Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Throwing Open the Virtual Doors

Lately, we've been talking a lot at YPM about some of the challenges in giving people on-line access to collections. So I thought I'd share one of these problems with you. If you've worked with museum collections, and particularly natural history collections, this won't be new. But you may have gotten so used to it that you don't think about it anymore.

As I've discussed before, museums hold collections in trust for the public. The fraction of the collections that we can make available to the public via displays is very small. At AMNH, for example, about 0.25% of the vertebrate paleontology collections are on display in the permanent galleries. One way to try and improve on this is to generate temporary exhibits that increase the number of specimens you have out on display. If you send these exhibits out on tour, then you also increase the the number of people that are able to see and appreciate the specimens. This is often touted as increasing collections access. But this talk is more PR than fact. In reality, even a comparatively specimen-rich exhibit, like the forthcoming "Extreme Mammals" show that opens at AMNH next week (and which I highly recommend, BTW) will only feature about 0.01% of the fossil mammal collection

If displays provide such limited access, what about giving the public physical access to the collection? Here you run up against another core role of museums - the need to exercise responsible stewardship and ensure the preservation of collections for generations to come. The fact is that security requirements and limited staff mean that most museums can only allow accredited researchers to access their collections directly. There is a middle ground, which is to take the public through on tours, as in the Darwin Centre at NHM, but even there the percentage of the collection that the public can see is limited to what is on open shelves or in the few cabinets that your guide opens. But as a member of the public, you are not free to directly explore the collections that we are holding in trust for you.

By now, of course, those of you that know about these things are chanting "on-line access, on-line access." But what do we actually mean by this? For most museums, on-line access means some form of database that lets you search and retrieve records for specimens in the collections. For art museums, this might be a few thousand items. There is the potential to image all of the specimens, and also to provide some limited meaningful information (whether or not they fully realize this potential is another matter). But for natural history specimens collections can run to tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of specimens.
Assuming that you can capture the information, delivery of basic information is fairly straightforward. If you look here you'll see the results of searching the YPM collections for specimens of Notharctus. Notharctus is a small, lemur-like primate that lived in North America between 40 and 50 million years ago. You could probably figure this out by looking at the data that are associated with the specimens, provided you knew a bit about geology. But if you're Joe Public, your response is more likely to he "huh?" There are other resources out there that will tell you about Notharctus - here's one well-known example - but there's no way to access them from the database.
Most museums, if they bother to address this problem at all, do it like this - you pick a particularly attractive specimen, often on exhibit, and write a short generic blurb about it. You can do this for items that are not on exhibit, but the problem is that most of the 286 specimens of Notharctus in the Peabody collections don't look like this. They look like the image on the left. I took a bunch of images of our collection of Notharctus and stuck them in a Picasa album which you can access here - it'll give you some sense of what the collection actually looks like.

The blogger Jyri Engestrom has described how objects on the web have a "social gravitational pull" - how much people care about them, and how many "handles" an object has to generate discussion and conversation points. If we're trying to engage the public then ideally we'd want our museum specimens to have a high social pull. For some objects (e.g. a T-rex skeleton, or Carl Akeley's elephants) that may be the case. But our collection of Notharctus bits is a challenge. Even if we can get them onto the web, is anyone other than primate researchers actually going to be interested in them?

One answer, as Frankie Roberto of the Science Museum suggested in a presentation at the 2008 Museums and the Web meeting, is that instead of generating lists of objects we should be making more use of aggregation pages to pull similar objects together. If our individual Notharctus jaw fragment isn't interesting in isolation, maybe a collection of Notharctos will be. Or a collection of primates. Or a collection of Eocene fossils from Wyoming.

Assembling all of these things is possible using conventional database architecture. But a novel approach would be to allow the public to create their own aggregations that they find interesting, save them, and share them with other people. You could also give them the tools to enrich these "virtual collections" either with their own materials, or with content that we provide. The potential range of applications for teaching, research, or just plain old-fashioned amusement is enormous. And it moves us closer to being able to claim with truthfulness that we truly give the public access to the collections that ultimately belong to them.

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