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Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

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published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


The World Wide Web and contemporary collecting: a powerful combination

John Griffiths, Science Museum, London

This paper offers one possible avenue to explore to assist curators in science and technology museums in solving some of the problems encountered in keeping pace with, and ultimately preserving, developments in science and technology.

1. Collecting policy - background

The Science Museum has always tried to keep pace with technological developments since the formation of the South Kensington Museum in 1857, six years after the Great Exhibition of 1851. It's current acquisition mission states that the Science Museum 'acquires and cares for artefacts and related contextual material to mark the progress and development of science, technology and medicine from 1700 to the present' (1) . The Museum's collections are very strong in material up to around the early 1970s (2) and there is little doubt that these historic collections can be seen as representing the progress of science, technology and medicine. In fact a large number of the Museum's most significant and historic items were given to the Museum shortly after they were made or manufactured. However the increasing pace of technological change since the middle to late 1970s has meant that it is becoming more and more difficult to monitor progress in many fields of science and technology inevitably putting greater pressure on the curator.

The Museum is finding that artefacts from the early 1970s through to the late 1980s are being offered from individuals and companies - especially in the fields of printing, telecommunications and computing, to name just three. Hence simply reacting to these offers, let alone beginning to consider more contemporary material, is a vast task in its own right. The Science Museum and other similar organisations have recognised these issues and have begun to address them (3).

To this end the Museum has begun to target its collecting at contemporary developments but recognises that there are some serious difficulties with this approach. It should be emphasised that this targeting is not at the expense of other collecting activities - the Museum still targets specific historic areas in which the collections are weak and endeavours to fill any important gaps.

2. Collecting policy - the problems

I would like to outline a few of the major issues attached to collecting contemporary material from the viewpoint of the science and technology curator. Firstly, as already emphasised above, there is the pace of current developments to contend with. This is particularly true in the fields of telecommunications and computing. Museums have to try to identify what is significant amongst the plethora of developments. Secondly there is the acute problem of the reluctance of many companies to donate material due, in many cases, to the financial worth of the items coupled with the difficulty museums have in providing instant public exposure to the items in their galleries. In addition there is the problem with the nature of material that we are trying to collect - many of the artefacts have a very short working life - perhaps as low as two years and hence it becomes more and more difficult to capture these increasingly fleeting manifestations of change. Finally companies are finding it increasingly difficult to find time to work in parallel with museums to preserve the trends in science and technology. Involving companies in the heritage sector and in the task of preserving the developments they are promoting is, not surprising, becoming ever more difficult and demanding.

3. A suggested collecting mechanism

I am proposing the use of the World Wide Web as a proactive vehicle for the collecting of contemporary objects by using the information provided by the companies who advertise their products via this medium. The convergence of the nature of the material curators are trying to preserve and the type of product information that is now becoming more readily available on the web should enable this method of acquisition to become a real possibility.

This method is only meant to complement the other more 'traditional' methods of collecting artefacts, such as targeted collecting and reactive acquisition. It is not meant to replace these more traditional ways.

The proposal put forward is very much at the ideas stage and has yet to be tested 'in the field' at the time of going to press. The author feels however that it has great potential.

4. The origins of the idea

The idea of using the web in this way can be traced to the convergence of:

a. internal discussions amongst a number of Science Museum staff about the problems faced in acquiring contemporary material in certain high-tech industries,

b. the use of the web as an active research tool in the acquisition process,

c. increasing use of the web by companies to advertise their products and the importance in the quality and quantity of information about their products on their web pages,

d. an awareness of the importance of the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/) and related projects whose aim is to collect and store web information for use by historians, researchers and scholars and others in the future,

e. the pressures on museums to make their collections more accessible to their publics.

One resulting event that followed from (a) was an internal paper drafted by the Curator of Telecommunications (Roger Bridgman) on a 'Proactive collecting strategy for communication technology' (4), where Bridgman outlines a strategy whereby companies are approached at regular intervals and invited to donate examples of their current products to the collections. The companies would have to prove the significance and typicality of the items they offer, and the items will be chosen only if they meet stringent criteria that demonstrate that the products are representative of the leading technology of that particular period in question. For example one could use market share, 'best buy' ratings, best seller ratings and mentions in peer sampling surveys. The follow up from this would result in those companies getting high-profile media coverage and donors will be encouraged to advertise their association with the project. The end result would be an exhibition at the Museum coupled with the knowledge that the Museum has collected items that are truly representative of that area of technology over the time frame in question. This project was called had the name 'Freezeframe' as a working title, but unfortunately never became a reality.

The initiative put forward in this paper effectively brings together the medium of the web and the ideas behind 'Freezeframe'. It suggests that we can undertake 'Freezeframe' without actually acquiring the artefacts. Instead we use the web as both the source of product information and the carrier of contemporary technological 'snapshots' via museum home pages. This then will enable museums to use pre-determined selection criteria to decide on suitable acquisitions for their collections as well as providing an archival record of the development of the technologies in question.

5. The methodology

A visit to any number of company web sites who manufacture and distribute computer hardware (such as Toshiba, Compaq, IBM·) will immediately show the range of products available. They offer very lengthy descriptive information about these, together with additional information - such as press releases and other contextual material.

Here is a suggested methodology

· Firstly identify key company web sites that include a high density of products under consideration, such as laptops. One of the criteria here should be the choice of companies that are leaders in the particular technology being considered.

· The company should then be contacted in order that they are introduced to the initiative and asked if they wish to be involved.

· A set of project pages is then set up on the Museum's home web site, where the initiative is described and its aims and objectives are clearly defined.

· Across the range of products and the range of companies chosen, a selection of products (objects) to be featured is made - to a set of pre-defined criteria. This is in essence the same as happens with normal collecting activity, i.e. the products are chosen to selected criteria.

· On the web pages, set up and capture relevant data fields and selected images from the description of the products selected, plus any other relevant material (such as press releases). Include also the reason the item was included - this description is, as in normal collecting activities, a vital piece of information. Catalogue-type data can be mapped into whatever collection management system the museum is using - for ease of downloading at future dates.

· This data can be amplified by any other relevant contextual information - eg listing of earlier items from collection, a timeline of the subject matter, links to other relevant web sites, plus narrative and other text that puts the new material into an historical as well as contemporary context.

· The information on the site should be reviewed at regular intervals and updated, or modified, as necessary and this should be clearly indicated on the site.

· Finally it is essential to have in place at the beginning of the process a rigid and well-thought out archival and retrieval system.

6. Areas of technology that might be considered

There are a number of potential areas that might benefit from this approach to collecting. For example:

· portable pcs, laptops and palmtops

· software

· mobile phones

· smart cards

· scanners

· photocopiers

7. What does this gives us?

A well designed and moderated set of pages set up as above would give us:

· A virtual 'snapshot', from the museum's viewpoint, of developments in significant and fast moving fields of technology

· A 'snapshot' that could truly reflect the market place

· An organised, searchable, archive resource for researchers and historians

· A highly visible, flexible and dynamic manifestation of the museum's collections as they evolve and the ability to share it with our publics via the WWW

· The ability to reflect on, and monitor, the products as they evolve and to identify candidates for actual accession to the collections

· An educational resource

· Potentially stronger links with companies that develop these products

· A way of bringing together collecting, virtual exhibitions, interpretation of collections and research under one umbrella that is highly visible and dynamic

8. What we can do with the data on the web site?

· Use the information (as a function of time) to decide on suitable acquisitions for the collections via suitable selection criteria.

· Publish on-line commentaries on the developments (by curators, or outside experts) at regular intervals, using these virtual collections and any other contextual information that is relevant.

· Display on-line exhibitions of the material interpreted and curated by the relevant subject specialist and other commentators.

· Archive (for future research use) the data in a variety of formats.

· Use the project as a vehicle for promoting the collections and involving our publics in the process of preservation of technological artefacts and supporting information

· Use gallery-based web browsers to give the visiting public instant updates of what technologies the museum is actively collecting

· Use the project as a vehicle for harnessing closer links with industry - making them more aware of the need to be part of the heritage industry

9. Conclusions

There are plans to undertake a pilot project in the near future based on the ideas outlined above. The author thinks that a well engineered scheme has great potential. It could be used as a platform for museums to begin to use web technology in a proactive and flexible way to record developments in science and technology and, most important of all, share them with the wide range of publics who use museums.

10. References

1 "Acquisition and Disposal Policy; April 1995 - March 1998", internal Science Museum document. (Back to text)
2 "Making of the Modern World", edited by Neil Cossons, published by John Murray in association with the Science Museum, 1992.(Back to text)
3 "Museum collecting policies in modern science and technology", Proceedings of a conference held at the Science Museum, London, 3 November 1988, Science Museum 1991. (Back to text)
4 Private correspondence.(Back to text)

Last modified: March 21, 1998. This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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