How can we connect museum technologists with their history?

A quick post triggered by an article on the role of domain knowledge (knowledge of a field) in critical thinking, Deep in thought:

Domain knowledge is so important because of the way our memories work. When we think, we use both working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is the space where we take in new information from our environment; everything we are consciously thinking about is held there. Long-term memory is the store of knowledge that we can call up into working memory when we need it. Working memory is limited, whereas long-term memory is vast. Sometimes we look as if we are using working memory to reason, when actually we are using long-term memory to recall. Even incredibly complex tasks that seem as if they must involve working memory can depend largely on long-term memory.

When we are using working memory to progress through a new problem, the knowledge stored in long-term memory will make that process far more efficient and successful. … The more parts of the problem that we can automate and store in long-term memory, the more space we will have available in working memory to deal with the new parts of the problem.

A few years ago I defined a ‘museum technologist‘ as ‘someone who can appropriately apply a range of digital solutions to help meet the goals of a particular museum project‘, and deep domain knowledge clearly has a role to play in this (also in the kinds of critical thinking that will save technologists from being unthinking cheerleaders for the newest buzzword or geek toy). 

There’s a long history of hard-won wisdom, design patterns and knowledge (whether about ways not to tender for or specify software, reasons why proposed standards may or may not work, translating digital methods and timelines for departments raised on print, etc – I’m sure you all have examples) contained in the individual and collective memory of individual technologists and teams. Some of it is represented in museum technology mailing lists, blogs or conference proceedings, but the lessons learnt in the past aren’t always easily discoverable by people encountering digital heritage issues for the first time. And then there’s the issue of working out which knowledge relates to specific, outdated technologies and which still holds while not quashing the enthusiasm of new people with a curt ‘we tried that before’…

Something in the juxtaposition of the 20th anniversary of BritPop and the annual wave of enthusiasm and discovery from the international Museums and the Web (#MW2014) conference prompted me to look at what the Museums Computer Group (MCG) and Museum Computer Network (MCN) lists were talking about in April five and ten years ago (i.e. in easily-accessible archives):

Five years ago in #musetech – open web, content distribution, virtualisation, wifi https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A1=ind0904&L=mcg&X=498A43516F310B2193 http://mcn.edu/pipermail/mcn-l/2009-April/date.html

Ten years ago in #musetech people were talking about knowledge organisation and video links with schools https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A1=ind04&L=mcg&F=&S=&X=498A43516F310B2193

Some of the conversations from that random sample are still highly relevant today, and more focused dives into various archives would probably find approaches and information that’d help people tackling current issues.

So how can we help people new to the sector find those previous conversations and get some of this long-term memory into their own working memory? Pointing people to search forms for the MCG and MCN lists is easy, some of the conference proceedings are a bit trickier (e.g. search within the museumsandtheweb.com) and there’s no central list of museum technology blogs that I know of. Maybe people could nominate blog posts they think stand the test of time, mindful of the risk of it turning into a popularity/recency thing?

If you’re new(ish) to digital heritage, how did you find your feet? Which sites or communities helped you, and how did you find them? Or if you have a new team member, how do you help them get up to speed with museum technology? Or looking further afield, which resources would you send to someone from academia or related heritage fields who wanted to learn about building heritage resources for or with specialists and the public?

Planes, trains and automobiles…

This week I’m heading to Lincoln, Nebraska for Digital Humanities 2013 (abstracts) (where I’m also doing a half-day workshop on ‘Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects‘ and attending my first meeting as a member of the ACH Executive Council).

After DH2013, I’m gradually making my way east by Amtrak and Greyhound, ending up at One Week, One Tool (‘a digital humanities barn raising’!). I’ll be in Chicago from Sunday afternoon (July 21) until late 22nd, arriving in Cleveland on the 23rd and jumping on another bus to Pittsburgh for  July 24-27. If you’re going to be nearby and fancy a chat about crowdsourcing, museums or digital history, or have a suggestion for sights I should see, let me know! You can get a sense of my interests at the never-properly updated Upcoming talks and travel and My PhD research.

‘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

‘Go digital’ at Museums Association 2012 Conference

Some people who couldn’t make the Museums Association conference (or #museums2012) asked for more information on the session on digital strategies, so here are my introductory remarks and some scribbled highlights of the speakers’ papers and discussion with the audience.

Update: a year later, I’ve thought of a ‘too long, didn’t read’ version: digital strategies are like puberty. Everyone has to go through it, but life’s better on the other side when you’ve figured things out. Digital should be incorporated into engagement, collections, venue etc strategies – it’s not a thing on its own.

The speakers were Carolyn Royston (@caro_ft), Head of New Media at Imperial War Museum; Hugh Wallace (@tumshie), Head of Digital Media at National Museums Scotland; Michael Woodward (@michael1665), Commercial Director at York Museums Trust, and I chaired the session in my role as Chair of the Museums Computer Group. From the conference programme: ‘This session explores the importance of developing a digital strategy. It will provide insight into how organisations can incorporate digital into a holistic approach that meets wider organisational and public engagement objectives and look at how to use digital engagement as a catalyst to drive organisational change.’

After various conversations about digital and museums with people who were interested in the session, I updated my introduction so that overall the challenge of embracing the impact of digital technologies, platforms and audiences on museums was put in a positive light.  The edited title that appeared in the programme had a different emphasis (‘Go digital’ rather than the ‘Getting strategic about digital’ we submitted) so I wanted it to be clear that we weren’t pushing a digital agenda for the sake of technology itself. Or as I apparently said at the time, “it’s not about making everything digital, it’s about dealing with the fact that digital is everywhere”.

I started by asking people to raise their hands if their museum had a digital strategy, and I’d say well over half the room responded, which surprised me. Perhaps a third were in the process of planning for a digital strategy and just a few were yet to start at all.

My notes were something like this: “we probably all know by now that digital technologies bring wonderful opportunities for museums and their audiences, but you might also be worried about the impact of technology on audiences and your museum. ‘Digital’ varies in organisations – it might encompass social media, collections, mobile, marketing, in-gallery interactives, broadcast and content production. It touches every public-facing output of the museum as well as back-office functions and infrastructure.

You can’t avoid the impact of digital on your organisation, so it’s about how you deal with it, how you integrate it into the fabric of your museum. As you’ll hear in the case studies, implementing digital strategy itself changes the organisation, so from the moment you start talking to people about devising a digital strategy, you’ll be making progress. For some of our presenters, their digital strategy ultimately took the form of a digital vision document – the strategy itself is embedded in the process and in the resulting framework for working across the organisation. A digital strategy framework allows you to explore options in conversation with the whole organisation, it’s not about making everything digital.

Our case studies come from three very different organisations working with different collections in different contexts. Mike, Commercial Director at York Museums Trust will talk about planning the journey, moving from ad hoc work to making digital integral to how the organisation works; Hugh, Head of Digital Media at National Museums Scotland will discuss the process they went through to develop digital strategy, what’s worked and what hasn’t’; Carolyn Royston, Head of Digital Media at Imperial War Museums, who comes from a learning background, will talk from IWM’s digital adventure, from where they started to where they are now. They’re each at different stages of the process of implementing and living with a digital strategy.

Based on our discussions as we planned this session, the life cycle of a digital strategy in a museum seems to be: aspiration, design, education and internal outreach, integration with other strategies (particularly public engagement) and sign off… then take a deep breath, look at what the ripple effect has been and start updating your strategies as everything will have changed since you started. And with that, over to Mike…”

Mike talked about working out when digital delivery really makes sense, whether for inaccessible objects (like a rock on Mars) or a delicate book; the major role that outreach and communication play in the process of creating a digital strategy; appointing the staff that would deliver it based on eagerness, enthusiasm and teamwork rather than pure tech skills; where digital teams should sit in the organisation; and about the possibility of using digital volunteers (or ‘armchair experts’) to get content online.

Hugh went for ‘frameworks, not fireworks’, pointing out that what happens after the strategy is written is important so you need to create a flexible framework to manage the inevitable change.  He discussed the importance of asking the right-sized question (as in one case, where ‘we didn’t know at the start that an app would be the answer’) and working on getting digital into ‘business as usual’ rather than an add-on team with specialist skills.  Or as one tweeter summarised, ‘work across depts, don’t get hung up on the latest tech, define users realistically and keep it simple’.

Carolyn covered the different forms of digital engagement and social media the IWM have been trying and the role of creating their digital vision in helping overcome their fears; the benefits of partnerships with other organisations for piggybacking on their technology, networks and audiences, and the fact that their collections sales have gone up as a result of opening up their collections.  In the questions, someone described intellectual property restrictions to try to monetise collections as ‘fool’s gold’ – great term!  I think we should have a whole conference session on this sometime soon.

When reviewing our discussions beforehand I’d found a note from a planning call which summed up how much the process should change the organisation: ‘if you’re not embarrassed by your digital strategy six months after sign-off you probably haven’t done it right’, and on the day the speakers reinforced my impression that ultimately, devising and implementing a digital strategy is (probably) a necessary process to go through but it’s not a goal in its own right.  The IWM and NMS examples show that the internal education and conversations can both create a bigger appetite for digital engagement and change organisational expectations around digital to the point where it has to be more widely integrated.  The best place for a digital strategy is within a public engagement strategy that integrates the use of digital platforms and working methods into the overall public-facing work of the museum.

Listening to the speakers, a new metaphor occurred to me: is implementing a digital strategy like gardening? It needs constant care and feeding after the big job of sowing seeds is over. And much like gardening for pleasure (in the UK, anyway), the process may have more impact than the product.

And something I didn’t articulate at the time – if the whole museum is going to be doing some digital work, we technologists are going to have to be patient and generous in sharing our knowledge and helping everyone learn how to make sensible decisions about digital content and experiences.  If we don’t, we risk being a bottleneck or forcing people to proceed based on guesswork and neither are good for museums or their audiences.

So much awesomeness! #GODIGITAL #Museums2012 twitter.com/dannybirchall/…
— Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) November 9, 2012

Huge thanks for Carolyn, Hugh and Michael for making the whole thing such a pleasure and to the Museum Association conference organisers for the opportunity to share our thoughts and experiences.

And finally, if you’re interested in digital strategies in heritage organisations, the Museums Computer Groups annual Museums on the Web conference is all about being ‘strategically digital’ (which as you might have guessed from the above, sometimes might mean not using technology at all) but UKMW12 tickets are selling out fast, so don’t delay.

‘Behind-the-themes’ at the UK Museums on the Web conference – UKMW12 ‘Strategica​lly Digital’

Full disclosure: I’m the Chair of the Museums Computer Group, and in this case I also chaired the Programme Committee, but I think we’ve put together a really strong programme.  I thought I’d provide some background here about where the themes came from.  (Also, I’ll take any excuse for a punning title.)

When putting together the themes, I reviewed reports from a number of international conferences and went through the archives of the MCG’s mailing list to get a sense of the issues that were both bugging our members on a daily basis and having an impact on museums more generally.  I’ve also spent time talking to staff in museums in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, the US and (of course) the UK and those conversations also informed the themes.  I also referred back to the MCG Committee‘s discussions about our vision for ‘MCG@30’, which included supporting our members by advocating for their work at higher levels of the museum sector. Hopefully this event is part of this process, as is a session on ‘digital strategy’ at the Museums Association conference.

For me, being ‘strategically digital’ means the 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).

Like our ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ Spring meeting that aimed to get museum technologists and educators talking and learning from each other, UKMW12 is about breaking out of our comfortable technology-focused bubble and making sure the goals and language of web and digital teams relate to the rest of the organisation; it’s also about helping the rest of the museum understand your work.  We’ve seen a range of people sign up for tickets so far, so hopefully the day will provide a chance for staff to understand more about the workings of their own museum as well as the museums presenting on the day.  The conference is grounded in reality: our speakers address both successes and failures in digital strategies and organisational change.  You can get a sneak preview of the range of discussion on the day at Andrew Dobson’s post on ‘10 things I have learned working for Sky‘, Tate’s Online Strategy or Caper on Happenstance, Simon Tanner’s ‘Balanced Value Impact Model‘ and of course through the talk abstracts in the programme.   Some of our best Museums on the Web conferences have featured a similar mix of fresh voices from outside the sector and hard-won wisdom from within the sector, so I have high hopes for this event.

After some thought, a call for papers and the input of the wonderful 2012 Programme Committee (Ross Parry, Melissa Terras, Carolyn Royston and Stuart Dunn), this is the result:

Logo that says: 'museums computer group: connect me, support me, inspire me'

The Museums Computer Group’s annual Museums on the Web conference – UKMW12 – will be held at the Wellcome Collection in London on 30 November 2012.

UKMW12 is about being ‘strategically digital’. Responding to the issues faced by museums today, it’s an opportunity to take a step back from the everyday and think strategically about the impact of the digital revolution on your museum and on the sector as a whole, including themes such as: digitally enabling the modern museum and its staff; sustaining the digital agenda and the realities of digital strategies and organisational change; and the complexities of digital engagement and the impact of social media on audience expectations. 

UKMW12 brings together speakers from organisations including the Tate, the V&A, UCL, King’s College, the Guardian, Strategic Content Alliance, Collections Trust and Caper. 

As always, UK Museums on the Web is a day for being inspired by the latest ideas, for learning from case studies grounded in organisations like yours, and for networking with other technologists, curators, managers, academics, learning and marketing specialists in the museum and heritage sector. 

Don’t miss out! Book your ticket now at http://ukmw12.eventbrite.co.uk
Find out more about the conference at http://bit.ly/ukmw12.

If you’ve never been (or haven’t been for a while) to an MCG event, these posts link to several event reports from attendees and should give you an idea of who goes and what’s discussed: Your blog posts and tweets about ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ (Spring 2012); UKMW11 Blog Posts (theme: The innovative museum: creating a brighter future); UK Museums on the Web 2010.

On a personal note, this event will mark 30 years since the first ever Museums Computer Group event, and eight years since the first UK Museums on the Web conference – a milestone worth celebrating!  If you’d like to be an active part of the MCG’s future, we’ll be electing new committee members in the lunchtime AGM on November 30.  Get in touch if you’re curious about how you could contribute…

Museum Computer Network 2011 conference notes

Last November I went to the Museum Computer Network (MCN2011) conference for the first time – I was lucky enough to get a scholarship (for which many, many thanks).  The theme was ‘hacking the museum: innovation, agility and collaboration’ and the conference was packed with interesting sessions.My rough notes are below, though they’re probably even sketchier than usual because I had a pretty full conference (running a workshop, taking part in a panel and a debate).  (I thought I’d posted this at the time, but I just found it in draft, so here goes…)

Pre-conference workshop, Wednesday
I ran a half-day workshop on ‘Hacking and mash-ups for beginners‘, which had a great turn-out of people willing to get stuck in.  The basic idea was to give people a first go at scripting ‘hello world’ and a bit beyond (with JavaScript, because it can be run locally), to provide some insight into thinking computationally (understanding something of programmers think and how ideas might be turned into something on a screen), to play with real museum data and try different visualisation tools to create simple mashups.  My slides and speaker notes are at Hacking and mash-ups for beginners at MCN2011 and I’d be happy to share the exercises on request.  I used lots of cooking/food analogies so have a snack to hand in case the slides make you hungry! I had lots of good feedback from the workshop, but I think my favourite comment was this from Katie Burns (@K8burns): ‘…I loved the workshop. I nerded out and kept playing with your exercises on my flight home from ATL.’.

Thursday
Kevin Slavin’s (@slavin_fpo) thought-provoking keynote took us to Walter Benjamin by way of the Lascaux Caves and onto questions like: what does it do to us [as writers of wall captions and object labels] when objects provide information?.  He observed, ‘visitors turn to the caption as if the work of art is a question to be answered’ – are we reducing the work to information?  We should be evoking, rather than educating; amplifying rather than answering the question; producing a memory instead of preserving one; making the moment in which you’re actually present more precious… Ultimately, the authenticity of his experience [with the artwork in the caves] was in learning how to see it [in the context, the light in which it was created]. Kevin concluded that technology is not about giving additional things to look at, but additional ways to see.

I’ve posted about the panel discussing ‘What’s the point of a museum website?‘ I was in after the keynote at Report from ‘What’s the point of a museum website’… and Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what’s the point of a museum website?.  I also popped into the session ‘Valuing Online-only Visitors: Let’s Get Serious‘ which was grappling with many of the issues raised by Culture 24’s action research project, How to evaluate success online?.  This all seems to point to a growing momentum for finding new measurable models for value and engagement, possibly including online to on-site conversion, impact, even epiphanies. Interestingly, crowdsourcing is one place where it’s relatively easy to place a monetary value on online action – @alastairdunning popped up to say: ‘http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/ project – ‘Normal’ digitisation = £40 per item. Crowdsourced = £3.50 per item’, adding ‘But obviously cultural value of a Wilfred Owen mss is more than your neighbour’s WW1 letters and diaries’.

Friday
One of the sessions I was most looking forward to was Online cataloguing tools and strategies, as it covered crowdsourcing, digital scholarly practices and online collections – some of my favourite things!

Digital Mellini turned 17th C Italian manuscript (an inventory of paintings written in rhyming verse) into an online publication and a collaboration tool for scholars. The project asked ‘What will digital art history look like?’.  The old way of doing art history was about solo exploration, verbal idea-sharing, physical book publications, unlinked data, image rights issues; but the promise of digital scholarship is: linked data opens new routes to analysis, scholars collaborate online, conversations are captured, digital-only publications count for tenure, no copyright restrictions… I was impressed by their team-based, born-digital approach, even if it’s not their norm: ‘the process was very non-Getty, it was iterative and agile’.  They had a solid set of requirements included annotations and conversations at the word or letter level of the text, with references to related artworks. They’re now tackling ‘rules of engagement’ for scholars – where to comment, etc – and working out what an online publication looks like and how it affects scholarly practices.

Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) Online Collections‘s goal was search across all YCBA collections.  All the work they’ve done is open source – Solr, Lucene – cool!  They’re also using LIDO (superceding CDWA and MuseumDat) and looking to linked data including vocabulary harmonisation.  As with many cross-catalogue projects, they ended up using a lowest common denominator between collections and had to compromise on shared fields in search.  I’m not sure who used the lovely phrase ‘dedication to public domain’… Both art history presentations mentioned linked data – we’ve come far!

The final paper was Crowdsourcing transcription: who, why, what and how, with Perian Sully from Balbao Park talking with Ben Brumfield about how they’ve used his ‘From the Page’ transcription software.  Transcription is not only useful because you can’t do OCR on cursive writing, but it’s also a form of engagement and outreach (as I’ve found with other cultural heritage crowdsourcing).  They covered some similar initiatives like Family Search Indexing, whose goal is to get 175,000 new user volunteering to transcribe records (they’ve already transcribed close to a billion records) and the Historic Journals project whose goal is to link transcriptions with records in genealogy databases (and lots more examples but these were most relevant to my PhD research).

Reasons for crowd participation (from an ornithology project survey) included the importance of the programme, filling free time, love of nature, civic duty and school requirement.  People participate for a sense of purpose, love of the subject, immersion in the text (deep reading). The question of fun leads into peril of gamification – if you split text line by line to make a microtask-style game, you lose the interesting context.

They gave some tips on how to start a crowdsourced transcription project based on your material and the uses for your transcription.  The design will also affect interpretive decisions made when transcribing – do you try to replicate the line structure on the page? – and can provide incentives like competition to transcribe more materials, though as Perian pointed out, accuracy can be affected by motivation.

I had to leave Philosophical Leadership Needed for the Future: Digital Humanities Scholars in Museums early but it all made a lot more sense to me when I realised Neal wasn’t using ‘digital humanities’ in the sense it’s used academically (the application of computational techniques to humanities research questions) – as I see it, he’s talking about something much closer to ‘digital heritage’.

I still haven’t sorted out my notes from History Museums are not Art Museums: Discuss! but it was one of my favourite sessions and a great chance to discuss one of my museumy interests with really smart people.

Saturday
I popped into a bit of THATCamp/CultureHack and had fun playing with an imaginary museum, but unfortunately I didn’t get to spend any time in the THATCamp itself, because…

The MCN ‘Great Debate’
I was invited to take part in the Great Debate held as the closing plenary session.  I was on the affirmative side with Bruce Wyman, debating ‘there are too many museums’ against Rob Stein and Roseanna Flouty. For now, I think I’ll just say that I think it’s the hardest bit of public speaking I’ve ever done – the trickiness of the question was the least of it!  I think there’s a tension between the requirements of the formal debating structure and the desire to dissect the question so you can touch on issues relevant to the audience, so it’ll be interesting to see how the format might change in future.

Finally, a silly tweet from me: ‘#mcn2011 I’ve decided the perfect visitor-friendly museum is the Mona Lisa on spaceship held by a dinosaur. That you can buy on a t-shirt.’ lead to the best thing ever from @timsven: ‘@mia_out- this pic is for you- museum of the future: trex w/ mona lisa riding millenium falcon #MCN2011 http://t.co/37GdAD1O’.

Museum of the Future

Report from ‘What’s the point of a museum website’ at MCN2011

A really belated report from the ‘What’s the point of a museum website?‘ panel I was part of with Koven Smith (@5easypieces), Eric Johnson (@ericdmj), Nate Solas (@homebrewer) and Suse Cairns (@shineslike) at last November’s Museum Computer Network (MCN2011) conference.  I’ve written up some of my own thoughts at Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what’s the point of a museum website? – this post is about the discussion during the panel itself.  There was a lot of audience participation (in the room and on twitter), which made tackling a summary of the discussion really daunting, so I’ve given up on trying to capture every thread of conversation and am just reporting from the notes I took at the time.

It’s all bit of a blur now so it’s hard to remember exactly how the conversations went, but from my notes at the time, it included: Clay Shirky on social objects as a platform for conversation; games and other online experiences as big draws for museum sites (trusted content is a boon for parents); the impact of social media making the conversations people have always had about exhibitions and objects visible to curators and others; and the charisma of the physical object. From the audience Robin White Owen mentioned the potential for mobile apps to create space, opportunity for absorption and intimate experiences with museum content, leading me to wonder if you can have a Stendhal moment online?

Is discoverability is the new authority for museum websites?  As Nate said, authority online lies in being active online, though we also need to differentiate between authority about objects and narratives, and cite our sources for statements about online collections.  (See also Rob Stein on the difference between being authoritarian and authoritative). But maybe that’s challenging too – perhaps museums aren’t good at saying there is no right answer because we like to be the one with the right answer. Someone mentioned ‘communities of passion’ gathered around specific objects, which is a lovely phrase and I’m sorry I can’t remember who said it.  Someone else from the audience wisely said, it’s ‘not how do I drive people to my collection, but how do I drive my collection to them’.  Andrew Lewis talked about ‘that inspiration moment’ triggered in a museum that sends you hurrying back home to make art or craft something.

I talked about my dream of building a site that people would lose themselves in for hours, just as you can do on Wikipedia now after starting with one small query.  How can we build a collections online site where people can follow one interesting-looking object or story after another?  We can’t do that without a critical mass of content, and I suspect this can only be created by bringing different museum collections together digitally (or as Koven called it, digital repatriation), which also gets around the random accidents of collecting history that mean related objects are isolated in museums and galleries around the world.  Also, we’re only ever part of the audience’s session online – we might be the start, or the end, but we’re more likely to be somewhere in the middle. We should be good team players and use our expert knowledge to help people find the best information they can.

Looking back, a lot of the conversation appears to be about how to create the type of rich experience of being in the presence of an object – a moment in time as well as in space – from the currently flat experience of looking at an object in an online catalogue (particularly when the online environment has all the distractions of kitten videos and social media notifications).  Can storytelling or bite-sized bits of content about objects act as ‘hooks’ to enable reflection and learning online?  Hugh Wallace has used the phrase ‘snackable content’ for readily available content that fits into how people use technology, and I think (with my conversational, social history bias) that stories-as-anecdotes can be a great way of sharing information about collections while creating that self-contained moment in time.  (And yes, I am side-stepping Walter Benjamin’s statement that ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. Not that he was in the room, but he does tend to haunt these conversations.)

As with many conversations about online visitors, the gap between what we know and what we should know is frustratingly large, and we still don’t know how large the gap between what (particularly) collections online are and what they could be.  Someone said that we’re (measuring, or talking about) what users currently do with what we give them, not what they really want to do.  Bruce Wyman tweeted, ‘current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us’. Rob Stein said he didn’t care about measuring time online, but wanted to be able to measure epiphanies – an excellently provocative statement that generated lots of discussion, including comments that epiphany needs agency, discourse, and serendipity. Eric said we murder epiphany by providing too much information, but others pointed out that epiphanies are closely tied to learning, so maybe it’s a matter of the right information at the right time for the right person and a good dose of luck.

So (IMO) it was a great panel session, but did we come up with an answer for ‘what’s the point of a museum website’?  Probably not, but it’s clearly a discussion worth having, and I dare say there were a few personal epiphanies during the session.

I’m collecting other posts about the session and will update this as I find them (or let me know of them in the comments): Suse’s Initial takeaways from MCN2011.  I also collated some of the tweets that used the session hashtag ‘wpmw‘ in a document available (for now) via my dropbox.

Finally, thank you to everyone who attended or followed via twitter, and particular thanks to my fellow panelists for a great discussion.

Brochureware, aggregators and the messy middle: what’s the point of a museum website?

MCN 2011, Hyatt Regency Atlanta, What's The Point of a Museum Website, November 17th
Photo: nealstimler

Back in November I attended the Museum Computer Network (MCN2011) conference for the first time.  I was lucky enough to get a scholarship (for which many, many thanks).  During the conference I was part of a panel discussing ‘What’s the point of a museum website?‘ with (from l-r in the photo) Koven Smith (@5easypieces), Eric Johnson (@ericdmj), Nate Solas (@homebrewer) and Suse Cairns (@shineslike).  I’ve posted about some of the ideas covered in the WPMW session, but this post is my attempt to think through ‘what is the point of a museum website?’ in the context of our MCN session.  I’m not lying when I say ‘attempt’ – this post is a draft, but since it’s been a draft for months now, I’m going to take a deep breath and post it.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, props, whatever, and I’ll update the post in response.

I’ve started thinking of museum websites as broadly fitting into three categories:

1. The practicalities. Unashamed brochureware may be enough for some museums (and may be all other museums, such as local authority museums tied to larger infrastructure, can manage): the practical, get-people-through-the-door stuff: why visit, how to get there, when to visit, what’s on. Facebook and Google are competing to host content like this, so presumably visits to these sites are generally going to decrease over time.  This category reflects economic and organisational restrictions more than user requirements.

2. Collections online.  An important, opinionated caveat: unless your ‘collections online’ interface is a destination in its own right, or adds unique value, I think the point lies in aggregated collections.  Repositories like Europeana (and national aggregators like CultureGrid and Gallica), Collections Australia Network, Digital NZ, and the future Digital Public Library of America bring heavy-weight resources, SEO and discoverability and sheer scale to the ‘collections online’ work of a museum website.  But this scale brings new problems – these big, chaotic pots of content can be difficult to use.  Their sheer size makes it hard to highlight interesting objects or content.  Meaningful search results are difficult*, even for the patient, expert researcher, because they tend to contain so many different kinds of content about a range of subjects, taken from a variety of source museums, libraries, archives with hugely variable metadata quality and schema.  Better search engines, faceted browsing, etc, may help, but aggregators aren’t really designed for humans**.  See also: 3a, ‘The carefully curated and designed experience based on a particular concept’ for a different view on collections online.

3. The messy middle.  This includes all kinds of things that general audiences don’t seem to expect on a museum website – exhibition and marketing microsites, educational and family activities, public engagement experiences, games, lists of objects on display, research activities, etc.  It’s a pretty safe guess that some of this content is online because it reflects the internal structure or requirements of the museum, is re-purposed from exhibitions, or is designed for specialist users (who may, however, also under-use it unless the collection is notably comprehensive or is one of the top hits for a Google search).  For museums, the point of a museum website may be editorial voice, control, metrics, or an attempt to monetise their images.

We know that lots of the messy middle really works for our audiences – for example, good games and other activities have metrics through the roof.  But without more research it’s hard to know whether the content that audiences should love is less used than it might be because it’s not easily discoverable by non-visitors to the website, isn’t well advertised or consistently available on museum sites, or is competing with other groups that meet the same needs.  Does the trust people place in museums translate into trusted online content – how much do audiences really know or care whether an online experience, mobile app or the answer to their kid’s homework question was provided by a museum?  Do they value ‘authority’ as much as we do?  When does museum content go from being ‘on your website’ to ‘being on the web’, and does it still matter?

For one potential point for museum websites, I need to refer back to the collection aggregators.  In an ideal world, the availability of images, reusable data licenses, organisational processes, and machine-readable data that populate these mega-collections would make it easy to create more tightly-defined cross-collection experiences based on carefully chosen sub-sets of aggregated collections.  In other words…

3a. The carefully curated and designed experience based on a particular concept.  From the Google Art Project to Europeana’s Weddings In Eastern Europe, sites that draw on digital objects and expert knowledge to create audience-focused experiences could be the missing link between the in-gallery exhibitions museums love and the audience-focused born-digital experiences that are appropriately rich and/or snackable, and could be the source of the next great leap forward in museums on the web.  Museums can take the lessons learnt from years of topic-specific cross-institutional projects and research on existing audiences, and explore new models for audience engagement with museums online.  And perhaps more importantly, work out how to fit that into places our audiences already hang out online and let them share it promiscuously.

So, what’s the point of a museum website?  At the simplest level, the point of a museum website is to get visitors into venues, and maybe to sell them tickets or products.  Ideally, the point of aggregators is to surface content hidden in the deep web so it’s discoverable on your Google search results page and can be put into context with other resources.  The very messiness of messy middle category makes it harder to answer the question – it’s the fun stuff, but most of it is also hardest to measure or to justify in terms of return on investment.

This is where asking more specific questions becomes more useful: not just, ‘what’s the point?’ but ‘the point for whom?’.  In the cold light of the budget cuts, perhaps it’s better to ask ‘how do you prioritise your museums’ web work?’.  Both the ‘practicalities’ and the aggregators are broadly about access – getting people into the galleries or to catalogue records so they can discover and make the most of your collections.  The messy middle bit is broadly about engagement, which I suspect is key to broadening access by providing better ways for more people to access our collections.

As a museum technologist it hurts to say this, but if your museum isn’t genuinely interested in online engagement or just can’t resource it, then maybe the point of your website is to meet the practicalities as well as you can and push your content up into an aggregator.  I think we’re still working to understand the role of online content in the relationship between museums and their audiences, but despite my final note of doom and gloom, I hope museums keep working at it.  As Bruce Wyman tweeted at the MCN session, “current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us”. 

Do we lose more than we gain by separating ‘museum as venue’ from ‘museum as holder of collections’ and ‘museum as space for engaging with culture, science and history’?  And is it acceptable for some museums to stick to brochureware if they can’t manage more?  What do you think?  


* The aggregation model also potentially applies to museum shops and picture libraries (ArtFinder, Culture Label, etc) but, perhaps because commercial profits are riding on the quality of the user experience, they tend to have more carefully tended information architecture and they’re closer to the ‘curated experience’.

** I’ve also written about audience issues with aggregation (boo) and the potential for ‘Museum data and the network effect’ (yay!) in ‘Museums meet the 21st century’The rise of the non-museum (and death by aggregation)Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections? and (back in 2009) Happy developers + happy museums = happy punters.  One reason aggregated collections aren’t a great user experience is that paucity of museum collection data, though that can be improved with crowdsourcing, which as a bonus appears to be a great way to engage audiences.

[Update: there’s a post on the Huffington Post (I know, but what can you do?) on ‘What Makes for Compelling Museum Websites? When to Break the Rules’ that posits ‘Viewer Focused’, ‘Mirror’ and ‘Augmented’ design principles for exhibition microsites.  This model seems to be about how strictly the microsite matches the objects in the exhibition, and whether the visitor can comment or use a variety of methods for navigating through the content.]

Notes from EuropeanaTech 2011

Some very scrappy notes from the EuropeanaTech conference held in Vienna this week as I prepare a short talk for the Open data in cultural heritage (LODLAM-London) event tonight… For a different perspective there’s an overview post at EuropeanaTech – är det här framtidens kulturarv? and I’ll link to any others I find.  I’ve also put up some photos of ten questions attendees asked about Europeana, with written answers from the break-out exercise.  I’ll tidy up and post my keynote notes in a few days, and I’ll probably summarise things a bit more then.

Max Kaiser: Europeana is like a cruise ship with limited room to move, hackathons inject Europeana with a bit more agility… Build real stuff for real people with real business requirements – different to building prototypes and proofs of concept – requires different project culture.

Bill Thompson: pulling the analogue past into the digital future… We don’t live in a digital world and never will – the physical world is not going to vanish. We’ll remain embodied minds; will have co-existing analogue and digital worlds.Digital technologies shaping the possibilities we decide to embrace. … Can’t have a paradigm shift in humanities because no basic set of beliefs to argue with… But maybe the shift to digital is so fundamental that it could be called a paradigm shift. … Even if you don’t engage online, you’ll still live in a world shaped by the digital.  Those who are online will come to define the norms. … Revolutionary vanguard in our midst – hope lies with the programmers, the coders – the only weapon that matters is running code. Have to build on technologies that are open, only way to build diverse online culture that allows all voices to be heard. … Means open data in a usable form – properly formulated so can be interpreted by anyone or any program that wants it; integrate them into the broader cultural space. Otherwise just disconnected islands.

Two good reasons to endorse open linked data. We’re the first generation that’s capable of doing this – have the tools, network, storage, processes. Within our power to digitise everything and make it findable. We may also be the only generation that wants to do it – later generations will not value things that aren’t visible on the screen in the same way – they’ll forget the importance of the non-digital. So we’d better get on with it, and do it properly. LOD is a foundation that allows us to build in the future.

Panel discussion…

Qu: how does open theme fit with orgs with budget cuts and need to make more money?
BT: when need to make money from assets, openness is a real challenge. There are ways of making assets available to people that are unlikely to have commercial impact but could raise awareness e.g. low-res for public access, high-res for commercial use [a model adopted by many UK museums].

Jill Cousins: there’s a reputational need to put decent resolution images online to counter poor quality versions online.

Max: be clever – don’t make an exclusive contract with digitisation partners – make sure you can also give free access to it.
Jill Cousins: User always been central to Europeana though got slightly lost along the way as busy getting data.  …  Big stumbling block – licenses. Not just commercial reasons, also about reputational risk, loss of future earnings, fear of giving away something that’s valuable in future. Without CC licence, can’t publish as linked open data. Without it, commercial providers like INA can’t take the API. Can’t use blogs that have advertising on them. Couldn’t put it on Wikipedia. Or ArtFinder.  …  New [UK?] Renaissance report – metadata related to the digitised objects by cultural heritage orgs should be widely and freely available for re-use.
Workshops with content holders: Risks – loss of quality, loss of control, attribution, brand value, potential income (‘phantom income’), unwanted spillover effects – misuse/juxtaposition of data. Rwards: increasing relevance, increasing channels to end users, data enrichment, brand value, specific funding opportunties, discoverability, new customers, public mission, building expertise, desired spillover effects. … You are reliant on user doing the right thing with attribution….
Main risks: unwanted spillover effects, loss of attribution, loss of potential income. Main rewards: new customers, increasing relevance, public mission. But the risks diminshed as the rewards gain more prominence – overall outweighed the risks.  But address those 3 areas of risk.
What next? Operationalise some of the applications developed.  Yellow Kitchen Maid paper on the business of open data. Working together on difficulties faced by institutions and licensing open data.
[notes from day 2 to follow!]
Ten questions about Europeana…
10 questions (and one general question)
The general question was, what can the community building with domain experts, developers and researchers/R&D/innovation work package in Europeana 2.0 do?  (Something like that anyway, it was all a bit confusing by that point)
You had to pick a question and go into a group to try and answer it – I’ve uploaded photos of the answer sheets.
1 Open source – if Europeana using open source software and is open software, should it also become a community-driven development project?
2 Open source – are doubts about whether OSS provides quality services justified? What should be done to ensure quality?
3 Aggregation and metadata quality – what will be the role of aggregators, and what is role of Europeana in LOD future?
4 What can Europeana do which search engines can’t that justifies the extra effort of creating and managing structured metadata?
5 Is EDM [Europeana Data Model] still too complicated? If yes, what to simplify.
6 What is the actual value of semantic contexualisation, and could that not be produced by search engines?
7 enhance experience of exploring, discovering [see photo – it was too long to type in time!]
8 How important is multilingual access for discovery in Europeana? Which elements are the most important?
9 Can Europeana drive end-user engagement on the distributed sites and services of contributing archives?
10 How can we benefit from existing (local, international) communities in enriching the user experience on Europeana?