The Powerhouse Museum: the Name Says it All

Powerhouse HomepageThe New Web seminar at UVIC hosted another fascinating discussion today about integrating web 2.0 tools into the museum landscape with Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum (see this post for the highlights of our discussion with Kevin von Appen about the Ontario Science Center’s RedShift Now). The Powerhouse Museum is a Science and Design museum located in Sydney, Australia and they are employing a plethora of innovative strategies to open up their collection to the public (which, if I remember correctly, is somewhere in the vicinity of 60,000 objects).

Image of Jim Spadacinni and Sed Chan during a Video Chat

Here’s an image of Jim Spadacinni and Seb Chan (on the screen!) during the videochat.

In an attempt to mirror the logic of our conversation, I’ll start with their integration of a folksonomic tagging system of individual artefacts in their collection. In short, the museum has enabled users to create keywords around objects in their collection which then, through a relational context, creates a series of connections between keywords, related searches, related subjects, and similar objects. In turn, creating a vast amount of possibiities through which the user can explore the collection in numerous and varied directions. According to Chan, allowing users to tag objects in their collections has led to some pretty exciting results. For examples, the Powerhouse Museum has a number of rifles in their collection that are not allowed to be exhibited to the public for reasons that I was not entirely clear about (doesn’t every country have the second amendment privilege to bear arms -no matter what the occasion!). Nonetheless, these rifles were included in the online collection, and an entire community of gun lovers created a whole series of quite specific tags that introduced an entirey new vocabulary making the database more easily searchable for a community of users.

Another element of the collection that has recieved more exposure through these folksonomic tags (and I have to admit I am a bit vague on the details, so perhaps someone can fill them in through the comments) pertains to Convict Love Tokens. The Powerhouse Museum has a number of these tokens that I had never heard of before, but are quite intriguing. Below is a quote from one of these objects in the collection that explains the significance of these tokens:

Convict Love tokens such as this one by H. Heald for ‘Mary’ have been described by Anne Schofield as the first Australian artwork. Even purely narrative tokens such as this example have their own distinctive style, but even more important is the fact that they exist at all. They were made from smoothed-down coins as mementos for wives, lovers friends and family members (including those of the same gender). Their purpose was to comfort the recipient, and perhaps subconsciously to keep alive the memory and relationships of a convict transported to the far side of the world. The tokens’ very tangibility both as the voice and one-time personal belonging of a convict makes them unique as a record since most other associated material was produced by the system that caught, tried, jailed, and transported them. In the main these are paper documents – trial records, shipping manifestos, memos, pardons, musters, tickets of leave, but also uniforms, chains and the products of their labour – buildings such as Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, and other civic projects including road cuttings and bridges all over New South Wales and Tasmania. It is a sad fact that Convict Love tokens remain one of the few classes of items convicts made, or had made, purely of their own volition and as such they are unique in their humanising of a class that the system did its best to dehumanise.

An example of a convict Love token
An example of a Convict Loke Token -click on the image to see more.

These are really fascinating artifacts that deal with such difficult issues as imprisonment, colonization, and demhumanization – seemingly key elements of Australian National identity, which, interestingly enough, folksonimic tagging has made accessible to the public in new and important ways.

But, the extent of web-based innovation at the Powerhouse Museum by no means stops there. They have also created a number of blogs that are centered around particular exhibits and events, offering unique spaces for public interaction with the museum. Below is an annotated list of blogs currently running, just click on the image to be taken to the actual blog.

  • Walking the WallThe “Walking The Wall” blog is associated with the Great Wall Of China exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. It follows the 3000 kilometer journey of Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas along the Great Wall of China. (You’ll notice that each of these blogs is using WordPress and the K2 theme, which vindicates my own efforts in innumerable ways -also take a look at how they have included the museums navigation bar along the top of the header allowing a kind of loose integration of these different tools -I love it!)
  • Free RadicalsFree Radicals is another blog which traces a monthly series of sustainability talks hosted by the museum. This blog covers issues and ideas related to these talks and current themes in science and sustainability, featuring downloadable recorded talks and podcasts. (As an aside, I am not sure if they have discovered PodPress just yet, if they have I would be interested to know why they aren’t using it.)
  • Fresh + NewAlso, be sure to check out Seb Chan’s personal blog, “Fresh + New: discussion of issues in digital media and museums.” This is a blog that needs to be added to many a blog roll, just take a look at his latest post about Second Life and Copyright , this guy’s the real McCoy! Although, I am sure you have gotten that idea by now.
  • There are also two more blogs, one a promotional blog for the museums titled The Dragon and the Pearl (and interesting marketing approach) as well as a blog for the Sydney Observatory (the header on this blog is extremely cool, it is well worth the click-through!).
  • Hedda MorrisonFinally (can you believe I still have more to say!?), Chan showed us another site on powerhouse that features the photography of Hedda Morrison. Not only do I love the way this site looks, but it also has a great feature wherein the museum invites feedback from users to help them find out more about these particular photographs. (Communty as metada!)

This Powerhouse museum does, indeed, live up to its name when it comes to interactive online tools for their users. The folks at Powerhouse are both forward-looking and acting, to say the very least.

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5 Responses to The Powerhouse Museum: the Name Says it All

  1. Pingback: Ideum Blog - Museum and Design News » Blog Archive » The New Web: Victoria, Canada

  2. Seb Chan says:

    Hi Jim

    Thanks for the info on PodPress – actually I’ve been a bit slack in integrating the podcasts with our blogs – mainly because the podcasts were around well before the blogs. Rest assured PodPress will be set up next week!

    Now, in answer to a couple of your questions.

    Arms in our collection: In 1996 there was the Port Arthur Massacre that led to a lot of discussion and public policy action on gun control. Partially as a result of this and also because we no longer have a curator specifically trained and allocated to our substantial arms and armour collection, the museum has kept our apparently impressive collection of vintage arms in deep storage.

    Love tokens: this was mentioned only because it is an example of about 150 objects that have had their ‘research’ enhanced by unsolicited public response/comment and the provision of extra information.

    One thing I did neglect to mention in the talk (which was mainly because of time running out) was our Design Hub project. Design Hub is a magazine style front-end for research and our design collection. It is also in the process of expanding to allow federated searching other great design collections from around the world.

    I’m really glad you enjoyed the presentation!

  3. jimgroom says:

    Thanks for the clarification. The stuff you all are doing at the Powerhouse museum is quite impressive. I really like the way the contextual search functionality integrates seamlessly with the articles in Design Hub via the sidebar links for related articles and subjects -very intelligent architecture. Are you thinking about allowing users to tag articles in Design Hub? Also, I would be interested to know if you are using the same combination of customized php/sql for the Design Hub project as you did on the main site?

    Finally (then I will leave you alone, I promise!), how do you control the workflow process for publishing in Design Hub? Do you have a customized CMS, or are you using something like Drupal, Typo3, etc.? Inquiring minds would love to know. Thanks for sharing so much of the great work that is happening down under!


  4. Seb Chan says:

    Hi Jim

    We did think about allowing tagging in Design Hub and we do actually have a keywords field in the database to make that happen but we found that when we started doing that (making our writers tag to start things off) we had a lot of problems with managing the diversity of words. If you go to a side menu category like GRAPHIC DESIGN you will see a row of four KEYWORD TYPES along the top – PEOPLE, MATERIAL, PERIOD, PLACE appear. Click on one of those and you get the keywords that have been assigned.

    When you see these you’ll get an idea of the problem we are going to face with broader tagging – mainly one of managing the diversity of terms and presenting them in a neat manageable way. PLACE is the most obiovusly problematic and you will find a mix of countires, cities, buildings and regionds.

    Design Hub uses the same PHP/SQL backend and adds a CMS layer to the collection management system harvesting tools we have built to handle the collection object data. Design Hub is really supposed to be *another* way for niche users in the design field to access our collection (and that of others too).

    We built our own custom CMS for Design Hub – its very simple and it was decided that making something very straitforward would give us the ability to build addons as required. We did look at Typo3 etc but found that we’d spend just as long configuring and tweaing as we would have done in building our own custom system. For my team it is really important that we have flexibility with these sort of open user-centric projects because, from painful past experience we have learnt that it is exceptionally difficult to predict what users will actually do – no matter how much paper based testing and actual user testing you do prior to launch. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the museum sector actually – we never have enough money to promote the projects we build – meaning that we have less ability to chanel *how* users use our product or *which* users use our product.

    The ‘related’ articles and subject is one area which we are going to be working on a lot next year once we do some heat mapping of the interface – this is really where the university partnerships for the project start to kick in.


  5. Pingback: Ideum Blog - Museum and Design News » Blog Archive » National Digital Forum: Day 2 - Opening the gates: new opportunities in online collections

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