Peter Ride is the curator of #citizencurators, currently on display on The Photographers’ Gallery media wall until August 28th. In the following interview, we asked Peter about the challenges of using social media to help public institutions record, share and ultimately represent major events.
What inspired the #citizencurators project? How did the project unfold?
The #citizencurators project came about for a very simple reason: to record what was like for Londoners living in the capital city during the Olympics of London 2012. I developed the project in partnership with the Museum of London which has a commitment to collect the contemporary history of London. Of course there are many ways to collect peoples’ experience. A typical project might gather material or objects, ask people to keep diaries or take photographs – and that has been done for years.
But in 2012, social media offered a different approach to thinking about the way people experience public events because it could reveal how they pool and exchange their reflections in the public sphere. Social media also has the advantage of immediacy – and in an event like the Games, that unfolded over two week period, public moods and opinions can change quickly. We wanted to be able to capture some of that.
This was also an experimental project. Many arts organisations and museums have run social media projects because they bring then closer to their audiences and enable new forms of participation and co-creation. But gathering something for a museum collection is a different matter. The purpose of a museum collection, particularly an institution like the Museum of London that deals with social history, is quite different from an exhibition because a collection holds material in perpetuity for historians of the future.
There are obvious reasons why museums often choose to collect material objects or images – they are relatively easy to preserve. However, collecting ‘born digital material’ is quite a different matter. An institution has to be responsible in the way it collects, and on top of issues about preserving and maintaining digital formats there are also issues about future usability and decipherability. One of the questions we were asking was if we could easily do this with social media. As Hilary Young, the Digital Curator at the Museum of London who co-devised the project, phrased it: “exactly what is the object?”
I understand that your approach was partly inspired by Mass Observation – can you tell us a little more about this?
Mass Observation is an incredibly inspiring project. Its founders tried to tell the story of people’s lives, not in any grandiose way by asserting a master narrative but simply saying that small things were important and should be recorded. It’s the quiet things in the photographs of mass observation, the almost incidental or slightest things, that catapult me into a time long before I was born. It tells me much more about the nuances of life in Britain in the 1930s than any newsreel could.
The #citizencurators project is absolutely in the tradition of Mass Observation because it is looking at the minutiae of the lived experience. Essentially, it is a social anthropology project. And like the way that Mass Observation embraced a particular genre of photography, it is using the technology and media of its time.
The underlining concept of #citizencurators, of course, is that any citizen of London can be a curator of their online experience and participate in the way it is collected. This is a very contemporary notion of the term ‘curating’ that has come about because of the Internet, but it’s also referring to the way that museum curators gather and manage historical material. But this is also completely in line with the approach of Mass Observation which was one of the pioneers of participant observation as a methodological approach.
How did you recruit the #citizencurators who were involved
We made an open call for anyone living in London to take part in the project which we publicised through Twitter, through blogs and on a wide number of websites. We recruited a core band of volunteers who agreed to make a regular contribution by tweeting daily, but we also invited anyone, at any time, to take part. We used the #citizencurators hashtag so that any time anyone tweeted using this hashtag the software being run by the Museum could save the tweet.
We knew that there would be millions of tweets made daily about the Olympics by so it was important to us that the tweets we were gathering were made by people who intended them to be part of our project. Any retweets containing the hashtag also became included in the collection, and in this way the project evidences how people use Twitter to circulate and amplify other peoples opinions.
What were the issues the project raised for the museum?
#citizencurators raised many issues about curatorial practice and about participatory projects which were important for the museum. The most important thing we had to confront immediately was intellectual property. A museum has to have the uncontestable legal right to the ownership of any object or thing in its collection – which includes data. The intellectual property associated with most social media makes this very complicated indeed. However, a number of precedents meant that tweets could be collected. This is why the project was entirely a Twitter project, though in fact we had initially considered using many different platforms including Facebook, as regulations regarding Twitter make collecting it more viable.
Although you were able to successfully collect thousands of tweets via #citizencurators, the photographs appended to these tweets proved much harder to preserve. Can you explain why?
When someone takes a photograph on their phone they own the data that creates that image. But when they upload it to a social media site it has embedded within it another layer of metadata which they don’t own. There have been many very intense debates about the way that sites like Facebook use and have ownership of people’s images, But ultimately it means that people don’t have the right or power to distribute their own images.
For this reason we knew we could not collect photographs that were tweeted as part of the #citizencurators project as the participants would not have the right to give them to the museum. But as the project unfolded of course many photographs were taken for the simple reason that photography is such a crucial form of contemporary documentation and now, with social networks, the photographic images offers an important way of creating a status update.
How did you approach the re-animation of the #citizencurators archive for The Photographers’ Gallery media wall?
The Photographers’ Gallery provided a golden opportunity to show the project alongside Mass Observation, almost exactly one year after the Olympics. However the exhibition is quite different from the Museum collection. The exhibition aims to create a chronological narrative about life in London from the morning of 27 July, which was the day of the Olympic opening ceremony going through till the end of the closing ceremony. It has approximately 800 tweets and over half of these are images. The images are interwoven with ‘text-only’ tweets to give a sense of the way that images are part of a broader form of networked communication, and there are threads and connections that are clearly obvious between the two different formats. We are showing the tweets in the form in which they were seen at the time.
How will you develop the project in future?
The project is developing in two ways. Firstly, I’m working with the Museum of London and University of Westminster to use the approach of #citizencurators in other collecting projects around social history but maybe do this over a longer period of time.
Secondly, I’m interested in exploring the way that the image is used through social media and asking if we are creating new forms of a photographic vernacular. In many ways photography is extraordinarily consistent across its 175 year history and the power of the image to show ‘the here and now’ is demonstrated through the way that people have taken images and written about them – and still do. The distance between the snapshot photograph of the 1920s, when domestic photography became increasingly possible, and the images as a status update on Facebook in the 2000s is relatively small. But each era finds its own way of working with photographs and so it is extremely interesting to explore how social media platforms are used.
You have a long history in the field of digital arts and curatorial practice, working at ARTEC and then establishing the DA2 Digital Arts Development Agency. Are the questions and issues you are working with now very different to those in the 1990s? How do you think curation is changing?
In many ways things remain the same, and that is quite reassuring because it means the essential principles remain despite the technology being used. I worked on my first Internet art project in 1994 and some of the questions being addressed then are just as pertinent now. But certainly the wider notion of curating has changed and that is one of the things that the #citizencurators project aimed to address. Critics sometimes complain about the way the word ‘curate’ is now being used but I think that this is missing the point as language is always changing. The new usage doesn’t deny that there is a traditional notion of knowledge, skills and expertise to curating, and it doesn’t challenge the understanding that there are some curators who are subject experts and in positions of institutional authority. But we need a word to describe how new spaces are opening up which people can access and organize, and that they can manage the way that information is being presented within them. This is absolutely in-line with traditional notions of public participation in the public sphere. We don’t have a word for this and so I think ‘curating’ will do. And those of us associated with institutions in traditional curatorial roles can learn to be a little bit more pluralistic!
I welcome this shift for other reasons too. It forces us to think about accountability and it recognizes that audiences aren’t discrete and separate from the process of cultural production – they are part of it. Their opinions and choices are often just as valid as any experts they just come from a different position. Museums and galleries have often been very unaccountable, and have had little understanding of the way the audience actually thinks. It is very good for institutions to recognize that these audiences can not only express their opinions, they can create their own cultural product. ‘Curating’ in its various online forms can make this happen.
#citizencurators is on display on The Photographers’ Gallery media wall until August 28th.
Peter Ride is Principal Research Fellow at The University of Westminster where he is also the Course Leader for the Masters programme, Museums, Galleries and Contemporary Culture. He is the co-author with Andrew Dewdney of ‘The New Media Handbook’, Routledge (2006) and the forthcoming ‘Digital Media Handbook’ (2013) and has published widely on new media projects in museums and galleries.