Collaboration, constraints and cloning and ‘the open museum’: notes from UKMW13

MCG’s UK Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’ was held at Tate Modern on November 15, 2013. These are very selected notes but you can find out more about the sessions and see most slides on the MCG’s site. UKMW13 began with a welcome from me (zzz) and from Tate’s John Stack (hoorah!) then an announcement from our sponsors, Axiell Adlib and CALM, that CALM, Mimsy and AdLib are merging to create ‘next generation’ collections system – the old school collections management geek in me is really curious to see what that means for museums, libraries and archives and their data.

Our first keynote, Hannah Freeman, presented on the Guardian’s work to reach and engage new audiences. This work is underpinned by editor Alan Rusbridger’s vision for ‘open journalism‘:

‘journalism which is fully knitted into the web of information that exists in the world today. It links to it; sifts and filters it; collaborates with it and generally uses the ability of anyone to publish and share material to give a better account of the world’. 

At a casual glance the most visible aspect may be comments on pages, but the Guardian is aiming for collaborations between the reader and the newsroom – if you haven’t seen Guardian Witness, go check it out. (I suspect the Witness WWI assignment will do better than many heritage crowdsourcing efforts.) I know some museums are aiming to be of the web, not just on the web, but this ambition is usually limited to making their content of the web, while a commitment to open journalism suggests that the very core practices of journalism are open to being shaped by the public.

The Guardian is actively looking for ways to involve the audience; Freeman prompts editors and authors to look at interesting comments, but ‘following as well as leading is a challenge for journalists’. She said that ‘publication can be the beginning, not the end of the process’ and that taking part in the conversation generated is now part of the deal when writing for the Guardian (possibly not all sections, and possibly staff journalists rather than freelancers?). From a reader’s point of view, this is brilliant, but it raises questions about how that extra time is accounted for. Translating this into the museum sector and assuming that extra resources aren’t going to appear, if you ask curators to blog or tweet, what other work do you want them to give up?

Hannah Freeman, Guardian Community coordinator for culture at UKMW13. Photo: Andrew Lewis

Our closing keynote, the Science Gallery’s Michael John Gorman was equally impressive. Dublin’s Science Gallery has many constraints – a small space, no permanent collection, very little government funding, but he seems to be one of those people who sees interesting problems to solve where other people see barriers. The Science Gallery acts as funnel for ideas, from an open call for shows to some people working on their ideas as a ‘brains trust’ with the gallery and eventually a few ideas making it through the funnel and onto the gallery floor to incubate and get feedback from the public. Their projects have a sense of ‘real science’ about them – some have an afterlife in publications or further projects, some might go horribly wrong or just not work. I can’t wait until their gallery opens in London so I can check out some of their shows and see how they translate real scientific questions into interesting participatory experiences. Thinking back over the day, organisations like the Science Gallery might be the museum world’s version of open journalism: the Science Gallery’s ‘funnel’ is one way of putting the principles of the ‘open museum’ into practice (I’ve copied the Guardian’s 10 principles of open journalism below for reference).

Michael John Gorman, The Ablative Museum

Possible principles for ‘the open museum’?

While the theme of the day was the power of participation, I’ve found myself reflecting more on the organisational challenges this creates. Below are the Guardian’s 10 principles of open journalism. As many of the presentations at UKMW13 proved, museums are already doing some of these, but which others could be adapted to help museums deal with the challenges they face now and in the future?
  • It encourages participation. It invites and/or allows a response
  • It is not an inert, “us” or “them”, form of publishing
  • It encourages others to initiate debate, publish material or make suggestions. We can follow, as well as lead. We can involve others in the pre-publication processes
  • It helps form communities of joint interest around subjects, issues or individuals
  • It is open to the web and is part of it. It links to, and collaborates with, other material (including services) on the web
  • It aggregates and/or curates the work of others
  • It recognizes that journalists are not the only voices of authority, expertise and interest
  • It aspires to achieve, and reflect, diversity as well as promoting shared values
  • It recognizes that publishing can be the beginning of the journalistic process rather than the end
  • It is transparent and open to challenge – including correction, clarification and addition

The open museum isn’t necessarily tied to technology, though the affordances of digital platforms are clearly related, but perhaps its association with technology is one reason senior managers are reluctant to engage fully with digital methods?

A related question that arose from Hannah’s talk – are museums now in the media business, like it or not? And if our audiences expect museums to be media providers, how do we manage those expectations? (For an alternative model, read David Weinberger’s Library as Platform.)

Emerging themes from UKMW13

I’ve already posted my opening notes for Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’ but I want to go back to two questions I was poking around there: ‘how can technologists share our knowledge and experience with others?’, and ‘why isn’t the innovation we know happens in museum technology reflected in reports like last week’s ‘Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology‘? (Or, indeed, in the genre of patronising articles and blog posts hectoring museums for not using technology.) This seems more relevant than I thought it would be in 2013. Last year I was wondering how to define the membership of the Museums Computer Group when everyone in museums was a bit computer-y, but maybe broad digital literacy and comfort with technology-lead changes in museum practice is further off than I thought. (See also Rachel Coldicutt’s ‘I Say “Digital!”, You Say “Culture!”‘). How do we bridge the gap? Is it just a matter of helping every museum go through the conversations necessary to create a digital strategy and come out the other side? And whose job is it to help museum staff learn how to manage public engagement, ecommerce, procurement, hiring when the digital world changes so quickly?
Another big theme was a reminder of how much is possible when you have technical expertise on hand to translate all the brilliant ideas museums have into prototypes or full products. At one point I jokingly tweeted that the museum and heritage sector would make huge leaps if we could just clone Jim O’Donnell (or the BBC’s R&D staff). Perhaps part of the ‘museums are digitally innovative’/’museums suck at digital’ paradox is that technologists can see the potential of projects and assume that a new standard has been set, but it takes a lot more time and work to get them integrated into mainstream museum practice. Part of this may be because museums struggle to hire and keep really good developers, and don’t give their developers the time or headspace to play and innovate. (Probably one reason I like hackdays – it’s rare to get time to try new things when there is more worthy work than there is developer/technologist time – being inspired at conferences only goes so far when you can’t find a bit of server space and a free day to try something out.) This has also been a theme at the first day at MCN2013, from what I’ve seen on twitter/webcasts from afar, so it’s not only about the budget cuts in the UK. The Digital Culture report suggests that it may also be because senior management in museums don’t know how to value ‘digital experimentation’?

Other, more positive, themes emerged to link various presentations during the day. Community engagement can be hugely rewarding, but it takes resources – mostly staff time – to provide a conduit between the public and the organisation. It also takes a new mindset for content creators, whether journalists, educators or curators to follow the crowds’ lead, but it can be rewarding, whether it’s getting help identifying images from ‘armchair archaeologists’, working with online music communities to save their memories before they’re lost to living memory or representing residents experiences of their city. Both presenters and the audience were quick to raise questions about the ethics of participatory projects and the wider implications of content/item collecting projects and citizen history.

Constraints, scaffolding, the right-sized question or perfectly themed niche collection – whatever you call it, giving people boundaries when asking for contributions is effective. Meaningful participation is valued, and valuable.

Open content enables good things to happen. Digital platforms are great at connecting people, but in-person meetups and conversations are still special.

Finally, one way or another the audience will shape your projects to their own ends, and the audience proved it that day by taking to twitter to continue playing Curate-a-Fact between tea breaks.

We should have a proper archive of all the #UKMW13 tweets at some point, but in the meantime, here’s a quick storify for MCG’s Museums on the Web 2013: Power to the people. Oh, and thank you, thank you, thank you to all the wonderful people who helped the day come together.

Opening notes for Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’

It’ll take me a few days to digest the wonderfulness that was MCG’s UK Museums on the Web 2013: ‘Power to the people’, so in lieu of a summary, here are my opening notes for the conference… (With the caveat that I didn’t read this but still hopefully hit most of these points on the day).

Welcome to Museums on the Web 2013! I’m Mia Ridge, Chair of the Museums Computer Group.

Hopefully the game that began at registration has helped introduce you to some people you hadn’t met before…You can vote on the game in the auditorium over the lunch break, and the winning team will be announced before the afternoon tea break. Part of being a welcoming community is welcoming others, so we tried to make it easier to start conversations. If you see someone who maybe doesn’t know other people at the event, say hi. I know that many of you can feel like you’re working alone, even within a big organisation, so use this time to connect with your peers.

This week saw the launch of a report written for Nesta, the Arts Council, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council in relation to the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, ‘Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology‘. One line in the report stood out: ‘Museums are less likely than the rest of the sector to report positive impacts from digital technologies’ – which seems counter-intuitive given what I know of museums making their websites and social media work for them, and the many exciting and effective projects we’ve heard about over the past twelve years of MCG’s UK Museums on the Web conferences (and on our active discussion list).

The key to that paradox may lie in another statement in the report: museums report ‘lower than average levels of digital expertise and empowerment from their senior management and a lower than average focus on digital experimentation, and research and development’.* (It may also be that a lot of museum work doesn’t fit into an arts model, but that’s a conversation for another day.) Today’s theme almost anticipates this – our call for papers around ‘Power to the people’ asked for responses around the rise of director-level digital posts the rise of director-level digital posts and empowering museum staff to learn through play as well as papers on grassroots projects and the power of embedding digital audience participation and engagement into the overall public engagement strategy for a museum.

Today we’ll be hearing about great projects from museums and a range of other organisations, but reports like this – and perhaps the wider issue of whether senior management and funders understand the potential of digital beyond new forms of broadcast and ticket sales – raises the question of whether we’re preaching to the converted. How can we help others in museums benefit from the hard-won wisdom and lessons you’ll hear today?

The Museums Computer Group has always been a platform for people working with museum technology who want to create positive change in the sector: our motto is ‘connect, support, inspire’, and we’re always keen to hear your ideas about how we can help you connect, support and inspire you, but as a group we should also be asking: how can we share our knowledge and experience with others? It can be difficult to connect with and support others when you’re flat out with your own work, yet the need to scale up the kinds of education we might have done with small groups working on digital projects is becoming more urgent as audience expectations change and resources need to be spent even more carefully. Ultimately we can help each other by helping the sector get better at technology and recognise the different types of expertise already available within the heritage sector. Groups like the MCG can help bridge the gap; we need your voices to reach senior management as well as practitioners and those who want to work with museums who’ll shape the sector in the future.

It’s rare to find a group so willing to share their failures alongside their successes, so willing to generously share their expertise and so keen to find lessons in other sectors. We appreciate the contributions of many of you who’ve spoken honestly about the successes and failures of your projects in the past, and applaud the spirit of constructive conversation that encourages your peers to share so openly and honestly with us. I’m looking forward to learning from you all today.

* Update to add a link to an interview with MTM’s Richard Ellis who co-authored the Nesta report, who says the ‘sheer extent of the divide between those in the know and those not’ was one of the biggest surprises working in the culture sector.

Impressions from Mona, Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art

I went to Mona – David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art – in Hobart with my parents this week, and I’m quickly posting my impressions now, as my best intentions of posting a proper review later will probably be squished by the demands of my PhD and travel. I’ve also posted photos from my visit, though you may not be able to see my longer notes without clicking through to each photo.

Quick context: I’m a museum technologist and experience designer/analyst (though I’m currently a full-time PhD candidate researching digital history and crowdsourcing), we went from Melbourne to Tasmania specifically to see Mona, my parents are beyond retirement age but keep up with technology and are generally pretty active (physically and culturally). I had read various bits and pieces from other museum professionals about their visits, but didn’t discuss them with my parents beforehand because I wanted to observe their reactions. (Being observed while engaging with technology or museum experiences is an occupational hazard for my friends and family and I thank them for their patience with me!) I’d deliberately gone with very few expectations about the building and artworks, not least because one of the works I’d most wanted to see had already been removed from display and I didn’t want to be disappointed if I missed others.

The onboarding experience

Mona from the boat

Forgive the UX jargon-laden pun, but your experience of Mona begins with your journey there. Both transport options that leave from the matt black ferry terminal are called ‘Mona Roma’ (geddit? ‘Roamer’, though it probably only works with an Australian accent). The boat is painted camouflage greys and the mini bus has hot pink flames down its sides. The boat trip up the Derwent River was a nice bit of bonus sightseeing for a tourist like me, and the captain provided a brief commentary as we travelled. The passengers mostly seemed to be tourists, from backpackers to retirees, from Australia and across the world. Some people near us talked about their visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, others seemed to be there because Mona is on the list of things to do in Hobart. I’d love to know how many were going for the whole ‘controversial’ experience, how many to tick off one of Hobart’s sites and how many were going for the art.
When you arrive on site, you head up stairs from the landing, then a courtyard draws some visitors on to explore the grounds before entering the museum (and presumably helping avoid queues when a ferry arrives). I loved Wim Delvoye’s concrete truck (not that I knew what it was at the time, because Mona doesn’t have captions – one of the reasons it’s been ‘controversial’) and the views across the suburbs and river.

You’re given a printed Visitor Guide with your ticket (including a map, though printed in elegant thin grey type on black so almost impossible for my parents to read). The rules at the top of the stairs were clear – no food or drink, ‘no flash’ (so presumably other photography is ok – though I’ve just seen that the Visitor Guide says you can’t put photos on ‘personal websites’ without permission – does that include social media? The guide blithely says ‘Buy a postcard’, assuming you found one of the artwork you liked in the shop, but the O page encourages you to ‘share artworks with friends via facebook and twitter’ so I’m a bit confused about what’s ok and I take back it about the rules being clear!).

Then it’s down the spiral staircase into the depths of the earth. You get glimpses of other galleries on the way down to the third level, interspersed with sandstone and concrete walls that still bear construction marks.

The O

Would this prompt you to save the tour?

At the bottom of the stairs, you’re given your ‘O’, or interactive guide (basically an iPod Touch in a solid case). The ‘O’ is one reason museum technologists and exhibition designers have been so curious about MONA. As the guide says:

‘We don’t have labels on the walls. We have the O. Use it to read about the art on display and to listen to interviews with the artists. It’s free.’

There are seats near the Void Bar that are also handily placed for sitting down and sorting yourself out before you start, so I took a few photos as I got started with my O. Getting started is pretty simple (and as expected, my parents had no trouble with it). It explains that you should ‘tap the O update button’ when moving between galleries to get a list of artworks nearby, then ‘tap an artwork in the list to delve further’. When you tap into an artwork, you see a thumbnail image, artwork title, date, artist name, then a brief artist bio and list of materials used in the artwork. There are options in the top right-hand corner to ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the artwork. There’s no room for neutrality, though I wonder if a shrug is possibly the worse possible response to a modern artwork and worth recording on some level? (Though they could presumably easily get a list of the works that elicited the fewest love or hate responses.)

The additional information icons for the first work I looked at were tied to the ‘Red Queen’ exhibition theme – Ruminations, Tweedledum, Jabberwocky (additional media, often audio). Others were ‘gonzo’ (David Walsh’s voice), ‘art wank’ (art historical information), ‘ideas’ (often quotes from literature, sometimes questions, but only once a clunky museum education-style question). There seemed to be a ‘Red Queen exhibition’ view that shows only nearby artworks with special interpretation (Mum discovered it accidentally but as the icon change was very subtle she didn’t realise why it wasn’t showing anything around her; with a bit more signposting it’d be a useful function for repeat visitors who want to catch up on new stuff). Rather than a traditional exhibition with ‘key messages’ and learning outcomes, the Red Queen seemed to be a group of works collected together to think about particular themes (and in a sense is probably a microcosm of Walsh’s overall collecting strategy). Intellectual concerns emerged in some of the interpretation, but there wasn’t an overall narrative, and I didn’t miss that one little bit. Mona probably showed me that I love stories at an individual level but can feel a bit lectured-at by the whole-gallery narratives I’ve encountered in other museums. I discovered some audio content while still near the entrance so went back to ask for headphones, but they weren’t handed out by default when we visited.

Saving ‘your tour’

I was curious about when and how I’d be prompted to ‘save my tour’ for viewing later. The prompt appeared to be triggered after I’d tapped through to a few artworks, but when it appeared, it didn’t really convince me to sign up – I’d love to know what their response rate is and whether they’ve tested different versions of the text. ‘All the works on display at Mona will be available to you on our website’ isn’t as informative as the text on the O page which you’ll probably only see if you’d saved your tour while onsite: ‘Saving your tour while at Mona enables you to see your entire path through the museum including a list of viewed, loved and hated works. You can read all available interpretive material, share artworks with friends via facebook and twitter, change ratings and more…’ Dad saved his tour, Mum didn’t. I did because I had a sense of what the website would offer me, but I don’t know if I would have otherwise.

What’s around you?

The O’s location awareness seemed to work pretty well (an achievement in itself), but I’d love a smarter version that knew the difference between physical proximity and physical accessibility. It’s all very well to know an artwork is two metres from me, but if there’s a gallery wall between me and the work, it’s just another thing to scroll past in search of the artworks that are actually in the same space as me. The biggest usability issue with the O (for me) was the length of the list – if it more accurately reflected the artworks visible in the space (as opposed to physically nearby) then it’d be much easier to find the work you were looking for. Perhaps it doesn’t need location at all – broadcasting a short list of the artworks in the room would be just as effective (though the list would still be quite long in some of the galleries), or electronic wall labels that can be read in low light could replace printed captions. The list view was pretty handy for working out whether you’d seen everything in a particular area, as it added ‘viewed’ to artworks you’d tapped into.

But if you couldn’t match the artwork in front of you to a picture in the list, you were out of luck. No caption, nothing. I was reminded of Mary Beard’s recent statement about “letting the objects speak for themselves” — which usually means “letting the objects speak to those who know about them already”‘.

Overall, the O…

…kinda worked. I preferred reading about the works to listening to an audio guide (I hate having to listen to slow talkers when I could be skim-reading). Given the amount of material there was to read or listen to while you’re around the artworks, more seats would have been ace (but at least there were some around, particularly in the higher levels). And the content was great – it took me two hours to go through the lowest floor because I wanted to read or listen to everything while I could relate it to the artwork in front of me. As the O screens glow when you need to read text, the galleries themselves could be dark and as a result some of the objects were *beautifully* lit.

There are some kinks to work out – I accidentally ‘loved’ or ‘hated’ one or two works when the O bumped about and tapped from a list to a work and hit a button, and couldn’t undo it. It was also tricky when viewing artworks set into slits in the wall – it made the art feel both more monumental and intimate, but it meant scrabbling around on the O to find the right artwork while being aware that you were blocking the view for others in the meantime. That said, I’ve been wondering where friction has been deliberately left in and where it’s a bug. Does it matter that it only registers an artwork as ‘seen’ if you’ve tapped through from the list to the caption? And if labels don’t matter, why do you have to tap through to one for a work to count as ‘seen’? Does it matter that you’re poking at a device instead of doing an emu dart in-and-back to read a caption on a wall?

But overall, I would have preferred basic captions on the walls, leaving the O for works I wanted to explore beyond a simple what/who/when caption. Being able to find out more with the O added to my experience and I loved the different voices and approaches it enabled, but I spent an awful lot of time scrolling around trying to find the entry for the artwork I was standing in front of (and I helped other people find artworks when they got stuck). The technology doesn’t exactly distract from the art, but it does get in the way a bit.

[Update: I realised a while later that they can get away with a lot with the O’s text because a) the whole set-up is iconoclastic and b) we don’t look to Walsh and his curator mates for authority. It doesn’t matter if you think they’re wrong or that they haven’t been representative and even-handed – it’s not their job. Public museums don’t have that freedom, though they could still learn something from the amount of personality the O manages to convey.]

The O website

If you give your email address to save your tour, you get an email later that day with a link to retrieve it from the website. I can’t see how to change my ratings, share artworks on twitter or facebook, and I only seem to be filter by ‘Works you viewed’ and ‘Works you missed’ not those I’ve loved or hated – which would be fine if all that wasn’t promised on the front page. The timeline/map of what you saw is pretty but didn’t give me direct access to works I remember seeing at different points in my visit. Artworks don’t have permanent (indeed, any) URLs, so I can’t easily save or share the artworks I’m still thinking about.

Since it only counts an artwork as ‘viewed’ if you tapped through from the list view, it’s not really an accurate list of what you viewed or missed. I also have a feeling the O will beep if you take it out of the building, which makes ‘viewing’ some works outside the building tricky. I’d also love to be able to see pieces that aren’t on display any more, and personally I think I’d have gotten more out of my visit if I’d been able to get a sense of some of the artworks on the website before I went – I’m definitely a ‘listen to the album before going to the concert’ kinda person. That said, being able to check the name of an artist or work easily is great – I wish all museum websites made it so easy to find the objects you’ve seen.

Art wank?

The O’s ‘art wank’ label and icon

I don’t think I would have thought anything of this, except that an American friend (hi @erodley!) was a bit taken aback by it. I didn’t have to ask Mum (who is quite proper) what she thought of it as she came up to me and said she liked ‘the art thing’. She wasn’t bothered when she put on her glasses and realised the label said ‘art wank’ – she’s heard it used in Parliament – though when she realised what it was I don’t think she was too keen on the icon itself. I asked Dad later, and he thought it matched Walsh’s ‘knockabout character’, deflating people who are a bit ‘up themselves’.

Finally, the art…

I loved a few pieces, I didn’t hate any pieces though one was mildly irritating, some I would have loved to label ‘meh’. Mum made me jump on a trampoline so she could hear the bells, I lined up to experience Death with my parents, and I realised that there’s something about ‘traces of pigment’ on old statues that gets me every time. By the time I left, I felt a bit like I’d spent the day at a playground for art – partly because all my senses had been involved at some point, and partly because of the eclectic range of works I’d encountered (and maybe even because of the ‘mild peril’ hinted at in the lead up to the Death gallery experience).

Many of the artworks I liked best had a story attached, though it might have come from the original context of its creation, from Walsh’s gonzo pieces or related to something in my own life. Others were just plain beautiful or charming or made me think, which is probably a good line on which to finish.


Update: I’ve snuck away from the PhD write-up for a minute to collate a list of other museum nerds’ reviews of Mona and the O:

Let me know of any others in the comments…

Also in poking around I’ve also found a link to a tiny snippet of Mona’s art (mostly) not on display, including some of the content you probably would have seen on the O at the time.

[If I ever re-write this, I’m going to add a clickbait headline ‘3 things you’ll love about MONA and 1 you’ll hate’. Or ‘This one weird trick that really works for art history’.]

DHOxSS: ‘From broadcast to collaboration: the challenges of public engagement in museums’

I’m just back from giving at a lightning talk for the Cultural Connections strand of the [email protected] Summer School 2013, and since the projector wasn’t working to show my examples during my talk I thought I’d share my notes (below) and some quick highlights from the other presentations.

Mark Doffman said that it’s important that academic work challenges and provokes, but make sure you get headlines for the right reasons, but not e.g. on how much the project costs. He concluded that impact is about provocation, not just getting people to say your work is wonderful.

Gurinder Punn of the university’s Isis Innovation made the point that intellectual property and expertise can be transferred into businesses by consulting through your department or personally. (And it’s not just for senior academics – one of the training sessions offered to PhD students at the Open University is ‘commercialising your research’).

Giles Bergel @ChapBookPro spoke on the Broadside Ballads Online (blog), explaining that folksong scholarship is often outside academia – there’s a lot of vernacular scholarship and all sorts of domain specialists including musicians. They’ve considered crowdsourcing but want to be in a position to take the contributions as seriously as any print accession. They also have an image-match demonstrator from Oxford’s Visual Geometry Group which can be used to find similar images on different ballad sheets.

Christian von Goldbeck-Stier offered some reflections on working with conductors as part of his research on Wagner. And perfectly for a summer’s day:

Christian quotes Wilde on beauty: “one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime…” http://t.co/8qGE9tLdBZ #dhoxss
— Pip Willcox (@pipwillcox) July 11, 2013

My talk notes: ‘From broadcast to collaboration: the challenges of public engagement in museums’

I’m interested in academic engagement from two sides – for the past decade or so I was a museum technologist; now I’m a PhD student in the Department of History at the Open University, where I’m investigating the issues around academic and ‘amateur’ historians and scholarly crowdsourcing.

As I’ve moved into academia, I’ve discovered there’s often a disconnect between academia and museum practice (to take an example I know well), and that their different ways of working can make connecting difficult, even before they try to actually collaborate. But it’s worth it because the reward is more relevant, cutting-edge research that directly benefits practitioners in the relevant fields and has greater potential impact.

I tend to focus on engagement through participation and crowdsourcing, but engagement can be as simple as blogging about your work in accessible terms: sharing the questions that drive your research, how you’ve come to some answers, and what that means for the world at large; or writing answers to common questions from the public alongside journal articles.

Plan it

For a long time, museums worked with two publics: visitors and volunteers. They’d ask visitors what they thought in ‘have your say’ interactives, but to be honest, they often didn’t listen to the answers. They’d also work with volunteers but sometimes they valued their productivity more than they valued their own kinds of knowledge. But things are more positive these days – you’ve already heard a lot about crowdsourcing as a key example of more productive engagement.

Public engagement works better when it’s incorporated into a project from the start. Museums are exploring co-curation – working with the public to design exhibitions. Museums are recognising that they can’t know everything about a subject, and figuring out how to access knowledge ‘out there’ in the rest of the world. In the Oramics project at the Science Museum (e.g. Oramics to Electronica or Engaging enthusiasts online), electronic musicians were invited to co-curate an exhibition to help interpret an early electronic instrument for the public. 

There’s a model from ‘Public Participation in Scientific Research’ (or ‘citizen science’) I find useful in my work when thinking about how much agency the public has in a project, and it’s also useful for planning engagement projects. Where can you benefit from questions or contributions from the public, and how much control are you willing to give up? 

Contributory projects designed by scientists, with participants involved primarily in collecting samples and recording data; Collaborative projects in which the public is also involved in analyzing data, refining project design, and disseminating findings; Co-created projects are designed by scientists and members of the public working together, and at least some of the public participants are involved in all aspects of the work. (Source: Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education (full report, PDF, 3 MB))

Do it

Museums have learnt that engaging the public means getting out of their venues (and their comfort zones). One example is Wikipedians-in-Residence, including working with Wikipedians to share images, hold events and contribute to articles. (e.g. The British Museum and MeA Wikipedian-in-Residence at the British MuseumThe Children’s Museum’s Wikipedian in Residence). 
It’s not always straightforward – museums don’t do ‘neutral’ points of view, which is a key goal for Wikipedia. Museums are object-centric, Wikipedia is knowledge-centric. Museums are used to individual scholarship and institutional credentials, Wikipedia is consensus-driven and your only credentials are your editing history and your references. Museums are slowly learning to share authority, to trust the values of other platforms. You need to invest time to learn what drives the other groups, how to talk with them and you have to be open to being challenged.

Mean it

Done right, engagement should be transformative for all sides. According to the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, engagement ‘is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.’ Saying something is ‘open to the public’ is easy; making efforts to make sure that it’s intellectually and practically accessible takes more effort; active outreach is a step beyond open. It’s not the same as marketing – it may use the same social media channels, but it’s a conversation, not a broadcast. It’s hard to fake being truly engaged (and it’s rude) so you have to mean it – doing it cynically doesn’t help anyone.

Asking people to do work that helps your mission is a double win. For example, Brooklyn Museum’s ‘Freeze Tag‘ ask members of their community to help moderate tags entered by people elsewhere – they’re trusting members of the community to clean up content for them.

Enjoy it

My final example is the National Library of Ireland on Flickr Commons, who do a great job of engaging people in Irish history, partly through their enthusiasm for the subject and partly through the effort they put into collating comments and updating their records, showing how much they value contributions. 

Almost by definition, any collaboration around engagement will be with people who are interested in your work, and they’ll bring new perspectives to it. You might end up working with international peers, academics from different disciplines, practitioner groups, scholarly amateurs or kids from the school down the road. And it’s not all online – running events is a great way to generate real impact and helps start conversations with potential for future collaboration.

You might benefit too! Talking about your research sometimes reminds you why you were originally interested in it… It’s a way of looking back and seeing how far you’ve come. It’s also just plain rewarding seeing people benefit from your research, so it’s worth doing well.


Thanks again to Pip Willcox for the invitation to speak, and to the other speakers for their fascinating perspectives.  Participation and engagement lessons from cultural heritage and academia is a bit of a hot topic at the moment – there’s more on it (including notes from a related paper I gave with Helen Weinstein) at Participatory Practices.

Setting off small fireworks: leaving space for curiosity

Remember when blog posts didn’t need titles, didn’t need to be long or take ages to write, and had nothing to do with your ‘personal brand’? I’ve realised that while I’m writing up the PhD I’ll barely blog at all if I don’t blog like it’s 2007 and just share interesting stuff when I’ve got a moment. Here goes…

I’ve been interested in the role of curiosity in engaging people with museum collections since I evaluated museum ‘tagging’ crowdsourcing games for my MSc project and learnt that the randomness of the objects presented made players really curious about what would appear next, and in turn that curiosity was one reason they kept playing. It turns out other metadata game designers have noticed the same effect. Flanagan and Carini (2012) wrote: ‘Curiosity and doubt are key design opportunities. … In a number of instances, players became so curious about the images they were tagging that they would tag images with inquiry phrases, such as “want to know more about this culture.”‘

I returned to ‘curiosity’ for a talk I gave at the iSay conference in Leicester, where I related it to Raddick et al’s (2009) ‘Levels of Engagement’ in citizen science, where Level 2 participation in community discussion (e.g. forums on crowdsourcing sites) and Level 3 is ‘working independently on self-identified research projects’. To me, this suggested you should leave room for curiosity and wonder to develop – it might turn into a new personal journey for the participant or visitor, or even a new research question for a crowdsourcing project.

The reason I’m posting now is that I just came across Langer’s definition of ‘mindfulness’: ‘the “state of mind that results from drawing novel distinctions, examining information from new perspectives, and being sensitive to context. It is an open, creative, probabilistic state of mind in which the individual might be led to finding differences among things thought similar and similarities among things thought different” (Langer 1993, p.44).’ in Csikszentmihalyi and Hermanson (1995). Further:

‘Exhibits that facilitate mindfulness display information in context and present various viewpoints. For example, Langer (1993, p.47) contrasts the statement “The three main reasons for the Civil War were…” with the statement “From the perspective of the white male living in the twentieth century, the main reasons for the Civil War were…” (p.47). The latter approach calls for thoughtful comparisons. For example, How did women feel during the Civil War? the old? the old from the North? the black male today? and so on.’

I don’t know about you, but my curiosity was piqued and my mind started going in lots of different directions. The second question carefully creates a gap just big enough to let a hundred new questions through and is a brilliant example of why both museum interpretation and participatory projects should leave room for curiosity…

Works cited:

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Kim Hermanson. 1995. “Intrinsic Motivation in Museums: Why Does One Want to Learn?” In Public Institutions for Personal Learning: Establishing a Research Agenda, edited by John Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, 66 – 77. Washington D.C.: American Association of Museums. [This is seriously ace, track down a copy if you can]
  • Flanagan, Mary, and Peter. 2012. “How Games Can Help Us Access and Understand Archival Images.” American Archivist 75 (2): 514–537.
  • Raddick, M. Jordan, Georgia Bracey, K. Carney, G. Gyuk, K. Borne, J. Wallin, and S Jacoby. 2009. “Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade.” In Astro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. Vol. 2010. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/astro2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id=454.

(Ok, so a post with references is not exactly blogging like it’s 2006, but you’ve got to start somewhere…)
(Someone is literally setting off fireworks somewhere nearby. I have no idea why.)
(And yeah, I am working on a Saturday night. Friends don’t let friends do PhDs, innit.)

‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – the Museums Computer Group in Belfast

Last week I was in Belfast for the Museum Computer Group‘s Spring event, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’, fabulously organised by Alan Hook (Lecturer, University of Ulster) and Oonagh Murphy (MCG Committee member and PhD Researcher, University of Ulster) with support from the MCG Committee, and hosted by the University of Ulster’s Centre for Media Research.

Like other recent MCG event reports, I’m also writing as the Chair of the group, so you may think I’m biased when I say it was an excellent day with great speakers, but if I am at all biased, I promise it’s only a tiny bit! I’ve posted my talk notes at ‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at MCGPlay, Belfast.

The MCG’s Spring Meeting is an opportunity to take a wider theme than our annual Museums on the Web conference (which as the name suggests, is generally about things that touch on museums on the web). This year’s topic was ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’, with presentations on playful experiences from site-specific theatre, rapid prototyping and hack days, big budget and experimental games. The event was an opportunity to bring museum staff and researchers together with game and interaction designers, and the ‘regional showcase’ of lightning talks about projects from local practitioners further helped introduce people to the great work already going on in Northern Ireland and hopefully start some local collaborations. As Alan pointed out in his introduction, it was also a chance to think about the impact of research and start conversations between museums and academia.

The first session after my talk was ‘Play: A Northern Ireland Showcase’ and began with Lyndsey Jackson (@LyndseyJJacksonof Kabosh talking about ‘Immersive Theatre and Digital Experience’ and their site-specific theatre company. Their material is the buildings, people and stories of Northern Ireland and they work with unusual spaces – anywhere but a theatre. They’re dealing with two interesting constraints – the stories of buildings might be complicated, contested or difficult, and while they want to give audiences the chance to navigate an experience for themselves, they’re aware that ‘theatre is a game – it has rules, boundaries, you can bend them but it confuses people when you break them’. In a lovely departure from some museum experiences, they don’t try to give their audiences all the answers – sometimes they want to give people some information in a way that starts them asking questions so they have to look things up themselves if they want to know more. I wish I’d had longer in Belfast to see one of their shows or try ‘Belfast Bred‘.

Oonagh (@oonaghtweets) presented some results from her audit of the online presences of museums in Northern Ireland and the question she set out to test: that professional development hack days can help the sector. Find out more at her MW2013 paper on ‘This is Our Playground‘; but one fascinating snippet was that museum studies students are quite conservative, ‘museums have rules for a reason’, and take a while to warm to the concept of prototyping. Alan (@alan_hook) talked about MYNI photo competition, asking ‘is Northern Ireland ready for play in these spaces?’, games that work with ‘civic pride’, the realities of designing mobile experiences around 3G coverage and expensive data plans, and shared some reflections on the process, including his questions about the ethics of crowdsourcing images and the differences between academic and industry timelines.

 The next session was ‘Games: Best Practice and Innovative Approaches’. First up, Sharna Jackson (@sharnajackson), czar of Tate Kids, presented on the past, present and future of play at Tate. She pointed out that games can bring in hard-to-reach audiences, can be a gateway to engagement with deeper content, and can be a work of art in themselves. I loved her stance on web vs device-specific apps – while tablets are increasingly popular, their aim is to reach wide audiences so jumping into apps might not be right choice for limited budgets. Her lessons included: know your audience, what they expect; start playing games so you know what mechanics you like so you’ve got context for decisions and so you get what’s great about games; your mission, content and goals all influence what kinds of games it makes sense for you to make; if planning to let users generate content, you need a strategy to manage it. Be clear about what games are – respect the medium.

Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) of the Wellcome Collection talked about ‘Truth and Fact: Museums and Public Engagement, including the High Tea evaluation‘s findings that ‘piracy is the most effective form of distribution’ so designing games to be ripped or seeded on portals can help achieve wider goals. He also talked about the differences between history and science games, as well as some of the unique hazards of working in museums with large, closely related collections – one memory game was ‘punishing you with intense sense of similarity of items in Henry Wellcome’s collection’.

The final presentation in the session was Alex Moseley on the educational potential of low budget games. His talk included a tiny taster of alternative reality gameplay and discussion of some disruptive, slightly subversive elements of ARGs you could use independently. His seven step process: identify key concepts or constraints want to get across; situate them in real activities; think of a real problem or challenge; add narrative to deepen the context; create a prototype; test it with colleagues/visitors; refine, retest and release. He also raised some challenges for museums: if players suggest something good in an ARG, it could be incorporated and effect the outcome – but this might be tricky for museums to manage with limited resources.

One interesting test that emerged from the panel discussion was whether something was ‘Belfast good’. As Oonagh said, ‘Is this good or is it ‘Belfast-good’ because if it’s Belfast-good, then not good enough’. Asking whether a project is ‘museum good’ or ‘academic good’ might be a useful test in the future… The session also lead to ‘chocolate covered broccoli‘ references overtaking ‘gamification’ as the new buzzword bingo winner.

The lightning talks covered a range of interesting projects from local organisations, in part with the idea of helping start local conversations. Some of the projects we heard about from @takebackbelfast, @stephentshaw, @designzoo and @Lancorz were really inspiring and just plain cool.  It was also refreshing to hear outsider’s perspectives on what museums do: one guy said ‘people bring their own knowledge, experiences and devices to museums – why do you need big interactive installations?’.
The day finished with a twenty minute play test of Alex Moseley’s ‘curate-a-fact’ game then we headed off to the pub for some well-deserved #drinkingaboutmuseums.

The MCG usually holds its Spring Meeting somewhere outside London, but it’s a long time since we’ve been in Belfast – it might have been a long time coming, but Belfast did themselves proud. I was really encouraged by the excellent work going on in the region and the creativity and energy of the people and projects in the room. Huge thanks to all the participants, chairs, speakers and organisers for putting together a great day!

Thanks to the university, we were able to (mostly) live stream the talks, and had people watching at their desk in Leicester or London and even from a train in New York! We also had a live tweeter @JasonAPurdy on the @cmr_ulster account plus loads of tweeters in the audience to help capture the day. Alex has also posted his thoughts on ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – well worth a read.

‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at MCGPlay, Belfast

These are my rough notes for my talk on ‘Digital challenges, digital opportunities’ at Museum Computer Group‘s Spring event, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ (or #MCGPlay). My aim was to introduce the Museums Computer Group, discuss some of the challenges museums and their staff are facing and think about how to create opportunities from those challenges. I’ve posted my notes about the other talks at MCGPlay at ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play’ – the Museums Computer Group in Belfast.

Play testing Alex’s game at #MCGPlay

I started with some information about the MCG – our mission to connect, support and inspire people working with museum technology (whether technologists, curators, academics, directors or documentation staff) and how that informs the events we run and platforms like our old-school but effective mailing list, whose members who can between them answer almost any museumy question you can think of. As a practioner-led group of volunteers, the MCG can best fulfill its mission by acting as a platform, and with over 1000 members on our mailing list and hundreds of attendees at events, we can help people in the sector help and inspire each other in a mutually supportive space. We’ve also been involved in projects like the Semantic Web Think Tank (2006-2007), Mashed Museum hack days (2007, 2008) and LIVE!Museum (2009-2010). Apparently list discussions even inspired Culture24’s Let’s Get Real analytics project! In response to surveys with our members we’re experimenting with more regional events, and with event formats like the ‘Failure Swapshop’ we trialled early this week and #drinkingaboutmuseums after the conference. (On a personal note, reviewing our history and past events was a lovely excuse to reflect on the projects and events the MCG community has been involved in and also to marvel at how young familiar faces looked at past events).

I’d reviewed the MCG list subject lines over the past few months to get a sense of the challenges or questions that digital museum people were facing:

  • Finding good web design/SEO/evaluation/etc agencies, finding good staff
  • The emergence of ‘head of digital’ roles
  • Online collections, managing digital assets; integration with Collections Management Systems and other systems
  • Integrating Collections Management Systems and 3rd party platforms like WordPress
  • Storytelling to engage the public
  • Museum informatics: CIDOC-CRM and other linked open data topics
  • ‘Create once, publish everywhere’ – can re-usable content really work?
  • Online analytics
  • Digital 3D objects – scanning, printing
  • Measuring the impact of social media
  • MOOCs (online courses)
  • Google Cultural Institute, Google Art Project, Artsy, etc
  • 3rd party tools – PayPal, Google Apps
  • Mobile – apps, well-designed experiences
  • Digital collections in physical exhibitions spaces
  • Touch tables/large-scale interactives
  • The user experience of user-generated content / co-produced exhibitions

Based on those, discussions at various meetings and reviews from other conferences, I pulled out a few themes in museum conversations:

  • ‘Strategically digital’ – the topic of many conversations over the past few years, including MCG’s Museums on the Web 2012, which was actually partly about saying that best solution for a project might not involve technology. Being ‘strategically digital’ offers some solutions to the organisational change issues raised by the mismatch between web speed and museum speed, and it means technology decisions should always refer back to a museum’s public engagement strategy (or infrastructure plans for background ICT services).
  • Mobile – your museum’s website probably has over 20% mobile visitors, so if you’re not thinking about the quality of their experience, you may be driving away business.
  • Immersive, challenging experiences – the influence of site-specific theatre, alternative reality games and transmedia experiences, the ever-new value of storytelling…
  • High-quality services integrated across the whole museum – new terms like service design and design thinking, are taking over from the old refrain of user-centred design, and going beyond it to test how the whole organisation appears to the customer – does it feel like a seamless, pleasurable (or at least not painful) experience? Museums are exploring new(ish) ways of thinking to solve old problems. As with mobile sites, you should be designing around your audiences needs, not your internal structures and complications.
  • Audience participation and engagement – we’ll hear about games over the day, but also think about crowdsourcing, asking the audience to help with tasks or share their knowledge with you.

And a few more challenges:

  • New models of authority and expertise – museum authority is challenged not only by audiences expecting to ‘curate’ their own experience but also by younger staff or people who’ve come from other sectors and have their own ideas about digital projects.
  • Constantly changing audience expectations – if you’ve ever seen kids smoosh their hands on a screen because they expect it to zoom in response to their touch, you’ll know how hard it is to keep up with consumer technologies. Expectations about the quality of the experience and the quality of the technology are always changing based on films, consumer products and non-museum experiences.
  • ‘Doing more with less’ (and then less again)
  • Figuring out where to ask for help – it can be hard to find your way through the jargon and figure out what language to use
  • Training and personal development – job swaps or mentoring might supplement traditional training

There’ll always be new things to learn, and new challenges, so find supportive peers to learn with. The MCG community is one of the ways that people can learn from each other, but the museum sector is full of smart people who are generous with their time and knowledge. Run a discussion group or seminar series over lunch or in the pub, even if you have to rope in other local organisations to make it happen, join in mailing lists, find blogs to follow, look for bursaries to get to events. The international Museums and the Web past papers are an amazing resource, and Twitter hashtags can be another good place to ask for help (check out Dana Allen-Greil’s ‘Glossary of Museum-Related Hashtags‘ for US-based pointers).

I finished by saying that despite all the frustrations, it’s an amazing time to work in or study the sector, so enjoy it! We shouldn’t limit ourselves to engaging audiences in play when we could be engaging ourselves in play.

Museums Computer Group: connect, support, inspire me

On the trickiness of crowdsourcing competitions: some lessons from Sydney Design

I generally maintain a diplomatic silence about crowdsourcing competitions when I’m talking about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as I believe spec work (or asking people to invest time in creating designs then paying just one ‘winner’) is unethical, and it’s really tricky for design competitions to avoid looking like ‘spec work’. I discovered this for myself when I ran the ‘Cosmic Collections’ mashup competition, so I have a lot of sympathy for museums who unknowingly get it wrong when experimenting with crowdsourcing. I also tend not to talk about poorly conceived or executed crowdsourcing projects as it doesn’t seem fair to single out cultural heritage institutions that were trying to do the right thing against odds that ended up beating them, but I think the lessons to be drawn from the Sydney Design festival’s competition are important enough to discuss here.

'Is it a free poster yet?'
‘Is it a free poster yet?’

A crowdsourcing competition model that the museum had previously applied successfully (the Lace Award and Trainspotting, with prizes up to $AUD20,000 and display in the exhibition for winning designs) had a very different reception when the context and rewards changed. When the Powerhouse Museum’s design competition to produce the visual identity for the Sydney Design festival was launched with a $US1000 prize, the design community’s sensitivity to spec work and ‘free pitching’ was triggered, and they started throwing in some sarcastic responses.  The public feedback loop created as people could see previous designs and realised their own would also be featured on the site had a 4Chan-ish feel of a fun new meme about it, and once the norm of satirical responses was set, it was only going to escalate.

More importantly, there was a sense that Sydney Design was pulling a swifty. As Kate Sweetapple puts it in How the Sydney Design festival poster competition went horribly wrong:

‘The fundamental difference [to the previous competitions], however, is that by running the competition, the Museum pulled a substantial job – worth tens of thousands of dollars – out of the professional marketplace. The submissions to Love Lace and Trainspotting did not have a commercial context one year, and none the next.’

If the previous reward was mostly monetary, offering a lesser intrinsic reward in exchange for a previously extrinsic reward is unlikely to work. If there’s a bigger reward than than the competition brief itself would suggest, one important lesson is to make it unavoidably obvious. In this case, the Sydney Design Team’s response said ‘the Museum would have engaged the winning designer for further work and remuneration required to roll out the winning design into a more comprehensive marketing campaign’, but this wasn’t clear in the original brief. Many museum competitions display highly-ranked entries in their gallery spaces, and being exhibited in the museum or festival spaces might have been another form of valid reward, but only if it worked as an aspiration for the competition’s audience, who in this case might well have a breadth of experience and exposure that rendered it less valuable.

Finally, in working with museums online, I’ve noticed the harshness of criticism is often proportionate to how deeply people care about you or identify you with certain values they hold dear.  When you’re a beloved institution, people who care deeply about you feel betrayed when you get things wrong. As one commentator said in With friends like these, who needs enemies?, ‘Sydney Design are meant to be in our corner’. If you regard critics as ‘critical friends’ you can turn the relationship around (as Merel van der Vaart discusses in the ‘Opening up’ section of her post on lessons from the Science Museum’s Oramics exhibition) and build an even stronger relationship with them. Maybe Sydney Design can still turn this around…

Does ‘slow art day’ work online?

Saturday was ‘slow art day‘, and the Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) shared a Robert Hughes clip that really resonated with me:

‘We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.’

I was tied to my desk writing that day so I wondered how I could have a similar experience: can you ‘do’ slow art online? Assuming you can switch off all the other distractions of email, social media, flashing ads, etc, and ignore the fact that your house, office or library is full of other tasks and temptations, can you slow down and sit in front of one art work and have a similar experience through an image on a screen, or does being in a gallery add something to the process? On the other hand, high-resolution images and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) mean you can see details you’d never see in a gallery so you can explore the artwork itself more deeply*. And to remove the screen from the equation, would looking at a really good print of a painting be as rewarding as looking at the original? And what of installations and sculpture?

Related to that, I’ve been wondering how to relate online collections (whether thematic, exhibition-style or old school catalogues) to audience motivations for visiting museums. I’ve just been reading a great overview of people’s motivations for visiting museums in Dimitra Christidou’s Re-Introducing Visitors: Thoughts and Discussion on John Falk’s Notion of Visitors’ Identity-Related Visit Motivations. Christidou summarises Falk and Storksdieck’s 2005 research on ‘museum-specific identities’ reflecting visitor motivations:

  1. Explorers are driven by their personal curiosity, their urge to discover new things.
  2. Facilitators visit the museum on behalf of others’ special interests in the exhibition or the subject-matter of the museum.
  3. Experience seekers are these visitors who desire to see and experience a place, such as tourists.
  4. Professional hobbyists are those with specific knowledge in the subject matter of an exhibition and specific goals in mind.
  5. Rechargers seek a contemplative or restorative experience, often to let some steam out of their systems.
Once I’d gotten past the amusing mental image of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s head exploding at the concept of ‘big’ and ‘small’ online identities that change according to context, interests, motivations, etc**, I thought the article provided a useful framework for returning to the question of ‘what are museum websites for?‘. We can safely assume that most gallery sites consider the needs of ‘professional hobbyists’, but what of the other motivations? Some of these motivations are embedded in social experiences – do art sites enable multi-user experiences online, or do they assume that ‘sharing’ or facilitation only happens via social media? Does looking at art online go deep enough to count as an ‘experience’? And how much of the ‘recharging’ experience is tied to the act of getting to a particular space at a particular time, or to the affordances of the space itself and its physical separation from most distractions of the world?

What new motivations should be added for online experiences of museum exhibitions and objects? What’s enabled by the convenience, accessibility and discoverability of art online? And to return to slow art, how can museums use text and design to cue people to slow down and look at art for minutes at a time without getting in the way of people who want a quick experience? (And is this the same basic question I’d asked earlier about ‘enabling punctum’ or ‘what’s the effect of all this aggregation of museum content on the user experience‘?)

* Assuming you don’t look so closely that you slip into ‘inappropriate peering‘.
** I’m sure Zuckerberg knows people have different identities in different situations, it’s just more convenient for Facebook not to care. Christopher ‘moot’ Poole opposed this push quite well in a series of talks in 2011.

Notes from ‘Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities’

Last week I attended a one-day conference, ‘Digital Impacts: Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities‘ (#oxcrowd), convened by Kathryn Eccles of Oxford’s Internet Institute, and I’m sharing my (sketchy, as always) notes in the hope that they’ll help people who couldn’t attend.

Stuart Dunn reported on the Humanities Crowdsourcing scoping report (PDF) he wrote with Mark Hedges and noted that if we want humanities crowdsourcing to take off we should move beyond crowdsourcing as a business model and look to form, nurture and connect with communities.  Alice Warley and Andrew Greg presented a useful overview of the design decisions behind the Your Paintings Tagger and sparked some discussion on how many people need to view a painting before it’s ‘completed’, and the differences between structured and unstructured tagging. Interestingly, paintings can be ‘retired’ from the Tagger once enough data has been gathered – I personally think the inherent engagement in tagging is valuable enough to keep paintings taggable forever, even if they’re not prioritised in the tagging interface.  Kate Lindsay brought a depth of experience to her presentation on ‘The Oxford Community Collection Model’ (as seen in Europeana 1914-1918 and RunCoCo’s 2011 report on ‘How to run a community collection online‘ (PDF)). Some of the questions brought out the importance of planning for sustainability in technology, licences, etc, and the role of existing networks of volunteers with the expertise to help review objects on the community collection days.  The role of the community in ensuring the quality of crowdsourced contributions was also discussed in Kimberly Kowal’s presentation on the British Library’s Georeferencer project. She also reflected on what she’d learnt after the first phase of the Georeferencer project, including that the inherent reward of participating in the activity was a bigger motivator than competitiveness, and the impact on the British Library itself, which has opened up data for wider digital uses and has more crowdsourcing projects planned. I gave a paper which was based on an earlier version, The gift that gives twice: crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage, but pushed my thinking about crowdsourcing as a tool for deep engagement with museums and other memory organisations even further. I also succumbed to the temptation to play with my own definitions of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage: ‘a form of engagement that contributes towards a shared, significant goal or research question by asking the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically’ or ‘productive public engagement with the mission and work of memory institutions’.

Chris Lintott of Galaxy Zoo fame shared his definition of success for a crowdsourcing/citizen science project: it has to produce results of value to the research community in less time than could have been done by other means (i.e. it must have been able to achieve something with crowd that couldn’t have without them) and discussed how the Ancient Lives project challenged that at first by turning ‘a few thousand papyri they didn’t have time to transcribe into several thousand data points they didn’t have time to read’.  While ‘serendipitous discovery is a natural consequence of exposing data to large numbers of users’ (in the words of the Citizen Science Alliance), they wanted a more sophisticated method for recording potential discoveries experts made while engaging with the material and built a focused ‘talk‘ tool which can programmatically filter out the most interesting unanswered comments and email them to their 30 or 40 expert users. They also have Letters for more structured, journal-style reporting. (I hope I have that right).  He also discussed decisions around full text transcriptions (difficult to automatically reconcile) vs ‘rich metadata’, or more structured indexes of the content of the page, which contain enough information to help historians decide which pages to transcribe in full for themselves.

Some other thoughts that struck me during the day… humanities crowdsourcing has a lot to learn from the application of maths and logic in citizen science – lots of problems (like validating data) that seem intractable can actually be solved algorithmically, and citizen science hypothesis-based approach to testing task and interface design would help humanities projects. Niche projects help solve the problem of putting the right obscure item in front of the right user (which was an issue I wrestled with during my short residency at the Powerhouse Museum last year – in hindsight, building niche projects could have meant a stronger call-to-action and no worries about getting people to navigate to the right range of objects).  The variable role of forums and participants’ relationship to the project owners and each other came up at various points – in some projects, interactions with a central authority are more valued, in others, community interactions are really important. I wonder how much it depends on the length and size of the project? The potential and dangers of ‘gamification’ and ‘badgeification’ and their potentially negative impact on motivation were raised. I agree with Lintott that games require a level of polish that could mean you’d invest more in making them than you’d get back in value, but as a form of engagement that can create deeper relationships with cultural heritage and/or validate some procrastination over a cup of tea, I think they potentially have a wider value that balances that.

I was also asked to chair the panel discussion, which featured Kimberly Kowal, Andrew Greg, Alice Warley, Laura Carletti, Stuart Dunn and Tim Causer.  Questions during the panel discussion included:

  • ‘what happens if your super-user dies?’ (Super-users or super contributors are the tiny percentage of people who do most of the work, as in this Old Weather post) – discussion included mass media as a numbers game, the idea that someone else will respond to the need/challenge, and asking your community how they’d reach someone like them. (This also helped answer the question ‘how do you find your crowd?’ that came in from twitter)
  • ‘have you ever paid anyone?’ Answer: no
  • ‘can you recruit participants through specialist societies?’ From memory, the answer was ‘yes but it does depend’.
  • something like ‘have you met participants in real life?’ – answer, yes, and it was an opportunity to learn from them, and to align the community, institution, subject and process.
  • badgeification?’. Answer: the quality of the reward matters more than the levels (so badges are probably out).
  • ‘what happens if you force students to work on crowdsourcing projects?’ – one suggestion was to look for entries on Transcribe Bentham in a US English class blog
  • ‘what’s happened to tagging in art museums, where’s the new steve.museum or Brooklyn Museum?’ – is it normalised and not written about as much, or has it declined?
  • ‘how can you get funding for crowdsourcing projects?’. One answer – put a good application in to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Or start small, prove the value of the project and get a larger sum. Other advice was to be creative or use existing platforms. Speaking of which, last year the Citizen Science Alliance announced ‘the first open call for proposals by researchers who wish to develop citizen science projects which take advantage of the experience, tools and community of the Zooniverse. Successful proposals will receive donated effort of the Adler-based team to build and launch a new citizen science project’.
  • ‘can you tell in advance which communities will make use of a forum?’ – a great question that drew on various discussions of the role of communities of participants in supporting each other and devising new research questions
  • a question on ‘quality control’ provoked a range of responses, from the manual quality control in Transcribe Bentham and the high number of Taggers initially required for each painting in Your Paintings which slowed things down, and lead into a discussion of shallow vs deep interactions
  • the final questioner asked about documenting film with crowdsourcing and was answered by someone else in the audience, which seemed a very fitting way to close the day.
James Murray in his Scriptorium with thousands of word references sent in by members of the public for the first Oxford English Dictionary. Early crowdsourcing?

If you found this post useful, you might also like Frequently Asked Questions about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage or my earlier Museums and the Web paper on Playing with Difficult Objects – Game Designs to Improve Museum Collections.