Tag Archives: conference

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.

Museums and the Web 2010

26 Apr

Denver, April 13-17 2010
A slightly-edited version of my institutional reportback

One of the gratifying things about Museums and the Web was finding that as well as data enthusiasts, digital managers and social media experts, there were a good number of curators, librarians and other professions at the conference. It seemed like proof to me that the web is becoming ever-more intimate with the everyday practice of museums, and that the boundaries between old museum professions and new are not so much being broken down as producing new hybrids: geeks who are intimately familiar with collections, and curators for whom web 2.0 is second nature.

The conference was multi-stranded, and many topics and ideas of interest were repeated; therefore, rather than sequentially describe every session I went to, I’ve tried here to group things together, bringing out highlights and connections.


Using Flickr

Aaron Cope, a  former Flickr developer discussed the introduction last year of Flickr galleries, a feature which allows users to select and annotate others’ photos. A restriction on the number of photos was deliberate, forcing users into making small, considered selections rather than longer lists, and also moving users away from promoting their own photos and towards the intellectual understanding of others’ work. Aaron described this as the discovery of a ‘curatorial muscle’: without fetishising the word ‘curation’ or suggesting that the role of museum curators has been supplanted by the crowd, everyday web users are creating the kind of connections and interpretations that can’t be done by machines.
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/cope/cope.html

Joe Dalton from the New York Public Library discussed their Flickr commons project: in adding a large amount of material to the Flickr commons, how to merge existing subject headings into Flickr tags seemed problematic. The answer was to break down subject headings by delimiters into tags that made sense, update the archaic language of some subject headings, and use only what made sense.
: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nypl/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/dalton/dalton.html

Natasha Waterson of the National Maritime Museum presented their use of Flickr as a platform for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. Though Flickr offers a ready-made place to submit photographs, making the costly build of a separate submission mechanism unnecessary, it also has its own rules, oriented more towards community than competition, which have to be respected; working directly with Flickr itself was also helpful. The quality of the content was very high, and an important lesson learned was that niche participation (a limited number of people engaging in astrophotography) can have popular appeal (many people fascinated by pictures of the stars). The reward of being on display at Greenwich itself was a pull, and the physical displays also included comments from Flickr users.
: http://www.nmm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/astronomy-photographer-of-the-year/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/romeo/romeo.html

Paula Bray from Powerhouse and Ryan Donohue from George Eastman House presented Common Ground, a global day of meetups at cultural heritage institutions involving Flickr Commons users who had been active in enriching the Flickr commons. Slideshows were presented and projected, curated by Flickr users rather than the institutions.
Website: http://www.flickr.com/groups/flickrcommons/discuss/72157622022156667/
Paper: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/bray/bray.html



Nate Solas from the Walker Art Centre showed how on the Arts Connect Ed site, research into what people searched for showed that they were effectively using search as a roundabout way of browsing the collection. The introduction of a browsable interface to the collections and facet browsing not only increased the specificity of what people were searching for but also made the site much more indexable by search engines; a reminder also that search starts outside the site.
: http://www.artsconnected.org/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/solas/solas.html



Martha de Vit and Edith Schreurs of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam presented the mobile iPhone application they built in collaboration with Antenna Audio around the publication and exhibition of Van Gogh’s letters. They found it gained a wide an international audience, with downloads peaking around the touring exhibition visiting new locations. Contrary to assumptions, multimedia applications didn’t interfere with appreciation of the actual exhibition; but it’s also important to remember that building mobile ‘gadgets’ is not a simple process.
: http://www.vangoghmuseum.com/letters
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/peereboom/peereboom.html


Projects & evaluation

Richard Morgan from the V&A presented the V&A’s Search the Collections project. Drawing lessons from the overall project experience, he recommended making new projects like projects you’re already good at, being realistic to the point of pessimism, and planning for dependencies. Search the Collections was broken down into smaller sub projects (eg, IT building virtual servers) and built iteratively (in an almost Agile fashion), bringing working prototypes to each meeting of the project board. Richard also made the point that it’s important to distinguish between creating a thing, and creating an organisational capacity: a thing can be outsourced  more easily, while a capacity is much more important in the long term.
Website: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/morgan/morgan.html

Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum presented the results of research into how the Powerhouse online collections are used. The Powerhouse, a science and technology museum in Sydney, is funded directly by the local state, and its primary audiences are the local public and children. Growth in traffic for the website in general is mostly local, but the increase in access to the collections online is only 50% Australian. Microsites remain popular, but as a means of exposing the collections they are unsustainable silos. The Powerhouse’s collections online includes interpretative text as well as tombstone data, and in order to understand how this text might be being used, Powerhouse used Tynt (http://www.tynt.com/), a JavaScript-based copy-and-paste tracker to heatmap what had been selected, discovering that over 3m words of text had been copied. Seb concluded by saying that setting data free by itself is not enough. We have to understand which audiences are most important to us, and educate educators in how to use the materials if necessary.
Website: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/chan/chan.html

Allegra Burnette of MOMA, Dana Mitroff Silvers of SFMOMA and Charlotte Sexton of the National Gallery made a three-way presentation on websites post-launch. The post-launch phase, they argued, is as critical as the development phase, and should be planned for. A website redesign shouldn’t be considered as a standalone web project but as an initiative of the entire organisation, because important decisions about audiences have to be made; a relaunch may even highlight the lack of a shared vision for the organisation.

The combined launch of a new site and a new CMS will not deliver an efficiency miracle: indeed, everyone on the web team could be working harder after project staff are lost. It’s tempting to make the pitch for the budget to implement a new CMS on this basis, but along with separating content from presentation, next-generation CMSes demand more data and more complex metadata like tags. A new CMS is a lot for non-technical staff to learn, and is not going to make anyone engage with the website by itself, and so iterative rollouts and simplified interfaces for infrequent users should be applied. The role of the web team in providing systematic oversight and documentation does not disappear either.

A redesign won’t necessarily provide more traffic, either: content and the programme drive traffic. Analytics can be time-consuming but important. Post-launch user-testing is essential: you should have the capacity to test and tweak the final design. There’s a lot of invisible admin in bug and feature tracking, and post-launch budgets are typically 10% of the development costs. Ultimately the launch of a new site is only a line drawn in the sand of a larger strategic process, but when the camaraderie of the launch build-up dissipates, disillusion can set in.

Paper: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/burnette/burnette.html



Liam Wyatt, Vice-President of Wikimedia Australia and a small group of volunteer wikipedians came to the conference for an invitation-only workshop to thrash out some the tensions between cultural heritage institutions and Wikipedia. The results of the workshops, with opportunity for further discussion, were disseminated through an conference session and discussed in an un conference session (an unconference involves self-organised mini-sessions and discussion on shared topics  of interest).

Rather than a homogeneous entity, Wikipedia is made up of overlapping communities. The Wikimedia foundation owns the framework, and volunteers form national chapters and project groups. One way for cultural heritage institutions to engage with Wikipedia is to consider it a community rather than a resource and look for local groups to engage with. Volunteer wikipedians aren’t that different from museum volunteers. Adding a note to the talk page of an article, finding an appropriate subject-based project, or a local editor to form a relationship with are all ways to begin improving the interface between Wikipedia and the institution.

Museums are primarily interested in objects, while Wikipedia is all about subjects; this is one of the reasons why museum content isn’t an immediately perfect fit for Wikipedia (though with the correct licensing and accompanying notice, museums’ own texts can be incorporated directly into Wikipedia articles). Liam’s desire to forge better relationships between museums and Wikipedia comes from a recognition of some content deficits in the encyclopaedia itself. As he put it ‘Wikipedia is good at Pokemon, and not so good at what museums do’. Wikipedians are primarily interested in content, and museums should look to meaningfully enhance articles, rather than garnish links to their institution. Deep links to objects and their interpretations as citations are desirable: they increase the quality and usefulness of Wikipedia itself. Adding links to the ‘notes’ section as footnotes, for instance, is preferable to adding links to the ‘external links’ section at the bottom of the page.

This special Wikipedia page, created by Liam, discussing meaningful and useful ways to work between Wikipedia and the cultural heritage sector is worth reading:



Social media & community

Wayne La Bar presented a social media site for the Liberty Science Centre built on the Ning platform (there was some discussion of Ning during the conference, as they have just announced a switch from a free to a paid-for model) for a forthcoming cooking exhibition at the liberty science centre. The aim was to involve the public in planning the content of the exhibition, and some users were successfully integrated into the exhibition planning team
Website: http://www.cookingexhibition.org/
Paper: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/labar/labar.html

Mia Ridge from the Science Museum presented their Cosmic Collections project, a data mash-up competition challenging coders to build new websites based on a collections data API. Though opening up data doesn’t always mean that people will use it, the competition was successful and produced sites that are still live. The possibility that no-one will enter always exists, said Mia: acknowledge that, plan for it, and then go ahead.
Website: http://sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/galleries/cosmos_and_culture.aspx
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/ridge/ridge.html

Jeff Gates from the Smithsonian discussed the opportunism of social media. The Smithsonian’s long-running email enquiry service, Joan of Art, seemed to be a rights-bound silo of inaccessible material until Joan of Art herself started tweeting, and the best of her answers were re-posted in a blog.
: http://americanart.si.edu/research/tools/ask/
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/gates/gates.html

Ailsa Barry of the Natural History Museum presented Nature Plus, a system to tie together physical and virtual offers at the new Darwin Centre. Given a barcoded ticket, visitors can pause at several interactives, manipulate and collect information, which they can then retrieve from the website and use to set up a personal page and profile. This was a project in which many others inside the NHM also saw opportunities for marketing, development and education. The system has 10.5k users, with a high level of loyalty.
: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/index.jspa
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/barry/barry.html

Erika Dicker from Powerhouse discussed the museum’s curators’ blogs, set up by the Powerhouse web team, but with all content controlled by curators themselves. She also surveyed museum curators and found that 60% of them were using one form or another of social media. Some curators use blogging as a means of raising their personal profile, others are uncomfortable with the medium, still others find obstacles to it. It’s also worth asking whether curators have access to the right tools to make the most of opportunities.
: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/blog/
Paper: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/dicker/dicker.html

Gail Durbin from the V&A ran a workshop around the V&A’s intention to make a transition from contributions to their websites to a community around the museum. Many user-generated content projects involve a contribution, after which there is a dead-end. The V&A is looking to replace its 30-odd different sign-ons with a single sign on across all sites, and the ability for users to create profiles for themselves. Gail noted that Flickr, a photographers’ site, allows you to say where you’re from and your relationship status, information not immediately germane to photography, but which might begin to foster a sense of community; workshop participants were asked to come up with a comparable, unobvious question to ask V&A users to add to their profile. Then, looking at two things close to the V&A: Body Art, and drawings and sketches made in the galleries, we were asked to consider how we might best build a community around the activity or subject.
: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/durbin/durbin.html



Though the conference was mostly about news ways of doing things, rather than new ways of configuring computers, there wasn’t a lot of talk about platforms and CMSes. Open source CMS Drupal was mentioned more than once (some of the conference attendees went on to Drupalcon in San Francisco) as well as the Python framework Django, and the PHP framework Symfony. I had an interesting chat with the developers of GLAMkit (http://www.glamkit.com/) a Django-based framework developed specifically for the needs of galleries, libraries, archives and museums.



The Brits didn’t sweep the board at the Conference’s Best of the Web awards, but they did much better than an average Oscars. Royal Observatory’s Solar Stormwatch won the Innovation award; Culture24 won the Long-lived award; the V&A’s Search the Collections won the Research award; and Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Dulwich OnView won the Small award

Full awards listing: http://conference.archimuse.com/forum/congratulations_mw2010_best_web_winners