Making sense of cross-museum collections websites

As I mentioned in my last post, I attended the UK Museums on the Web conference this week. As well as taking part in the mashup day, I also gave a short talk at the conference.

I was asked to talk about 'The guerilla approach to aggregating online collections', after my '

Exploring Museum Collections On-line: The Quantitative Method' paper given at the international Museums and the Web 2008 conference in Montreal in April.

In my talk last week, I tried to give an overview of the 'guerilla' methods of aggregating museum collections, including my Freedom of Information (FOI) requests project and Mike and Dan's screenscraping project, ''. I also talked about the Object Wiki project I've been leading on at work, which is kind of a guerilla method of collections data creation, and the WhatDoTheyKnow website from MySociety, who I've been working with to add museums to (culminating in a spreadsheet of the size of museum's collections).

Towards the end of my talk though, I focused on the need to build cross-museum collections website (which was what some of the morning talks were about). I often feel that there's not enough thought put into the purpose and use-case for these websites, which are often driven by politics and funding requirements rather than a good idea. To try and counter this, I proposed 5 ideas for cross-site museum collections websites, each of which hopefully has a clear purpose and angle. For each of the ideas I also thought up a name and registered a domain name (as that's now the first step after coming up with any idea).

Idea number #1 comes from some observations with my Object Wiki project. The observation is that people really relate to museum objects that they own, or have owned in the past. Nostalgia is a great pull, and I think in museums we've known this for a while. So I thought, we've already got the fairly well-known e-commerce site - how about having a site called The key idea here is to be able to browse or search objects from a variety of museums, and then, if you spot one you recognise, hit the 'I've got one of those' button. This could then spark a conversation - and would also allow you to create lists of 'most recognised' objects.

Idea number #2 is based on the idea that curator are the key people who get to decide what museums acquire. I'm not all that familiar with the process of object acquisitions - I understand that it involves numerous people, legal checks, asbestos checks and a few committees - but that there's usually one curator who's the champion of the object. The name is a riff off a MySociety project called TheyWorkForYou, which lets you see when MPs make speeches, and how they vote on bills. I thought it'd be good if you had a site called You could perhaps scan and OCR acquisition forms to generate the data, and then explore and examine the interests and prejudices of individual curators.

Idea number #3 derives from another observation from the Object Wiki project. There, one of the sections we've created for numerous objects is called 'how it works'. This could be turned into a key way of viewing objects. There's already a cool website called How about creating a past tense version - This could usefully be cross-museum, as explaining how one past technology worked might involve a component or comparison with an object from another museum.

Idea number #4 is another acquisitions based idea - but forward thinking. Perhaps we could engage people in the decisions about what should be collected and displayed in museums? Perhaps we could encourage people to donate objects to museums more? The name for this idea is taken from something Indiana Jones says - 'that belongs in a museum'. People could suggest stuff that really belongs in a museum, such as an antique, or a first-generation iPod. Others could vote on whether it really does belong in a museum, and then perhaps even museums could bid on whether it should be their museum that it should belong in - a kind of reverse eBay.

Idea number #5 involves something think people are always interested, the value of museum objects. Museums tend to shy away from talking too much about monetary values of objects, but this could become a key way of viewing online objects. My proposed name for this project is - and would let users see the creme-de-la-creme of museum objects, and would ask them which they consider the most valuable - however you measure 'value'.

So, five ideas. I'm happy to give any of these away, for free, if you're interested in following them up. You can even have the domain name for free (registered for a year).

Otherwise, I'm interested in your feedback. Would these website projects interest you. How could they be funded? Are they the type of projects that museums themselves should be initiating, or should they be produced by the commercial sector (or perhaps a non-profit like MySociety)?