Sunday, 28 September 2014

Is Good Enough?

We often hear the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but this is exactly what we do (if we didn't, we wouldn't need a saying to remind us not to). And though it is great to open a book and take a look inside, if we did this for every book in the library we’d never get our essays written.

This week, there was no cover to judge as I read a couple of blog posts by Dan Cohen. “Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values” talked about how open access is important for scholarly discourse but, despite the ease of publishing openly, scholars often still prefer to publish in well-read and well-regarded journals. This is natural; they (we) seek recognition.

However, it becomes contradictory when said journal does not allow open, online access to its content. In this instance, the author is actually damning himself to obscurity. The published article may reach a number of scholars, but it will not be widely available or easy to find.

One point Dan Cohen made struck home with me. He says that “Writing is writing and good is good.” I agree entirely. Quality is intrinsic and cannot be bought. However, our ability to recognize quality is often hindered.

This reminded me of an experiment conducted by the Washington Post in 2007 (find “Pearls Before Breakfast” here). You should watch the video before you read on.

If you watched all the way to the end, you noticed the one woman standing and watching the violinist. She alone recognized Joshua Bell, one of the most acclaimed violinists in the world. Bell is used to playing to packed houses at respectable venues all over the world, but for this experiment, he played in a Washington subway station to about 1,000 commuters on their way to work. The goal of the experiment was to see if people would recognize the beauty of the music and stop to listen or to tip. Few did. They were all too caught up in their commute to spare the time and effort for music.[1]

This experiment demonstrates that although something might be the best in the world, we might not recognize it as such because we are lazy creatures. We have many demands on our time and attention and we often do not open our minds to content that requires too much thought. Unfortunate but true.

If we want to appeal to a wider audience, we have to make the package attractive. For scholars, it is important to publish in a recognized journal but there is no reason not to publish in one with an online version. If you only blog your research, it is less likely to get you recognition because it has not gone through the vetting process of peer-reviewed publishing. This important step gives legitimacy to an author’s work and tells the reader that the contents are worth a look. Dan Cohen examines this idea in his post “The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing.”

To summarize thus far, the content is very important but the package is what will draw people in to take a look. We can apply this concept to museums.

The museum itself lends legitimacy and authority to its content, but if that content is not presented in an appealing way, it will not resonate as deeply, or at all, with the audience. I raise this concern because I have seen many exhibits, online and offline, that present artifacts and history in a bland, unengaging, or amateurish way. If we want people to come visit our museums and heritage sites, we have to hook them with interesting and varied activities, engaging exhibits and tours, and good promotional material.

Dinosaur Exhibit at the ROM
Here is a picture of the dinosaur exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto that I took a couple of years ago, shortly after they finished their renovations. When I arrived in this area, I was entirely unimpressed because it was literally bare bones. I seem to remember that this exhibit was much more interesting when I was a kid, but this may be a fabricated memory (more on that in a later post). On the other hand, the new dinosaur exhibit at the Nature Museum in Ottawa was much more striking. It had life-sized replicas of what dinosaurs might have looked like and interactive elements you could engage with, such as a parasaurolophus call station. If I had to choose, I would go back to the Nature Museum before I would go back to the ROM.
Dinosaur Exhibit at the Nature Museum sourced from
Unfortunately, money is often lacking in heritage these days, especially for small heritage sites. This means that we have to be creative. Digital tools are one way to promote heritage and they are often free to set up and use. Twitter and Facebook are easily accessible to a wide public and websites and blogs can serve to inform and entertain. The downside to them is that they require knowledge and effort to set up and maintain.

If our heritage sites are to stay relevant, we must seek out new visitors and hook them into coming back again and again. I leave it up to current and future heritage workers to figure out how to do this.

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