Fortuna Curiosa

Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities

On 14 October I made it to the final day of the Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities conference at the Lowry in Manchester.


I started my day with a panel session on ‘virtual spaces in physical spaces’ looking at how we can bring digital engagement into the physical space. The session began with a presentation from Jenny Bunn, UCL, and Alexandra Eveleigh, University of Westminster, two archivists looking at ‘enhancing engagement experiences with blended collections’. They raised some interesting thoughts on taking the best of the physical experience and integrating that with the digital experience. This is something we have considered when looking at online collections, and offering online visitors the ability to ‘tumble around’ the collections and discover in a roaming way, without a search box, as they do in our spaces. These thoughts led to some interesting conversations with George Oates from Good Form and Spectacle and the possibilities of elastic search – they’ve done a great experiment with the British Museum collection Two Way Street. We’ve also been considering this in terms of our multimedia guides, thinking that what users really wants is a tour from one of our amazing curators – can we put them in our user’s pocket via a multimedia guide?

The main emphasis of Jenny and Alexandra’s talk was participatory experiences in the museum or online through activities like volunteering and crowdsourcing. They drew attention to the need to look very closely at what you are asking participants to do and why, whether it is reasonable, and how it relates to the pay off. We need to challenge our ideas around this, which are based on our professional experience, or on working with keen volunteers – often family historians or individuals with some other kind of special interest – and what is reasonable to expect from the broader and more diverse public we are trying to engage today.

Next Adrian Davies and Roma Patel shared a digital R&D project to bring to life in an exhibition at Nottingham Castle the ransacking of the site as part of the 1831 Reform Bill riots. They used augmented reality to tell the story, bringing the people and characters into the site. They shared their approach, setting AR as a medium rather than a tool, like other art forms. They focused on creating narrative rather than game experiences, seemingly with huge success. They also shared some of the challenges, particularly around creating non-linear narratives to accommodate the different ways that users move around the space, and of communicating engaging stories in the brief periods of time that they can expect to have the attention of the visitor. I think AR offers a lot of possibilities for our museums, which have rich histories as teaching spaces in historic Oxford, stories that are difficult to communicate in the current museum spaces.

The final talk in the session shared some of the work of the meSch project – Material EncounterS with digital Cultural Heritage. Key to their interactives is to disguise the technology in magnifying glasses or other holders to hide the technology and make it ‘magic’. While I appreciate the theory behind this approach, I wonder about how well it works. Mobile devices are such a big part of our lives, and users will easily recognise the disguised device – in that context does the disguise become a distraction? According to the research of the group users do engage with these mediums, so perhaps something for us to experiment with.

After lunch our colleague Lucie Burgess, Associate Director for Digital Libraries at Oxford’s Bodleian Library gave a keynote in which she shared the recently launched digital.bodleian collections site – an impressive tool for both researchers and public engagement, we hope to take up some of these elements and expertise for our own online collections. Lucie shared the key principles they embraced in the development of the tool – open collections – open standards – open software. She also gave five tips based on things they would do different, with the benefit of hindsight: integrate IIIF from the ground up – carefully constructed metadata workflows allowing updates from collections management systems and integration of crowd sourced data – use edm or dlan for compatibility and ease of user search – design mobile first – Creative Commons licences for reuse.


In the early afternoon I attended a talk by John Coburn, Digital Programmes Manager at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. He shared a great Nesta funded web project which presents collections to users based on their behaviour, providing the kind of discovery without a search box I mentioned above. The collection images are tiled on a page with infinite scroll, if you scroll fast the site assumes you aren’t interested and will change what you see, if you are clicking or scrolling slowly, it will show related objects. This idea came out of an innovation initiative across the organisation which gathers people together to share ideas and will give modest funding to support experimentation on the condition that learning is shared across the organisation. This sounds a lot like the Innovation Fund initiative we conduct across Oxford University Museums. Similarly we host innovation days to bring people together and develop their ideas with colleagues that they would not usually have contact with, both from within our museums and beyond. We then have a competitive funding application process and award up to £5k in project funding. Some of our best projects over the past three years have been generated in this way.

My final session for the day was a practical workshop on digital user research delivered by Emma Allen and Paul Lamley from the National Archives. We started with an interactive activity developing personas of our users. We then watched an example of how you conduct usability testing with a brave volunteer from the audience. The interviewer’s introduction included the old adage we’re testing the website, not you! They suggested encouraging the volunteer to speak through what they are doing while they are doing it, thinking aloud. I must say that watching someone struggling to complete online tasks is very frustrating, not sure I would have the patience to do it myself – I just want to grab the mouse and do it properly! But there is no question over the value of usability testing for websites or digital products, and it is n as expensive or time consuming as often assumed – based on four previous tests with the same site Paul was able to predict what would happen with our volunteer tester. As a rule of thumb you only need to test with 5 people to identify 80% of issues.


Overall a valuable day and a lot of thoughts and ideas to take back to the day job, and as always a pleasure to exchange ideas with colleagues facing similar challenges in organisations across the world (preferably over a drink).

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This entry was posted on October 16, 2015 by in Museums.
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