Last week, the Natural History Museum London was the latest institute to engage with the mega brand x mega brand love in that is Google Cultural Institute partnerships. Presumably, they’ve partnered with most of the major art museums so the attention has finally turned to natural history* (at the time of writing, Google Cultural Institute still haven’t announced the project on Google+, evidence perhaps that even Google doesn’t use Google+). Although these projects, where the Google Cultural Institute partners with a museum to present their collections through the Google Arts and Culture platform, aren’t exactly new, the addition of one of the UK’s big natural history museums is a chance to examine whether these are any good yet.
The tl:dr version of this blog post is no. No they aren’t.
You think this kind of event would be exciting. You’ve got all the whacky-we-don’t-have-chairs-we-have-beanbags creatives at Google, the Internet for most people, partnered up with a major museum filled with millions of nature’s wonders and hundreds of the world’s leading scientists and curators. With this kind of clout and with such a huge platform expectation is high. Sadly, the result is a digital pastiche of what many people think museums represent. A bunch of old stuff and arcane information. The difference is, instead of those neglected display cases in unvisited corners that have needed a refresh since the 1870s, we’ve got images of specimens on a screen instead.
You’d assume that with VR, 3D, video games, podcasts, gifs, videos, apps, mapping and imaging expertise at the disposal of Google, you could combine that with the cutting edge and glorious history of natural history to revolutionise how museums ‘do’ digital.
You’d be wrong.
The headlines from the press activity was that over 300,000 images had been released online with exciting as an accountant’s annual general meeting ‘interactive experiences’ bringing the collections to life. Sadly, the reality seems to be that this is mostly every single image that was laying about, quality or not, a handful of at-best-watch-it-once videos, and a smattering of new content. Oh of course there’s an app and a Streetview thing for those that found that Myst was a tad too exciting what with all the interactivity and all. You too can now stumble around the Natural History Museum, click by click, as if you’d had a few too many glasses of wine and were desperately searching for the toilet.
The content on the Google Cultural Institute page is divided into two main sections, 11 exhibits and 19 ‘collections’.
Starting with the collections, the NHM content is divided very eclectically into such categories as Plant, Insect, Mammal, Sea, Henry De la Beche, Canada and Antoine Francois, comte de Fourcroy. A.K.A sets of images we already had lying around from previous digitisation projects. This is both depressing but also a massive relief. Many museums, with the generic pressure to ‘MOAR DIGITAL ASSETS’ within a short period of time, instead of creating bespoke content that would work on the web or content that addresses the critical gaps in understanding our continually fragile world just bung everything they’ve already got on the web. Quality or not. This happens in museums the world over. Fortunately, nobody uses online databases so they don’t really notice. This is a massive relief. Depressingly however, even with the combined forces of Google and the NHM, it seems that they too default to let’s chuck everything we’ve got and then boast about the numbers.
I’m not even going to go into the deep deep irony of the museum not even being able to ‘curate’ its content. This odd project-divided way of organising content is useful to neither woman, man nor beast. Looking for a marine mammal that was collected by Henry De la Beche (unlikely but okay) well it could be in ‘Mammals’, ‘The Sea’, ‘Henry De la Beche’ etc. I think the way the collections work mean that objects may be in more than one collection but short of nailing it with your initial search you’d have to scroll through a lot of stuff you didn’t want to see first.
Lastly on the collections side of things, it doesn’t take much browsing to find digital assets that really shouldn’t have been uploaded. This gem is near the top of the insects collection:
Even without being a photography snob, you can tell that this isn’t great. Specimen angled correctly? No. Take five seconds to put on top of a blank piece of paper? Nope (and actually that seems to be part of an entry form, forms which have personal information on that we have to be really careful to protect…). Scale bar? Colour balance? Text in focus? Nah, overrated. It’s only an Alfred Russell Wallace specimen anyway. The really frustrating thing here is that there are a load of people at the NHM doing great digitisation and visualisation work (some of them literally write the books about it). To publish this kind of image must have them rolling their eyes too. Of course, I’ve cherry picked. There are some beautiful images on there (with and without scale bars) and some approaching gold standard specimen reference photography but the bad ones aren’t hard to find. This one, this one and this one for starters.
Lastly on the collections, writ large, WHO IS THIS FOR? I’ve asked that before, a number of times, most recently here. Is this for the general public? In which case, it’s largely useless. They want to know how penguins poop, whether its starfish or sea star whether Portugese mens of wars are jellyfish or not. Search for penguin here and you get an egg, a taxidermy specimen, a drawing of a penguin embryo, a dodo and two Buellia austrozetlandica. I’m a biologist and ironically had to Google that and I still don’t know what a Buellia austrozetlandica is.
Is this resource for biological researchers? Again, it’s useless. Vague search terms bring back too many results and in any case, the NHM has quite a good specimen portal for that kind of enquiry for specimens that have been catalogued.
The exhibits bit is significantly better albeit currently a bit sparse. Short bits of edited content on a particular theme. Okay, so currently it is a bit eclectic. If your burning enquiry isn’t about feathers, the NHM tank room or Rhomaleosaurus then come back later, but this section is at least browsable. For an afternoon maybe. Once. But this is really what these resources should be for, for browsing. Not for people with specific enquiries, but for people who just want to take a digital wander through a broad topic they are interested in. This is how Amazon ends up selling you things you don’t really need by showing you things that might fall into your general sphere of interest based on what you’ve already looked at. This is why Wikipedia can sometimes take you on a journey from a query about where Wiltshire is geographically to a list of all the ways that Captain America has died in comics by clicking one interesting link after another.
There’s also the headline ‘Interactive Experience‘. A virtual version in the same format as the super popular History of the XXX in #### XXX that has spelled creative dearth in the popular reference book aisles. With the NHM in particular, the reductiveness is especially evident. The history of 4.6 billion years in 8 objects was always going to miss a key event or two. I guess there’s some scope here for teachers to take a break during a really boring computer room lesson by getting students to ‘experience’ the interactive experience but it doesn’t exactly inspire a lifelong wonder of the world. ‘Interactive’ here stretching the definition. Clicking on things barely counts as interactive these days. My online banking is interactive. My tax return is interactive. Opening a word document is interactive. It’s not bloody interesting though is it? Clicking on things.
This section is also full of the worst of the science communication tropes that you’d hope we’d be trying to get away from.There are plenty of, unnamed scientists shedding our old friend new light and pioneering non specific discoveries using unspecified analytical techniques here. Science.
With museums the world over blindly adopting the aspiration to ‘digitise collections’ without much of a thought about how, who, what or why, it seems that the dogma has even reached Google’s idea of what a digital museum can be. It’s such a shame because museums, including the NHM, are doing so much that is generally exciting, interesting, democratising and sometimes life changing. It seems that even when two powerhouses collaborate we still cannot bottle that up to present on the web. Approximating the driest of dry museum displays digitally is still par for the course.
Lastly, and why this blog post was gnawing away at me until I wrote it, is that the reception to the latest of the Google Cultural Institute’s partnerships, was widely well received in the press and on social media. It’s so frustrating because with the technology we have, we should be doing so so so much better than this. This should be revolutionising the way we communicate about things, with each other and instead we’ve got big images of empty microscope slides and videos perpetuating the worst of science communication tropes. This is why museums are by no means ‘post digital’. This is why we have to keep saying the word ‘digital’ before other nouns in our funding applications, strategic plans and audience evaluation.
*Only kidding, there are at least 9 others on there already
UPDATE 19/09/2016 Fixed a few of the usual impassioned typos. All of the rest are deliberate.