It is a pet peeve of mine that museums so rarely draw on the knowledge and understanding of visitors to help interpret their collections. Ever since I read Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture,1 I’ve sought out initiatives that facilitate community interaction. In global terms, there are plenty of examples, especially in terms of public programs. But in terms of the core business of museums â€“ collection management, and exhibitions, it remains rare for a museum to involve audiences in the process of making collections meangingful. (Your examples are welcome!)
In the world of the web, though, the story is different. Social software enables visitors to the site to help make the site. And the cultural heritage sector is starting to explore the possibilities.
Steve is a project of a group of seven museums.2 It emerged out of the mismatch between the classification systems of museums and the way users tend to think about collection items. A museum might describe an artwork in terms of the artist’s proper family name. Whereas a visitor might search for an artwork according to how they remember it â€“ its shape, or the fact that a painting had some nice clouds in it.
The Steve people are researching and developing a tool that will enable website visitors to add descriptive tags to any item they are viewing. The tags then join in with the official description of the item, so that the collection takes on a hybrid official and vernacular classification system. And henceforth each item becomes more findable for more people. And more collectively meaningful!
Have a look at, and join in, this wonderful experiment. (You need to register if you want to do some cataloguing.)
But wait! Here’s another example, closer to home. Our very own Powerhouse Museum invites users to help describe swatches of fabric, dating from the 1890s to the 1920s. You can enter your thoughts on their colour, pattern, mood and/or ‘other facts’.
1. Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine (eds), Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
2. Steve stands for Social Terminology Enhancement through Vernacular Engagement.