MuseumNext 2013 digested

Culture Snackers from #MuseumNextSketch

I’ve Just got back from MuseumNext, which was brilliant! It’s a great conference, you feel like you are surrounded by friends rather than international colleagues. This produces a really warm and relaxed atmosphere to hear the now and next in digital museum goodness. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in digital innovation and museums.

Below are some of my highlights:

Institutional Wabi-Sabi

Seb Chan’s (Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum )keynote kicked things off describing his journey from his arrival at the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York and the challenges he faced and continues to face whilst working to change the mindest of an entire museum, and how digital data can be used in radically different ways. Basically his task was to start completely from scratch and rethink the way the museum functions with digital.

Seb described 7 key tactics to think about:

  1. Declare intent – embed digital in the organisation
  2. Form the team – hire people smarter than you and invest in training.
  3. Take irreversible actions
  4. Accelerate Inhouse production
  5. Promiscuous collaborations
  6. Set a rhythm of releases
  7. Maintain focus on the long term change

I really liked Seb’s point about ‘Hiring people smarter than you’, and ‘Investing in training’ because once you have a good team around you, other more radical changes can be supported and advocated for. Seb went on to say how to encourage accelerated digital change by setting a rhytm of releases, with the newly established in-house production and development teams. Taking a ‘prototype is the product’ approach and started releasing barely-built iterations of collections as soon as they were ready. Seb classes this as ‘Institutional Wabi-Sabi’ – essentially living with imperfection, chaos and change. He pointed out that all design is about testing things and reinventing them and refining, so being open to releasing incomplete versions of the developing service was an demonstration of a commitment to open design

Culture Snackers and Getting people closer to art.

The Rijksmuseum website won Best of the Web at Museums and the Web last month, so I was looking forward to hear Peter Gorgels talk about it. The Rijksmuseum has just re-opened after a 10 year refurbishment to queues around the block. They had a really nice way of advertsing the re-opening by bringing the collection out into the real world: check out quite possibly the best publicity stunt for the opening and they also put art on milk cartons and dresses. I don’t know the last time I was told by so many different people that I would have to queue for hours to get in to a Museum.

Peter Gorgels described how the website design had been based around an extremely simple concept: Getting people closer to the art. Riksmuseum identified a target group to focus on with targeted behaviour; a social sharing and a tech-savvy generation of “cultural snackers”. Peter suggested that everyone is a culture snacker. I like this term. I am going to start using it immediately. It was fantastic to hear how user orientated Rijksmuseum have been from the beginning. Peter described how scoping started with looking at the ways people use digital in their everyday life, on phones, tablets, laptops, at home, at work, on the train, whilst walking around lost. The design process established a core value: ‘close’. Walter Benjamin’s ideas around aura of artwork got at mention, as Peter believes that the ability to get digitally close to the art enhances the aura of the original artwork.

On top of the complete overhaul of the website the Riksmuseum also released Rijksstudio. I really like the concept of Rijksstudio. It is about putting the art first and encouraging users to be inspired by the great art and to go on and create their own works like this awesome video.

Getting Down and Dirty with Big Tech Companies

Dave Patten’s keynote discussed the ins and outs of the Science Museum’s Google Web Lab project. Dave described the interesting challenges of working with Google on Web Lab, a hybrid digital and physical exhibition. Dave gave a glimpse behind the scenes of big tech in action. I do wonder how much of the not so good experiences that probably got swept under the carpet and cant be talked about openly. Dave described how the entire process of making Web Labs was a live beta not only of the code but of the physical layout of the space. Which challenges the traditional idea of perfection on gallery. I think quite a lot of us were really jealous, I mean what museum wouldn’t kill for a budget and tech team like that? But in reality Dave did stress that if museums are looking to work with big tech partnerships there is a need to consider if the institutions are adequately set up to allow for rapid prototyping and development that these big digital projects need. This is a point that Carolyn Royston and I re-iterated in our talk about R&D in museums. Can your museum cope with the pace of it all?

Fainting as a KPI: Dative to Ablative

By far the most inspirational talk was the keynote by Michael John Gorman from Dublin’s Science Gallery . Everyone in the room now either wants to visit or work there immediately. What was absolutely fantastic about this talk was that it didn’t focus on digital innovation, but simply on being awesome. Michael talked about some incredible shows (Blood Wars! Donate and fight your white blood cells, kissing Petri dishes, sensored speed dating…) and talked about going from ‘Dative thinking’ to ‘Ablative thinking’. ‘Dative thinking’ means doing things to and for your audience. ‘Ablative thinking’, in contrast, implies allowing things to be done by, with and drawing ideas from an active community of participants. A fully participatory experience. Rather than seeing participation as an end point, Science Gallery places participation at the core of its thinking and design process. Michael talked about the size of the Science Gallery being a plus, its small, so they can do things quickly. They also benefit from being partnered with Trinity College Dublin, highlighting their ability to draw on new and innovative scientific research to inspire new exhibitions. What Michael highlighted so well is that the museum is a platform for collaboration that contributed to society in ways far beyond servicing museum visitors. In other exciting news they are hoping to spread the Science Gallery way of thinking with a network of Science Galleries across the globe!

Small ideas can actually make a dramatic change

Oonagh Murphy from the University of Ulster presented a really good session on nicking ideas from big museums and implementing them in smaller museums to help with digital development. The session was based on a 6-week research visit to museums in New York. Oonagh identified 4 key trends which could be implemented in smaller museums:

  • Key trend 1: embrace contemporary culture. (Have a party)
  • Key trend 2: use your building as creative hubs for experimentation and innovation by visitors (like the Met’s 3D printing hackathon)
  • Key trend 3: facilitate staff learning, collaboration and networking (go to conferences, MuseumNext, Museums and the Web etc, but also meet ups in the pub ‘Drinking about Museums)
  • Key trend 4: be an innovative, agile, mission led institution (look at examples from larger misson led institutions but don’t copy, see how these concepts can be used in your institution.)

​Here’s Oonagh’s report ‘Museums and Digital Engagement: A New York Perspective’

Start them young

There were a few talks at MuseumNext that focused on getting young people involved! It was great to see how the next generation of museum lovers are already doing fantastic work.

Sharna Jackson (Tate Kids) and Mar Dixon highlighted the importance of engaging young audiences and gave the example of how they did this during the recent Damien Hirst retrospective. They gave Tate Kids over to Charlotte Dixon, Mar’s daughter, who was 10 (now 11). Sharna explained that it is really important to relinquish control of the museum brand, and encourage a range of voices from outside of the organisation. And if you are going to do that, then it has to be the whole hog, when you let kids be the voice of your organisation, don’t censor, edit or correct them. They discussed Hirst’s spin paintings event in Covent Garden and how it deepened Tate Kids engagement and reach from preschool to pre-teens and how getting younger audiences involved turns them from fans to advocates.

N8, the team behind Amsterdam’s Museum Night , ran a series of fringe events to compliment the main program at MuseumNext. They are a pretty nifty marketing and audience development style agency that work with Amsterdam museums. They have an organisational model that makes even me feel old, staff have to be 27 or under, and can only work at the organisation for a maximum of 3 years. Which is a really great way of making sure that they remain relevant to the audiences they are trying to engage. N8 talked about digital culture and bringing different voices into museums. One example they showed was a break dancer taking a tour of the Rijksmuseum and talking about his own thoughts about the collection, and ended with him break dancing in the museum. A really refreshing personal interpretation.

Sanne Van de Werf (Royal Museum of Antwerp), along with a terrifyingly eloquent 17 year old, described the development of an app by young museum ‘ambassadors’. Based around Flemish Expressionists, The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp let a peer group education project think of and design an app for its new exhibition. Not only did this really engage teenagers in the museum and Flemish Expressionist art but it enabled the museum to learn more about how young people interact with a collection and to see their museum from a fresh perspective. A win win for everyone involved.

Accidental learnings

The great thing about MuseumNext is that it has a such a relaxed atmosphere tmeaning that it is really easy to go from conference sessions, to breaks, to beer, with a smile on your face, learning cool stuff all the while. One of the brilliant things that I really enjoyed this year was that MuseumNext and Tumblr teamed up to run a competition to create the best ‘Tumblr’. Mar Dixon and Oonagh Murphy and I became a bit obsessed with it and eventually it paid off as we won with Immersive Serendipity!

At first I found Tumblr incredibly difficult to use, but actually having a specified platform, meant that determination and trying out different scenarios was worth it. This was a much better way of getting people to learn how to use a platform. I wouldn’t have attended a workshop on Tumblr specifically, but having a competition run throughout a conference was a lot more engaging, and I have come away with the ability to use something other than wordpress!

Speaking of obsession, also became a bit obsessed with Paper app, a drawing app for iPad’s. John Shelvin created MuseumNextSketch a fantastic Tumblr using drawings from it and then we ended up having a draw off during the evening of different MuseumNext delegates. John had a bit of a headstart with his Fine Art degree, I, however, have enthusiasm (and a distinct lack of artistic skill) in abundance, and came up with some fabulous (rubbish) artworks.

hand drawn Dave Patten


MuseumNext Part 3: Walker Art Center and its brilliant bees.

Having fun with web design and bees at the Walker Art Center

The opening keynote on day 2 was from Robin Dowden and Nate Solas, who presented the Walker Art Center’s new website, which to put it mildly is pretty awesome.

There’s been a lot of previous discussion about Rethinking the Museum Website, MCN had a brilliant panel about it last autumn, and Suse Cairns over at Museum Geek ponders about it a lot.  It was really great to see Nate and Robin talk about the actual process of designing, creating and overall flipping the concept of what is capable with a museum website on its head. A really nice way of summing this up is that the Walker is a safe place for unsafe ideas.

The objectives for the new website aren’t actually too dissimilar from most other museums’ to communicate the brand and mission, to promote programmes, and to facilitate physical visits.  But Walker’s implementation of those objectives is completely different.  The new website, which took more than two years to create, wanted to be an “idea hub”.  I really like classing and designing a museum website to be an ‘idea hub’.  It already sounds like a website you want to visit.

It also has content centred approach, or content based marketing, so in a way it looks and feels more like a magazine than a website, and, unlike many other websites who are designed to be the ultimate final destination, the Walker site sees itself as a node rather than an endpoint. In order to become a node museums need to start curating the web.  Their advice is that museums should concentrate on producing content that is unique to their institution, and that linking to someone else who knows more than them is a clear mark of confidence and authority. If that didn’t make sense here’s the tweet: “Curating the web gives @walkerartcenter authority online. Linking = authority.”

On top of that, there are lots and lots of gorgeous design and gorgeous content, which helps set the tone, and there are also some really nice user features, which play and bring fun to the site (bees, confetti, Cat Breaks and an awesome web comic).  What was really refreshing to hear, was the battle that they had to get the website to fruition.  You don’t normally hear about the difficulties of institutional buy in and departmental spats (even though we all know they happen, and are probably in the middle of one right now). So when they described what they called ‘user experience wars’  it all sounds so very very familiar, but something that is not often said outloud. From the Walker’s experience you should always focus on the user experience when demands from colleagues come in. Yes please. It would make my job easier.

I’m going to leave you with the Black Slide of the Keynote:

“People will engage with your organisation if you deliver content that adds value.”

Nuff said.

MuseumNext Part 2: Radical Change, Crazy Ideas and Dinosaurs in the museum

The opening keynote was given by Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Strategy & Initiatives at the Smithsonian.

Nancy started with a brilliant video about dinosaurs in the museum.  Provoking the question, was she referring to colleagues or objects? And is it just our perception that makes us see our colleagues as scary monsters?  This was a subject that progressed throughout the conference. Koven Smith presented the recurring theme of Us vs Curators, so digital engagement vs collections authority and ultimately  radical vs conservative.  It can often seem like that, but Bridget McKenzie reflected on her blog, that we really shouldn’t think like that anymore because “We should stop trying to define and critique ‘curators’ as distinct from those of us from learning, engagement, marketing and digital areas of work. We are all curators (even those of us who don’t work in museums) because we’re all stewards and interpreters of cultural commons”

Anyway. Stepping away from that.  Nancy discussed the Hype cycle for emerging technologies, highlighting that change does happen, but it isn’t really long lasting.  change is often revolutionary as it goes in circles, so today’s solution might not work tomorrow.  What is required is Radical change.  Change at the Root level means it is likely to be deeper and longer lasting.  However in order to do that museums need to rewire institutional structures of power.  This is easier said than done.

Nancy went on to deliver three clear messages:

Know yourself

  • Know your mission
  • Know where you a going.  Goals and priorities
  • Know where you’ve come from (learn from your mistakes)
  • Know your history as well as your present and future

Know your audiences

  • Why are they visiting?
  • Are they visiting at all?
  • What do visitors want to know?

Let everyone in

Nancy then moved on to the idea that we need to start thinking outside the box and have crazy ideas.  Using Halsey Burgund’s Scapes as an example. Which is a fantastic audio experience and if that doesn’t inspire you to try something new, then I don’t know what will!

MuseumNext part 1: Skim, Swim & Dive, Web archaeology and Ontologies.

Last week I spent a wonderfully sunny couple of days in Barcelona for the MuseumNext conference.  It was great to catch up with of the museum geek crew as well as meet some new and equally inspirational people and projects.  It was also an opportunity to discover ginger and cardamom gin & tonic. But that’s another story.

MuseumNext kicked off with an opening debate on the future of museum collections.  It wasn’t a debate as such, more three separate perspectives on digital technology and museum collections. first up was Charlotte Sexton, from the National Gallery.  I love Charlotte’s presentations, they always go straight to the point and provide almost a checklist of things to think about.

Charlotte discussed the idea of game changing strategies for digital collections. Starting by comparing the in gallery experience of looking at art against the digital equivalent. Suggesting that the In gallery experiences is: curated, displayed. Physical engagement, minimal interpretation (authorities), minimal context provided, minimal connections between objects.  Whereas the online experience is: self-curated, digital surrogates, online engagement, multiple interpretation, multiple context.  it was really nice to hear that the lean in moment in the gallery is the equivalent of zooming in onto a high resolution image on the web.

The discussion then moved on to Strategy (I likes strategy) and some key pointers to remember when dealing with digital collections:

  • Brand – your character and values, build on this.
  • Decide your long term goals
  • Focus on long term planning rather than quick wins
  • Work with staff to capture collection cataloguing
  • Tech is only one part of the equation
  • Tailor content to multiple audiences. Charlotte had a nice analogy for this: Skim, swim and dive. 3 levels of audience! So from surface level to deep engagement.  But you cant just segment content into those 3 levels.  Need to offer a range of experiences
  • Don’t limit online collections to the print paradigm
  • Market and promote the offer (SEO/Strategic Partnerships etc)

A nice way to start the conference by thinking strategically about what is manageable, achievable and with an audience focus.
Next was Tjarda den Haan from Amsterdam Museum who discussed the topic of Web Archaeology. In essence how can you reconstruct, preserve and archive web data? UNESCO issued a Charter on the preservation of digital heritage in 2003, but it still remains a huge issue that all types of digital media, are extremely vulnerable to long-term loss, and little work has been done to preserve them.  Tjarda’s talk very much reminded me of Grand Theft Archive, an article by Paul Gooding and Melissa Terras, about the state of preservation of early computer games.   Tjarda explained that Amsterdam Museum are working on “digging up” De Digitale Stad (DDS) – the first Dutch virtual community, and the first free public domain virtual city in the world, which existed from 1994-2001. Basically, they’re collaborating with former DDS members, system administrators etc to recover as much data as possible and reconstruct the city as it was at different points in time.   It will be great to see what they achieve at the end of the project, and whether or not it is possible to systematically recover ‘lost’ digital media.

Finally, Sílvia Domènech From the Museum Picasso, discussed the new possibilities for digital archives.    Now this talk was in Catalan, so I felt like I was a member of European Parliament, with ear pieces and delayed translation.  I was so transfixed by the translator, that some of the presentation was lost on me.  But Silvia was discussing an exhibition in which they designed the museum exhibition to have an archival structure to it.  In essence using file structures and archival standards to display information in the exhibition.  So a visitor could search for information via person, or via relationship or via ontology category. It’s an Interesting way of designing an exhibition and I would be really interested to see what the visitors thought of the experience.

So these presentations set the tone for the next couple of days of the conference.  And provided a lot to think about, particularly about the nature of visitor experience with digital technology and what could be learnt from other disciplines.