John Coburn on the creative reuse potential of collections: What do digital public reuse projects tell us about our audiences and the future of the museum? At Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums we have 9 museums and galleries and 1 archive. On the last count we had 1.1 million objects and 12 miles of filled archive shelf. The richness and creative potential of this material is limitless. Capacity at TWAM to trawl this material is very much finite
We have a small Digital team. Like most museum digital departments, our job is broadly to develop digital projects that increase public access to collections. We have the creative freedom to work across collections with multiple departments and external partners. The team’s role is increasingly one of R&D. Not just experiments with new technology but R&D into the digital creative reuse potential of collections. I believe this is work that allows us to probe at fundamental questions about the public value of museum collections. It’s about understanding how the museum can work with audiences to release the untapped potential of our objects. We want innovative collections projects to come from audiences and to better understand the role of the museum in their development.
One of our first forays into digital creative reuse was in 2011 when TWAM first participated with Flickr Commons. Through this project, like many of the partner institutions, we have enabled vast numbers of people to access and freely reuse the images for their own purposes. As well as the increase in collections traffic and onsite engagement, the key learning from this project was in understanding how audiences reused collections in ways that were previously unimaginable to the museum. And in doing so, generating new audiences and inspiring new public dialogue.
Take the mug shot of an Italian immigrant arrested in North Shields in 1904.
To the museum, this was a striking portrait photograph offering glimpses into regional life at the turn of the last century, touching on themes of immigration and the criminal justice system. To audiences who reused it online, on their blogs and websites, this was something more. It was extinct calligraphy styles. It was handsome men in early photography. Edwardian Hats. A provocation on social justice and prison reform. Moustaches. Inspiration for painters exploring criminality.
Thousands of people entered into new conversations brokered by audiences. The museum just provided the proper access.
Like so many other museums who preach the value of open access to collections, the key lesson for us at that time was we can inspire public engagement with collections when we enable new and imaginative articulations of their value. This principle continues to underpin much of the work we deliver.
But stimulating reuse requires more than just adopting a position of openness. The challenge is how do audiences become aware of this? How do they understand we’re an organisation seeking to open up collections, not keep everything locked down? “I had no idea the museum afforded this level of access and I’ve lived in (the region) my entire life” is something we hear a lot from people who collaborate with us on creative projects. And these aren’t usually hard to reach audiences. Many of these people are culturally engaged with an appetite for digging through old stuff. This is alarming.
We pursued this research question further in 2012 with the experimental project Half Memory (www.twmuseums.org.uk/halfmemory). Half Memory was a programme that invited artists and musicians working with sound and the moving image to unearth material from our collections to create new work. We produced it in collaboration with Newcastle-based music events company Tusk Music and local arts programme Pixel Palace.
This was not a museum commission. This was a collaboration to map out the shared space that exists between the latent potential of our collections and the ideas and work of creative audiences. Half Memory was also an opportunity for us to learn what support we need to give audiences with their creative collections research.
With Half Memory we wanted to see the development of bold audio visual works that animated concepts, ideas, stories and questions buried within the collections. We encouraged subjective analysis and to move away from the objective historical ‘museum voice’. We wanted to disrupt popular perceptions of “the past”, avoiding the historical content and themes we often speak about.
At the end of it all, it was our hope that the produced work would do one of two things- stir the imagination of audiences who encountered it, hopefully inspiring an exploration of collections. Secondly, it would challenge attitudes about what a museum is for and how it can be used. We hoped reuse proposals submitted following Half Memory would be evidence of this influence.
Half Memory culminated in the production of an album of music from Richard Dawson who was inspired by an anonymously produced scrapbook from 1791 in the Archives. This record, The Glass Trunk, went on to attract international acclaim and was satisfyingly described by Stewart Lee of the Times as “draw(ing) hidden truths from the archives in strong, bold strokes”. An animated film and soundtrack from Warm Digits reworked 1970s photography that documented the construction of the region’s light rail network, Metro. In their own words, it sought to use “sound and music, rhythm and repetition, to evoke and entrance, and encourage people to think about the position of hope in civic life, forty years and a lifetime on from the origins of the photographs”.
A 37 hour internet radio broadcast featured dozens of publicly submitted programmes that responded to an open call of disrupting perceptions of the region’s past. Highlights included imagined soundtracks to the constructions of the Tyne Bridge, found sounds through the 20th century, oral history and electronic music, mash ups of 300 years of diaries.
There were over 75,000 views/plays of the produced content online. More than 150,000 views of online collections that were used as research material. 270 people attended a sold out launch event. 8000 listeners from 25 countries tuned into the internet stream, listening for an average of 15 minutes. Audiences contributed 491 production hours to the project. There was clear evidence of non-museum audiences deeply engaging with collections via the produced work.
From Half Memory evaluation it was also obvious that the concept of the online collection presented challenges to creative audiences who wanted to easily search through rich material in the hope of encountering something to inspire them:
Firstly, many of the participants expressed a desire for visual search. But the online museum collection is not usually designed around image and aesthetic. Search is usually tailored toward collection type and keywords inputted by museum staff (projects like Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s colour search are a rare exception (https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/colors/). As an aside, this finding has since fed into a research project we have been funded by Nesta to develop as part of their Digital R&D for the Arts programme. In partnership with Microsoft Research we are developing a collections search interface that will more easily allow for intuitive visual search.
Secondly, public search techniques are often incompatible with catalogue data and the search taxonomies the museum employs. Audiences with no specialist subject knowledge and no explicit starting point in mind wanted to be able to search using abstract themes and concepts (mortality, death, post-industrial modernism). Our museums and archives data is generally more semantically concrete and doesn’t easily allow for this form of navigation.
“I really struggled to understand how I find relevant material online. I didn’t know where to start. If I’d pursued this project without any support or guidance I might have abandoned it pretty quickly. The most useful thing for me (in finding a starting point) was in having a conversation with someone”. Richard Dawson
The public wanted access to high quality digitised material with rich data but they also wanted to be able to speak with subject specialists. Partially for the reason directly above, to understand how they can search more effectively, but also because they valued the knowledge and opinions of curatorial and archives staff as part of their ideas development.
“The public wanted access to high quality digitised material with rich data but they also wanted to be able to speak with subject specialists”
It was fascinating to observe and understand public modes of search. Particularly the broad, optimistic search where there was no specific research interest or starting point. We found there were two general approaches to this more open-ended enquiry. Firstly, to dig for the remarkable, untold history. The unique stories and startling historic details that have been forgotten or buried in the collections. Secondly, to trawl on a purely aesthetic level. To look for material that is aesthetically harmonious with the practice and the ideas of the researcher. Visual image search was the most desired search method for this approach.
We have since come to the opinion that the most fruitful reuse projects have come from a broad initial point of enquiry and a willingness to stumble across something. Narrow search is more likely to frustrate and dishearten the public who have an imagined goal of something that might not exist. Embracing the chance find, the serendipitous discovery, has almost always been the more effective research strategy.#
Has Half Memory influenced public attitudes to the role of the museum?
There has been growing evidence of audiences understanding they have permissions to creatively reuse collections. Following Half Memory 31 proposals have come to the museum seeking to undertake novel collections research. Perhaps more tellingly, a number of reuse projects have been developed independently without any contact to the museum, primarily drawing images and data from Flickr Commons and online collections (films, music, online articles and fiction, digital art, data visualisations, a theatre production that has toured up and down the country). Proposals have come from a wide range of people including creative producers, games developers, academic researchers, musicians, architects, creative technologists, writers, hobbyists. The proposals that have landed in my inbox or been presented to me over coffee have ranged from fully formed projects to fragments of an idea. From participatory digital art projects exploring hidden histories of Gateshead to an automated drawing machine continually sketching museum objects.
A valuable part of this process has been in understanding the job of the museum to support their development. Generally, we’ve adopted 2 roles. Based on initial enquiries (Do we have biographies of Japanese shipbuilders on Tyneside? What dazzle camouflage designs do we have?) it is to help identify starting points for research where online collections research has whetted the appetite or proved fruitless. Often, this been in putting people in direct contact with subject specialists in our curatorial and archives teams. Secondly, for any projects needing financial support, our role has been to help identify external funding, supporting the bid writing and including costs for our time where appropriate. 10 projects so far have successfully secured funding.
In supporting novel collections reuse, we had originally perceived our role to be one of an enabler; a platform and resource providing the appropriate content and permissions that will allow digital creative work to happen. On an increasing number of projects our role has been one of collaborator. Audiences want our collections and our subject expertise but they also value our human input when exchanging and developing ideas.
By supporting these projects we’re opening the collections up to new possibilities.
Interpretations the Museum wouldn’t offerThis was most evident in our Decoded 1914-18 programme (www.decoded1914.org.uk) delivered in partnership with Newcastle University in 2015. This programme invited creative technologists and artists to produce work that unearthed compelling material, stories and questions from our collections relating to life in Tyne & Wear during WW1. A number of artists were interested in the sounds of WW1 and of civic life during that period, for which little documentation exists. Communications technologies (Morse code, hydrophone, sound mirrors) from the stores were digitally rebuilt with the public in participatory workshops. Basement stores in the museum were conceptually converted into radio receiver bases, intercepting and broadcasting recorded messages from the archives, and opened up to the public over two weeks. Collections were very much at the heart of this work, but were also used as a jumping off point for imaginative enquiry. 11,000 people encountered the work produced for Decoded 1914-18, and again, evidence was gathered that showed many of the visitors were not traditional museum-going audiences.
Questions the Museum might not ask
It’s always exciting to meet people whose research imagines new futures for the museum.
In 2014 the researcher and artist Mitchell Whitelaw reused our online collections photography to explore the question Can algorithms curate digital heritage objects to create public impact (with speculative, poetic or artistic intentions)?
Mitchell’s resulting work was Succession (www.mtchl.net/succession). A web tool that allowed the public to repurpose historical photographs relating to industrial Newcastle as “digital fossils”; multiple images compressed together as one unique artefact. In Mitchell’s words the intention was to “reveal layers of our shared heritage, rearrange and compress them to seek out new meanings and latent stories”.
This tool sought to stir public imagination by creating digital fossils that presented chronologically scattered but thematically connected histories simultaneously. Audiences could also access the individual composite layers if they so wished (the source images and records on Flickr). A quote I often return to is from Seb Chan of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum- “(The value of) digital in the museum is not about endless collections web development- it’s about developing new forms of curatorial practice”.
Public impact not previously possible
Richard Dawson produced a startling acapella song called ‘Poor Old Horse’ based on a scrap of paper found in the archives. The harrowing document told the story of three labourers employed to kill a tired old horse at the end of its working life. Richard’s song is almost a verbatim retelling of the original written account. If you do a quick search of Youtube and Soundcloud you’ll find dozens of clips of this being performed live across the world. Tens of thousands of people engaging with an emotionally bare articulation of an archive document. Hundreds of comments online make clear the impact. Brilliant. Disturbing. Goosebumps. Utterly heartbreaking. Are audiences aware they’re unwittingly engaging with the museum collection? Probably not. But they are all the same. It’s all a question of what the museum is prepared to define as collections engagement.
Quite simply, Richard created a collections experience that generated impact we could not have created ourselves.
Key insights that are gleaned with many of the projects are shared at knowledge exchange events with a broad cross section of museum staff. Insights are used as provocations to reflect on how the learning from this work could influence the practice of the museum. This includes – Improving search. As discussed earlier, how do we more easily expose the richness of our collections to audiences? Creative space and freedom. This is crucial to the development of novel reuse projects, particularly those with a broad initial enquiry. How do we make more room for it? This is also a rare commodity that exists more often outside the museum than it does inside it.
“We are a digital department but digital as a project parameter can feel increasingly artificial. Physical and digital experiences for audiences are increasingly blurred”
The museum object. For many of our audiences the object is not the experience. The object is not their experience end point. It is the starting point for new ideas. The raw materials. Does the greatest public impact comes from a subjective articulation of its meaning and value?
Digital-ness. We are a digital department but digital as a project parameter can feel increasingly artificial. Physical and digital experiences for audiences are increasingly blurred. Proposals often exist as both. What is the distillation of digital within this reuse programme? Our emphasis is on meaningful experimentation not technology; project outputs could be digital or physical formats.
The successes of this programme are not just the perceived quality of the produced work and its subsequent public impact. The real success is in increased numbers of people understanding they have the permissions to create with the collections. It is the responsibility of the museum to actively promote the idea of a museum as a starting point for ideas and creativity and to identify any institutional barriers to collections access. It is essential we have faith in the ability and imagination of our audiences to help bring collections to life, and for the museum to let the sparks fly.
John Coburn, Digital Programmes Manager, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums