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!

Looking for (crowdsourcing) love in all the right places

One of the most important exercises in the crowdsourcing workshops I run is the ‘speed dating’ session. The idea is to spend some time looking at a bunch of crowdsourcing projects until you find a project you love. Finding a project you enjoy gives you a deeper insight into why other people participate in crowdsourcing, and will see you through the work required to get a crowdsourcing project going. I think making a personal connection like this helps reduce some of the cynicism I occasionally encounter about why people would volunteer their time to help cultural heritage collections. Trying lots of projects also gives you a much better sense of the types of barriers projects can accidentally put in the way of participation. It’s also a good reminder that everyone is a nerd about something, and that there’s a community of passion for every topic you can think of.

If you want to learn more about designing history or cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects, trying out lots of project is a great place to start. The more time you can spend on this the better – an hour is ideal – but trying just one or two projects is better than nothing. In a workshop I get people to note how a project made them feel – what they liked most and least about a project, and who they’d recommend it to. You can also note the input and output types to help build your mental database of relevant crowdsourcing projects.

The list of projects I suggest varies according to the background of workshop participants, and I’ll often throw in suggestions tailored to specific interests, but here’s a generic list to get you started.

10 Most Wanted http://10most.org.uk/ Research object histories
Ancient Lives http://ancientlives.org/ Humanities, language, text transcription
British Library Georeferencer http://www.bl.uk/maps/ Locating and georeferencing maps (warning: if it’s running, only hard maps may be left!)
Children of the Lodz Ghetto http://online.ushmm.org/lodzchildren/ Citizen history, research
Describe Me http://describeme.museumvictoria.com.au/ Describe objects
DIY History http://diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu/ Transcribe historical letters, recipes, diaries
Family History Transcription Project http://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibrarync/collections/ Document transcription (Flickr/Yahoo login required to comment)
Herbaria@home http://herbariaunited.org/atHome/ (for bonus points, compare it with Notes from Nature https://www.zooniverse.org/project/notes_from_nature) Transcribing specimen sheets (or biographical research)
HistoryPin Year of the Bay ‘Mysteries’ https://www.historypin.org/attach/project/22-yearofthebay/mysteries/index/ Help find dates, locations, titles for historic photographs; overlay images on StreetView
iSpot http://www.ispotnature.org/ Help ‘identify wildlife and share nature’
Letters of 1916 http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/ Transcribe letters and/or contribute letters
London Street Views 1840 http://crowd.museumoflondon.org.uk/lsv1840/ Help transcribe London business directories
Micropasts http://crowdsourced.micropasts.org/app/photomasking/newtask Photo-masking to help produce 3D objects; also structured transcription
Museum Metadata Games: Dora http://museumgam.es/dora/ Tagging game with cultural heritage objects (my prototype from 2010)
NYPL Building Inspector http://buildinginspector.nypl.org/ A range of tasks, including checking building footprints, entering addresses
Operation War Diary http://operationwardiary.org/ Structured transcription of WWI unit diaries
Papers of the War Department http://wardepartmentpapers.org/ Document transcription
Planet Hunters http://planethunters.org/ Citizen science; review visualised data
Powerhouse Museum Collection Search http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/menu.php Tagging objects
Reading Experience Database http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/ Text selection, transcription, description.
Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center https://transcription.si.edu/ Text transcription
Tiltfactor Metadata Games http://www.metadatagames.org/ Games with cultural heritage images
Transcribe Bentham http://www.transcribe-bentham.da.ulcc.ac.uk/ History; text transcription
Trove http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper?q= Correct OCR errors, transcribe text, tag or describe documents
US National Archives http://www.amara.org/en/teams/national-archives/ Transcribing videos
What’s the Score at the Bodleian http://www.whats-the-score.org/ Music and text transcription, description
What’s on the menu http://menus.nypl.org/ Structured transcription of restaurant menus
What’s on the menu? Geotagger http://menusgeo.herokuapp.com/ Geolocating historic restaurant menus
Wikisource – random item link http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Special:Random/Index Transcribing texts
Worm Watch http://www.wormwatchlab.org Citizen science; video
Your Paintings Tagger http://tagger.thepcf.org.uk/ Paintings; free-text or structured tagging

NB: crowdsourcing is a dynamic field, some sites may be temporarily out of content or have otherwise settled in transit. Some sites require registration, so you may need to find another site to explore while you’re waiting for your registration email.

It’s here! Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage is now available

My edited volume, Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage, is now available! My introduction (Crowdsourcing our cultural heritage: Introduction), which provides an overview of the field and outlines the contribution of the 12 chapters, is online at Ashgate’s site, along with the table of contents and index. There’s a 10% discount if you order online.

If you’re in London on the evening of Thursday 20th November, we’re celebrating with a book launch party at the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. Register at http://crowdsourcingculturalheritage.eventbrite.co.uk.

Here’s the back page blurb: “Crowdsourcing, or asking the general public to help contribute to shared goals, is increasingly popular in memory institutions as a tool for digitising or computing vast amounts of data. This book brings together for the first time the collected wisdom of international leaders in the theory and practice of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage. It features eight accessible case studies of groundbreaking projects from leading cultural heritage and academic institutions, and four thought-provoking essays that reflect on the wider implications of this engagement for participants and on the institutions themselves.

Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage is more than a framework for creating content: as a form of mutually beneficial engagement with the collections and research of museums, libraries, archives and academia, it benefits both audiences and institutions. However, successful crowdsourcing projects reflect a commitment to developing effective interface and technical designs. This book will help practitioners who wish to create their own crowdsourcing projects understand how other institutions devised the right combination of source material and the tasks for their ‘crowd’. The authors provide theoretically informed, actionable insights on crowdsourcing in cultural heritage, outlining the context in which their projects were created, the challenges and opportunities that informed decisions during implementation, and reflecting on the results.

This book will be essential reading for information and cultural management professionals, students and researchers in universities, corporate, public or academic libraries, museums and archives.”

Massive thanks to the following authors of chapters for their intellectual generosity and their patience with up to five rounds of edits, plus proofing, indexing and more…

  1. Crowdsourcing in Brooklyn, Shelley Bernstein;
  2. Old Weather: approaching collections from a different angle, Lucinda Blaser;
  3. ‘Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’: Transcribe Bentham and crowdsourcing manuscript collections, Tim Causer and Melissa Terras;
  4. Build, analyse and generalise: community transcription of the Papers of the War Department and the development of Scripto, Sharon M. Leon;
  5. What’s on the menu?: crowdsourcing at the New York Public Library, Michael Lascarides and Ben Vershbow;
  6. What’s Welsh for ‘crowdsourcing’? Citizen science and community engagement at the National Library of Wales, Lyn Lewis Dafis, Lorna M. Hughes and Rhian James;
  7. Waisda?: making videos findable through crowdsourced annotations, Johan Oomen, Riste Gligorov and Michiel Hildebrand;
  8. Your Paintings Tagger: crowdsourcing descriptive metadata for a national virtual collection, Kathryn Eccles and Andrew Greg.
  9. Crowdsourcing: Crowding out the archivist? Locating crowdsourcing within the broader landscape of participatory archives, Alexandra Eveleigh;
  10.  How the crowd can surprise us: humanities crowdsourcing and the creation of knowledge, Stuart Dunn and Mark Hedges;
  11. The role of open authority in a collaborative web, Lori Byrd Phillips;
  12. Making crowdsourcing compatible with the missions and values of cultural heritage organisations, Trevor Owens.

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?

Sharing is caring keynote ‘Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons’

Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons platform: a provocation about collaborating with users

Mia Ridge, Open University Contact me: @mia_out or http://miaridge.com/

[I was invited to Copenhagen to talk about my research on crowdsourcing in cultural heritage at the 3rd international Sharing is Caring seminar on April 1. I’m sharing my notes in advance to make life easier for those awesome people following along in a second or third language, particularly since I’m delivering my talk via video.]

Today I’d like to present both a proposal for something called the ‘Participatory Commons’, and a provocation (or conversation starter): there’s a paradox in our hopes for deeper audience engagement through crowdsourcing: projects that don’t grow with their participants will lose them as they develop new skills and interests and move on. This talk presents some options for dealing with this paradox and suggests a Participatory Commons provides a way to take a sector-wide view of active engagement with heritage content and redefine our sense of what it means when everybody wins.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this – I’ll be following the hashtag during the session and my contact details are above.

Before diving in, I wanted to reflect on some lessons from my work in museums on public engagement and participation.

My philosophy for crowdsourcing in cultural heritage (aka what I’ve learnt from making crowdsourcing games)

One thing I learnt over the past years: museums can be intimidating places. When we ask for help with things like tagging or describing our collections, people want to help but they worry about getting it wrong and looking stupid or about harming the museum.

The best technology in the world won’t solve a single problem unless it’s empathically designed and accompanied by social solutions. This isn’t a talk about technology, it’s a talk about people – what they want, what they’re afraid of, how we can overcome all that to collaborate and work together.

Dora’s Lost Data

So a few years ago I explored the potential of crowdsourcing games to make helping a museum less scary and more fun. In this game, ‘Dora’s Lost Data‘, players meet a junior curator who asks them to tag objects so they’ll be findable in Google. Games aren’t the answer to everything, but identifying barriers to participation is always important. You have to understand your audiences – their motivations for starting and continuing to participate; the fears, anxieties, uncertainties that prevent them participating. [My games were hacked together outside of work hours, more information is available at My MSc dissertation: crowdsourcing games for museums; if you’d like to see properly polished metadata games check out Tiltfactor’s http://www.metadatagames.org/#games]

Mutual wins – everybody’s happy

My definition of crowdsourcing: cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects ask the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically, in an environment where the activities, goals (or both) provide inherent rewards for participation, and where their participation contributes to a shared, significant goal or research area.

It helps to think of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as a form of volunteering. Participation has to be rewarding for everyone involved. That sounds simple, but focusing on the audiences’ needs can be difficult when there are so many organisational needs competing for priority and limited resources for polishing the user experience. Further, as many projects discover, participant needs change over time…

What is a Participatory Commons and why would we want one?

First, I have to introduce you to some people. These are composite stories (personas) based on my research…

Two archival historians, Simone and Andre. Simone travels to archives in her semester breaks to stock up on research material, taking photos of most documents ‘in case they’re useful later’, transcribing key text from others. Andre is often at the next table, also looking for material for his research. The documents he collected for his last research project would be useful for Simone’s current book but they’ve never met and he has no way of sharing that part of his ‘personal research collection’ with her. Currently, each of these highly skilled researchers take their cumulative knowledge away with them at the end of the day, leaving no trace of their work in the archive itself. Next…

Two people from a nearby village, Martha and Bob. They joined their local history society when they retired and moved to the village. They’re helping find out what happened to children from the village school’s class of 1898 in the lead-up to and during World War I. They are using census returns and other online documents to add records to a database the society’s secretary set up in Excel. Meanwhile…

A family historian, Daniel. He has a classic ‘shoebox archive’ – a box containing his grandmother Sarah’s letters and diary, describing her travels and everyday life at the turn of the century. He’s transcribing them and wants to put them online to share with his extended family. One day he wants to make a map for his kids that shows all the places their great-grandmother lived and visited. Finally, there’s…

Crowdsourcer Nisha.She has two young kids and works for a local authority. She enjoys playing games like Candy Crush on her mobile, and after the kids have gone to bed she transcribes ship logs on the Old Weather website while watching TV with her husband. She finds it relaxing, feels good about contributing to science and enjoys the glimpses of life at sea. Sites like Old Weather use ‘microtasks’ – tiny, easily accomplished tasks – and crowdsourcing to digitise large amounts of text.

Helping each other?

None of our friends above know it, but they’re all looking at material from roughly the same time and place. Andre and Simone could help each other by sharing the documents they’ve collected over the years. Sarah’s diaries include the names of many children from her village that would help Martha and Bob’s project, and Nisha could help everyone if she transcribed sections of Sarah’s diary.

Connecting everyone’s efforts for the greater good: Participatory Commons

This image shows the two main aspects of the Participatory Commons: the different sources for content, and the activities that people can do with that content.

The Participatory Commons (image: Mia Ridge)

The Participatory Commons is a platform where content from different sources can be aggregated. Access to shared resources underlies the idea of the ‘Commons’, particularly material that is not currently suitable for sites like Europeana, like ‘shoebox archives’ and historians’ personal record collections. So if the ‘Commons’ part refers to shared resources, how is it participatory?

The Participatory Commons interface supports a range of activities, from the types of tasks historians typically do, like assessing and contextualising documents, activities that specialists or the public can do like identifying particular people, places, events or things in sources, or typical crowdsourcing tasks like fulltext transcription or structured tagging.

By combining the energy of crowdsourcing with the knowledge historians create on a platform that can store or link to primary sources from museums, libraries and archives with ‘shoebox archives’, the Commons could help make our shared heritage more accessible to all. As a platform that makes material about ordinary people available alongside official archives and as an interface for enjoyable, meaningful participation in heritage work, the Commons could be a basis for ‘open source history’, redressing some of the absences in official archives while improving the quality of all records.

As a work in progress, this idea of the Participatory Heritage Commons has two roles: an academic thought experiment to frame my research, and as a provocation for GLAMs (galleries, museums, libraries, archives) to think outside their individual walls. As a vision for ‘open source history’, it’s inspired by community archives, public history, participant digitisation and history from below… This combination of a large underlying repository and more intimate interfaces could be quite powerful. Capturing some of the knowledge generated when scholars access collections would benefit both archives and other researchers.

‘Niche projects’ can be built on a Participatory Commons

As a platform for crowdsourcing, the Participatory Commons provides efficiencies of scale in the backend work for verifying and validating contributions, managing user accounts, forums, etc. But that doesn’t mean that each user would experience the same front-end interface.

Niche projects build on the Participatory Commons
(quick and dirty image: Mia Ridge)

My research so far suggests that tightly-focused projects are better able to motivate participants and create a sense of community. These ‘niche’ projects may be related to a particular location, period or topic, or to a particular type of material. The success of the New York Public Library’s What’s on the Menu project, designed around a collection of historic menus, and the British Library’s GeoReferencer project, designed around their historic map collection, both demonstrate the value of defining projects around niche topics.

The best crowdsourcing projects use carefully designed interactions tailored to the specific content, audience and data requirements of a given project. These interactions are usually For example, the Zooniverse body of projects use much of the same underlying software but projects are designed around specific tasks on specific types of material, whether classifying simple galaxy types, plankton or animals on the Serengeti, or transcribing ship logs or military diaries.

The Participatory Commons is not only a collection of content, it also allows ‘niche’ projects to be layered on top, presenting more focused sets of content, and specialist interfaces designed around the content, audience and purpose.

Barriers

But there are still many barriers to consider, including copyright and technical issues and important cultural issues around authority, reliability, trust, academic credit and authorship. [There’s more background on this at my earlier post on historians and the Participatory Commons and Early PhD findings: Exploring historians’ resistance to crowdsourced resources.]

Now I want to set the idea of the Participatory Commons aside for a moment, and return to crowdsourcing in cultural heritage. I’ve been looking for factors in the success or otherwise of crowdsourcing projects, from grassroots, community-lead projects to big glamorous institutionally-lead sites.

I mentioned that Nisha found transcribing text relaxing. Like many people who start transcribing text, she found herself getting interested in the events, people and places mentioned in the text. Forums or other methods for participants to discuss their questions seem to help keep participants motivated, and they also provide somewhere for a spark of curiosity to grow (as in this forum post). We know that some people on crowdsourcing projects like Old Weather get interested in history, and even start their own research projects.

Crowdsourcing as gateway to further activity

You can see that happening on other crowdsourcing projects too. For example, Herbaria@Homeaims to document historical herbarium collections within museums based on photographs of specimen cards. So far participants have documented over 130,000 historic specimens. In the process, some participants also found themselves being interested in the people whose specimens they were documenting.

As a result, the project has expanded to include biographies of the original specimen collectors. It was able to accommodate this new interest through a project wiki, which has a combination of free text and structured data linking records between the transcribed specimen cards and individual biographies.

‘Levels of Engagement’ in citizen science

There’s a consistent enough pattern in science crowdsourcing projects that there’s a model from ‘citizen science’ that outlines different stages participants can move through, from undertaking simple tasks, joining in community discussion, through to ‘working independently on self-identified research projects’.[1]

Is this ‘mission accomplished’?

This is Nick Poole’s word cloud based on 40 museum missionstatements. With words like ‘enjoyment’, ‘access’, ‘learning’ appearing in museum missions, doesn’t this mean that turning transcribers into citizen historians while digitising and enhancing collections is a success? Well, yes, but…

Paths diverge; paradox ahead?

There’s a tension between GLAM’s desire to invite people to ‘go deeper’, to find their own research interests, to begin to become citizen historians; and the desire to ask people to help us with tasks set by GLAMs to help their work. Heritage organisations can try to channel that impulse to start research into questions about their own collections, but sometimes it feels like we’re asking people to do our homework for us. The scaffolds put in place to help make tasks easier may start to feel like a constraint.

Who has agency?

If people move beyond simple tasks into more complex tasks that require a greater investment of time and learning, then issues of agency – participants’ ability to make choices about what they’re working on and why – start to become more important. Would Wikipedia have succeeded if it dictated what contributors had to write about? We shouldn’t mistake volunteers for a workforce just because they can be impressively dedicated contributors.

Participatory project models

Turning again to citizen science – this time public participation in science research, we have a model for participatory projects according to the amount of control participants have over the design of the project itself – or to look at it another way, how much authority the organisation has ceded to the crowd. This model contains three categories: ‘contributory’, where the public contributes data to a project designed by the organisation; ‘collaborative’, where the public can help refine project design and analyse data in a project lead by the organisation; and ‘co-creative’, where the public can take part in all or nearly all processes, and all parties design the project together.[2]

As you can imagine, truly co-creative projects are rare. It seems cultural organisations find it hard to truly collaborate with members of the public; for many understandable reasons. The level of transparency required, and the investment of time for negotiating mutual interests, goals and capabilities increase as collaboration deepens. Institutional constraints and lack of time to engage in deep dialogue with participants make it difficult to find shared goals that work for all parties. It seems GLAMs sometimes try to take shortcuts and end up making decisions for the group, which means their ‘co-creative’ project is actually more just ‘collaborative’.

New challenges

When participants start to out-grow the tasks that originally got them hooked, projects face a choice. Some projects are experimenting with setting challenges for participants. Here you see ‘mysteries’ set by the UK’s Museum of Design in Plastics, and by San FranciscoPublic Library on History Pin. Finding the right match between the challenge set and the object can be difficult without some existing knowledge of the collection, and it can require a lot of on-going time to encourage participants. Putting the mystery under the nose of the person who has the knowledge or skills to solve it is another challenge that projects like this will have to tackle.

Working with existing communities of interest is a good start, but it also takes work to figure out where they hang out online (or in-person) and understand how they prefer to work. GLAMs sometimes fall into the trap of choosing the technology first, or trying something because it’s trendy; it’s better to start with the intersection between your content and the preferences of potential audiences.

But is it wishful thinking to hope that others will be interested in answering the questions GLAMs are asking?

A tension?

Should projects accept that some people will move on as they develop new interests, and concentrate on recruiting new participants to replace them? Do they try to find more interesting tasks or new responsibilities for participants, such as helping moderate discussions, or checking and validating other people’s work? Or should they find ways for the project grow as participants’ skill and knowledge increase? It’s important to make these decisions mindfully as the default is otherwise to accept a level of turnover as participants move on.

To return to lessons from citizen science, possible areas for deeper involvement include choosing or defining questions for study, analysing or interpreting data and drawing conclusions, discussing results and asking new questions.[3]However, heritage organisations might have to accept that the questions people want to ask might not involve their collections, and that these citizen historians’ new interests might not leave time for their previous crowdsourcing tasks.

Why is a critical mass of content in a Participatory Commons useful?

And now we return to the Participatory Commons and the question of why a critical mass of content would be useful.

Increasingly, the old divisions between museum, library and archive collections don’t make sense. For most people, content is content, and they don’t understand why a pamphlet about a village fete in 1898 would be described and accessed differently depending on whether it had ended up in a museum, library or archive catalogue.

Basing niche projects on a wider range of content creates opportunities for different types of tasks and levels of responsibility. Projects that provide a variety of tasks and roles can support a range of different levels and types of participant skills, availability, knowledge and experience.

A critical mass of material is also important for the discoverability of heritage content. Even the most sophisticated researcher turns to Google sometimes, and if your content doesn’t come up in the first few results, many researchers will never know it exists. It’s easy to say but less easy to make a reality: the easier it is to find your collections, the more likely it is that researchers will use them.

Commons as party?

More importantly, a critical mass of content in a Commons allows us to re-define ‘winning’. If participation is narrowly defined as belonging to individual GLAMs, when a citizen historian moves onto a project that doesn’t involve your collection then it can seem like you’ve lost a collaborator. But the people who developed a new research interest through a project at one museum might find they end up using records from the archive down the road, and transcribing or enhancing their records during their investigation. If all the institutions in the region shared their records on the Commons or let researchers take and share photos while using their collections, the researcher has a critical mass of content for their research and hopefully as a side-effect, their activities will improve links between collections. If the Commons allows GLAMs to take a sector-wide view then someone moving on to a different collection becomes a moment to celebrate, a form of graduation. In our wildest imagination, the Commons could be like a fabulous party where you never know what fabulous interesting people and things you’ll discover…

To conclude – by designing platforms that allow people to collect and improve records as they work, we’re helping everybody win.

Thank you! I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.


[1]M. Jordan Raddick et al., ‘Citizen Science: Status and Research Directions for the Coming Decade’, in astro2010: The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, vol. 2010, 2009, http://www8.nationalacademies.org/astro2010/DetailFileDisplay.aspx?id=454.

[2]Rick Bonney et al., Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report (Washington D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), July 2009), http://caise.insci.org/uploads/docs/PPSR%20report%20FINAL.pdf.

[3]Bonney et al., Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report.


Image credits in order of appearance: Glider, Library of Congress, Great hall, Library of CongressCurzona Allport from Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Hålanda Church, Västergötland, Sweden, Swedish National Heritage Board, Smithsonian Institution, Postmaster, General James A. Farley During National Air Mail Week, 1938Powerhouse Museum, Canterbury Bankstown Rugby League Football Club’s third annual Ball.

2013 in review: crowdsourcing, digital history, visualisation, and lots and lots of words

A quick and incomplete summary of my 2013 for those days when I wonder where the year went… My PhD was my main priority throughout the year, but the slow increase in word count across my thesis is probably only of interest to me and my supervisors (except where I’ve turned down invitations to concentrate on my PhD). Various other projects have spanned the years: my edited volume on ‘Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage’, working as a consultant on the ‘Let’s Get Real’ project with Culture24, and I’ve continued to work with the Open University Digital Humanities Steering Group, ACH and to chair the Museums Computer Group.

In January (and April/June) I taught all-day workshops on ‘Data Visualisation for Analysis in Scholarly Research‘ and ‘Crowdsourcing in Libraries, Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions‘ for the British Library’s Digital Scholarship Training Programme.

In February I was invited to give a keynote on ‘Crowd-sourcing as participation‘ at iSay: Visitor-Generated Content in Heritage Institutions in Leicester (my event notes). This was an opportunity to think through the impact of the ‘close reading’ people do while transcribing text or describing images, crowdsourcing as a form of deeper engagement with cultural heritage, and the potential for ‘citizen history’ this creates (also finally bringing together my museum work and my PhD research). This later became an article for Curator journal, From Tagging to Theorizing: Deepening Engagement with Cultural Heritage through Crowdsourcing (proof copy available at http://oro.open.ac.uk/39117). I also ran a workshop on ‘Data visualisation for humanities researchers’ with Dr. Elton Barker (one of my PhD supervisors) for the CHASE ‘Going Digital‘ doctoral training programme.

In March I was in the US for THATCamp Feminisms in Claremont, California (my notes), to do a workshop on Data visualisation as a gateway to programming and I gave a paper on ‘New Challenges in Digital History: Sharing Women’s History on Wikipedia‘ at the Women’s History in the Digital World‘ conference at Bryn Mawr, Philadelphia (posted as ‘New challenges in digital history: sharing women’s history on Wikipedia – my draft talk notes’). I also wrote an article for Museum Identity magazine, Where next for open cultural data in museums?.

In April I gave a paper, ‘A thousand readers are wanted, and confidently asked for’: public participation as engagement in the arts and humanities, on my PhD research at Digital Impacts: Crowdsourcing in the Arts and Humanities (see also my notes from the event), and a keynote on ‘A Brief History of Open Cultural Data’ at GLAM-WIKI 2013.

In May I gave an online seminar on crowdsourcing (with a focus on how it might be used in teaching undergraduates wider skills) for the NITLE Shared Academics series. I gave a short paper on ‘Digital participation and public engagement’ at the London Museums Group‘s ‘Museums and Social Media’ at Tate Britain on May 24, and was in Belfast for the Museums Computer Group’s Spring meeting, ‘Engaging Visitors Through Play‘ then whipped across to Venice for a quick keynote on ‘Participatory Practices: Inclusion, Dialogue and Trust‘ (with Helen Weinstein) for the We Curate kick-off seminar at the start of June.

In June the Collections Trust and MCG organised a Museum Informatics event in York and we organised a ‘Failure Swapshop‘ the evening before. I also went to Zooniverse’s ZooCon (my notes on the citizen science talks) and to Canterbury Cathedral Archives for a CHASE event on ‘Opening up the archives: Digitization and user communities’.

In July I chaired a session on Digital Transformations at the Open Culture 2013 conference in London on July 2, gave an invited lightning talk at the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School 2013, ran a half-day workshop on ‘Designing successful digital humanities crowdsourcing projects‘ at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference in Nebraska, and had an amazing time making what turned out to be Serendip-o-matic at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University’s One Week, One Tool in Fairfax, Virginia (my posts on the process), with a museumy road trip via Amtrak and Greyhound to Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburg inbetween the two events.

In August I tidied up some talk notes for publication as ‘Tips for digital participation, engagement and crowdsourcing in museums‘ on the London Museums Group blog.

October saw the publication of my Curator article and Creating Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives through Design with Don Lafreniere and Scott Nesbit for the International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, based on our work at the Summer 2012 NEH Advanced Institute on Spatial Narrative and Deep Maps: Explorations in the Spatial Humanities. (I also saw my family in Australia and finally went to MONA).

In November I presented on ‘Messy understandings in code‘ at Speaking in Code at UVA’s Scholars’ Lab, Charlottesville, Virginia, gave a half-day workshop on ‘Data Visualizations as an Introduction to Computational Thinking‘ at the University of Manchester and spoke at the Digital Humanities at Manchester conference the next day. Then it was down to London for the MCG’s annual conference, Museums on the Web 2013 at Tate Modern. Later than month I gave a talk on ‘Sustaining Collaboration from Afar’ at Sustainable History: Ensuring today’s digital history survives.

In December I went to Hannover, Germany for the Herrenhausen Conference: “(Digital) Humanities Revisited – Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age” where I presented on ‘Creating a Digital History Commons through crowdsourcing and participant digitisation’ (my lightning talk notes and poster are probably the best representation of how my PhD research on public engagement through crowdsourcing and historians’ contributions to scholarly resources through participant digitisation are coming together). In final days of 2013, I went back to my old museum metadata games, and updated them to include images from the British Library and took a first pass at making them responsive for mobile and tablet devices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael John Gorman, The Ablative Museum

Possible principles for ‘the open museum’?

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

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

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

Emerging themes from UKMW13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The onboarding experience

Mona from the boat

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

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

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

The O

Would this prompt you to save the tour?

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

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

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

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

Saving ‘your tour’

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

What’s around you?

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

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

Overall, the O…

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

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

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

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

The O website

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

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

Art wank?

The O’s ‘art wank’ label and icon

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

Finally, the art…

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

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


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

Let me know of any others in the comments…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plan it

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

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

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

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

Do it

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

Mean it

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

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

Enjoy it

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

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

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


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