In his book My Unwritten Books, George Steiner “tells of seven books he did not write because intimacies and indiscretions were too intimidating; because the topic brought too much pain; because the emotional challenge proved beyond his capabilities.”
Chapter 3, The Tongues of Eros, begins with the captivating phase “What is the sexual life of a deaf-mute?” Aspects of love occupy some of the chapter, but it is more about diversity, the importance of difference and the richness of language in the catastrophe of Babel.
In 1993, Museums Australia, building on an effort of fifty years by its antecedents, sought to bring together tribes representing the specialised interests within the domain of museums and galleries.
Advancing Common Ground suggests that the road is still stretched out before us, like it is in Alex Poignant’s famous photograph of the swagman with the bike.
I recently took the Marcus Aurelius helicopter to “look from above at the spectacle of myriad herds, myriad rites, and manifold journeying in storm and calm” when pumping out an article on museums in the digital age, partly stimulated by Museums Australia’s national conference, for the magazine Online Currents. In the end I took the easy way out by asking questions on the last page. I asked questions because the answers were beyond my capabilities. The questions are about museums in online world but maybe they partly apply to museums in any sort of world.
Persistent questions await answers by governments, associations and institutions. An online future for museums is largely in the hands of the players.
Although it is important to acknowledge the considerable contribution of volunteers, particularly in regional Australia, governments provide most of the fuel. How do they shape and fund agencies to provide the right type of catalysts? Is it desirable to merge the Collections Council of Australia and the Collections Australia Network? Or is it better to separate the allocation of grants and the development of online solutions? How do the three tiers of government provide a more effective coordinated approach with a more thorough appreciation of the issues to be addressed? Do state and local government policies need to adopt a more cross-sectoral approach to mirror the direction of the Australian government? Should existing funding be reorganised to give more weight to online imperatives? Is it misguided to have separate online solutions for major museums and smaller museums?
Australian museum associations trail behind their counterparts in the library and archive domains in leading their members into an online future. How do they respond to the suggestion by Kenneth Hamma from the Getty Institute that they need to be more effective in bringing metadata issues to the museum community? Do they make too much of a mountain out of the differences? Do Museums Australia, the Council of Australian Museum Directors and Council of Australian Art Museum Directors need a more effectively coordinated approach to representing the interests of the sector as a whole?
And the role of institutions? Are online solutions for museums best left to major museums with a new mandate to work on behalf of the sector at large in the way that national and state libraries lead their sectors? Or do the National Library and the state libraries offer the potential for providing engine rooms with cross-sectoral intent in the manner of Pictures Australia, Music Australia, People Australia and Picture Queensland?
The portal is usually represented as a key element in future developments. Some commentators see it as a stepping stone to something else. Lorcan Dempsey, for instance, has said “We imagine that the portal is a sufficient response to the issues, [but it] is only a partial answer [and] at worst, obscures the real question…We need to look beyond it to build and sustain the services.” On the other hand, portals can not only drive collaboration, they can highlight problems that need to be addressed in order for museum data to more readily flow into Google or Bing.
The two prominent cross-sectoral portals in Australia are the Collections Australia Network’s website and the National Library of Australia’s suite of specialist collaborative services such as Picture Australia, Music Australia, and Libraries Australia. New ways of presenting information from multiple sources in the NLA’s catalogue flag how close the future is and how far we have to go. The NLA’s beta Single Business Discovery Site (http://sbdsproto.nla.gov.au/) is one more step along the way.
Mary Elings and Günter Waibel remind us about an issue lurking in the shadows. “The successful integration of digital images of material culture from library, archive and museum collections hinges on the emergence of a more homogenous practice in describing like materials in different institutions. While data structures can be mapped with relative ease, data content variance still effectively prohibits economic plug and play aggregation of collections.” Online projects not only search for better access to information. They search for more productivity.
At the Museums Australia Conference, Dirk Staat, Director of Collections at the Netherlands Legermuseum, gave an entertaining presentation about the amalgamation of six major military museums as the National Military Museum. After a false start and early hassles over budgeting and directions, the project is gaining momentum, and the museum expects to open in 2013.
When asked by a member of the audience to describe quality control mechanisms being used to address the competing demands of a complex range of stakeholders, he said the process was more like “changing the horseshoe on a galloping horse.”
It was a memorable phrase that may well encapsulate the task for those linking Australian museums to information seekers. What type of horse is it? Who’s riding it? And how do we change the horseshoe?
Or to put it another way: how do we walk hand in hand when we we’re still walking down different footpaths?