Nicole Beale


My PhD looks at the potential of web-based phenomena for local authority museums in the UK. This poster presents a case study which forms a part of a chapter of my PhD thesis.

Memory Institutions and the Web
Museums, libraries and archives are conventionally recognised memory institutions. The web is changing this. For museums, traditionally understood mechanisms for collecting, preserving and interpreting the heritage of humanity and our environments are no longer enough.
The photographs in this poster form part of the Europeana collection ‘Vintage Animals’ and are curated by Retronaut. They are multi-institutionally sourced, and owe their presence here to good metadata (which made them findable) and comedic subject matter (which made them adorable).

Online metadata indexes as an opportunity
The creation of online content should be a major consideration for local authority museums. The web offers a new way for museums to present social history data held in their collections. Social networking platforms are tools for the collating and sharing of such content, but they are resource-heavy. Large centralised metadata indexes present the best option for smaller museums today. Europeana is an example of such an index. Museums have much to offer the web, in particular to the development and continued uptake of social networking systems. Recent research into the web as a repository for the memory of the world is evidence of the recognition of the importance of the web for the future of the archive (Robinson, 2012; Andermann & Arnold-de Simine, 2012). Blogging and micro-blogging platforms provide ways to self-memorialise both publically as commemoration and privately as remembrance without the need of museums, libraries and archives. In the 1990s, predictions of the democratisation of the past and the way that technologies threaten the timeboundedness of memory were thought to lead to the extinction of the archive, as the past and the present became blurred and the world archived and collected everything. Today these concerns manifest themselves in a similar way, with academics and archival professionals alike expressing concerns about the increasing propensity of people to share everything online. But the web today is messy. Information is lost almost as soon as it is shared. Twitter is an example of this, within days a tweet can be lost. The sharing of information is not necessarily going to result in the creation of an archive. On the web, the audience of heritage is very different. Young people and people of different socio-economic backgrounds engage with content with a history or archaeology focus much more readily online than they do offline. In addition to this, the audiences of this kind of content are finding information and knowledge about these topics away from the large authoritative organisations. An online user will come across the information in a different way, and this is key to the success of sharing heritage knowledge online. Content online still needs to be collected and categorised, to be interpreted and then presented: to be ‘curated’. Open data is an essential component to this re-discovery of information. Social networking systems, the tools and platforms where people are creating and sharing content are essential to the future of museums. Museums are the appropriate institution to exhibit data from the web that relates to cultural memory, and that the adoption of open data and real engagement with the social aspects of the web will be integral to this occurring. Online metadata indexes make collections and objects within collections findable. The serendipity of the case study, Retronaut, and the fun and relaxed way that the site and its associated social networking platforms engage with audiences is illustrative of this potential.

The example of Retronaut
Chris Wild is the Curator of the website Retronaut. Wild curates historical photographs via Retronaut which (as of 19th February 2014) has more than 200,000 views per day, just over 63,000 followers to its Twitter account and over 209,000 likes to its Facebook page. The majority of the content for the website are photographs with unusal subject matter. Most photographs come from large online collections, such as, a European Commission funded cultural heritage metadata search portal. Retronaut makes use of the metadata within Europeana in a way that people find engaging and entertaining. Wild has created an institution using only the information that is freely available online via Europeana. Retronaut was established in 2009 and is curated by a team of less than ten people. The site has had a Facebook page since 2010. The British Museum, arguably one of the most well known museums in the world only boasts just over 500,000 likes to its Facebook page, and just under 269,000 Twitter followers (as of 19th February 2014). The British Museum has used Facebook since April 2010 (Pett, 2012). The number of likes for Retronaut when compared with the British Museum on Facebook is staggering. Retronaut only has 41.8% of the British Museum’s likes, which is a significant percentage when considering the size of the organisations managing the social media and the resources available to each organisation in the real world. Retronaut makes use of the benefit of the web to bring disparate data sources together, to highlight the multi-faceted nature of humanity and to use historical collections to engage people in conversations about the simultaneous distance and closeness of the past to the world today. The Retronaut approach has been so successful that Wild is now installed at the Museums and Archives Northumberland as a time-traveller to engage new audiences (Woodhorn, 2013).

Andermann, J., and S. Arnold-de Simine, 2012. Introduction: Memory, Community and the New Museum, Theory Culture Society, 29(3); 3-13 Pett, D., 2012. Use of Social Media within the British Museum and the Museum Sector. In: Bonacchi, C, (ed.) Archaeology and Digital Communication: Towards Strategies of Public Engagement. Archetype Publications: London, UK: 83-102 Robinson, H., 2012. Remembering things differently: museums, libraries and archives as memory institutions and the implications for convergence, Museums Management and Curatorship, 27(4): 413-429 Woodhorn, 2013. Time traveller to open up archives, Woodhorn: Museums and Archives Northumberland, 5th December 2013. Available at: Accessed 16th February 2014

Notes: Thoughts: @nicoleebeale

Supervisors: Dr. Yvonne Marshall and Dr. Graeme Earl

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