ability to have this kind of interaction has dramatically changed the face of diplomacy.

As we listen to other speakers at this conference, it seems pretty clear that as museums embrace the web, committing resources to this new channel of information, the very concept of what a museum is is beginning to change. As museums invest in providing content--exhibits, images, sounds, and virtual experiences--not only to existing audiences but to brand-new audiences, some of whom who may ONLY encounter the museum's stories via virtual reality--they are also beginning to investigate how this new venture affects what they need to collect in order to "tell the story."  With this technology, clearly, it is not necessary to possess the object in order to tell the story.

I'm fascinated by all the technical innovations, caught up in the creative uses of storytelling in a new medium--but one of the most intriguing changes to me is really a political one: it's about who decides what the story is--and how it's going to be told. Increasingly, with on-line tools users can design their own paths through the information, creating their own stories from the pictures and words and images and sounds available. Now it's time to explore the next step--and that's changing the way we think about what a museum "collection" really is.

Thanks to the evil (and wonderful) science and technology, museums can now easily "collect" items that are not in their physical collection. Visitors--or maybe we should say museum users, to encompass those who access museums in other ways than just being there--can contribute their own input--and that, too, can become part of the museum's virtual collection.

There is no one single story anymore, no arbitrary view of what constitutes Great Art, no crystallized explanation of what the past was "really like." Instead, it's a time to explore how this new technology can allow multiple voices to be heard.

Today, we're going to hear from representatives of three very interesting projects--perhaps political trend-setters--who are exploring how the internet can broaden access and involve whole communities in both developed and developing nations. 

Our session is cross cultural, covering Native American communities, Brazilian, and African experiences. Our first presenters--Maurita Holland and Kari Smith from the University of Michigan--will offer their view of how to make Native American collections accessible via the Internet. They've developed a virtual museum prototype that incorporates objects from many sources, a model that encourages museums to consider the role of ethnic communities and include the voices of both the old and the young in exhibit and collection development. 

And then, from Kenya, Lorna Abungu, Lawrence Monda, and George Ambachi will discuss the challenges they face in developing a web site for the National Museums of Kenya. They will address ways to encourage community cooperation through collaboration that crosses national boundaries. Karen Worcman, accompanied by her colleagues Jose Santos Mato and Rosali Henriques, will explore a very interesting Brazilian experience of a virtual museum--an institution called Museum of the Person that only exists on the web and that aims to tell the life stories of everyday people and their everyday lives...they will discuss how the public uses--and might use--the 700 stories and  2,000 photos already available in organized form through the Museum of the Person

We're going to start with Maurita and Kari, so let me give you a little background: Maurita Holland is associate professor and assistant to the dean at the University of Michigan School of Information. She's in charge of an academic outreach office that includes distance-learning technology.  Her teaching and research involve information access and use in the web environment. During the past three years, she has worked extensively with museum and archives projects at Dine College on the Navajo reservation located in Arizona and New Mexico.

Kari Smith is a special project research intern at the Office of Academic Outreach at the University of Michigan and project manager of the Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute. Her current research focuses on using information technology for cultural heritage education and preservation, particularly with Native American communities. Prior to completing her masters at the University of Michigan, specializing in archives and records management, she worked for two years as records manager for the Chemical Weapons Destruction Support Office in Russia. Maurita... Kari?

[full text of Maurita and Kari's presentation: http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/holland/holland.html]

Thank you Kari and Maurita. We can take questions until (TIME)

We will hear now from the Kenyan team of professionals who will describe their work on the National Museums of Kenya web site. Lorna Abungu, who joined the National Museums in 1989 as a coastal archaeologist and who has been involved with many exhibit and public programs, now chairs the museum's internet/multimedia committee. The group not only  maintains a web site, but also provides staff training on the internet and is responsible for database management and development of new multimedia projects.

She is joined by George Ombachi, a computer programmer who has been involved in developing archaeological and ethnographic databases, software and hardware support and software development, and computer programmer Lawrence Monda, who helped develop the NMK site and is involved in systems analysis, hardware repair and daily maintenance. Lorna?

[full text of Lorna's presentation: http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/abungu/abungu.html]

Now let's hear from the team that promises to give us a Brazilian Experience of the virtual person--The Museum of the Person, which aims to register, preserve, and transform the life stories of everyday people into organized information. Jose Santos Matos is one of the founders of the Museum of the Person; he is a journalist, a poet,  and videomaker, and has done various documentaries based on people's life stories. As a documentary maker he developed something that he calls videocartas--video letters--in which people from different places talk to each other. One of his prize-winning documentaries focuses on Brazilians and Cubans exchanging ideas and impressions of each other's countries.

He is joined by Rosalie Henriques, who is historian and archivist for the Museum of the Person as well as its web master, and Karen Worcman, who is also one of the founders of the museum and its director. Karen is a historian, with a master in linguistics, who has been very involved in oral history work, including a project about Jewish immigrants to Rio de Janeiro. She realized how oral history has the potential not only to provide many perspectives--but also to give anonymous, everyday people the opportunity to talk--and have the sensation of becoming part of history. Karen?

[full text of Karen's presentation: http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/papers/worcman/worcman.html


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