The innovative museum: Part 1

Ross Parry, outgoing chair of the MCG committee kicked off the day by acknowledging the austere times that we currently face, but also pointed out that the MCG is a forward looking, practical group and suggested that we can use this as an opportunity to innovate, to press reset and to look to ‘a brighter future’.

This years UK Museums on the Web Conference took a new format, with both invited keynote speakers and papers from members.  Along with the traditional after lunch ‘open mic’ session.

Carolyn Royston, Head of New Media, at the Imperial War Museum (the conference venue) welcomed delegates and briefly introduced some of IMW’s current digital projects including their new website, and an open government licence which they have  worked hard to put their collection online under. Carolyn also mentioned the continuing partnerships around the WW1 centenary, something which one of her colleagues expanded on later in the day.

Keynote: Mark O’Neill, Head of Innovation and Delivery, Government Digital Service

‘What’s the difference between museums and Ikea?’

Marks vision is to shift public services into becoming ‘digital by default’, not digital for digital’s sake, but instead putting the user at the centre of the experience and using digital as appropriate.

Highlighting the difference between optional and mandatory UX, Mark pointed out that museums are optional, people choose to visit our websites so we have to work that bit harder to make that an enjoyable, rewarding and intuitive experience . Government UX on the other hand is often rubbish from benefits, to filling in your tax returns, whether you like the experience you still the need the information, so your still going to use the site. This is where museums can influence wider digital practice, because they create ‘optional’ experiences they are generally better than mandatory experiences.

Moving on to talk about barriers, Mark emphasised the need to move the barriers that prevent us from putting the users first. He mentioned legal, HR and Procurement, something which I know is something that often shapes digital projects in museums. Recognising that innovation = ideas + action we need to move these barriers, or perhaps more feasible work with or around them to ensure that we can keep pushing boundaries and putting the user first.

When Mark said ‘ I’m very conscious that you shouldn’t do everything yourself- because, you can’t ‘ I perked up, embedding digital across organisations is something that I am particularly interested in, the suggestion that we need to create a toolbox of capabilities is something that I found particularly interesting. MCG, and the MCG email list is for many that ‘toolbox of capabilities’ so I guess what we now need to look to do is create a similar toolbox either internally, or across institutions for the non digital members of our teams to ask questions, test out new ideas, and up skill, or skill share.

Ending his talk Mark looked at the search experience of an online museum visitor, and an online ikea shopper. Searching for a vase on both sites he demonstrated the text heavy, difficult to navigate responses generated by the Getty museum to the the visual response generated by Ikea   Whilst I don’t really agree that it is a fair comparison, it is a useful comparison. Sometimes looking at how other sectors are responding to user needs can help us define how museums should develop their digital practice.

Session 1: Getting it right from the start

Peter PavementSurface Impression and Marc Steene, Pallant House Gallery

Intensive collaboration between museum, developer and participants

Surface Impression worked with Pallant house to facilitate an open submission exhibition, and to create an online exhibition space. The project questions ‘what is art? and how is it selected? the team where mindful of creating an easily accessible site that would allow the widest possible participation.

‘Outside In has no set creative criteria, boundary in art process or limit on subject for the artists that choose to align themselves with the project.’

The website allows for easy image upload, with the option to create an online exhibition.  There is the potential to develop the submission and image upload process into an app which would allow pictures to be taken and uploaded, instantly in a gallery space or in a persons home.

Accessibility is a core component in this project, rather than simply an after thought.

Claire RossUCL and Tom Grinsted, IWM

‘Cultural Collaborative Exchange: Collections, Social Interpretation, Partnerships and Project Management’

Claire and Tom spoke about their NESTA Digital R&D project which centres on Social Interpretation. Beginning by discussing the project management methodology Tom explained the difference between Agile and Waterfall methodologies. Agile being developmental and responsive, and waterfall a methodology which scopes and fixes the project at the begin and does not permit change.

This project takes an agile approach, something which is quite unusual for a museum project, but quite common in software development. Using this approach the project explores social interpretation under three strands: in gallery, mobile and online.

Social interpretation ‘happens anyway in person, it’s not new- it’s just using new platforms to facilitate it’ however as soon as the idea that visitors will be allowed to voice their opinions online museums often freak out, Tom framed this conversation quite nicely

Traditional museum person: So you want to let people say what they want about our collections online?

Digital person: Yes

Traditional museum person: Does that mean people can say the Nazis where right?

Digital person: Yes, but that doesn’t mean that they will! and if they do it is not a disaster, because we we can take it down, and often the online community will itself self moderate and correct inaccuracies.

The agile project management of this project is it seems as central to the process and indeed the desired research findings as those surrounding the social interpretation analysis. The application form was collaboratively written using google docs, the project has both a traditional project board and a wider reaching advisory board to direct its progression. Outcomes are being shared from the outset, with Claire saying that their goal is to fail faster, and learn quicker.

The fast paced, nature of this project makes it quite unique, but another central research method that I think we all liked the sound of is eating cake, drinking tea and meeting in person, all central to maintaining a dynamic and engaged project culture. you can read more about Claire’s thinking about project management and cookies on her blog  , or for info on the project check out the Nesta blog

You can read part 2 of my blog on the Museum Computer Group conference by clicking here >>

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6 thoughts on “The innovative museum: Part 1

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