Monday, February 22, 2010

Mobeum, the Content Creation Iceberg

Now that Mobeum is up and running, the biggest challenge we face is no longer technical but content-oriented. In fact, the more I observe museums as they attempt to create Mobeum content, the further I would sink this iceberg beneath the sea. At this point, I'd just leave 1% of the ice out of the water. The reason? Creating a web-based mobile tour (for that matter, any good web content) necessitates a mini-cultural revolution.

Let's face it. Museums are conservative places. At the heart of their mission lies conservation: conservation of physical objects, conservation of information, conservation of the methods and professional standards for collecting, researching, conserving, presenting the object/info bundles. Furthermore, it's a rare museum that doesn't try to maintain the sacro-elitist aura that ushered in the age of collecting. The art-museum world is an ecosystem that survives by defying radical change.

The world of the Web is the opposite. The Web is all about letting anybody, anywhere, anytime publish their content to the world. Any one can have their 15 seconds of fame, and any one can be dismissed just as quickly. As a result, lots of stuff gets produced -- some junk and some fabulous, free, life-changing information. How does the Museum, an institution whose survival depends on maintaining high quality content and an air of elite professionalism navigate in this wild and wooly world?

First of all we need to abandon our mental model of the ideal museum publication, examples like the collections catalogue or traditional (static) museum website. These kinds of publication (although they may continue to serve a purpose well into the future) are about dissemination. The kind of material people expect to encounter on the web today -- and the kind of interactions they expect to accompany this new message -- is of a different ilk. It is about com-munication (to and fro) and requires a radically different scope, focus, tone and schedule. This shift is worth the effort. Besides being what the public wants, it comes at a much lower price than traditional publications. (No big surprise, given that a collection catalogue easily costs $100K and many Web 2.0 services are free and require no special IT skills nor infrastructure.)

But how does a museum get there from here? The key is the people on the project. The museum needs to create a team. Not a committee. A team, that has a 2-5 members, with complimentary skill sets, a work flow that permits the instant sharing of information and the authority to make decisions and act. The team must include people who are familiar with the collections and can talk and write about them; can use technology to communicate rapidly; can manage a team project; know how to do easy web publishing; and can make audio-visual recordings and edit them. Once the museum has a team, it can then put in place a schedule for producing content over the long haul. The museum was not built in a day. Nor will its audio guides and general web content.

After a period of trial and error, our pilot partner, the Hood Museum of Art has assembled a team that includes the Associate Director of the Museum, the P.R. Assistant and the Curator of the European Collections. By putting their efforts together for the first time last week, they managed to create their first complete thick Open Museum object for the Hood Mobeum. This object, which includes eight facets, seven audio clips, and nine images, took about six hours of their team's time (about two hours per person) and an additional three hours of Open Museum's time (for curating and technical support). Undoubtedly, the second object will take less time (probably about one to three hours less) and the amount of time required will continue to drop off.

The time to create content will never go to zero, but the team will become more efficient and autonomous as they become accustomed to the various aspects of the project. I am guessing that with a three-hour weekly investment could yield one thick object per week. If they double up their recordings with video and mine the content to create text, they could generate a library of information that they could tap now and in the future to produce everything from Facebook posts to podcasts. Furthermore, they might give their organization a makeover in keeping with the nimble technology culture. This mini-revolution could provide a great R.O.t.I. (Return On time Investment).

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