On Friday 8th November I attended the annual Museums Computer Group Conference, this year’s theme, Museums Beyond the Web.
Held in the Natural History Museum in London, this was a fitting location as the museum is currently embarking on a digital transformation, introducing public Wi-Fi, developing significant mobile content, and digitising a large portion of their extensive collections.
At the Natural History Museum with Aruna Bhaugeerutty, Ashmolean Museum
The opening keynote of the day was delivered by George Oates, a fellow Ozzie working in the San Francisco digital scene who has recently moved to London to set up her own cultural heritage digital consultancy Good Form and Spectacle. George has worked for companies including Flickr, developing Flickr Commons, and the Internet Archive – she likes to do interesting things with data, allowing the user to ‘tumble’ around to find connections and interests, no search box in sight!! George did some future gazing and shared some of her experiences at the front line of digital innovation (and experience of food since hitting London). At the end of her talk George offered to come out to interested museums to learn more about the sector and share ideas for ‘what next’. We will certainly be inviting George to Oxford for a discussion soon! All George’s slides are now up online.
The first panel session looked at Experiences Beyond the Screen, chaired by Martha Henson. George commented in her keynote that while user expectations of museums probably haven’t shifted greatly in the last 5 years, their expectation that all screens are touchable has!! This session looked specifically at digital engagement without the touchscreen.
Marco Mason from MIT, and currently a visiting fellow at the University of Leicester, kicked things off looking at experimental use of Google Glass at the MIT Museum to enhance the visitor experience. Google Glass offers the benefit of layering content between the user an the object like you would with a mobile device, but without introducing that device as a barrier which distracts your attention – with glass there is very little between the user and the object. Marco said that one thing he would have liked to have done, if they could have afforded more pairs of the Google Glasses, was look at how they could make people interact. I wonder if Marco is overly concerned. We find that even with touch screen guides and audioguides, far from being a solo experience, individuals will share interesting content with the people they are visiting with. If the content is compelling, will the social animal take over a share the content anyway without our intervention?
Next Tara Copplestone discussed her research into the use of virtual reality in museums. Tara felt that with the introduction of Oculus Rift, an affordable way to deliver virtual reality, and their acquisition by Facebook with the intention of making them broadly available, VR will become more core to the way we engage with the world. The conclusion of her research into how museums are currently using VR is that they use it in ways that are familiar to them, often producing verbatim reproductions of exhibitions and displays. Now museums need to move beyond this towards an additional offer. This has been done well in some places, with demolished structures or those which have changed significantly over time being shown in other forms. A great example of this was given at the Museums and the Web conference in Baltimore earlier this year by the Church of Sant Climent de Taull. This may not be completely out of the box thinking, but adds relevant, context specific interpretation that adds value to the visit. This is something I am quite enamoured with for our museums, with their long history. It would be fantastic to be able to use virtual reality to show the Museum of Natural History in Oxford on the day of the Great Debate, or the Museum of the History of Science as it transitions from being the old Ashmolean – the world’s first purpose built museum building – to active chemistry labs, through to the museum it is today.
Daniela Petrelli from Sheffield Hallam University discussed the Mesch Project, talking about ways that they are simplifying digitally delivered content, taking the focus off the device and returning it to the experience. For example, they hid mobile devices within a magnifying glass or within a book, which the person would interact with in a much more analog way, removing focus on the digital device. I personally was not sold on this, thinking that I would find the strangeness of the analog receptacle more distracting than the mobile device I use daily. But certainly some quirky ideas worth considering.
During lunch was the MCG annual general meeting, during which I joined the group as a committee member. I am very excited to get involved. Over the last 18 months working on digital projects has become the majority of my job, and I have found the events MCG organise inspirational and a great way to network with the broader digital museums community, and the maillist a great source of information and advice from a friendly community. I am so pleased to be involved.
Oxford University Museums Contingent!
The session after lunch kicked off with lightning talks, getting us back in the zone. First up Nick Poole from the Collections Trust talked about some of the challenges being faced by museums revealed by recent research, and tools that the Collections Trust are looking to develop to help smaller museums incorporate digital into their working models. Pierre Far from Google reviewed some great trends; he suggested that we need to change the way we think about mobile use, throwing up the statistic that 77% of mobile usage happens at home or at work, within mere feet of a desktop device – it is not just for people on the move, people expect to be able to get full access on their mobile device. Matt McGrattan from the Bodleian Library talked about the difficulties of delivering digital imagery well and sustainably. Finally Jon Paul Little from Kew Gardens talked about their experimental iBeacon project to facilitate content delivery and navigation around the site (without having to install Wi-Fi across the garden).
After the Lightning Talks, Tandi Williams, Research Manager at Nesta for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, spoke about some of the findings of the recent cultural sector survey on digital. Similar to previous years, many still saw attitudes of upper management and limited resource as key barriers to achieving digital goals, but on the positive side, most organisations had specific digital goals and saw it as significant to achieving their organisation’s mission.
I was pleased to chair the next session, Mobile Beyond the Museum, looking at how we are using mobile to engage audiences outside the walls of our institutions.
First up I was excited to introduce Alex Butterworth, talking about a project he worked on with us at Oxford University Museums, Box of a Delights. Alex has written and designed innovative works of cultural and historical interpretation for a broad range of media. His work includes story engines for console games, virtual world dramaturgy, data visualisation as biography, television drama-documentary, and books, most recently “The World That Never Was”. He is the founder of Amblr, which works with geolocation technology as a narrative medium. The premise of Box as a story is that there is some force at work in the city which has caused the objects to escape from the confines of museums and take up residence in locations around the city with some resonance for them. This same force has corrupted a mobile audioguide, enabling the user to hear the voices of these objects. As the user collects the objects, they also collect pieces of a story, that will help them solve the mystery of what is happening in the city. This is delivered as a geolocative iOS app, with content triggered by the user’s location. Alex spoke about the challenges of authoring this kind of content, and produced one of the most quotable sentences of the day: ‘Mobile phone as magical device’.
Next we had a presentation from Anna Rhodes from Buxton Museum and Ben Bedwell from Wander Anywhere about a mobile product they developed called Collections in the Landscape. Anna has worked at Buxton Museum and Art gallery since 2010 and has been instrumental in getting the museum active on social media. As Buxton Museum is run by a Local Authority, this has not always been an easy task as their Council, like many, has traditionally been risk adverse when it comes to new technologies. As a researcher and designer, Ben has personal and professional interests in making location-based technologies more accessible, and in mapping out the potential of these technologies to change the way we explore our heritage and culture. He has worked together with numerous collaborators over the past two years to develop and release a platform (Wander Anywhere) for individuals and organisations to learn about and prototype location-based experiences, without breaking the bank or becoming programmers. Together they developed a series of web apps for Buxton that took the collection out to relevant locations in the countryside, engaging audiences before drawing them back to the museum. Most impressively, this was achieved by a very small museum, on a very small budget. They used a light WordPress interface (necessary when expecting sites to load in the middle of the countryside) alongside GPS plugins (built by Ben).
The final speaker in our session was Rick Lawrence from the a Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter talking about their Dartmoor project, a talk with the apt title ‘On Dartmoor, no one can hear you Google’. Rick was responsible for getting RAMM online in 2009, and since then has worked to embed digital culture throughout the museum. Similar to the other two projects, it took objects and stories from the museum and located them on Dartmoor to be discovered and engaged with in situ. Dartmoor also posed similar challenges in terms of mobile reception and offering a satisfying digital experience ‘in the wild’. Rick was also able to share experiences of working with a higher education institution on the project as part of REACT, and share how they enabled users to participate and feed in their own stories.
The final panel session of the day was chaired by Martin Bazley and looked at Connections Beyond the Organisation. Speakers included Rebecca Bartlet from Ammba/Nymbol discussing working with Imperial War Museum North and the Greater Manchester Centenary Partnership to develop a connected digital experience across the multiple organisations working with first world war stories. Next Stephen Brown from De Montfort University discussed methods of linking real world data. The final speaker, Oluwatoyin Sogbesan, talked about how museums should be using digital to connect their collections with source communities and allow them to both engage with the collections and offer their own interpretation to a broader public. This final talk was most discussed in the Q&A, with none disputing the value of source community engagement and interpretation, but with significant discussion of the methods for how this should be achieved. In particular the question of opening up debate about objects naturally raised the question of policing that debate. In my opinion, while museums have responsibility to ensure that their collections are treated ethically, and should not let companies or extremist groups acquire culturally sensitive images to be used in inappropriate ways, and while museums have the responsibility to put information out there so that people can form their opinions on the basis of good evidence, it is not the place of museums to police what someone thinks about an object, even if we don’t agree with it, and to trust others to be able to tell the difference between someone’s opinion and the facts. But that is just my personal opinion…
The final keynote was delivered by Ross Parry of Leicester University, reflecting on the day. He described us as living in a post digital age – though many still ask whether the museums sector is yet a post digital workplace? With so many people working across our organisations now having some digital activity within their remit, this raised the question of who would attend the Museums Computer Group conference 5 years from now? While digital will not be a silo of activity within the sector, I think in 5 years we will still be grappling with the swiftly changing way that people use digital as part of their lives, so there will still be a place for something like this within our sector.
No conference would be complete with a trip to the pub (with London prices – a shock to the system even for us from Oxford) to network with my new fellow committee members and many, many more.
Thanks for a great conference MCG! And looking forward to getting involved.
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