Online, It’s the Mouse That Runs the Museum





...Mr. [Judson] Box’s son, Gary, died on Sept. 11, 2001, along with 11 of his fellow firefighters from Squad 1 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Now, eight years later, Mr. Box has discovered the only known photo taken of his son that day. A few days earlier a Web user named Erik Troelsen had uploaded the image to Make History (makehistory.national911memorial.org), the Web site of the future National September 11 Museum and Memorial.

Since the Make History site began in September, about 1,000 users have contributed more than 3,000 photos, videos and personal stories to it — online submissions that will play a central role in the exhibition space of the bricks-and-mortar museum at ground zero, which is projected to open in 2012.

Make History is perhaps the most notable recent example of a museum tapping the collective energy of Web users to help build its collection. While museums have been experimenting with the Web for years, these projects have often consisted of little more than an exhibit photo gallery or online guestbook. In recent years, however, the rise of social media has given Web users the technological wherewithal to play a more active role in shaping the direction of museum collections....

Last February the Luce Foundation Center of the Smithsonian American Art Museum invited Web users to help decide which paintings should be displayed in its visible storage facility, typically frequented by art historians and other scholars. Museum staff created a Flickr group called Fill the Gap, which allows users to suggest items to fill the bare wall spaces left when paintings are removed for conservation or lent to other institutions.

Fill the Gap represents a tiny but potentially precedent-setting step for the Smithsonian as a whole, where a larger conversation is starting to percolate around the changing role of curators in a Web 2.0 world. That institution recently began an ambitious initiative called the Smithsonian Commons to develop technologies and licensing agreements that would let visitors download, share and remix the museum’s vast collection of public domain assets. Using the new tools, Web users should be able to annotate images, create personalized views of the collection and export fully licensed images for use on their own Web sites or elsewhere....

In a world in which anyone can add to a museum’s collection, how will curators — and audiences — cope with the potential limitlessness of user-generated material?...

Ultimately, the viability of Web-enabled museum collections may rest on curators’ ability to harness the technologies of participation without compromising their judgment. “There’s a difference between having power and having expertise,” said Ms. Simon, the exhibition designer. “Museums will always have the expertise, but they may have to be willing to share the power.”


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