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.

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.

Get MACtive Twitter Workshop

links, videos and information to help you get on Twitter

Pop over to  Twitter to sign up…

Then follow these links to help you get started:

This is Campus Life > This is a 2 page word document which describes how to set up a Twitter account

Elva’s Web Tips   >These are a series of 5 great video tutorials that tell you how to join and use Twitter, they are produced by Dublin Digital Agency ebow

Once your up and on running on Twitter make sure to say hello @OonaghTweets and of course to @TheMacBelfast

Why not join in with the #TheMacandMe conversation on Twitter and see your tweets added to


This post was created to support ‘Why Tweet’ a social media workshop led by Oonagh Murphy at the ‘One Good Reason to Get MACtive‘ event

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.


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.

MuseumNext: can I have a year to process what just happened?

It’s taken a few days, but I think I’ve finally processed some of what I heard at MuseumNext. This post sums up a  few key themes and take aways.

National Museum of Scotland

1. Museums need to get over themselves!

Museums are vain, they act like politicians, and they love to have meetings. stop having so many meetings! These were the wise words of Geer Oskam from the Dutch organisation N8, the people who run the world famous Museum Night. Run by young people aged 26 and under, N8 ensures that it remains both relevant and innovative by changing its entire staff body every 3 years. N8’s human resource policy is in stark contrast to the wider museum sector which often attracts professionals who stay at 1 or 2 museums for their entire career.

Rich Mintz from Blue State Digital (the people that ran Obama’s digital campaign) stated the obvious, but often overlooked point ‘no body cares about museums as much as you do!’. Museum people think about museums all day every day, about new technology, about content and engagement…but so often we forget that our visitors don’t. Our visitors have real lives, they have real problems, they have jobs and children; their time is precious and we should remember this in everything we do.

Shelly Bernstein  reminded us all that ‘its not about ego’, she talked about Brooklyn museums work to add to or create Wikipedia files. Everything museums do is branded, so it’s a difficult ideological shift for museums to start carrying out development work on platforms that are totally distinct from the official museum platform. Taking this holistic approach can bring rewards back to a museum. The Brooklyn museum now have i-pads with access to Wikipedia in their galleries- the result visitors spend on average 7 minutes looking at these,  compared with 30-40 seconds spent looking at traditional interpretation panels.

Image: Wikipop iPads and Visitor Metrics Brooklyn Museum

2. Museums need to realise they only have 5 seconds to engage their visitors….

Rich Mintz outlined some great rules for 5 second engagement> Communication with visitors should be goal orientated and convey a sense of
* urgency: timeliness: relevance & continuity *

Visitors want to know: Why are you reaching out to them? What do you want me to do right now? What Will happen next?

In the context of meta data games, Mia Ridge talked about ways to lower barriers to facilitate visitor engagement. Her message was simple ‘make it easy for people to get involved’. Mia suggested getting people interested by providing a narrative that they can relate to, i.e.  ‘help, it’s this curators 1st day on the job but shes accidentally deleted all the collections data. Can you help her replace it?’

Nora Semel and Francesca Merlino from the Guggenheim talked about using established platforms as a means to lower institutional barriers to engagement. They discussed their project with Youtube, Youtube Play a biennial of creative video. When they started Youtube play they expected to receive around 6,000 entries, in actual fact they received over 23,000 submissions.

3. Museums need to value their followers

Know your followers, don’t rely solely on social media monitoring tools was the message from Jim Richardson. Your own eyes can be an excellent, reliable and cost effective way to analyse your online network. Klout will tell you about your followers who are influential online, but what about your followers who seldom use Twitter but are influential journalists, artists, politicians or teachers.

Find out who your followers are, engage with them and get them to talk about you. Go as far as helping them talk about you, make it easy for them by programming exciting events, have behind the scenes tweet ups,  integrate social media sharing buttons into your webpage. If you value them, they will value you.

For more ways to engage with your followers check out my article for Arts Professional on turning digital friends, fans and followers into real world visitors ‘From virtual to reality’

I’m sure I’ll blog again about MuseumNext but for now lets conclude with the wise words of Shelley Bernstein

‘Take risks, learn from them because without risks there is no reward’

If you want to read more about MuseumNext, or to check out other blogs head over to 

Volunteering & lots of tea are a perfect combination!

Photo courtesy of 'Dyanna' on Flickr

People volunteer for lots of different reasons from wanting to gain experience to making new friends, but walking into any new situation can be scary. Putting on the kettle is a simple way to put new volunteers at ease.

As an arts management student I volunteered in loads of arts organisations from festivals to galleries and theaters. The places I stuck with where the ones that made me a cup of tea when I walked in the door. Its important that you get to know your volunteers, after all if you don’t have time to invest in them, they will quickly lose their desire to invest their precious time in you. Volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds you might have a retired teacher, or trainee doctor helping out at your festival but you’ll never know this if you simply ask volunteers for their contact details and a reference.

Just last week I got a lovely new ‘recruiting and managing volunteers’ OCN qualification in the post. The 2 day training course which I attended earlier in the year made me realise that managing volunteers requires more than simply policy, reference checking and progress reviews. The training course covered all the ‘official’ stuff but equally important is simply being nice, friendly, interested and approachable. From my experience the being nice part of managing volunteers is all to often over looked.

Volunteers don’t want to spend all day in a cupboard stuffing envelopes, but get a couple of volunteers together, put the radio on and provide some cupcakes and a mundane task suddenly becomes a sociable one.

I guess the recipe to creating a successful volunteer programme is simple: Think before you ask, would I do this for free? Would I enjoy doing this? What would I get out of this task if I was volunteering? These might seem like simple questions but in the heat of the moment, in the madness of a festival they are often over looked.

If you take the time to make volunteers feel welcome they will quickly become loyal advocates, if you don’t they will quickly tell their friends and family about their negative experience. Your volunteers are important, they are loyal and motivated members of the community, don’t underestimate their value!

Lessons from Venice

I was lucky enough to work for the British Council and Arts Council of Northern Ireland at the 2009 Venice Biennale. My time in Venice was professionally priceless; it gave me the opportunity to engage with art and artists from around the world. I came away from Venice feeling inspired and challenged in equal portions.


The Venice Biennale presented the perfect opportunity to experiment, network and produce events and exhibitions.  Myself and a group of staff from other galleries decided to put our heads together and start a collective through which we could curate and show work during out time in Venice. Over a few bottles of Prosecco we decided on ‘Parallax’ as the name of our collective. Within the space of a few days we planned our first event a ‘see + talk’ session which we held in the court yard of the Northern Ireland pavilion (and the former home to Vivaldi!)This event was attended by over 30 people from more than 10 different countries, it took the form of a Pecha Kucha style event, with each artist discussing and answering questions about their work. Over the following weeks we curated performance art ‘crawls’, these consisted of site specific performances that engaged with the architecture of venice, we held exhibitions in apartments and palaces, we held making sessions from origami to drawing nights.

Parallax challenged the idea that the Venice Biennale is a place for established artists, it threw the floor open to a new generation or artists, curators and arts managers. Parallax provided us with the opportunity to examine our own practice, to grow professionally and to work in a peer supported environment. Parallax was unique in that it was not a funded project instead it was a collective of like minded people who pooled resources and expertise from printers to projectors, from web design to graphic design from courtyards to bedroom walls. Quite simply we had an idea, and we put it into practice.

Parallax in a Power Point

Parallax After Venice

Since the last Biennale Parallax has remained an active group of like minded individuals. Earlier this year we were contacted by galleries asking about how they could become involved in Parallax at the 2011 Venice Biennale.  It’s exciting to know that a small idea dreamed up over a bottle of Prosecco has made such an impact. 2 years after it was first conceived it has become a source of inspiration and mentoring for those working at this year’s Venice Biennale. Due to funding problems Northern Ireland won’t be at Venice this year, however Parallax will. The Fruit Market gallery are keen to breathe life into Parallax and I can’t wait to see how their invigilators creatively respond to living and working in Venice.

My advice to anyone working at this year’s Venice Biennale?

  • Bring business cards- they will get you free entry and exhibition catalogues
  • Bring Berocca- you won’t get a lot of sleep!
  • Bring lots and lots of Mosquito repellent (Irish art critic Aidan Dunne was so concerned by the size of my mosquito bites that he and his wife delivered repellent to my galley- sweet, but also terribly embarrassing)
  • No matter who you meet in Venice be it a ‘big’ artist, curator or critic, talk to them exchange emails, ask for advice. The sun makes people so much more approachable than at other big commercial events like Frieze
  • Get hold of a free British Council map, they are the best! The official Biennale map is really confusing