On Wonder, Museums, and Flickr

"A close-up view of the head of a whale at (possibly) Naden Harbour, Queen Charlotte Islands", National Maritime Museum

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For me, memories, like photos, lack peripheral vision. Focused intensely on a single narrow perspective this image says: “Holy crap, a whale!” None of us knows what’s just to the left, or beyond that treeline. That’s not what the image is about. But great images also say more. They make us feel. They make us wonder. For me, this photo is awesome, beautiful, but most importantly: intriguing. It tells us just enough of a story to send our imagination running.

My imagination wants to know what it smells like to stand with those men in the image. It’s telling me there’s probably hints of wet cedar bark combined with notes of the fish stalls in Vancouver’s Granville Island market complimented by a warm salty sea breeze. I also want to know what it feels like to poke him with a stick. A good sized sturdy stick so I don’t have to get too close. Most of the bark on my stick has been stripped by the continual pounding of the waves. There are a few bite marks left by a golden retriever out for a walk along the shore with his owner, assuring me I’m not the first one to have a bit of fun with this stick. Like a child, I wonder if the whale will shift when I poke him. Will it startle us? Make us jump? Will we be embarrassed, turn towards one another and laugh nervously? Of course he won’t move. Look how big he is. But I wonder.

One of my fondest memories as a six year old is stored in my mind in much the same way as this photograph: without peripheral vision. That memory is of how I felt when I walked into the dinosaur gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum with my father. There was a red glow cast upon the dark brown skeletons. That glow told me I was leaving my own world and entering one dominated by beasts more terrifying than I could imagine. I have no idea what was to the left, or in the next room, or even what I saw out of the corner of my eye. But I do know that red glow made me wonder.

Wonder is of course the merchandise of museums. For well over a century the world’s great museums have spread wonder far and wide, piquing the interest of children and invigorating the rusted imagination of adults. From time to time it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves how museums have been able to continually prompt our sense of wonder, particularly when we turn our own attention to engagement. Inside the walls of academia, more energy than ever is focused on outreach as researchers are constantly looking for new ways to connect with different audiences. For those with image collections, social media sites such as Flickr are appealing and can look forward-thinking. However, successful social media is about engagement and as any curator knows, engagement is not just a matter of ‘build it and they will come’.

Recently I sat down with the outreach team at Britain’s National Maritime Museum to discuss how they have used Flickr as part of their outreach program, as well as how the service has allowed them to catalogue their photograph collection. I invite you to watch the highlights of that interview in the video below:

Like many cultural heritage organizations, the museum has a large collection of images in its archives, very few of which were part of the physical exhibits in the galleries. To increase access to that material the museum decided to turn to Flickr. Not only did this step increase that access, it also allowed for interactions with the users that just are not possible in physical exhibits. When she first initiated the campaign, project manager Lucinda Blaser hoped to begin crowdsourcing metadata related to the collection from the general public as a way to better understand the material. Blaser’s tremendous faith in the collective knowledge of their audience paid off and Flickr provided a forum through which that knowledge could be transferred.

Jane Findlay, the digital participation officer at the museum took the project further in collaboration with Newcastle University PhD student Bronwen Coloquhoun, by initiatingCurate the Collection. This participatory project invited seventeen Flickr users to work together to select visually striking and thought-provoking images from the Museum’s huge collection. These images were then incorporated into a physical exhibit in the Museum itself which ran until 31 October 2012.

My afternoon in Greenwich thinking about Flickr taught me a lot about how one of the best cultural heritage institutions in the world undertakes their online social media outreach. Though photo sharing sites such as Flickr may be tempting for academics because of their perceived low cost, it is all too easy to forget the immaterial costs of these endeavours. These campaigns really are campaigns; they take lots of time, a good idea, some planning, and a notion of what exactly it is that you’d like to achieve. Without that, you risk being just another academic with a Flickr account. But your project can be so much more, as long as you don’t forget to make us wonder.

Thanks very much to Lucinda Blaser, Jane Findlay, and Emma McLean at the National Maritime Museum for taking the time to discuss their experiences with me. And thanks to the Social Media Knowledge Exchange project (SMKE) for supporting the filming and editing put together by the talented Ryan Austin.

Adam Crymble is the NiCHE webmaster and a PhD History candidate at King’s College London in England.


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