Archive for the ‘Brooklyn Museum’ Category

What can social media do for oral history?

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

When I was four years old my father brought an reel to reel tape recorder home with him, it had been discarded at the place that he worked and he fixed it up and used it to record my sister and I talking and singing.

Fast-forward thirty-something years and while that reel to reel tape recorder has gathered dust in my parents’ attic, technology has, of course, moved on.

Today, my eight-track tape recorder is my iPhone. This travels with me and I can record my children’s lives and share these experiences with my wider family through email, photo messages and social networks.

The sound quality that my iPhone gives me may not be much better than the soundtrack of my childhood, but this ability to share the experience so easily is revolutionary.

A few years ago, this kind of sharing may have seemed like the preserve of the geeky few, but sharing your activities, opinions and your creativity on social media is now the norm – there has been a socio-cultural shift where it has become acceptable, almost expected, that you will share intimate details of your life in a way which would have seemed incredibly narcissistic just a few years ago.

While technology can enhance oral history, it can’t change the essential appeal of good story, and StoryCorps is all about good stories. Over 30,000 have been recorded by the project since it was founded by radio producer Dave Isay in 2003.

Its mission is to record, preserve, and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs.

They started in October 23rd, 2003 with a StoryBooth in Grand Central Station in New York City, a sound proof booth where people could go to record their 40 minute interviews.

StoryCorps interviews take the form of a conversation between two people who know each other (as pictured above). They can be friends, family, or just acquaintances, though someone from StoryCorps is at hand to give advice on how to get the most out of a session.

Once an interview has taken place, the participants receive a CD of their interview and, with their permission, a second copy of each interview is archived at the American Folk Life Centre and the Library of Congress for future generations to hear.

The stories also appear on the StoryCorps website, tagged and categorised to make them easier to search. As well as allowing people to listen to the stories, visitors to the website are also encouraged to share the stories through social networks.

A quick search of social media websites finds that people are taking the time to link to the stories, virally spreading the word about StoryCorps and sharing personal favorites.

The animation shown above is one of a series created by StoryCorp based on recording which were made by members of the public. I really love this animation, I think that it will take these oral histories to a completely different audience.

One of the really nice things about these animations is that you can embed them in your own website, blog or facebook page, taking this Storycorp content and sharing it with your own networks.

The way in which the StoryCorps stories have been recorded was quite traditional and could have been done in a similar way thirty years ago but the way in which the content they are capturing is then distributed by members of the public who choose the share these recordings virally through their own networks, is very new.

Earlier this year, StoryCorps launched an iPhone application featuring stories which have been recorded by the initiative. This is another innovative way of sharing their content, but what interests me more is that they are also using this as a tool to collect more stories.

The app includes a ‘how to’ guide and links to an audio recorder, giving people the tools to record and share their own stories. I especially like the part of the app which suggests questions which you might want to ask the person you’re going to interview. These are categorised by the person you’re speaking to or life experiences.

Looking at StoryCorps you get the impression that everyone must have a story to tell. And it made wonder if other websites were collecting stories in this way.

Digging through the web I came across StoryVault, a UK based website which is trying to position itself as kind of a social network for oral histories – a place where you can upload the life story of your friends or family.

While I love the idea of this website, I have to admit that I found it quite intimidating; the featured stories which appear on the homepage are perhaps too good, with eye-witness accounts of everything from being a Japanese Prisoner of war to seeing the Berlin Wall come down.

While, as a viewer, these are really interesting stories, these world-changing events are quite a contrast to the kind of things most people could talk about, and I couldn’t post a story about my own life in this context, whereas StoryCorps seems like it is open to anyone.

Perhaps this is a good thing, and over time StoryCorps may become buried underneath so many reflections on ordinary lives that the great stories will be lost in the clutter, while StoryVault will be more focused a few ordinary people who witnessed remarkable events.

This idea of stories becoming lost in the clutter is an important point to make, if technology is making it easier to collect stories, how do we make that data accessible, mass starts to become a problem.

Both Story Corps and StoryVault use tags, descriptive words to help you to search through the content. These are added by the person uploading the video, this is good, but it only allows one perspective that of the content creator to be recognized. An idea that these websites could steal from online museum collections, is allowing the public to also add tags to these videos.

The picture above shows an object from the Online Collection on the Brooklyn Museum website, the tags next to this object have been added by the public. I really like this because it allows the public to interact with the collection and add value to the search information.

To highlight one of these tags, the descriptor ‘Bird Lady’ has been added as a tag to this object. Reading the official description of this object it is clear that ‘Bird Lady’ doesn’t have any curatorial meaning, but if a member of the public thinks that this is a valid descriptor, then this could make an object easier for another member of the public to find.

I think the same could be very true of audio or video for oral history projects, where giving the public the ability to tag content could make it easier for the public to find the stories which are most valuable for them without any additional work for the producer.

Looking at StoryVault again and seeing past the contents focus on great world events, I wondered if video is a barrier to entry or if asking members of the public to record their own oral histories is asking too much of people.

Forrester Research categories six different ways that the public interact with the social web in their social technographics tool, these are:

Creators – Critics – Collectors – Joiners – Spectators – Inactives

Forresters research suggests that only 24% of American’s might be willing to create video content and upload it to a website like StoryVault, but this statistic is misleading, or at least wildly optimistic. Lets compare that 20% statistic with the percentage of YouTube visitors who upload video to the world’s biggest video website. Just 0.16% of YouTube visitors upload content to the website, the vast majority of YouTube visitors are active in other ways, whether that is commenting, scoring, collecting or just viewing content.

Anyone who has spent time using YouTube will know how light the bulk of the content on that website is, dancing cats come to mind. So if only 0.16% of people are prepared to upload pointless rubbish to YouTube, how many will sit down to record there life stories for StoryVault.

I think we need to acknowledge that even if we are living in a world of status updates, sitting down to record an oral history and share this through a website is still a large barrier to entry and if we want to make the most of the opportunities that this offers us, then we need to make it as easy as possible for people to do this.

I think that the StoryCorp suggested questions that I mentioned earlier is a great example of making it easier for the public to get involved.

But as well as making it easier for the public to get involved at that top Creator motivation we should also be aware of the other ways that people want to participate online and think about how we can let people score content, add comments and share content.

Afterall you wouldn’t create an exhibition for just 0.16% of visitors and with online projects we need to also think about how we can serve as wide an audience as possible.

Another innovative project which is championing participation is UK SoundMap which was launched by the British Library earlier this year. This is an audio project, but they are not interested in oral history, this is instead an attempt to map the sounds of the United Kingdom.

This archive of the sounds of everyday life in Britain will act as an historic record of life at the start of the 21st century.

Recordings range from a car park in Hull to a supermarket check-out in Ipswich, from a gale in the Shetland Islands to a cat walking on gravel in Plymouth.

While the sounds are quite everyday, the decentralized way in which the UK SoundMap is being made is quite innovative.

The project allows any individual to contribute by uploading a recording through Audioboo, a social media platform which lets people capture recordings through their mobile phones and share these with people through the web.

Anyone can sign up for a free account with AudioBoo and get started in minutes, and, having made a recording, I simply have to tag it with the project id UKSM and it is pulled straight in to the project website and added to the UK SoundMap.

Ian Rawes the editor of UK SoundMap told me that the content submitted to the project is moderated, but the vast majority, 93%, is approved. Reasons that the recordings have been rejected vary from rights issues, typically recorded music being too prominent in the upload, swearing or hateful language, issues of quality or recordings where the person making the recording is talking but no environmental sounds are present.

Over 1000 recordings have been added to UK SoundMap, with contributions ranging from an individual recording through to 45 recordings added by the most prolific contributor.

Looking at the number of recordings each individual has added I wondered what makes one person add only a handful of recordings and another to add dozens.

I mentioned earlier the way in which the Brooklyn Museum have asked the public to help them to tag there collection, and they have used an interesting method of encouraging participation by awarding points for each tag that you add.

This points scheme gives recognition to those who contribute towards making the collection more accessible. As the leaderboard shows several users have added thousands of tags, and it is easy to see how something as simple as a points system and a leader board could encourage the people who are contributing records to UK SoundMap to be more active.

This crowdsourced approach allows the project to reach the whole of the UK, while keeping the costs at a minimum, and with spending cuts hitting heritage organisations across Europe, I think we can all see a benefit in empowering our audiences to help us to create this kind of project.

Another pioneering project is The Black List project – an exhibition which took place at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008. It brought together twenty-five portraits by internationally renowned photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders which looked to explore being Black in America.

The education team at Brooklyn Museum wanted to gather visitor responses to the exhibition which typically they would have done with an electronic comment book. But it was felt that video would better capture the more personal stories that they were asking people to share.

Originally they intended to set up filming times to take video responses in the gallery, but concern over the amount of time it would take to edit and collate responses made them look for a more automated solution.

The solution came in the form of YouTube and their Quick Capture feature, which allows anyone to use a webcam to directly record a video to their YouTube channel.

During the Black List Project’s four month run, visitors recorded 482 videos, of which 236 were shown on the Black List Project YouTube channel. Those which were rejected were mainly people messing around or pressing record and then walking away, only one of the 482 recordings was removed because it violated comment guidelines.

The 236 films which made it on to the Black List Project YouTube channel received 43,386 views from the public, though roughly half of these were for one video which was featured by YouTube.

The large amount of traffic that a website like YouTube receives is one reason that using an established website to host your video may work better for you, because rather then having to entice people to come and view your video on your own website you can simply post your video where lots of people are spending time online already.

Moderation of the videos was done at the end of each day, and typically took the staff at Brooklyn Museum no more then 15 minutes.

While the videos were generally within the comment guidelines set out by the Brooklyn Museum, one problem that using YouTube as a platform presented was the websites user base have a reputation for posting offensive comments. Sadly this allowed people to post racist comments under the films and staff from Brooklyn Museum needed to delete these comments and ban a number of users from being able to make further comments.

I think that it is testament to the Brooklyn Museum’s inclusive values that they didn’t switch off the ability of all users to leave feedback on the videos, preferring to moderate the vocal few rather than ban all feedback.

You can view the Black List Project videos here.

So at the start of this article I asked the question ‘what can social media do for oral history?’.

I’ve pulled out five main points from the projects that I have highlighted.

1. Social media can change the way you collect content
As we saw with the projects I have talked about today, technology is giving us new ways to collect content through webcams, mobile phones and crowdsourcing.

You no longer have to sit face to face with the person your interviewing, perhaps by empowering people to tell their own stories you will come across people and stories that you wouldn’t have found through traditional methods.

2. Social media can educate and empower our audiences
I think that these tools can help you to educate people about how to tell their stories, as StoryCorps are doing by giving people the tools to ask the right questions and record their own oral histories.

Social media also allows us to empower our audiences, making them think differently about themselves and their place in the world.

3. Social media can make your content more accessible
As we saw with the Brooklyn Museum online collection, we can ask our audiences to help us to make our content more accessible by tagging content with keywords.

4. Social Media can make your content viral
Content has become easy to share through the internet and I think this brings both opportunities and challenges for oral history projects.

On a positive note I can take brilliant content like the StoryCorps animation which I showed you earlier and embed this in my blog, spreading the word about storycorp and letting people see content which they might not have come across otherwise.

I think this kind of sharing can be incredibly beneficial for both the public and oral history projects, but I am aware that some content is very sensitive and the ability to share content might not always be wanted.

5. Social media is evolving
I started my presentation by talking about the shift which has taken place which has made it the norm to share the details of our everyday lives with others through websites like Facebook.

While it would be foolish to guess how this will continue to change, change is inevitable and just as I can stand here laughing at the state of the art technology used by my parents to record my childhood, I am quite sure that my iPhone, Facebook and the internet as we know it will seem archaic in far less then thirty years.

But something’s never change and even as someone who passionately believes in the benefits of social media I have to say that all the technology in the world is pointless in the context of oral history without a good story, and while technogies may change a good story and good storytelling is timeless.


This article was written by Jim Richardson, founder of MuseumNext and managing director of Sumo, an agency with a reputation for developing innovative digital marketing.

Jim regularly speaks at conferences and contributes to publications on social media and digital marketing.

Ask a Curator

Monday, October 25th, 2010

On the same day that Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was published to considerable media reaction and controversy, discussion of another topic entirely was topping the trend charts on Twitter. Remarkably, it was an initiative to stimulate dialogue between the public and museum curators that had become the hottest Twitter subject in the world by mid morning on 1 September 2010.

The one-day event, called Ask a Curator, was the brainchild of Jim Richardson, managing director of Sumo, a branding and design group which regularly works with museum and gallery clients. Frustrated that social media are usually used by such organisations to push out ‘bland marketing messages’, if they use them at all, Richardson wanted to harness Twitter’s networking power to drum up some direct engagement with curators across the globe. The idea was that a curious public would be able to question the keepers of cultural heritage about the objects in their care and what it is they do with them.

‘With Ask a Curator I wanted to do something which asked more of both the public and museums, something that could create dialogue and real engagement. I hoped the project could give the public unprecedented access to the passionate and enthusiastic individuals who work in museums and galleries and also break down barriers within these institutions, where all too often social media is still the remit of the marketing department,’ says Richardson.

The initiative comes at a time when many museums are just beginning to consider how online platforms and social media might dovetail with their on-site activities. Some institutions, such as the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, have blazed a trail with their online services and an open attitude to dialogue with the public. But for some organisations, taking part in Ask a Curator was a foray into largely uncharted territory.

According to Conxa Rodà, project coordinator at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, the event was the first time curators there had used Twitter. ‘[The event gave] museum professionals a real proof of the reach and influence of social media and it can awake an interest in what Twitter is all about,’ she says.

So was Ask a Curator a success? In many ways, yes. Despite being promoted solely through Twitter, the idea eventually garnered participation from over 340 institutions, each offering a curator to take part in a question and answer session at some point during the day. What’s more, together these museums and galleries span the globe and cover a huge breadth of subject matter and collection material – from the Museum of East Anglian Life in the UK to the Museum of History of Medicine in Brasil.

Questions ranged from the general – ‘Have you ever had a piece that you wanted to exhibit but was too large to get into the museum?’ – to the specific – ‘What is your vision for creating a participatory interactive experience with visitors using mobile guide technology? – to the analytical and academic – ‘Is a visual art exhibition a collaborative project between artist and curator? Is there a dominant player?’

‘For us, Ask a Curator was the start of an ongoing conversation,’ says Wenke Mast, events and website assistant at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. ‘Our communications department will now screen Twitter every day and pass relevant questions to our curators. We will keep on answering questions.’ Perhaps this is a first step towards breaking down the ‘barriers’ between curators and marketing departments that Richardson observes.

And if volume of traffic is a measure of success, the event was barnstorming. The rapid rise of #askacurator – the ‘hashtag’ linking Twitter messages to the subject – led a range of media, including the BBC, to report on the activity. Although these reports largely focused on the social media phenomenon of a trending hashtag, they also discussed the event’s principal idea of connecting museum curators and the public all over the world.

The day’s activities also increased Twitter followers for the organisations which took part. ‘We received 403 extra followers from Tuesday 30 August,’ says Maryam Asghari, online and digital marketing manager at the Barbican. ‘The average is 443 extra followers per week, so to get this number in three days is good.’

In short, Ask a Curator generated lots of activity around a worthwhile objective, namely giving the global public ‘one-to-one’ access to curators of cultural heritage collections, many of which are publicly held. This huge response reveals genuine interest in the sector’s work, says Museums Sheffield marketing officer for campaigns and digital Dominic Russell-Price. ‘When the calls for scrapping arts funding get ever louder it was heartening to know that the public want to engage and know more about how we work, particularly with questions being about collections, not just exhibitions.’

But there are also limitations to the Twitter platform and in many ways Ask a Curator was beset by problems of its own success. The popularity of the event and the fast trending of #askacurator swiftly led the hashtag to be hijacked by spam messages, polluting the stream of genuine messages with rubbish. Because #askacurator is the only identifier of relevant messages it becomes difficult to track associated questions and answers as they stream in from multiple sources. Additionally, many responses were made directly to questioners rather than ‘tweeted’ publicly, further obscuring the exchange.

Another inherent limitation is Twitter’s short-form message format of no more than 140 characters. Does this preclude the meaningful and detailed conversation needed to discuss complex curatorial work? Is Twitter actually better suited to providing basic visitor information?

‘I think it all lies in the expectations of the Twitter audience,’ says Richardson. ‘Everyone enters Twitter knowing that the messages are short and I think people expect short answers and a certain amount of chaos. Personally, I don’t equate depth of engagement with the length of the answer; the tone and speed of response are for me just as important as they can show that an institution is open and keen to engage with the public.’

Certainly, whichever online platform is used for engagement, it is not so much the mechanics that are important, but the content and intention. In this regard, Ask a Curator raised its own valid question: Is there an appetite for this kind of dialogue, from both sides of the exchange, and how can it can enrich the work, understanding and enjoyment of museums and galleries everywhere?


Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.

Participatory design

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

A young woman is strolling down the street in a medium-sized British town. Rounding a corner she is confronted with an altercation between a white man and an Asian store-owner. It is not clear what has caused the confrontation, but the aggression has a palpable racial element. As the shouting and gesticulating heightens, the observer takes out her phone and grabs a couple of photographs, as well as a short, ten-second video, all the while making sure she is out of sight.

Later, as she comes into the city centre, the woman decides to pop in to the local museum to see what’s on and to pass half an hour before a meeting. As it turns out, the museum has just opened a temporary exhibition looking at the history of race relations in the city, offering oral histories, photographs and cultural objects imported to the town by its Asian immigrants. She notices that one section of the exhibition is soliciting visitor input, encouraging people to share their own stories, experiences and images. These contributions will be collected on a special microsite, built to accompany the exhibition, elements of which form part of a constantly updated digital display inside the museum.

Recalling the incident she witnessed in the street, the woman decides to upload the pictures to the museum’s Flickr group, set up especially for the exhibition, where she is able to geotag the exact location of the event using Google maps, as well as the time and date it took place. One of the pictures – a decisive photographic moment – captured the white man’s grimacing face, his first finger rigidly poking towards the anxious looking Asian shopkeeper. Shorn of context, the image could of course have any number of meanings; but the photographer is able to provide a firsthand account of the racist abuse she overheard and which she duly records in the image’s caption.

With this contribution the exhibition has become live and dynamic. The museum has taken a difficult subject, with historical and social dimensions, examined it and opened it to the public for further and ongoing discussion and interpretation. Although focused around the physical exhibition itself, much of this public participation is made possible using online services which are constructed along the social media principles of interconnection, sharing and collaboration – an approach to web-based services encapsulated in the term web 2.0.

But more than this, in planning for the exhibition the museum staff decided to engage people outside the organisation to work through the design process itself. This participatory design sought input from a small number of community groups, local businesses and residents. One of the outcomes of this ‘outside’ contribution was the decision that the microsite, while hosted and branded by the museum, would be maintained and moderated by two volunteers. One of these volunteers works for a community outreach programme which organises events promoting integration and positive interaction between different sections of the community. The experiences and learning derived from these events continues to be fed into the microsite in the form of a blog.

And so on. This fictional scenario, presenting a museum operating on the tricky frontiers of social debate, begins to illustrate some of the possibilities of incorporating participation – by design – into the processes of creating exhibitions, as well as the way those exhibitions engage the public. Of course, engagement and collaboration may well form the backbone of many existing museum programmes without the term participatory design (or indeed design for participation) ever being mentioned. But a conscious decision to build participation into the design process itself and/or into the way users will interact with exhibitions once they are installed is an approach which may yield benefits for the institution and visitors alike.

Nina Simon of US consultancy Museum 2.0 explains: ‘Participatory design can help museums deliver on the oft-repeated but rarely demonstrated desire for museums to become essential civic spaces, social environments that encourage the democratic process.’

Participation can be as complicated or as simple as deemed necessary, depending on resources, experience and objectives. Engaging and organising people (the public, experts from areas outside the museum, community groups and so on) to take part in a truly collaborative design process is certainly an undertaking, as is inviting visitor contributions and dialogue with the exhibitions themselves. But at its simplest level, participation might be encouraged by asking visitors to caption or comment on objects by sticking Post-It notes around exhibition displays.

An example cited by Simon is The Post-It Project, conducted at Sweden’s Västernorrlands Läns Museum a few years ago, ‘in which visitors were solicited to write down comments – about anything in the museum – and post them wherever they wanted.’ As she suggests, the value and goal here are perhaps too vague to be genuinely useful, but the ‘open-endedness also makes this kind of project a great starting point for a museum to explore the inclusion of visitor content. Start-up costs and development time are minimal, and the project can be aborted at any time.’

But for many museums, the catalyst for building visitor contributions into their activities has been the proliferation and mass uptake of online social media services – sites such as Flickr, Facebook and, more recently, Twitter. Flickr in particular is well known, easy to use and allows museums to garner relevant photographic material from the public, not just locally, but anywhere in the world. An event-based extension of this might be to organise a scavenger hunt, as the London Transport Museum has done, sending teams of people into the city to locate and photograph various London Transport related objects. All the pictures were uploaded to Flickr, allowing a vote for the best image to be thrown open to the public and in turn utilising Flickr’s social network aspects to build awareness of the museum’s brand amongst online ‘communities’.

Similarly, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s World Beach Project, devised by artist Sue Lawty, asks people worldwide to create sculptures and images on beaches using gathered stones, recording the process and finished art in up to three photographs.

Rather than using Flickr, the images are uploaded to the museum’s dedicated web page and embedded Google world map. Again, the project is conceived specifically to create participation, engaging visitors and non-visitors alike in content generation, while marketing the V&A online at the same time.

These last two examples are competition and art project respectively, so arguably outside a museum’s core public-facing activities, which are delivered via exhibitions, collections and interpretation. But participation can seed exhibitions too.

The Minnesota History Society’s MN150 exhibition and book invited public submissions of the key people, places or things that have shaped the state’s history. This engagement was partly conducted online, but the bulk of submissions came from community outreach, demonstrating that participatory design need not be technology-led – it is mostly about approach and intent. The result was an exhibition populated with content gathered directly through public input, albeit curated by the museum.

A nice example of design for participation is the National Maritime Museum’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, set up this year so that entries are submitted via Flickr, where they are held in the public domain, while a partnership with allows each image is ‘astrotagged’ so that they can all be combined and compared in a growing photographic chart of the night sky. The collaborative nature of this project – along with the content created by the public – is its strength. And again, it builds awareness of the museum’s activities farther and wider than could have been achieved otherwise. It is competition, exhibition, research and marketing all in one, but would not be possible without public input, professional collaboration and web-based services.

Yet another example is Brooklyn Museum’s Click! exhibition, an investigation of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ in which artists’ photographic responses to the theme of the ‘changing faces of Brooklyn’ were assessed by the public online. At the final exhibition, held in the museum last summer, the artworks were installed according to their relative ranking from this public jury process.

Participatory design, then, can take many flavours. Naturally, not everything will be appropriate for every institution, exhibition or subject theme.

Traditionally, museums have delivered knowledge and learning in one direction: from institution to the public. Although it adds another dimension, participation need not supplant this model. Of course, it is valid to ask whether participation – and by extension participatory design – is actually necessary or beneficial at all. Perhaps one way to answer that is to consider changing expectations. As cultural sector consultant and Flow Associates director Bridget McKenzie notes, a recent flurry of events centred on participatory culture seem to indicate that ‘the public expects to participate’.


Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.