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.

Has Alternative Reality Gaming Gone Mainstream?

I was prompted to write this post when I saw my dad playing an ARG this weekend , all thanks to Mercedes new ‘Escape the Map’ campaign.

A TV advert (see video below) directs viewers to a website to help Marie Escape the Map..

When viewers log on to the website the game automatically starts, and on screen directions guide the player around the game. Mercedes is a big, mainstream brand, as a result most of the people who want to check out it’s new car will be unfamiliar with the concept of an ARG and many will simply be logging on to find out about the car. Suddenly they are without choosing to do so, thrust into a game.

I showed this site to a few different people after the add came on TV, what I found really interesting where the different responses to it. Female friends got really involved in the game and where slightly confused about what was going on, Male friends (and my dad) commented on how nice the car was throughout the game.

The interactive features which include carrying out ‘normal, every day tasks such as having to search for directions to a car park that a man on the street gives Marie, or inputting your phone number create the sense that this is real, and not actually a game.

Is this the biggest commercial use of an ARG? It is after all being advertised at peak TV times, and Mercedes is a pretty big brand.

Will Mercedes engagement with an ARG format catalyst them into becoming the next big marketing thing?

Mercedes using ARG’s moves the format far from its original cult existence as discussed in Frank Rose’s book ‘The Art of Immersion’ 

Could this be the tipping point, ‘the’ campaign that makes ARG’s mainstream?

The answers to these questions has yet to be seen, but ‘escape the map’ certainly lowers the barriers to engagement, participation is not by selection, or a passworded website, participation is simply by inserting the escapethemap.com URL

The final genious in this campaign is the unexpected follow up….a call from Marie to thank you for your help and to let you know that she is safe. Simple, brilliant, genious use of information the user has provided in the game. A truly Transmedia experience that starts on your TV screen in the comfort of your sitting room, moves to a website then via maps, and sat nav screen shoots you out into the ‘world’ via your computer screen. Then just when the participant think its over, the final piece of the experience a phone call …that leaves the recieptent confused, intrigued but mostly, I think impressed.

….and just incase you want to find out more about Maire she’s on Twitter @girlinmap : ‘I’m a girl who’s trapped inside the map’

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

Apps on the high street

The fashion industry has truly embraced digital, from Burberry launching their collection on Twitter to the London Fashion Week Digital Innovation Award examples of innovation can be found from the catwalks to the highstreet.

Still waiting on my Catwalk invite, I headed to Victoria Square (my local shopping centre) to see how high street shops are using apps in store.

My first point of call was the Swatch Showroom, a pop up shop to coincide with the MTV European Music Awards which are being held in Belfast in a couple of weeks. Swatch are running a daily competition to win a pair of tickets to the event. To win shoppers are asked to check in via foursquare.

The only problem is very few people in Belfast use, let alone know what foursquare is. (I have a foursquare project I want to develop so I will be watching this one closely.) The girl in the showroom was quite surprised that I new what foursquare was, let alone actually use it. Apparently so few people have it they had to quickly get some flyers printed.

Lesson from this example check the relevance of the app, or social media platform before launching a promotion on it! I’m glad Swatch and MTV are trying this out in Belfast, it saves me having to do it myself, instead I shall be watching check-in’s from the comfort of my smart phone.

It’s a good idea, but perhaps Facebook Places, or liking their Facebook page would have been more effective.

Next stop Topshop

Topshop are using the  SCVNGR app to run an instore treasure hunt. Shoppers can complete challenges to gain points, these points can then be traded in for rewards. Rewards range from a 20% of voucher, to entry into a competition to win an ipad and a shopping spree.

Tasks include checking in, commenting on Topshop’s SVNGR page, or taking photos of specific items such as shoes, a bag, jeans etc.

I really like the idea of this app, but I did find it got in the way of shopping, I was trying on shoes whilst trying to upload photos, writing comments whilst browsing the sale rail. I think the issue was flow, the app required me to engage with it while I was busy shopping. It would have been better suited to use in a queue, or even whilst in the changing room rather than on the actual shop floor.

I do think however that SCVNGR could provide an interesting way to engage visitors in museums, or indeed across a number of museums and galleries. Perhaps a multi site SCVNGR hunt that required people to complete tasks inbetween, rather than in venues would perhaps be a good way to develop the use of this app.

Who knows…perhaps this research will result in me winning MTV tickets, or even an ipad!

A platform for innovation and experimentation

A couple of years ago I was selected to take part in a British Council ‘International Young Curator Programme’. As part of the programme I worked in the Northern Ireland Gallery at the Venice Biennale. Myself and a few other emerging artists and curators decided we should make the most of our time in Venice and set up Parallax. envisaged as an arts collective, we wanted to create a platform to showcase and make new work in the exciting and dramatic setting that was Venice. We had no money, and at first the British Council was hesitant at the idea of us hosting events in their gallery spaces, but after a little persuasion and a pooling of resources we held our first event. From pop up exhibitions to art crawls and pecha kucha nights we experimented with different formats and events. Quickly Parallax started to be noticed and our events drew a mix of emerging and established international artists, curators and commercial dealers.

We saw Parallax as a temporary collective that would lead to future collaborations after our time in Venice. However we are delighted that the format we developed has proved to be so successful that a second group of staff at this years Biennale have breathed new life in to it. You can see more information about Parallax 2011 on their blog and Facebook page. I am proud to have been a founding member of Parallax and really hope that it continues to grow into a significant fringe presence for emerging artists and curators at the Venice Biennale.

Handing over Parallax to a new set of artists and curators, and witnessing their approach to what we started has been an interesting lesson in creating an open source format. Parallax was never about ownership, it was instead about empowerment, skill sharing and professional development. It’s open source nature has facilitated a dynamic platform were innovative ideas can be exchanged and tested.

Parallax clearly demonstrates what artists can achieve outside of traditional bureaucratic arts organisations and funding structures. It has left me wondering what lessons we can take from this model that could catalyst innovation within traditional funding structures.

A focus on collaboration, networking and seed funding could be really beneficial. Small pots of money, that require short bursts of activity could provide much more innovative artistic output than traditional funded projects. Indeed it would be interesting to see arts councils looking at how the digital sector is funded and it’s emphasis on supporting start up’s, innovation, and the acceptance of project pivot. Art is a creative journey, and artists cannot know what the outcome will be before they start on their journey. I’m not saying throw money at every artist out there, I’m simply saying that perhaps Parallax demonstrates the benefits of fluid and intense working, something that traditional funding structures do not support.

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.

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: