Being miscellaneous or externalising meaning at our museum

I am reading about a May 2007 interview with David Weinberger’s (author of Everything Is Miscellaneous, May 2007, Times Books) in which he referred to the fundamental change that is taking place (online) as being the “externalisation of meaning”. I read about this on Seb Schmoller’s blog Fortnightly Mailing. When he referred to there being no one right way to order the world, particularly digital stuff, I immediately thought the same thing about our vast digitised collections (both images and documents) that are now online and not always that comprehensively described.

So here is my take on Seb’s summary of David’s talk and what it means in the museum world:

  • it is now simpler for people to organise or search digital things (content or collections) as they decide, rather than for them to be classified for them (eg. museum taxonomies which are not always that easy to understand);
  • the links between digital things, and the tags (or folksonomies) and other attributes that people give them create a rich layer of meaning that can be drawn upon by others – and they may be better understood by others than the taxonomies we use in museums to describe our digitised stuff;
  • the difference between data and meta-data is disappearing (I’ve not thought this one through fully, but will add some more when I do); and
  • through Wikipedia and blogs and similar there is an increasingly public negotiation of knowledge, via a conversation, in which experts (curators, historians and the creators of digital collections) are decreasingly the arbiters of authority, solely through the addition of our own context.

So, if what this infers is a step along the path towards facilitating and building a better, open online community that is relevant to museums like the one I work in, perhaps this quote from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (in an interview with David Weinberger) is also something we could well heed:

Somehow we’ve worked with people in the community to build an online community. We’re not certain how it happened, except that we really do listen to people. We try to treat people like we want to be treated, and somehow we built a culture of trust.

In the same interview Craig compares the similarity between Craigslist and Wikipedia and again, I think there is relevance for us:

The big similarity is that both sites are built by the people who use them. Both have a culture of trust, and both are part of an historic trend where power is flowing from small groups of powerful people to much larger, but still small, groups of people.

The two go on from there to stress the critical importance and benefits (from unintended consequences) of doing good by paying attention to real customer service, listening to people (those engaged in the conversation) and following through (not just lip service).

The Memorial now has a Facebook page, a YouTube page and a presence on Flickr. And we now have a page on our website with links to them all: find it at In doing this we’ve followed the fantastic example set by Brooklyn Museum and their Community page. We may not be as funky as Brooklyn have managed to be, but we are a war museum and our community will be different from theirs. All of this is an attempt to expose our digital content (or collections) to much larger networks. We are now also looking at the facilitation of tags (or folksonomies) and even deeper descriptions of some of our digitised content by this new community. That will probably have to wait until we’ve implemented our massive new Enterprise Content Management system as it will lay the foundations for many programs including digitisation, web publishing and improved federated search on our site across all collection management systemn and other databases containing digitised documents.

We also continue to use the AWM Blog to draw attention to our collections and the work we do on them as well as to engage the community on topis of particular interest. Some recent examples include posts from conservators, curators and historians on: Aircraft Conservation, our catalogue programs in the Research Centre and also the recent discovery of HMAS Sydney, which has attracted a great deal of interest and many comments from the community.


  1. Mal Booth

    Liz,Thanks for the link. I really don’t know why I’ve not been reading Nina’s blog. The post you link to is great! I agree with her analysis and loved the last paragraph – I guess because it is what I have been saying.

  2. Anne-Marie

    Thanks Mal, I also need to thnk about this stuff some more, especially as I am one of the “experts” (well, maybe) who have to come to grips with how our knowledge, and the authority we derive from it, sits on relation to the knowledge and experience of the community outside the musuem. Museums (etc) do need experts (I know you are not arguing against this) but what interests me is that museum staff, who often devote their working lives to building knowdledge, are recognised and rewarded while at the same time being drawn into the conversation with the online community. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance, and that is not going to help anyone.

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