Fortuna Curiosa

Museums Computer Network 2015

From 4-7 November 2015 I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend the annual Museums Computer Network conference in Minneapolis, made possible by an MCN scholarship, for which I am very grateful. After a quick hop over the pond, I made my way to the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Minneapolis just in time to register and join the over 500 attendees.

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The tone for the conference was set by a fantastic keynote by Liz Ogbu, a designer, urbanist and social innovator. Sharing case studies about her work with street sellers in South Africa and with women in rural communities around using cookers, Liz’s talk gave me two key messages:

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  1. Take a holistic approach to what you do – we are all cogs in a machine, influenced by other cogs, and in turn impacting further than we can see – try and grasp the big picture. Also, don’t let your actions be defined by the stated problem or your job description, identify the challenge by looking at the broader context.
  2. Define the ‘problem’ by examining the user’s perspective – rather than defining the problem and then consulting users for the solution. Be specific about the user/community – know them by name – and speak to them as experts in their own lives. Examining these individual stories is the opposite of big data, but it grounds and informs that data.

These thoughts, and the importance of investing in underlying infrastructure and strategic processes, framed this conference for me, and really helped me get the most out of all the fantastic sessions I attended.

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A highlight for me in terms of the importance of investing in underlying infrastructure was the Digital Asset Management session, moderated by Danielle Knapp and featuring Nick Honeysett (Balboa Park Online Cooperative), Deborah Wythe (Brooklyn Museum) and Layna White (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). I think Nick said it best when he described DAMS as ‘mission critical’ for organisation like museums for which rich digital media is their business. With that in mind there can be no short cuts when implementing systems like DAMS, either when selecting and investing in the technology, when ensuring organisational buy in and that the system is actually used (SFMOMA shared the regular excuses they had to overcome: staff don’t like it, don’t have time to learn the new process, don’t feel like their content belongs there, doesn’t provide what their content needs, doesn’t meet their discovery needs, etc.), and in terms of ongoing staff training and investment in development.

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Another session with Nick on the panel looking at Business Models also really spoke to me. Nick focused on shared services to reduce expenditure as a business model in a time of financial constraint. There are a lot of challenges and politics involved in this kind of transformation, not least because of the fact that big museums pay more and small museums benefit more, but museums are famously open and willing to share knowledge with other museums, so if any sector can do it, it feels like it should be ours. The panel also featured Kaywin Feldman (Minneapolis Institute of Art) who focused on the issue of balancing our changing audience. Traditional museum visitors and supporters are middle class or well off and white, but within 20 years, the US white majority will become a minority-majority, with this transformation manifesting in younger generations long before it is population-wide. Museums need to serve their traditional audiences, not only because they are often our major donors, but also need to serve this new audience, not least because they will be the ones steering policy on culture in the future – but their needs are different.

These kinds of discussions aligned with other discussions around strategy, the highlight of which was ‘Getting $*it done: Implementing your Digital Strategy’ featuring Jane Alexander (Cleveland Museum of Art), John Gordy (National Gallery of Art), Douglas Hegley (Minneapolis Institute of Art) and William Weinstein (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Their slides are available online – they talked about the importance of getting the underlying infrastructure on which you build more innovative activity right; on the importance of change management when expecting an organisation to make a significant digital shift; the importance of ensuring that ongoing support of core digital and IT systems and staff is supported by endowment, rather than on a rolling project basis, which is a current legacy of the way museums work; and the importance of constant evaluation to make sure what we are doing is right and appropriate.

Liz’s idea of approaching problems from the perspective of the user was brought out for me by Laura Mann (Frankly Green + Webb) talking about designing audio and multimedia guides, in particular for the Van Gogh Museum. She described a scenario when they started the project with the museum having a list of ‘features’ that they wanted to include in the guide. But looking at the problem from the user’s perspective, the problem was not that they were unhappy with the content – and recent research shows that more sophisticated technology does not improve visitor experience – the problem was how long it took for them to get the guide, and issues with fully explaining how it worked. Thus in the end they focused on improving the overall service and user experience rather than the features. Laura spoke alongside Heather Hart (The Broad) on building the technology basis for a new museum from the ground up, and approaching it with the user at the centre. I was particularly impressed with the way they integrated their ticketing system with their CRM to really understand their visitors and target their communications. Heather acknowledges that there are still issues to be fixed, but they look well equipped to do that.

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One final highlight for me were a few sessions on the final day dedicated to data and evaluation. First a session by Andrew Lewis (Victoria and Albert Museum) on leveraging Google Tag Manager to get better data on how users engage with websites and mobile applications. Andrew demonstrated what can be achieved with the technology – his slides will be extremely useful as I start to teach myself more about this tool. There was also a really excellent talk by  Becky Sui Zhen Freeman from Art Processes about the WWI Love and Sorrow app that she worked on when at the Melbourne Museum. Becky was candid about the lessons learned from what seems like it was an excellent product, but as always, there are things they would have done differently. Key take always for me were:

  • Take care with bring your own device, in terms of expectations that people will want to occupy space on their device, of how they will respond if they have pre-downloaded and find a lot of content they can’t unlock until they are in the space, and in offering pre-visit Easter eggs when it is unclear when  in their journey the user will download.
  • Visitors need to choose to download an app, so make sure it is clear how the product will augment or enhance the experience. In fact, if the app experience is core to or significantly enhances the experience, don’t make it optional.
  • Usability in terms of download and WiFi access is a huge barrier to use – this can be managed to an extent by providing devices.
  • It can be uncomfortable for users to have to switch their attention between their device and other in gallery interactives – look at the offer as a whole and be mindful when selecting what to include.
  • Similarly be conscious of switching between content linked to an object and more ambient content – we train our visitors to focus on objects, it can be hard to undo that training.


Overall I found the conference hugely inspirational, and I am heading back to the day job with a lot of ideas, but also a lot of motivation to make positive changes to the way we work. I am so grateful to the Museums Computer Network for the scholarship that enabled me to come, but also a bit worried, as I think I may now be an addict and will need to come back next year.

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This entry was posted on November 7, 2015 by in Museums.
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