Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Luttrell Psalter - the Movie - For Free!

Following on from a post I made a little while ago, the lovely people at WAG Screen have now put the film they made of the Luttrell Psalter online for free!

I'm a fan of this kind of thinking. You can hang on to rights in the hope of some tiny future gain, or you can give stuff away, enrich the community, enhance your reputation and call it marketing if you need to convince your boss.

If you're a fan of medieval manuscripts or just enjoyed The Beauty of Books on BBC4 the other night, you should take a look.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Lessons from Latte

Lots of noise recently about the future of libraries. I liked the marches to protest against library closures, and the BBC carried quite a lengthy piece on it's website rather fatuously entitled "Libraries vs the Internet". The very fact that the BBC chose to give the article this title tells us that libraries aren't doing a good enough job of both utilising the internet and telling the world about the great work they're doing regarding digitisation, online catalogues, aggregation and online exhibitions.

One of the problems was highlighted to me again last week in a meeting with a big library. They'd scanned a large number of 19th century books and converted them into eBooks. But, as the OCR'd text was much the same as that to be found in Project Gutenberg, or even Google Books, they had no real option but to give them away for free.

This is the commoditisation of knowledge. Why should I go to this library rather than another?

I've just moved office, and next door is a nice non-chain coffee shop run by a Turkish guy who this morning tried to convince me to go to his Turkish barber (I tried that once, and they set fire to my ears). His coffee is about as good as anyone else's, but he does a few things well. He know who I am, he offers a nice environment, and he gives me a discount. User experience and personalisation.

Maybe I need to persuade my new friend to start selling Turkish coffee though - that's something Starbucks would never do.

And libraries are just the same really. They may offer much ubiquitous content, but their unique offer is their special collections - stuff no-one else has. Baklava are optional.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Making Meaning

I noticed a piece by Alain de Botton the other day on the failings of museums. His opening statement is "Museums should help us to live better lives". Alain de Botton is very keen on us living better lives. He's written books on philosophy, travel, architecture and status in order to try and help us. I've read them, and I enjoy his well structured, precise prose and thoughtful arguments.

But should that be the purpose of cultural institutions?

Well I believe it's possible for these institutions to help us live better lives in all sorts of respects. From the simple but profound appreciation of beauty (take a trip to the V&A) to the unravelling of the past that illuminates our present (past performance normally being an indicator of future behaviour), these places can enrich us in ways that our work and home lives cannot.

But so often I see museum and gallery visitors straining to find meaning in their experiences. Hunched over tiny labels, taking a close look at the brushwork of a painting, then stepping back to take in the whole canvas. Or sleep-walking through the endless galleries of the British Museum, dazed by the riches.

And here's the problem. We can show off artefacts (well those that aren't in storage), and we can can give some interpretation, but we don't seem to be able to give meaning to these objects. They are just not relevant to the visitor. The quasi-religious presentation of the objects declares their importance, but the visitor's response doesn't correlate to this declared value.

So Alain de Botton frames it like this "curators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live".

Surely it's possible for us to contextualise objects for visitors, make meaning and therefore value? As with some of the humanities, museum professionals seem to take for granted that everyone will understand the value of what they do, and they are poor at articulating this value. But politicians and the public clearly need persuading.

David Cameron is championing a number of initiatives such as Big Society and the new measure of national well-being.

Surely now is a great time for the cultural sector to cry out "We can help with this!" But we need to add meaning, not just information.