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.

Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Organisational pain

If you work in a large organisation (or a cultural heritage organisation of almost any size), you may find cathartic release in reading this response to criticism of a large website from a member of its internal webteam:

…simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake. You want a redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives. It only takes a few hours to put together a really good-looking one, as you demonstrated in your post. But doing the design isn’t the hard part, and I think that’s what a lot of outsiders don’t really get, probably because many of them actually do belong to small, just-get-it-done organizations. But those of us who work in enterprise-level situations realize the momentum even a simple redesign must overcome, and not many, I’ll bet, are jumping on this same bandwagon. They know what it’s like.

As always, I’m not particularly pointing the finger at my own institution, but I’ve definitely been there. Cultural heritage institutions tend to have bonus! added! overload on web teams, so the list of improvements you want to make is always much longer than the resources you have available.

Museum pecha kucha night

The first museum pecha kucha night was held in London at the British Museum on June 18, 2009. I took rough notes during the presentations, and have included the slides and notes from my own presentation. The event used the tag ‘mwpkn’ to gather together tweets, photos, etc. The focus of this first museum pecha kucha was on sharing insights and inspiration from the Museums and the Web conference held in Indianapolis in April.

The event was organised by Shelley Mannion, who introduced the event, emphasising that it was about fun and connecting the museum tech community in an interesting way.

Gail Durbin (V&A), takeaways from MW2009
She’s a practical person, looks for ideas to nick. Good idea as things get hazy after a conference, good intentions disappear.

First takeaway – Dina Helal let her play with her iPhone, decided she had to have one. She liked her mobile for the first time in her life.

Second – twittering was very important. Decided to do something with it. Twittering is hard, sending out messages that are interesting is difficult.

Enthusiasm at conferences is short lived – e.g. people excited about wedding site, but did they send in wedding photos? She talked to people about a self-portraiture idea, ‘life on a postcard’, but hasn’t had a single response.

RSS feeds – came away knowing we had to review our RSS feeds, had been without attention for a long time.

Learnt that wikis are very hard work, they don’t automatically look after themselves.
Creative use of Flickr – museum ‘my karsh‘ collection

Resolved that had to work with Development. Looking at something like the British Library’s – adopt a book for fathers day.

Something that bothers her – many museums think of ‘Web 2.0’ just as more channels to push out information, there’s no sense of pulling in information about visitors.

Beck Tench, one of the most interesting people she met at the conference – practice and work go together very closely. Flickr plant project. She wants to get staff involved – has meeting on Fridays, in local bar, tweets to everyone, conducts something called Experimonth.

Last thing learnt – librarians have better cakes.

Silvia Filippini Fantoni (British Museum and Sorbonne University)
Silvia makes a plea for extra seconds as a non-native speaker (and synthesis not the best feature of Italians). Lecturer in museum informatics and evaluation methods at Sorbonne and project manager for multimedia guide project at British Museum.

So her focus at the conference was mostly on guides. Particularly Samis and Pau and others. Mini workshops and workshops on the topic before and during the conference. Demos from Paul Clifford (Museum of London). Exhibitors. Lots of museums are planning to develop applications.

Interest in using mobile technology as an interpretive tool is constantly growing, especially delivered on visitors own devices. Proliferations of mobile platforms. Proliferation of different functionalities – not just audio – visual, games, way finding, web access and communication, notes and comments. Have all these new platforms and functionalities improved the visitor experience? Yes, but there are some disadvantages.

Asks: aren’t we trying to do too much? Are we trying to turn a useful interpretive tool into something too complex? Aren’t we forgetting about core audio guide audience?

Are people interested in using their own devices? Do they have the time to pre-download, do they bring their devices? Samis and Pau – the answer is no/not yet. For the medium and short term still need to provide media in the museums. Touch screen devices are easier to use. Limited functionality makes interface simpler. Focus on content – AV messages, touch and listen.
Importance of sharing and learning from best practice. Some efforts at and after MW2009 – Discussion of developing open source content management system for mobile devices – contact Nancy Proctor.

Daniel Incandela (Indianapolis Museum of Art)
He’s from America so should have extra time too. Also sick and medicated (so at least one of us will have a good time during the presentation).

Enjoys robots, dinosaurs, football and a good point. On holiday while here.

Slide – Shelley’s twitter profile – she’s responsible for him being here while on holiday.

He blogged about preparing for the presentation and got a comment from one of the pecha kucha founders – the main thing is to have fun, be passionate about something you love.

Twitterfall on the big screen was a major breakthrough at MW2009, (#mw2009 trended as a topic and attracted the attention of) pantygirl.

Digital story telling and tech can’t happen without support, Max Anderson has been dream leader.

He’s here representing IMA so going to showcase some projects – Roman Art from Louvre webisodes – paved the way for informal, agile, multiple content source creation.

Art Babble. IMA blog – ripped off other museums – gives many departments from museum a digital voice.

Half time experiment with awkward silence (blank slide). [In the pub afterwards, I discovered that this actually made at least one of the English people feel socially awkward!]

Brooklyn Museum – for him the real innovators for digital content for museums, won many awards at MW2009.

Te Papa’s ‘build a squid’ had him at ‘hello’. First example of a museum project that actually went viral?

Perhaps we could upgrade MW site? Better integration of social media, multimedia from previous conferences.

Loves Bruce Wyman – reason to go to MW2010.

art:21 – smart team, good approaches to publishing across platforms.

Wonders about agility – love new and emerging projects (?) we hear about at conferences, but how do we face an idea and deal with own internal issues?

The Dutch at Indy (were great) – but somewhere outside north America next for Museums and the Web?

Philip Poole (British Museum)
Everything I got from MW2009 can be put into one statement – spread it about. Enable your content to be spread by other people through APIs.

Does spreading out content dilute our authority? By putting it onto other websites, putting it in contact with other people. No, of course not.

Video was big at MW2009.

If going to use different platforms, will people come? We need to tailor content to different websites – can’t just build it and assume people will come. Persian coins vs. ritual Mayan sacrifice on YouTube – which will get bigger audience? [Pick content delivery to suit audience and context.]

Platforms include ArtBabble, YouTube (shorter, edgier), iTunes U. Viral content – we can put features on our website, but a YouTube or Vimeo audience are going to spread things better. iTunes, U, can download and listen on train – takes out of website entirely.

Stats are important – e.g. need to include stats of video on different platforms, make sure people above you recognise the value in that. DCMS – very basic stats – perhaps they should be asking for different stats. “If DCMS ask how much video we put on YouTube, we’d all start doing it.” [Brilliant point]

API – take content from website and put elsewhere. IMA Explore section – advertise the repeating pattern in their URLs – someone used them but wasn’t going very well, they got in contact with him and helped him succeed, now biggest referrer outside search engines. He wants to do that for the British Museum – he knows the quirks, the data.

Why the ‘softly softly’ approach? Creating an entire API interface is huge mountain, people above you will want to avoid it if you show them the size of the whole mountain.

Digital NZ – fantastic example. Can create custom search, embed on website, also into gallery and people can vote for it

The British Museum is a museum of the world for the world, why should their web presence be any different?

Mia Ridge (Science Museum)
Yes, that’s me. My slides on ‘Bubbles and Easter eggs – Museum Pecha Kucha’ are on slideshare – scroll down the page for full text and notes – or available as a PDF (2mb).

I talked about:

  • keeping the post-conference momentum going, particularly the ‘do one thing’ idea;
  • museum technologists as ‘double domain experts’;
  • not hiding museum geeks like Easter eggs but making more of them as a resource;
  • the responsibilities of museum geeks as their expertise is recognised;
  • breaking down internal silos; intelligent failure;
  • broken metrics and better project design (pitch the goal, not the method);
  • audience expectations in 2009;
  • possible first questions for digital projects and taking a whole museum view for new projects;
  • who’s talking/listening to your audiences? trust and respect your audiences;
  • your museum is an iceberg (lots of the good stuff is hidden);
  • (s)mash the system (hold a mashup day);
  • and a challenge for your museum – has the web fundamentally changed your organisation?

Frankie Roberto (Rattle)
Went to the conference with a ‘fan’ hat on, just really enjoys museums. Loved the zoo – live exhibits are interactive, visceral. Role of live interpretation – how could it work with digital technology? Everyone loves dinosaur – Indy Children’s Museum. All museums should have a carousel (can’t remember what he was going to say about it).

The Power of Children; making a difference – really powerful stories.

Still thinking about the idea of creating visceral experiences.

ArtBabble – shouldn’t generally create silos but ArtBabble spotted that YouTube wasn’t working for certain types of content.

Davis LAB – kiosks and sofa. Said ‘we are on the web’.

Drupal – lots of museums switching to it.

Richard Morgan (V&A) on APIS – ask, what is your museum good at?, and build an API for that – it may not be collections stuff.

‘Things to do’ page on V&A. Good way of highlighting ways to interact on website.

Semantic data, Aaron’s talk on interpretation of bias, relocation from Flickr photos.
Breaking down ideas about authority on where an area is bounded by. OpenStreetMap – wants to add a historical layer to that so can scroll backwards and forwards in time. [I should ask whether this means layering old maps (with older street layouts like pre-Great Fire of London, or earlier representations?). Geo-rectification is expensive because it’s time-consuming, but could it be crowdsourced? Geo-locating old images would be easier for the average person to do.]

Open Plaques – alpha project.

Thinks we won’t need to digitise in the future as stuff will be born digital (ha, as if! Though it depends where you draw the lines about the end of collections – in my imagination they’re like that warehouse scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc and we won’t run out of things to properly digitise any time soon. Still, it’s a useful question.)

Dan Zambonini (Box UK)
‘Every film needs a villain’. In his impressions and insights from MW2009 he’ll say things we may or may not agree with.

Slide – stuff we can do vs. stuff we can’t do on either side of a gulf of perceived complexity. It’s hard to progress from one to the other. Three questions to bridge gap – how to make relevant to everyday job, how to show advantages, how to make it easy.

Then he realised should talk about personal things – people and connections made. About people, stuff that happens in the evening. The evening drinks don’t happen at UKMW – it’s a shame we have to go to the other side of the world to talk to each other. [It does it you’re at an event like mashed museum the day before – another reason to open it up to educators, curators, etc.]

Small museums vs. big museums – [should make stuff accessible to small museums.] Can get value by helping people. (He tells his ex-girlfriend that ) small is the new big. Also small quick wins. Break down the big things into smaller things, find ways can get to them through small changes in behaviour, bits of information.

How small is small? Greater or less than one day. If less than a day, might as well try it. If it’s going to take a week, not small.

Museums should share data – not just as API – share data on traffic, spill gossip on marketing costs, etc. [Information is power, etc]

Celebrate failure – admit that some things go wrong.

Bigger picture – be honest. Tell us when to shut up (on e.g. the Museum Tech Pecha Kucha‘ event on slideshare (and mine has now got an audio track, thanks to Shelley).

‘Reshaping the Art Museum’

I’m sneaking a moment from revision to point you to this thought-provoking article ‘Reshaping the Art Museum‘ in Artnews:

To an unprecedented degree, market research about the needs, wants, fears, and anxieties of visitors is shaping how museums are designed. “We got a lot of comments that it’s just overwhelming to come to museums,” says Lori Fogarty, director of the Oakland Museum of California, which inaugurates a complete reinstallation of its art, natural history, and science collections this fall. So the new galleries will feature “loaded lounges” where visitors can relax, read catalogues, or do hands-on activities, along with open spaces that accommodate up to 25 people for concerts, storytelling, or other such programs.

But a bigger change in her plan is connecting people who might never have visited art museums with the people who curate them. Fogarty calls it transparency—”breaking the fourth wall”—having curators answer questions about how and why they choose works. Visitor feedback will be encouraged, and the exhibitions, in turn, will be based on the “wiki model,” with curators representing only one voice in a mix that includes conservators, community members, and artists. “We can’t count on the fact that potential visitors were brought to museums as kids,” Fogarty says. “Many have no cultural or experiential reference; they don’t think of the museum as a place that welcomes them or has anything of interest to them.”

At the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, director Olga Viso is also using a major reinstallation as an opportunity to remake the museum into a more civic space. “We want to be in dialogue with the audience instead of in the place of authority,” as she puts it. Such efforts may mean involving the community in the organization of shows or asking people to vote on the selection of artworks. When the new installation opens in November, says chief curator Darsie Alexander, curators will hold in-gallery office hours—giving visitors insights into the way exhibitions happen, and giving the staff a chance to find out “how visitors encounter work in space—the kinds of questions they ask about art, what they find interesting, and how long they stay.”

And for all the innovations in programming, marketing, and education, Campbell argues, the core mission remains the same. “We can make ourselves more user-friendly, but ultimately one of the key experiences of visiting a museum is that moment of standing in front of an object,” he says. “Suddenly you’re responding to something physical, real, that changes your own perspective. And great museums will always do that, as long we get people through the doors.”

‘Organisational change’ session at MW2009

I was chairing the session so my notes are a bit sketchy. It’s worth reading the full papers and following the slides online.

Intro notes: it’s an interesting moment for the sector, maturity of approaches to the web. Turning the analytical gaze inwards, working towards a more effective, integrated and considered use of technology. This brings new challenges in managing expectations and demand. Wider consultation means adapting our language and understanding, but the benefits of collaboration are worth it.

Organisational Change for the On-line World – Steering the Good Ship Museum Victoria
David Methven, Head, ICT, and Timothy Hart, Director, Information Multimedia and Technology, Museum Victoria, Australia.  Slides:

Tim Hart started, talking about their in-sourcing model; build capability, drive money otherwise spent outsourced inside the org. Interruption by David! Trying to change org culture, ‘blah blah blah’. They used an audience volunteer for dramatisation!
Therapy for Tim. Circle. Telling people what we should be doing, not how. Changing work practices. Not consulting us, asking us what we want to do and how we should change what we’re doing.
Process. Once strategy was done, job not done. Didn’t understand how much ownership the org wanted of the strategy. People who weren’t involved in the process kicked up.
Established exhibition production processes.
Interesting conceptual model. Relationship.
Internal experience of applications, IT systems.

Down To Earth: Social Media and Institutional Change
Patricia Deiser, Museum voor Communicatie; and Vincent de Keijzer, Gemeentemuseum, The Netherlands. Slides:

Vincent and Patricia: addressing people who are not willing or able to come to the museum. New roles for the public. Make use of knowledge, time, enthusiasm of the public.
Brave new world, head spinning. But had to get down to earth. Colleagues were being polite, but no one was actually doing anything. Realised approaching it in the wrong way – presenting it as something everyone is doing, we should be doing it. But should try to convince them about what would benefit them in these web 2.0 things. Had to seduce them. Much harder to do. Asked experts from outside the museum to help develop online strategy. Stop talking with people outside the museum, start talking with people inside the museum about this. Let people discuss it among themselves. Let them go online, learn about it for themselves. Low profile platform for staff to experiment. Start with your own, internal community, build a community from there.
Continuous access to cultural heritage with university of Amsterdam. Built a platform for museum staff, for ideas, proposals, projects. Asked Patricia, as a student, to research, interview colleagues. Outsider perspective.
Machiavelli quote.
Patricia’s research: How do people interact with public, how much do they know about web technology, do they use it themselves; what are they enthusiastic about?
Talked about research process. Showed colleagues examples of other things. Asked colleagues to research their presence online on e.g. Flickr, see what people had already put out there.
Models of staff members from the research: Lecturer – likes to prepare thoroughly, then make a publication/presentation of it. One-way focus. they send their knowledge out to the public, not interested in feedback from people who aren’t also scholars.
Fear of losing expertise if everything goes online.
Educators – not people in education dept, label for group. More into interaction, want some feedback . Teacher – pupil relationship. Afraid of examples where people could load UGC onto website.
Presenters – same attitude to communication as educators, but more advanced in web technology.
Interactors – already working with the public, do want to have interaction with public, but not advanced with technology. Old school education departments
Connectors – same attitudes to public, but advanced in using web technology.
Mapped staff into the categories. Difficult diagram to show internally! Scale of communication style (one way, two way focused) and use of technology. Difficult to get everyone into connectors corner, but at least get people to move up scale on use of technology.
Communities of practice.
Everything that goes onto desk goes onto website.
Still needs a lot of social skills, persuasion.

After the Heroism, Collaboration: Organizational Learning and the Mobile Space
Peter Samis and Stephanie Pau, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA. Slides:

Stephanie and Peter: digital and analogue resources. Benefiting from experience of other institutes either as staff change or working with other orgs.
Interpretive goal process. Cross departmental dialogue and interpretive brainstorm process. Workshop – answers to basic questions to help formulate a strategy.
Key questions – what’s the rationale for this project? Why here, why now?
List 1 – 3 main visitor take aways.
Who’s the intended audience, and why?
What didactic elements are planned? What other modes of interp inc multimedia should we consider?
Case studies. Showing how the process worked in exhibs with really different requirements.
Peter – evaluation studies. Different modes of use – wall texts vs multimedia guides.
“What a visual interface brings to the party…” Break picture into components, not a slave to a minute and a half overview.
What people want – pre-loaded vs call in.
Sharing usage figures – ace.
What information did on-site visitors not get? if they didn’t have the cell phones. Breakdown of what content was available by which methods.

A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto)

Yet another conversation on twitter about the NMOLP/Creative Spaces project lead to a discussion of the long lead times for digital projects in the cultural heritage sector. I’ve worked on projects that were specced and goals agreed with funders five years before delivery, and two years before any technical or user-focussed specification or development began, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened with NMOLP.

Five years is obviously a *very* long time in internet time, though it’s a blink of an eye for a museum. So how do we work with that institutional reality? We need to figure out agile, adaptable project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into…

The initial project bid must be written to allow for implementation decisions that take into account the current context, and ideally a major goal of the bid writing process should be finding points where existing infrastructure could be re-used. The first step for any new project should be a proper study of the needs of current and potential users in the context of the stated goals of the project. All schema, infrastructure and interface design decisions should have a link to one or more of those goals. Projects should built around usability goals, not object counts or interface milestones set in stone three years earlier.

Taking institutional parameters into account is of course necessary, but letting them drive the decision making process leads to sub-optimal projects, so projects should have the ability to point out where institutional constraints are a risk for the project. Constraints might be cultural, technical, political or collections-related – we’re good at talking about the technical and resourcing constraints, but while we all acknowledge the cultural and political constraints it often happens behind closed doors and usually not in a way that explicitly helps the project succeed.

And since this is my lunchtime dream world, I would like plain old digitisation to be considered sexy without the need to promise funders more infrastructure they can show their grandkids.

We also need to work out project models that will get buy-in from contractors and 3rd party suppliers. As Dan Zambonini said, ”Usability goals’ sounds like an incredibly difficult thing to quantify’ so existing models like Agile/sprint-esque ‘user stories’ might be easier to manage.

We, as developers, need to create a culture in which ‘failing intelligently’ is rewarded. I think most of us believe in ‘failing faster to succeed sooner’, at least to some extent, but we need to think carefully about the discourse around public discussions of project weaknesses or failures if we want this to be a reality. My notes from Clay Shirky’s ICA talk earlier this year say that the members of the Invisible College (a society which aimed to ‘acquire knowledge through experimental investigation’) “went after alchemists for failing to be informative when they were wrong” – ” it was ok to be wrong but they wanted them to think about and share what went wrong”. They had ideas about how results should be written up and shared for maximum benefit. I think we should too.

I think the MCG and Collections Trust could both have a role to play in advocating more agile models to those who write and fund project bids. Each museum also has a responsibility to make sure projects it puts forward (whether singly or in a partnership) have been reality checked by its own web or digital specialists as well as other consultants, but we should also look to projects and developers (regardless of sector) that have managed to figure out agile project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into.

So – a blatant call for self-promotion – if you’ve worked on projects that could provide a good example, written about your dream project structures, know people or projects that’d make a good case study – let me know in the comments.

Thanks also to Mike, Giv and Mike, Daniel Evans (and the MCG plus people who listened to me rant at dev8D in general) for the conversations that triggered this post.

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? (29 September 2012) and Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen? (21 November 2010).

Institutions, authority, community and social media

A very interesting example from the library sector – the CEO of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) posted about twitter, and caused a minor outbreak of fury. A little while later he posted what I think is an honest reflection on and acknowledgement of the issues raised, and of the changes institutions face in the era of social media – ‘social networking [is] changing the dynamic of institutionalised professionalism’. It’s also a good demonstration of the idea that making mistakes in public doesn’t mean the end of the world, and might even cause positive changes.

In a post titled, Yes, let’s try that! the CEO responds to criticisms of his original post (below):

I went on to make an observation (that there’s a widening gap between the culture of the institution and the culture of the network) and ask a question: How can we best combine the authority of our Institute and the democracy of our network?

CILIP (like many organisations) is conflicted between authority and community – or (to put it in a way which chimes more with this discussion) between systems and conversations.

So let me try to explain my thinking – and show why I think the discussion about using social media is also a discussion about the future for professionalism.

We can’t simply (as some comments have suggested) ignore the issue of authority. After all, we’re a profession which prides itself on authenticating information as well as providing access to information – “authority control” is a skill we practice. And any profession worthy of the name has to have systems in place to authenticate and accredit professional practice. The problem (and that sense of frustration and irritation) arises when an organisation’s systems and a community’s conversations get out of kilter with each other – when the gap appears to widen between the organisation and the community, between the institute and the network, between “us” and “them”.

For context, the original post, All of a twitter, that kicked off the debate started:

There’s some twittering at present about whether CILIP has (or should have) any “official” presence on various lists or micro blog sites.

The simple answer, of course, is no. In terms of “official” activity, cyber life is just like real like – if it happens in a CILIP-sanctioned space, it’s official; if it happens down the pub or in someone else’s space, it isn’t.

It’s interesting seeing how the library sector is grappling with these issues, particularly in a week when the ‘creative spaces’ beta launch has caused such a stir.

Happy developers + happy museums = happy punters (my JISC dev8D talk)

This is a rough transcript of my lightning talk ‘Happy developers, happy museums’ at JISC’s dev8D ‘developer happiness’ days last week. The slides are downloadable or embedded below. The reason I’m posting this is because I’d still love to hear comments, ideas, suggestions, particularly from developers outside the museum sector – there’s a contact form on my website, or leave a comment here.

“In this talk I want to show you where museums are in terms of data and hear from you on how we can be more useful.

If you’re interested in updates I use my blog to [crap on a bit, ahem] talk about development at work, and also to call for comment on various ideas and prototypes. I’m interested in making the architecture and development process transparent, in being responsive to not only traditional museum visitors as end users, but also to developers. If you think of APIs as a UI for developers, we want ours to be both usable and useful.

I really like museums, I’ve worked in three museums (or families of museums) now over ten years. I think they can do really good things. Museums should be about delight, serendipity and answers that provoke more questions.

A recent book, ‘How does one become a scientist? : survey on the birth of a Vocation’ states that ‘60% of scientists over 30 and 40% of scientists under 30 note claim, without prompting, that the Palais de la Découverte [a science museum in Paris] triggered their vocation’.

Museums can really have an impact on how people think about the world, how they think about the possibilities of their lives. I think museums also have a big responsibility – we should be curating collections for current and future audiences, but also trying to provide access to the collections that aren’t on display. We should be committed to accessibility, transparency, curation, respecting and enabling expertise.

So today I’m here because we want to share our stuff – we are already – but we want to share better.

We do a lot of audience research and know a lot about some of our users, including our specialist users, but we don’t know so much about how people might use our data, it’s a relatively new thing for us. We’re used to saying ‘here are objects in a case, interpretation in label’, we’re not used to saying ‘here’s unmediated access, access through the back door’.

Some of the challenges for museums: technology isn’t that much of a challenge for us on the whole, except that there are pockets of excellence, people doing amazing things on small budgets with limited resources, but there are also a lot of old-fashioned monolithic project designs with big overheads that take a long time to deliver. Lots of people mean well but don’t know what’s possible – I want to spread the news about lightweight, more manageable and responsive ways of developing things that make sense and deliver results.

We have a lot of data, but a lot of it’s crap. Some of what we have is wrong. Some of it was written 100 years ago, so it doesn’t match how we’d describe things now.

We face big institutional challenges. Some curators – (though it does depend on the museum) – fear loss of control, fear intellectual vandalism, that mistakes in user-generated content published on museum sites will cause people to lose trust in museums. We have fears of getting the IT wrong (because for a while we did). Funding and metrics are a big issue – we are paid by how many people come through our door or come to our websites. If we’re doing a mashup, how do we measure the usage of that? Are we going to cost our organisations money if we can’t measure visits and charge back to the government? [This is particularly an issue for free museums in the UK, an interesting by-product of funding structures.]

Copyright is a huge issue. We might not even own an object that appears in our collections, we might not own the rights to the image of our object, or to the reproductions of an image. We might not have asked for copyright clearance at the time when an object was donated, and the cost of tracing it might be too high, so we can’t use that object online. Until we come up with a reliable model that reduces the risk to an institution of saying ‘copyright unknown’, we’re stuck.

The following are some ways I can think of for dealing with these challenges…
Limited resources – we can’t build an interface to meet every need for every user, but we can provide the content that they’d use. Some of the semantic web talks here have discussed a ‘thin layer’ of application over data, and that’s kind of where we want to go as well.

Real examples to reduce institutional fear and to provide real examples of working agile projects. [I didn’t mean strictly ‘agile’ methodology but generally projects that deliver early and often and can respond to the changing technical and social environment]

Finding ways for the sector to reward intelligent failure. Some museums will never ever admit to making a mistake. I’ve heard over the past few days that universities can be the same. Projects that are hyped up suddenly aren’t mentioned, and presumably it’s failed, but no-one [from the project] ever talks about why so we don’t learn from those mistakes. ‘Fail faster, succeed sooner’.
I’d like to hear suggestions from you on how we could deal with those challenges.

What are museums known for? Big buildings, full of stuff; experts; we make visitors come to us; we’re known for being fun; or for being boring.

Museum websites traditionally appear to be about where we are, when we’re open, what’s on, is there a cafe on site. Which is useful, but we can do a lot more.

Traditionally we’ve done pretty exhibition microsites, which are nice – they provide an experience of the exhibition before or after your visit. They’re quite marketing-led, they don’t necessarily provide an equivalent experience and they don’t really let you engage with the content beyond the fact that you’re viewing it.

We’re doing lots of collections online projects, some of these have ended up being silos – sometimes to the extent if we want to get data out of them, we have to screen-scrape our own data. These sites often aren’t as pretty, they don’t always have the same design and usability budgets (if any).

I think we should stick to what we’re really good at – understanding the data (collections), understanding how to mediate it, how to interpret it, how to select things that are appropriate for publication, and maybe open it up to other people to do the shiny pretty things. [Sounds almost like I’m advocating doing myself out of a job!]

So we have lots of objects, images, lots of metadata; our collections databases also include people, events, dates, places, businesses and organisations, lots of qualified information around things like dates, they’re not necessarily simple fields but that means they can convey a lot more meaning. I’ve included that because people don’t always realise we have information beyond objects and object metadata. This slide [11 below] is an example of one of the challenges – this box of objects might not be catalogued as individual instruments, it might just be catalogued as a ‘box of stuff’, which doesn’t help you find the interesting objects in the box. Lots of good stuff is hidden in this way.

We’re slowly getting there. We’re opening up access. We’re using APIs internally to share data between gallery interactives and the web, we’re releasing them as data points, we’re using them to provide direct access to collections. At the moment it still tends to be quite mediated access, so you’re getting a lot of interpretation and a fewer number of objects because of the resources required to create really nice records and the information around them.

‘Read access’ is relatively easy, ‘write access’ is harder because that’s when we hit those institutional issues around authority, authorship. Some curators are vaguely horrified that they might have to listen to what the public have to say and actually take some of it back into their collections databases. But they also have to understand that they can’t know everything about their collections, and there are some specialist users who will know everything there is to know about a particular widget on a particular kind of train. We’d like to capture that knowledge. [London Transport Museum have had a good go at that.]

Some random URLs of cool stuff happening in museums [,,,] – it’s still very much in small pockets, it’s still difficult for museum staff to convince people to take what seems like a leap of faith and try these non-traditional things out.

We’re taking our content to where people hang out. We’re exploring things like Flickr Commons, asking people to tag and comment. Some museums have been updating collections records with information added by the public as a result. People are geo-tagging photos for us, which means you can do ‘then and now’ mashups without a big metadata enhancement budget.

I’d like to see an end to silos. We are kinda getting there but there’s not a serious commitment to the idea that we need to let things go, that we need to make sure that collections online shareable, that they’re interoperable, that they can mesh with other things.

Particularly for an education audience, we want to help researchers help themselves, to help developers help others. What else do we have that people might find useful?

What we can do depends on who you are. I could hope that things like enquiry-based learning, mashups, linked data, semantic web technologies, cross-collections searches, faceted browsing to make complex searches easy would be useful, that the concept of museums as a place where information lives – a happy home for metadata mapped around objects and authority records – are useful for people here but I wouldn’t want to put words into your mouths.

There’s a lot we can do with the technology, but if we’re investing resources we need to make sure that they’re useful. I can try things in my own time because it’s fun, but if we’re going to spend limited resources on interfaces for developers then we need to that it’s actually going to help some group of people out there.

The philosophy that I’m working with is ‘we’ve got really cool things, but we can have even cooler things if we can share what we have with everyone else’. “The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else”. [This quote turns out to be on the event t-shirts, via CRIG!] So that said… any ideas, comments, suggestions?”

And that, thankfully, is where I stopped blathering on. I’ll summarise the discussion and post back when I’ve checked that people are ok with me blogging their comments.

[If the slide show below has a brown face on a black background, it’s the right one – slideshare’s embed seems to have had a hiccup. If it’s not that, try viewing it online directly.]

[My slide images include the Easter Egg museum in Kolomyya, Ukraine and ‘Laughter in Odd Places’ event at the Museum of London.]

This is a quick dump of some of the text from an interview I did at the event, cos I managed to cover some stuff I didn’t quite articulate in my talk:

[On challenges for museums:] We need to change institutional priorities to acknowledge the size of the online audience and the different levels of engagement that are possible with the online experience. Having talked to people here, museums also need to do a bit of a sell job in letting people know that we’ve changed and we’re not just great big imposing buildings full of stuff.

[What are the most exciting developments in the museum sector, online?] For digital collections, going outside the walls of the museum using geo-location to place objects in their original context is amazing. It means you can overlay the streets of the city with past events and lives. Outsourcing curation and negotiating new models of expertise is exciting. Overcoming the fear of the digital surrogate as a competitor for museum visits and understanding that everything we do builds audiences, whether digital or physical.