Why should IT students consider working in cultural heritage?

By miaridge on 29 Apr 2008

Yesterday Bilkis (web content manager), June (diversity manager) and I (IT analyst/programmer) went to Kingston University to talk to students from the Faculty of Computing, Information Systems and Mathematics about the role of the IT professional in museums. This was part of a course on ‘Culture and Heritage Informatics’ with Dr Chris Hutchison.

We each talked about our background, gave an idea of what might happen in a typical day in our role, and about how we came to work at the Museum of London/Museum in Docklands. You can read some previous posts about our paths into the cultural heritage sector: Bilkis, June: and me (Mia).

I talked about some of the rewards of working in IT in a museum – the great people and rich content, the chance to have a privileged experience of museum objects or archaeology, the sense of achievement when you help people access or create new knowledge, the variety of work, the ability to explore new technology and ideas – basically I look forward to going into work (nearly) every day.

I forgot to mention that while the money isn’t great, the jobs are often more stable than the commercial sector – something which might be very important over the next few years.

June spoke passionately about the impact that museums can have on a visitors’ sense of self and their understanding of their place in society. She also spoke eloquently about the danger in speaking “on behalf of” and about the need to consult with the relevant communities when ‘representing’ them.

As she said, “the museum belongs to the people of London” – this made me realise that being able to enable interactions between the people of London and their museum is one of the best things about working on our digital projects.

Some of the students talked about their projects, and I was impressed by the technical range and the thought that had gone into them.

The students also asked some really good questions and made some insightful comments, some of which showed a real appreciation of the complex ways in which museums interact with ‘representative’ communities and how the authoritative voice and collecting policy of a museum can operate – not necessarily something I’d expect from computing students, even though I was one once!

Selfishly, I’d love to hear some more questions from them and other students; and perhaps get some answers to our questions.

One of our on-going challenges is thinking about how we can become more open and inclusive as a museum. Could we use social software to become more transparent – for example, to put out a call for comment on a blog when we’re looking for community representatives; or to invite feedback on our exhibitions and collections?

How can we engage with our audiences? How would you challenge us, as a museum, do to a better job? Is there obvious stuff we’re missing? Do you have an idea for a project a museum could work with you on? Do you want to contribute to our work? Do you have any more questions about museum jobs?

On a more theoretical level, what effect might new methods of collecting objects or stories have – does it create a new kind of visibility for content from IT literate people with reliable access to the internet? How can we engage with people who aren’t comfortable online?

What do you think?

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