Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Offline/online: changing the rules of engagement

It all started with digitisation.

Naturally, this generally works in one direction: offline to online. Objects are photographed; records cleaned, updated, expanded; a user interface designed, tested and launched. All very well.

There's nothing at all wrong with this picture of course: digital collections are fantastic resources and do much to improve access.

Interestingly, though, the process of producing digital collections introduces a limitation at the most basic level. This approach enshrines the opposition 'offline/online' or 'physical/virtual'. This, again, makes perfect sense. Physical objects pre-date their virtual avatars, just as museums have a long pre-digital history.

One consequence worth highlighting is that this creates a reactive relationship: work is done offline, and then this is translated into a given online presence. We've done this offline thing, now we'll put it online--create an online version. A common reflex is to do this with print publications, though there's a growing awareness that what works in print doesn't often work online.

But it's too easy to replicate this way of working across the board, which stunts the process of innovation somewhat.

If museums are going to capitalise on the potential of online (including of course web 2.0 tools and platforms), then this must surely begin with a rethinking of the planning process. This could start with a focus on what participants will gain from the experience, not how this will happen. The point is to take a holistic view so as to undercut 'offline vs. online thinking'.

Thinking in terms of a mixed economy of delivery channels might also yield interesting results. If a project's key deliverables are conceived as offline (a print publication, a temporary exhibit,
a museum-based interactive), then perhaps inevitably, 'online' is short-changed (can anyone remember a project that was meant to have an online component, but that there was no provision in the project budget to pay for it?).

Physical deliverables, like traditional museum objects, are comforting. But it's time to start thinking outside the display case. And this is something of a risk--though a diminishing one.
Online must be integral to project planning, so that it's chosen because it can add value to the project. Everyone who plans projects is now responsible for understanding at least some of
the ways the digital delivery channel can be used, and the innovative options it opens up.

At bottom, this comes down to basics. What sort of institution do you want to be? Web 2.0 means that what was once A to B is now perpetual motion. Even when online interaction between a community of visitors (which includes the museum itself) doesn't lead directly to a visit, it adds critical value. Visitors are getting used to becoming contributors. Are you getting up to speed?

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