12 November 2006

Folksonomic Mobilization

Putting the Public to Work for Your Museum Website

I think my title puts the readings for this week into perspective. Let's try and get the general public to do the arduous work your staff can't. The outlook is bleak, but many institutions continue to place a lot of faith in the democratization of museum website.

The idea of museum visitors on the Web submitting anecdotal snippets, related to certain artifacts, is rather appealing. It could fill many informational gaps in a collection, if that undocumented portion in storage is photographed and accessible on line. However, Federal DoD Museums typically display roughly 10% of a collection. Usually, that 10% consists of artifacts that are well documented and have substantial provenance- thus making them significant and display necessities. For example, a Marine at the Battle of Chosin captured the small Chinese brass bugle, used by troops of the North Korean People's Army to signal the attack. This artifact trumpets a wealth of provenance. Were the bugle part of a "virtual tour" of the new National Museum of the Marine Corps, the number of anecdotal accounts describing the ominous shrill that Marines heard proceeding and enemy attack would certainly enrich the history for that artifact. In reality, those items that lack information usually have not been photographed or even cataloged.

The only objection I had to the readings involved the idea of folksonomic mobilization. This catchy phrase sounds trendy, along with other web initiatives that really only benefit the profiteers. The general public is helping tag museum images for better Goggle-search-ability? How much meta-tag information could possibly be gathered for one photograph before the cost of server space exceeds its worthy? It probably isn't much, but thousands of photos would take up significant space. It sounds as a clever method for curators to eliminate a backlog of work at no cost to the institution!

Linda Hales' article in the Washington Post shows that getting the public to work for you is a slow process. It may not be as bad as drawing blood from a stone, but the results, similar to the initiative of the Gutenberg-e, suggest that esoteric and near-extinct subject matter and artifacts destined for life in storage may squander money.