Citizen Curators Unlock the Past

Old photo of fashionable woman on a boat on Sydney Harbour.

A photo from 1930 held by the Australian National Maritime Museum, part of a presentation given by the Museum’s Nicole Cama.

Everyone has a drawer full of old photos. Each photo has its own importance. The photographer used precious film to take the photo and paid to have them developed. They were kept because they were an important store of memory. But the memory has disappeared into the past. We gaze at the photos today, reluctant to dispose of them yet for us many of these images are meaningless. The person who first stored the photographs often failed to record identifying details with them.

Our cultural institutions also have these drawers of photos – hundreds and thousands of them like the one above. They were regarded as an important record of a society in the past, but today many of these images are mysteries. No museum, library or archive could dream of discarding these photos, but without knowing the context of these photos they are reduced to meaningless bits of paper.

This is where the citizen curator steps in.  Working through social media on the internet, citizen curators apply their knowledge, diligence, enthusiasm and generosity to help cultural organisations identify people, locations and the overall context of photos in their collections.  We heard about this exciting work at a History Week event, ‘From Glass-plate to Cyber-space’ hosted by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The first step is taken by the cultural organisation itself by placing photos online.  This is a thoughtful step.  Paula Bray from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum observed that it is not just about dumping the photos on the organisation’s website.  The idea is to engage with audiences rather than isolating a collection on the organisation’s own website and expecting the audience to discover the site and flock to it. The Museum posts their photos on popular third-party platforms where the crowd is already gathered.

“Produce once and publish many” is the Powerhouse Museum’s mantra explained Bray. The strategy is to reach audiences by publishing across many platforms.  Bray said that the success the Powerhouse Museum has had in engaging audiences with their photos is because of the Museum’s use of third-party platforms like Flickr Commons, History Pin etc.

Nicole Cama and Penelope Hyde from the Australian National Maritime Museum emphasised the need for the collecting institution to interact with their audience online every day.  “Our followers get online every day because there is someone on the other end to talk to” explained Cama. Successful crowd engagement is about interaction and conversation, not monologues.

Once the photos are placed where the crowd is, citizen curators go to work dissecting the photos and discussing them with other citizen curators and the collecting organisation.  Identifying old photos is collaborative work ideally suited to online social media forums.

You can see this process at work with the identification of the photo of the woman on a boat that is at the top of this post.  Through discussion on the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Flickr Commons page, it emerged that the woman was well-known Australian designer, painter and illustrator, Hera Roberts.  This photo has captivated people online and has become the Museum’s most viewed photo.  Once identified, Nicole Cama wrote a blog post for the Museum about Hera Roberts.

Ultimately the sharing of photos by cultural organisations online is all about telling historical stories. A photo and a good conversation thread on a social media site only goes so far. It tells the story in a disjointed fashion that is often completely understood only by the participants. A well-written blog post or article helps to share the story with a wider audience.

Nicole Cama also sees these blog posts and articles as another form of interaction with citizen curators. “It is a small way to repay their endless hours they spend on our photographs”, she said. It is important that cultural organisations show appreciation for the work of citizen curators.  Paula Bray talked about rewarding citizen curators with face to face meetups.

Much is said about public collections held by public cultural organisations. Yet private collections are also an important repository of historical memory. Many families have a collection of letters, postcards and photos which document historically significant processes and events.  I often wonder what material Queensland families hold about the Bible in State Schools Referendum in 1910, the subject of my honours thesis, or whether there are any South Australian families with photos of women participating in the first election in which they were eligible to vote in 1896 (it would be great to have some photos to illustrate this article).

The Mosman Library in Sydney recognised that many families hold material relating to WWI.  Bernard de Broglio was part of the team at the Library which has created the ‘Doing our bit’ project to record and share the history of Mosman’s WWI service.   They organised a ‘scanathon’ where people brought their personal items from WWI to the library to have them scanned.  “A lot of people expressed relief these photos were being digitised and preserved in some way”, noted de Broglio. These photos are now publicly available online.

Bernard de Broglio finished his presentation with a request. “Please make your photos available in good quality, high resolutions that citizen curators can do some great work with.”

The biggest take-home message of the evening was that the focus should be on connecting with audiences, not about the technology. “Technology is only the tool” Paula Bray said. “It’s about the content and engagement”.  This reminds me of movies. If an audience notices the use of special effects in a movie, then it is quite likely that the technology has been poorly used.  The story should be the focus of the audience’s attention, not the technology unless the story is about the technology. Likewise, technology should be the servant of audience engagement. The audience should not be ignored through a fixation on what kind of cool technology is being used.

Nicole Cama, 'pellethepoet' and Penny Edwell.

The Maritime Museum’s Nicole Cama and Penny Edwell with citizen curator ‘supersleuth’, pellethepoet.

It is all about people. The evening at the Australian National Maritime Museum could have been presented solely online but it was great to have an opportunity to hear the people behind the wonderful work our cultural organisations are doing online.  Meeting face to face enriches online interaction.

This photo encapsulates the whole evening.  Pelle the Poet is one of the ‘super-sleuths’ who has been helping the Australian National Maritime Museum identify photos.  This photo demonstrates how identifying photos is a collaborative effort with citizen curators an important part of a museum’s curatorial team.

I have only had room to mention three of the six informative presentations delivered on the evening.  Nicole Cama has written an overview of the evening on the blog of the Professional Historians Association of NSW. Nicole and Penny have also written up the evening on the Australian National Maritime Museum’s blog.  You can watch videos of each presentation on both blog posts.

9 thoughts on “Citizen Curators Unlock the Past

  1. I’ve been following your blog for a few months now Yvonne, but never expected to see myself in one of the posts! 🙂

    Your comment on the disjointed nature of conversations on social media only being fully understood by the participants is very true (even more so now with recent Flickr changes that mean only the most recent comments are initially displayed). Nicole and Penny have a great talent in bringing the disparate threads together into cohesive blog stories.



    • I’m glad that I surprised you Ben and caused you to reveal yourself on this blog! From what I heard at the Australian National Maritime Museum, you make a great contribution to the history world online.

      After an interesting and informative exchange on Twitter and other sites I use Storify or write a blog post to share the story wider. When I use Storify I don’t repeat all tweets and make sure I put interlinking comments between tweets and blogposts so that someone unfamiliar with the exchange can understand and enjoy the story too.

      I agree that Nicole and Penny do a great job with the Australian National Maritime Museum blog.


      • Wonderful summary and analysis Yvonne and thank you so much for keeping the conversation alive. It’s such an exciting time for us researchers, historians, super sleuths etc 🙂
        Nicole & Penny


    • Pellethepoet you are now a celebrity 😛 Thanks for the compliment pelle, we love investigating the stories and bringing them to our audiences, best job ever 🙂
      Nicole & Penny


  2. Thank you for the excellent post. I’m currently searching for images that will help me recreate Sydney in 1924. It’s a slow process but when I find a particular photo that helps set a scene alive then it’s magic!


  3. I somehow missed this post when you originally wrote it. I was going to mention State Records NSW but see that you have done so in your comment above.
    It’s a great post that I will now share with my genealogy circle on Google+.


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