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On the importance of digital access to cultural collections

Let’s start with the citizen. She wants digital access to the things in our collections, in a way and at a time that suits her, and at no cost.

Furthermore, she wants to be able to use that digital material to do whatever she likes.

So once we decide to digitise our collections, that’s all easy and OK, isn’t it? Well, no it’s not, for a range of reasons, both good and bad.

Now, let’s go to the gallery or museum worker or volunteer who really does want to meet the needs of community members. For many staffers in small-to-medium organisations, there is little or no digitised – and therefore potentially digitally accessible – material.

Worse still, many might not even know where or how to start the process of creating full on-line digital access to their collections. There is an array of choices for how to do this; and a range of technical issues involved in making it happen.

But then there are the complex issues and inconsistent standards around copyright, involving both legal and ethical questions (with special further protocols to navigate for any use of Indigenous material).

One of my main objectives currently as MA National President is to work with our GLAM sector colleagues to overcome as many of these problems as we can resolve through collaborative action.

At the time of writing, we have had three meetings of the peak bodies that represent the galleries, libraries, archives, museums and historical societies; and have achieved a remarkable level of consensus on the key issues around digital convergence for the GLAM sector.

We have also collectively urged the Commonwealth Government to rationalise current copyright laws, especially concerning unpublished written material.

The most recent meeting, in early October, was to develop a series of projects to address the complexity of these pressing issues around the process of making collections digitally accessible.

My aims are that a collaborative strategy nationally will enable smaller galleries and museums to have access to the tools and resources to make informed choices about the best ways to make their collections digitally accessible; and then to ensure they have the appropriate resources to actually carry out the process.

As previously mentioned, I’ll be providing a much more detailed account for all in future issues about our progress towards these goals – but the signs so far are very encouraging.

Also very encouraging is the planning for next year’s joint Museums Australia/Museums Aotearoa national conference in Auckland. I attended a planning meeting in Auckland in late August, and the organisation is going very well, with the best combination of local, Pacific and global gallery and museum issues set to be explored.

Several Maori cultural leaders were involved in the discussion, so we are also guaranteed a strong and warm Maori welcome to Auckland, followed by vigorous exploration of Maori, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural issues in the conference program – which will be bound also to highlight wider indigenous connections, since Auckland pre-eminently hosts the greatest variety of Pacific cultures in our region.

Key elements of Museums Australia are the branches (State and Territory) and National Networks. Take a moment to think about how you might strengthen and participate in activities of your branch, and which MA Networks might be of interest and value to you (all are listed on the MA website).

Participation makes MA stronger!

(This article originally appeared in Museums Australia magazine, Spring 2015.)

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