Conference Report: Museum Computer Network

Kristen Kern, Portland State University

As a result of ALCTS’s generously covering the cost of my registration, I was very fortunate to attend the most recent Museum Computer Network (MCN)Conference held in my hometown last November. I was apprehensive at first, unsure of how it would feel to be a librarian in the midst of the museum world’s technology experts. I need not have worried. To a person, the people I met were unfailingly friendly, welcoming, and passionate about their work.

Since travel expenses were not a consideration, I elected to attend a preconference the day before the regular program commenced. It was an illuminating afternoon learning about Palantir ( http://www.palantirtech.com/), the company that expanded the Art Institute of Chicago’s online collection. Using the open source content management program, Drupal, Palantir built a new collections section that integrated with an existing content management system. The presenters emphasized the importance of selecting technology that fits with an institution’s mission and concept of an online presence. Possible online design continuums they described are curated/created from complete control to providing tools for user created collections; walled-garden/open offering an enclosed experience to positioning technology sites to assist with instant messaging; isolated/conglomerated from a stand alone, consistent site to a federated one like ArtBabble ( http://www.artbabble.org/); and, hands-on/hands-off most museums fall in the hands-off category, though exceptions include the Milwaukee Art Museum’s children’s program. Social networking could also lead to opportunities for hands-on engagement.

The conference opened with a keynote speech “Eye on the Hand, Mind in the Clouds: Contemporary Networked Users’ Experiences” by Karen Donoghue, Principle User Experience Designer, HumanLogic. She explained the hand as (the iPhone) camera, and named Twitter and Google Docs as examples of the cloud. Donoghue concluded by observing that connected consumers have multiple networks and use them. There is a virtual cycle of creation and consumption where data is made and shared. Users are catalyzing and managing cultural discourse around social objects.

The conference itself, with the overarching, timely theme of “Museum Information, Museum Efficiency: Doing More with Less!” offered sessions on planning, projects, collaborations and products currently in development or in place at museums around the country and the world. There were individual sessions with speakers or panels, some of which employed state of the art conferencing tools so that panelists located elsewhere could participate fully in the program, both audibly and visually. A number of those attending actively Twittered during the conference proceedings as well.

Several of the programs were devoted to topics of interest to librarians. Simon Tanner, King’s College London, anchored “Economics 911: The Economics of Digitizing Cultural Collections” that pointed out the human cost factors in digitization. “Tweets to Sweeten Collaborations for Archives, Libraries and Museums” addressed cost effective means to share resources, training and expertise. “Libraries, Archives and Museums: from Collaboration to Convergence” described examples of institutions undertaking projects to maximize the benefit of collaborating between these cultural entities. “Of Business Intelligence and Sustainability” included Liz Bishoff of Bibliographical Center for Research (BCR) presenting “Sustaining Digital Collections: Digital Preservation Readiness Assessment Survey Results.” Bishoff reported on the outcomes of the 2007–2008 survey of institutions that developed out of the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s Stewardship of Digital Assets Workshops.

The conference also included daily case studies, and all attendee sessions where several projects were permitted brief introductions at the conclusion of which, speakers and interested attendees gathered around tables in the back of the large room to ask questions and seek further information. Attendees were free to move from table to table. Attendees were also encouraged to join in the conversations at special interest groups (SIG). The SIGs met at three separate times enabling attendees to participate in several groups. SIGs represented geographical areas, the Pacific Northwest, for example, as well as topical interests such as standards, intellectual property and digital media.

The MCN Conference presented a stimulating array of programs for those working in the technology realm of museums, focusing on how to successfully employ resources, tools, and personnel to further the missions of their unique institutions. The conference also offered opportunities to consider how all cultural institutions, museums, archives and libraries, can learn from each other and collaborate effectively.

With grateful thanks to Charles Wilt and ALCTS for making it possible to attend this enlightening conference. View the conference web site, which lists all of the programs and links to available presentations.