UK National Museums get creative

Creative Spaces, a UK project formerly known as the National Museums Online Learning Project, just launched as a Beta, and is being hotly debated among museum professionals in a number of forums (the Museum Computer Group list and Mike Ellis’s blog seem to be current focal points of the debate). I found a lot of the commentary insightful and telling.

First, some brief words about what Creative Spaces wants to be – from the homepage: “Creative Spaces connects you with nine UK national museums and galleries allowing you to explore their collections, find like-minded people and create your own content.” (Also see a recent BBC story for more background.) It should also be noted that the “you,” the key audience, seems to be what we’d call K-12 in the US – high-school teachers and students. The current Creative Spaces contain a mechanism for cross-searching the 9 museum collections (apparently using OpenSearch), a way to assemble your own sub-collection (“Notebooks”), a way to create your own sub-communities around topics of interest (“Start a Group”) and some videos of people talking about museum stuff (called “Watch a Video”). Outside of the site itself reside so-called “WebQuests,” which are guided exercise allowing students to answer questions using museum content, such as “Discover how Darwin came up with his ideas on evolution” or “Become a clothes designer and create a new outfit for an explorer.”

As any beta would, it has a number of hiccups, which some folks have started tracking at Get Satisfaction. One of the most common criticism of Creative Spaces detractors at the moment seems to be that it doesn’t do a good job communicating who will use it, and why. (I think what I’ve outlined above may be the partial answer to that question, but the site itself doesn’t make that answer very self-evident.)

What interests me about this debate: for all its ragged edges, it starts to delineate the challenge of aggregating museum content, and making the aggregation a compelling destination.

Consider:

Content– is the content compelling enough to allow the intended user base to find something they’d like to interact with? Does it approximate a collective collection which can answer questions in a similar “good-enough” way Google Images can? – In this instance, scoping the audience to teachers and students, as well as giving them a structure to guide their use of the resource through the WebQuests seems to mitigate this question. Creative Spaces won’t be the place to find stuff on any artist that pops into your head, but the content should work beautifully to support inquiry structured by curriculum through WebQuests.

Pull – can the aggregation as a social space expect to reach and keep the attention of a sufficiently large audience to have made the investment worthwhile? Or should existing social spaces where people already interact with lots of different content be leveraged as the platform? – While I always like the idea of using existing social networks, and will advocate for it any ol’ day, I’ll add the caveat here that the devil really is in the detail. As much as I love Flickr and the Commons, they won’t take museum content other than photographs. I have a hard time seeing how you’d structure anything but casual interactions with millions of digital images on FaceBook. I wonder what Wikipedians would say if they saw pages for millions of artworks go up. The platform dictates the type of content and the functionality, and there has to be a very carefully crafted fit.

Functionality – if people come, will they find that what they can do with the content is compelling enough to make them want to invest an online identity into this space? Or will they come, be mildly intrigued, and move on? – I don’t think we know nearly enough about how people do want to associate with museum content in a social space. Mike Ellis points to the newly launched Brooklyn Museum collection pages as a good example of how this sort of thing might be done right. Once the Creative Spaces experience has matured, it will hopefully also provide us with more insights into this question.

At the end of the day, it’ll come down to stats – how many people will create accounts on Creative Spaces, and actively use them over time? And can that number be reconciled with the investment by all parties involved?

I am wholeheartedly rooting for Creative Spaces, and I hope the team will share the lessons they’ve learned along the way, including the painful ones. All of the above questions actually have more compelling answers the more institutions are involved – the more content, the more users; the more users, the more rational to invest in the right types of functionality. Right now, museums by and large are starting this process on their own – my website, my collection, my social community. I think we’ll find out that people simply aren’t interested in affiliating with every single one of the 2,500 museums in the UK, or the 17,500 museums in the US for that matter– but a significant enough number may very well be interested in affiliating with a space where lots of museum content flows together.

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