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How to Get to Know a Collection (and Fast)?

Trove New Bot

This time last year, I travelled into Rome by train while having a conversation with Tim Sherratt in Canberra. Tim had built a Twitter bot enabling the Trove historic newspaper database to talk. Finally, I could have a conversation with a collection.

I’m reminded of this as I travel again, now to Washington DC to work with Dana Allen-Greil at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) over the northern summer. I’m thinking about how to get to know this collection.

Tim’s bot was TroveNewsBot, which offers articles from days gone by to anyone who asks. The bot has a face appropriated from one of its newspaper illustrations. It seemed natural for a whole collection to be speaking, rather than one object acting as a mascot (like those in lists here and here). This collection now has a tangible identity, one I’m sure was lying there quietly until Tim created its voice.

I understand collections to be organic systems with their own personalities. These personalities are made up of their individual parts yet exist somewhat independently of those parts. Collections see more life and history than we do as individuals, and we mourn them if they don’t. Each has its own nuanced identity, visible to those who look both closely and broadly enough, those who see how a collection’s biography can be reflected in its content and systems of management. Bots like TroveNewsBot are one way to reveal these quiet presences, existing alongside yet inextricably connected with us. We can now have conversations with many of them, as similar bots have popped up after Tim’s script was made available.

“As we start to have new types of conversations with online collections,
to explore their many-faceted personalities,
we will of course be exploring ourselves.” – Tim Sherratt

I’m not a creatively skilled maker like Tim. I creatively explore the world by travelling through museums. The NGA is the first collection I’ll have worked with for some time. I’m excited to have this opportunity with this respected institution and wondering about the best ways to get to know it, beyond wooing it over lunches in the sculpture garden. On the other side of the coin, is a community which already has a relationship with the NGA and whom I also need to learn. After speed-dating 205 collections around the world, writing love letters to some (read blog posts) and chasing rumours about the attractions of others, I haven’t had a sustained conversation with one for over 18 months. Now I’m thinking about ways to make the most of my limited one-on-one time with the NGA.

As I’ll be working within digital engagement and outreach, I expect to be stuck into some collection research early on. I’ll be exploring how to create conversation between visitors and the collection using new media from inside the museum. To kick off my personal journey at the NGA, I’m taking inspiration from Sree Sreenivasan and featuring one object per day on my Instagram account. Sree’s #metpix project charted the early days of his relationship with the massive collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ll give this approach a try; my photos will reflect the beginnings of a beautiful new friendship.

I wonder about the ways in which starting a role with a new collection is different from starting out at other types of organisation? Do any museum digital engagement specialists have tips on how to get across both the collection and its community of visitors and users? As a new visitor or staff member, how have you begun the process of getting to know a new collection? Have you tried creative ways to navigate this process?

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I love when museums introduce collections via social through a create your own adventure or scavenger hunt format. Looking forward to your Instagram collection exploration.

    7 June 2014

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