Moving Museums to the Network Level

One of the most stimulating events of this year’s MCN conference in Pasadena was Ken Hamma’s keynote on Thursday morning. In essence, Ken shared a vision of how museums can exploit the dynamics of the networked environment to become more cost efficient and relevant. Ken admonished the audience that if we don’t do a better job of adjusting to this brave new world, we may as well find ourselves in the same position as the recording industry – marginalized by the new online business opportunities it failed to grasp. (Anybody snatch up a CD at the Tower Records liquidation sale recently?). Some highlights from Ken’s talk:

  • Ken encouraged the assembled 300 museum information professionals to keep their priorities straight: he criticized museums for continuing to elevate brand value over social value. As Ken sees it, emphasizing social values such as allowing digital images to enter the marketplace of education more freely can ultimately be harnessed to generate brand value. The web-traffic generated by link-backs from descriptive records could be captured and capitalized on through various online services.
  • The steep cost of digital technology could be alleviated by exploring the model of placing “big applications” online. Ken asked the audience to consider how much their institutions could save if they didn’t have to purchase, install, maintain and troubleshoot the Microsoft Office suite of products alone, and instead replaced it with online applications such as Zoho. Of course the ultimate conclusion of Ken’s argument would be to consider moving even bigger, costlier systems such as the much-discussed digital asset management systems to the network level, although Ken didn’t make this an explicit thought-experiment for attendees.
  • Ken explained that museums have to figure out how to participate in the network effect offered by placing content online. As we all know, an onsite exhibit reaches a geographically limited audience. An exhibit website containing digital images and descriptions which are only accessible on the institutions website doesn’t leverage the power of the network, while sets of digital imaging propagating themselves through OAI content & service provision optimally exploit the viral network (“endless sharing through one-time sharing”). The graphic above (courtesy of Ken) illustrates the static gallery vs. the viral network. He concluded that “those actions which enhance the network effect are valuable, while those which diminish it are not.”
  • All of this meshes well with what we work on and talk about in RLG Programs, and what we discuss with our colleagues in Research. Lorcan has written extensively about raising libraries to the network-level on his blog – I just picked out one random quote to illustrate:

    How to restructure for working in a network environment is an issue for us all. In particular, over the next few years the library community will increasingly grapple with questions about what to move into shared platform services, what to do locally, and what organizational and structural contexts will tie it all together.

    I’m glad Ken has agreed to serve on the RLG Programs Council to lend a museum voice to this discussion and inform our thinking! He certainly managed to cast the decisions museums face in a more strategic framework for MCN attendees, and his talk was widely quoted throughout the rest of the conference. For a whirwind tour of some of the other themes at MCN, check out Holly’s post on Musematic.net.