Highlights of the Museums and the Web 2011 Conference
Philadelphia spring blossoms
This was one of the largest M&W conferences so far, with 700 attendees from more than 20 countries. The conference was jam packed with great sessions and the venue was only a stone throw away from Reading Terminal Market for all the fresh bagels and lox you could eat.

For me, the highlights were:

Exchanging information between collections management systems

This was a pre-conference discussion between vendors and CMS users. One initial objective was to talk about LIDO, the new metadata XML standard. There was some debate about what users wanted out of the systems and what technical challenges remained to be resolved. The consensus was that the first problem to be resolved is not the format of the shared data, but HOW to get to the data.
Most systems support manual import and export of XML files, but for most users this is too cumbersome or technical. If users can more easily get to the data, then the format problems can be resolved as a second pass. Most key data elements can be mapped between the common formats (e.g. CDWA Lite, Dublin Core, LIDO). OpenSearch was suggested as the simplest way to support getting to the data. There are notes on the discussion and an excellent summary of how to implement Open Search (from Nate Solas) on the Museum API wiki. Chocolates (kindly supplied by Norbert Kanter) helped us through the meeting.

The Franklin Institute 

Darren Scott, outside The Franklin InstituteThe opening reception was at this fabulous hands-on science museum. It's filled to the brim with levers to pull, anatomical models to climb inside, model landscapes to flood and electrical gadgets to experiment with. It all adds up to an excellent evening of entertainment and discovery. Any museum that doesn't run occasional late nights with a bar service is missing a huge potential audience.

Kristen Purcell, Keynote, Ground Digital Information Trends

PEW Internet conduct research on how the Internet is shaping American life. There were a few statistical gems, such as the low use of Social Media by teenagers because that space has been invaded by their grandparents. Kristen defined six possible roles for museums on the Internet:
  • Filter - find and share relevant, accurate, trustworthy information
  • Curator - become a one stop shop for primary and secondary source material on specific topics
  • Node in a network - package information to live beyond your walls, monitor conversations around your content
  • Community builder - create your own network, be involved in online conversations
  • Lifesaver - provide portable information when and where people need it most
  • Tour Guide - connect your content to the real world

Aaron Cope, Authority Records, Future Computers and Other Unfinished Histories

Aaron Cope gave a thought-provoking presentation on the question of what cultural institutions do with the communities of amateurs. 
The presentation was based around OpenStreetMap as an example of a rich, linkable, open data built by a team of enthusiasts. OpenStreetMap has made huge leaps in gathering place data. In areas like Haiti, OpenStreetMap is relied on as the better place data source. Museums need engage with these communities emerging around their own content and specialty areas, both to gain the benefit of their contributions and to avoid bein side-lined in the future.
Later in the conference Aaron also noted the open data site for ancient Greek and Roman places: Pleiades.
A transcript of the presentation is on Aaron's blog.

Luke Dearnley, Powerhouse Museum, Reprogramming the Museum

For any organisation considering developing a programming interface to their collection data, Luke Dearnley's paper is a must read. It charts the history of the Powerhouse Museum's collection API from copyright questions to technical choices. I missed the presentation, but by all accounts it was a highly entertaining view of what can be a dry subject. It's not often than an API talk includes interpretive dance and a bong from a museum collection.

Mobile Parade

The rise of mobile in the last year was obvious from the iPad use alone: Two iPads spotted at last year's conference, while this year they were everywhere. This year the closing conference day included a parade of short presentations on museum mobile projects around the world, complete with annoying introductory ringtones before each speaker.

I was particulary intrigued by the American Museum of Natural History's iPhone Explore app. Amongst its numerous features is some clever geolocation software which triangulates the user's location in the museum from the multiple WiFi access points. They also have a stock of iPod Touches for hire, so all visitors are able to use the app.

Now I'm looking ahead to next year's conference, putting in place some of the ideas from this one. The next venue is San Diego, much closer to home for me!
Paul