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Daily Archives: February 9, 2015

After my initial hesitation (about needing a grant to apply for a grant), the team and I decided to go for it, at least to submit an application. Seems like an occasion to write your first grant. To mark it, I thought I’d copy the Nesta Heritage and Culture Open Data Challenge application into the Work Diary for posterity, because the service we had to use (Collabfinder) is a bit weird, and to add a few comments that came out in discussion with the prospective team. Thank you very much to Harriet, Tom F, Tom A, Tom S and Felix for your time, ideas and effort to help bring this idea together! I hope we get to make it.

Here’s the submission, which we called Two-Way Street:


The British Museum is incredibly popular, with around 6.7 million visitors in Bloomsbury every year. Online, it’s nearly triple that amount. These millions of visitors are mostly silent, and we’d like to make a project to change that to make new narratives about the collection, hopefully from diverse voices.

Today, there are three core views of the British Museum’s stunning collection:

  • Highlights, a curated selection of 4,937 objects,
  • A somewhat hamstrung collection search, and
  • An RDF data interface that only a handful of humans comprehend.

Building on two previous projects at Good, Form & Spectacle (Netflix-o-matic and the V&A Spelunker), we’d like to make a new, responsive interface into the vast British Museum collection. We will also provide a way for interested visitors to leave a note or comment or an opinion alongside it, as part of their visit, and hopefully, to provide a way for people to gather their favourite objects into their own collections.

We’d like to see the British Museum’s institutional philosophy — “A Museum of the World for the World” — manifest in the digital presentation of the collection. The current institution website feels very strictly controlled and curated, so we’d like to help fans find and explore content they feel connected to. Can we help people feel greater resonance with their own culture and others around the world through it? We believe that, by allowing open discussion, new contexts can form around objects. Part of being open means opening a space for alternate readings and discussion that will keep people engaged with cultural heritage for years to come.

Extent of the use of open data
We don’t want to build a bigger walled garden of cultural data. We’d like to create an entry point interface that’s timely, perhaps around the Defining Beauty exhibition. It’s not clear how many of those 19 million web visitors are also part of the 6.7 million in-person visitors. Even if it’s 6.7 million of them, that leaves about 12 million people who wouldn’t be able to witness it.

Having looked at the existing RDF/SPARQL interface to the British Museum, we’re considering making an open data product ourselves, something that’s more contemporary and accessible to more developers.

Potential market / ongoing business
This proposal is an iteration of an existing thread of research we’re already doing about “catalogues without search you can tumble around,” so this project can help us continue this work.

That said, we’ve thought of a few ideas to develop along sustainable lines:

  • Everyone pays £1 to comment, copying the Metafilter membership model.
  • Place a single advertisement to a single destination site for a single product being developed by Good, Form & Spectacle that is secret.
  • Consider the future reusability of the service for other institutions, particularly small ones, but specifically NOT emphasizing a bigger walled garden of cross-institutional data.

We need help with RDF & data acquisition.

Project Goals

  • Press on the opportunity of open data; you relinquish control when you truly open your catalogue
  • Help the institution see its own collection differently, maintaining the greatest respect for its staff and their work
  • Foster conversations; Introduce some fiction into the “catalogue of truth” by allowing the public to talk independently.

Project Tags

radical access, community development, open conversation, fact & fiction, fun


It’s now up to the initial review panel to decide our fate. In the meantime, I’m working on real cost estimates of how much it will take for us to put the work together. That’s a team of 4-6 working for a month or so.

I’ll be very curious to see how this whole process pans out.

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