All the things I didn’t say in my welcome to UKMW14 ‘Museums beyond the web’…

Here are all the things I (probably) didn’t say in my Chair’s welcome for the Museums Computer Group annual conference… Other notes, images and tweets from the day are linked from ‘UKMW14 round-up: posts, tweets, slides and images‘.

Welcome to MCG’s UKMW14: Museums beyond the web! We’ve got great speakers lined up, and we’ve built in lots of time to catch up and get to know your peers, so we hope you’ll enjoy the day.

It’s ten years since the MCG’s Museums on the Web became an annual event, and it’s 13 years since it was first run in 2001. It feels like a lot has changed since then, but, while the future is very definitely here, it’s also definitely not evenly distributed across the museum sector. It’s also an interesting moment for the conference, as ‘the web’ has broadened to include ‘digital’, which in turn spans giant distribution networks and tiny wearable devices. ‘The web’ has become a slightly out-dated shorthand term for ‘audience-facing technologies’.

When looking back over the last ten years of programmes, I found myself thinking about planetary orbits. Small planets closest to the sun whizz around quickly, while the big gas giants move incredibly slowly. If technology start-ups are like Mercury, completing a year in just 88 Earth days, and our audiences are firmly on Earth time, museum time might be a bit closer to Mars, taking two Earth years for each Mars year, or sometimes even Jupiter, completing a circuit once every twelve years or so.

But museums aren’t planets, so I can only push that metaphor so far. Different sections of a museum move at different speeds. While heroic front of house staff can observe changes in audience behaviours on a daily basis and social media platforms can be adopted overnight, websites might be redesigned every few years, but galleries are only updated every few decades (if you’re lucky). For a long time it felt like museums were using digital platforms to broadcast at audiences without really addressing the challenges of dialogue or collaborating with external experts.

But at this point, it seems that, finally, working on digital platforms like the web has pushed museums to change how they work. On a personal level, the need for specific technical skills hasn’t changed, but more content, education and design jobs work across platforms, are consciously ‘multi-channel’ and audience rather than platform-centred in their focus. Web teams seem to be settling into public engagement, education, marketing etc departments as the idea of a ‘digital’ department slowly becomes an oxymoron. Frameworks from software development are slowly permeating organisations that use to think in terms of print runs and physical gallery construction. Short rounds of agile development are replacing the ‘build and abandon after launch’ model, voices from a range of departments are replacing the disembodied expert voice, and catalogues are becoming publications that change over time.

While many of us here are comfortable with these webby methods, how will we manage the need to act as translators between digital and museums while understanding the impact of new technologies? And how can we help those who are struggling to keep up, particularly with the impact of the cuts?

Today is a chance to think about the technologies that will shape the museums of the future. What will audiences want from us? Where will they go looking for information and expertise, and how much of that information and expertise should be provided by museums? How can museums best provide access to their collections and knowledge over the next five, ten years?

We’re grateful to our sponsors, particularly as their support helps keep ticket prices affordable. Firstly I’d like to thank our venue sponsors, the Natural History Museum. Secondly, I’d like to thank Faversham & Moss for their sponsorship of this conference. Go chat to them and find out more about their work!

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?

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.

Lighting beacons: research software engineers event and related topics

I’ve realised that it could be useful to share my reading at the intersection of research software engineers/cultural heritage technologist/digital humanities, so at the end I’ve posted some links to current discussions or useful reference points and work to provide pointers to interesting work.

But first;  notes from last week’s workshop for research software engineers, an event for people who ‘not only develop the software, they also understand the research that it makes possible’. The organisers did a great job with the structure (and provided clear instructions on running a breakout session) – each unconference-style session had to appoint a scribe and report back to a plenary session as well as posting their notes to the group’s discussion list so there’s an instant archive of the event.

Discussions included:

  • How do you manage quality and standards in training – how do you make sure people are doing their work properly, and what are the core competencies and practices of an RSE?
  • How should the research community recognise the work of RSEs?
  • Sharing Research Software
  • Routes into research software development – why did you choose to be an RSE?
  • Do we need a RSE community?
  • and the closing report from the Steering Committee and group discussion on what an RSE community might be or do.

I ended up in the ‘How should the research community recognise the work of RSES?‘ session. I like the definition we came up with: ‘research software engineers span the role of researchers and software engineers. They have the domain knowledge of researchers and the development skills to be able to represent this knowledge in code’. On the other hand, if you only work as directed, you’re not an RSE. This isn’t about whether you make stuff, it’s about how much you’re shaping what you’re making. The discussion also teased out different definitions of ‘recognition’ and how they related to people’s goals and personal interests; the impact of ‘short-termism’ and project funding on stable careers, software quality, training and knowledge sharing. Should people cite the software they use in their research in the methods section of any publications? How do you work out and acknowledge someone’s contribution to on-going or collaborative projects – and how do you account for double-domain expertise when recognising contributions made in code?

I’d written about the event before I went (in Beyond code monkeys: recognising technologists’ intellectual contributions, which relates it to digital humanities and cultural heritage work) but until I was there I hadn’t realised the extra challenges RSEs in science face – unlike museum technologists, science RSEs are deeply embedded in a huge variety of disciplines and can’t easily swap between them.

The event was a great chance to meet people facing similar issues in their work and careers, and showed how incredibly useful the right label can be for building a community. If you work with science+software in the UK and want to help work out what a research software engineer community might be, join in the RSE discussion.

If you’re reading this post, you might also be interested in:

In ye olden days, beacon fires were lit on hills to send signals between distant locations. These days we have blogs.

Beyond code monkeys: recognising technologists’ intellectual contributions

Two upcoming events suggest that academia is starting to recognise that specialist technologists – AKA ‘research software engineers’ or ‘digital humanities software developers’ – make intellectual contributions to research software, and further, that it is starting to realise the cost of not recognising them. In the UK, there’s a ‘workshop for research software engineers‘ on September 11; in the US there’s Speaking in Code in November (which offers travel bursaries and is with ace people, so do consider applying).

But first, who are these specialist technologists, and why does it matter? The UK Software Sustainability Institute’s ‘workshop for research software engineers’ says ‘research software engineers … not only develop the software, they also understand the research that it makes possible’. In an earlier post, The Craftsperson and the Scholar, UCL’s James Hetherington says a ‘good scientific coder combines two characters: the scholar and the craftsperson’. Research software needs people who are both scholar – ‘the archetypical researcher who is driven by a desire to understand things to their fullest capability’ and craftsperson who ‘desires to create and leave behind an artefact which reifies their efforts in a field’: ‘if you get your kicks from understanding the complex and then making a robust, clear and efficient tool, you should consider becoming a research software engineer’. A supporting piece in the Times Higher Education, ‘Save your work – give software engineers a career track‘ points out that good developers can leave for more rewarding industries, and raises one of the key issues for engineers: not everyone wants to publish academic papers on their development work, but if they don’t publish, academia doesn’t know how to judge the quality of their work.

Over in the US, and with a focus on the humanities rather than science, the Scholar’s Lab is running the ‘Speaking in Code‘ symposium to highlight ‘what is almost always tacitly expressed in our work: expert knowledge about the intellectual and interpretive dimensions of DH code-craft, and unspoken understandings about the relation of that work to ethics, scholarly method, and humanities theory’. In a related article, Devising New Roles for Scholars Who Can Code, Bethany Nowviskie of the Scholar’s Lab discussed some of the difficulties in helping developers have their work recognised as scholarship rather than ‘service work’ or just ‘building the plumbing’:

“I have spent so much of my career working with software developers who are attached to humanities projects,” she says. “Most have higher degrees in their disciplines.” Unlike their professorial peers, though, they aren’t trained to “unpack” their thinking in seminars and scholarly papers. “I’ve spent enough time working with them to understand that a lot of the intellectual codework goes unspoken,” she says.

Women at work on C-47 Douglas cargo transport.
LOC image via Serendip-o-matic

Digital humanists spend a lot of time thinking about the role of ‘making things’ in the digital humanities but, to cross over to my other domain of interest, I think the international Museums and the Web conference‘s requirement for full written papers for all presentations has helped more museum technologists translate some of their tacit knowledge into written form. Everyone who wants to present their work has to find a way to write up their work, even if it’s painful at the time – but once it’s done, they’re published as open access papers well before the conference. Museum technologists also tend to blog and discuss their work on mailing lists, which provides more opportunities to tease out tacit knowledge while creating a visible community of practice.

I wasn’t at Museums and the Web 2013 but one of the sessions I was most interested in was Rich Cherry and Rob Stein’s ‘What’s a Museum Technologist today?‘ as they were going to report on the results of a survey they ran earlier this year to come up with ‘a more current and useful description of our profession’. (If you’re interested in the topic, my earlier posts on museum technologists include On ‘cultural heritage technologists’Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change?Museum technologists redux: it’s not about usSurvey results: issues facing museum technologists.) Rob’s posted their slides at What is a Museum Technologist Anyway? and I’d definitely recommend you go check them out.  Looking through the responses, the term ‘museum technologist’ seems to have broadened as more museum jobs involve creating content for or publishing on digital channels (whether web sites, mobile apps, ebooks or social media), but to me, a museum technologist isn’t just someone who uses technology or social media – rather, there’s a level of expertise or ‘domain knowledge’ across both museums and technology – and the articles above have reinforced my view that there’s something unique in working so deeply across two or more disciplines. (Just to be clear: this isn’t a diss for people who use social media rather than build things – there’s also a world of expertise in creating content for the web and social media). Or to paraphrase James Hetherington, ”if you get your kicks from understanding the complex and then making a robust, clear and efficient tool, you should consider becoming a museum technologist’.

To further complicate things, not everyone needs their work to reflect all their interests – some programmers and tech staff are happy to leave their other interests outside the office door, and leave engineering behind at the end of the day – and my recent experiences at One Week | One Tool reminded me that promiscuous interdisciplinarity can be tricky. Even when you revel in it, it’s hard to remember that people wear multiple hats and can swap from production-mode to critically reflecting on the product through their other disciplinary lenses, so I have some sympathy for academics who wonder why their engineer expects their views on the relevant research topic to be heard. That said, hopefully events like these will help the research community work out appropriate ways of recognising and rewarding the contributions of researcher developers.

[Update, September 2013: I’ve posted brief notes and links to session reports from the research software engineers event at Lighting signals: research software engineers event and related topics.]

Keeping corridors clear of dragons (on agency and digital humanities tools)

A while ago I posted ‘Reflections on teaching Neatline‘, which was really about growing pains in the digital humanities. I closed by asking ‘how do you balance the need for fast-moving innovative work-in-progress to be a bit hacky and untidy around the edges with the desires of a wider group of digital humanities-curious scholars [for stable, easy-to-use software]? Is it ok to say ‘here be dragons, enter at your own risk’?’ Looking back, I started thinking about this in terms of museum technologists (in Museum technologists redux: it’s not about us) but there I was largely thinking of audiences, and slightly less of colleagues within museums or academia.  I’m still not sure if this is a blog post or just an extended comment on those post, but either way, this is an instance of posting-as-thinking.

Bethany Nowviskie has problematised and contextualised some of these issues in the digital humanities far more elegantly for an invited talk at the MLA 2013 conference. You should go read the whole thing at resistance in the materials, but I want to quickly highlight some of her points here.

She quotes William Morris: ‘…you can’t have art without resistance in the material. No! The very slowness with which the pen or the brush moves over the paper, or the graver goes through the wood, has its value. And it seems to me, too, that with a machine, one’s mind would be apt to be taken off the work at whiles by the machine sticking or what not’ and discusses her realisation that:

“Morris’s final, throwaway complaint is not about that positive, inherent resistance—the friction that makes art—which we happily seek within the humanities material we practice upon. It’s about resistance unhealthily and inaccessibly located in a toolset. … precisely this kind of disenfranchising resistance is the one most felt by scholars and students new to the digital humanities. Evidence of friction in the means, rather than the materials, of digital humanities inquiry is everywhere evident.”

And she includes an important call to action for digital humanities technologists: “we diminish our responsibility to address this frustration by naming it the inevitable “learning curve” of the digital humanities. Instead, we might confess that among the chief barriers to entry are poorly engineered and ineptly designed research tools and social systems”. Her paper is also a call for a more nuanced understanding and greater empathy from tool-builders toward those who are disenfranchised by tools they didn’t create and can’t hack to fit their needs. It’s too easy to forget that an application or toolset that looks like something I can happily pick up and play with to make it my own may well look as unfathomable and un-interrogable as the case of a mobile phone to someone else.

Digital humanities is no longer a cosy clubhouse, which can be uncomfortable for people who’d finally found an academic space where they felt at home. But DH is also causing discomfort for other scholars as it encroaches on the wider humanities, whether it’s as a funding buzzword, as a generator of tools and theory, or as a mode of dialogue. This discomfort can only be exacerbated by the speed of change, but I suspect that fear of the unknown demands of DH methods or anxiety about the mental capabilities required are even more powerful*. (And some of it is no doubt a reaction to the looming sense of yet another thing to somehow find time to figure out.) As Sharon Leon points out in ‘Digital Methods for Mid-Career Avoiders?‘, digital historians are generally ‘at home with the sense of uncomfortableness and risk of learning new methods and approaches’ and can cope with ‘a feeling of being at sea while figuring out something completely new’, while conversely ‘this kind of discomfort is simply to overwhelming for historians who are defined by being the expert in their field, being the most knowledgable, being the person who critiques the shortfalls of the work of others’.

In reflecting on March 2012’s Digital Humanities Australasia and the events and conversations I’ve been part of over the last year, it seems that we need ways of characterising the difference between scholars using digital methods and materials to increase their productivity (swapping card catalogues for online libraries, or type-writers for Word) without fundamentally interrogating their new working practices, and those who charge ahead, inventing tools and methods to meet their needs.  It should go without saying that any characterisations should not unfairly or pejoratively label either group (and those in-between).

Going beyond the tricky ‘on-boarding’ moments I talked about in ‘Reflections on teaching Neatline‘, digital humanities must consider the effect of personal agency in relation to technology, issues in wider society that affect access to ‘hack’ skills and what should be done to make the tools, or the means, of DH scholarship more accessible and transparent. Growing pains are one thing, and we can probably all sympathise with an awkward teenage phase, but as digital humanities matures as a field, it’s time to accept our responsibility for the environment we’re creating for other scholars. Dragons are fine in the far reaches of the map where the adventurous are expecting them, but they shouldn’t be encountered in the office corridor by someone who only wanted to get some work done.

* Since posting this, I’ve read Stephen Ramsey’s ‘The Hot Thing‘, which expresses more anxieties about DH than I’ve glanced at here: ‘Digital humanities is the hottest thing in the humanities. … So it is meet and good that we talk about this hot thing. But the question is this: Are you hot?’.  But even here, do technologists and the like have an advantage? I’m used to (if not reconciled to) the idea that every few years I’ll have to learn another programming language and new design paradigms just to keep up; but even I’m glad I don’t have to keep up with the number of frameworks that front-end web developers have to, so perhaps not?

‘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…

Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change?

I suspect this is a few posts in one, but bear with me as I think aloud…

There can be only one…

I’m fascinated with the idea that digital channels are the point where the various functions of a museum – marketing, research, collections, outreach, education, fundraising, etc – meet. (If you’ve worked in a museum for a while you’ve probably witnessed heated internal discussions about which departments can have prominent spots on the front page of a museum website, or about who runs the $MuseumName Twitter or Facebook accounts.) This confluence in digital channels hopefully encourages organisations to think about what content (and who) best represents them to the world – but I suspect that often it’s less about the public engagement strategy and more about organisational history and politics.

Similarly, building websites, apps and social media entails a series of decisions that operationalise a museum’s big ‘vision’ statements; but as these decisions are made on the fly, they’re often again less strategic and more subject to the vagaries of the organisation. For technologists, there’s often also a tension between wanting to ensure sensible digital decisions are made and not wanting to be a bottleneck in the long line of sign-off documents and meetings involved in museum projects (and I’m still not sure how best to resolve that, especially when it’s easy to make the wrong choice but technology changes more quickly than most museums can train staff).

Museums seem to struggle when the quality of those decisions, and therefore the quality of the final product, rests in part on whether audience-focused experts in technology, content, and graphic and experience design are present and heard at critical points, even when their recommendations contradict those of more established voices.

Why websites suck (or suck more than they should)

Building digital products means challenging ‘the way things have always been done’, and while museums-as-organisations are notoriously resistant to change, these definitional issues around the role of a digital team – technical delivery, content strategy, experience design, or some combination of the three – aren’t unique to heritage organisations. Analytics guru Avinash Kaushik wrote: “I believe most websites suck because HiPPOs create them. HiPPO is an acronym for the ‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion’. … The HiPPO is a poor stand-in for what customers want”. That’s possibly putting it too strongly, but it seems that potentially interesting digital projects do fail to deliver on that potential more often than they should, and it’s not only because museums are generally a long way from thinking ‘digital first‘.

So who can stand up to ‘the way things have always been done’ and inter-departmental bun fights and represent the needs of our audiences in technology projects? In museums there’s often a perception that digital teams are a service department (perhaps because of their roots in IT departments) while digital teams see themselves as creative departments, commissioning content and design, producing innovative experiences and consulting within the museum on digital projects and audience needs as well as delivering technical solutions. Coming down on the side of web teams in ‘Web teams need real authority‘ Paul Boag pronounced: “web teams should have the final say about what appears on the website. They should have the authority to reject content, remove out of date content and maintain editorial control”. His post got such a huge response that he expanded on this in another article, ‘Paul Boag: give web teams more authority‘, where he called for organisations to break out of entrenched working methods and “establish a separate web strategy that defines who owns the website, how it will be operated and how editorial decisions are made”. He noted that successful websites aren’t just about code, “it’s also about helping bring about cultural change to allow better management of sites”. While Claire Ross’ experience with digital R&D in museums might be more intense than the usual museum digital project, it bears out my experience that (in the words of one senior digital manager) ‘organisational change is one of the most important things about what we do’ and that this changes needs to be supported by senior management to be truly effective.

The call for strategic decision-making about organisational websites (and by extension, other digital channels) isn’t new but it might be getting to the point where we can’t ignore it. In 2011 Jonathan Kahn wrote A List Apart article on ‘Web Governance: Becoming an Agent of Change, noting that the “the website is now the digital manifestation of the organization” but that “the user experiences we deliver don’t meet our expectations [because] when it comes to the web, organizations are broken”. The article proposes ‘web governance‘ as a combination of web strategy, web governance, web execution, and web measurement. And it’s not all doom and gloom – many organisations (museums included) are resolving issues around web governance and thriving in a digital environment. But what happens to museums that rely on old models and don’t sort out web governance until it’s too late?

As Kahn says:

“The internet revolution has created huge social change: it’s changed the way people relate to organizations and it’s already destroyed several once-mighty industries, like newspapers, travel agents, and music publishing. Although we’re comfortable with the idea that the web is critical to organizations, we often miss the corollary: the web has changed the way organizations operate, and in many cases it’s changed their business models, too. When executives can’t see that, it causes a crisis. Welcome to your daily web-making reality.”

Sound familiar?

[Edit to add: the Museums Computer Group has a call for papers for UK Museums on the Web 2012 on the theme of ‘strategically digital’ and you might want to submit a proposal soon if you’ve been working on these kinds of issues. Disclosure: I’m the MCG’s Chair.]

And therefore, museum technologists need to step up…

A while ago, I had one of those epiphanies that occur in random conversations when I realised that my views as a technologists are informed more by my experience as a business analyst and user experience researcher than my time as a programmer: for me, being a technologist is not (only) about knowing how to cut code, it’s about years of sitting in a room listening to people describe their problems, abstracting and analysing them to understand the problem space and thinking about how technology-driven change fits in that particular context.

I’m wondering if a better definition of museum technologist is someone who can appropriately apply a range of digital solutions to help meet the goals of a particular museum project. Even better, a museum technologist should be able to empathise with stakeholders enough to explain the implications of their technology choices for established internal work patterns and to contextualise them in relation to audience expectations. I guess this is also a reflection of the social changes the internet has brought – we geeks aren’t immune from the need to change and adapt.

[Update, April 2013: I wonder what the answer would be if we asked other museum staff what they think a technologist should be? The role of ‘translator’ is valued by some project teams, but is the technologist always the best person for the job? If you’re reading this before April 12 2013, you might want to take the survey ‘What is a Museum Technologist anyway?‘ that Rob Stein and Rich Cherry have put together.]


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen? (21 November 2010) and A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto) (10 March 2009).