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

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

Sharon Ament’s keynote at Museum of London Docklands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclosure: my ticket was provided by Museum/iD.

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).

Museum technologists redux: it’s not about us

Recently there’s been a burst of re-energised conversations on Twitter, blogs and inevitably at MW2012 (Museums on the Web 2012) about museum technologists, about breaking out of the bubble, about digital strategies vs plain old strategies for museums.  This is a quick post (because I only ever post when I should be writing a different paper) to make sure my position is clear.

If you’re reading this you probably know that these are important issues to discuss, and it’s exciting thinking about the organisational change issues museums will rise to in order to stay relevant, but it’s also important to step back and remind ourselves that ultimately, it’s not about us.  It’s not about our role as museum technologists, or museums as organisations.

Museum technologists should be advocates for the digital audience, and guide museums in creating integrated, meaningful experiences, but we should also make sure that other museum staff know we still share their values and respect their expertise, and dispel myths about being zealots of openness at the expense of other requirements or wanting to devalue the physical experience.

It’s about valuing the digital experiences our audiences have in our galleries, online and on the devices they carry in their pockets.  It’s about understanding that online visitors are real visitors too.  It’s about helping people make the most of their physical experiences by extending and enhancing their understandings of our collections and the world that shaped them.  It’s about showing the difference digital makes by showing the impact it can have for a museum seeking to fulfil its mission for audiences it can’t see as well as those right under its nose.

I’m a museum technologist, but maybe in my excitement about its potential I haven’t been clear enough: I’m not in love with technology, I’m in love with what it enables – better museums, and better museum experiences.

Define your purpose or others will define you (and you may not like the results)

[A re-post, as the blogger outage seems to have eaten the first version. I’m incredibly grateful to Ben W. Brumfield @benwbrum for sending me a copy of the post from his RSS reader. I’ve set blogger up to email me a copy of posts in future so I won’t have to go diving into my Safari cache to try and retrieve a post again!]

There’s a lot of this going around as the arts and cultural heritage face on-going cuts: define yourself, or be defined, a search for a new business model that doesn’t injure the unbusinesslike values at the core of public cultural institutions. Mark Ravenhill in the Guardian, Global art: nice canapes, shame about the show:

Many of our UK institutions operate under a strange contradiction: most of the signals we give out suggest that we offer the international glamour, the pampering loveliness, the partnerships with banks and brands… But at the same time, we agonise about access: we want everyone to be let into the business lounge.

In a modern world that buys and sells information and luxury, the arts deal in something very different: wisdom, a complex, challenging, lifelong search that can make you happy and furious, discontented and questioning, elated or bored.

What we need now, more than ever, is a clear message about what we do and why we do it. The government has opted for swift deficit reduction and a good hack at the arts: it’s up to us to set the long-term agenda for the role of the arts in public life over the next decade and beyond if we’re not going to be cut, cut and cut again. Boom and bust are here to stay: capitalism will always be in a permanent state of crisis.

Nick Poole has also written on A New Way Forward for Museums, saying:

It is entirely possible to be commercially savvy, operate sharply and make sophisticated uses of licensing as an artefact of control all in the name of serving a public cultural purpose. Equally, it is possible to throw open the doors and make content universally accessible in the name of driving commercial value to the bottom-line. The cultural and commercial imperatives are not in opposition, but coexist along a spectrum of activity which runs from non-commercial, through non-transactional (things like brand equity and audience engagement) to strictly financially transactional.

If the financial future of museums lies in becoming commercially acute, then a key part of true sustainability will lie in recognising our place in the supply-chain of culture to consumers, and in truly understanding and embracing our core competence and their value.

…we need to recognise that focussing on our core competencies and using them to create cultural assets and experiences which we can monetise (and therefore sustain) in partnership with the private sector is a story of success and advantage, not failure or loss.

His post has some interesting suggestions, so do go read it (and comment).

Nick also describes a vision “of a world in which museums have renegotiated the social contract with the public so that people everywhere understand that museums are places where culture is made and celebrated, rather than preserved and hidden from view” – it’s easy, in my happy little bubble, to forget that many people don’t see the point of museums. Some I’ve talked to might make an allowance for the big national institutions, but won’t have any time for smaller or local museums. Working out how to deal with this might mean changing the public offer of these museums – or is it too late? There’s a silent cull of museums happening in the UK right now, and yet I don’t hear about big campaigns to save them. What do you think?

Thinking aloud: does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?

I’m blogging several conversations on twitter around the subject of innovation and experimentation that I thought were worth saving, not least because I’m still thinking about their implications.

To start with, Lynda Kelly (@lyndakelly61) quoted @sebchan at the Hot Science conference on climate change and museums:

‘Museums want everything to be slick and polished for mass audience, we lose capacity to be experimental and rapid’

 which lead me to tweet:

‘does big museum obsession with polish hinder innovation? (‘innovation’ = keeping up with digital world outside)’.

which lead to a really interesting series of conversations.  Erin Blasco responded (over several tweets):

We can’t pilot if it’s not perfect. … Need to pilot 15 quick/dirty QR codes but we can’t put ANY up unless there are 50 & perfectly, expensively designed & impressive. … So basically not allowed to fail and learn = not allowed to pilot = we spend a bunch of $ and fail anyway? … To clarify: it’s a cross-dept project. One dept ok with post-it notes & golf pencils. Two others are not. Kinda deadlock.

I think this perfectly illustrates the point and it neatly defines the kind of ‘polish’ that slows things down – the quality of the user experience with the QR codes would rest with the explanatory text, call to action and the content the user finds at the other end, not the weight and texture of the paper or vinyl they’re printed on.  Suddenly you’ve got extra rounds of emails and meetings for those extra layers of sign-off, a work request or contract for design time, plus all the stakeholder engagement that you already, but does that extra investment of time and resources result in a better experiment in audience research?

But kudos to Erin for gettings things this far!  (An interesting discussion followed with Erin and @artlust about possible solutions, including holding stakeholder evaluations of the prototypes so they could see how the process worked, and ‘making the pilot-ness of it a selling point in the design, letting audiences feel they’re part of something special’, which made me realise that turning challenges into positives is one of my core design techniques.)

For Linda Spurdle, the barriers are more basic:

Innovation costs, even my plans to try things cheap/free get scuppered by lack of time. For me less about risk more about resources

Which also rings perfectly true – many potential museum innovators were in this position before the museum funding cuts took hold, so innovating your way out of funding-related crises must be even more difficult now.

On the topic of innovation, Lindsey Green said the ‘definite reluctance to pilot and fail impacts innovation’. Rachel Coldicutt had just blogged about ‘digital innovation in the arts’ in Making Things New, pointing out that the question ‘privileges the means of delivery over the thing that’s being delivered’, and tweeting that ‘innovating a system and innovating art aren’t the same thing and perhaps there’s more impact from innovating the system’.

If the quest is to, as Rachel problematises in her post, ‘use digital technologies to remake the Arts Establishment’, then (IMO) it’s doomed to failure. You can’t introduce new technologies and expect that the people and processes within a cultural organisation will magically upgrade themselves to match. More realistically, people will work around any technology that doesn’t suit them (for entirely understandable reasons), and even the best user experience design will fail if it doesn’t take account of its context of use. If you want to change the behaviour of people in an organisation, change the metrics they work to. Or, as Rachel says, ‘[r]ather than change for change’s sake, perhaps we should be identifying required outcomes’.  Handily, Bridget McKenzie pointed out that ‘The Museums for the Future toolkit includes new eval framework (GEOs = Generic Environmental Outcomes)’, so there’s hope on the horizon.

The caveats: it’s not that I’m against polish, and I think high production values really help our audiences value museum content. But – I think investing in a high level of polish is a waste of resources during prototyping or pilot stages, and a focus on high production values is incompatible with rapid prototyping – ‘fail faster’ becomes impossible. Usability researchers would also say polished prototypes get less useful feedback because people think the design is set (see also debates around the appearance of wireframes).

It’s also worth pointing out my ‘scare quotes’ around the term ‘innovation’ above – sadly, things that are regarded as amazing innovations in the museum world are often delayed enough that they’re regarded as pretty normal, even expected, by our more digitally-savvy audiences. But that’s a whole other conversation…

So, what do you think: does a museum’s obsession with polish hinder innovation?

Update, January 2013: Rob Stein has written ‘Museum Innovation: Risk, Experimentation and New Ideas‘, which resonated strongly:

A common pitfall for museums is an unhealthy addiction to monumental undertakings. When massive projects loom with ties to outside support and countless staff hours invested in a single deliverable, it becomes very difficult to admit the possibility of failure. As a result, we shy away from risk, mitigate the probability of embarrassment, and crush innovation in the process.

Founding visions (and learning from the past for the future of museums)

I’ve got a few presentations coming up that explore a re-imagining of museums, so I’ve been thinking about the original founding visions of specific museums (based on e.g. What would a digital museum be like if there was never a physical museum?), and whether there’s dissonance between mission statements based in institutional history and those you might write if we were inventing museums today.

For an example of where my thoughts are wondering, check this out (from the excellent ‘Museums should not fear the art snobs‘):

…it was only with the emergence of aestheticism and competition from universities in the late 19th century that curators started making exhibitions for each other and for people of their class. Most earlier Victorian museums were educational institutions (not just institutions with education departments). In Britain, both the Liberal Henry Cole (founding Director of the V&A) and the Tory John Ruskin created museums that aimed to achieve the widest possible audience in the name of public education. The Met was founded “for the purpose…of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufacture and practical life…and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction.” In 1920, the Met’s president Robert de Forest wrote that it was “a public gallery for the use of all people, high and low, and even more for the low than for the high, for the high can find artistic inspiration in their own homes”.

So I’m curious, and if you’re up for it, I have a little task for you (yes, you, over there) – what was the founding statement for your museum, and what is your current mission statement? And if you’re feeling creative, what would you like your favourite museum’s mission statement to be?

Survey results: issues facing museum technologists

In August 2010 I asked museum technologists to take a survey designed to help me understand and communicate the challenges faced by other museum technologists (as reported in ‘What would you change about your workplace? A survey for museum technologists‘, and as promised, I’m sharing the results (a little later than intended, but various galleries and my dissertation have been keeping me busy).

There were 79 responses in total, (49 complete responses, the rest were partial).  According to SurveyGizmo’s reporting the survey had responses from 10 countries.  The vast majority were from the UK (36%) and the US (49%), possibly reflecting the UK and US focus of the email lists where I publicised the survey.  Respondents were based in a wide range of art, history, science, local authority/government, university and specialist museums (in almost any combination you can think of) and had a variety of roles, including content, technical, project managers and managerial titles.  As reported originally, for the purposes of the survey I defined ‘museum technologist’ as someone who has expertise and/or significant experience in the museum sector and with the application or development of new technologies.

I’ve done my own coding work on the results, which I could also share, but I suspect there’s more value in the raw results.  I’m also sharing the results to the first two questions as CSV files (compatible with most applications) so you can download and analyse the data: CSV: As a museum technologist, what are the three most frustrating things about your job?, CSV: List any solutions for each of the problems you listed above.  Please note that the data in these files is alphabetised by row, so you should not correlate responses by row number.

My thanks to the people who took the time to respond – I hope there’s some value for you in this sampling of the challenges and joys of digital work in museums.  I’d love to hear from you if you use the results, either in a comment or via email.

Question 1: As a museum technologist, what are the three most frustrating things about your job?

First response box:

An institutional culture that values curatorial opinion over the expertise of technologists
Bad management
Becoming impossible to do new work AND maintain existing sites.
Central ICT department not being supportive
Colleagues who think of things digital as somehow separate and of lesser importance
Convincing administration of the value of new technology
Difficulty accessing social networking sites/FTP/etc through Council systems
Funding (lack of)
Going over the same ground again and again
I spend a lot of time doing non-tech work, or helping people with basic IT issues
IT department not implementing effective change management and training.
IT dept walls
IT infrastructure – restrictions and problems
Image rights
Institutional IT provision
Justifying new technologies
Lack of Resources (People)
Lack of clear copyright procedure hampers the greatest ideas
Lack of committment reuslting in long drawn out meetings that never go anywhere
Lack of communication
Lack of decision making from senior management at early stages in the project
Lack of interest in updating technology
Lack of planning
Lack of power to influence major decision making
Lack of resources for web tools/infrastructure
Lack of understanding of what we (as technologists) are trying to achieve
Lack of updated skills in co-workers
Lukewarm funding
Overcoming bureaucracy and overly cautious policy to try new technologies in a timely manner
Pace of sign off
People assuming I know everything about every technology
Senior managment attitudes
Trying to encourage change for the greater good
Unreasonable objectives
Varying age of equipment
Working within IT limitations
Working within existing budgets
bureaucratic oversight
clarity & simplicity of goals
data migration
fear of change
getting buy in from people who don’t understand the technology
imprecise demands
insufficient staff resources
lack of communication between team members
lack of vision
lengh of time from concept to implementation (it is too long)
no $$ for training
not being included early enough in planning processes
not enough time
reactionary IT managers
too many stakeholders and a very conservative attitude to sign off
unrealistic expectations
Getting the management of the museum to take the web seriously and use it themselves to try to understand it
The decentralized culture of our Museum. Each department is doing their own thing, which makes it difficult to access needs, plan for improvements, allocate resources and staff efficiently.
The little understanding colleagues have of the challenges faced (e.g. building a professional website is doable in 1 week with a 300€ budget)
Lack of understanding of digital audiences, trends, issues and technologies by those commissioning digital projects (I call it ‘and then it needs a website’ syndrome
The organizational structure of the museum. The IT Department should be for networking, desktop support and infrastructure but instead they end up being the ones who call the shots about applications and systems.
Integrating our technologies and ideas into the museum’s IT infrastructure e.g. wireless hubs, installing software, updating software etc.

Second response box:

“shiny new toy” syndrom
Assortment of operating systems
Changing priorites
Enforcing efficient use of storage space (delete your DUPES!)
Excessive review cycles
Gaining buy-in from overworked staff who need to contribute to tech project
Getting curators to take the web seriously and want to use it
Having other people re-invent things I invented 10 years ago
Institutional IT provision
Institutional blindness to the outside world (i.e., “nobody actually trusts Wikipedia”)
Interdepartmental Workflow
Internal “Ownership” of information
Justifying the expense/time of trialling and sharing new ideas
Lack of Finance
Lack of appreciation for the amount of work involved
Lack of funding
Lack of medium/long term visions
Lack of shared museum assets (inter and intra)
Lack of understanding of digital media by senior executives
Lack of understanding of my role at more senior levels and by my peers
Non-existent budgets
Ph.D syndrome.
Some staff negativity about integrating new technologies
Stodgy curators
Tempering desire with reality
Time to just ‘play’ with new technologies
Too many egos
Too many people involved
Too many tasks seen as top-priority without enough support to get them done.
Understaffed and underfunded
Unwillingness to try small cheap ideas (on the understanding that if they don’t work you stop)
Upper management not grasping value of online outreach
Working in isolation
board and execs who are focused on shiny objects, not mission
dealing with the ramifications of technology decisions made by non-technical employees
entrenched views on how things should be done
funding and management structures that lead to short term, siloed thinking
inability to ack quickly and be flexible (cumbesome review process ties up projects)
inablility of coworker to understand projects
institutional resources
lack of staff time or positions alotted to technology (two minds are better than one)
no say over even how our web page is designed
not enough money
poor instructions
sparse training
tendency for time to get sucked into general office work
unreasonable expectations
unwillingness to fund projects
Lack of understanding in the wider museum of the work that we do and the potentials of technologies in learning.
People in museum administration often know less about technologies than their counterpart in the private sector.
Lack of training offered on national scale for those who are beyond beginner level with technology but not an expert
Not having admin rights to my computer and not being allowed to connect my own laptop to the work network
The expectation of a high-impact web presence without making the appropriate content available (in time)
Never knowing what others departments are doing, but still being expected to “fix” whatever when it goes down.
The little commitment others (even people asked/hired to do so) have towards social media, even after tons of workshops.
Turf wars – different staff not working toward a consensus; arguments are recycled and nothing is ever finalized
redundancy–for example, entering metadata for an image from an external source and entering it into our DAM
Funding is spread unevenly. New galleries might come with big pots of money but it’s much harder to fund work on existing sites and sections.
Lack of IT understanding by other staff in the museum and in some cases a negative attitude to putting stuff online

Third response box:

“non-profit” pay and no insurance
Always defending my position to condescending curators
Assortment of learning curves among staff
Balancing the demands of day to day tasks with the desire to expand IT use
Bending commercial products to our own needs.
Communication barriers
Conflicting messages about the purpose of online – is it to generate income or provide access?
Cross departmental walls
Cultural stigmatism
Curators/educators living in the dark ages!
Difficulty finding funding/support for less visible tech projects (content architecture, etc.)
Division between web/curatorial/education/etc.
Everyone is scared
Explaining complex systems to co-workers with limited tech background
Getting “sign off”
Hard to sell technology (APIs, etc) to staff who just want their event on the homepage.
Institutional IT provision
Keeping up with web science/standards
Lack of by in by senior management
Lack of change management at institutions
Lack of communication
Lack of professional development
Lack of support
Little allowance to “try out” tech tools/software/web
No time to experiment and try out new things
Projects never finished
Reliance on external consultants
Secret stakeholders appearing late in the production cycle
Software provider lack of focus on end users and Web
That every bit of the organisation has to be involved in every project
Too much dependence on content producers, e.g. curators, gallery authors, education staff
Trying to get other colleagues involved in technology!
Willingness of colleague tech adoption
capacity of organizations to take leaps of faith
dealing with art historians
defining projects in terms of ROI
frequent interruptions during thought-intensive work
lack of adminstrative support in the way of $$
lack of forward planning
misunderstanding of implications
not enough focus on early prototyping before the tech comes in
not enough staff
not enough staff and too many things to do…
not enough time
passive/aggressive behavior
resistance to new technologies on the basis of their perceived danger/risk
strong aversion to risk-taking, which hampers innovation
supporting software that was incorrectly chose (e.g. retrofitting a CMS to act as a DAMS)
user incompetence
wide range knowledgement needed
Magical thinking about technology: somehow hoping projects will be cheap and cutting edge with few resources devoted to them
There’s a web/multimedia team, but all the exhibition design is outsourced, so it’s difficult to mount integrated digital projects (that work both online and onsite)
disconnects between depts in larger museums, that make it hard to get all those who could contribute to and benefit from digital projects really engaged
Irrational fear of open source; irrational fears concerning access to collection information and even low-res images.
The fact that doing “online stuff” means you have to solve every problem related to technology (“My iPhone doesn’t synch my music, help!”)
Convincing staff to use project results (this is true for some staff in key positions. Other staff happy to use the results)
my department uses a DAM system, but others outside my department won’t use it but want access to the content archived there

Question 2: List any solutions for each of the problems you listed above

First response box:

$$ for training would be easy to get
Better IT training and also digital awareness training for all staff
Better investment
Better organisational understanding of the importance of project management
Better qualified staff – training
Circumnavigating IT when they sya can’t do and supporting it all ourselves.
Cloud based
Creative use of budgets – taking parts from several budgets to make a whole
Fewer and smaller
Focusing on the benefits of the new technology when presenting changes to staff
Good management
Greater funding support for equipment
Hiring further staff
IT managers who are less about security and NO and more about innovation
Improve communication by removing large egos
Keeping to meeting agendas and ensuring people involved are enthusiastic about the project
Long term strategy agreed at top levels to ringfence time and money for non-project based work
Lots of demonstrations
Make responsibilities of depts clearer
Meetings, Meetings, Meetings
More independence from IT
More staff!
Much clearer policy on approach to copyright, possibly by museums supporting one another
New, professionally trained management
Sack the lot of them and start again
Strict procedures and continuously stressing how things work and how they don’t.
The acknowledgement at senior levels of competence and experience further down the scale
Training in Project Management
Upgrade technology to a consistent level
Willingness to learn
come up with your own
educate administration, show them how other museums are taking advantage, find funding
no foreseeable increase in staffing, so no luck here
none in sight
solutions that we have found or solutions we wish for? The questions is confusing.
steel myself to do it once more in a way that means they can’t forget it
umm..if I had a solution I’d be rich 🙂
Adjust the expectations by explaining the process more in depth and always provide more conservative time estimates, and times that by 150%
We are now submitting a business case to our IT department for us to have access to these sites. Hopefully this will be widened in the future as Council’s become more aware of the essential part technology plays in museums.
reallocation of institutional resources to recognise changing technological and social environment
Having highly-placed technologists who are trusted by the museum involved in projects at an early state can help significantly to teach the institution the value of technological expertise.
Advocate your work to anyone who will listen, get involved in projects from the beginning – and try not to let technology lead, only support good ideas
Rethinking contracting policies–especially for Web 2.0 services that are free–and approval processes
Look to private sector technology vendors for workflow and project management techniques and tools or hire consultants (voices from outside are often heard louder than those inside).

Second response box:

$$ we are given we do not always get
Allowing staff to make their own decisions
Cost effective training or events or ‘buddying up’ to share expertise and experiences
Crossover training
Don’t tell, stay away from committees until you have something (good) to show
Encouraging positive comment and activity from outside
Establish an agreed level of autonomy and freedom for web projects
Fix to IT issues that take up so much of my time!
Fundraising specifically for technology as an ongoing need–not just project by project
Involvement of Technologists before design
More educated staff about abilities and weaknesses of technology
More funding and resources for projects
More rewarding work environment
More tech-savvy upper management (happened recently)
More training being offered via bodies such as Museums Galleries Scotland
More trust in teams
New, professionally developed board
Outside normzl dept relationships
Priorities either need coherent justification or to be realigned.
Reassigning permissions
Recruit more staff and do more work in house
Remove large egos
Request more specificity and detail
Speaking to people to explain the complexity and time necessary for project?
Streamlining Project Management
The creation of roles at a senior level with understanding of technology
Training for staff
Trying to get a pot on our web page for e-learning which displays and advocates our work.
agreement on acceptable standards for public facing databases
occasionally half-successful compartmentalization of time spent on specialized and general work
question assumptions
shoot the current managers
strong compromise with staff training
technology being an embedded part of the work, like education
would require a wholesale change in Museum culture – not likely to happen quickly
institution-wide training in Word, PowerPoint, Excel etc AND in newer more interesting tools for presentations (eg Prezi), data visualisation (ManyEyes, Wordle) etc
Increase levels of digital literacy through out organisation and sector by training, workshops and promotion
Write in the importance of technology projects to accomplishing the mission in strategic planning and grant documents and form interdepartmental teams of people to address technology issues and raise technology’s profile and comfort level within the institutional culture.
make sure to ‘copyright’ my own inventions and publicise them before anyone else needs to re-invent them
Show them that colleagues in their field are using the same technology, once they’re willing to listen, show how the results will help them, then make participation as easy as possible for them.
If, for every bit of unfounded, unresearched opinion, the technologist can counter with facts about how people actually behave in the world outside the museum, over (large stretches of) time this problem can be gradually allayed.
Presenting the case for how technology can do certain things really well and how it is best find the better fit than to force technology to be what it isn’t
Our institution could benefit from professional training on effective communication, but it’s not in the budget.
Organising lunches and other team activities to continuously explain and inspire people about new and social media

Third response box:

(Sadly) winning awards
Admin-down promotion of tech initiative adoption
Agreement on stakeholders and sign off processes up front – and sticking to that
Be very strict with project deadlines!
Better communications from the top
Developing a Museum Service strategy for everyone to use IT – like V&A have!
Ensuring that people at senior levels support digital projects
Go and do. Prototype to prove point
Good management
Hired more competent users or remove technically-involved tasks from users
I think we need new ways of demonstrating value other than £s or people through the door
Identify internal skills before commissioning outside consultants
Improved communications – more vision
Informal brown-bag lunches where ideas are pitched and potential explained.
Longer timelines, adequate staffing levels
Look for oppurtunity to learn more and implement new systems that help with the day to day work
Make it as easy as possible to use the results
Museums need to start thinking more like libraries
No idea how we can make LA central ICt departments more helpful
Outsource all IT relating to web projects
Professional development for staff
Remove large, scary egos
Smile, help them, and complain in silence.
Some inovative young blood in these roles
Technologists in upper management
Try something small as a pilot to reveal realistic benefits and pitfalls
act of God
bringing techies into the development process earlier in a new exhibit etc.
effective allocation of scarce resources
rewriting job descriptions to incorporate tech initiatives into everyday tasks
there is no solution for art historians except possibly to keep them out of museums and galleries
time-shifting certain kinds of work to early morning or evening, outside regular hours
Trying to find public outputs of infrastructure-related technology can help with this problem. The way some museums have begun using collections APIs as, in essence, a PR tool, is a good example of this approach.

Selected responses to Question 3: Any comments on this survey or on the issues raised?

Some comments were about the survey itself (and one comment asked not to be quoted, so I’ve played it safe and not included it) and didn’t seem relevant here.

  • Would like to know what other museum staff feel, but am guessing response may be very similar
  • There is still some trepidation and lack of understanding of what it is exactly that digital technology can play in display, interpretation and education programming. Though there are strong peer networks around digital technology, somehow this doesn’t get carried over into further advocacy in the sector in general. In my learning department there is some resistance to the idea of technology being used as a means in itself working across audiences, and it instead has to be tied in to other education officers programmes. The lack of space to experiment and really have some time to develop and explore is also sadly missed as we are understaffed and overstretched.
  • Not enough time, money or staff is true of most museum work, but particularly frustrating when looking at the tools used by the private sector. This imbalance may be part of the source of unreasonable expectations – we’ve all seen fantastic games and websites and expect that level of quality, but museums have 1/1000th of the budget of a video game studio.
  • The interdepartmental nature of many tech projects has challenged us to define under whose purview these projects should be managed.
  • In my organisation I find the lack of awareness and also lack of desire to do things online difficult to comprehend in this day and age. It is not universal, fortunately the Head of Service gets it but other managers don’t. I’m fed up hearing ‘if its online they won’t visit’ and I’m afraid I’ve given up trying to convince them, instead I tend to just work with the people who can see that putting stuff online can encourage visitors and enhance visits for visitors.
  • Being a federal institution, we receive funds for physical infrastructure, but rarely for technical infrastructure. I would say fear around copyright of digitized collections is a barrier as well.
  • Until the culture of an institution of my size changes at the top, it will continue to be a challenge to get anything through in a timely manner.
  • Funding and resources (staff, time, etc.) are the main roadblock to taking full advantage of the technology that’s out there.
  • There needs to be a way to build a proper team within the museum structure and make silos of information available.
  • I think the frustrations I raised are exactly the reason why some of us are in the museum sector – for the challenge.
  • We are fortunate in that we have a very forward-looking Board of Trustees, a visionary CEO and a tech team that truly loves what they do. But we – like any non-profit – are always limited by money and time. We’ve got loads of great ideas and great talent – we just need the means and the time to be able to bring them to fruition! We have actually rewritten job descriptions to make certain things part of people’s everyday workflow and that has helped. Our CEO has also made our technological initiatives (our IVC studios, our online presence, our virtual museum….) part of our strategic plan. So we are extremely fortunate in those respects!
  • I am a content creator, rather than a technie, but as my role is digital, everyone assumes I understand every code language and technological IT issue that there is. And I don’t.
  • why is it that those who are not involved in our work have so much to say about how we do our work down to the last detail
  • One of the largest problems faced by IT staff in museums is the need to push the envelop of technology while working within very limited budgets. There is always a desire to build the newest and best, but a reluctance to staff and budget for the upkeep and eventual use and maintenance of the new systems. That said, working for a museum environment offers more variety and interesting projects than any for-profit job could ever provide.

The challenge for museums in the 21st century?

Nick Serota, Director of the Tate, writes about modern museums in ‘Why Tate Modern needs to expand‘. I’m not sure he convinces me that the expansion needs to be physical, but it’s a brilliant case for expanding Tate’s online presence:

The world also sees museums differently. Wide international access, directly or through digital media and at all levels of understanding offers the opportunity for new kinds of collaboration with individuals and institutions.

The traditional function of the museum has been that of instruction, with the curator setting the terms of engagement between the visitor and the work of art. But in the past 20 years the development of the internet, the rise of the blog and social networking sites, as well as the more direct intervention in museum spaces by artists themselves, has begun to change the expectations of visitors, and their relationship with the curator as authoritative specialist. The challenge for museums in the 21st century is to find new ways of engaging with much more demanding, sophisticated and better informed viewers. Our museums have to respond to and become places where ideas, opinions and experiences are exchanged, and not simply learned.

The museum of the 21st century should be based on encounters with the unfamiliar and on exchange and debate rather than only on an idea of the perfect muse—private reflection and withdrawal from the “real” world. Of course, the museum continues to provide a place of contemplation and of protection from the direct pressures of the commercial and the market. It has to have some anchors or fixed points for orientation and stability, but it also has to be a dynamic space for ideas, conversations and debate about new and historic art within a global context.

The Tate’s Head of Online, John Stack, has put the Tate Online Strategy 2010–12, including their ‘Ten principles for Tate Online’.  Go read it – with any luck UK parliament will have managed to form a government by the time you’re done.

So, do you agree with Serota? What are the challenges you face in your museum in the 21st century?

On ‘cultural heritage technologists’

A Requirements Engingeering lecture at uni yesterday discussed ‘satisfaction arguments’ (a way of relating domain knowledge to the introduction of a new system in an environment), emphasising the importance of domain knowledge in understanding user and system requirements – an excellent argument for the importance of cultural heritage technologists in good project design.  The lecture was a good reminder that I’ve been meaning to post about ‘cultural heritage technologists’ for a while. In a report on April’s Museums and the Web 2009, I mentioned in passing:

…I also made up a new description for myself as I needed one in a hurry for moo cards: cultural heritage technologist. I felt like a bit of a dag but then the lovely Ryan from the George Eastman House said it was also a title he’d wanted to use and that made me feel better.

I’d expanded further on it for the first Museums Pecha Kucha night in London:

Museum technologists are not merely passive participants in the online publication process. We have skills, expertise and experience that profoundly shape the delivery of services. In Jacob Nielsen’s terms, we are double domain experts.  This brings responsibilities on two fronts – for us, and for the museums that employ us.

Nielsen describes ‘double usability specialists’ or ‘double experts’ as those with expertise in human-computer interaction and in the relevant domain or sector (e.g. ref).  He found that these double experts were more effective at identifying usability issues, and I’ve extrapolated from that to understand the role of dual expertise in specifying and developing online and desktop applications.
Commenters in the final session of MW2009 conference described the inability of museums to recognise and benefit from the expertise of their IT or web staff, instead waiting until external gurus pronounced on the way of the future – which turns out to be the same things museum staff had been saying for years.  (Sound familiar?)

So my post-MW2009 ‘call to arms’ said “museums should recognise us (museum technologists) as double domain experts. Don’t bury us like Easter eggs in software/gardens. There’s a lot of expertise in your museum, if you just look. We can save you from mistakes you don’t even know you’re making. Respect our expertise – anyone can have an opinion about the web but a little knowledge is easily pushed too far”.

However, I’m also very aware of our responsibilities. A rough summary might be:

Museum technologists have responsibilities too.  Don’t let recognition as a double domain expert make you arrogant or a ‘know it all’. Be humble. Listen. Try to create those moments of understanding, both yours from conversation with others, and others from conversation with you – and cherish that epiphany.  Break out of the bubble that tech jargon creates around our discussions.  Share your excitement. Explain how a new technology will benefit staff and audiences, show them why it’s exciting. Respect the intelligence of others we work with, and consider it part of our job to talk to them in language they understand. Bring other departments of the museum with us instead of trying to drag them along.

Don’t get carried away with idea that we are holders of truth; we need to take advantage of the knowledge and research of others. Yes, we have lots of expertise but we need to constantly refresh that by checking back with our audiences and internal stakeholders. We also need to listen to concerns and consider them seriously; to acknowledge and respect their challenges and fears.  Finally, don’t be afraid to call in peers to help with examples, moral support and documentation.

My thoughts on this are still a work in progress, and I’d love to hear what you think.  Is it useful, is it constructive?  Does a label like ‘cultural heritage technologist’ or ‘museum technologist’ help others respect your learning and expertise?  Does it matter?

[Update, April 2012: as the term has become more common, its definition has broadened.  I didn’t think to include it here, but to me, a technologist ia more than just a digital producer (as important as they are) – while they don’t have to be a coder, they do have a technical background. Being a coder also isn’t enough to make one a technologist as it’s also about a broad range of experience, ideally across analysis, implementation and support.  But enough about me – what’s your definition?]

About ‘lessons from a decade of museum websites’

An article I wrote for Museum iD, ‘an independent ideas exchange and thinktank for museums and heritage professionals’ has been published online. The entire version of ‘Learning lessons from a decade of museum websites’ is available online, but as a taster, it starts:

2009 may be remembered as the year when various financial crises gave us time and cause to stop and reflect on the successes and failures of the past decade or so of museums on the web. This reflection is aided by the maturity of the web as a technical platform – models are now available for most common applications of cultural heritage online, and a substantial body of experience with digitisation and web projects exists within the cultural heritage sector. It also offers an opportunity to pose some questions about the organisational changes museums might face as both the expectations of our audiences and our own working practices have been influenced by our interactions online.

Some of it’s really practical, and comes from my desire to share the lessons I’ve learnt over ten years in the cultural heritage sector:

Based on my experience and on that of other museum technologists, I’ve listed some sample questions about your audiences, content and organisational goals related to the project. The answers to these questions will begin to reveal the types of interactions your audiences could have with your content, with each other and with the museum itself. In turn, focussing on those social and functional interactions you wish to support will determine the website and interaction metaphors suitable for your project.

And some of it comes from a desire to see museums communicate better internally, and to make the most of existing knowledge and resources, no matter where it sits in the organisation:

Some of the questions above may seem rather daunting, but by involving staff from a range of disciplines in the project’s earliest scoping stages, you gain a greater variety of perspectives and make available a wider range of possible solutions. Inviting others to participate in the initial stages of project design and taking advantage of the innovation and expertise in your organisation is a good way to discover reusable resources, bring to light any internal duplications or conflicts, and to ‘reality check’ your idea against organisational mission and operational reality. For example, most museums contain people who spend their days talking to audiences and watching them interact with exhibits and interpretative content – observations that can help bridge the gap between the physical and online audience experience. Similarly, museum technologists are not merely passive conduits in the online publication process but often have skills, expertise and experience that can profoundly shape the delivery of services.

If you need to understand emerging technologies, ‘mash-up days’ are among the lightweight, inexpensive but potentially high-impact ways to enable staff to research and experiment with new platforms while engaging in cross-departmental collaboration. Cross-specialism workshops, ‘unconferences’ , social media communication tools and even traditional meetings are a great way to create space for innovation while benefiting from years of institutional knowledge and bridging the disconnect that sometimes exists between departments. Integrating social and participatory (or ‘Web 2.0’) applications for collaboration and consultation into organisational practice can improve the chances of success for web projects by allowing staff to become as familiar as their audiences with the potential of these tools.

A lot of my thinking harks back to the ideas that coalesced around the Museums and the Web conference earlier this year, summarised here and here.

Finally, I snuck in a challenge at the end: “Our audiences have fundamentally changed as a result of their interactions online – shouldn’t the same be true of our organisations?“.