‘War, Plague and Fire’ and ‘Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums’ at ‘Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture’

I’ve finally had a moment to catch up and post the first part of my notes from Museum/iD‘s conference, Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. Overall it was a great conference that left me with a lot of things to think about for how museums can adapt and thrive in the current international context, and reminded me why museums should survive: they matter. I’ve posted my thoughts from the later sessions at Why museums matter: ‘Museum Ideas 2012 – Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture’ with a short summary of the whole event at the start.

Sharon Ament’s keynote at Museum of London Docklands

The day was chaired by Ben Gammon who began by pointing out that innovation is no longer a luxury, it’s now critical for survival.

The keynote speaker was the new Director of the Museum of London, Sharon Ament, who spoke on War, Plague and Fire: museums and libraries in the era of participatory culture. Previously Ament was director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum, and she drew on that background in her talk while also relating it to the collections of the Museum of London and the docklands location of the conference. She called for museums to look at what participatory culture means to the people they serve, especially when the individual has the capacity to be heard more loudly than ever before. The international context in which we’re living – with civil unrest, economic crises and global warming – is a time of change and fear means that adaptation to the external environment is an important concept for museums today. Her talk, and some of the discussion afterwards, focused on the role of museums and libraries as venues for independent discovery; accessible to many because entry was free. She suggested that creative responses – small things that can happen spontaneously, like the ‘pop-up’ concept – might be useful for reaching people.

One final quote to close, from the Salzburg Global Seminar and the Institute of Museum and Library Services report on ‘Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture’: ‘technology is a tool, not an objective, and that the creation of increased public value is the end goal. Identifying stakeholders’ needs means addressing human relationships, a sense of organization, and an intellectual construct to shape information and access’.

The next session was a ‘fireside chat’ with Rob Stein (Dallas Museum of Art) and Seb Chan (Cooper-Hewitt Museum) reflecting on ‘Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums‘ and their experiences in changing museums. They discussed collaboration (Stein noted that everything he’s built that’s had a modicum of success has been a collaboration with lots of people), the pace of change in different museums (including the need to build a risk-tolerant culture), and the risk of assuming that technology is an inherent part of innovation (Stein observed that the change that needs to happen at DAM is cultural, about shifting ambition). How do you create a culture of innovation? Chan mentioned Elaine Heumann Gurian‘s Wanting to be the Third on your Block and said that the first thing he did when he started at the Cooper-Hewitt was create a space that gave people permission to change. He set up ‘labs’ as a space for people to talk about stuff, which also gave his immediate team a public voice for the first time. He pushed fast to get quick results on some straightforward things to start to set an expectation of speed and accelerate culture: ‘right now, doing things fast matters more than doing things well’. He talked about cultivating rogues and tricksters in the museum to accelerate change and get a paradigm shift and suggested tackling root problems rather than symptoms for issues like copyright. They also discussed how to play up the fun of museum jobs to make them more attractive in a competitive tech jobs market, and the importance of putting some money into innovation where possible. Stein suggested that it’s possible to support innovation without a budget, e.g. museums can hold ‘research forums’ where people share what they’re working on.

Chan also said museums have turned themselves into ‘exhibition farms’, letting them suck huge amounts of resource; together with the obsession with ‘finish’ this slows innovation that could come from re-thinking how exhibitions and public programmes work together. Stein observed ‘museums seem to like gargantuan problems, things that take five years to get out the door [like] exhibitions, publications, buildings.’

They discussed the mismatch between museum exhibition launch models and software models: ‘people want to feel that something’s finished when it launches, they want the party and the holiday’. But in software development, no-one takes a holiday straight after launch because they’re watching what people do with the new software. [I was really interested in this section as it’s something I’ve thought about a lot (e.g. does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?) – I suspect museum technologists have two clashing mental models about how to work: one is the web agency model, based around cycles of ‘launch, observe, iterate, update’; the other is the ‘long slog to an unmovable launch date then onto the next project’ of museums. When the rest of the world moves on the agile, iterative model, it’s frustrating being tied to the museum model, particularly when it seems to have more flaws than benefits for modern audiences.] In closing they talked about the effectiveness of various models of innovation, whether attempts at top-down innovation, departments of innovation or more integrated models of innovation.

This post is already quite long, so I might hit publish now and come back to the other talks later.

Disclosure: my ticket was provided by Museum/iD.

Geek for a week: residency at the Powerhouse Museum

I’ve spent the last week as ‘geek-in-residence’ with the Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies team at the Powerhouse Museum. I wasn’t sure what ‘geek-in-residence’ would mean in reality, but in this case it turned out to be a week of creativity, interesting constraints and rapid, iterative design.

When I arrived on Monday morning, I had no idea what I’d be working on, let alone how it would all work. By the end of the first day I knew how I’d be working, but not exactly what I’d focus on. I came in with fresh questions on Tuesday, and was sketching ideas by lunchtime. The next few days were spent getting stuck into wireframes to focus in on specific issues within that problem space; I turned initial ideas into wireframes and basic copy; and put that through two rounds of quick-and-dirty testing with members of the public and Powerhouse volunteers. By the time I left on Friday I was able to handover wireframes for a site called ‘conversations about collections’ which aims to record people’s memories of items from the collection. (I ran out of time to document the technical aspects of how the site could be built in WordPress, but given the skills of the team I think they’ll cope.)

The first day and a half were about finding the right-sized problem. In conversations with Paula (Manager of the Visual & Digitisation services team) and Luke (Web Manager), we discussed what each of us were interested in exploring, looking for the intersection between what was possible in the time and with the material to hand.

After those first conversations, I went back to Powerhouse’s strategy document for inspiration. If in doubt, go back to the mission! I was looking for a tie-in with their goals – luckily their plan made it easy to see where things might fit. Their strategy talked about ideas and technology that have changed our world and stories of people who create and inspire them, about being open to ‘rich engagement, to new conversations about the collections’.

I also considered what could be supported by the existing API, what kinds of activities worked well with their collections and what could be usefully built and tested as paper or on-screen prototypes.  Like many large collections, most of the objects lack the types of data that supports deeper engagement for non-experts (though the significance statements that exist are lovely).

Two threads emerged from the conversations: bringing social media conversations and activity back into the online collections interfaces to help provide an information scent for users of the site; and crowdsourcing games based around enhancing the collections data.
The first was an approach to the difficulties in surfacing the interesting objects in very large collections. Could you create a ‘heat map’ based on online activity about objects to help searchers and browsers spot objects that might be more interesting?

At one point Nico (Senior Producer) and I had a look at Google Analytics to see what social media sites were sending traffic to the collections and suss out how much data could be gleaned. Collection objects are already showing up on Pinterest, and I had wild thoughts about screen-scraping Pinterest (they have no API) to display related boards on the OPAC search results or object pages…

I also thought about building a crowdsourcing game that would use expert knowledge to data to make better games possible for the general public – this would be an interesting challenge, as open-ended activities are harder to score automatically so you need to design meaningful rewards and ensure an audience to help provide them. However, it was probably a bigger task than I had time for, especially with most of the team already busy on other tasks, though I’ve been interested in that kind of dual-phased project since my MSc project on crowdsourcing games for museums.

But in the end, I went back to two questions: what information is needed about the collections, what’s the best way to get it?  We decided to focus on conversations, stories and clues about objects in the collections with a site aimed at collecting ‘living memories’ about objects by asking people what they remember about an object and how they’d explain it to a kid.  The name, ‘Conversations about collections’ came directly from the strategy doc and was just too neat a description to pass up, though ‘memory bank’ was another contender.
I ended up with five wireframes (clickable PDF at that link) to cover the main tasks of the site: to persuade people (particularly older people) that their memories are worth sharing, and to get the right object in front of the right person.  Explaining more about the designs would be a whole other blog post, but in the interests of getting this post out I’ll save that for another day… I’m dashing out this post before I head out, but I’ll update in response to questions (and generally things out when I have more time).

My week at the Powerhouse was a brilliant chance to think through the differences between history of science/social history objects and art objects, and between history and art museums, but that’s for another post (perhaps when if I ever get around to posting my notes from the MCN session on a similar topic).
It also helped me reflect on my interests, which I would summarise as ‘meaningful audience participation’ – activities that are engaging and meaningful for the audience and also add value for the museum, activities that actually change the museum in some way (hopefully for the better!), whether that’s through crowdsourcing, co-curation or other types of engagement.

Finally, I owe particular thanks to Paula Bray and Luke Dearnley for running with Seb Chan’s original suggestion and for their time and contributions to shaping the project; to Nicolaas Earnshaw for wireframe work and Suse Cairns for going out testing on the gallery floor with me; and to Dan Collins, Estee Wah, Geoff Barker and everyone else in the office and on various tours for welcoming me into their space and their conversations.

Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen?

Re-visiting the results of the survey I ran about issues facing museum technologists has inspired me to gather together some great pieces I’ve read on museum projects moving away from detailed up-front briefs and specifications toward iterative and/or agile development.

In ‘WaterWorx – our first in-gallery iPad interactive at the Powerhouse Museum‘, Seb Chan writes:

“the process by which this game was developed was in itself very different for us. … Rather than an explicit and ‘completed’ brief be given to Digital Eskimo, the game developed using an iterative and agile methodology, begun by a process that they call ‘considered design‘. This brought together stakeholders and potential users all the way through the development process with ‘real working prototypes’ being delivered along the way – something which is pretty common for how websites and web applications are made, but is still unfortunately not common practice for exhibition development.”

I’d also recommend the presentation ‘Play at Work: Applying Agile Methods to Museum Website Development‘ given at the 2010 Museum Computer Network Conference by Dana Mitroff Silvers and Alon Salant for examples of how user stories were used to identify requirements and prioritise development, and for an insight into how games can be used to get everyone working in an agile way.  If their presentation inspires you, you can find games you can play with people to help everyone understand various agile, scrum and other project management techniques and approaches at tastycupcakes.com.

I’m really excited by these examples, as I’m probably not alone in worrying about the mis-match between industry-standard technology project management methods and museum processes. In a ‘lunchtime manifesto‘ written in early 2009, I hoped the sector would be able to ‘figure out agile project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into’ – maybe we’re finally at that point.

And from outside the museum sector, a view on why up-front briefs don’t work for projects that where user experience design is important.  Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path writes:

“1. The nature of the user experience problems are typically too complex and nuanced to be articulated explicitly in a brief. Because of that, good user experience work requires ongoing collaboration with the client. Ideally, client and agency basically work as one big team.

2. Unlike the marketing communications that ad agencies develop, user experience solutions will need to live on, and evolve, within the clients’ business. If you haven’t deeply involved the client throughout your process, there is a high likelihood that the client will be unable to maintain whatever you produce.”

Finally, a challenge to the perfectionism of museums.  Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress fame), writes in ‘1.0 Is the Loneliest Number‘: ‘if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version you waited too long’.  Ok, so that might be a bit difficult for museums to cope with, but what if it was ok to release your beta websites to the public?  Mullenweg makes a strong case for iterating in public:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.

You think your business is different, that you’re only going to have one shot at press and everything needs to be perfect for when Techcrunch brings the world to your door. But if you only have one shot at getting an audience, you’re doing it wrong.”

* The Merholz article above is great because you can play a fun game with the paragraph below – in your museum, what job titles would you put in place of ‘art director’ and ‘copywriter’?  Answers in a comment, if you dare!  I think it feels particularly relevant because of the number of survey responses that suggested museums still aren’t very good at applying the expertise of their museum technologists.

“One thing I haven’t yet touched on is the legacy ad agency practice where the art director and copywriter are the voices that matter, and the rest of the team exists to serve their bidding. This might be fine in communications work, but in user experience, where utility is king, this means that the people who best understand user engagement are often the least empowered to do anything about it, while those who have little true understanding of the medium are put in charge. In user experience, design teams need to recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere, and are not just the purview of a creative director.”


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? (29 September 2012) and A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto) (10 March 2009).