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Inside the meta-center: a cabinet of wonderSarah Kenderdine, Australian Museums On-Line, Australia
In Munich, the guiding principle [of the kunstkammer] was to strive against a mere conglomeration of objects and create instead a sumptuous display of the heterogeneous and wide ranging contents (Seelig, 1985, p. 81).
The descriptions for the early 16th/17th-century wunderkammer (wonder cabinet) and kunstkammer mirror with precision some elements in the current rhetoric of cyberspace. In the creation (or recreation) of cross-disciplinary heterogeneous museums resources, through the developments of on-line information meta-centers*, the principles and philosophies of the wunderkammer are again invoked. This paper discusses the Australian Museums On-Line (AMOL) web site (http://amol.org.au/) as both a museum information meta-center and a wunderkammer.
In a three-part document this paper spans issues in museology, design theory, information architecture and web production. Part 1 will briefly review the history in the developments of museum meta-centers, and the genesis of the distributed model for access to heterogeneous information bases.
Part 2 of the discussion will introduce the history and mission of the AMOL web site and describe the resources it gives access to. Discussion includes the real-time communities and museums that are part of the network flourishing across the country.
Part 3 of the paper will focus on the design processes and the ability of electronic systems to morph in response to both internal and external stimulus. I will introduce the principles of pragmatic design as foundations for examining processes of expansion, revision and re-design of the AMOL web site.
In March 1998 the AMOL contract was re-let to new developers (the current AMOL Coordination Unit). By charting the transition of the web through this relocation I will examine some of the problems specific to inherited architecture. The web site employs a metaphor, the wunderkammer, to give a matrix for the divergent resources contained in this meta-center.
By way of conclusion the new projects on the AMOL network will be described. These initiatives witness the evolution of the web site in response to its bureaucratic, conceptual, and architectural structures. The projects include:
*Meta-center: term used by the Canadian Heritage
Information Network to describe integrated state of the accessible or available
information. It is not a centralized collection of information but a series of
relationships established among multiple information resources (Neimanis and Geber, 1998).
A number of studies have examined some of the different approaches taken by cultural organizations to the design of web museums. These range from web sites replicating aspects of the contemporary museum and exhibitions in a virtual mirror (brochure ware), through to dynamic inter-organizational collaborations, and those between organizations and individual users (for example McKenzie, 1997; Piacente, 1996, Mouseion project, 1997).
Most museum web sites have a number of objectives. They offer the services of a shop, information such as the opening hours and contacts for staff members. However, museums in the networked environment have continued to act as 'stand alone' entities reflecting their status as centers of exclusivity. Zorich notes: "As more and more individuals and organizations become information providers on telecommunications networks, the power of any single site risks diminution" (1997: p. 176).
Also, the increasing concerns expressed over authenticity, visibility and authority of museum resources in this environment of stand-alone models where they compete with other forms of entertainment and media (for example Bearman and Trant, 1998, http://sunsite.anu.edu.au/mirrors/dlib/dlib/june98/06bearman.html).
From the debates that started with MacDonald and Alsford (1989) to more recently include Stam (1993) and Teather (1998), we can see how the theoretical basis of New Museology supports the integration of museum information resources in an electronic environment. As Stam notes, New Museology seeks to use the museum information base, which is: "the full complex of data supporting institutional activities ranging from the pragmatics of acquisition to the abstraction of interpretive display" (cited in Teather, 1998, p. 6).
The producers of the Mouseion project (1997) have defined the networked museum to be a constellation of hypermedia that:
The networked museum is then: "...not an imitation, much less a substitute for a real museum. It is a specific information object, with its own identity within the network..." (id.).
The increasing concerns of museum resources visibility and authority on the internet, together with New Museology and the dynamics offered by the internet for networking, contribute to an environment that supports the establishment of multiple institutions working together.
This opportunity for collaboration is reflected by the growing number of initiatives around the world that seeks to integrate cultural information resources for the benefit of the museum community, the public and researchers. These are the networked museums.
Most countries now offer gateways to listings of their museums and cultural resources. Some of these projects also seek to give access to the distributed digital resources contained in many museums. These sites are the foundations of the open intuitive systems of the information meta-centers as described by Neimanis and Geber (1998):
Australian Museums On-Line is one such web site of integrated information resources and parallels a number of other major government initiatives, most closely the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN, http://www.chin.gc.ca/) and the Arts and Humanities Data Service (http://ahds.ac.uk/index.html).
The aforementioned are webs that integrate heterogeneous data sets. They can be distinguished from other networked initiatives to digitize museum resources for redistribution that use disciplinary based data (e.g. art museums and image libraries and libraries per se). These other networks include for example: Getty Information Institute (http://www.gii.getty.edu/); the Museum Educational Site Licensing project (http://www.gii.getty.edu/index/mesl.html); the American Museums Network (http://www.amn.org/); and the Art Museum Image Consortium (http://www.AMICO.net/) incorporating its site licensing initiatives, to name just a few.
All gateways to the distributed information and data stored at multiple museums and repositories face particular challenges that include:
Blackaby (1997, pp. 203-229) also notes that in addition to technical difficulties (hardware, software and data standards) for the integration of information resources, bureaucratic structures and inter-institutional relationships also present potential blocks in the free flow of information.
In addition I observe that:
However, non-profit support organizations and education-based initiatives have been established to help integrate networks of cultural material. They include:
Within the research and development of integration techniques cultural organizations are increasingly moving from pre-organized information to a more open approach. At the Museums and the Web Conference 1998 (http://www.archimuse.com/mw98) we heard details for a transition in CHIN architecture and behavior from a central resource to an information meta-center.
In the CHIN analysis, user access is affected by the 'context', 'behavior', and 'architecture' of the information. Context refers to the environment in which cognitive activities occur through the integration of contextual material; behavior to the dialogue between the users and the knowledge environment, while architecture: "is the reflection of the knowledge domain, mirrored by the arrangement of the components to form patterns different from that could occur by chance" (Neimanis and Geber, 1998, p. 4).
CHIN has subsequently developed an intellectual access tool called the Integrator (for example see Artefacts Canada, http://daryl.chin.gc.ca/Artefacts/e_MasterLayout.cgi) for the production of knowledge artifacts (ibid. p. 6) addressing the needs of users faced with a large number of returns in a search across multiple databases. They have also implemented search assistants such as thesauri and vocabularies (for example Gettys Art & Architecture Thesaurus, http://www.gii.getty.edu/vocabulary/index.html).
Also, recent developments in different search scenarios (such as image database that can be queried along colour or content descriptions and associations) can provide maturation of functionality for meta-center projects. Research following on from these projects is also vital to their evolution (for a critique of image based search methods see Schietse, 1998).
With these encompassing views of the difficulties and possibilities of the meta-center, the paper will now focus more closely on the development of the AMOL web site. While the importance of systems integration and data standards are recognized, the continuing discussion will concentrate on the design processes and the stimulus for change in the information architecture. It will reflect on these processes of design and web site evolution as expressed through the principles of cybernetics, and will draw on the relationships to pragmatic design for computer based works. [table of contents]
The goal of the AMOL project is to dramatically increase access to the cultural resources of Australian museums via the internet, and to provide research and communication tools for people both inside and outside the museum communities. It involves over 70% of museums in this country.
First initiated in 1993, the concept was seeded from the Working Group of the Cultural Ministers Council's Heritage Collections, producing the first comprehensive national strategy for the management of Australia's heritage collections. Through the activities of this Group (now the Heritage Collections Committee) and their Online Working Party, the web site pilots and site prototype were designed at the National Museum of Australia between 1995 and 1997. In 1998 the web site was put out to tender and currently resides in Sydney at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Funding for the project is provided by the museum community through the Heritage Collections Council and Federal Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts (http://www.dca.gov.au/). AMOL is also a major participant of Australia's Cultural Network (http://www.acn.net.au/), the gateway to information about Australian cultural institutions and their programs.
Through the AMOL project the museums and galleries of Australia are invited to provide information for a national directory, and to contribute information and images of their five most significant items to a directory database. In addition, item level records of objects from museum collections management systems may be included in the AMOL database. The data may be stored on the AMOL server directly, may reside on local servers (and remote indexed), and/or become part of the regional server network which act as host platforms for smaller museums. AMOL specifies a minimum core data set for the description of the objects to allow for the distributed searching.
One of the primary political agendas driving AMOL is to ensure that smaller, regional and specialist museums participate as equal partners alongside higher profile, larger organizations. This arises out of the recognition that they hold collections of national significance but require support in their care of their collection (Hallet et al., 1998, p. 4). The widespread involvement of regional and smaller museums has recently prompted collection management software vendors to include an additional function that exports a subset of the collections data to the AMOL standard fields (for example Collections Mosaic, Western Australia; and proposed for inclusion in Inmagic, Queensland http://amol.org.au/craft/regional_mus/software.asp).
Since its inception, the information resources available on the AMOL web site have grown to include:
I note the recent philosophical debates CHIN has had in re-envisaging the access to its information base where "the maker, the user, the artefact, technology and intuition have gradually been united in a participatory creative process or global consciousness"(Neimanis and Geber, 1998, p. 3).
The AMOL web site is predominantly made up of members from the regional Australian museum community. It is these groups as opposed to larger institutions that have most enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to become part of the project even when they have limited information and technological infrastructure. We believe that this is partly due to the reduced levels of bureaucracy that these smaller organizations have, and a more relaxed approach to the ownership of information and copyright issues. By embracing the internet the regional museums of isolated rural Australia are able to renegotiate distance. They now have the opportunity for a low cost interpretive program.
What also appears most significantly in the documentation of AMOL, (in the letters from the regional museums to the coordination unit, and in meetings with a large number of regional museums), is the forum that AMOL offers is as much about an on-line virtual community as about the real time connections it has stimulated. The AMOL Coordination Unit is increasingly involved in workshops, seminars and coordinating regional museum collaborations.
I note: "Through combining material and expertise that resides at different locations virtual museums allow for building a community among individuals who have not found a common meeting ground with others in a physical place (Marcum, 1996, p. 204).
As Mitchell (1998) points out we are inaccurate to think that virtual communities and real networks are mutually exclusive. He says:
In this sense we see how AMOL supports Teathers view that the web
As Van Alystene outlined at the closing plenary session at Museums and the Web 1998, cybernetics has applications not only to the patterns and signals of the web itself but also the system of social and professional communications that create and sustain the site as an enterprise.
Further, as described in the web dictionary of cybernetics and systems, a morphogenic
system is "capable of maintaining its continuity and integrity by changing essential
aspects of its structure or organizations" (Cybernetics Dictionary, 1998, http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/ASC/Morphogenes.html).
Coyne explores models for conservative, pragmatic, critical and radical design. Conservative design he considers "an intervention or manipulation that presupposes our ability to declare our needs" (Coyne, 1995,. p. 10). In this environment technological artifacts conserve the meanings and intentions of their creators. It is method-centered and proceeds from an undesirable situation to a desirable one. We can see how this design process is inherently inflexible in terms of the responding to the principles of cybernetics.
The dynamics of cybernetics is most closely aligned to the pragmatic design process where pragmatism is concerned with "the primacy of human action, the practicalities of human involvement, the materiality of the world, the interaction of the senses, and the formative power of technology" (ibid., p. 17).
Pragmatic design is considered "not so much as addressing needs as projecting expectations. These expectations have less to do with individual genius than with community" (ibid. p. 11). Within this framework, notions of the individual are replaced by considerations of authority, legitimacy, responsibility and the interweaving of roles, practices and technologies. Most importantly to the intent of this paper is Coynes thesis that pragmatic design is: "a kind of reflection in action- needs are commonly identified in retrospect or during the development of the design rather than at the outset of the design process. Design is an exploration ." (ibid., p. 11).
When considering AMOL and other museum information gateways each reflect elements of the critical theme in their design. Coyne defines critical design as a political activity where the design itself is subject of critical scrutiny. He uses the example of architecture, urban design and planning where users (of new urban developments for instance) are helped to "formulate and realize their own expectations". While recognizing community, there is the overall control of a few who use mission statements couched in vogue rhetoric. We are all familiar with these statements which herald the universality of computer and communications systems for grassroots entitlement.
Radical design centers on the principles of deconstruction and "is subversive of entrenched structures, assumptions and oppositions" (ibid. p.10). We can see expressions of this in the earlier theoretical dialogues that spoke of usurping traditional power structures within museums through the transformative power of the internet, and the renegotiations of museum spaces and the authority of the object (for example see Witcomb, 1996; Kenderdine, 1996,1997).
As Witcomb goes on to note however:
Coyne offers a rigorous analysis of the design of information technology in the postmodern age. He maintains that whereas rationalist design gives privilege to theory over practice, pragmatic design theory is woven into the practice itself (op cit. p. 17). Pragmatic design avoids a hierarchical view of knowledge whereby the practical always has the involvement of the community. Coyne acknowledges the philosophy of John Dewey (1859-1952), Marshall McLuchan (1911-1980) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) as fundamental to the use of pragmatism. The current wave of popular and accessible computing is largely of a pragmatic orientation.
With these background thoughts I examine the thrust of the AMOL re-design process as it
forms the foundation for the everyday flux of large-scale web sites.
The current AMOL Coordination Unit inherited the web site in March 1998 from the National Museum of Australia. As new caretakers of the web site we encountered a host of difficulties in the inherited legacy of code. These points listed below are not criticisms of the work by previous contractors but an acknowledgement of piecemeal developments and evolving policies that make up the earlier history of AMOL.
The principles problems stemmed from the:
Within the framework of the contract were stipulations to re-design the interface, and to implement a series of new projects. This gave an opportunity to revise the information and system architecture and to improve navigation and functionality of the web site. The following discussion focuses on the information architecture, interface and navigation, and the development of new projects within the AMOL network. The importance of technical issues within the complex system architecture warrants in-depth analysis and discussion not possible here. I refer you to Hofmann and Miller (1999, http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/abstracts/prg_1128.html) in respect of metadata and AMOLs involvement in the CIMI metadata test-bed as a good introduction to some of the issues involved in connectivity across distributed server environments. [table of contents]
Prior to the re-design, analysis of AMOL showed the existence of multiple user groups with distinct needs and orientations. It was decided to break the pre-1998 AMOL web site into three streams (Figure 1):
To view the information architecture please refer to the AMOL web site (http://amol.org.au/about_amol/design/amolflow.htm).
The new design was finalized with relevant content being taken from the old site and reworked for the new web site. The remaining material was archived and made available on the new site.
Each step of the design process was previewed before museum audiences throughout Australia, and with the input from the Heritage Collections Councils On-line Working Party (made up from senior museum bureaucrats and advisors). Difficulties appeared where political agendas threatened to impinge on the navigation of the web site itself, and where personal aesthetics intruded on clear thinking about information architecture. It is a difficult but interesting client/developer relationship that negotiates a range of viewpoints throughout the Australian museum community through its design. [table of contents]
There are many debates in the computer interface design over the appropriate use and application of design metaphors. I support the use of metaphors as familiar access points to information matrixes. They can promote and enhance interpretation and navigation of the web site itself. Rather than advocating trivial trashcans and blinking folders, I am more interested in the holistic design metaphor. As Aristotle noted: "the discourse must be made to sound exotic; for men are admirers of what is distant, and what is admired is pleasant" (quoted in Coyne, 1995, p. 254).
Coyne demonstrates that commentators frequently appeal to some new metaphor to promote the ideas of computers. "Laurel promotes the idea of the computer as theatre; Turkle as Rorschach inkblot; Kay as medium; Nelson as moviemaker, Weiser as ubiquitous facility-pens, paper, and the electricity grid" (Coyne, 1995, p. 253).
The overall conceptual metaphor used for the AMOL interface and information architecture was drawn from the origins of the museum 16th century wunderkammer or 'wonder cabinet'. As Graziose Corrin notes (in her analysis of Mark Dion's installation work based on critique of the collector mentality, and modes of museum classification) the form of the wonder cabinet allowed: "...arbitrary visual arrangements [which] seemed natural and capable of revealing knowledge that was at once empirical and metaphorical without the need for accompanying texts" (Graziose Corrin, 1997, p. 53.)
Further, in the birth of the museum as a field of specialized disciplines such as art and science, we have seen the: "amputation of the limbs of inquiry from the body of knowledge and experience [which] marks a decisive rupture in the concept of the nature as infinitely variable and uncontainable" (Graziose Corrin, 1997, p. 54).
I believe that many of the debates that are circulating through New Museology and internet commentary seek to recreate that juncture of ideas represented by the 'wonder cabinet'. The purpose is to reintroduce interdisciplinary and cross-referenced access to collections. Using a traditional museum icon such as the wonder cabinet provides a familiar access point for the user but in an environment where the user has autonomy and authority to access the variety of resources. [table of contents]
The key projects to be implemented on the new AMOL web site during 1998 reflect the pragmatic design approach and engagement with the opportunities to meet museum needs, together with the guide of the On-line Working Party. Some of the new initiatives are described below. [table of contents]
Using metadata tags (commonly described as 'data about data') it is possible to make the information on web sites and stored across disparate database more visible to a variety of search engine queries. This attribute exists alongside those of:
A valuable discussion on the implications and quest for metadata and resource interoperability and discovery can be found in Introduction to Metadata: pathways to digital information (Baca, 1998).
The AMOL Coordination Unit is now mapping all its data to the Dublin Core profile (in a world wide test-bed project involving 21 museum members run through CIMI, http://www.cimi.org/documents/metafinalPD.html). AMOL Coordination Unit will markup subsequent information created for the site with author generated descriptions of the web site resources, to provide access to AMOLs heterogeneous resources. The purpose of the test-bed project is to define museum resources in a standard that will be supported by major software vendors, search engines and by the whole spectrum of world museums. For a further description please see Hofmann and Miller (1999, http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/abstracts/prg_1128.html).
The AMOL Coordination Unit is also investigating the use of XML in relation to future
work on the web site.
The core data set for AMOL contains five fields. However, it has been increasingly
recognized that the provision of such a subset of museums information is devoid of context
and meaning (for example see recent arguments put forward by CHIN, 1998). The core
collections records database will now be supplemented with cross-reference to more
extensive contextual information. The knowledge domain will expand to contain an
encyclopaedia of museum stories, associated media files, and author details.
Behind the scenes of AMOL is a wealth of people in regional museums who wish to express what they value and what they preserve for the collective memory of their communities. AMOL is bringing this material together for the first time in the form of on-line stories (http://amol.org.au/guide/stories_index.asp). A review of the submissions that are sent to AMOL reveal aspects of Australian culture that have hitherto been restricted to a small number of on-site visitors.
The project structure ensures that contributing museums have a sense of ownership in
the development of their material. Also, the on-line environments support equal status for
the stories negating domination by museums of high national profile. The stream of stories
and resources is cumulative, possibly mutating and cross-linking over time.
The Open Museum Journal (http://amol.org.au/craft/omjournal/journal_index.asp) publishes scholarly and applied research and commentary on museums. It is a collaborative venture between the Research Institute of Cultural Heritage (http://www.curtin.edu.au/curtin/dept/rich/) at Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia and AMOL.
There are very few opportunities for those with an interest in the way Australian cultural heritage is managed and interpreted in our museums, galleries and historic sites to publish the results of their study. This is the case for both academics working in museum and cultural heritage studies departments, for heritage practitioners working in museums, galleries and historic sites themselves and for postgraduate students working at Diploma, Masters and Ph.D. level on museum related topics. The Open Museum Journal provides a low cost opportunity for this (for recent debates on the viability of on-line academic publishing refer to the recent conference on Scholarly Communications and Technology, http://arl.cni.org/scomm/scat/).
The Journal operates a fully double blind peer review process. The various files
related to each article are contained in a database. The database has a web interface to
allow all members of the distributed editorial committee to upload and have access to the
relevant files and articles.
AMOLs most recent project has been the live broadcast of the Pandora
shipwreck excavation. The Pandora Chronicle (http://www.amol.org.au/pandora/pandora_index.asp) daily diary
(February 28, 1999 until the end of March) for the excavation was uploaded via satellite
phone to the AMOL server. With the excavation taking place two days steaming off the
Queensland Coast this project demonstrates the internet as a space that can offer provide
access to museum processes that most people do not have the opportunity to experience.
There has been a 70% increase in users since the re-launch. Analysis tracking the user has tended to confirm that users are adapting to the new navigational structure in a predicable way. A formal study has been commissioned of the web site that hopes to draw in traditional forms of museological evaluation (similar to the approach taken by Teather, 1998, 1999).
After 2001 the original funding support for AMOL finishes. Having now reached a threshold of data that makes for a viable and valuable resource decisions have to be made how best to structure the organization to ensure the collective operations. There is a need also to examine the role of bureaucracy and how it impacts on the design and management of the site itself.
Investigation into possible markets for expansion of the AMOL model overseas (say the Pacific Ocean) could also be researched. The development of the model, its scripts and functions as defined by the current web site could usefully be developed to help other initiatives offshore.
There are numerous other avenues for development both theoretical and practical that
warrant further research. Theoretical arguments that seek to define the museum within the
electronic environment are beginning to be published (for example New Media Australia,
1998). AMOL now holds a large core of information resources for interpretation. I believe
one of primary functions could be in research and development of tools for the greater
The views expressed by the author are not necessary those held by the Department of
Communication, Information Technology and Arts, nor the members of the Heritage
Collections Council. Many thanks go to all the museums that are part of the network, to
Allaire for the sponsorship of the Cold Fusion development environment, and to
Alexa Moses, Gina Shrubshall, Tim Hart and Thomas Hofmann of the AMOL Coordination Unit.
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