This is Our Playground

For the last 6 months I’ve been working with Alan Hook on a project called ‘This is Our Playground’, a couple of weeks ago we held a Hack Day at the Ulster Museum as part of this project.

What & Why?

This is Our Playground is a project that was developed in response to the very traditional museum sector in Northern Ireland.  To put the sector into context, no museum in Northern Ireland has a blog, relative to England few museums utilise social media platforms, no museums have or our in the process of developing  an app.  No museums use 3rd party apps such as foursquare or Scvngr to engage with visitors. To date a key regional digital development fund CIIF (Creative Industries Innovation Fund) has received no applications from museums, or developers working with museums.

Yet despite the lack of digital innovation, Northern Ireland has some brilliant, indeed award winning museums. Whilst on the one hand my research looks at why digital uptake and innovation is so low, I was also keen for my research to challenge traditional museum practice.

Developing a Hack Day

Keen to develop new interactive experiences within a very traditional museum sector, we decided to train the next generation of museum professionals and interactive designers to produce site specific experiences. Interactive Media Arts BA (hons) students and Museum Studies MA students attended a number of lectures and workshops on creating interactive experiences for museum visitors. Building on the classroom based teaching students then took part in a 12 hour hack day at the Ulster Museum.

The interactive experiences developed by students question the notion of play in the museum, and recontextualise the collections and gallery spaces to create new modes for the public to investigate and interrogate the spaces of the museum and develop new dialogues with the exhibits. You can see what they came up with here>>

A unique feature of this project is the limited involvement of the museum, whilst aware that the hack day was taking place the museum was not directly involved in the planning or running of the event, instead students observed the normal museums rules and regulations, and in many ways looked and behaved like traditional visitors.

The aim of this project is to work outside the traditionally slow, often bureaucratic management structure of museums as a means to explore how time constrained working can facilitate innovation within museums.

For myself and Alan the Hack Day was as much about refining the format as it was the actual hacks produced by students.

What Next?

Following the hack day we have taken the students outcomes to a number of strategic bodies and are looking at ways to roll out this format to museum professionals with a view to developing digitally engaged museum practice in Northern Ireland.

This project was about doing stuff, rather than sitting in meetings. Now we have developed our own examples we can move conversations with museums and strategic bodies forward.

The benefit of making first, asking permission after has on this occasion proved fruitful and we are really excited that we can now begin to develop work in partnership with museums.

What we have learnt so far

Sometimes we spend so long talking about making, that the process of making itself gets overlooked. This project puts the process of making first.

Having context specific examples opens doors for future work. Using museums in Northern Ireland to demonstrate how museums in Northern Ireland could use digital technologies to engage with visitors makes a really convincing argument. All to often I had been using international examples, and local museums simply couldn’t relate.

It seems that some photos of students pitching their ideas is a good way to end this post,

All of their ideas our CC by attribution so if you would like to develop them get in touch with me, I know they would love to hear from you.

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Should museum websites pull in content from non museum sources?

A few weeks ago the Walker Art Center launched their new website. I was really excited to see that the site contains a range of content, and voices from across the center but also from external sources such as blogs and newspaper articles. In a web survey that I carried out in May/ June of this year I found that visitors wanted museums to curate the web and indeed the art world for them, hosting content from external sites is a great way to do this.

The survey I carried out was distributed across all of the Irish Museum of Modern Arts’ Online platforms*, and gathered a range of data on the context of  visitors online experience. From their current location, to what other online and offline activities they were carrying out whilst engaging with the museum online.

The survey ended by asking two open response questions:

1.What do you like about what IMMA does online ?

2.What would you like to see IMMA do online?

One of the key, and perhaps unexpected trends that the responses for these questions showed was that visitors want museums to curate the web, and indeed the art world for them. For this blog post I have selected a few key, relevant comments to share. The comments show that visitors are keen to learn more about IMMA, it’s artists and the art world, they want to hear about these from a variety of sources and voices but rather than search the web for this information they want IMMA to deliver it to them via their website and social media channels.

Visitor comments:

**

‘Links to up and coming artists websites or exhibitions outside IMMA. Or you could possibly have a section where you can apply to have a blog or some other social thing eg: Twitter or something like that linked on the side page, perhaps this could be changed every month or so and be kind of like editors top 10 of the day/week/month. This could promote students work or ‘outside’ artists and maybe make the gallery feel like its not a locked door situation with regard to being a publically accepted artist and perhaps could give hope to young emerging artists and make it feel like a space for everyone regardless of who you are’

‘online collaborations with other museums and galleries’

‘More links to artists own websites (if living) or further study websites’ ‘Release info about artists currently showing. Not info about the show as such, but info about the individual’

‘Good but needs more activity’

‘Virtual link ups with other galleries and other art/cultural/fashion/heritage insitutions to make the art world more alive and tangible and interactive for the whole community not just artists’

‘I’d love to see more links to anything written about IMMA’

‘Reviews of exhibitions- art critics and man-in-the-street’

‘weekly debate’ ‘blog on events’ 

‘Greater online examples of work from the artists in residence scheme, links to other galleries with concurring shows by the same artists’

‘If I am bothered to follow someone on twitter or fan them on Facebook, I want to be rewarded for that. I’m not opting in to just get ads pushed out to me. I’m opting in to hear opinions I wouldn’t normally get to hear’

**

Having spoke to a number of museum staff at a range of institutions about the idea of aggregating content from external sources the issue of control has always been raised.

What if something on that external site is illegal or offensive? The Walker website however challenges this question and demonstrates that external content can be used successfully, this content is, after all curated and selected by museum staff so control of what visitors are directed to is maintained by the museum.

The positive feedback from a range of sources (The Atlantic , The Independent (uk)Art DailyIt’s That Nice), and social buzz generated when the site launched will perhaps encourage other museums and art galleries to embrace alternative voices and content as a means to generate a more engaging, welcoming and interactive web space for their museum or galleries visitors.

*The survey was distributed on IMMA’s website, Twitter, Facebook and two listings bulletins, 256 responses were collected. These are just a small selection of responses, I intend to publish an academic paper as an outcome of this research and this will include a more considered approach to methodology and data trends.

Amsterdam Museum Night

I’m just back from an ace weekend in Amsterdam, luckily my visit coincided with Museum Nacht. Museum Nacht is annual event which sees 45 museums open to 2.00 am, not only are the museums open but they also host a pretty random mix of events from bikini waxing, to 3D printing you can check out more their programme here>>

I was blown away by the quality of events at Museum Nacht. Museums weren’t simply open…they programmed exciting and innovative workshops and events and welcomed with open arms Amsterdam’s young creative types.

People paid to take part.

17,50 euro isn’t cheap but 1,000’s of people parted with their hard earned cash to visit museums on a Saturday night. Everyone really made an effort (we felt a little under dressed!)

The event sold out, and lots of people we spoke to said they really wanted to go but that they couldn’t get hold of a ticket anywhere. There is an interesting value relationship at play here. Museums value their young visitors and invest in creating exciting and engaging events, young visitors invest in culture because they know that it is something that they will enjoy.

Visitors and museums financially invest in Museum Nacht…which I think changes the nature of the event – in a good way. Visitors did not just ‘visit’ they participated with museums, they produced exciting new work in response to museum collections, and they had a great time doing it.

What follows are a couple of great things that we came across on the night:

Amsterdam Museum I really loved the mix of paintings, objects and interactives at the Amsterdam Museum. The buzz around the place was unbelievable it actually felt like we where in a club, and there was a great mix of people drinking and dancing in the courtyard and people taking in the exhibitions inside.

The Amsterdam DNA exhibition, the museums central exhibition uses lots of QR codes, but presents them in a really easy to use way. I loved that when we walked in to the gallery space a guide sorted us out with info in English and explained how to use the QR codes. Each visitor gets a book with a unique QR code that they can use at home to follow up there visit.

FOAM Next up we headed to FOAM…we followed the crowd and the queue to find it!

I’m not a fan of queuing but the impressive architectural mapping projecting made standing in cold more than worth it. I’ve seen lots of videos of this technology but this was my first time actually seeing it first hand and it looks blooming brilliant.

Once inside we went to an exhibition which looks at the future of photography, and the photography museum. The exhibition posses lots of challenging questions, and asks visitors to get involved. You could barley get hold of a pen because so many people where queuing up to add their voice to the exhibition.

Visitors also got the opportunity to make their own work out of photographs- which my friend Sarah Campbell is demonstrating in the photo below.

Mediamatic I was really excited about getting to check out Mediamatic they seem to constantly be producing really cool projects.

For Museum Nacht they asked people to register a RFID tag (in the form of a pink heart!) to their Facebook account. Visitors could then scan their tag by objects that they ‘liked’ …such a great idea.

With a queue out the door it’s not surprise the tech was struggling a little to keep up. I loved the experimental nature of this exhibition and the use of the RFID tags, it wasn’t perfect but it was so nearly there.

I will definitely be watching with interest how Medimatic continue to develop the use of RFID technology in exhibitions spaces!

Alongside the great tech, Mediamatic also had the cheepest beer of the night at only 2 euro…so all round we where impressed.

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For more info on Museum Nacht I would highly recommend watching Geer Oskam (project manager for N8) talk about his work at MuseumNext click here >> for a link to the video and text transcript

5 things that make the BALTIC an inspirational place

On Friday I went to the BALTIC for the first time. I expected to spend an hour there but ended up spending half a day….and left wishing I had more time to spare. I visit lots of museums and galleries as a result it takes a lot to impress me. I was beyond impressed by the BALTIC and here are 5 reasons why.

1.Friendly staff

You’ll not find any bored looking staff, sitting in a dark corner in the BALTIC. 80% of the BALTIC’s Front of House Team or the ‘Crew’ as they are known are practicing artists. The BALTIC takes a really innovative approach to staff development with Crew Members going through a 3 tiered training programme, firstly an induction programme, secondly communication skills from learning to deliver guided tours to learning sign language. Thirdly the Crew get to develop their own projects, learn research skills from how to facilitate a focus group to observational research. The Crew even get to travel internationally to research exhibitions and education programmes.

2.Great interactive spaces 

Rather than a small space in the basement, the interactive response space in the BALTIC takes over nearly a full floor. With a great range of furniture and activities this is the type of place that you would love to spend all day. They run a weekly mother and toddler group in this space.

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3.Lovely, bright and comfy library

Comfy sofa, great books, journals and art world type magazines. A photocopier and an honesty box. If I lived in Newcastle I think I would move into this library.

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4.Relaxed cafe, yummy food

A great coffee shop, massive glass fronted facade. A range of newspapers. Tea in a teapot and again great staff. This is the perfect place to sit with a cup of tea for a couple of hours, read the paper and hold a meeting.

5.Fantastic building 

It’s like the Tate Modern but with character.

I think the BALTIC has lots to teach other cultural organisations about creating engaging, exciting, dynamic, friendly yet challenging environments. 

Connected Communities

Yesterday I popped into the first session of the Connected Communities conference at Culture Lab, Newcastle University. I’m a bit gutted I couldn’t stay for the whole conference because if the first session was anything to go by this is going to be really dynamic and exciting event.

The conference runs until Wednesday 14th of September and you can watch the live stream here >>

Collective Action

Regis Lemberthe: Enabling Citizens

EnableBerlin is a project that seeks to crowdsource solutions to design problems by engaging proffesionals from a range of non design backgrounds. Through workshops which are facilitated by designers Enable Berlin has explored issues which range from Children’s Rights, to Traffic Congestion.

The most exciting thing about this project is its just do it approach. Indeed they say on their website ”We are looking for challenges, if you have a challenge where collective thinking could help, let us know!” I wonder who will be the first museum to work with this group? and indeed what the outcomes might be?

Julien Dorra: Building a Micro-Community of Museum Hackers 

OrsayCommons was a response to the introduction of a photography ban in the Musee Orsay . Julien felt that as it was a public collection people should be allowed to take photographs of ‘their’ collection.

Working with other cultural activists and bloggers Julien founded OrsayCommons and created 4 events that invited people to come to the Museum and take photos at a set time. The first 3 events went well, whilst participants where told they could not take photos they were able to proceed anyway. On the 4th occasion the group encountered more security and the hostile atmosphere has prevented them from returning. Whilst the Musee Orsay has been opposed to the group and its actions it has developed a significant online buzz and art world following. Perhaps the most significant event the group has participated in is Monumenta . This project challenges museum rules in an interesting way. Check out their Flickr group to see what they have been up to.

Lien Tran: Seeds to Soil

Seeds to Soil is a grassroots project which seeks to bring communities together through gardening. The project which is based in central Harlem seeks to bring communities by promoting food sustainability.

What was interesting about this project was the lessons learnt about when and how to introduce technology to the participants. Face to face contact, building personal realtionships should be key, with technology (such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs) introduced only when participants trust the project and the people that run it. I guess it highlights that common misconception everyone should be on Twitter and Facebook, no they shouldn’t! A project or cultural institution should only use social media if that is what their community wants. Finding which technology is appropriate requires a trial and error approach, their is no one size fits all solution. Some participants liked emailing, other blogging, other simply liked to take photos and got other people to upload them to the projects website.

I was really excited to hear about the interdisciplinary nature of these projects.

Museums are increasingly working in partnership with a broad range of both community and commercial organisations. This conference highlights the broad range of people working in the context of developing connected communities and it would be exciting to see this represented in digital museum conferences. Yes, we want to hear what museums are doing well, but we also want to to hear what innovative projects people are doing in other fields be they commercial or community orientated in nature.

A great example of successful interdisciplinary working is the  Feeding the Spirit,  symposium which will explore ‘how museums can use food to grow audiences (and improve their own financial health)’. You can read more about this project on the Centre for the Future of Museums Blog 

Do museums need a website to be online?

I would suggest not, and using a couple of examples from Poole Museum and Towner Gallery this blog post explores a number of effective alternative online platforms.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining where the idea for this post came from…Over the last year or so I’ve found my self having the same conversation over and over again. It goes something like this:

I tell someone about my research into online museum experiences. They respond with wow, that sounds so exciting have you seen what  (insert name of any large museum here) does, we’d love to do that but we don’t even have a website.

So I set out to find museums and galleries who use free online platforms that they edit in house to create an exciting online presence . I wanted to have some brilliant examples ready for the next time I get myself into this conversation. However I was surprised by how hard a task this was, it seems that if a museum doesn’t have a website, then it won’t have any social media presence.

Why is this? Well from conversations with staff in small museums it seems that there is a fear off the internet. Often people will use social media personally, but using it in work requires approval from senior management, risk assessment new policies and procedures. Indeed some council run museums noted that due to firewall restrictions they can’t even access social media, blogs or any non official sites. I’ve even heard a story of a museum employee who works at home one day a week so that they can do all the online stuff that the council firewall stops (from updating Facebook, to checking out relevant blogs).

Should museums push beyond these barriers and utilise social media when a website isn’t an option?

The following two case studies discuss this questions and highlight the possibilities and limitations provide by social media as a stand alone online presence.

Poole Museum 

Poole Museum has a few pages on a council website, but these are very cold and corporate. The pages list opening times, but do not portray the community nature of the museum, the diversity of their collection or prompt people to visit. Michael Spender, Museum Manager responded to this limited online web presence by creating a Twitter profile. Whilst Poole would love a shiny new website, time and money prevented this from happening and Twitter offered an exciting alternative platform.

Michael said ‘I aimed to target two audiences, the sector (stakeholders, museums, other institutions, regionally, nationally and internationally) – essentially advocacy – and the local community in Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset. So far this seems to be working fairly well, and tweets are deliberately aimed at these two audiences’.

Using culture hashtags such as those created by Culturethemes Poole Museum has been able to raise their profile with those that are culturally engaged.Poole have also utilised the community nature of social media to reach out to new audiences by tweeting about broader community issues. For example in response to heath fires @PooleMuseum retweeted tweets from the local fire service.

After just a year Poole Museum has the third highest museum following in the area (after Tate St Ives and the main hub service at Bristol)

Whilst Twitter has been a really useful platform for Poole , Michael points out ‘It is still an experiment, and we are only starting to feel an impact on things like attendance at events, volunteering and the like, but one which has the potential to have really measurable benefits’.

Social media is not a quick fix, but if a museum is truly committed and is willing to experiment it can become a useful way to connect with museum audiences, and indeed to develop new audiences.

Towner Gallery

Towner opened 2 years ago in 2009, and relied heavily on Facebook and to some extent Twitter for these first two years. ‘We made a conscious decision that instead of feeling disadvantaged by lack of a dedicated website, we would use the opportunity to try and maximise our social media presence’.

To ensure that the Facebook page was truly engaging, reactive and up to date a broad range of staff and volunteers administered the page. Personality was important to Towner as a gallery and this extended to Towner’s Facebook page ‘communicating in a friendly and personable way, and responding to individual comments, felt right to us.  This in turn seemed to inspire more loyalty and love in our audience!’

The team approach to administering the page allowed the gallery to utilise skills that are not part of peoples job remit. Gilly noted that the success of their Facebook page is in part due to a dedicated member of the Front of House Team who did a lot of work on the Facebook page in their own time.

Towner launched a website in July of this year. Their new website has been heavily influenced by what they learnt about online engagement through their Facebook page. Furthermore their new website is a wordpress based site which they were able to build at a low cost. WordPress is a popular blogging platform, which can also be adapted to build websites. As  Towner were heavily involved in the development of their own website they know how it works and therefore have a large degree of control over how to manage its layout and edit its content.

Having a website provides Towner with new opportunities, and indeed combats some of the access and control issues of Facebook. However Gilly said ‘We hope that people will go to our website for more information, but will continue to interact with us through the primary medium they use on a daily basis – Facebook’.

So I guess in conclusion I think it is fair to say a really engaged Facebook, Twitter or Blog is far better than a dull out of date website or indeed no website at all.

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My blog is read by those that follow me on Twitter, often museum professionals who are already engaged in digital museum practice. I guess you could say I am  preaching to the converted. So please do email this article to colleagues not on Twitter.

Linking cultural experiences

Find: Crafted Creatures was an innovative cultural treasure hunt developed by The ArkCultural Centre for Children and National Museum of Ireland.

The treasure hunt was developed in response to visitor feedback at The Ark which had shown visitors often found coming to Dublin an expensive family day out. The Ark decided to challenge this perception by highlighting the many free National Museums in and around Dublin. The treasure hunt was designed as a way to encourage families to visit more than one cultural institution whilst in Dublin.

Developing more family visits was already a key priority for National Museum of Ireland, Decorative Arts and History but working with The Ark provided direct access to families who were already in the city and interested in participating in cultural activities.

Setting the stage for Dublin to be seen as a great family destination prompted LUAS the city’s tram service to sponsor the treasure hunt.

The treasure hunt was themed around ‘Crafted Creatures‘ an exhibition that was on display at The Ark as part of the Craft Council of Ireland’s Year of Craft 2011. The hunt was realised through an A3 map which could be picked up at either National Museum of Ireland or at The Ark. Visually engaging, with rhyming clues the trail was child focused, with just enough practical information such as a street map to keep the adults informed. The treasure hunt provided a great way for families to get involved with the objects in the gallery, each question directed young visitors to a specific object about which they had to answer a question.

A key element of the hunt were the 3 questions based on the journey between the two venues, this turned a boring walk, or tram ride into an interactive experience. The hunt engages families with cultural institutions but also the city itself. When complete the treasure hunt map could be entered into a draw to win a voucher for the Museum or a family ticket to Dublin Zoo.

22,000 maps were printed, 5,000 people were told about the campaign via Twitter, Facebook and e-zine and thousands more saw posters on LUAS trams and at LUAS stops (this was made possible through sponsorship in kind.)

What this project demonstrates is the ability of collaborative partnerships to provide an innovative response to a problem. Here the problem for The Ark was a perceived lack of family friendly activities and centres apart from The Ark in the city. For National Museum of Ireland the problem was a need to increase family visitors numbers to meet funder targets. The collaboartive response to these problems led to better family experiences in the city, and more family visitors to the museum.

Visitors loved the trail as these comments show:

“Really enjoyable: our 5 year old said it was his best time ever visiting an exhibition!”

“The children learned a lot about buildings, city and arts. It was a great day!”

“Very good idea to keep children interested in the event for longer”

Rather than developing an audience, this example shows that cross pollinating audiences through collaborative working can provide exciting outcomes for all the organisations involved.

Murieann Sheahan, The Ark and Lorraine Comer, National Museum of Ireland discussed the development of the treasure hunt project at the annual Irish Museums Association ‘Blow your Own Trumpet’ event at The National Library of Ireland on 6th June 2011.

Shaping Visitor Behaviour

A few weeks ago I visited  casa de Julieta, the fictional home of Romeo and Juliet’s, Juliet. The house which is a massive tourist attraction provides an interesting example in the use of stagecraft as a means to create unique visitor experiences and shape visitor behaviour.

The outside walls of the house and the digital displays mounted on them are covered in graffiti, messages of love, hope and everything in between. Whilst it is strange to see interactive displays scrawled over with permanent marker, it made me question why visitors feel it is appropriate to deface the courtyard area. I guess its a mix of crowd mentality, and a lack of value. The entrance is covered in graffiti, so visitors feel that they are permitted to leave their mark. The court yard area is quite modern, as are the digital displays so visitors do not recognise their value and instead are caught up in the moment, guided by the graffiti from visitors who have been there before them.

The crowd mentality, instantly changes upon entering the actual house. A large sign tells visitors that it is forbidden to leave messages on the walls, strangely this sign is extremely effective. The house unlike the courtyard feels like a traditional museum, with guards watching your every move.

I was fascinated by the immediate and obvious change in visitor behaviour created by the two staged areas. In the courtyards visitors were boisterous, laughing, chatting, leaving love messages, writing on walls. In the house visitors were contemplative and engaged, they were quiet, they walked slowly and purposefully. Casa De Julieta demonstrates very clearly the power of stagecraft in shaping visitor behaviour in museums, galleries and heritage centres.

Text from Romeo and Juliet can be found all around the house

Visitors can send Juliet a love letter by e-mail

Bite Size Culture

This chewing gum packet prompted me to have 4 pieces of chewing gum today, that’s more than I visit most museum websites in a year.

The text on the packaging cleverly positions this product, chewing gum into 4 different daily activities.

Museums could learn a lot from this approach, rather than being an occasional activity clear positioning of online museum experiences could make them central to a range of co-existing daily activities from breakfast, lunch and dinner to snack time.

The Joy of Discovery

Recently when visiting a friend’s house I noticed a beautifully bound book sitting on her bookshelf. I picked it up, opened the cover and simply could not put it down. It was a diary, but it did not only have the usual dates and contact details it was also pop up, pop out, interactive and directive. Whilst providing factual information like a diary should such as dates, public holidays, dialing codes it was also enticing and exciting.

Each page had something new to offer, sometimes you new to simply lift a flap or unfold a map. Other pages were more directive ‘lift here’ ‘pull here’.

I loved the combination of purpose, fun and excitement. I was also intrigued with the layers of engagement, readers are encouraged to stumble through the book, but at times directed how to interact, readers are also encouraged to play to experiment to try something new.

This book reinvent’s the concept of the date diary as a functional object and instead turns it into an experience.

Exploring this book felt like a unique cultural experience. It did not feel like I was one of no doubt 1000’s of people who had read this book. Instead I was caught in the moment, stumbling through, excited to see what I came across next. This book made me feel like I was walking around a museum, moving from exhibit to exhibit, gallery to gallery. All the time discovering new things, feeling like I was the first person in the world to discover a rare dinosaur or to get lost in a painting.

So the big question it seems is  ‘how can we embed that element of excitement, discovery, authenticity and cultural distinctiveness into online experiences?

Inspired by the M Restaurants Diary  I have begun to explore interactive children’s books as a way to understand how text and images can be used to shape online behavior.

Take for example the children’s classic ‘There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly’ in this book a simple cut out in the centre of each page gets bigger and bigger as the lady eats more and more strange things. With each page turn there is an element of visual discovery, and it this combined with the text of the story that makes the book compelling. Young children can barely wait to turn to find out what is on the next page. An other classic that utilises the excitement of discovery is ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’

Whilst these books essentially represent a more traditional, static way to tell a story they prompt higher levels of interaction, engagement, fun and discovery than many multi-media websites.

I would love to hear recommendations of other books (children’s and adults) that provoke this type of engagement, or indeed of online experiences that feel like real ‘page turners’.

Feel free to comment on this blog post here or tweet me @OonaghTweets 

Thanks to @erinblasco for sharing the Three Little Pigs i-Pad book:

@KimberlyKowal Said that she likes the x-ray view element of the Three Little Pigs and wishes that Peter Rabbit had this option. Peter Rabbit is another example of how the traditional pop up book has been modified for i-pad: