Das Wissen im Netz mitgestalten – Gespräch mit Effie Kapsalis, Smithsonian Institution
In der Reihe museum4punkt0 | impulse laden wir ExpertInnen dazu ein, Denkanstöße zu Fragen des digitalen Wandels im Museum mit uns zu teilen – ob in Vorträgen und Workshops an unseren Projektstandorten oder online. Effie Kapsalis gibt in drei Kurzinterviews Einblicke in ihre Arbeit bei der größten Kulturinstitution der Welt.
Die Smithsonian Institution umfasst zahlreiche Museen, Archive, Forschungseinrichtungen, Bibliotheken und sogar einen Zoo. Eines der erklärten Ziele für die weitere Entwicklung des Smithsonian für die nächsten Jahre ist eine „Digital First“-Strategie, mit der eine Milliarde Menschen pro Jahr erreicht werden sollen.
In den Smithsonian Archives arbeitet Effie Kapsalis als Chief of Content and Communications Strategy. In dieser Rolle ist sie für die Schaffung von Zugängen zu den Archivsammlungen verantwortlich. Im Interview reflektiert sie ihr Mitwirken an der „Digital First“-Strategie des Smithsonians und beschreibt ihre Sicht auf digitale Teams, den Mehrwert von nutzerzentrierten Arbeitsprozessen und Vorteile, die Crowdsourcing für Institutionen aufweisen kann.
Effie Kapsalis: My name is Effie Kapsalis. I’m Chief of Content and Communications strategy for the Smithsonian Archives. The road to doing what I do actually was not very direct. But I worked in software development for a number of years in the private sector and got my degree in industrial design, but focussing on technology. Hence my interest in human centred design which I use a lot in my work here at the Smithsonian.
And my role is really about how we can enact our collections, our people online and how we can put them out into different spaces to make sure that people are able to use them, to make new discoveries and create new learning.
museum4punkt0: The Smithsonian has recently launched its new Strategic Plan. One of the priorities mentioned is “Reaching 1 billion people a year with a digital-first strategy”. Can you tell us more about that and your role in the process?
E.K.: I was recently involved in the Smithsonian’s strategic plan process. And we just released the end of last year in 2018 [note: Effie Kapsalis means “end of 2017”]. And one of the six strategic goals we identified is reaching one billion people with a digital first strategy. I was on the team to suggest how we would implement this goal. And it’s massive, as you would imagine. Not just in the scope of who we’re trying to reach, but also in terms of an organisation with 19 museums, 9 research centres, libraries and archives and a zoo. So, (laughing) because we are such a federated organisation, we do not have a strong kind of central, digital strategy. And we feel that daily, how that is not serving us well. So, for larger organisations I think there does need to be someone in that leadership role, who can talk about how technology can serve the organisation’s greater goal. I don’t think we’re at that stage as a sector right now to not have a Chief Digital Officer or strategist. Because we are behind, especially compared to kind of the private sector on this.
museum4punkt0: From your point of view, how might the ideal set-up for a team around a CDO in a museum context look like?
E.K.: Depending on the size of your organisation-. You know, the size depends on, of course, your funds and your resources. However, I do think it’s really key to have someone who can help you define what your goal and audiences are for your public facing digital work. And this is someone who needs to respect the organisational goals, the curatorial or archival or librarian goals and translate that into a digital world. And then can look critically at what you do and evaluate whether or not those projects are serving you. And I found that helpful in my time working in smaller units, because it really focuses you and let`s you take your small teams and distribute what you do in a better, more efficient way.
So, you know, if we’re talking those small teams, you need-, it’s really helpful to have a developer on staff. I’m in an organisation that’s partially government funded. And our process for contracting people is laborious and doesn’t allow you to be reactive to digital trends. And we know those are much faster than contracting. So, having that well skilled developer, who can be flexible across different technologies is extremely helpful. That strategy person can also be a UX person and, you know, carry through kind of the digital strategy into very tactical approaches on your different spaces. And then an outreach person. So, that is you lean team of three. Someone who can carry the message and write the content. Now, for larger organisations I think it’s helpful to also have someone who can help with sort of kind of research computing, especially in science organisations, if you’re dealing with research data and research goals. So, that would be the fourth person I’d add. And again, that person on the top who can work with the education teams, with the curatorial teams and keep all that in mind as you’re deciding what to do. That’s helpful.
museum4punkt0: How do you bridge the gap between lean, innovation-driven work and institutions’ need for standardization?
E.K.: Standardisation and innovation are opposed to one another. That’s why companies have RnD labs. And, you know, and development units. And they keep them separate. You know, and we work in a sector with limit resources. So, how to you bridge that kind of innovation-standardisation need? I think you can have a directed lab-like structure. And something I’m thinking about a lot is leading that from a human-centred design perspective that, you know, puts the user front and centre in terms of their needs and their potential uses of your collections and resources. And working towards that. And that process should be iterative and not like building the monolithic thing and then crossing your fingers that they like it, but involving that public in the process of design and testing. And that way you can spend your limited resources more strategically and not spend a lot of money upfront for something that doesn’t serve who you’re trying to serve.
museum4punkt0: How do you include colleagues outside the core team in innovation-centred initiatives?
E.K.: I think you had to bring them into the process of understanding the user perspective. And then you – in implementing whatever you do – you have to keep them in mind, because ultimately, they are going to have to mange this thing. And if they don’t adopt it, you build something for nothing. So, it’s a balance, it’s a dance. You know, with our American women’s history initiative I’m trying to bring people in early to focus on the users and to make choices in a small group about who we’re serving and how. But, you know, so, educating them on one side and then making sure you have the organisation in place to support your product is the other
museum4punkt0: Museums are expected by the public to be trusted institutions whereas the internet is increasingly associated with distrust and fake news. How does the Smithsonian think about this dichotomy as it grows its online presence?
Effie Kapsalis: I’m going to refer to that study I read by Colleen Dilenschneider, who cited some US research on the population and how they view different sources of information. And what I found heartening is that we were amongst those on the top. So cultural heritage organisations are actually much more trusted than news organisations, even our own government, which I found super interesting. Especially being a government, partially government funded institution. So to me that is our call to action, right? So, people trust us. And where can we put our information in places, where most people can get to it? Because they need that. They need someone they can rely on in an increasingly difficult information world.
So, you know, for me that is about getting our resources outside our own platforms. That’s about working with Wikipedians to help populate our verified information online. And you can do that with smaller scale activities like Wikipedia to larger scale collaborations in Wikidata. It’s about making sure your things are-, have good search engine optimisation, so people find them. It’s about letting your folks know this important role that we play and how we need to keep in that trusted lane. So, you know, I don’t worry about my colleagues at the Smithsonian all of a sudden going off the rails and doing unverified information. But whenever we include public information, that the public has contributed, we make sure to label the different things. They want verified. So, we can provide that. But we know the public has something to contribute, too. But we need make sure that people understand that’s a public contribution. So, that’s how we’re navigating it in my unit for now.
museum4punkt0: With digital media, interpretative roles are shifting. Do museums have to re-evaluate their position as information producers or gatekeepers?
E.K.: So, art collections are collected for a very specific reason. And none is based on the missions of the various cultural heritage organisations. Even within the Smithsonian. The Postal Museum is collecting something for a reason that is very different from our African American History and Culture Museum. And it is on us to allow not only for us to learn from one another. We’re a multidiscipline organisation. We need to learn from other cultural heritage institutions in the US. But we also need to learn from the public. I’ll do a very specific example: Releasing a photo that has to do with postal history can have transportation in it. And that is not their focus. So, we have had people, who are very interested in airplanes and cars, have something to say about postal history photos of mailmen delivering mail in different ways. That is not the focus of the Postal History Museum. However, wouldn’t it be nice to verify that someone has identified a particular vehicle, so other people can use that in a different way?
And I would say the same goes for diverse histories in the US. We are reconciling who has been able to talk about cultural heritage. Which has left out different groups of people in the US throughout history. Women, of course, were very left out in the beginning. And, you know, different diverse populations have been left out and still are left out in current dialogues. So, I would say we need to welcome them. Otherwise we’re going to lose relevance in the public’s eye.
museum4punkt0: At the Smithsonian Institution Archives, who is your target audience and what new forms of interaction would you like to encourage?
Effie Kapsalis: The Smithsonian Archives keeps the history of the Smithsonian and also science in America and museum development in America, because we were one of the first. So, typically, our audience has been researchers. But when I was brought on in about 2011, I realized – because of the scope of the Archives and the scope of us as a research complex and museum complex – that there were so many other facets to it, that we were not identifying their relevance well enough. So, I went through a strategic process with our management and identified kind of three key audiences: We do have to collect records from people across the Smithsonian that is distributed across three different states and also we have people working internationally. So making sure that the people, who create the knowledge bring it back here is our primary audience. And then we also have researchers. But I also was able to add in crowd sourcers and people who could carry our message wide and far. They are people who have a particular, very often specific interest in your collections. And they sometimes can add a lot to what you have and what you have written about your collections.
museum4punkt0: How do you address people interested in participating, for instance via crowd sourcing?
E.K.: I have been working on crowd sourcing projects since the mid-2000s. We have experimented in lots of different ways. So the early days were really about very small numbers of people, very specific tasks. In an archive there is never the goal to digitize and describe everything – that is just fairly impossible given the scope of archives. But there were pockets of material that we knew that if there is more data around them we would have a really rich resource. One of those pockets of material is our women in science, because of our science history collections.
As you would imagine in the early days of science in the US a lot of the women in these collections were unidentified or had very scarce information about them. So we involved the public in research missions. At the time it was enabled by Flickr comments. We would post these photos and ask people to help us identify them and they would do this in amazing ways. Again, the scope was about 20 things each year, or 20 to 50 things. A small number. Fast forward to today, we have a platform called the Smithsonian Transcription Center. We have 10.000 volunteers worldwide who are coming to the site to help transcribe primary source materials in the collections.
So we had these scientific field books that scientists wrote while out in the field and these field books contained information about a place, at a particular time and the species that were located there. That is really important information to current conservators of the environment, because they can use this as data to baseline the changes that have happened in recent years. So we have the public transcribing that and – you know – many of our scientists are using that in our current research and scientists all over the world are using that. And we sent that to our Biodiversity Heritage Library which is a consortium of many institutions, not just the Smithsonian. It is on the Internet Archive, so it is an open literature project and researchers worldwide can access this. If they think they have discovered a new species, they have the literature online to be able to confirm what they have found.
museum4punkt0: What is the motivation of the people that transcribe these materials?
E.K.: Some of the volunteers we get to know quite well and in fact we have brought them here to have parties, to celebrate their accomplishments and what they have done. I think there are a couple of threads that run through their motivation for why they spent hours, countless hours volunteering online with us. One is that they feel part of our mission and that they are helping a greater cause. That cause is knowing about the world and helping our current researchers. The second reason that we see people doing this is because they have a specific interest that is in a collection that we are offering up for crowd sourcing. So we have people who study disability history, who will go into a project because it has to do with a notable disabled person in history or is not notable but just touches on that topic. Or we have someone from New Zealand who is really interested in the species there and she will come and not only to our transcription center, but she will crowd source on other platforms – anything that has to do with the flora and fauna of New Zealand. So, lifelong learners and people who want to contribute to a greater cause are the types of people that we tend to get.
museum4punkt0: Can you describe the level of dedication that you encounter?
E.K.: These are people who have committed hundreds of hours to us – either doing transcriptions at our science museums, citizen science, like it’s our volunteers. We have 6000 in person volunteers, which equals-, actually outnumbers our staff, and we have 10.000 volunteers online. So those people are very giving with their time to us.
museum4punkt0: And on the other end of the spectrum? How do you regard a simple “like”?
E.K.: So we try to enable a range of participation levels with our digital projects at the Smithsonian. And there is often the skeptical perception: Oh, you know, participation is liking or sharing something. But I actually think that is a completely valid way of participation and we have to enable these different levels.
museum4punkt0: What is in your eyes the biggest potential of digital outreach in museums?
E.K.: Some of the most powerful experiences for me – either in visiting a cultural heritage organization or in engaging with one online – is when they see me as a person and they are able to give me something that makes me have some insight into what that organization does or why it’s meaningful. I think that, you know, it’s a big mistake we make to look at digital as one mass of people. There is a lot of different variety within that mass, of how people want to engage with you and what they want to see. So, that is the trick. It’s making priorities sometimes about those audiences because I know when you have big national organizations you are supposed to reach out to everyone, you are supposed to be relevant to everyone. But that would likely-, you probably cannot do that with a small team. You do have to make some choices and serve probably a more specific group better. But, you know, you can also-, the part I feel good about in serving that wider-, all of the world, which is who the Smithsonian is supposed to serve, is putting digital trails about things. So, even it is a minimal metadata collection item online. That is something that will be a point of discovery for someone. And it does not have to be extensive. It just has to be there. And we have gone from that – especially with some of our women in science programs, where there were very minimal descriptions of a woman: Where she went to school perhaps, where she worked. And people will come and add to that information. It is people in your organization, outside your organization, but you have to have that first trail there. That is why the work of digitization and description is so critical to everything that I do in my public facing role as I need that starting point.
museum4punkt0: What have you gained by opening up your collections?
So, the Archives has focused on releasing things more openly since about 2009, I want to say, whether it is through storytelling on the blog or through putting up high resolution images of some of our collections. As we have experimented with this across the Smithsonian, I think the best way-, the best outcome for us has been you developed these lifelong fans and make connections. One tiny example of what happens is we had found these photographs in our Archive – we are always discovering new things – and this research fellow found a file that was very miscellaneous, but it had these photographs of a very significant event in US history which was a somewhat constructed trial of evolution and whether or not it should be taught in US schools. So it is called the Scopes Monkey Trial. So, these were photos that were previously unpublished of this extraordinary moment in US history and we were able to put them out online in high resolution. We put them on our own website, on Flickr comments, again, that was of the time…but, and also, they got migrated to Wikipedia by the crowd. A couple of years later we had a woman contact us who had-, her father had been at the same trial and she had ten photograph negatives of the trial that she wanted to give to us specifically because we shared our own images openly. Her photographs showed this key moment in the trial that we had an image from one side. Her photograph had the perspective from exactly the other side. Our fellow saw that sign in the picture that said “read your bible”. It just demonstrated that this trial was part propaganda and marketing and part a real trial, but our researcher was able to learn more information about this event. We gained a wonderful donation that we were able to share. This kind of thing reminds me of a quote that I have heard from another institution when they talked about releasing things openly. That was: You get nothing but good will. So, if you share, you are likely to get it back. It is such a simple kind of kindergarten lesson of sharing. But you really do get a tremendous amount back as an institution. But I think we have only just started to really take advantage of and we really see that people want to spend more time with us. They want to give more to us. How can we really be strategic about building an open initiative and harnessing all of that good will.
Beitrag von: Katrin Glinka, Silvia Faulstich
- Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution Archives Blog
- Smithsonian Strategic Plan
- Smithsonian Transcription Center
- American Women’s History Initiative
- Kapsalis, Effie. 2016. „The Impact of Open Access on Galleries, Libraries, Museums, & Archives.” Copyright Cortex. Aufgerufen am 28.02.2019.
- Dilenschneider, Colleen. 2017. „People trust museums more than newspapers. Here is why that matters now (DATA).“ colleendilen.com. Aufgerufen am 28.02.201.
- Michaels, Chris (National Gallery London). 2018. „Creating Change: Lessons in Digital Transformation.“ Vortrag in der Reihe museum4punkt0 ǀ impulse , veröffentlicht auf Vimeo.
- museum4punkt0 | impulse