Messiness, museums and methods: thoughts from #DH2012 so far…

I’m in Hamburg for the 2012 Digital Humanities conference.  The conference only officially started last night, but after two days of workshops and conversations I already feel like my brain is full, so this post is partly a brain dump to free up some space for new ideas.

The first workshop was one I ran on ‘Learning to play like a programmer: Web mash-ups and scripting for beginners’ – I’ve shared my slides and notes at that link, as well as links for people to find out more about starting with basic code and computational thinking and to keep learning.

The second workshop, Here and There, Then and Now – Modelling Space and Time in the Humanities, was almost a mini-conference in itself.  The wiki for the NeDIMAH – Space Time Working Group includes links to abstracts for papers presented at the workshop, which are also worth a look for pointers to interesting projects in the spatial humanities.  The day also include break-out sessions on Theory, Methods, Tools and Infrastructure

The session I chaired on Methods was a chance to think about the ways in which tools are instantiations of methods.  If the methods underlying tools aren’t those of humanists, or aren’t designed suitably for glorious but messy humanities data, are they suitable for humanities work? If they’re not suitable, then what?  And if they’re used anyway, how do humanists learn when to read a visualisation ‘with a grain of salt’ and distinguish the ‘truthiness’ of something that appears on a screen from the complex process of selecting and tidying sources that underlies it?  What are the implications of this new type of digital literacy for peer reviews of DH work (whether work that explicitly considers impact of digitality on scholarly practice, or work that uses digital content within more traditional academic frameworks)?  How can humanists learn to critique tool choice in the same way they critique choice of sources?  Humanists must be able to explain the methods behind the tools they’ve used, as they have such a critical impact on the outcomes. 

[Update: ‘FairCite‘ is an attempt to create ‘clear citation guidelines for digital projects that acknowledge the collaborative reality of these undertakings’ for the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.]
We also discussed the notion of academic publications designed so that participation and interaction is necessary to unlock the argument or narrative they represent, so that the reader is made aware of the methods behind the tools by participating in their own interpretive process.  How do we get to have ‘interactive scholarly works’ in academia – what needs to change to enable them?  How are they reviewed, credited, sustained?  And what can we learn from educators and museum people about active reading, participation and engagement?

Our group also came up with the idea of methods as a bridge between different experts (technologists, etc) and humanists, a place for common understanding (generated through the process of making tools?), and I got to use the phrase ‘the siren’s lure of the shiny tool’, which was fun.  We finished on a positive note with mention of the DH Commons as a place to find a technologist or a humanist to collaborate with, but also to find reviewers for digital projects.

Having spent a few days thinking about messy data, tweets about a post on The inevitable messiness of digital metadata were perfectly timed.  The post quotes Neil Jeffries from the Bodleian Library, who points out:

we need to capture additional metadata that qualifies the data, including who made the assertion, links to differences of scholarly opinion, omissions from the collection, and the quality of the evidence. “Rather than always aiming for objective statements of truth we need to realise that a large amount of knowledge is derived via inference from a limited and imperfect evidence base, especially in the humanities,” he says. “Thus we should aim to accurately represent the state of knowledge about a topic, including omissions, uncertainty and differences of opinion.”

and concludes “messiness is not only the price we pay for scaling knowledge aggressively and collaboratively, it is a property of networked knowledge itself”.  Hoorah!

What can the digital humanities learn from museums?

After a conversation over twitter, a few of us (@ericdmj, @clairey_ross, @briancroxall, @amyeetx) went for a chat over lunch.  Our conversation was wide-ranging, but one practical outcomes was the idea of a ‘top ten’ list of articles, blog posts and other resources that would help digital humanists get a sense of what can be learnt from museums on topics like digital projects, audience outreach, education and public participation.  Museum practitioners are creating spaces for conversations about failures, which popped up in the #DH2012 twitter stream.

So which conference papers, journal articles, blogs or blog posts, etc, would you suggest for a top ten ‘get started in museums and the digital humanities’ list?

[For further context, the Digital Humanities community is interested in working more closely with museums: see point 3 of the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH)’s ‘Next Steps’ document.

Both technologist and humanist in the academic digital humanities?

I’ve been reading Andrew Prescott’s excellent Making the Digital Human: Anxieties, Possibilities, Challenges:

…in Britain the problem is I think that the digital humanities has failed to develop its own distinctive intellectual agendas and is still to all intents and purposes a support service. The digital humanities in Britain has generally emerged from information service units and has never fully escaped these origins. Even in units which are defined as academic departments, such as my own in King’s, the assumption generally is that the leading light in the project will be an academic in a conventional academic department. The role of the digital humanities specialists in constructing this project is always at root a support one. We try and suggest that we are collaborating in new ways, but at the end of the day a unit like that at King’s is simply an XML factory for projects led by other researchers. 

Beyond the question of how and why digital people are pushed into support roles in digital humanities projects, I’ve also been wondering whether the academic world actually allows one to simultaneously be a technologist and a humanist.  This is partly because I’m still mulling over the interactions between different disciplines at a recent research institute and partly because of a comment about a recently advertised ‘digital historian’ job that called it “‘Digital Historian’ as slave to real thing – no tenure, no topic, no future”.

The statement ‘no topic’ particularly stood out.  I’m not asking whether it’s possible for someone to be a good historian and a good programmer (for example) because clearly some people are both, but rather whether hiring, funding, training and academic structures allow one to be both technologist and humanist.  Can one propose both a data architecture and a research question?

It may simply be that people with specialist skills are leant on heavily in a project because their skills are vital for its success, but does this mean an individual is corralled into one type of work to the exclusion of others?  If you are the only programmer-historian in a group of historians, do you only get to be a programmer, and vice versa?  Are there academic roles that truly make the most of both aspects of the humanist technologist?

And does this mean, as Prescott says, that ‘intellectually, the digital humanities is always reactive’?

‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ conference

A quick report and Storify summary from Wednesday’s joint Museums Computer Group (MCG) and Digital Learning Network (DLNet) conference, ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums‘, which was held on 11 July 2012 at the University of Manchester.  I’m the Chair of the MCG and was on the Programming Committee for this event so I make absolutely no claim to impartiality, but I thought it went really well – great speakers and workshop leaders, enthusiastic and friendly participants and a variety of formats that kept energy levels up during the day.

My notes are sketchier than usual as I was co-chairing some of the sessions and keeping an eye on the running of the event, so this is more of an impressionistic overview than a detailed report.  There are already a number of other posts out there, and we’ll have the post from our official event blogger and illustrator up soon for more comprehensive accounts.

For the MCG, this event was experimental in a number of ways – in running an event with another practitioner organisation, in the venue, in running parallel workshops, buying in commercial wifi, and in devoting part of the day to an unconference – and I’m curious to know what response we get in the evaluation from the day.  (If you were there, our short feedback form is online.)

The event was designed to bring museum learning and technology staff together because we felt we were missing opportunities to benefit from each others skills and experience. I know technologists are grappling with measuring impact, and learning people with reaching new audiences in different ways – hopefully each group would have something to offer and something to learn, though it might mean seeing past each others jargon and understanding different views of the world. (This ‘Interloper Report‘ and comments from MW2012 provide some insight into the potential.) We planned the day as a mixture of inspiring talks and opportunities to get stuck into conversation about topical issues. It was also a day for making connections so we’d included coffee breaks, lunch and the unconference so that people could find others interested in similar things or to put faces to names from the MCG and DLNet lists and social media.
The various tweets I’ve added to storify do a reasonable job of covering the day, but I’ve left out things like the QR code discussion. Other conversations about generic learning outcomes have taken on a life of their own – for example, Rhiannon’s post ‘Generic Learning Outcomes – friend or foe?‘ seeks to understand why non-learning people don’t seem to like them.

I thought Nick Winterbotham‘s presentation of the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) ‘self-evident truths’ was interesting, and some of his points were picked up and retweeted widely:

  • Our heritage is not about things it is about people
  • Everyone has a right to know about and be at ease with heritage
  • Heritage embraces the past and present of all cultures
  • Heritage is essential as the cradle of everyone’s tomorrow
  • Heritage encompasses all literature, science, technology, environments and arts
  • The multiple narratives of heritage deserve respect
  • Learning is an entitled journey, not a destination
  • Heritage learning is an entitlement for everyone
  • The development of heritage learning skills must be a perpetual excellence
  • Learning is not simply a justification for cultural spending, it is THE justification for cultural spending

Nick advocated for a world where no-one hesitates at taking a risk in learning, and said that we love art, digital culture because of how we feel about it, not what we know about it. He urged us to focus on how your audiences live, learn and love your subject matter; to acknowledge the intellectual generosity needed; and find the big idea that will transform your organisation.

Matthew Cock talked about the challenges of audiences, particularly around mobile. The three-pronged model for audiences in museums: attract -> engage -> impact.  He asked, when you see someone in a museum with a phone, what space are they in? Are they engaged, distracted, focused? Is it a sign of disrespect and disengagement or a sign of bonding with the group they’re with? And how do you know?

He talked about the work Morris Hargreaves McIntyre had done to understand their audiences and their varying motivations for visiting: social – museums as enjoyable place to spend time with friends and family; intellectual – interested in knowledge; emotional – experience what the past was like; spiritual – creative stimulation, quiet contemplation, etc.  (See also MHM’s Culture Segments report). How does this connect to using mobiles to engage people? People have different activities – chat, read, recording audio or photo, playing media back, share something via social media etc. Each fulfills a different need. The challenge is to match specific things you can do on a mobile with your motivations for visiting. He referred to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to think about the needs a museum satisfies in our lives and the experience economy.

People are seeking venues and events that engage them in a memorable (and authentic?) ways – we’re shifting from buying lots of stuff to seeking unique and engaging experiences. The visitor wants to walk away with the engagement having effected a transformation (the impact point of the three-pronged model). Measuring that impact is really hard. Evaluation can look at lots of things but it’s hard to understand the needs of our visitors and what works for them in this space.

Later I asked what Learning people like Nick could tell us technologists about measuring impact, but it seems like it’s the holy grail for their field too. Nick did mention that we go from a stage of cognitive to affective impact over time after an experience, which is a good start for thinking about this.  Judging from the response on twitter, I’m not the only one who thinks that measuring the impact of a museum experience and understanding whether it’s ephemeral or lifelong is one of the big tasks for museums right now.

John Coburn‘s presentation on the Hidden Newcastle app harked back to the buzz around storytelling
a few years ago, but it also resonated with conversations about the different types and purposes of museum websites – an app that’s not about sharing collections or objects but about sharing compelling stories fits firmly in the ‘messy middle‘.  In this case, ‘it’s the story that creates the impact, not the object. The value of the object is as the source for the story’. I love that they wanted to create intrigue about the people and the times in which they lived and compel exploration.

It was a difficult choice but I popped into the ‘tech on a budget’ workshop where Shona Carnall and Greg Povey presented some interesting ways to use existing, readily available technologies to create interactive experiences.

I’ll leave the detail of the other presentations to the storify below and other people’s posts and skip to the unconference.  Because time was short we asked for session ideas and votes from the podium, rather than letting people write ideas and put their votes up on a shared board.  After the unconference we all gathered again to hear what had been discussed in each group. The summaries were:
  • Commercial side of commissioning cool things: reluctant to put a price on it, but UK has cultural expectations around free museums which makes it harder to charge. Digital is received as god given right, something that should be free. But how come the West End theatre is able to charge so much for a ticket? Museums providing paid-for entertainment not just a browsing experience. We pay for entertainment but we don’t expect to be entertained in museums. 
  • Learning outcomes: friends or foe? Attitude is sometimes that learning outcomes are rubbish – decided generic learning outcomes (GLOs) are a really good thing. It’s not about shoe-horning facts into everything or pure knowledge transfer – it’s also about inspiration, experience, skills, wonderment. The wondrous Romans! Trying to change the stigma about what learning actually is, it’s an experience as much as formal education. Maybe ‘aims and objectives’ a better term than ‘learning outcomes’.
  • How do you evaluate wonderment – with difficulty. What is it? Element of surprise, something being visceral, physiological responses. Are adults too cynical for wonderment? ‘Smiling Victorians’ – challenge expectations. Imagine writing a budget to get iris recognition to measure wonder! Hard to measure or evaluate it but should always aspire to it.
  • Coherent experience, call to action in gallery to online with mobile in gallery: talked about pressure museums are under to introduce next tech, be whizzy, or is it addressing a real need? Can you piggyback on software that’s already out there?
  • Reaching different audiences: particularly teenagers: find out what inspires them, tap into that. What are the barriers to engaging them? They’re creative, maybe we should work with them to create digital offers, empower them. Apps for apps sake – under pressure to deliver them.
  • Big ideas: intellectual generosity. (Goodness! There was a long list of the characteristics MCG and DLNet would have if they were an animal or a tool…)  We are intricate explosions. Intricate – all the stuff we’re talking about is detailed and a little fragile but explosive because the world will catch fire with what we’re doing.
  • Failure confessionals: web content management systems – maybe simple is the way to go. Failure is a good thing, and at least we didn’t screw up like the bankers.
  • Social media audiences: does it make sense just to have one FB, twitter, etc account per org? Keeping a brand together is good but it doesn’t always make sense to lump all audience conversations into one channel.

And with the final thanks to the student volunteers, programme committee, unconference organisers and speakers (and particularly to Ade as local contact and Rhiannon as the tireless organiser that made it all happen), it was over.

We’re already looking ahead to the MCG’s Spring 2013 meeting, which may be an experimental ‘distributed’ meeting held in the same week or evening in different regional locations.  If you’re interested in hosting a small-scale event with us somewhere in the UK, get in touch!  We’re also thinking about themes for UK Museums on the Web 2012, so again, let us know if you have any ideas.

Drinking about museums: the Manchester edition, July 10

A few years ago the Museums Computer Group committee started inviting people attending our events to join us for drinks the night before. For locals and people who’ve travelled up the night before an event, it’s a nice way to start to catch up with or meet people who are interested in technology in museums. These days people around the world are organising events under the #drinkingaboutmuseums label, so we thought we’d combine the two and have a #drinkingaboutmuseums in Manchester on Tuesday July 10, 2012. Come join us from 6:30pm at the Sandbar, 120 Grosvenor Street, Manchester M1 7HL.

And of course, the reason we’re gathering – on Wednesday July 11, 2012, the MCG (@ukmcg) are running an event with the Digital Learning Network (@DLNet) on ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums‘ in Manchester (tickets possibly still available at or follow the hashtag #EngageM on twitter) so we’ll have a mixed crowd of museum technologists and educators. You’re welcome to attend even if you’re not going to the conference.

If you’ve got any questions, just leave a comment or @-mention me (@mia_out) on twitter. We’ll also keep an eye on the #drinkingaboutmuseums tag. You can find out more about #drinkingaboutmuseums in my post about the June New York edition which saw 20-ish museum professionals gather to chat over drinks.