Open Heritage Scholarship 2

Last week I was at London’s Digital Catapult centre, building on the discussion we started with the thinkathon in Winchester. This time round, we wanted to bring in some other voices from outside the academic sector, so I invited Lindsey Green from Frankly Green and Webb, and Kevin Bacon from who I met when he organised a fun workshop for the heritage sector. We also had Jake Berger from the BBC, David Tarrant from the Open Data Institute and Nigel Smith from FutureLearn. Graeme, Adam and Elenora were also there of course, as where Bryan and John from we are open.

Graeme started the day while we awaited all the delegates, by explaining at little bit about the Portus archaeology project, and how virtual access to a (until recently at least) mostly closed site had been enabled though through things like the MOOC, a relativity new on-line tour, a BBC/Discovery Channel TV documentary and open publishing of some academic papers. The opportunity, he said, was linking these and more resources, so an interest sparked by one could be satisfied by others.

Then everyone had the opportunity to introduce themselves and explain a little bit about what they hoped to get out of the day. One of the most exciting things I learned here was RES, Jake Berger’s project which the BBC has been surprisingly quiet about. This little video explains it better than I can.

We attempted to run the session a bit like the earlier thinkthon, but its interesting to note that with more people, it didn’t work quite as well. In Winchester, with a smaller group, the We Are Open guys nudged our discussion to explore interesting avenues more deeply. But with this larger group Bryan ended up drawing and drawing trying (and sometimes failing) to keep up, and not contributing as much as he was able to do in Winchester. Graeme compensated by taking more of a “chair” role than he had needed to do during the Thinkathon, but I think in the end the discussion was shallower. But new concepts reached more minds in the larger group, so I hope we may have scattered some seeds that will bare fruit in future.

We started talking about MOOCs and the Portus FutureLearn. Though an open course, some hoops have to jumped through to make the content open, and in fact not all the content is open, student’s own comments are considered their copyright by default, for example, so they can only be seen by other students. One of the advantages of massively open courses is the broad range of students they attract, with different backgrounds and levels of expertise. They may well being to the course, though a comment a unique insight which no-one had considered before of real value, not just to fellow students, but to the academics behind the course. But that insight can’t be shared from within the course. Permission must the sought from the student.

Some contributions are made using other platforms. For example, in the Portus MOOC students were asked to submit diagrams and photos on Flikr. On upload Flikr allows the user to set the level of open access to the file, but the user can’t change that after the original decision, and the default, is copyright, all rights reserved. So despite the various levels of Creative Commons protection offered by other options, most of the material uploaded in this manner is also closed, not open. We talked a little about incentive’s for users to consider Creative Commons when they share their work.

I don’t think the open badges idea that we talked about quite a lot at Winchester was specifically mentioned here, but on reflection I think its bubbling under. For example, we returned to the idea of Experience Playlists.

experienceplaylists

The idea of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs across digital and possibly even realworld platforms is attractive. Not just for the trailblazer to look back on, but for other users to follow. But should it be more explicit than, say, Amazon telling us “people who bought this also bought these” or Google ranking popular links? Could an open badge system residing in the background on people’s phone discreetly create a visit timeline, like the one I left at SF MOMA?

Then we tackled Heritage Organisations’ different understanding (fear?) of what Open means. Different laws pertain in different states for a start, so organisations ability to make stuff open could be limited by the state in which they operate. Then there is the issue of willingness, not just of heritage organisations – for example, a museum might own the physical artifact of a contemporary painting, but not its Intellectual Property, of which the artist (or their estate) might retain control. Then when the museum is the outright owner of a work, they may fear that opening up access to its reproduction limits the ability to generate much needed funds. Though, as Lindsey pointed out, in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum may have shown other institutions the way in that regard. Personally I came out of the discussion no less convinced that a Creative Commons, share alike, non-commercial proposition is something that heritage organisations should proactively embrace.

We had a go at working out what we might learn from Citizen Science projects, but by this time, I think we were all getting tired, and I’m not sure we came out with any useful conclusions. My own notes get scrappy here, but I do remember pointing out the critical-mass challenge for public participation in heritage, which has dogged crowdsourcing heritage projects like History Pin.

And that might be indicate a good place to finish this blog. We discussed what we were trying to achieve with all this. And no-one was expecting miracles. We know there will always be a steep curve on the axes of number of participants and depth of involvement: while hundreds of thousands or millions might passively watch a TV documentary about Rome, fewer and fewer will participate at deeper levels of interest and active participation. all we want (expect) to do is tweek that curve just a little bit. No even as much as this sketch suggests (though that would be nice):

Sketches from Bryan Mathers, weareopen.coop
Sketches from Bryan Mathers, weareopen.coop

 

Sound Heritage 3

Yesterday I attended and spoke at the third of the Sound Heritage study days, at the marvellous Tatton Park, in Knutsford, near Manchester. The day started (after introductions) with a presentation from Candace Bailey, Performing Paris in Antebellum Charleston. She is currently exploring the domestic music of women across the Southern United States in the 19th century. Not just white women, but also (after the civil war and emancipation) women of colour. 

In 1821, a house was built that became known at the Aiken-Rhett house, the largest urban plantation era dwelling that survives. Like the National Trust’s Calke Abbey, as the family fortunes declined, they simply closed up rooms and retreated into fewer and fewer spaces, until, when it was sold for $1 to the Charleston Preservation Trust, only one room was occupied. One of those closed up rooms contained a number of volumes of bound music. 

Harriet Aiken, aged fourteen, had a surprising repertoire. Most of the sheet music available in Charleston, North Carolina in the 19th century was of British origin. Which is not to say there were no European composers included, but rather than the musicwas published in London. One of Harriet’s volumes contains sheet music exclusively printed in Belgium, and most of French Opera. Indeed, hers may be the largest collection of this sort of music in the world. Another volume similarly contains most French music, there is just one English piece, which looks like it was inserted after binding. Where did all this music come from?

Mrs Giraud, and Miss Bidon were regularly performing in Charleston at this time, and it seems Harriet might have been a student of Giraud. Later when Harriet got married, she went to Paris.  On her return, the decorations and a new art gallery full of European art seem to suggest that the family worked to preserve French (Huguenot) culture, which goes against the usual perception of Southern states being the last bastion of British culture in America. In fact I remember, from, I must admit, creating a character for an Old West themed tabletop RPG, that Charleston had a considerable population of French origin, and even today boasts an impressive Huguenot church. The Anglic culture of North Carolina dictated music taste though, except it seems in the Aiken house, due not just to Harriet, but later Henrietta Aiken, who never bound her sheet music, which suggest she kept playing it. About a thousand pieces, again most from France.

I spoke after Candace, all stuff you’ve read before if you are familiar with my blog, recapping my motivation for study, my affect wheel, music in games, then taking a detour into some work I’m currently involved with at the Vyne (which I’ll write about when it’s done), then back to Kernels and Satellites, and introducing my Chawton project. I spent too long on the Vyne (actually I lie – I spent too long on supposedly “witty” asides, playing to positive reactions from the audience) so in my rush to keep to time, I forgot the most important narrative atom for this particular audience: that music in heritage interpretation is mostly used as a satellite in the narrative, but it has the power to be a kernel, if interpretive designers allow it. 

After lunch, we had a lovely recital from student at the Royal Northern College of Music (which was the neighbouring institution, when I was an art student in Manchester. My favourite piece (though I may be prejudiced by its title) was a solo, called Crazy Jane, which tells the story of a woman who, abandoned by her lover, goes mad. It was one of the most popular pieces of sheet music of its day, so nothing changes, does it, in popular music choices – “my man done done me wrong” is still a staple today. 

Listening to it though, made me think about one of the challenges of using historic music for interpretation, which especially relevant as I try to use music to make meaning at Chawton. I struggled to understand the lyrics, despite them being in perfectly accessible English, because my ear wasn’t trained to listen through the “operatic” styling of the music (and lets face it, I’m going deaf).  So the meaning of the song was lost to me, and because if changing musical semantics, not even the tune said “sad song” to a modern listener. 

Could this be … the first decent museum app?

sfmoma

Last week my wife and I went to San Francisco. Our second full day there was mostly spent within SF MOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And for the first time ever, I used a museum/heritage app that actually enhanced my visit.

Part of what made it so successful was the infrastructure that made it easy to download and use. I didn’t have to plan in advance and download it before my visit. I wasn’t even aware of it before I went, but if I had been, I would have been unlikely to download it, because our hotel’s free wifi only allowed one of us to use our device each four hour lease period.

We’d started our visit walking through the museum to the opposite entrance to contemplate the Richard Serra sculpture. It was early in the day, the museum was just opening, and there was a team-brief on the tiered seating that surround the piece. But they moved on and we sat for a moment to contemplate the enormous steel structure (I can’t deny the meditative quality of Serra’s work, or the calming impact it seems on have on the psyche when encountered, but really I sometimes feel “seen one, seen them all”) and to plan our day.

My wife noted a label on the wall directing people who wanted to know more about the art to SFMOMA’s app, and helpfully pointing out that you could log into the museum’s free wifi to download it. I think it said that it was iOS only, but if you didn’t have a suitable device, you could borrow one.

The first pleasure was logging onto the wifi. This was possibly the most hassle-free process I’ve ever encountered on public wifi. The signal was strong (everywhere), reliable and speedy too. The app downloaded quickly, and upon opening gave me three screens introducing what it offered, such as the one below:

It wanted access to my location services (of course), camera and, unusually, to my activity (the “healthy living” function of more recent versions of iOS), but having been so pleasantly surprised and satisfied by the process so far, I was very happy to allow both. All this had taken very little time, but enough time for my wife to have wandered away towards the elevators to begin our exploration of the museum, so I hurried after her, scanning what was on offer from the app as I went.

There’s a highlights function, which includes “Our picks for forty must-see artworks that are currently on view”, a timeline function that enables you to record and share your visit, and section on other “things to do”, and of course the ability to buy tickets, membership etc. At the core of the app are “Immersive Walks”: a range of fifteen to 45 minute audio tours of the galleries.

On no! I’d left my earphones back at the hotel.

But that wasn’t a problem, because as I caught my wife up by the elevators, I saw a stand stacked high with cases of SFMOMA-orange ear-buds. These were given away free and of a somewhat disposable quality, but good enough to last the day (and to pass on to my son when we got back from the holiday) with in-line volume controls for ease of use. The thought and effort that SFMOMA put into the infrastructure around the app deserves to be commended.

But lets get to the meat of the app’s functionality. The key thing here is indoor positioning. I’m guessing it’s achieved through wifi mobile location analytics, but I haven’t confirmed that. I can confirm that its pretty accurate, though with a little bit of lag, so it takes a while after walking into a gallery, and then standing still for a moment, before your device can deliver to you the buttons for the content relevant to the artworks on the gallery. Some, but not all, of the artworks are accompanied by a specific bit of media (mostly audio) to offer more in-depth insight into the work. This can include commentary, reviews or snippets of interviews with the artist.

I also took an immersive walk. I chose German to Me, a personal exploration of post-war German artists from radio journalist Luisa Beck, in which she shares her reaction on some of the works in the collection and interviews for mother, grandmother and cousin to uncover more about her own German-American identity. As the tour progresses you are guided, not just by Luisa’s spoken directions, but also by the app’s indoor positioning, as shown below.

I have to say, I would have given these galleries the most cursory of glances, had I not been captured by Luisa’s tour. As it was, her (wholly un-sensational) story, and her commentary upon the art engaged me emotionally to a degree I wasn’t expecting. It enhanced my visit like no other app has achieved.

The phone also recorded my “timeline”, my journey through the museum, on-line so that I can share with others the photos I took, the artworks that caught my attention enough to seek more information from the app, and the tours I went you. As you can see, I spent three and a half hours with the app, walking 3,369 steps (or 1.7 miles). This timeline is the only slightly disappointing aspect of the app – I would have like to have clicked through this on-line version to listen to some of the media again, now that I am back home, maybe even to be reminded (though the apps abilities to determine location) who made some of things that I took photos of.

You’ll know that I’m not a massive fan of looking at things through my phone, but this app did well enough to almost convince me otherwise.

The museum had other digital interventions of interest. You might have spotted in my timelime that one of the first things we looked at was a surveillance culture-inspired artwork by Julia Scher that turned the museum in to Responsive Environment, changing according to visitors actions.

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There was also a fun activity in one of the cafe’s that allowed you to create your own digital artwork, printing it out on thermal paper instantly, but also linking to a hi-res online version, which I used for the illustration at the top of this post (you will note that those free earbuds are the stars of that piece).

SFMOMA, with their technology partners Detour on the app, and the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, are doing good things in the digital sphere. If your are there, you should check them out.