Seven takeaways from Museums and the Web 2013

23 Apr
Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

I didn’t have any takeaways in Portland; one night I didn’t even eat dinner, and I didn’t get any Voodoo Donuts either. But I did go to some great sessions, meet some great people, and learn some interesting stuff. What follows is personal reflection as much as dissemination; there’s stuff to return to here.

The instrumentality of strategy. I’m writing a digital strategy at the moment. It’s not the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve heard a lot of people in other organisations say that you don’t need a digital strategy: you need an engagement strategy, a communications strategy, or just an institutional  strategy. But one of the themes that emerged during the session on strategy was the use of digital strategies within institutions as a means of acquiring resources, attention, or recognition. It might seem arse-about-face, but the commonality of the experience (and I can feel the truth of it in my own situation) suggests that it’s not necessarily perverse, perhaps just part of the growing pains of digital departments. Sarah Hromack‘s excellent Institutional Strategy Digest zine launched at the session added a much-needed dose of humour to a topic that’s highly susceptible to pomposity.

Gamification fireworks. In a session variously titled ‘Let the Games Begin‘ or ‘Put a badge on it’, the debate kicked off as soon as the panellists started speaking. Bruce Wyman put the case for a behavioural economics of museums based not on the bottom line of cheap entry and bargains but on meaningful long-term relationships with museums. Sharna Jackson retorted that whatever the merits of the approach, it had nothing to do with games, and that badge systems often lead to karma-whoring behaviour that has serious consequences in situations like the Boston bombings. Kate Haley Goldman (who knows her games) valiantly tried to steer a middle course, but the debate was already spilling out onto the floor and into the backchannel. It was agreed at least that we may be approaching ‘peak badges’. It’s reassuring to see the critical spirit alive and kicking at Museums and the Web, not merely accepting every new innovation that the Masters of the Valley hand down.

Collaboration rules. Both the workshop I ran and the paper I presented were collaborations with people from othe institutions; the workshop with Sharna Jackson, the paper with the redoubtable Suse Cairns. Both were facilitated by the standard suite of cloud-based collaboration tools that we take for granted: gdocs, skype, dropbox. More importantly, collaboration was essential to the development of ideas. When you’re working with someone towards a definition of a shared project, there are many modes in which you can operate. Sometimes you try to write down what you think they’re already thinking (and sometimes fail); sometimes you get to try your ideas out before they’re fully formed; you can take it in turns to lead the process. Most importantly, your paper or presentation goes beyond just trying to fill your audience’s cup with the knowledge you have, and moves towards making and thinking new things.

I curate, you’re irate, we debate. The presentation Suse and I made of our paper on curation was a show of two halves. I tried to outline some art and museum-based models of curation, from Harald Szeemann to Iris Barry, that should inform what people do when they seek to ‘curate’ the plenipotent digital world; Suse offered a set of models from that very world that we might better take cognisance of within museums. It was gratifying that the ideas had some traction – Koven proposed a salon session immediately following, to carry on the discussion. Some of the debate felt stuck at the level of defining expertise; Seb Chan perhaps struck a nail on the head when he said that the difference between inside and outside museums was an question of the scale of the material. The best moments for me were when professional curators from outside the web/tech milieu made interventions stressing the importance of understanding curation historically rather than as a static practice. There’s an itch there that needs to be scratched some more.

Conversation as inspiration. Jennifer Trant always used to say that if you have the option of going to a session or having a conversation with a fellow delegate, have the conversation. I’m not scoffing at that after I randomly fell into a mind-blowing 90-minute conversation with Aaron Cope on Saturday lunchtime that began with Roombas then took in curation, artisanal integers, design chairs, savage modernism, raging at the sky, International Art English, rogue routers and the nature of collections data. Other excellent conversations were had with Annie Conway, Doug Mcfarlane, Ian Edelman, Ryan Donohue, Alan Hook, Oonagh Murphy, Seb Chan, Tim Lee, Paul Rowe, and Dave Patten.

All the world’s a stage. Larry Friedlander’s opening keynote proposed immersion as the keystone of on-site digital experiences. If some of his AR examples were unconvincing, the logic of the argument that in a world swimming in images we need to see anew through strength of experience was watertight. The closing plenary brought Punchdrunk producer Diane Borger to the ballroom via Facetime to discuss the success of Sleep No More as an immersive experience. Though the idea of bringing theatre to museums is undeniably thought-provoking, the MW audience was perhaps conditioned to see theatrical productions in terms of sets: the object as prop. I wonder whether there might be other kinds of less glamourously fictive theatre that we can also learn from, such as the verbatim theatre work of Jonathan Holmes, that begins with some of the same concerns as museums (history, evidence, people) to deliver theatrical experiences.

An arcade epiphany I’ve been producing & commissioning games for Wellcome Collection for 3 years now, but I’ve always had a touch of imposter syndrome about not being a real ‘gamer’, just someone who ‘gets it’. On Saturday night in Portland’s Ground Kontrol (in the company of genuinely awesome games people Sharna and Erica), a retro arcade bar stacked with classic pintables and original video game cabinets, as I aced the first light bike level on the original Tron game, I realised that video games really are and have been my thing. My own embodied understanding of ‘low latency’ is the fire button on Galaga, hammered with a flat hand. Arcade classics like this are islands in my childhood, in the brutalist concrete shopping mall I grew up near, in the strange hotels we stayed at on school trips. But I’m still shit at Donkey Kong.

13 Responses to “Seven takeaways from Museums and the Web 2013”

  1. Mia April 23, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    Thanks for posting! As interesting as conference tweets are for those of us who aren’t there, I get a much better sense of the substance of a conference from the posts afterwards.

    Thinking about your ‘the use of digital strategies within institutions as a means of acquiring resources, attention, or recognition’, it seems the conversations required to create a digital strategy for a museum are a great framework to help people reflect on the impact of digital on the workings of the whole organisation, particularly if they’ve been used to thinking of it as something that can be contained within particular departments. MW is a much more techy conference but I’d be curious to know how the lessons of digital strategy session differed from the Museums Association session last year (

    Cheers, Mia

  2. marthasadie April 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Interesting, thanks! Also hoping you might be posting about the workshop you ran on games as well at some point?

  3. sebchan (@sebchan) April 23, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    I’ll teach you the secrets of Donkey Kong.

  4. Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) April 24, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    Mia — Thanks. I think writing about it aids reflection too, rather than just rereading your own tweets. I think there were a lot of common threads between the MA and MW sessions (which had Carolyn in common too). Supporting the organisation as a whole to do digital stuff, rather then siloing skills, as key, as was the sustainablity of the strategy. And also of course what’s become something of a shibboleth in these circles: ‘it’s not about the technology’.

    Martha — Thanks. I’ll try to write something more reflective about the workshop when I get a chance; in the meantime, check out the tumblr we made, with the final game ideas

    Seb — you’re on!

  5. nikhil April 24, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    Great summary, thanks!

  6. katehg4 April 25, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    Excellent summary Danny. I’m still ruing my lack of VooDoo Doughnuts as well, and I’m wicked jealous you got to Ground Kontrol.

    Other MW take-aways for me centered around:

    – Multiple evolving ideas relationships to membership
    The longer I explore DMA’s Friends model for visitorship, the more I am struck with the potential influence on changing the visitor’s relationship to the museum (and the museum’s understanding of their visitors, their role in the cultural landscape, and not least of all, their fiscal models). Building on that, I found MOMA’s Belong ad campaign for membership to evoke exactly what I want from a museum, and yet fierce debates are to be had about gated content both online and in person, what we offer distant members.

    – Increasing interest in immersive and tactile components
    From debating the utility and future of 3D printing, discussing how the Leap could be incorporated into interactives, to Gallery One and other immersive screens, I felt that kinetic interaction in galleries emerged as a strong conference theme.

    • Danny Birchall (@dannybirchall) April 25, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

      Thanks Kate. It just goes to show the depth & extent of MW that those two themes hadn’t really figured in my own experience. I caught a whiff of the backchannel on the evolution of membership schemes, but I don’t think I got anything like the full sense of it. Now I want to know more. We should hold MW three times over so that we can all get to everything….

  7. Suse Cairns May 1, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    Danny, you were pretty much the best collaborator ever. I really hope we can continue to build on what we started, because I think it’s just the start of an interesting conversation. Killer summary of the conference, too.

  8. Cath Styles May 30, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    Memory-spark! Donkey Kong was the one I used to play in my head as I drifted off to sleep. It was also what I was playing at Funland, Ulla Dulla, the time I got left behind – mum lost count of all the kids (she had the cousins as well, so I don’t blame her), everyone else had long spent their few dollars, and I was too absorbed to notice them all leaving.


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