Thursday, March 12, 2009

Opportunity Lies Within a Circle of Triangles

Yesterday, I spent the morning at West Campus attending the first “Town Meeting” of staff working on that site. We met at Building B25 (right), which acts as a hub for the Campus – it contains the auditorium, library, conference facilities, and cafeteria. It was an interesting mix of people – in addition to a heavy turnout from YPM, there were also staff members from labs, security, facilities, grounds maintenance, and the daycare center. Looking around this group, it was evident that we were a relatively small group of pioneers – 70 people inhabiting a facility that could easily accommodate 3,000. (if you want to find out more about West Campus, take a look at my earlier posting on the site)

The meeting was called by Michael Donoghue, Yale Vice President for West Campus Planning and Program Development. Michael is a familiar figure to us at YPM, being both the curator of our Botany collection and a former Director of the Museum. His presentation on the future development of the site articulated a vision for biomedical research that had both clarity and excitement. A central core of three research facilities – chemical screening, DNA sequencing, and RNA interference – that are relevant to units on-site, at the medical school, and on science hill, would support a series of overlapping thematic research programs in areas such as cell biology, cancer biology, and microbiology. These in turn would feed out into other research programs, both on- and offsite. The whole thing was visualized as a series of interlocking circles, showing the vast potential for novel, interdisciplinary research. For a (very brief) instant, I almost wished I was a molecular biologist.

At first sight, the plan for the arts, libraries, and museum collections that Michael put up on screen seemed less well-formed. He visualized the participating institutions as a series of triangles, arranged in a circle. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the different triangles didn’t seem to overlap much. The two core facilities envisaged for this area - digitization and conservation – sat in the middle of the circle, but they didn’t overlap with all of the triangles, and neither did they overlap much with each other. Unlike the “science” plan, with its tightly interlocking circles, there seemed to be a lot of blank white space in the middle of the “arts” plan. Initially, I felt a little disappointed that our plan didn’t seem as fully-realized as that for the sciences. Then, as I spent more time looking at it, I realized that those white spaces represented opportunity.

There are real opportunities at West Campus for the all of the “Arts” institutions – new ways to physically-access collections, or perhaps combine collections from different institutions and disciplines in shared/neutral space to generate new perspectives. The digitization facility gives institutions the tools to promote the virtual equivalents of this collection-based interdisciplinarity and make it available to a much wider audience. Michael had outlined new K-12 education facilities that were being spearheaded by YPM. Currently these are just outside the Campus boundaries and have a strongly environmental focus, but could they be brought inside and expanded to encompass cross-collections access? Because the plans are still evolving, we have the opportunity to shape them in new and exciting ways.

To take one example of this, an important concept for West Campus collections that Michael touched on was the idea of browsable storage. There are different visions of what this might mean. At the most simple level, it is the idea that collections should be accessible and usable despite being in storage. This is not a particularly novel concept in natural science collections, where we regular provide collections access to hundreds of researchers a year. In some cases specimens are brought by collections staff to a separate work room, but it is often far more productive to allow the visitors to browse the collection themselves. This involves a considerable degree of trust on the part of the hosting institution, which is why the privilege is usually only extended to fellow professionals. The pay-off for the museum is that an experienced visitor may find interesting material that has been overlooked (or even wrongly identified) by the museum staff.

Museums have frequently toyed with the idea of giving the public “behind the scenes” access to collections, but where this has been done it is usually in the form of tours given by museum staff or volunteers. Even in institutions which have actively promoted the idea of “open” collections, such as the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre, public access still follows this basic format although in the case of Darwin the tour guides are collections staff or researchers. These are certainly valuable programs and allow the museum to teach on its underlying mission of collections care and research in ways that might not be possible through conventional exhibits. But it’s possible to go much further with the idea of browsable storage, particularly in a venue that combines multiple collections from widely differing disciplines.

Imagine that a visitor could walk, with only minimal guidance, from a collection of dinosaur tracks in fossil slabs, to a room full of 19th Century paintings, and from there to a brand new video art installation, and on to an assortment of astrolabes. At the most superficial level, they would surely get a sense of the breadth of Yale’s collections. But it’s also possible that as they wandered through the collections, they might begin to draw their own links between some of these objects. Whereas conventional galleries seek to impart the curator’s vision, browsable storage of this would have no preconceived message – it could act as a blank canvas on which the visitor could develop their own ideas. The challenge for us then would be to develop mechanisms for recording and sharing these ideas with other visitors.

Of course, the number of visitors that can make the trip out to West Campus may be limited, whereas the numbers that can visit on-line are almost unlimited. Given the right tools for capturing, tagging, annotating, linking, and sharing object images and information, it would be possible to create virtual spaces where visitors could do the equivalent of browsing the collections, assembling their own “collections” of “specimens” that might combine archival, ethnographic, art, and natural science objects from multiple institutions. They could save them, post them, and share them with their friends and colleagues. The opportunities are as limitless as the potential audience. This is the sort of initiative that a digitization center of the sort described by Michael could pursue across the collection holding units at West Campus.

Which brings us back to the question of interdisciplinarity. This is the outcome that all research administrators lust after – breaking down the boundaries of existing disciplines to generate new opportunities and, ultimately new disciplines. YPM has achieved this once already with the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center, a facility that has created a magic mix of people, facilities, and collections on a single site adjacent to the main Peabody Museum. The question is can we do the same thing again on West Campus, but on a much larger scale, covering a range of highly disparate disciplines and collections? The major challenge is how to get bodies on-site. Interdisciplinarity can be fostered by common facilities, but the most important factor is day-to-day physical proximity of people. We need to come up with a sufficient attractant to bridge that 7 mile gap between the Central and West Campuses.

The one thing that we have on our side is time. Incorporating a major facility like West Campus into the existing structures at Yale is a significant challenge and Michael’s presentation made it clear that this is a very long-term project for Yale; perhaps as long as 50-100 years. That small group of people sat in the cafeteria at B25 is the advance party of whole generations of future inhabitants.

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