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Challenges and opportunities for Australia’s Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums

Let’s say I’m passionate about the photographer Frank Hurley. I want to build my own picture of the man and his work, and I know the originals of his photographs and much of his equipment is held in many cultural institutions, including major, galleries, libraries, archives and museums (or GLAM for short).

I want copies of his photographs, excerpts from his notebooks, and 3D images and some 3D prints of his equipment, and I want them without leaving my own house, now.

The technology to fulfil this request exists now in many people’s homes (computer, high speed internet connection, a photo printer and a 3D printer), but the capacity of the GLAM sector to meet this request, in human and technology terms, is patchy indeed.

I believe strongly that the more we give people virtual access to collections, the more they are going to want to make their own stories around those collections, and their own facsimile collections, and they really should be able to do this!

The digital revolution, from web to mobile devices to 3D printing to social media, has enormous capacity to turn the GLAM sector on its head, to change the sector in ways we never imagined, and to demolish the boundaries between galleries, libraries, archives and museums, whether we in the industry want this or not.

The GLAM project, “Challenges and Opportunities for Australia’s Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums”, is a key step in enabling the sector to embrace digital, rather than being engulfed by it.

In my capacity as National President of Museums Australia I had the pleasure of opening a key workshop that was part of the GLAM project and in doing this I looked at where we are now digitally in key facets of the operation of our GLAM businesses.

Think first about collections, for many the heart of what we do. We bring material in, maintain it, access and use it, and keep or dispose of it. Collections range from tens to millions of things, intangible and born digital to solid, human created to naturally occurring.

But the technology we use to manage our collections ranges from books and card indices to fully digital, sometimes with virtual access over the web, sometimes with no digital access at all. While there is dialogue between museums and galleries in this area, there is little collection management and access discussion across the broader GLAM sector.

If we are to meet our stakeholder needs, that has to change.

Let’s think about how our stakeholders engage with us, the “visitor” experience. The popular perception and visible aspect of this is the visitor through the front door, who goes to see permanent or temporary exhibitions, or read documents or search archives.

In so doing they will encounter and use some digital technology, and increasingly bring and use their own digital devices. But the increasing reality is that substantially more visitation to large GLAM organisations is entirely virtual, from anywhere in the world at any time.

We can meet some of this demand now through websites and aggregators like the Atlas of Living Australia and Trove, but virtual access to smaller institutions and to archives is patchy and difficult.

One of the key roles of GLAM organisations is to enable people to learn, formally (think school programs) and informally. Our capacity to enable this is also extremely patchy.

At the progressive end of the sector we have interactive distance learning through video and web conferencing, and extensive use of digital devices from tablets to interactive digital tables. At the other end we are still with paper and whiteboards, and students have to physically come to the institution.

There is of course an ongoing role for this, but we have to meet the interested students’ needs on their (digital) terms too.

What are the current digital downsides, the risks and the elephants in the rooms?

Copyright and intellectual property rights remain problematic when we enable production of copies. And the better the copies get the greater the risk of forgery and fraud, and the substitution of real things with copies.

We need to enable say the creative industries to use our collection materials as resources, as the Rijksmuseum has done in the Netherlands, without crashing into the downside issues, but more work needs to be done.

If that’s where the sector is, where is the community at, the people we exist to serve, in their digital expectations of us? Our visitors, through-the-door and virtual, have no need of the increasingly artificial distinction between galleries, libraries, archives and museums, indeed such distinctions are a hindrance for many.

They are a 19thC artefact and make increasingly less sense to our stakeholders when what they want extends across the sector (viz my Frank Hurley example). New GLAM institutions are doing their best to avoid this, as their names suggest, for the example M+ in Hong Kong and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

Our very own Australian Centre for the Moving Image cleverly avoided styling itself as gallery, library, archive or museum.

So, the GLAM project “Challenges and Opportunities for Australia’s Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums” is very timely and will help the sector move towards embracing the digital age, rather than the current mix of resistance, ignorance, piecemeal adoption, and in some cases wholesale embracing of digital.

But we in Australia are stuck with this increasingly artificial distinction between the pieces of the GLAM sector. So what do we need to do?

First, we need to be at least talking across the sector. This is beginning to happen more between the galleries and museums (for example, through the recently formed Nation Alliance of Galleries and Museums) but not nearly enough across all four domains. This will be a personal priority for me in my Museums Australia role.

Second, we need to be exploring and discussing opportunities and issues in the digital realm. The USA has the annual Museums and the Web conference, and New Zealand has the increasingly successful annual National Digital Forum. What are the pros and cons of such a gathering for Australia?

Third, we need to acknowledge that the GLAM sector in Australia ranges from the very large to the very small, from capital city to remote settlement, from well resourced to no resources, from paid to volunteer. Equity of opportunity and access to the potential of the digital world needs to be addressed if we are to meet the needs of Australians for access to their cultural heritage.

This GLAM project is an important step in the ongoing development of our sector.

Together we represent the cultural memory of Australia and our part of the world. Let’s give everyone the chance to use that heritage to shape their future.

(Introduction by Frank Howarth to the 'Innovation Study: Challenges and opportunities for Australia’s Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums.' CSIRO.)

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