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Museums: Online, Real-Time, or Both?

July 18, 2011

A couple of years ago there seemed to be a sharp divide between proponents of online vs. real-time museum experiences.  Now the online museum experience is accepted as here to stay.  I was surprised at the lack of hostility from the museum world toward the Google Art Project.  Having gotten past the knee-jerk position of taking sides in the online vs real-time debate, the discussion now focuses on how the two experiences complement each other.  Such is focus of All Together Now: Museums and Online Collaborative Learning by William B. Crow and Herminia Wei-hsin Din, published this year by the American Association of Museums (AAM).

The volume is typical of the AAM publications that offer a general introduction to an area, coupled with an abundance of resources for further study.  The basic premise is laid out in the Preface that states:

We see these changes and innovations as terrifically exciting – not as a celebration of the new media and technologies themselves, but for the possibilities they offer people.  As we shift from the Information Age to the Collaboration Age, these new technologies offer people the ability to work together in ways that simply weren’t possible even 15 years ago.  And, although museums draw strength from their unique physical collections and locations, they also now see themselves as digital collections and communities, located in an increasingly global world (p. 6).

The authors organize the presentation in four parts:

  • A basic discussion of online collaborative learning – the underlying theory, types, resources, and challenges
  • the conditions necessary for implementing online collaborative learning
  • the roles individuals play in the process
  • the tools for building the online collaborative community of practice
A highlight of the book is the substantive case studies that review the methods, successes, and challenges of the online collaborative process.  The case studies include the Smithsonian Commons project, San Diego’s Balboa Park Cultural Partnership of 26 institutions, and other projects both large and small.  The case studies are particularly valuable in that they give equal balance to what worked, what did not work, and future directions.

The message of All Together Now is consistent with that of Clay Shirkey who notes that it is not the media or technology that drives the behavior but rather enables existing interests.  A distinct value of the book takes the collaborative process beyond the online experience to consider collaboration on an inter-institutional basis as well.

Those who are just beginning to explore collaborative online learning will find All Together Now a useful model within which to start their discussions.  For those who have already ventured down this road, the volume contains a framework to assess the efficiency of existing programs.  For all readers, the book has a wealth of online resources to investigate additional online collaborative opportunities.

The authors and case study contributors leave behind the debate of online vs real-time and instead embrace the collaborative reality that marks the current and future phase of museum outreach to the public we serve.  This focus is consistent with the AAM theme for the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Creative Community.

How are you moving your institution or practice toward online collaborative learning?

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