Weeknotes: 46.2015 – Laura’s MCN report and the surprising student voice on museum interactivity

After a bit of time to mull it all over, Laura has put together her report on the MCN conference of a couple of weeks ago, see below. Some talks from the event are already up on the MCN YouTube channel. I’ve added the keynote from Liz Ogbu to my must watch list after both Lindsey and Laura were raving about it, apparently it’s well worth taking the full hour to watch through.

Here are Laura’s thoughts on MCN 2015:

“The 2015 MCN conference was big (530 attendees made it the biggest MCN ever) and rich with interesting sessions and conversations with colleagues old and new. I was particularly struck by two themes that emerged from the conference. First, many presentations and discussions focused on people and the human factors in designing successful digital products and services. Second, I saw a more holistic perspective on digital technology framed through the lens of overall institutional strategic objectives and organizational change. Both of these are very positive trends.

Liz Ogbu’s brilliant keynote touched on both of themes, asking “how might we embrace a design imperative that goes beyond the object?” She described how using human-centered design and systems thinking can help us move from something that is merely an interesting design idea to a solution that actually delivers impact.  Ogbu’s process for understanding the needs of users is something that all museums can learn from (Dana Mitroff Silvers does a great job showing how in her summary of Ogbu’s talk), Ogbu is an architect, but her embrace of systems thinking means that her output is often more than a building. She showed how small interventions in skills acquisition, branding and operations strategy can make a huge difference in the success or failure of a design effort. The idea that our output might be more than a “thing” really resonated with me;  in our own research and design work, the success of a digital product or service often relies on decidedly non-digital aspects of the experience: the physical space, queuing, signage, interactions with front of house staff. Ogbu’s presentation ticked all the boxes for a great keynote for me: It was intellectually engaging, emotionally moving, it brought ideas from outside the sector that really spoke to the challenges we face in museums and it provided an inspiring kick-off to the conference.

Systems thinking was also in evidence in a session moderated and organized by Carolyn Royston and Alice Rubin called Leadership Meet Digital Digital meet Leadership. In the session, senior leadership from three small institutions (Deborah Schwartz, Brooklyn Historical Society, Annie Polland, Tenement Museum and Anita Kassof, Baltimore Museum of Industry) asked the audience how digital could help answer key institutional questions. The session underscored the challenges of affecting digital transformation in museums that lack a digital team, especially in a funding environment that privileges stand-alone technology projects. It’s critical to have the voice of senior leadership at digital/technology conferences and this panel pointed to the need to hear from funders as well. The question of how digital in museums is funded came up at the Museum on the Web UK conference as well – it’s clearly an issue for the sector as a whole and  there have already been discussions about a session on this topic with a panel of government and foundation funders for MCN 2016.

In their session, The Agile Museum: 21st Century Leadership, Kaywin Feldman and Douglas Hegley from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts made the connections between leadership and organizational change; the real key to digital transformation is in our processes and our culture not in the technology itself.

And finally, a shout out to Liz Filardi, Emily Lytle-Painter and Brinker Ferguson for developing the independent #Musewomen initiative that matched mentors and mentees at MCN in a #Mentorpilot (a Storify on the MCN mentoring sessions and discussions).”

Thanks to Laura for that summary. Back in the UK, I had an interesting experience last week teaching on a session on the Digital Britain course at Syracuse University’s London outpost. I’ve done this session a couple of times now, which focusses on games in museums and how they affect the visitor or user experience. In it, I go over games projects I was involved with at the Wellcome Trust/Collection whilst I was there, but also more recent projects from a variety of institutions. The students got to play some mobile games that demonstrate how different game mechanics affect player behaviour, and then devise their own game (some of this stuff will be in the games workshop I’m developing, and will at some point I promise put more information up on the site for, instead of just hinting at it in weeknotes).

It seemed to work, and most of the students came up with some really strong game ideas, despite not being game designers, or having much time to think about it. Which demonstrated my point that game design can be more about the process than individual genius. But, what was perhaps more interesting and relevant for weeknotes readers were their responses to a homework question that was set in advance of my visit. They were tasked with reading this blog post by Chantal Pinkham on “Stimulating Young People’s Interest in Cultural Institutions Using New Media” and then writing a few paragraphs on their thoughts about the subject.

Pinkham says:

Technology is continually changing the way in which we pursue, discover and acquire knowledge. Today’s digital generation expects media-rich learning environments that create immediate, stimulating and exploratory experiences. They seek active participation and involvement in the learning process. Social networks, blogs, online gaming, smart phones and subsequent apps are all part of the core of the digital generation’s lifestyle. But are cultural organisations doing enough to adapt to these developments? Are they prioritising digital innovation, are they doing so in the right direction, and if not, what should they focus on to avoid alienating younger audiences?

Given that she works for Blippar, her views on this might come as no surprise. But what did the students think, since they are the target audience to which the blog post is referring? Surprisingly, not all were in agreement.

A couple felt that technology in museums was a positive: something they expected since technology is such a big part of their lives, and that helped them engage. They had recently been on a class visit to The Crystal, and some were taken with the high level of interactivity here. One stated: “My generation is extremely digital and we have grown tired of old traditional ways. Technology is what we are comfortable with and in order accommodate this, cultural institutions are having to come up with new ways get their message across effectively and appeal to our generation.”

However, a majority of the rest of the students claimed to believe that the use of digital in exhibitions could actually detract from the experience. They mentioned that it can feel overwhelming – like a “bombardment” of information. One said, for example: “I feel that it takes away from the overall experience of being in a museum and experiencing another period in time.” This is interesting, since technology is often felt to help with immersion, but this suggests it can actually interfere with it.

Another said something similar: “Personally, I am starting to believe that the general idea of technology use in museums and other exhibits is becoming a little over the top. I believe that part of the cultural experience of particular museums and exhibitions includes stepping away from the technology and use of smartphones in order to truly absorb the surroundings.”

Even some of those that were against the use of digital in museums seemed resigned to the fact that it might be expected by the younger audience, though. One student who thought that it made the art “a little less beautiful” also conceded that “I think that museums must adapt to this digitally-crazed society of adolescents to maintain visitors.” Another had some strong words to counter this: “Although they may lose the focus of a certain group of a certain generation, it is worth this sacrifice to maintain the integrity and mission of the institution.” The same student had earlier said “I like to think that I am not like the rest of the generation and do not need technological interactivity to stay engaged but I often find myself needing just that” so is clearly looking for museums to save her from herself.

Anyway, not sure what to make of that, except that if this demographic is your target audience, it is clearly worth doing a lot of testing with them on concepts, since it cannot be assumed they will love any technological intervention in a museum. It should also give museums confidence in their objects, to use digital only where it is really necessarily or will have a positive impact, not just scatter it liberally around. Would be very interesting to know if others have similar or contradictory data on this.

One other little note, we’ve also added another case study to the website, on a V&A project from earlier in the year. This followed the same human-centred design process that Liz Ogbu’s keynote, mentioned above, talks about. There are a few more of these case studies to go up, yet. If you have any feedback on them, let us know.

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