Vesica Blog - Taking museum and art collections to the cloud

June 21, 2012

The Evolution of Technology & the Structured Human Mind

This article deals with technology, the human mind and business in and around a museum environment. Of course, the discussion is probably true in virtually all other sectors and industries, but Vesica doesn’t deal with those. Nonetheless, the attempt is to make the article structured whilst trying to deal with issues of users (or human beings) adapting back to the organic nature of the human mind.

When computers became mainstream, we had to get used to thinking in terms of using a mouse and a keyboard to interface with them. It’s not how we interface with things or other human beings in general – we touch them, talk to them, feel them and more. In addition to that, as the technology evolved, the human mind had to adapt to concepts like directories and folders in a digital environment. Of course, the very concept of organizing data in files and folders is a structured one, but there wasn’t always a structured approach to physically interface with these files and folders, until the advent of computers. Yes, you could reference them to find them, but that helps you locate and then perhaps interface however you want (as in open the folders and read, or tear them, or fold them, you get my drift). To make the concept clear, it is useful to have structured data, but the evolution of technology should, and generally does, allow us to interface with structured data in an organic, unstructured fashion.

I think, those are, to a great extent, the two levels of evolution at which the technologies we interact with, operate:-

1. Evolution of data structure for better indexing, searching and finding.
2. Evolution of technology to develop organic and unstructured interfaces to access structured data, which, in it’s structured format, can be rigid and unrealistic.

The Lotico London Semantic Web Group (http://www.meetup.com/LondonSWGroup/) had what I imagine was a great meetup on a related subject in March – which I was unable to attend – but the idea of organized vs organic meta data is actually quite similar to this discussion.

Let me provide some more evidence to suggest that this is how technology evolves, and then make the argument, that in an effort to understand and grasp structure, we, as users, fail to utilize the benefits of better, more organic interfaces, and that’s not because we are opposed to them, but because we have had to work so hard to grasp the structured concept, that we have a hard time letting go of it, in many cases, for sentimental reasons.

Let’s look at the example of mobile phones. For several years now, we’ve been able to get email on our phones. If you’ve owned a Blackberry, a Palm One / Treo, or any other QWERTY enabled email phone without a touch screen, you’ve most certainly sat there in frustration waiting for the email to open and then having to continuously click (or scroll, depending on the phone) down until you get to the part of the email you are really interested in? That’s structured data (the email content) that you have to access in a structured manner (top-down by scrolling down 1 click / roll at a time). In the non digital world, if you were reading a letter on a piece of paper, you could simply look at and read directly the part you are interested in – that’s the organic way. It may be unstructured, but it’s the organic way – that’s how we do things as human beings (even though, for arguments sake, you might have to read the whole thing top-down to make sense of it).

That’s why technology evolves, and mobile phones evolved into touchscreen becoming the dominating force. Why? It’s still a structured approach (after all you still have to scroll top-down), but it’s far more organic because you can control how much you scroll and how quickly you scroll (going slightly off topic here, but QWERTY keyboards are far from dead – touchscreen only solves our interfacing to access problem, not interfacing to enter data more efficiently). In a manner of speaking, you can decide how to get to your data, and if this part is done right, how it’s structured becomes completely irrelevant, because if you could always interface with access what you want the way you want it, you wouldn’t care about it. There are many more similar examples of technology evolution, but that’s why you have software architects. That’s also why you have architects for buildings and houses. You just know what you want, how to get it to it is the architect’s problem.

Let’s bring this same set of concepts around to museum collections, software and relational databases. Until very recently, most museum software hasn’t exactly evolved to become more user friendly. The focus has been primarily on structure (and interestingly enough, there’s no agreement on what this should be like, because there really is no right or wrong),  to the extent that a lot of museum collection software even looks like the boring, gray interface of a typical relational database. Users are expected to define their own database structure on one screen, and then use another screen to access this data. So, the typical museum software will allow you to create various record types for object genre, loans, conservation priorities, etc. Once you have these defined, you can then create an object and call this record to associate it with that object. So, effectively, museum collection software technology hasn’t particularly evolved in terms of organic, unstructured or ‘user-friendly’ access or interfaces – it’s only evolved to the point of structured data.

This is a problem, because when museums now come across evolved interfaces built on top of structured data, they tend to think the structured data is missing. Our minds have become programmed to think and access the data in a structured manner, which takes long, requires more organisation and can become quite tedious. On the other hand, think of an unstructured approach, where as you are documenting an object in your collection, you can simply enter the genre, loan information, or conservation priority as you need to, without having to open another window or keep track of any reference numbers. You’ll be able to complete the task at hand, and then later go on to manage the structured data, reuse it against another object, or do with it as you please. In essence, the data itself is still structured, you still create a separate genre or loan record and that gets associated with your object, but you don’t have to create the 2 separately. You can, but you don’t have to, because you shouldn’t have to. Just like you should be able to scroll down to the bottom of an email without clicking on the down button 20 times, you should be able to enter data associated to an object and it should automatically create the other records as part of the process, rather than you having to create those records separately.

The reason why many have a hard time grasping this approach is because it is simply not common in traditional museum software. Interfaces have never evolved, and only recently, with the push of the web and the cloud have software companies been forced to push the limits of user interfaces to access and manage data. So, when you’re using a collections management system, objects in your collection are the primary point of reference, not your loan records, not your conservation priorities, and not your insurance policies. Everything else relates to the collections and objects, and should tie in organically.

The reason for writing this article is because in a recent training session with a museum for Vesica, some trainees actually thought that type or loan records could not be re-used or associated with multiple objects simply because we were not creating them separately. The point is, that you shouldn’t have to, but an interface that forces you to do so has not evolved to become very useful or user friendly.

Think of this in terms of a blog – when you build a tag cloud or tag your posts, do you actually go ahead and define tags separately each time before you start writing a post? No, you actually just type in the tags on the same screen on which you write your blog article – the system and the interface both know what you have already used and allow you to reuse these tags as and where needed. You can go ahead and edit these separately, but creating and managing a list of tags independently of blog articles is, at best, unnecessary.

I am sure there are some interface developers who would like to further stress the importance a good interface, and yet we’ll have others who think that the interface should be just as structured as the data. But the thing to keep in mind is that a good interface deals with the way one would naturally want to access, view and manage data. If you have been programmed to only see things structurally over many years, it is very difficult to imagine a world in which an unstructured interface will work for structured data. Why would you even need such an interface?

Why don’t you use google and find out how useful the ability to access data in this fashion is? For the average user, you just enter text, which google runs against structured, indexed data to retrieve results. It works, and it works better than you having to define 10 parameters in your search query to get the same result.

As human beings and users, we must learn to think and use things freely, without the restriction of structure – that’s how we can maximize knowledge and its impact. As software architects, we must help bridge the gap between the 2. Easy to use does not mean easy to build or unstructured, it generally means well-designed.

October 31, 2011

Are Mobile Apps for Museums Overrated?

[poll id="2"]

The last year or so has seen a dramatic increase in all the talk about mobile apps, not just across the museum and heritage industry, but for all major sectors. From banking apps to games to photo management, from useful apps like the TFL Live London Underground Updates to the completely worthless ones like SimStapler, mobile apps are in. But are they really adding any value to someone’s experience on a mobile device, or do many companies invest in building an app simply because someone else (who is possibly competition) is doing it?

As with all things technology, building, buying or investing in something just because another company is doing it is probably the worst way to justify expending your resources. But marketing gurus, who drive much of the social media, interactive and website / mobile website policies in business and non-profit industries, will probably have you believe otherwise. For many of them, having a FaceBook app is vital to ‘staying competitive ‘- a mobile app is not different. But who can blame them – spending and job titles have to be justified if they are to stay in work year after year – but this article is not about the marketing aspect.

So museums can invest in a variety of different mobile apps – and most of the talk that you’ll see on LinkedIn groups, for instance, is all about trying to engage the visitor (without actually defining the visitor interestingly enough). But if we were to work back and look at mobile applications as tools and investments, the following questions need to be answered:

  • Will a mobile app increase visitor footfall, enhance visitor experience or keep visitors engaged with the museum longer (let’s stick measurable results here, not prophesized effects)?
  • Will the mobile app add to museum revenues in any way?
  • Will the mobile app save the museum any money in the long run?
  • Will the mobile app increase the museum’s operational efficiency or boost employee morale?
  • Will the mobile app add anything along adding to the knowledge and education of the public in line with the museum’s aims and goals?

Of course, it’s probably important to decide WHAT the mobile app will do before you go by evaluating these factors – but at the very least, a decision to develop a mobile application must, in my view, be subject to a YES for at least 2 of the above questions.

So, can mobile applications actually accomplish any of the above?

Whilst it may seem very promising from a visitor engagement standpoint, my personal view is that a mobile app will have little or no effect for most museums. For science and technology museums that target and engage a younger audience, by all means, yes – for others, I don’t think so. Most likely (and please quote statistics if they are available otherwise), the typical museum goer is actually irritated with smart phones, and at best, only uses it for email or the GPS (if they can).

That’s not to say that a well built museum app cannot serve an educational purpose – but even then, it really depends on potential visitors to show enough dedication to view the museum’s collection on a small screen – that requires quite a high level of tolerance, even with today’s technology.

I believe the real use of mobile applications lies in helping museums becoming more efficient and helping make the life of museum employees easier. Mobile apps, whether they are for phones and tablets, can assist curatorial staff or art historians in constantly managing and updating collection related data, without having to log into a PC or particular piece of software. This can be especially useful, if combined with the photography and scanning / inventory management related functionality available in today’s smartphones.

At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong here – it’s all just a matter of how each person approaches the subject of  mobile apps for museums. My general view is that customer / visitor facing apps for museums are overrated, and will, in all likelihood, not produce a good return on investment.

But we’d love to hear other views, so please share yours.

August 19, 2011

Update: Streaming Video, Audio and Search Report Printing

Filed under: News,Technology — Tags: , , , , — Asif N @ 5:03 pm

As mentioned in Tuesday’s preview of today’s update, Vesica now supports audio and video streaming via HTML5 across a variety of browsers and formats. Here’s a brief overview of today’s updates.

» Audio / Video with HTML5

The audio and video integration simply adds on top of your existing piece and collection pages. You’ll see audio and video tabs across the top when you add / edit a piece or collection as shown in the screenshot below:

audio video tabs

Adding and streaming videos is also really simple. Just click on the + button as shown below to add a video or audio file, and simply click on the file name to start streaming it. You can also change the file name / description, or download it.

video tab - vesica

You are currently able to upload the following formats:

Audio: MP3, OGG, WAV and WMA
Video: MP4, AVI, MOV, OGG / OGV amd WMV

» Icons

You’ll also notice the use of the pencil and trash can icon in the above screenshots. In this release, we’ve rolled out icons for all common functions, including editing, deleing, saving and printing.

» Printing

In addition to being able to print detailed reports about a particular piece or object in Vesica, you can now pring reports about listings of pieces filtered by virtually any of the parameters. You can do this by running an advanced search report on your main piece listing page. Simply select from the criteria you need and once the results appear, click on the print icon. The screenshots below will show you how easy it is.

1. Click on Advanced Search to bring up the search dialog, choose your criteria and press the Search button.

2. Once your search results appear, just press the Print button to print the results. It’s simple!

Today’s update brings us a step closer towards making Vesica a collection management platform that supports media of all types for museums and collectors.

There’s more to come on additonal planned features – visit https://vesica.ws/features/ for more details or subscribe to our rss feed.

August 16, 2011

Preview of this Week’s Update

It’s Tuesday afternoon and we’re happy to announce that the release scheduled for later this week (Friday) will not only add some new features, but will grow the application functionality in terms of compatibility and add something in terms of easier navigation and user experience. The team has been hard at work implementing some of the feature requests from Q2 of 2011 and we’ve been planning a list of features and functionality to add to the platform for later this year. So, let’s get started wth what’s coming:

Streaming Video with HTML5

That’s right, you’ll now be able to upload video files in various formats and stream (or download) them from within your Vesica account. You’ll be able to associate these video files with pieces and collections. To start off with, we’ll initially be supporting a maximum file size upload of 1 GB in the following formats: AVI, MOV, WMV, OGG/OGV and MP4. Over time you’ll see more improvement to the video management platform, including the ability to control quality and embed video elsewhere (with or without the API). The best part about streaming video via HTML5 – we can support all modern desktop browsers and most mobile devices, including the iPad / iPhone and Android based phones and tablet PCs. In terms of browser support, you’ll need IE9, FF4+ or the latest version of Chrome / Safari / Opera to stream the files. You can always download and view the files on your desktop as needed.

Audio Streaming Compatibility

In July we added the ability to stream audio files (for your museum / exhibition guides, etc.). We’ve now made some changes to the audio platform, the result of which is that you can upload any of the formats we supported previously, and they’ll play in all of the modern browsers, irrespective of the format. Previously, you were unable to play OGG files in IE 9 and MP3 files in FireFox – this compatibility issue will be resolved with the update.

Interface Changes

Yes, we’re finally adding some dropdowns for easier access to the many settings / configuration pages, the support ticketing system and the FAQs. In addition to that, we’ll be deploying some icons for the buttons you see on the site (like save, edit, print etc.)  to free up more space for your content.

A Word on Data Standards

The technical team has also been evaluating various data standards that are in use by museums across the world. Whilst there are no formal dates, in addition to allowing you to export your Vesica data using the Vesica API, we are also planning on making feeds of your collections and related details available in some of the other formats, like the Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA) Lite by The Getty (http://getty.edu). Watch this space for more details on the subject if you’re interested in ‘open’ data for museums.

July 23, 2011

Stream your Audio Guides in Vesica

We’re very excited today about launching the audio management and streaming feature in Vesica. It’s an additional step towards making Vesica an all inclusive collection management application for museums and heritage organisations. In the next few weeks, video support will also be added.

After some planning, we decided to implement audio support in Vesica using HTML5. Whilst this has some limitations, in the long run, we believe it will be of great benefit to our customers. Using HTML5 to playback audio means that  you may face some compatibility issues with certain file types in certain browsers but it will allow you to stream audio on Apple iPad and other Google Android and Windows 7 powered PCs. For instance, Mozilla FireFox does not support streaming MP3s, but Chrome, Safari and IE9 do (even mobile versions of Chrome and Safari do). For more details on compatibility with streaming, please see this FAQ. Of course, you can always download your audio files to play them back on your Mac or PC.

Audio files in Vesica can be associated with a particular object or a collection. Just like all other tabs on your piece or collection management screens, you’ll also see an ‘Audio’ tab. Here’s what it will look like:

Audio in Vesica

Audio file formats currently supported are MP3, WAV, WMA and OGG.

Audio files will tie in with the Vesica ecosystem, allowing you to re-use the guides in online exhibitions as needed.

November 15, 2010

The Malpractice of Art Collecting

Last year, I made the conscious decision to move away from tempting but morally void allure of the corporate world. After having spent many years dealing with large corporates and their representatives, or with other businesses in general, with support from some great people, I turned towards the art industry. It seemed different – unlike the business world, the art world appeared to have some character and the people who were involved in the traditional arts (that was my primary exposure at the time) appeared to very passionate about their work. Finally, I was getting to know some people who actually cared about what they were doing and did it because they wanted to do it and enjoyed doing it.

“This would be a great bunch of people to work with,” I thought to myself. That was a while ago. As I have become involved with the museum and art collecting ‘industry’ over the last year or so, the true character of the art industry has become clearer. It appears that the majority of art collectors collect for the wrong reasons, the majority of contemporary, modern artists produce art for no reason at all (and if you can’t see this in most modern art then you’re either part of the former, present or the next group) and the majority of art consultants or galleries, and in many instances, museums, are motivated and involved with the arts for what, shall we say, is questionable motivation.

A few weeks ago, we were contacted by an art consultant (who is involved with some museums and a company that writes software for museums) who is starting an art consultancy to help collectors manage and ‘enhance’ their collections. Whilst I would personally disagree with this person’s approach to collecting art, they made it clear that art world did not, and does not, really care about the actual objects or pieces of art in a collection, or their symbolical or historical importance. The interest lies around acquisition information, insurance details, rights management, in which employee is responsible and what they can do to maximize cash and revenue from the collections they help collectors manage.

This is a part of Vesica which has been lowest on our list of priorities (and is currently being developed as part of a new, single submission driven interface). Our current focus so far has been on documenting the art collections – documenting for those who are passionate about their collections, understand the techniques, materials, symbolism and effort that goes into producing a great piece of collectible art – not this modern mumbo jumbo of let’s assign a value and compute our commission. We are, after all, talking about an art collection, not an art calculation.

The reason for this is simple: so far we’ve dealt directly with collectors who have little of no commercial motivation – they collect art because it speaks to them. These are the people who are not involved in the malpractice of art. However, there are hundreds of thousands of galleries, collectors and artists who are all involved with this industry for only commercial reasons – and that’s ruining the sanctity of art.

These are the politicians and bankers of the art world – they are corrupting the essence and practice of art – especially in Europe. They’re involved in the industry because it’s a status symbol – because being an artist is hip, because collecting art means you’re sophisticated, and being an art consultant or art gallery means you will affluent clients. But does anyone really understand what they are involved with or trying to sell. Do you really think most of these people know why some of Monet’s work is worth millions – other than the fact that he’s dead and it is what Pierce Brosnan was trying to steal in the Thomas Crown Affair? Not really, no. It’s all about the Hollywood effect.

So if you’re one of those artists drawing squiggly lines and asking the viewer to discover the abstract meaning of your blindingly painful insult to art, one of those collectors who’s collecting art from someone because they’re about to get a deal signed with Sotheby’s or Christie’s, or one of those art consultants who are so ignorant about the symbolism of an Indian miniature painting or the skill involved in proportionately well drawn portraits or illustrations, you are involved in adding to the corruption of the art world. You are essentially involved in what I consider to be the malpractice of art. I would even name government institutions in several countries promoting such malpractice, but because of laws pertaining to libel, at this point, I will not name any person, artist, consultant or government organization. Really, none of them deserve any credit.If the motivation is commercial or financial, you should go into the business world – not hide behind the ‘innocence’ or purity of art.

But there is one saving grace for the deserving artist, the passionate collector, and the art collection consultant (who really is more of an elaborate and personalized curator, in my opinion, as opposed to an art collection calculator as many of them are today). Some of the world’s most affluent art collectors are the ones who will not make the media; they really don’t care to. These are the collectors who have collections in their houses which are more valuable than what museums have on display; these are the collectors who know which artist has real skill; these are the collectors who know which consultant to go to for documentation, research and advice, these are the people who don’t really care about acquisition notes or rights management issues – and you won’t find any of them on LinkedIn or Facebook as art collectors. Why? Because for them it is a passion – it’s not how they try to do business or make a living.

Whilst I have every intention of having Vesica capable of supporting the business functions required to manage art collections from a commercial standpoint, I don’t ever want us to become a business involved in the malpractice, inflatable commercialisation or demoralisation of art or antiques. It’s just not the artistically humane thing to do.

September 3, 2010

The Upgraded Vesica Dashboard

Filed under: News,Upcoming Features,Using Vesica — Tags: , , , — Asif N @ 12:52 pm
Upgraded Vesica Dashboard

The Upgraded Vesica Dashboard

Vesica now has a new account dashboard. The new dashboard gives you an overview of the latest news, your account details, a breakdown of the various objects / pieces in your art collection as well as a comprehensive search facility.In addition to the dashboard, a new search and filtering facility also available on piece / object listing to quickly sort and filter collections by any criteria.

The new dashboard, released last week, will become a powerfool tool for collectors, museums and galleries looking to manage and document their art collection portfolios.

More information on Vesica’s comprehensive documentation platform and it’s new eCommerce features, user galleries and the master Vesica gallery is coming soon as we get ready to move the software out of beta and share some of amazing pieces of antique art already documented in Vesica.

April 19, 2010

Vesica and Museum Technologies Sign Landmark Deal

Filed under: News — Tags: , , , — admin @ 5:25 pm

Vesica today signed a deal with Museum Technologies to become the official collection and item management software provider to museums who work with Museum Technologies. In addition to providing the software at an enterprise scale for larger Museums and Galleries, this deal opens up huge possibilities for Vesica customers to be able to market their products and opens up avenues and growth channels for Vesica

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