Online Heritage 2.0 : staring into that crystal ball

Lion door knocker from the door of the Greek Orthodox cathedral, London

I have had two posts in perpetual draft for some time now. When you start staring into the crystal ball, you can watch forever, and the world of the web changes quickly. As you read more, your ideas change, and things get out of date. Hence I have decided to publish my thoughts more regularly, and in smaller doses, rather than posting a behemoth of an article rather infrequently.

To get to the meat of the title of this post, I have been using the so-called “Web 2.0” tools and techniques for some years now, both within and without the heritage industry, and it’s been an interesting experience so far. I’m going to review where I have seen it go, and where I see it going.

I gave a paper with Mike Heyworth, president of the Council for British Archaeology, at the Institute of Field Archaeologists conference in Edinburgh back in April. Our paper was entitled “New web technologies: communicating archaeology to the world“. We covered ‘old tech’ and ‘new tech’ – the heritage of communications (e.g. ‘old skool’ websites, email lists) and made basic introductions to RSS, blogs, podcasting, mashups and the concept of social networking. It was a general paper, aimed at non-technical people, to get folks interested in sharing their information and communicating with the world in new and innovative ways.

I think it worked: people were genuinely interested in the idea of quickly podcasting stories on their websites, and of setting up blogs. I had constant questions at the end of the day (and following days) about the methods I was using on the Wessex Archaeology website, and how effective they were. I was rather upbeat about it, but it’s hard to guage the impact we had upon the archaeological community to take the ideas further and actually do something. I haven’t seen a slew of archaeology blogs spring up since April, but at least a seed was planted.

However, I have seen some really great ideas and products emerging from the museums sector over the last few years. Jon Pratty of the 24 Hour Museum has been championing RSS since 2003, and was probably the first heritage website in the UK to have a news feed. He contributed a paper at the “Museums and the Web” conference 2006 (just look at the amazing list of papers and contributors!) entitled “The Inside Out Web Museum“. To quote from his abstract:

The popularity of RSS and Web 2.0 means we have the opportunity now to develop new ways to publish on-line: to use semantic tagging, to make clusters of related cultural content ‘hang together’ in search engine results. Is this realistic?

The paper explores routes to making this possible and envisions a digital museum comprised of millions of particles of content, from multiple museum sources, turned ‘inside out’ in search engine land.

Much of my ideas and visions closely follow Jon’s excellent paper, and I urge you to read it! He touches on the semantic web and tagging online collections (folksonomies), and clusters of meaningful information (a la Flickr’s clustering algorithms), in essence, more intelligent web searching is out there in the crystal ball, and slowly becoming reality. There’s also the reality of funding – without adequate funding, many museum websites will sink into obscurity, and won’t be able to be a part of the emerging digital museum culture.

Jon’s interest in RSS is simliar to mine in that he talks about starting a session on the web with an RSS aggregator as opposed to a homepage. Why bother with just one site when you have have many? Why go to individual websites (and spend ages going from bookmarked site to bookmarked site) when you can bring updates directly to you? Through RSS, I manage to keep up to date with about 130 websites – a figure most people find quite scary. But I can keep tabs on the latest accessions by the Archaeology Data Service, to the latest IT news on TechCrunch, to the latest photos from the my friends in Australia. And the 127 websites in between.

It’s changed the way I use the web, and through social networking I’ve found other things I’m interested in on other sites, made new contacts and so on. This is where one of my next posts will continue.

Jon also covers ‘folksonomies’ – tagging as an extension to other cataloguing methods. You cannot simply leave catalogues to languish:

Merely scanning artefacts and classifying by Dublin Core and then tucking the relic away in a repository would be a desertion of duty in the Web 2.0 world.

He quotes Tehmina from a post to the Museums Computer Group email list, in response to, the Art Museum Cataloguing Project, where users of the site can help to describe contemporary art by tagging:

I am impressed at the Art Museum Cataloguing Project as it shows how such initiatives can embrace users and ‘sister’ organizations too — an opportunity to work together. And before anyone flings up their hands in horror, I am not advocating that folksonomies replace the more rigid and standardized documentation standards that we use for managing our collections, only that social tagging can be immensely useful in increasing real-time interaction with collections — and it’s a lot of fun. (Posted Fri, 3 Feb 2006;

I’m in complete agreement that folksonomies can only help us to add value to online collections. Our trained minds have a certain way of thinking, and it’s often hard to think outside of your profession to understand how people might search your own information. The same applies to text, too, such as online articles. Notice how posts on this blog, Past Thinking, have categories, which are fairly rigid, but also have tags, which allows for extended meaning to be associated to the text. Hopefully this will help people to find information from within and without this site (allowing it, aptly, to become inside-out).

Jon would like to see museums linking to each other, and promoting each others collections. As an archaeologist, I’d like to extend that branch towards archaeology.

Archaeologists should start linking to each other and to museum collections. After all, they are often the people responsible for filling the stores of museums in this age of developer-funded archaeology. Objects are related to each other, to objects in other museums, and, in terms of archaeological artefacts, they have a story of deposition and of recovery (excavation). To remove all of these links is to decontextualise many museum artefacts, and these new methods currently known as “Web 2.0” can help to reconnect much essential information, and help us to present and find better information to the world.

Through the mysts in my crystal ball, I can see it slowly begin to happen.

Cornwall Culture website using 'user generated content' and tagging
Social software in action: the Cornwall Culture website uses user generated content (uploaded photos and descriptions) and social tagging to help work out what Cornwall means to different people.

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