On 3rd October 2013 I was fortunate to attended Museum Ideas, the annual Museum ID Conference at the Museum of London. I knew from the outset that this would be one of those conferences we walked away from feeling energised and full of ideas based on the excellent speaker list and the promise of 200 delegates from 20 different countries.
The first speaker was Patrick Greene, CEO of Museum Victoria in Australia, and previously director of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. He talked about Leadership in the Networked Museum, by which he was referring to the social management structure they utilise at Australia’s largest public museum service, which is home to 17 million objects, and a number of venues including museums and exhibition buildings, a planetarium and a cinema!
Greene talked about the importance of having a strategic plan and policies that provide a framework within which all members of the organisation are allowed to innovate, working cross-departmentally, eliminating traditional silo mentalities. He emphasised that we don’t know what the world will look like 5 years from know – who could have predicted the proliferation of tablet technology in 2008 – and ensuring that a strategic plan allows for not knowing what the world, especially the digital world, will look like in the near future.
A highlight of his talk was an example of the museum’s Field Guide app, a tablet app which utilises the museum’s database of local fauna. Starting as a small idea from one part of the organisation, it was allowed to grow: the museum released the source code and worked with the other Australian State Museums to produce similar apps for the rest of the country. They have also worked with the Auckland Museum to create a Field Guide to New Zealand Marine Life and Parks Connect to create the Grand Canyon National Park Field Guide.
Next up to speak was an unexpected treat not on the original programme, Mark Sarna, Director, Programming and Exhibitions, Royal Museums Greenwich. His engaging style complimented his thought provoking talk, which began with the story of how he put dead pigs on the lawn at the Field Museum of Natural History Museum in Chicago to look at forensic entomology as part of a CSI based exhibition. The carcasses were left to decompose in order to study the entomological timeline of decomposition, and visitors were invited to participate. Conscious that this was a controversial activity, one day Sarna approached a mother who was crying as her daughter happily engaged with the dead pigs. The woman explained that she was happy, having realised that her daughter, who had always had a penchant for insects, could grow up to be an entomologist. Sarna realised that this exhibition had offered a transformational experience to this family, one that was based on the emotional experience.
This gave the focus to the rest of Sarna’s talk, in which he suggested that museums can offer these kinds of transformational experiences to their audiences. He emphasised that this means utilising content creatively, ensuring contemporary relevance, and being accessible while simultaneously challenging people – transformation never comes easily. He thought that this required a “yes if” attitude within the museum, the kind of attitude which allowed Sarna to put those pigs on the lawn in the first place.
His talk also produced my favourite quote of the day: “the good of being different in a time of sameness”.
Two more talks proceeded before lunch. Tim Corum, Deputy Head, Strategy and Development, Bristol’s Museums, Galleries and Archives, Shared Stories and Contested Spaces: A short history of MShed, in which he discussed the development of MShed as a primarily audience centred organisation. Next was Ligaya Salazar, Curator, London College of Fashion (past Curator of Contemporary Programmes, V&A), Memory Palace: Curating a story, on the development of this V&A exhibition of literary art.
After lunch the conference moved in a distinctively digital direction. First up was Robin Dowden, Director of New Media, Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, discussing the Center’s digital publishing strategy. The Center launched a new, more journalistic based website in late 2011 which resembles an online newsletter, reporting on Walker content in a news type format, and supporting it with relevant arts news stories from around the world. The aim of the new website is clearly to make Walker’s digital space a destination site for online art news. A key message from Dowden’s presentation was the ‘create once, publish everywhere approach’ and therefore the need to build your media suite carefully in order to be responsive to all the different mediums and devices. However, she also pointed out that different mediums and media have different requirements, and while content should be universal, it should be tailored for that medium.
Next Martha Henson shared her extensive knowledge of creating and commissioning games for the culture sector, previously at the Wellcome Trust, and now part time at the Tate and freelance. Henson explained how games are an immersive learning process; although in the case of most commercial games what the player is learning is which guns and attack formations are best for which scenario – but there is no reason games can’t be used to learn in a cultural context. Her primary example of a game that worked well was the Wellcome Trust’s High Tea, which is a strategy game in which players take on the role of a 19th-century British opium smuggler in the Chinese Pearl Delta during the ten years before the outbreak of the first Opium War. Evaluation showed that although the information about the Opium War communicated through the game was minimal, it inspired users to do their own research and learn more.
Henson emphasised that creating games is expensive (High Tea cost £40k), but we can’t afford to cut corners in either their development or evaluation. She also said that her best experiences were when she put a cross-disciplinary group in a room – curators, audience development staff and game designers – and allowed them to explore what was possible.
The final digital session of the day was Shelly Mannion, Digital Learning Programmes Manager at the British Museum, on their use of Augmented Reality as part of their learning programme. Mannion focussed on using AR in a way that promoted learning outcomes, rather than tech for the sake of tech, which meant sometimes partnering AR applications with physical activities (eg. paper trails), giving the entire family a chance to participate (dad with the paper and son with the app of course). A whirlwind tour of current examples of good practice in AR, from both cultural organisations and Ikea, Mannion inspired a feeling that AR can have a genuine role in the museum. Her final thought: the impact Google Glass will have, especially on engagement with children, a so far an under discussed topic.
The afternoon session took another turn in focus to look at the contemporary museums, in particular contemporary collecting and how museums can play an active role in the community. First up Cathy Ross, Honorary Research Fellow, Museum of London (past Director of Collection and Learning) discussed Occupy London and Collecting the Contemporary on collecting London’s contemporary protest material culture. She was followed by Michelle Lopez, Manager of ArtAccess Programs and Autism Initiatives, Queens Museum NYC on Inviting Institutions: Transforming communities through participation, on how museums should play a more active role in their communities. Unfortunately we missed the final session of the day, Richard Benjamin, Head of the International Slavery Museum on The Museum Vortex: Contesting pasts, constructing futures, but will be interested to hear what others thought of his presentation.
A full day hearing about some of the most innovative activity currently taking place in museums, from management style to game development, and a leaving me wondering what our next big Museum Idea will be.