From a Broadband Network to a Cultural Network: tales of a cross-domain collaboration
Eleanor Whitworth, Australia
This paper compares the Victorian Cultural Network (VCN) experience with research on cross-domain collaborations and analyses the application of collaboration across key VCN outputs, including: establishment of a broadband fiber network linking the five Member organizations; creation of the Culture Victoria website (http://www.cv.vic.gov.au); and development of targeted education content and IP standards. The paper discusses the impact and benefits of the VCN collaborative approach for the broader Victorian collections sector.
Keywords: Collaboration, GLAM, LAM, collections, digitization, infrastructure, broadband
Digital technology takes opportunities for collaboration to new levels. In the late 1990s, five cultural organisations in Melbourne, Victoria (the Arts Centre Melbourne, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Museum Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the State Library of Victoria) recognized the potential. In 2003, funding for a Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) collaborative project was secured, with the mandate to increase access to Victoria’s cultural collections.
The VCN celebrates its tenth birthday in 2013. Scanning existing research (Yarrow, Clubb & Draper 2008; Gibson, Morris & Cleeve, 2007), it is one of the earliest large-scale GLAM collaborations, providing infrastructure and content support for the five Members and hundreds of metro-regional organisations across the State of Victoria.
Conceived in a Web 1.0 environment when words like interconnection, aggregation and convergence were common call-outs for the GLAM sector but the mechanisms for delivering these visions were not settled (and to a large extent still aren’t), project participants knew that the technology available at the time was not the end game technology. Further, the emergence of broadband Internet was presenting new opportunities and challenges for the presentation and interpretation of collections. As such, a degree of flexibility was built-in to deliverables: major infrastructure outputs had the capacity to support the sector into the future, and ‘pilot projects’ enabled a creative freedom in the use of digital technology to test and mainstream applications if successful.
Collaboration is cited as the “strategy of the 21st Century” (Gibson, Morris & Cleeve, 2007), and the word is used to describe a range of activities. Zorich, Waibel & Erway (2008) use the Collaboration Continuum to define collaboration-types based on the level of interdependence between participants:
Figure 1: The Collaboration Continuum, from Zorich, Waibel & Erway (2008)
VCN deliverables utilised collaboration from across the Continuum, from contact to convergence to achieve an increase in access to collections. The type of collaboration used depended on the deliverable, as well as participants’ capacity and business needs (and was sometimes altered mid-stream in response to the realities of project delivery).
This paper is a case study examining the application of collaboration across key VCN infrastructure and content deliverables. Using available literature and interviews with project participants, it reviews the impact that the collaboration has had on the Victorian collections sector, and explores the benefits of engaging with various collaboration-types to create a robust collections sector.
What is the Victorian Cultural Network?
The VCN aims to increase access to Victoria’s collections through infrastructure, content development and capacity building activities. It is coordinated by Arts Victoria, the Victorian State Government body responsible for the arts.
The VCN is also a broadband network linking the five VCN Members: the Arts Centre Melbourne, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Museum Victoria (MV), the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), and the State Library of Victoria (SLV). The network also connects into Melbourne’s Federation Square to deliver content to a large public screen.
VCN functions, objectives and participant responsibilities are outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding, which is signed by Members and reviewed annually. The project has been funded in three stages with the following deliverables:
VCN Stage 1: 2003/04-2006/07 (4 years)
- Establish and operate broadband infrastructure for VCN Members
- Establish and operate the Culture Victoria website (http://www.cv.vic.gov.au)
- Develop digital content for delivery via Culture Victoria
- Develop shared corporate services
VCN Stage 2: 2007/08-2010/11 (4 years)
- Develop digital content and metadata standards for education audiences
- Connect the broadband infrastructure with other networks
- Develop digital content for delivery via Culture Victoria
- Develop standards for Members’ website traffic analysis
- Capacity building activities
VCN Stage 3: 2011/12-2014/15 (4 years)
- Develop digital content for delivery via Culture Victoria
- Support the Victorian Collections project
- Develop collection level descriptions for organisations across Victoria
- Capacity building activities
Environment and Vision
Public policy, legislation and the physical location of VCN Members have all influenced the project vision and collaborative capability.
Politics and the distributed collection
When the VCN was mooted in the late 1990s, the Heritage Collections Council (HCC) existed, supported by the Australian Federal Government to implement strategic nation-wide projects. The Australian Museums On Line (AMOL) project emerged out of the HCC to provide a recognition of, and repository for, Australia’s distributed cultural collections. Other projects functioning as centralised search engines were emerging, such as TROVE (http://trove.nla.gov.au/) and Picture Australia (now absorbed into TROVE), both out of the National Library of Australia.
This vision of the distributed collection, coupled with emerging technology enablers (such as broadband Internet), primed the aspiration for the VCN to extend Victoria-wide, whereby metro-regional organisations beyond the five Members would be represented and supported through VCN deliverables. The project also provided a means for Members to fulfill the obligation in their respective Statutory Acts to provide leadership for their sectors. These factors – coupled with an auspicious political environment where the then State Treasurer, Alan Stockdale, was the world’s first Minister for Multimedia and Information Technology – saw the project come to fruition. An interviewee commented that, “I don’t think a project of this sort would get up now.”
The ongoing spin of political preferences and economic realities resulted in the HCC being disbanded in 2001, and subsequently AMOL content was incorporated into Collections Australia Network (http://www.collectionsaustralia.net/), which is now a static repository.
The Victorian campus
Literature on GLAM collaborations suggests that it’s easier for collaborations across domains to occur when those domains fall under the same administrative umbrella. (Zorich, Waibel & Erway, 2008) In Victoria, the State Government contributes to the operational funding of each VCN Member. This relationship to Government means that the organisations function within common policy and strategic frameworks.
At the inception of the VCN, the State Government had a policy intent for Melbourne to be the cultural capital of Australia. It also had an aspiration for State-owned organisations to use new technology to share corporate services and achieve operational efficiencies. By providing both the resourcing and intent, this overarching Government role created a high-level campus-like structure.
In addition to the administrative environment, the physical proximity of the five VCN Members – located within a four kilometer radius – provided a viable economical environment to install and run the physical network.
Collaboration: in the deep end
Figure 2: Aqua Profonda sign at the Fitzroy Pool, Melbourne, Victoria. Photo Eleanor Whitworth
The Aqua Profonda sign at the Fitzroy Pool features in various artworks including Helen Garner’s novel Monkey Grip and Lyndal Jones’s video installation Deep Water/AquaProfunda, which represented Australia at the 2001 Venice Biennale. This heritage listed, infamous local landmark came to mind when considering the VCN collaboration mainly because: we jumped in at the deep end of the Collaborative Continuum! But the sign, and its history, has other resonances too…
It was painted in the 1950s following post-war immigration to Melbourne. At the time, migrant children were constantly having to be rescued from the pool, so the pool manager, Mr. Murphy, asked an Italian friend what the words for “deep water” were. He then had them painted on the wall. However, aqua is the Latin spelling of the word, and is actually a misspelling of the Italian word: acqua. When it comes to GLAM collaborations there are both cultural and language barriers. (Yarrow, Clubb & Draper, 2008) The VCN project has had an effect somewhat akin to the Aqua Profonda sign: it may not be perfect, but it has improved communication between Victorian GLAMs and enabled them to mingle on more equal terms. Across the board, participants commented on the benefits of spending time together, on a personal and organisational level: “Talking with peers about the same issues… Being able to go back to your institution with a voice, more leverage, being able to say, I talked to these institutions… I can see the problem from a different way.”
Collaborative Approach and Outcomes
VCN governance and project management structure
The VCN collaboration framework is outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that is signed by the chief Executive Officers of VCN Members. A VCN Governance Committee, comprised of project stakeholders, determines the strategic and policy directions, taking into account Arts Victoria’s policy framework. Arts Victoria chairs the Governance Committee, which has the power to endorse actions. Arts Victoria has financial delegation to approve the endorsed actions.
During the first and most intense stage of the collaboration, three additional committees were formed to oversee key project elements: an Infrastructure Committee, a Content Committee and a Marketing Committee. These committees were comprised primarily of representatives from Member organisations. As the project progressed and the deeply collaborative elements were realised, the committees were disbanded and replaced with an Agency Reference Group, comprised of Member organisations, and a Stakeholder Reference Group, comprised of representatives from organisations across Victoria, reflecting the broader role of the VCN to support the Victorian collections sector.
VCN deliverables have spanned a range of collaboration-types. The following section examines the application of collaborative, and resulting outcomes for the following key deliverables:
- Implementation and operation of the VCN broadband network
- Culture Victoria and digital content development
- Digital content development for education audiences, and education metadata standards
- Capacity-building activities
The broadband network: linking organisations via dark fibre
Robust technology resources are a catalyst for collaboration. (Zorich, Waibel & Erway, 2008) The VCN project was originally called the Cultural Broadband Network, reflecting the engineering focus on the first stage of the project. In addition to providing a mechanism for shared corporate services, a dark fibre network linking VCN Members was seen as providing the impetus for the collaborative development of standards and procedures for digital cultural content. By connecting the VCN with other networks, such as the Victorian schools intranet, VicSmart, the fibre would enable distribution of rich media content ‘on-Net’ to alleviate data costs and IP issues associated with distributing rich media content over the Internet.
Realization and outcomes
VCN Members are connected via layer 2 and layer 3 connections. Museum Victoria is funded to provide technical and operational support for the network. The State Library of Victoria manages the fibre contract on behalf of VCN Members, who share the operational costs.
Fig 3: VCN configuration, 2012
The VCN currently interconnects with two other networks: VicSmart, a fibre optic broadband network linking Victorian Government schools, and Australia’s Academic and Research Network (AARNet).
During project planning, VCN Members questioned whether a high speed network was necessary as some services could be achieved over the Internet; however, the project proceeded on the basis that the need for high capacity broadband would increase over time, which has proven correct. A range of shared services now operate over the network: payroll, library cataloguing and off-site back-up. Other shared services in planning include: use of the fibre for a private cloud model of digital asset protection (guaranteeing privacy) and streaming of live events to the Federation Square Big Screen.
The vision of distributing content ‘on-Net’ as a way to minimize costs for education stakeholders has not occurred in the way foreseen. Instead, the development of IP metadata standards emerged as the major issue for the education sector. Due to issues out of the VCN Members’ control, delivery of content via network interconnects has not been at the rate anticipated. This is in part to do with the slow update of video conference technology by the education sector. Nevertheless, Members now have flexibility that other States don’t have, and are well positioned in relation to the roll-out of the National Broadband Network, which will inevitably result in higher usage of video content.
The endpoint of the collaboration continuum is convergence, a state in which collaboration around a specific function or idea has become so extensive, ingrained and assumed that it is no longer recognized by others as a collaborative undertaking. Instead, it has matured to the level of infrastructure and becomes, like our water or transportation networks, a critical system that we rely upon without considering the collaborative efforts and compromises that made it possible. (Zorich, Waibel & Erway, 2008)
For the majority of VCN Members, and with respect to the provision of certain services, the VCN fibre falls into the convergence category of The Collaboration Continuum.
Implementing the physical connection also led to more robust strategic connections, where the Infrastructure Committee responsible for overseeing creation of the fibre network ultimately morphed into a Chief Information Officer (CIO) Forum. The CIO Forum provides a strategic collaborative approach to ICT and multimedia issues across Victoria’s GLAM portfolio, reviewing issues such as digital asset protection.
The Culture Victoria website & support for the distributed collection
Marking the pace of change, and in what seems almost comical now, a 2006 VCN document has a section titled: What is “Broadband” content? At the time, many people still used dial-up modems. For GLAMs, the ability to communicate with audiences using video and high resolution images was revolutionary, and to an extent still is with many large organisations still struggling to have the media production expertise to operate nimbly and economically (not to mention navigating IP).
VCN Members foresaw the opportunities of rich media and the rise in audience expectation for these formats. They also understood the Internet as a place of multi-channel distribution, where the ‘walls’ between GLAMs become semi-permeable (at the least). As such, the initial vision for Culture Victoria was as a portal where digitized collection items from across the GLAMs would be brought together to form stories, giving audiences context and a narrative beyond individual objects (a form of online exhibition). The stories would include rich media such as high resolution images (hello Google Art Project!) and video in order to share expertise and experience using first-person voice, and open up some of the extensive back-of-house activities undertaken by GLAMs. Content contributors would retain branding, and the site would be designed to flick users on to the contributor’s websites.
It was envisaged that the content management system (CMS) would enable objects to be shared amongst content contributors in a similar way to Balboa Park’s Within The Park project (DePaolo, Szukala & Kendrick, 2012), but with the added element of the objects being able to be published to the public facing interface.
To increase access to Victoria’s collections, a database of 700+ organisations with publicly accessible collections, a unified search using OpenSearch protocol, and various geo-location applications were created.
Realisation and outcomes
Addressing both aspects of Nick Poole’s Continuum of Use for digitized material:
Figure 4: The continuum of use from Digitization in Europe (http://www.slideshare.net/nickpoole/digitisation-in-europe), Nick Poole, CEO, Collections Trust (2012)
Culture Victoria provides audiences with increased access to Victorian collections through targeted rich media stories and aggregated services. Specifically:
- 150 stories, containing around 450 videos & 2,000 images (where contributors maintain branding and IP)
- Multiple ways to browse content: by place, Historical Theme and contributor
- Federated search (using OpenSearch protocol) of the websites and selected collection databases of Victorian organisations
- A Victoria-wide organisation directory
During VCN Stage 3, infrastructure support for Victoria’s distributed collection continues via funding of Victorian Collections (http://victoriancollections.net.au/) which, similar to Balboa Park’s provision of digitisation and content management systems (DePaolo, Szukala & Kendrick, 2012), provides digitization training and access to a free entry level content management system.
Digitizing everything is a big and costly task and a strategic approach is required. Victoria has at least 1.5 million items in its cultural collections, probably closer to five million. In addition to knowing little about the numeric data, we know little about the themes of the collections, their significant items and key stories. VCN Stage 3 is partnering with Museums Australia (Victoria) to collate consistent collection level descriptions from across Victoria. The descriptions will be published to Culture Victoria, better exposing the wealth of collection material and providing high level data to inform policy frameworks and strategic initiatives.
Collaborative projects have been cited as being beneficial for raising awareness of GLAMs, and the visibility of all partners. (Yarrow, Clubb & Draper, 2008) One of the VCN participants commented that: “What Culture Victoria does for the regions is extraordinary.” Visitation to Culture Victoria continues to increase, with the site currently getting over 150,000 visits and over 500,000 pageviews per annum.
The Culture Victoria content creation model – partnering small organisations with artists to tell stories, and linking organisations with similar material (e.g. a small historical society with a major cultural agency) – builds networks within communities and across the GLAMs, increases participant’s digital publishing skills and improves “the diffusion and accessibility of the collections.” (Innocenti, Richards & Wieber, 2012)
Culture Victoria provides a crucial point of entry to digital content production and distribution for metro-regional organisations. The public, global exposure gained by these organisations through their participation in Culture Victoria raises their profile among local and stakeholder communities and encourages public visitation, as well as supporting local tourism and encouraging and motivating volunteers. (Peacock, 2011)
These benefits have become even more important following the demise of AMOL and Collections Australia Network.
GLAM collaborations are often more challenging when dealing with content creation. (Zorich, Waibel & Erway, 2008) We found this to be the case, particularly in VCN Stage 1. VCN Members acknowledged that during the initial tranche of content creation their “own agendas were bigger than they should have been,” and that due to the disparity between the partners, some had the digital assets in place whereas others didn’t. There was also nervousness around maintaining brand integrity, multi-channel publishing and how Culture Victoria would be positioned in relation to Members’ websites.
The development of Culture Victoria itself was a deeply collaborative process, involving the design and build of: the CMS and StoryBuilder interface (led by Museum Victoria); the front end interface (led by State Library Victoria); and public access points located in five metro-regional areas (led by ACMI). Following implementation, it was agreed that ongoing management of the site needed to be centralized. As Arts Victoria sat ‘across’ the GLAMs, and was in a sense neutral territory, it was deemed the most appropriate place for management of the site to be based. Museum Victoria provides technical support, and all VCN Members continue to contribute content on a project-by-project basis.
The level of collaboration in subsequent tranches of content creation varies from project to project. Sometimes stories are created cooperatively, where organisations simply make their content and metadata available. In other instances, stories are created collaboratively, being jointly designed and delivered, resulting in an exchange of expertise and knowledge.
Education Content & Metadata Standards
In order to maximize the outcomes of a limited digitization budget, in VCN Stage 2, Members focused activity on “digitizing relatively few things and investing in depth, description and promotion.” (Poole, 2012)
Realisation and outcomes
Members worked closely with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) to target content development for education audiences. VCN Members developed metadata and IP standards, enhancing content distribution through state and national education outlets and created an XML-based system enabling education stakeholders to harvest the content from Members’ servers.
As a direct result of the strategic alignment of VCN Members, DEECD provided an additional tranche of project funding, undertaken in tandem with the VCN funded projects. The content produced has been recognized globally through numerous awards (e.g. ACMI’s Generator was awarded Best Education Website and Best Overall Website at Museums and the Web Conference 2011).
This quality of content production would no doubt have happened regardless of the VCN, but the collaborative environment enabled not only the garnering of additional resources, but a space to allow the maturing of institutional expertise.
Whilst collaboration on content development was minimal, communication between Members ensured alignment of content. This accord leveraged the additional funding. In this instance, collaboration at a coordination level was enough to secure significant financial benefit.
Throughout the VCN project, capacity building activities – from formal presentations and workshops to informal gatherings – have been held. The sessions have introduced new technologies, developed skills and facilitated networking between project participants and stakeholders.
Humans, at large, are social creatures. Activities at the contact end of the spectrum can have profound flow-on effects for skill-sharing and morale. Having a history of intense collaboration, however, has fostered a particularly deep sense of connection, as noted by interviewees:
Developing a sense of camaraderie, mutual understanding, a network of contacts so you could talk about collaborations or seek advice. That was one of the really positive things out of it: a shared journey.
… post VCN, agencies have a much greater respect for each other and what we do. We know more about each other and what we each do really well.
For example, whilst deep collaboration on content projects was difficult to achieve, the overall collaborative experience has paved the way for more open engagement with other projects, such the current capacity building pilot that is testing linked open data applications.
Overall Project Outcomes and Benefits
The following outcomes were noted as part of the evaluation of VCN Stage 2 by project participants, business owners and stakeholders (Peacock, 2011):
- Greater strategic alignment within and between Members and across government portfolios
- New and enhanced working relationships within and between Members and portfolios
- More effective quality assurance and evaluation through the use of common standards
- Enhanced positioning of Members for future funding opportunities
- Innovation and capacity building for Members
- Up-skilling of smaller metro-regional cultural organisations in the use of digital technologies
- Increased online visibility of smaller metro-regional cultural agencies
- Improved efficiency in developing and delivering digital content and services
The VCN cross-domain collaborative project is in its tenth year. The project has delivered multiple outputs from infrastructure, to content creation, to implementation of metadata standards. Overall, the VCN collaborative experience concurs with the findings of Zorich, Waibel & Erway (2008) regarding the catalysts required for successful collaboration.
By utlising a range of collaboration-types, a corresponding range of benefits has been achieved. The experience of deep collaboration has forged a mutual understanding between the organisations that may not otherwise have been gained. This experience has built trust and encouraged information-sharing, particularly around IT activities, where the establishment of a CIO Forum facilitates strategic action for mutual benefit. The experience of deep collaboration has also, in many cases, led to internal organisational change, where participants have used the experience and understandings gained to leverage new ways of operating within their own institutions.
The deep collaboration required to realise the Culture Victoria website (http://www.cv.vic.gov.au) is a testament to the expertise of VCN Members. Culture Victoria significantly increases access to Victoria’s cultural collections, through both targeted content production and data aggregation. The content development model of partnering organisations with artists to tell key stories, and combining content from across GLAMs within a single story, is being promoted in other states as an exemplar.
With other VCN projects, such as the development of education content, coordinating and aligning Members’ activity has led to significant funding opportunities. In this instance, the VCN served as a useful conduit for other Government Departments to liaise with the multiple organisations. The projects achieved through the funding have been internationally recognised and, in turn, have led to further partnerships for content development with national education stakeholders.
Capacity Building activities have put VCN Members and the broader collections sector in touch with each other through focused information-sharing sessions, formal talks by experts, and informal get-togethers. This program is seen as a key legacy of the project, enabling peers to share and exchange information outside of organisational structures. It has also provided an ongoing forum for GLAMs to explore emerging technologies, such as mobile applications and linked open data.
The broad scope of the VCN, coupled with adaption to new technologies and collaborative practices has, at times, been challenging; however, this multi-pronged approach has led to wide-reaching outcomes for stakeholders. What was initially badged as an infrastructure project, the Cultural Broadband Project, has become a more complex and interesting thing: a Victorian Cultural Network. Through strategic investment in infrastructure, content creation and distribution, and through supporting structures for the sharing of knowledge by individuals and institutions, access to Victorian collections has been greatly increased. The challenge now, is to ensure that those collaborative practices that gain the greatest benefits are embedded in ways that will persist beyond the project funding and personnel.
The author of this paper would like to thank the many people who have provided their considerable expertise to the VCN project, and the following people in particular for their time and insights in interviews undertaken as research for this paper: Janine Barrand, Head of Collections, Arts Centre Melbourne; Jean-Pierre Chabrol, Head of Multimedia, National Gallery of Victoria; Martin Hallett, Senior Arts Officer, Arts Victoria; Tim Hart, Director Public Engagement, Museum Victoria; Gael McIndoe, Head of Public Programs, Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
E. Whitworth, From a Broadband Network to a Cultural Network: tales of a cross-domain collaboration. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 31, 2013. Consulted .