A New Year’s resolution for start-ups, PRs and journalists writing about museums

Some technology in a museum

Dear journalists, start-ups, agencies and PR folk,

I get that you want to talk about how amazing some new app, product or company is, but can you please do so without resorting to lazy, outdated cliches?

I’ve seen far too many articles make un-evidenced claims like ‘museums don’t realise people have different preferences in their galleries’ or that museums are ‘repeatedly turning a blind eye to technology, rather than recognizing it could be used to deliver an experience unique to every visitor’. If your app, product or company is good enough, you shouldn’t need to do the ‘competition’ down to stand out, and besides, sometimes my eyes hurt from rolling so hard.

I know that traditionally everyone makes New Years resolutions for themselves, but in the spirit of disruption (ha! not really) I’d like to suggest a New Years resolution for you:  leave those cliches about dusty old museums behind and find out what people in your city love about their museums. Find a new angle for your piece, one that recognises that museums don’t always get it right but that they’ve probably been thinking about the best uses of technology for their audiences longer than you have.

Museums have been experimenting with new technologies for decades. The post-2008 financial cuts might have reduced the number of digital pilot projects across the sector as a whole but most museums are still investing in improving the visitor experience, engaging wider audiences and making a difference in the lives of their communities. You probably don’t need to lecture them on what they could be doing – they already know, and wish they had more resources to do cool things.

You could even check out past papers and discussions at conferences and groups like the Museum Computer Network (MCN), Museums and the Web, the Museums Computer Group (MCG), MuseumNext, the Visitor Studies Group (VSG), the many fantastic museum technology, design and audience research blogs, the #musetech hashtag (when agencies aren’t spamming it) and much, much more if you wanted some inspiration or to learn what’s been tried in the past and how it worked out…

Yours in museums,


The rise of interpolated content?

One thing that might stand out when we look back at 2014 is the rise of interpolated content. We’ve become used to translating around auto-correct errors in texts and emails but we seem to be at a tipping point where software is going ahead and rewriting content rather than prompting you to notice and edit things yourself.

iOS doesn’t just highlight or fix typos, it changes the words you’ve typed. To take one example, iOS users might use ‘ill’ more than they use ‘ilk’, but if I typed ‘ilk’ I’m not happy when it’s replaced by an algorithmically-determined ‘ill’. As a side note, understanding the effect of auto-correct on written messages will be a challenge for future historians (much as it is for us sometimes now).

And it’s not only text. In 2014, Adobe previewed GapStop, ‘a new video technology that eases transitions and removes pauses from video automatically’. It’s not just editing out pauses, it’s creating filler images from existing images to bridge the gaps so the image doesn’t jump between cuts. It makes it a lot harder to tell when someone’s words have been edited to say something different to what they actually said – again, editing audio and video isn’t new, but making it so easy to remove the artefacts that previously provided clues to the edits is.

Photoshop has long let you edit the contrast and tone in images, but now their Content-Aware Move, Fill and Patch tools can seamlessly add, move or remove content from images, making it easy to create ‘new’ historical moments. The images on extrapolated-art.com, which uses ‘[n]ew techniques in machine learning and image processing […] to extrapolate the scene of a painting to see what the full scenery might have looked like’ show the same techniques applied to classic paintings.

But photos have been manipulated since they were first used, so what’s new? As one Google user reported in It’s Official: AIs are now re-writing history, ‘Google’s algorithms took the two similar photos and created a moment in history that never existed, one where my wife and I smiled our best (or what the algorithm determined was our best) at the exact same microsecond, in a restaurant in Normandy.’ The important difference here is that he did not create this new image himself: Google’s scripts did, without asking or specifically notifying him. In twenty years time, this fake image may become part of his ‘memory’ of the day. Automatically generated content like this also takes the question of intent entirely out of the process of determining ‘real’ from interpolated content. And if software starts retrospectively ‘correcting’ images, what does that mean for our personal digital archives, for collecting institutions and for future historians?

Interventions between the act of taking a photo and posting it on social media might be one of the trends of 2015. Facebook are about to start ‘auto-enhancing’ your photos, and apparently, Facebook Wants To Stop You From Uploading Drunk Pictures Of Yourself. Apparently this is to save your mum and boss seeing them; the alternative path of building a social network that don’t show everything you do to your mum and boss was lost long ago. Would the world be a better place if Facebook or Twitter had a ‘this looks like an ill-formed rant, are you sure you want to post it?’ function?

So 2014 seems to have brought the removal of human agency from the process of enhancing, and even creating, text and images. Algorithms writing history? Where do we go from here? How will we deal with the increase of interpolated content when looking back at this time? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dora’s Lost Data

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

Mutual wins – everybody’s happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping each other?

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

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

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

The Participatory Commons (image: Mia Ridge)

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

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

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

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

‘Niche projects’ can be built on a Participatory Commons

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Crowdsourcing as gateway to further activity

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

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

‘Levels of Engagement’ in citizen science

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

Is this ‘mission accomplished’?

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

Paths diverge; paradox ahead?

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

Who has agency?

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

Participatory project models

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

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

New challenges

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

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

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

A tension?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commons as party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations’ at VALA2014

I’ve just spent a week in Melbourne (my home town, awww) for VALA2014. VALA is about ‘libraries, technology and the future’ and the conference theme for 2014 was ‘streaming with possibilities’. Kim Tairi‘s briefing (as Chair of the VALA2014 Conference Programme Committee) included the phrases ‘stories that will ignite, challenge and excite our audience’ and ‘don’t be afraid to be controversial or push the boundaries’, which was a brilliant challenge and turned out to be a great introduction to the ethos of the conference.

Image by Con Wiebrands 萬事如意 @flexnib

My keynote was on ‘Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations’. From my abstract: Should museums, libraries and archives be places for looking at old stuff other people have made, or could they also be places where new creations are inspired and made? If making – writing, designing, building – is the deepest level of engagement with heritage and culture, how can memory institutions avoid the comforting but deadly trap of broadcasting at the public and instead create spaces for curating, creating or conversing with them? Somehow that meant a romp through banana pianos, the link between knitting and historic newspapers, why I like coding, the value of tinkering, secret shoppers and the fact that everyone is a maker of some sort (or was in the past).

Update: videos of the keynotes are now available online! I haven’t watched any cos I don’t have the Silverlight. I’d recommend them all, but I’m particularly looking forward to re-watching Gene Tan and Matt Finch‘s keynotes.

I’m sharing my slides below, but Slideshare seems to have stopped including the speaker notes so they’re best viewed in conjunction with either of the two blog posts about my keynote that appeared with impressive speed or the tweets from my session. I’ve storified the tweets at Tweets from keynote ‘Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations’ at VALA14 – the audience did a fantastic job of summarising my speech, adding their own questions and comments, and sharing links to the sites and projects I mentioned. Yay, librarians! The two posts are Deborah ‘@deborahfitchett‘ Fitchett’s Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations and Richard ‘@penanghill‘ Hayward’s Mia Ridge on the Maker Movement (on an unrelated-but-home town note, Richard was my boss many, many years ago!).

Bringing maker culture to cultural organisations from Mia

Huge thanks to the organisers for the invitation to speak, to the conference staff for making everything run so smoothly, to the other keynotes for their inspiration and to the attendees for being such good sports.

Why we need to save the material experience of software objects

Conversations at last month’s Sustainable History: Ensuring today’s digital history survives event [my slides] (and at the pub afterwards) touched on saving the data underlying websites as a potential solution for archiving them. This is definitely better than nothing, but as a human-computer interaction researcher and advocate for material culture in historical research, I don’t think it’s enough.

Just as people rue the loss of the information and experiential data conveyed by the material form of objects when they’re converted to digital representations – size, paper and print/production quality, marks from wear through use and manufacture, access to its affordances, to name a few – future researchers will rue the information lost if we don’t regard digital interfaces and user experiences as vital information about the material form of digital content and record them alongside the data they present.

Can you accurately describe the difference between using MySpace and Facebook in their various incarnations? There’s no perfect way to record the experience of using Facebook in December 2013 so it could be compared with the experience of using MySpace in 2005, but usability techniques like screen-recording software linked to eyetracking or think-aloud tests would help preserve some of the tacit knowledge and context users bring to sites alongside the look-and-feel, algorithms and treatments of data the sites present to us. It’s not a perfect solution, but a recording of the interactions and designs from both sites for common tasks like finding and adding a friend would tell future researchers infinitely more about changes to social media sites over eight years than simple screenshots or static webpages. But in this case we’re still missing the notifications on other people’s screens, the emails and algorithmic categorisations that fan out from simple interactions like these…

Even if you don’t care about history, anyone studying software – whether websites, mobile apps, digital archives, instrument panels or procedural instructions embedded in hardware – still needs solid methods for capturing the dynamic and subjective experience of using digital technologies. As Lev Manovich says in The Algorithms of Our Lives, when we use software we’re “engaging with the dynamic outputs of computation; studying software culture requires us to “record and analyze interactive experiences, following individual users as they navigate a website or play a video game … to watch visitors of an interactive installation as they explore the possibilities defined by the designer—possibilities that become actual events only when the visitors act on them”.

The Internet Archive does a great job, but in researching the last twenty years of internet history I’m constantly hitting the limits of their ability to capture dynamic content, let alone the nuance of interfaces. The paradox is that as more of our experiences are mediated through online spaces and the software contained within small boxy devices, we risk leaving fewer traces of our experiences than past generations.

‘Go digital’ at Museums Association 2012 Conference

Some people who couldn’t make the Museums Association conference (or #museums2012) asked for more information on the session on digital strategies, so here are my introductory remarks and some scribbled highlights of the speakers’ papers and discussion with the audience.

Update: a year later, I’ve thought of a ‘too long, didn’t read’ version: digital strategies are like puberty. Everyone has to go through it, but life’s better on the other side when you’ve figured things out. Digital should be incorporated into engagement, collections, venue etc strategies – it’s not a thing on its own.

The speakers were Carolyn Royston (@caro_ft), Head of New Media at Imperial War Museum; Hugh Wallace (@tumshie), Head of Digital Media at National Museums Scotland; Michael Woodward (@michael1665), Commercial Director at York Museums Trust, and I chaired the session in my role as Chair of the Museums Computer Group. From the conference programme: ‘This session explores the importance of developing a digital strategy. It will provide insight into how organisations can incorporate digital into a holistic approach that meets wider organisational and public engagement objectives and look at how to use digital engagement as a catalyst to drive organisational change.’

After various conversations about digital and museums with people who were interested in the session, I updated my introduction so that overall the challenge of embracing the impact of digital technologies, platforms and audiences on museums was put in a positive light.  The edited title that appeared in the programme had a different emphasis (‘Go digital’ rather than the ‘Getting strategic about digital’ we submitted) so I wanted it to be clear that we weren’t pushing a digital agenda for the sake of technology itself. Or as I apparently said at the time, “it’s not about making everything digital, it’s about dealing with the fact that digital is everywhere”.

I started by asking people to raise their hands if their museum had a digital strategy, and I’d say well over half the room responded, which surprised me. Perhaps a third were in the process of planning for a digital strategy and just a few were yet to start at all.

My notes were something like this: “we probably all know by now that digital technologies bring wonderful opportunities for museums and their audiences, but you might also be worried about the impact of technology on audiences and your museum. ‘Digital’ varies in organisations – it might encompass social media, collections, mobile, marketing, in-gallery interactives, broadcast and content production. It touches every public-facing output of the museum as well as back-office functions and infrastructure.

You can’t avoid the impact of digital on your organisation, so it’s about how you deal with it, how you integrate it into the fabric of your museum. As you’ll hear in the case studies, implementing digital strategy itself changes the organisation, so from the moment you start talking to people about devising a digital strategy, you’ll be making progress. For some of our presenters, their digital strategy ultimately took the form of a digital vision document – the strategy itself is embedded in the process and in the resulting framework for working across the organisation. A digital strategy framework allows you to explore options in conversation with the whole organisation, it’s not about making everything digital.

Our case studies come from three very different organisations working with different collections in different contexts. Mike, Commercial Director at York Museums Trust will talk about planning the journey, moving from ad hoc work to making digital integral to how the organisation works; Hugh, Head of Digital Media at National Museums Scotland will discuss the process they went through to develop digital strategy, what’s worked and what hasn’t’; Carolyn Royston, Head of Digital Media at Imperial War Museums, who comes from a learning background, will talk from IWM’s digital adventure, from where they started to where they are now. They’re each at different stages of the process of implementing and living with a digital strategy.

Based on our discussions as we planned this session, the life cycle of a digital strategy in a museum seems to be: aspiration, design, education and internal outreach, integration with other strategies (particularly public engagement) and sign off… then take a deep breath, look at what the ripple effect has been and start updating your strategies as everything will have changed since you started. And with that, over to Mike…”

Mike talked about working out when digital delivery really makes sense, whether for inaccessible objects (like a rock on Mars) or a delicate book; the major role that outreach and communication play in the process of creating a digital strategy; appointing the staff that would deliver it based on eagerness, enthusiasm and teamwork rather than pure tech skills; where digital teams should sit in the organisation; and about the possibility of using digital volunteers (or ‘armchair experts’) to get content online.

Hugh went for ‘frameworks, not fireworks’, pointing out that what happens after the strategy is written is important so you need to create a flexible framework to manage the inevitable change.  He discussed the importance of asking the right-sized question (as in one case, where ‘we didn’t know at the start that an app would be the answer’) and working on getting digital into ‘business as usual’ rather than an add-on team with specialist skills.  Or as one tweeter summarised, ‘work across depts, don’t get hung up on the latest tech, define users realistically and keep it simple’.

Carolyn covered the different forms of digital engagement and social media the IWM have been trying and the role of creating their digital vision in helping overcome their fears; the benefits of partnerships with other organisations for piggybacking on their technology, networks and audiences, and the fact that their collections sales have gone up as a result of opening up their collections.  In the questions, someone described intellectual property restrictions to try to monetise collections as ‘fool’s gold’ – great term!  I think we should have a whole conference session on this sometime soon.

When reviewing our discussions beforehand I’d found a note from a planning call which summed up how much the process should change the organisation: ‘if you’re not embarrassed by your digital strategy six months after sign-off you probably haven’t done it right’, and on the day the speakers reinforced my impression that ultimately, devising and implementing a digital strategy is (probably) a necessary process to go through but it’s not a goal in its own right.  The IWM and NMS examples show that the internal education and conversations can both create a bigger appetite for digital engagement and change organisational expectations around digital to the point where it has to be more widely integrated.  The best place for a digital strategy is within a public engagement strategy that integrates the use of digital platforms and working methods into the overall public-facing work of the museum.

Listening to the speakers, a new metaphor occurred to me: is implementing a digital strategy like gardening? It needs constant care and feeding after the big job of sowing seeds is over. And much like gardening for pleasure (in the UK, anyway), the process may have more impact than the product.

And something I didn’t articulate at the time – if the whole museum is going to be doing some digital work, we technologists are going to have to be patient and generous in sharing our knowledge and helping everyone learn how to make sensible decisions about digital content and experiences.  If we don’t, we risk being a bottleneck or forcing people to proceed based on guesswork and neither are good for museums or their audiences.

So much awesomeness! #GODIGITAL #Museums2012 twitter.com/dannybirchall/…
— Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) November 9, 2012

Huge thanks for Carolyn, Hugh and Michael for making the whole thing such a pleasure and to the Museum Association conference organisers for the opportunity to share our thoughts and experiences.

And finally, if you’re interested in digital strategies in heritage organisations, the Museums Computer Groups annual Museums on the Web conference is all about being ‘strategically digital’ (which as you might have guessed from the above, sometimes might mean not using technology at all) but UKMW12 tickets are selling out fast, so don’t delay.

‘Behind-the-themes’ at the UK Museums on the Web conference – UKMW12 ‘Strategica​lly Digital’

Full disclosure: I’m the Chair of the Museums Computer Group, and in this case I also chaired the Programme Committee, but I think we’ve put together a really strong programme.  I thought I’d provide some background here about where the themes came from.  (Also, I’ll take any excuse for a punning title.)

When putting together the themes, I reviewed reports from a number of international conferences and went through the archives of the MCG’s mailing list to get a sense of the issues that were both bugging our members on a daily basis and having an impact on museums more generally.  I’ve also spent time talking to staff in museums in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, the US and (of course) the UK and those conversations also informed the themes.  I also referred back to the MCG Committee‘s discussions about our vision for ‘MCG@30’, which included supporting our members by advocating for their work at higher levels of the museum sector. Hopefully this event is part of this process, as is a session on ‘digital strategy’ at the Museums Association conference.

For me, being ‘strategically digital’ means the best solution for a project might not involve technology.  Being ‘strategically digital’ offers some solutions to the organisational change issues raised by the mismatch between web speed and museum speed, and it means technology decisions should always refer back to a museum’s public engagement strategy (or infrastructure plans for background ICT services).

Like our ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ Spring meeting that aimed to get museum technologists and educators talking and learning from each other, UKMW12 is about breaking out of our comfortable technology-focused bubble and making sure the goals and language of web and digital teams relate to the rest of the organisation; it’s also about helping the rest of the museum understand your work.  We’ve seen a range of people sign up for tickets so far, so hopefully the day will provide a chance for staff to understand more about the workings of their own museum as well as the museums presenting on the day.  The conference is grounded in reality: our speakers address both successes and failures in digital strategies and organisational change.  You can get a sneak preview of the range of discussion on the day at Andrew Dobson’s post on ‘10 things I have learned working for Sky‘, Tate’s Online Strategy or Caper on Happenstance, Simon Tanner’s ‘Balanced Value Impact Model‘ and of course through the talk abstracts in the programme.   Some of our best Museums on the Web conferences have featured a similar mix of fresh voices from outside the sector and hard-won wisdom from within the sector, so I have high hopes for this event.

After some thought, a call for papers and the input of the wonderful 2012 Programme Committee (Ross Parry, Melissa Terras, Carolyn Royston and Stuart Dunn), this is the result:

Logo that says: 'museums computer group: connect me, support me, inspire me'

The Museums Computer Group’s annual Museums on the Web conference – UKMW12 – will be held at the Wellcome Collection in London on 30 November 2012.

UKMW12 is about being ‘strategically digital’. Responding to the issues faced by museums today, it’s an opportunity to take a step back from the everyday and think strategically about the impact of the digital revolution on your museum and on the sector as a whole, including themes such as: digitally enabling the modern museum and its staff; sustaining the digital agenda and the realities of digital strategies and organisational change; and the complexities of digital engagement and the impact of social media on audience expectations. 

UKMW12 brings together speakers from organisations including the Tate, the V&A, UCL, King’s College, the Guardian, Strategic Content Alliance, Collections Trust and Caper. 

As always, UK Museums on the Web is a day for being inspired by the latest ideas, for learning from case studies grounded in organisations like yours, and for networking with other technologists, curators, managers, academics, learning and marketing specialists in the museum and heritage sector. 

Don’t miss out! Book your ticket now at http://ukmw12.eventbrite.co.uk
Find out more about the conference at http://bit.ly/ukmw12.

If you’ve never been (or haven’t been for a while) to an MCG event, these posts link to several event reports from attendees and should give you an idea of who goes and what’s discussed: Your blog posts and tweets about ‘Engaging digital audiences in museums’ (Spring 2012); UKMW11 Blog Posts (theme: The innovative museum: creating a brighter future); UK Museums on the Web 2010.

On a personal note, this event will mark 30 years since the first ever Museums Computer Group event, and eight years since the first UK Museums on the Web conference – a milestone worth celebrating!  If you’d like to be an active part of the MCG’s future, we’ll be electing new committee members in the lunchtime AGM on November 30.  Get in touch if you’re curious about how you could contribute…

Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change?

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

There can be only one…

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

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

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

Why websites suck (or suck more than they should)

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

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

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

As Kahn says:

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

Sound familiar?

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

And therefore, museum technologists need to step up…

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

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

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

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

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.