Interview: Paula Bray and Sebastian Chan, Powerhouse Museum

Posted by Stephanie Fysh in Interviews, News

The Powerhouse Museum is not just a fabulous institution for Sydney, Australia; it’s also a powerhouse in the world of “museums 2.0″. For the Powerhouse’s first anniversary in the Commons, I had an opportunity to interview Paula Bray and  Seb Chan — two of the staff making the museum an industry leader.

What is your job at the Powerhouse Museum, and what is your role with the Powerhouse’s Commons presence?

Paula Bray

Paula Bray

PAULA: Paula Bray, Manager Visual & Digitisation Services. I manage Photography, Photo Library, Image Resource Centre, Rights & Permissions and just recently Audio Visual has moved into our area. I have been working on the Commons since we launched last year. I select the collections and choose images from each of these on a weekly basis ready to load to the Commons. I then send them to Luke (Dearnley), one of the Web & Social Technologies team who uses the Flickr API to upload them. Once made public, I add them to sets and groups and watch what happens. I participate with the members checking comments, tags and notes. I check the account several times a day. The Commons is a really big part of my working schedule now and I consume this with great appreciation.

Seb Chan

Seb Chan

SEB: Sebastian Chan, Head of Digital, Social & Emerging Technologies. I’m Paula’s boss and also manage the managers of the Museum’s Research Library; Web & Social Technologies team; our digital media teaching labs; and a number of national and state-wide digitization and online projects. I develop strategy and direct the general directions we take our around digital content and the like. I was much more involved directly in the Commons in the early stages but I still pop in to the account every week and communicate the learnings and usage data to our Director/CEO.

When did the Powerhouse first hear about the Commons?

SEB: George Oates and I were both speaking at Web Directions South in September 2007 and the conference organizers knew we both shared similar interests in designing for social behaviour on the web and put us in touch. George visited the Powerhouse and met Paula and during the visit mentioned that the Library of Congress was working with them on this “Commons project”. We immediately told her that if the project expanded we’d want to be involved. Over the months between September 2007 and April 2008 we saw the LoC go live and George stayed in touch with us so that we could come online second just in time for Museums & the Web 2008, where we were both speaking!

What lessons did you take from the Library of Congress’s first couple of months for your own Commons debut?

Sydney GPO colonnade

Sydney GPO colonnade

SEB: We were fascinated by the rapid take-up by the Flickr public and we were conscious that our content would be very Australian-centric. I had a long conversation with George about the global makeup of the Flickr userbase and its US-centricity — and she assured us that there was a sizeable Australian userbase. Because we already had tagging on our own website we were less interested in tagging but very excited about the geotagging possibilities — especially because most of the initial set of photos we were uploading were of places, buildings and scenery.

What have been the biggest challenges for you in being a Commons institution?

SEB: Initially there were challenges about releasing this material — something that was helped enormously by our former Associate Director, Kevin Sumption, who gave both Paula and I a great deal of support to let this happen. Whilst being the first museum in the world to join the Commons was exciting, it was also an enormous risk for the Powerhouse and there were quite a few sleepless nights thinking, “What if no one else joins?” Fortunately things have turned out wonderfully — even though we were very sad to see George go.

Newer challenges for us mainly revolve around the resourcing of the project. The Powerhouse traditionally hasn’t done photographic exhibitions in its galleries and so the resourcing of our photographic collections (of which we keep finding more in the archives and basement!) hasn’t been an organizational priority. So the Commons is forcing the museum to reconsider the value of these photographic collections and the potential interest in them. This is really exciting but also challenging — it takes a lot of courage for museums and their staff to admit that “we don’t know much about this collection or object”.

Whose idea was the just-launched Blurb book, and do you have any tips for other Commons institutions who would like to put out similar books showing what people have done with their Commons collections?

PAULA: We made a private book using Blurb BookSmart for a previous exhibition on modernism in Australia, using the images from our other Flickr account, to trial the software and we were really happy with the results so we always thought it would be great to make one on from our Commons images. I wanted to capture the participation that happens with our images and publish this in a photo book. The basic concept was to highlight the favourites and shared stories that have happened with our images. I would love to see this as a series that could be utilised by the other institutions. George Oates was conversing with us a long time ago about printed options and what we could all do together. The software is really easy to use and there are many options to style your own book — “Then and Now: The Series”.

Out of all the many discussions on your Commons photos, what’s your favourite?

Mosman Bay Falls

Mosman Bay Falls

PAULA: The discovery of the Mosman Bay Falls location by lifeasdaddy. The sharing of this process was really interesting and we developed an ongoing connection with this Flickr member. We learned a lot from this process and continue to use this as an example of the social media participation that can happen through a project such as the Commons.

What photo from your collections do feel has been overlooked, or is a personal favourite?

Blue gums

Blue gums

PAULA: I am not sure I can pick out a favourite but this image, Blue gums, has surprised me that it has not received as much attention as some of our other images. I find this a classic Australian scene and the gum trees are like no others I have seen before.

What’s caught your eye in other Commons collections?

PAULA: I am really struck by the George Eastman House Autochromes set. I find this an incredible set of images. I was also amazed to see “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” by Dorothea Lange released to the Commons and think this is a fantastic gesture from a cultural institution to allow this famous image to be used with no known copyright restrictions.

Luke ... in the Commons

Luke ... in the Commons

Oh, and we happened to find a photo of our web developer in the Commons!

This is Luke our developer working on the Commons. The picture Luke is holding comes from the Smithsonian Institutions collections. This historical image is the spitting-image of Luke and it got a lot of laughs in the office. So we put the challenge out to you: Find someone in the Commons — a very different then-and-now!

And finally, if you got your hands on the Flickr devs’ pixie-dust supply, what piece of code would you create to enhance the Commons’ functionality or experience?

PAULA: Extend the function of groups maybe include the ability for sets.

SEB: User-submitted geotagging — “Is this the right location?” — and institutional pages like Places/Nearby to aggregate multiple institutional account content into one place.

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5 Responses to “Interview: Paula Bray and Sebastian Chan, Powerhouse Museum”

  1. zyrcster Says:

    Great interview!

    I now understand why the Powerhouse Museum is one of the few Commons’ members that geo-tags — sounds like the geotagging was a big draw for them to join. As a viewer, I really appreciate their geotags.

  2. Paul Hagon Says:

    Another interesting insight into the inner workings of an institution. As a developer I really appreciate the emphasis they placed upon geotagging their content. The Powerhouse is leading the way in this area with some of the things they are doing.

  3. Monique Potts Says:

    Congratulations to the Powerhouse for putting their collection out there and experimenting with this sort of social engagement with their collections. It’s created a lot of interest around other organisations in Australia and is a great catalyst for change to a more open access approach to archives. Can’t wait to see the book.

  4. indicommons» Blog Archive » Museums & the Web 2009: Day 1 Says:

    [...] We probably would have ended up choosing the two workshops offered by the Powerhouse Museum’s Seb Chan: one on social media, leading to greater interaction in user communities, the other on how to know [...]

  5. indicommons» Blog Archive » Museums & the Web 2009: Day 4 Says:

    [...] social tagging, and an afternoon of papers, including one from the Powerhouse Museum’s Paula Bray on Flickr’s Commons, paired with a paper about Ontario Science Centre’s YouTube [...]

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