Five things I (belatedly) learned at #FutureGLAM2018

A couple of Fridays ago I trundled down to Melbourne (by train, which was very exciting) for the FutureGLAM symposium at Deakin Downtown. The weather was only slightly horrible, and I got only slightly lost. It was a worthwhile day and I was chuffed to be able to put several names to faces. I also enjoyed giving the ‘No Metadata No Future’ t-shirt another outing. I am writing this slightly late so my recollections are brief, and not as sharp as they might once have been, but it was definitely a worthwhile day.

Convergence is a dystopia. Helena Robinson’s talk on ‘Interpreting sustainability’ referenced an article by Adam Rozan in the ‘Museums 2040’ special issue of Museums magazine describing a future where we have all coalesced into one generic Public Services Shop. It sounded horrific. Neoliberal capitalist dystopia! Cultural utilitarianism! Judging cultural institutions and services purely on their monetary worth! No thanks!

I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover later on in Helena’s talk that Adam had presented this as a good thing. Yes, a good thing! (Helena’s reaction was also dystopian.) The article itself has a disarmingly upbeat tone, but if neoliberalism is all you’ve ever known, how else will you see the future? Helena summarised the pros and cons of convergence, the topic of her PhD thesis, as creating a better surface layer visitor experience, but worsening almost every other aspect of GLAM professional practice. This doesn’t sound sustainable to me. Or desirable.

Convergence is never gonna happen because we are too different. In my view, the biggest divide within GLAM is not between the individual letters, but between the cultural heritage practitioners on one side and the information science practitioners on the other. Each side seems to think that they are GLAM. I feel this divide more strongly between librarians and other professionals, perhaps because I was once one of those rare librarians who dealt with both sides (I used to be a local history collections librarian).

I couldn’t help noticing that the attendees were a strongly museums crowd. Even the subtitle of the event was ‘Collaboration and convergence in the cultural heritage sector’. At the time of this conference I worked in law tech services. There was zero cultural heritage in that job. But I don’t know what kind of descriptor would adequately describe—and hence unify—all corners of the GLAM sector. The acronym on its own means nothing. What unites us, really? And is it more than that which divides us?

Placemaking is in. As a psychogeographer1, I am extremely interested in the intersection of virtual reality and place heritage, which became something of a recurring theme during the symposium. Amy Tsilemanis and Barry James Gilson’s speech / yarn / performance ‘Storytelling Ballaraat City’ was a highlight. Amy and Barry’s work is rooted in place, people and heritage, with Wadawurrung lore interwoven with the built history of Ballarat town.

All the talk of VR and AR worried me, though, and it’s not just because VR makes me seasick. How can we properly immerse people in place if they’ve got a Google Cardboard strapped to their heads? At what point does the virtual overtake the physical? Which are we really choosing?

Give me context or give me death. I had my first taste of a Mike Jones presentation and it was every bit the roller-coaster ride I’d been promised. Mike’s forthcoming PhD thesis centres on ‘relationality and the interconnectedness of archives and museum collections’ and after that talk I seriously want to read the whole damn thing.

Mike said loads of really clever things really quickly, but my favourite was about the state of our context. People seem to think that in order to make collections accessible online, we can simply attach as much metadata and keywords as we want to digitised objects and simply chucking them on the net will make them findable. Guess what? It’s not enough! Context is key! We need to build explicit connections and pathways between collection items, especially online, to give a fuller contextual picture. (There’s a reason Mike’s blog is named ‘Context Junky’.)

We are all so tired. I managed to catch up with Nathan Sentance for all of thirty seconds before someone interrupted and we only got as far as ‘Hey, how you going?’ ‘I’m exhausted’ ‘Yeah me too’. I don’t even recall who said what. It could have been either. Most of the FutureGLAM attendees had already spent the week at the Museums Galleries Australia national conference, so no wonder they were exhausted, but I’d spent all of the previous day on a train and I was still tired. It wasn’t just a momentary tired—it was the kind of weariness that seeps into your bones. I’ve been doing a lot. We’ve all been doing a lot. Life takes it out of us. We need to recharge.

  1. Psychogeography: ‘the study of the influence of geographical environment on the mind or on behaviour; the geographical environment of a particular location, typically a city, considered with regard to its influence on the mind or on behaviour. Also, that’s gotta be the most pretentious thing I have ever said about myself. I already hate it. It’s almost as bad as ‘flâneuse’.