Key questions and take always from Hacking the Museum: Museum Computer Network Conference 2011

I have been trying to get some time to muddle through some of the issues from the of inspiring and interesting sessions at MCN11.
I really got a lot out of attending MCN. Its a nicely contained conference, a bit more US centric than I was expecting, but still great. Much of the focus of the sessions I participated in dealt with some really interesting conceptual issues, broader frameworks, and raised questions about the nature of online museum content and engaging and evaluating visitors using digital in galley and mobile tech.

Here’s a brief summary of some of the key questions and take aways I came away with:

What’s the point of Museum Websites?

One of the most interesting sessions at MCN focused on one question. What’s the point of museum websites? Instead of throwing answers at the question the panel instead broke that question down into its component parts, and debated those. Producing more questions than answers in my book is always a good thing. Starting off with contending the museum user divide. How does what museums want compare with what the users want from museum websites? What’s the difference between the two? Issues of trust and authority on the Web was a strong strand. Which produced even more questions:

  •  Does the Audience still want the museum authority?
  •  Should Museums bring ‘expertise’ rather than ‘authority’ in the digital conversation?
  • What is the nature of digital authority?

The question of authority comes up again and again, it’s a debate I have continuously in most meetings I go to. I know it is a contentious issue, and a very important one at that. I do kind of like the ever present idea that museums have to be authoritarian, because “wes noes stuff about stuff”. This Panel took an interesting perspective to the authority question, asking how we should be building museum websites to gain and maintain authority online, something they argued that museums haven’t really earned in the online space yet, rather relying on the automatic ingrained authority physical museums have built up. But really can physical museum authority transmit in a digital space? And more importantly should it? That’s something I really came away with. Surely participation, dialogue and engagement with visitors breaks down the authority barrier to enable museums and visitors to work together to create an engaging online experience? Rather than a transmission of authority? So should museum websites be authoritarian at all? Right enough of a rant on that. The session Ended with the most thought provoking question of all: What if museum websites aren’t the right model at all? Plenty to ponder there.

[Update: Suse Cairns who was part of the What’s the point of museum website panel has just written an excellent post on Museum Authority over on her Museum Geek blog]

What type of visitor are you?

It was also really nice to see such a strong visitor focus to the sessions, rather than a ‘”Oooh look what the technology can do” vibe. I particularly liked a session led by the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Policy and Analysis, which has been researching the differences in the expectations and responses of museum visitors. The they have identified three major experience preferences– Ideas,People, and Objects. IPO for short. Through survey research and visitor interviews the research team has developed some insight into how these preferences are applied in a museum context. Visitors who have a preference for ideas crave information, perspective, significance, chronology and statistics. Ideas people can be on two scales; either narrow (love of factoids) or broad (love a big umbrella concept). If you are a people preference visitor then it’s all about the social engagement with other visitors, explainers and the personal story behind objects; a love of narrative streams and faces. Then there is the object lovers who like details on Aesthetics, Comparisons, manufacture, Origin/use, Styles. The devil is in the detail and above all else like to take in the object’s beauty. To be honest depending what mood I’m in, I think I’m all three. What type of Visitor are you?

Key take aways

  1. Become/get an information radiator: This was presented during Ron Stein’s and Tim Svenonius paper on Transparency. It was really nice to hear them talk about the importance of transparency not only with public audiences, but all with internal audiences, the people you work with on a day to day basis, and everyone else in the institution. The idea behind an information radiator is that it is a display posted in a place where people can see it as they work or walk by. It shows readers important information without it having to be explained. Quiet sampling creating more communication with fewer interruptions. Genius. So that got me thinking can you become an information radiator yourself? So yes, information radiator boards work in an office, but what about when you are out and about? Can you make it obvious in a quick, succinct even visual way the most important information you want to convey about your work? Maybe I need to get myself a badge… Information radiators also combine with a more general take away of communicating our work better. It seems to be that the museum webby field are unintentionally becoming a naval gazing group. There is so much awesome work happening in our sector, and we’re good at telling each other about it; but we seem to be pretty bad at telling other people of its value and impact, whether that be colleagues inside our own institutions, or visitors. Perhaps action research like that of the Keeping it Real Culture 24 report is a compelling framework to take forward.
  2. Blurring the worlds between DH and museums tech. It’s all research after all!  Neal Stimler gave a really interesting crowdsourced presentation, which provided the really mesmerizing video by Michael Edson at the Smithsonian, and some really interesting questions.
  3. Use traditional marketing tools in new ways to encourage engagement: Treat objects like stars in their own advert. Simple, engaging and effective. Just one of the many beautiful things coming out of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

One thought on “Key questions and take always from Hacking the Museum: Museum Computer Network Conference 2011

  1. Pingback: Why should I believe anything you tell me, you nameless and faceless institution?!? « museum geek

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