Interview: Digital Media Team at the National Maritime Museum

This week we find out a bit more about the very cool folks who look after all things Web-related at the National Maritime Museum, including the museum’s Flickr Commons account.

As the NMM in Greenwich is my local museum, I was delighted when they joined the Commons some years back. I still visit the museum regularly as it takes up a large area in the middle of Greenwich and is housed in some very photogenic buildings. I was pretty excited when Fiona invited me down to the Museum one Wednesday afternoon to meet the team and have a chat about Flickr and the Commons. Having met them all, I can say I like the NMM even more now than I did before.

The NMM also organized and hosted our very first Flickr Commons meetup, held not long after these interviews. You can check that out too!

1. What is your involvement with the National Maritime Museum and the Commons Project on Flickr?
Fiona Romeo, National Maritime Museum

FIONA: I’m Head of Digital Media at the National Maritime Museum (and Royal Observatory, Greenwich), which means that it’s my job to think about how we can transform our visitors’ experience of the museum through innovative uses of technology. In particular, my department is responsible for things like digitization; the museum website; and creative development of digital content and services — from a monthly podcast to interactive exhibits and mobile learning. About half of my department is participating in the Commons project in some way.

2. How did you first hear about the Flickr Commons project, and why did you want to get involved?
FIONA: George told me about it! I’ve known George Oates for a few years and I think we hosted her first formal encounter with the museum sector when we invited her to talk to a bunch of London museums (Tag, You’re It!).

Increasingly, museums and galleries are trying to do more “digital outreach”, which basically means engaging people with our collections, wherever they choose to hang out online. So, we were really keen to persuade the rest of the museum that joining The Commons on Flickr was a good thing to do. Here are the main arguments that we used:

  • To take our content to new audiences. Flickr has 47 million unique visitors each month, with 2.5 million new photos added every day.
  • To provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge to our collections.
    To reveal new connections between our collections and those of the other museums, libraries, and archives on The Commons.
  • To make connections with contemporary photography of our subjects.
  • To develop our taxonomies and browsing options (”subject access”) in response to the public’s use of descriptive “tags”.
  • To make an argument for the lasting value of digitization by helping us to further deliver on the access objectives of funded digitization projects.

3. Can you tell us a bit about some of the challenges you faced in the process of joining The Commons?

James Watson, National Maritime Museum: We certainly needed to ensure we’d managed our risk as much as possible with obvious things like copyright. We also had to make sure we had the buy-in of interested departments all across the Museum. We still have an ongoing challenge because much of the collection of Historic Photographs is only partially cataloged, so we genuinely don’t know as much as we’d like to about some of the objects within it.

However, I’m pleased to say that we have plenty of stuff that we are confident about using for the Commons.

4. What process do you go through to convert your collections into digital copies?
Lucinda Donnachie, National Maritime Museum

LUCINDA: The museum has both three dimensional and flat objects that require a different approach when it comes to the digitization process. When digitizing items such as globes, uniforms and oil paintings, an in-house photography team is used. Before the objects are shot they are checked over by conservation, so that they are looking their best, and transferred to an appropriate location to be photographed. We will often digitize around 150 to 200 objects of a similar nature in a three-week stretch before embarking on the post-production of images.

Flat items such as historic negatives, glass plates, and prints are digitized through the use of a variety of scanners. For the majority of items we use several Creo Eversmart Supreme scanners, but for film, we use an Imacon Flextight 949. The results of all this photographic and scanning work can be seen on our collections website.

5. How do you use the data generated by Flickr users, and has it been a help or a hindrance in your work?
JAMES: We check out information when it comes in and if it fills in gaps, or updates the information that we have, then we’ll review it with our curators and then add it to our formal catalog. There’s a degree of uncertainty in cataloging and we have to be targeted in the research that we do, so when Flickr users do additional research it’s always welcome!

6. Do you have a favorite comments thread on one of your Commons images?
Sam Oliphant, National Maritime Museum

SAMANTHA: My favorite comments thread relates to ‘U155 at Tower Bridge’, 1919.
This photograph is one of our most popular images on Flickr and it seems to have captured the imagination of the community.

It’s fascinating to read the fantastic and varied comments associated with it, and the thread reflects the many and varied ways that Flickr members engage with our historic photos online.

LUCINDA: My favorite comment so far has to be from our Beside the Seaside collection. It’s a photograph depicting a group of fishermen in Norfolk with their lobster pots. Someone has commented that you can chart a knitting pattern from the detail shown on the men’s jumpers in the picture.

National Maritime Museum

That sort of comment always brings a smile to my face as it reveals the eclectic interests of those viewing our images and the opportunities that come from our historic photographs. If ever a person wanted to know what the jumpers of Norfolk fishermen from 1903 looked like, now they can find out.

7. What is the most interesting place one of your images has ended up, or the most interesting way an image as been used as a result of your Commons participation?
SAMANTHA: Since we’ve started uploading our images to Flickr Commons with “No known copyright restrictions”, they’ve been used in lots of interesting ways. It’s always exciting to find blogs that feature our historic photographs because it’s great to see our photos being discussed online.

So far we’ve found our images bookmarked on sites like FFFFOUND!, used in montages, included in collaborative albums on Fotonauts, and added to Wikimedia Commons.
But it’s most interesting when our photographs are included in online galleries such as Tumblr Image Viewer. In these galleries our photos often appear alongside images that may, at first sight, seem unrelated. The images, which can be drawn from across the Web, are often only related to each other by their resonance with the user and it’s great to see Flickr members responding to our photos in that way.

8. If you could wish for anything, what additional ability or functionality do you wish you had with The Commons?
JAMES: I hope this doesn’t sound boring, but it’d be good to be able to specify date ranges and “about” dates! And although it’s great to flexibly link content between the Commons and the rest of Flickr, it’d be good if there was a way of clearly showing that the photos belonged to the Commons.

I’d also like more functionality with the statistics, the ability to export tabular data and more flexibility with sorting, filtering and manipulating the information.

9. What has surprised you most since joining the Commons?
FIONA: Two things have really stood out for me and I think they represent the two poles of Flickr. First up, we’ve had people on Flickr encouraging us to behave more like a museum; to assert our authority by providing more catalog information, rather than the light-touch approach that we started with. We’ve also had people ask us to remove user-contributed tags that they consider incorrect or culturally insensitive.

And then, there’s the smattering of ASCII art and animated GIFs in the comments, which is just a lovely expression of something like fandom.

10. Are there any new and exciting projects or uploads coming up you’d like to tell us about?
Natasha Waterson, National Maritime Museum

NATASHA: Yes! We’ve just launched a new competition and Flickr group, Astronomy Photographer of the Year. We teamed up with who’ve built us a special astrometry robot. It’s going through photos in the group and adding astronomical information to the photos automatically using notes and machine tags. We’re hoping developers will get their hands on the tags and start making some cool stuff with them — perhaps even a huge collage of everyone’s space pictures.

In October, we’re celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Greenwich Meridian being designated as the Prime Meridian of the world. To mark the occasion we’ll be putting a selection of historical photos of the line on the Commons: it seems as though the line’s been a place to strike a pose for a great many years!

FIONA: And we’ve released the first set of photos from George Oates’ curatorial residency with the museum, On the high seas. You can learn more about George’s residency from our Collections blog, or her personal blog.

We also recorded a short interview with George when she was here.