The SILS CHICO Project: Review and Recommendations

Bradley L. Taylor

The purpose of this project is to support the successful development of the CHICO Project at the University of Michigan School of Information and Library Studies by exploring opportunities available for the research team to make a carefully considered and unique contribution to our knowledge of cultural heritage and arts information in the digital age. This will be achieved, in part, by examining CHICO's stated mission and by juxtaposing it with existing arts oriented initiatives taking place both on the University of Michigan campus and at museums, visual arts collections, and on websites throughout the country. While the project will conclude with recommendations for specific activities the CHICO team might pursue, the thrust of this contribution is intended to be in identifying relevant informational sites, arts initiatives, or museum exhibitions or displays whose content will assist the principal investigators in further informing their direction of the venture.

The CHICO (Cultural Heritage Initiative for Community Outreach) Project is an integral part of the SILS CRISTAL-ED (Coalition on Reinventing Information Science, Technology and Library Education) program, a multi-year effort designed, in part, to effect a significant revision in the SILS curriculum. As stated on the CHICO homepage, "CHICO's goal is to prepare professionals who can provide access to cultural heritage materials that will be available to a broad array of audiences by using information and collaboration technology." To that end, CHICO has established partnerships with local art organizations and prospective user groups and has assigned teams of SILS Graduate Student Research Assistants to develop activities and programs to bridge the gap between the two. While additions are envisioned to both content provider and user groups, the active participants in the project during Fall term 1995 were the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, Emerson School, and Roberto Clemente Middle School. In addition to the teams formed to work directly with these groups, a CHICO Publicity and Outreach team was created to carry the message of CHICO to a broader state and national audience.

Recent History

Initial meetings were held at the end of September between the principal investigators and the assistants recruited to work on the effort: at those meetings general objectives for the project were outlined and, as a result of interest expressed, assignments to specific CHICO teams were made. Team leaders were expected to convene meetings of their groups as needed; coordinate the flow of information between teams and arrange for meetings as needed; and focus their teams in the preparation of specific proposals for projects that would further the goals of the CHICO initiative as a whole. As team leader for two of those groups, the Museum of Art Group and the Publicity and Outreach Group, I can attest to the nature of those early team meetings. Both groups held extensive discussions trying to define the nature of the term "cultural heritage"; extensively examined existing cultural heritage initiatives as a means of helping define what might make CHICO unique; held preliminary meetings with key contacts at our partner organizations; and, in fact, struggled to reconcile prospective projects with the greater goals of the broader initiative.

During team meetings with the Museum of Art Group, much of October was spent reviewing established presences on the web, looking to further see how others might be defining cultural heritage and seeking innovative uses of technology that might inform our own creations. Team members each chaired a session at which they presented other members of the group with the results of their findings. A broad sweep of relevant resources was taken and included art museums, historical societies and museums, non-profit arts initiatives, science museums, zoos, and aquaria. As we shall see later, the general consensus was that while many museums had established presences on the web, few of them, in fact, had much material that was content rich and that there was little to recommend in the way of innovation. The best of these were sites that had left the traditional model of the museum behind when moving to the web, creating, in essence, a new model for a new medium. The Publicity and Outreach team followed a similar pattern of exploration, seeking to find a way to link subject oriented resources from CHICO's homepage as a means of fulfilling their outreach mandate. Topics ranging from genealogy to ethnic and religious studies were explored with much the same end result: a general disappointment in the superficiality of the materials available. The best resources were found in the area of genealogy, many of which were created by business ventures aimed at selling commercial product.

In October, the Museum of Art team also began work on a "tangible": a project proposed by the Director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art to create an interactive exhibit involving general visitors in the reinterpretation of three nineteenth-century paintings from the museum's permanent collection. As proposed by the director, visitors would approach a computer station positioned across from the paintings; be offered a short history and contemporary criticism of one of the paintings; and be invited to respond to a series of questions developed by the director which would ostensibly point up how reactions to artwork can change as a result of time and one's personal experiences. Team members eagerly took on the project as a means of participating in something concrete after several weeks of study and discussion. Work on what became known as the Interpretation Project continued into mid-November when the exhibit was successfully launched, much to the pleasure of the museum director and the satisfaction of team members. Since then, team members have had difficulty identifying what the next step in the whole process might be. In order to explore possible options further, let us turn our attention to existing cultural heritage activities and see whether or not their objectives might not help shape future direction for CHICO members.

Results of Exploration

My own early explorations led me to search for further information on cultural heritage sites. Despite academic degrees in both history and museum practice and a publishing career that focused on material culture and popular culture studies, the term was one I had never heard. Enquiries were made to contacts at several academic institutions with a similar result: academics and published authors in several related fields were unfamiliar with the term. Web searching led me to two national initiatives, the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH) and the CHIO Project (Cultural Heritage Information Online), which immediately advanced my knowledge of this particular field. NINCH, which began as a collaborative venture of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), and the Getty Art History Information Program (AHIP), at least provided a definition for the term: "the totality of human work, creative effort and thought manifest in the United States, today and in the past" (NINCH Draft Program Prospectus). If cultural heritage was as it was being described, it left the door wide open for CHICO to venture into almost any content area. CHICO could freely develop programs and activities of its own without worrying about duplication of effort since the thrust of NINCH was clearly to work at centralizing "cultural heritage efforts" at the national level. CHIO's mandate was likewise tied to a national agenda, with a stated claim to advocate a "standards-based approach to enhancing access to cultural heritage information" (Project CHIO website). The initial search for clarification on the term "cultural heritage" thus yielded positive results: a better understanding of what the scope and content of the term involved and some assurance that CHICO could proceed without appropriating effort being made at the national level.

At another level, concerns of both the Museum of Art team and the Publicity and Outreach team centered on whether CHICO was intended to be an information resource site or whether we were to initiate original content, i.e., a gatherer or a creator. Given the library orientation of many in the two groups, it seemed easiest to continue to pursue outside information resources and to think about somehow fleshing out the CHICO website by collecting and evaluating relevant resources. As we soon found out, however, many others had already seen that as their role. Among the best of these was ArtSource, a gathering point for networked resources on art and architecture, with important links to electronic exhibitions, image collections, museum information, and online art journals. Other important established presences included the UC-Berkeley Museum Informatics Project, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). Something entirely different, but entirely worthwhile was the Franklin Institute Science Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art because of their strong commitment to establishing online exhibitions and their willingness to think "outside the box." While the Museum of Art team responded enthusiastically to the notion of pursuing programmatic possibilities, they failed to realize a clear vision of what might be proposed to further those ends. Other factors came to bear on the situation as well. The "differently abled" nature of the mixed group left some less prone to envision possibilities because of their limited knowledge of technology and others less likely to root their enthusiasms in meaningful content due to lack of knowledge of the subject area. In addition, we needed to face the reality that the agenda wasn't necessarily ours to establish--that we needed to be mindful of the museum's own wishes, the practicalities of working within a project budget, and the importance of building some credibility quickly with both the project investigators and the museum administration: thus, the appeal of the Interpretation Project.


Perhaps the best course of action for the various CHICO teams after this first semester is to return to the stated mission of the project and reconsider opportunities implicit in that document: "CHICO's goal is to prepare professionals who can provide access to cultural heritage materials that will be available to a broad array of audiences by using information and collaboration technology." Looked at in conjunction with the results of the web searching done by team members this Fall, it becomes apparent that a real contribution might be made in further developing content rich programmatic materials with our partners at the Museum of Art, the Kelsey Museum, and the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments.

All of these partners have established a nominal web presence. The Stearns team has made recent strides in enriching the nature of information about the collections at its website and has done so using technology in extremely creative ways. CHICO partners are not likely to be as versed in new technologies as the SILS GSRA's but are likely to be receptive to recommendations that will not only enhance their web presence but do so in ways that will bring distinction to those institutions. Since many of the other sites mentioned have claimed the role of resource provider (primarily by serving as gateways to cultural heritage sites), the CHICO Museum of Art team, for instance, might best serve as a model to other museums on how to add depth to their web sites, exploiting a full host of technological approaches to further the mandate of assuring the "preparation" of new professionals. Furthermore, experimentation and creativity should be encouraged to the additional end that CHICO can serve as a laboratory for the museum field as a whole, testing ideas and approaches other institutions cannot afford to attempt.

In addition to a focus on content and experimentation, CHICO offers unique opportunities in the links the project investigators have established with various user groups--Emerson and Clemente schools to begin with, but other groups already mentioned as real possibilities. Such partnerships should suggest definite directions the CHICO teams can use in building content: the museum teams and the teams centered on user groups should work jointly to develop services for real audiences. CHICO is, thus, uniquely poised to serve as a model for community based collaboration both for the information technology and museum fields. If nurtured carefully, these relationships can do much in a period of economic uncertainty to underscore the relevance of both libraries and museums to the community at large and, since such local collaborations don't yet exist on the web, make a genuine contribution to advancing our knowledge about how such institutions might work together in the future.

An emphasis on content; a true spirit of experimentation; and community based partnerships. These are at the heart of a potential contribution CHICO can make to fulfill both its stated mission and serve the greater interests of museums and libraries as well. With a clearer vision of what is needed to make an important mark, CHICO teams can reconvene at the beginning of Winter term and be charged with developing specific proposals for projects that will further these goals. If this can be achieved, content providers, user groups, and a national audience will all benefit substantively and CHICO GSRA's and project investigators alike will be able to take pride in a real accomplishment.