Tuesday, 10 December 2013

eHeritage: Attitude, Ethos, Culture and Creativity

I was recently asked to present at the State Heritage Office’s eHeritage seminar, which was held in Perth on 4 December 2013. After accepting the invitation I was asked what I’d specifically like to talk about. My initial reaction was… oh no, I have to be specific!?

After pondering the point for way too long I reflected on previous presentations I’d given. This would be my 18th on behalf of the Carnamah Historical Society. People tended to simmer with ideas and new found possibilities. However, they also tended to go away and achieve nothing, or achieve something but not quite hit the mark. There are exceptions but on the whole, this was the result of many hopefully inspiring presentations.

The essential ingredients that tend to be lacking are not ideas, examples to follow, time, availability of funding or technical skill. They are very often attitude, ethos and organisational culture. So that is what I chose to “specifically” talk about. I wrote my blurb before preparing my talk and set myself up for a quite challenging task:

There's never been more ways to share, promote and engage people in heritage. The internet offers amazing opportunities. But what are they, and are they being taken advantage of? A quick case study followed by a challenging look at cause and effect, ethos and culture. Is it time to turn things upside down?

Case Study

Carnamah is a town and farming community 300 kilometres north of Perth in the Mid West region of Western Australia. The Carnamah Historical Society was founded in 1983 and as one might expect, it’s purpose is to collect, record, preserve and promote local history. We’re now at a point at which we see our online endeavours as a third of our operations. We have:
  • Carnamah Museum. This includes a collection relating to Carnamah's social, domestic, commercial and agricultural past – from small household items up to tractors and harvesters. It also encompasses a local studies collection/library.
  • The state heritage listed Macpherson Homestead, which we conserve, care for and open to the public. In some ways this is almost a second museum.
  •  Our online content, which shares Carnamah's history and heritage with increasing numbers of people around WA, Australia and the world.

We don’t see this movement into online spaces as a detraction from our traditional audiences. It’s not taking a piece of pie off one plate and putting it on another – it’s about having two plates of pie. Many organisations fear that moving in a virtual direction will diminish their physical existence. In our experience it has had the opposite effect. That’s right, more physical visitors.

It’s how the world works. People discover places and information online.

Carnamah's Online Content

I then gave a very quick tour of Carnamah's online content (click on the links to follow!). I started with our home page explaining the brief two sentences on our organisation is all you'll find about us on the entire site. It's about sharing history and heritage – not talking about sharing it.

We of course have pages promoting our Carnamah Museum and the Macpherson Homestead, but these are only two of almost 600 pages. We then had a look at our Virtual Museum whereby we've replicated what you'd normally find in a physical exhibition. We started this with three online exhibits in 2011 and later increased the total to nine with funding from WA's Department of Culture and the Arts. Our online exhibits, which have been seen by thousands of people, also contain comments and personal stories left by online patrons.

With support from the WA History Foundation we created three primary school education resources for use with three of our virtual exhibits. The resources include an overview and guidance for teachers, activities, worksheets and connections to the Australian Curriculum. They can be used from classrooms anywhere or with class visits to our physical museum. We’ve since received further support from the Department of Culture and the Arts to create another six resources which means there will soon be a resource for each and every virtual exhibit.

We then stepped over to our Carnamah-Winchester Database which contains detailed and referenced biographical, local and other information on thousands of people who lived in Carnamah. This is our main forum for compiling and sharing local history. We could have written a book sorted into chronological or thematic chapters – but how would it be read? Most people turn straight to the index to find the pages that mention a person of interest. So we're instead chronicling local history person by person – and trying to capture each and every one of them (and not just for Carnamah but also our neighbouring districts of Coorow and Three Springs).

There's a lot of info out there and we decided in 2012 that we could do with a helping hand. We utilised virtual volunteers to help with transcription and indexing tasks, the output of which could then be easily used or added to further our databases. This began using Dropbox and Google Docs but we've since stepped it up a few notches thanks to the Government of Western Australia's Social Innovation Grants program. We have created and softly launched the website Virtual Volunteering which will evolve and grow over the next 18 months. This was created using open-source platforms Omeka, Scripto, MediaWiki with additional features from the University of Iowa Libraries. We're keen for the site to freely host projects from other organisations, so if you have one, PLEASE contact us!

A great place to start is the almighty photograph! If you put photos online people might save them, copy them, use them! They might do this without permission and they might not even attribute your organisation. That's one way of looking at it. On the other hand, putting photos online allows thousands more people to discover and see them. And if they do save, print or share… that isn't all bad. What does someone do with a printed photo? They probably show other people! Wow, the audience just got even bigger again. This is a question of perspective. Do you want to concentrate on sharing heritage or getting credit for it?

Using our Virtual Museum as another example, we could have gone down the road of thinking NO we don't want to share such things online. We want people to come and see the real thing and to have a truly authentic experience. Or, we could go down the track that if we share such things online that maybe more people will come for that real experience because they've already had an interesting preview or discovered that we even exist? There's two sides to every coin.

Our databases. Oh my gosh, what if we've got incorrect information and what if we offend someone? We could easily have got caught up in these concerns, kept our databases offline and had them in coloured binder files in a neat row on a shelf in our museum's library.

But we didn't. What was the result? We had information wrong. We offended people. We even, on one occasion, were threatened with legal action. Sounds like I'm proving myself wrong here BUT WAIT (no steak knives, I promise)…
  • History and heritage should be real. If you give an honest depiction it is inevitable that someone will take offence to something. This should be expected, not feared.
  • Thousands more people have discovered and had the opportunity of reading entries in our databases.
  • People have contributed corrections and additional information.
  • A lot of people, some of whom had never even heard of Carnamah before, now have strong and personal connections to Carnamah and its history and heritage.
  • We've received donations of heritage material from around Australia and the world – including photographs, negatives, letters written a century ago and even a pair of manual hair clippers from England that had been used in Carnamah in the 1920s!

And then there are some unexpected outcomes…

Carnamah has been featured in the Landmarks: People and Places across Australia exhibition at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra. This came about because a curator did an internet search for the phrase “soldier settlement” and discovered our website, database and Carnamah. Had we not been on the internet, this wouldn't have happened. They chose to include Carnamah largely because of the stories and social history contained within our database. Landmarks opened in 2011 and continues as the museum's main and long-term gallery.

One thing often leads to another. In early 2013 the National Museum released a book based on the Landmarks exhibition with the subtitle “A History of Australia in 33 Places.” As I have said in another blog post, we prefer to think of this as Carnamah and 32 others!

I'd love to say that is because Carnamah's past is so special, significant and unique. The truth, however, is that it is of no more or less value than any other Australian district. The difference is simply that we've compiled a lot of history and we've made it discoverable online.

Other outcomes include being asked to speak on 6PR and ABC radio. One of the reasons 6PR like talking to us is because they can visit our website and read up about our local history. Then when we're on air, which is sometimes for as long as 40 minutes, it's a discussion more than a talk. Of course it isn't just 6PR who can read and discover at their leisure – absolutely anyone can!

This quote was part of a longer e-mail sent to us a number of years ago. The author kindly consented to us using it. It's likely a view shared by a lot of heritage professionals. I'm not going to go into the depths of social media but what I will say is this: ignorance isn't bliss.

We became acquainted with Inside History magazine through Twitter. Inside History is based in Sydney and they sell their magazine from newsstands around Australia, New Zealand and online to digital subscribers around the world. From this small introduction we have appeared in their excellent magazine a few times in recent years.

Two page spread profiling our organisation and local heritage
Inside History magazine, Nov-Oct 2011

Upon request we provided a local convict story
Inside History magazine, Sep-Oct 2012

An image from our Virtual Museum was used for their cover!
Inside History magazine, Jul-Aug 2013

These are a few examples of many. They're wonderful outcomes that wouldn't have occurred had we not shared history and heritage online.

Attitude… Ethos… Culture… Creativity...

I'd now like to take a look at the landscape that allowed the Carnamah Historical Society to achieve the outcomes that it has. Many organisations want to do similar things but are failing to. So what's the difference?


When it comes to technology people seem to think it is okay to not deal with it because they don't know how. I'd like to draw a parallel. Imagine an object in your museum. It needs conservative action to prevent it turning into a pile of dust. Would you go “oh I don't know how to do that” and then walk away? Probably not. You'd read up on what needed to be done, attend a workshop, upskill yourself, seek guidance, get someone to help or hire a consultant. You would find a solution.

A common example is Twitter to which people cry “I don't understand it.” Maybe you're capable of learning?

On a personal level, during and after some of the presentations I've given in the past, people often say to me “oh but you must have a background in IT.” There's the implication that if they or someone in their organisation had my background they too would have done these things. My response is no, my background is wheat and sheep farming – which it is! Neither myself or anyone else in our society had built a website before, written a blog, started a Facebook page, tweeted, written a grant application, put together virtual exhibits or coordinated a virtual volunteering program. It comes down to attitude. Will you learn or try what you don't know?

There's also the attitude of getting things done when there is opposition. I have talked to a number of people who work for local governments. They tell me their museum isn't allowed to have its own website and no they can't use Facebook. The Town of Claremont has allowed its Freshwater Bay Museum to have its own website and the City of Melville has a Facebook page for the Heathcote Museum & Gallery…. so miracles obviously can happen!

Too often the request is made in a lazy way that just makes the request and doesn't sell the case. If asking will get a no, then don't just ask. Address disclosed and additional concerns, explain how they'll be managed and of course list all of the positive outcomes that will occur. Use case studies. Show what the organisation will be missing out on if it doesn't take action.


An essential ingredient for eHeritage is a willingness to share what you have. A lot of heritage organisations guard, restrict and hold back their collections and information. When it then comes to the internet they're incapable of sharing very much as it isn't in their nature to do so. I challenge you to have a read over your organisation's guiding documents (aims, mission, purpose, constitution etc) and make sure that your organisation's behaviour is matching its remit.

The Carnamah Historical Society's ethos is that we are the custodians of a collection that the community donated and it is our role to give the community access to it. We want to share, not just possess. The internet allows us to provide access to people irrespective of where they are or whether they're able to visit us physically.

Culture + Creativity

When it comes to heritage we, as a sector, have a terrible track record of doing what we've always done and not straying too far from the familiar path. When we do, it is usually to copy or replicate what someone else has done. Is your organisation capable of blazing a new path? One that hasn't been walked before? It's basic change management but when it comes to eHeritage there's a chance that everything is going to be new. You have to be able to cope with that.

The culture for Carnamah has been one of giving stuff a go and evolving new ideas until they turn into something that works. We can also speak to the adage that the best outcomes occur when people are given creative freedom, or at least some creative freedom.

A catch-cry I've heard a few times now is “oh if only we had one of you in our organisation.” Perhaps you do, or perhaps you once did? But were they given the authority and freedom to create something? Or were they stifled in discussion or red tape? Was a suggestion too much to bare, anything new simply too daunting? Or maybe you are that person but you haven't adopted the right attitude to take the action that is required?

I don't believe Carnamah is a great example but we stand out because, well basically, we're doing something. This could have easily not occurred. If we'd made slightly different decisions, or viewed things just a little differently, we too could be hiding in the shadows.

The Carnamah Historical Society has no ongoing funding and is volunteer run with no paid staff. If your organisation is attached to a local government or funded organisation then you should actually be more capable of achieving these outcomes than us. You too could be applying for most of the same grants as we have BUT you'd then have paid staff to oversee them. What's your excuse?

Finally, if you're not getting the results you should – then perhaps it's time to turn the box upside down. If you know the problems or blocks, then you probably also know the solution.

Thank you.

I'd like to say I'm not normally that direct… but I was trying to live up to the promise of being challenging!

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