Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Culture 24: Worth emulating?

The UK's portal to museums, archives, heritage sites and art venues is this year's Museums and the Web recipient of the Archimuse "Longest Lived" award. First launched in 1999, the site is a true grand-dame in internet years, but with a 2009 makeover and an enthusiastic embrace of RSS, Twitter and open-crawling, Culture 24 is certainly "up" with the times. On its surface, this website appears to be essentially journalistic. Each landing page features an image-and-article layout reminiscent of a local news source. The site's genius lies in its iterative subject taxonomy and use of tags to allow visitors to *explore *its content from every possible angle. (See the sitemap for a full taxonomy.) To provide an example, Culture 24's home page offers a subject menu including "Places to Go," "Art," "History and Heritage," "Science and Nature," "Spliced," "Teachers," and "Sector Info," Clicking on "History and Heritage" reveals a new menu which includes, "Archeaology," "War and Conflict," Transport," "Work and Daily Life," "Literature and Music," "Historic Buildings," "Time," and for a limited time only, "World Cup 2010." Social historian that I am, I'm moved to click on "Work and Daily Life." My choices don't stop here! Now I'm offered, "Industrial Heritage," "Rural Heritage," "Childhood and Education," "Family History," "Royalty," "Faith and Belief," and "Race and Ethnicity." Only at this level can I dig down no further. But even then, if I'm not moved to click on the content offered here, I can click on "Spliced" and see everything categorized by "Objects," "Words," "Sounds," "Pictures" and "Online."

As a veteran of vociferous (and sometimes cantankerous) discussions about subject headings and object classifications and subclassification, I know how tough it can be to settle on a taxonomy that works, enabling a true "Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum" approach to content, which is perfectly appropriate for a web portal. I only wonder whether something like this could be tried with success in the US. Are we too diverse regionally and culturally for this approach to accessing culture? I would argue to the contrary. A project like this to link together resources from the 50 states would be a boon for domestic vacationers and international travelers alike.

As a historian, I offer one persistent critique of Culture 24. It seems to lack an archive of its content and it sadly does not appear in the Internet Archive. A site like this could be a rich resource for British cultural historians, and yet, its embrace of the "here and now" culture of the internet essentially limits its utility to scholars in the future. Aside from maintaining a geographically-mapped database of cultural institutions, update-able by individual institutional representatives, this site does not embrace its own record, preferring to update itself endlessly in a cycle of process-nullifying renewal.

~ Adina Langer


  1. Adina,

    Thanks for introducing me to this site. There certainly is a lot going on in the UK! The site seems wonderfully comprehensive, and not too difficult to find one's way around. The taxonomies make sense, as you say, and they seem to overlap in ways that make it easy to find things. And my bet is that many users start by looking at locations, not the whole site. All in all, it seems quite usable.

    Something to note that increases its usability - the data is available in a variety of formats, including RSS feeds and APIs, as well as OAI-PMH. That means, among other things, it would be easy to archive (and may be, someplace); and that the material doesn't need to be reinvented for other purposes. It's easy to repurpose, and that's key for sharing data, and something to remember for any kind of site like this that makes information from many sources available. And open source, too. Admirable!

    It seems (reading the fine print under "Promote your organization on Culture24) that the exhibition descriptions, etc., are provided by the sites, not by Culture24. It's basically PR. This is fine - certainly makes possible the range of the site - but it would nice to know that up front.

    I'd urge readers to check out two sister sites: and - for "icons of Englishness" and places, respectively - that, like Culture24, make me wish that the US had sites like these...

    And I do love the gratuitous link to one of my all-time favorite books, Grover's Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum. Should be required reading for all museum people.


  2. I'm excited about Off the Wall as there really is/was a serious gap in review "literature" for exhibits in new media. But I'm not sure why Culture 24 was selected as one of the first two Off the Wall feature reviews. How is it history exhibit practice? It seems to be a (very useful) virtual tourist guide/compendium of what to see (including exhibits), where and when. Definitely would be worth having in the US, but is it an online history exhibit? Or just an online guide to cultural events/venues/museum exhibits? More like an information source than anything else.

  3. I appreciate both comments. To respond specifically to acsalsi, I chose to review this site because it was one of the 2010 archimuse award winners... I was actually surprised by how few "exhibit" sites were honored by Museums on the Web. So I decided to take a broad view and look at this site as at least a gateway to history on the web. I agree that it's a bit tangential to exhibit practice but still interesting to look at.

    For Steve, I'm pleased that you like the gratuitous link to the "Grover" book. I've always loved that book-- would want to include it in a museum studied class were I ever to teach one. :)

  4. To add to Adina's response - acsalsi, you've put your finger on the central question we're posing at Off the Wall, which is "what *is* history exhibit practice?" We're casting around to see a number of different ways and places that history is being presented in public, and trying to think about what that means and where it's all going.

    As Steve and Adina point out, this site is essentially PR or a "gateway" info source, but I can think of history museum exhibits that perform more or less that same function (i.e. that operate at least in part to inform people about local sites and attractions), so it seems important to ask questions about where the lines blur between information portals and "serious" historical exhibitry, and to think about the relationship between them.

  5. This also gets to the perennial discussion within Public History, as to whether it is history or simply PR for paying clients.

    Perhaps it would be worth distinguishing between the PR functions that websites perform for museums (and other institutions) of all kinds, and the actual "exhibit" portion of those same sites. Information and PR functions are nearly always unattributed, with an impersonal voice. The work of a person or team with curatorial and interpretive roles for an exhibit can and should be identified.

    I agree that the relationship between information portals and historical exhibit work is something that should be examined and discussed. I think there is confusion among Internet users about the difference between an information gateway and interpretative exhibits that involve serious engagement with historical sources and objects that credit the work of other historians and practitioners where appropriate.