Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quality vs Quantity

AAM has very kindly published one of my rants on the state of collections databasing in natural history which you can read in the on-line edition of Museum here. The view that we need to think about quality of data access as much, if not more, than we think about the quanity of data accessible seems to be gaining some traction, which is a good thing. I'm struck by the way that the web projects I've completed in the last year or two are already looking dated - there's very limited interactivity and we don't encourage people to take our information and mash it up in new ways. Fortunately this is changing. I attended a meeting at Yale's Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure last week to discuss a new project that will ultimately let people pull together resources on Yale paleontologist O.C. Marsh - which include scanned correspondence, specimen records, and images - from multiple institutions and provide them with tools to tag, annotate, and combine the records in novel ways. Giving power to users is a key element of improving accessibility; it's not enough just to throw static records onto the web. What we also need to do is to promote and capture the interactions of the users with the virtual collection.

If I'm sounding all messianic about this, it's because I'm waiting to hear whether NSF is going to fund another project of ours that is based on these principals. Suffice to say, I'm getting a little tense....

Pick A Date - Any Date

Dinosaurs - everybody loves 'em. And they're a great way to teach kids about science. But what happens when you're homeschooling your kids and you have to deal with that pesky old geological timescale business. Well fear not! The Live and Learn Press has the answer. Their "Dinosaurs Learn 'N Folder" lets the little ones "learn about these creatures, how they ate, where they lived, how we have come to know about them, and much more." But here's the best thing - "There is no reference to dates so you are free to insert your family's personal view of the age of the earth and when dinosaurs roamed it." Hallelujah! Yours for the bargain price of $21 from CurrClick.com.

There would seem to be limitless potential for applying this technique to the teaching of history. Marc Abrahams of Improbable Research suggests a learning activity on WW2 where your family can make their own choices as to who won. For my part, I'd quite like a Bible-based package where I could change bits I didn't agree with. Most of Leviticus for starters.

Friday, January 22, 2010


The Creation Museum is such an easy target that it almost seems unfair to take another pop at it. But this awesome article by A.A. Gill in Vanity Fair is so good that I had to share it. Gill's waspish writing style is uniquely suited to demolishing midwestern sensibilities. For those who think that he's a little unfair, just consider his past remarks on the Welsh ("loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls"), the English (a "lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd"), and the Isle of Man (it has "managed to slip through a crack in the space-time continuum...fallen off the back of the history lorry to lie amnesiac in the road to progress...its main industry is money (laundering, pressing, altering and mending)...everyone you actually see is Benny from Crossroads or Benny in drag...The weather’s foul, the food’s medieval, it’s covered in suicidal motorists and folk who believe in fairies"). Actually, the comment about the Isle of Man is spot-on, IMHO.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Darwin. Part 2.

Don't you just hate "International Years of..."? Barely have we got past the year-long orgy of evolutionary back-slappery that was Darwin's bicentenary when we plunge headlong into the International Year of Biodiversity. Be still my beating heart! I skipped over to the UN's Biodiversity webpage to take a look around, where lots of people seem to want to take the opportunity to welcome me to celebrate biodiversity and life on Earth. I thought about watching the message from Mr. Sakahito Ozawa, Japan's Minister of the Environment, to see whether he would explain how Japanese logging companies flattening rainforests across Asia and the Pacific was helping the cause of global biodiversity. Then I decided I couldn't be bothered. Biodiversity tends to affect me like that.

Anyway, I decided instead to combine museums, Darwin, and biodiversity in a post that was prompted by Rachel Souhami's thought-provoking review of the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre (Phase 2) in the December issue of Museums Journal. Those of us with a collections bent tend to think of DC2 primarily as the new storage facility for NHM's massive entomology and botany collections, but it's important to remember that the Darwin Centre (phases 1 and 2) has a far greater significance than this. It is the first real attempt by a major museum to get to grips with the thorny issue of giving the general public at least some measure of access to the collections that we hold in trust for them. This is not a trivial exercise, as it involves balancing some fairly challenging and conflicting goals (prevervation, conservation, security, and research usage VS. access, information, exploration, and entertainment). No other big museum has dared take on these challenges in a substantial way. Indeed, in the USA, it's hard to believe that our entrenched academic curatorial staff would ever engage in anything quite so frivolous as public access.

Which is a pity, because we need taxpayer support more than ever, both directly and indirectly. For this reason, I tend to bridle a little when people criticize NHM. Not that it isn't fun, because they are a big target, but I do think they deserve some kudos for trying. For this reason, I approached Souhami's review with one metaphorical eyebrow raised. A quick look at her webpage suggested that I might be right, since there wasn't a lot of natural history in there. As it was, I needn't have worried. Souhami is a specialist in science communication, and her comments on the exhibit spaces of DC2 were thoughtful and illuminating.

The major issue seems to be that, for a building containing 20 million specimens, there's not a lot to see. Souhami felt the display spaces were empty; even when you had the opportunity to open a drawer it contained photos of specimens, rather than the objects themselves. The specimens, of course, are in a part of the building to which the public does not have access. Looking at the Darwin Centre website the problem seems to be that tours of the building are self-guided. This is in contrast to DC1, where the public can have tours of the fluid collections that are led by Museum staff. Without a guide, it's unlikely that any museum would let the public wander through the actual collections spaces. Nor would they get much benefit from doing so, since modern collection storage emphasizes enclosure and protection over access and visibility. This is why we often give the public tours of sub-optimal collection spaces, which have big things on open racks. The novelty of rank upon rank of stark white storage cabinets can pale after a while.

The other issue is that what the public gets out of collection tours tends to be proportionate to what the museum is prepared to invest. The most important element of this investment is time - no amount of glossy touch screen interfaces and edgy architecture can replace direct interaction with curatorial staff. This was one of the strengths of DC1, even if, the early days, it elicited a certain amount of grumbling from the staff involved. Apparently there are some virtual staff guides in DC2 and in one of the labs (visible behind glass) there is an intercom that lets you ask the scientists questions. I can just imagine....

Which brings us to Souhami's most insightful comment, which was that looking through the glass at scientists, sitting in front of a computer, just isn't very interesting. We spend an awful lot of time trying to sell science to the masses, usually through media-inspired bangs and crashes. Maybe it's a good thing, now and again, to remind people that it's not a glamorous occupation but actually a lot of hard work.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts

This post is nothing about Greeks, Elgin/Parthenon Marbles, or anything else controversial like that. Phew - good thing I got that out of the way early on. No, this is to do with a report in the current edition of Museums Journal about reaction to a speech made by the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, at the Tate Gallery last month.

Let me stop here for a moment and provide some background for American readers. The shadow chancellor is not (necessarily) a sinister figure from the realm of Mordor. In UK politics, it is the title of the person in the main opposition party who is responsible for finance issues. The expectation is that, in the event that the opposition gets elected, this person becomes Chancellor and responsible for the country's finances.

With a general election coming up sometime in the next 4 or 5 months and a deeply unpopular Labour government in power, there's a good chance that Osborne may be holding the national purse-strings come May. This means that any remarks he makes about the arts and museum sector are guaranteed to be the subject of hot discussion (as MJ puts it) by the cultural world.

George Osborne is a member of the Conservative Party, a.k.a. the Tories. You remember the Tories, right? Millions of unemployed, BSE, Westland, privatized utilities, Black Wednesday, massive cuts in public spending, collapsing National Health Service, the Poll Tax? Well plainly many of my fellow countrymen don't, because they are about to vote them back into power.

Osborne's speech has attracted much attention from cultural institutions, mostly because he actually made a speech about cultural institutions. It's not that Tories don't like "culture" (although their tastes tend to lie towards Shakespear, Edward Elgar, and Constable); it's just that they don't like paying for anything that doesn't make money. The last time they were in power they put huge pressure on national museums to introduce admission charges at the national museums; while the impact of these charges on attendance is complex (some saw increased visitorship, others saw it drop by up to 50%) it was clear at the time that many directors welcomed the opportunity to charge. Why? Maybe it had something to do with the machete that the Tories had taken to public funding for museums.

These are the same directors that are welcoming the big change proposed by Osborne, namely the relaxation of financial rules for national museums (which are classed as non-departmental public bodies and as such subject to a bunch of restrictions) to allow them to generate additional private income and, in the case of the larger museums, to set up their own endowments. OK, there are good arguments for being the keeper of your own finances - flexibility, creativity, etc. But that's not what this is about. George Osborne wants UK national museums to raise private funds so that he can cut the money they get from the government. Duh!

The great thing about giving museums more responsibility for fundraising is that they become responsible for any inability to raise funds. Bear in mind that the UK is not the USA. The tradition of large-scale public philanthropy is nowhere near as well-developed. I didn't notice much talk from Osborne about the major tax incentives that he would be providing to donors. If he did, MJ wasn't reporting on it.

Even the big institutions are likely to face an uphill struggle to raise funds and build endowments, especially in the current financial climate. That same financial climate makes it unlikely that a Conservative Government will delay making cuts until there is a healthy private funding base. And while I don't have a crystal ball, it also seems unlikely based on past experience that the Tories will bail out any museum that is struggling to raise funds. They are more likely to shrug and say that this is just the necessary flip-side to more financial freedom.

Another familiar theme emerging from the Conservatives is "war on waste," in this case the administrative costs of the public funding bodies that support cultural institutions in the UK, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage. Once again, the drive to do this is not ensuring that as much money as possible reaches the arts; it's just a rationale for more budget cuts. My guess (and it is just a guess) is that reductions in public funding made by a future Conservative government will far exceed any savings generated by more efficient administration.

It's not that I think the ideas that Osborne is proposing - endowments, more use of matching funds from sponsorship, more efficient administration - are bad ideas. I'm just doubtful how effective they will be in the short term (and maybe even the longer term) and I am certain that the motivating factor is not generating more money for the arts - it's cutting the money they receive from the government, while at the same time making it the cultural institutions' fault if the arts suffer. Those of you with long memories will remember that this is the tactic that the Conservatives used in the 1980s and 90s to explain collapsing NHS and local council services; "it's not our cuts, it's their wastefulness/inefficiency, etc."

As with many things on this blog, this boils down to a question of responsibility. The Tories are great believers in the concept of individual responsibility - Margaret Thatcher, of course, famously believed that there was no such thing as "society" - which is one reason why public services fared so badly under previous Conservative administrations. One of the most remarked portions of Osborne's speech was his statement that art matters for its own sake; we don't visit cultural institutions because of their contribution to economic and social goals. I would throw that statement right back and say that this is the reason why society needs to pay for art, and why a responsible government needs to support it rather than finding new and creative ways to dump its responsibilities on the private sector.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bad News from Deseret

While we're on the subject of a depressing start to 2010, here's another story to make that hangover feel even worse. The Deseret News (wow, how diligent am I at tracking down stuff for you?) reports that the US Department of Interior, which is responsible for tens of millions of specimens, artifacts, and documents collected by its various agencies, and whose museum holdings are second in size only to the Smithsonian, largely doesn't know what is in its collections. According to a US inspector general's report, the backlog of uncataloged material is around 78 million specimens, 60 million of which are in the collections of the National Park Service.

This is a pretty shocking state of affairs for the Nation's heritage and reflects a long history of inadequate funding on the part of the Federal Government (it certainly does not reflect the efforts of the federal collections staff, who are a diligent, hardworking group of professionals who achieve an awful lot with not very much). It's also unfortunate because the Park Service in particular has been proactive in setting standards for collections care, and for promoting these to other, non governmental organizations that act as repositories for their material. They need to be given the support necessary to apply the same standards of care to federal collections.

However, the first step towards addressing the problems is to recognize that the problems are there and to begin to document them. This inspector general's report joins a growing corpus of evidence on both utility and need, which also includes recent reports by the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections, the National Science Foundation, the Natural Science Collections Alliance, and Heritage Preservation. The IWGSC report in particular elicted broad-based statements of support from the natural history collections community, including offers to provide assistance in tackling some of these problems. Historically, federal agencies have tended to look to their own resources to address issues, but it is clear from these reports that the scale of the problems requires a more community-based approach.

Happy New Year

Well, it didn't take long for one of my 2010 predictions to come true. Yesterday the Philadelphia Enquirer reported that the State Museum of Pennsylvania is under threat of closure if the state's General Assembly fails to approve gambling legislation by this Friday. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell wants to push through legislation that would legalize table games such as Blackjack, Poker, and Roulette in Pennsylvania's slot casinos; the State would require casinos that implement these games to pay a one-time $16.5 million licensing fee and then levy a 16 percent tax on the revenue from the games. Potentially this is a significant earner - Rendell's office estimates that it could bring in around $249 million a year in additional revenue. Unfortunately lawmakers balked at the introduction of more gambling, citing concerns over the existing regulation of the industry in the State, so Rendell is now threatening to cut State staffing and services if the bill is not passed. The State Museum is one of the potential victims. While it's unlikely that concern for the Museum will sway many votes, a heap of juicy earmarks attached to the bill may prove more persuasive. Politics - don't ya just love it?