06 April 2009

The PUSH and PULL Museum - Jeff Lindsay's WebHooks

Jeff Lindsay, or NASA Ames Labs and general WebHooks guru, gave a presentation back in February at Google about WebHooks. WebHooks are a very simple idea, a RESTful POST and PULL system for a programmable Web. The idea of WebHooks is simple, make it so that Web users can set a condition when met on your system through an update or commit will send your information to a URL. That is pretty much it. However, the point, and its implications, goes much deeper than this.

First of all, as Jeff Lindsay, and Kurt Cagle at O'Reilly, point out, WebHooks are really much more revolutionary than they seem at first sight. In the current world of the interactive Web, even Web 2.0, it is largely a PUSH, or some might say POST, world. Users access our web pages, ask for resources which are broadcast on other web pages. Now, as Web 2.0 and Social Computing have shown, there is a lot of potential in this model. Especially with the addition of Mashups, APIs and AJAX. However, what this model is lacking, according to Lindsay, is the a real programmable web. As Jeff Lindsay says, this time as progrium:

To users, web hooks are a way to get events and data in realtime from their web applications. From this they can use the data however they like, empowering them with the ability to extend and integrate, and start seeing the true vision of the programmable web. (Quoted From)
The technology of this is very simple, trivial even, but the implications for the Web, and museums, is vast. We can envisage a Museum 2.0 world where every time we update, commit our documentation, or even simply add to our online resources, that thousands of users will get data sent to URLs. What will these URLs do with this data? That is up to them. They may mash it up, they may insert it into their own databases, they may simply embed it within their own web pages. It is up to who develops the URL as to how it will process this data.

Obviously licenses will have to be developed and certain decisions made about use of museum data, though museums are already making their on-line data available via Attribution/Non-Commercial license. However, with the ability to allow users to decide what data they want, under what conditions it is to be provided, and how they will use it, could completely transform museums. Simply to have the ability for Source Communities to be certain that all data concerning their patrimony is automatically sent to them, for their use, without having to constantly come and request such information, will radically shift the power of description and identity in museums.

A brave new world? Probably not. But the beginnings of a radical shift in who can account for museum collections? We can but hope.

What the G20 could mean for museums

What could the outcomes of the recent G20 meeting mean for museums, aside from perhaps easing the financial strain that all are feeling? Most would say, "Nothing really". However, there was a very significant change at the last G20 summit which, if nothing else, should serve as both a warning and a model for museums. The significant change was what George Soros calls a "Turning Point". This turning point was that the core nations of the G20, the G7 or what we could even call the G1 (the United States), gave up much of their power which they held in the form of special voting rights. In particular, from 2011, the US will no longer have its veto rights. More power has been shifted to the "developing" countries - in particular India, China and Brazil - not only on the G20, but also within the IMF, the World Bank, and perhaps even onto the UN Security Council.

The significance of this, from museums' point of view, is not only the shift in financial power that this will certainly create (that is the point of it), but the shift in political power and the possibility of real multilateralism.

I do not need to go into any detail here about the colonial foundations of museums, especially those of the Euro-American museum tradition. It is not only that our museums were founded during the height of the colonial period, to support colonial ideals and ends, and that we hold vast colonial collections. It is also that our whole tradition of practice sits on colonial foundations. Of course I also do not need to go into detail about the enormous amount of work that museums have done over the past 20-30 years to transform these colonial foundations, what was at one time called the New Museology. Nor do I need to cover here, again, the work of many museums over recent years to incorporate deep forms of collaboration with source communities and stakeholders (see Peers and Brown for a good recent summary). The important thing to realize here, and the relevance of what has happened this time at the G20, was that the same thing could have been said of the world's financial governance over the past 30 years. That we could have gone to the IMF, the World Bank and the even the G20 and found ample evidence of a greater degree of collaboration and consideration of the needs and concerns of "developing" nations over the past 20 years. The point is that despite new levels of inclusion, of collaboration, of a shift from institutional concerns to those of other stakeholders within the IMF, the World Bank and even the G20, these institutions remained colonial - or rather neo-colonial.

These institutions remained neo-colonial despite new levels of collaboration and dialogue because their primary goal, and their primary source of authority, was preserved through their control of resources. The IMF, the World Bank and the G20 remained neo-colonial because the handful of ex-colonial countries retained the power to define what the resources were, how they could be accessed and how they could be distributed. This was the fundamental change heralded at the last G20 summit. For the first time in its history, for the first time in several hundred years, the process of real multilateralism was begun. Not finished, not implemented, but at least begun.

This is the wake-up call for museums. What we are seeing, or what I hope we are seeing, is a fundamental shift from a neo-colonial control - a benevolent paternalism that acts for the good of its public, but retains how its resources are used and even what they mean - to a situation where those effected by these resources, those who have a major stake in these resources, have a major say in their definition, allocation and use. Museums as a neo-colonial institution, in the sense of Julia Harrison, have a history, even contemporary history, very similar to these financial institutions. Not as powerful, that is certain, but just as superintending. The wake-up call for museums is that their world of privilege, of having the sole right to define, describe, and determine use of their collections, is coming to an end.

No longer will cries for the primacy of preservation for a global good hold sway - cries similar to the foundation of both the IMF and the World Bank for the preservation of the global economy. No longer will the claim of institutional nor professional rights take precedence over the rights of local patrimony and use. We have all seen that the foundations of the world markets are crumbling. They are crumbling because they are rotten to the core. The new consensus is being driven by a new multilateralism which is far bigger, far more diverse, far more distributed than every before. Museums too are build on similar foundations, with similar materials, and similar ideals. Is it time that museums consider giving up their special voting rights before it is too late for us too?

04 April 2009

Powerhouse Museum in Australia goes all CC

I just read at Creative Commons Australia that the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has gone all CC. Now this is a very good thing that should be encouraged by all museums. Not least as the Powerhouse Museum has also put a large number of its images into the public domain under Flickr Commons. However, the blog went further to say that "In an Australian (and possibly world) first, they’ve released all of their collection documentation under CC."

Now, as you all know, I fully support such a move, but it most certainly is not a world first. The Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology has been offering all of its collections documentation on-line since 1996, and have been offering it under Attribution, Non-commercial CC license since 2007. Not to complain, mind you, as I applaud the move by the Powerhouse. Just to set the record straight.