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.

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 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.


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!

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.


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.


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 

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: