Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Commercial Considerations in Putting Museums Online – Page 5

– Page 5 –

Partnering with the high-tech sector

But let’s come back to earth now. To achieve this vision of the virtual museum will not be easy for museums, which are relatively modestly funded institutions and for the most part lack an entrepreneurial spirit, unless they can share or recover the costs.

Partnerships are one way to share the risk and workload in the type of ambitious project I have outlined. Although museums sometimes see themselves as competing with each other, they have some sense of community, and some history of working together to solve common problems. But, as institutions in the non-profit sector, they have had less experience and greater reluctance to develop partnerships with for-profit organizations, fearing that their high-culture image will be tainted by contact with commerce or industry. For the most part the two worlds have collided only when museums have sought corporate sponsorship; but there has always been the concern that the involvement of corporate sponsors not extend beyond signing the cheque. This is hardly partnering.

Partnering involves harnessing together in a united effort the different but complementary core competencies of each partner, so that the combined forces can achieve mutually-defined and mutually-beneficial goals that would be prohibitively expensive for any individual partner to achieve alone. Electronic dissemination of knowledge products is an area which clearly requires partnerships of diverse organizations. On the one hand, you have institutions such as museums and archives which are storehouses of cultural knowledge, but to whom the domain of new technology which, if not an enigma, is one in which none have the ability or the budget to keep up-to-date. On the other hand, you have the network specialists, the software developers and so on, who have the tools and expertise for delivering digital knowledge products, but no control over knowledge content resources.

I talked earlier about museum involvement with new technology for delivering information to the public being largely on the basis of one-off projects. The number of institutions doing anything on a wider scale is rather select, in part because it requires a longer-term relationship between museums and the high-tech industry. My own institution is one of the few cases in Canada of a museum that has established partnerships — or, as we prefer to call them, strategic alliances — with elements from that industry. So I should take a few minutes to review its particular situation.

The initiation in the early ’80s of the project to design and construct a new building to house the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and to rethink every aspect of how we were pursuing our mandate to disseminate knowledge, coincided with the rise of the personal computer and appearance of digital telecommunications. Consequently, the new vision for our institution had the concept of electronic outreach as one of its key ambitions, and this has since been embodied in our Strategic Plan. The new building incorporates a sophisticated network including digital switching and fibre-optic cabling.

Having the infrastructure was not itself sufficient, however. We needed also a pool of digitized information that would be the foundation for creating multimedia products, and we needed informatics expertise to help us operate and upgrade the infrastructure and to provide us with advice on future directions, based on up-to-date knowledge of technology developments.

The Museum’s combination of strategic vision and intelligent-building infrastructure helped us address these needs by attracting Digital Equipment of Canada and Kodak Canada into strategic alliances. These have brought into the institution the high-tech expertise and state-of-the-art equipment we were lacking, and could not afford to maintain purely with in-house resources. For our industry partners, the alliance has provided access to knowledge content materials which they lacked, and to an advanced networking environment. For them the Museum is a test-bed allowing them to develop and refine some of their technologies, and a demonstration base wherein they can develop specific products, combining their hardware and software and our knowledge content, in order to market their services more widely. In addition, being associated with a national museum that has a world-class reputation provides its industry partners with the right type of exposure – a certain credibility, or if you like respectability, in terms of them marketing their services to the cultural sector.

So the arrangement goes beyond merely provision of services in return for fees; it is an R&D situation which benefits our industry partners as much as it benefits the Museum. We couldn’t have undertaken such R&D from our own resources. The partnerships make it possible to share burdens, risks and profits.

The alliance with Kodak began with the project to create a digital image-base. After two years of operation, we have achieved the interim targets set at the beginning of the project. Over 200,000 items have been digitized onto Photo CD, which includes existing photographs from our archives and new photography of 40,000 artifacts. By the end of the third year we anticipate having a quarter million digital images to fuel efforts at creating marketable multimedia products. In addition we have 400,000 analogue catalogue images on optical disks that could be converted to digital format on demand.

This digital image-base has already been tapped into for a number of CD projects, as well as for material to build our Web site. We have published several CD-ROMs and Portfolio CDs, with others currently in production, on themes such as Maya civilization, totem poles, war art from the Second World War, philately, and the culture of the indigenous group known as the Tsimshian. Another project, Arctic Journeys, is a partnership project involving an Inuit Cooperative and five other federal agencies, as well as a private sector developer.

In addition we have made arrangements with both Corel and Corbis to distribute a selection from our image-base. Corel has already issued several CD-ROMs featuring toys, furniture, glassware, and tools from the Museum’s collections, and several more CDs in this series are forthcoming. Corbis is currently making its selection of what it will distribute through its online publishing house. These arrangements will help us get a feel for where market interests lie, as a prelude to our own in-house production of archival-type CDs.

We also have a pilot project underway to make accessible to staff a subset of the images, through our in-house network, as a prelude to public access by network. For our partner, Kodak, this is a useful test of the software they are developing for that purpose. And the Museum is a partner in the CIMI Consortium (the acronym stands for Computer Interchange of Museum Information) to test out SGML and Z39.50 in the delivery of text-and-image catalogues over the ‘Net.

The partnership with Digital Equipment of Canada is even more central to our “virtual museum” plans than is our relationship with Kodak. We are now into the second half of a signed 5-year alliance. In addition to giving the Museum access to Digital’s network management skills and to some of their powerful hardware, as well as to the technical skills to operate the nerve-centre of our installed LAN, it was this alliance that led us into our World Wide Web project, as well as several other test projects involving the Internet. A team of Digital managers and engineers is stationed full-time at the Museum, and inhabits not only the network centre but a suite of offices in the building.

They have recently been joined by additional Digital personnel, with particular expertise in multimedia production and network delivery of multimedia. This is associated with Digital’s project to establish a handful of advanced multimedia centres around the world. One has been open in New York for over a year. The Canadian Museum of Civilization was chosen by Digital to host its Canadian centre, in part because Digital saw it as a “neutral” site where other content-rich institutions — such as universities, government or other museums — would feel more at home doing business.

This New Media Centre is now open for business, although the official ribbon-cutting isn’t until later this year. The Centre has state-of-the-art hardware and software and incorporates R&D labs and a public testing and demonstration area. Not only is it convenient to the Museum to have this kind of facility immediately at hand, but the partnership arrangement provides us with a percentage of the profits that Digital will make from selling its creative, archival and distribution services through the New Media Centre. We anticipate that the revenues and the cost reductions from this arrangement will be worth about a quarter of a million dollars to us annually.


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