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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Thursday, October 11, 2012

IWM and the Google Cultural Institute

Just a very quick one. Yesterday Google launched the new historical part of what they now call the Cultural Institute*, consisting of object records and media plus a number of exhibits assembled from them. IWM was amongst a small group of institutions in this first wave. We contributed metadata and media for a few dozen items in our collection relating to the Second World War, and put together an exhibition about D-Day. The exhibition tool is very effective, but what I think is more fundamentally interesting is that this project (like Europeana, albeit on a fraction of the scale) enables the remixing of collections from various kinds of organisation. Some of our material was used in the Anne Frank exhibit, for instance. So just like Europeana Exhibitions, the potential for remixing allows for new combinations of material culture and new stories to be told. I wonder how the "market" here will shake out...
It was an interesting project to work on. The data standards evolved as we went along and were significantly more useful by the end, and it was really good to be part of that group of GLAMs that could test it out and help to make it more fit for purpose. the process consisted of one of our historians, Mandy, putting together the story and selecting the items she wanted to use to illustrate it, which involved a bit of new digitisation and data cleaning. Then this metadata needed turning into the XML format Google needed. I resisted hand-coding the XML even though it would have been easy enough given the data we had and the smallish number of items. Instead I wanted to be ready to do this lots of times for lots of objects and exhibitions, so we used the CIIM middleware to organise all the object records and add context-specific data and media (such as a YouTube video). Then I wrote an XSL transform for the Solr XML it churned out, so it will be trivial to put together new batches of metadata in the future. Once the data and media were uploaded to Google (still a pretty manual process) my colleague Jesse put the exhibit itself together (with Google working out some of the kinks in the tool as we went along). All in all it was a good process. Perhaps it took more time that we'd envisaged but that is in the nature of doing something new, and some of the bottlenecks are now gone.
I think the end results are great, not just ours but those assembled by other partners too. This first group are very strong in a few areas (the Holocaust and South Africa, in particular, but not forgetting the simply huge photo archive from LIFE), which was an interesting approach. I think it was a good idea in that it facilitated strong cross-institutional combinations of material. Hopefully we'll see a wider spread of subject matter in coming months, though (and keep an eye out for other IWM exhibits there).

* I think the Cultural Institute now gathers together some of their other cultural projects they've done in the past (Art Project, Dead Sea Scrolls etc) but the historical exhibitions seem to take centre stage.