Weeknotes: 15.2016 – data, experiments and people power from Museums and the Web #MWXX

On April 15th, 2016, posted in: weeknotes by

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Last week was all about Museums and the Web. Laura and I were in LA for this, trying to find our way through a packed programme and also trying (for me, personally) to ensure I’d eaten every fish taco within a 2 mile radius. It was great, on both fronts.

As Laura had only a brief turnaround before heading to New York for another project, so I don’t think she’s had much time to gather her thoughts about it, but I hope will share them soon. But in the meantime, here are mine.

Museums and the Web 2016, Los Angeles.

I’ve tried really hard to think about an overarching theme for this, but I don’t know that I have one. There was so much coming at me from different angles. Overall, I came away with a sense that there was some great work being done out there, and this was so positive to see. The most interesting projects for me were all about people (co-design and human stories) and experimentation with technology (testing VR or interaction mechanics on a guide). This write up represents not everything I saw, but rather some of the things that have stuck with me since.

Doctorow on data

After a reception at the fabulous Broad (what an amazing art collection, beautifully curated) the conference proper kicked off for me with the Thursday morning plenary from Cory Doctorow (of Boing Boing, and open internet campaigns, and several sci fi books). He spun us a nightmarish tale of personal data breaches (all data will breach at some point, he said), baby monitor hacks, and farmers that realised they didn’t really own the tractors they bought, and that the company who sold it to them was collecting their data to sell on to futures investors.

Aside from making me wonder if I should disconnect everything I own from the internet, his point was that as collectors of data, museums and galleries need to make sure that they are behaving ethically, and perhaps shouldn’t be doing this at all. And, moreover, that they have an opportunity to set an example, demanding software that is open and transparent, for example, because transparency of code and practice prevents the privacy horror stories he described from happening. You can watch his entertaining and rather terrifying talk here. (And if you want more examples of how the internet of things isn’t perhaps all it’s cracked up to be, I recommend this twitter account)

Doctorow’s talk chimed with my experience as a producer on digital projects, where data capture sometimes becomes a secondary aim, but one without much real purpose. Instead, it creates a barrier for users and a headache for administration. In many cases, I think this aspect of digital projects could just be dropped. But in practice, I wonder how easily organisations will be able to insist on open software and applications, often less well known, given what a pain it can be to get IT departments to agree to use even big name stuff like Dropbox or Google Docs.

People power

There were some nice examples of putting the visitor at the centre of an experience, or focussing on the human stories that bring things to life. Elyse Mallouk of the Whitney gave a lightning talk on their Whitney Stories video series, which aims to surface behind the scenes stories from the gallery. She showed us this great video about one of their security guards, Vincent Punch, who is also a street photographer with an excellent eye for a picture. It was a lovely way of sharing someone’s passion for the museum in a very human way.

I really enjoyed the Making Museums Awesome for Kids session (run by Alice Walker, Antenna International, Masha Turchinsky, The Met, Barry Joseph, American Museum of Natural History). They shared examples of digital projects aimed at kids that involved them in the development process to make sure that the end result would actually work for that audience. For example, talking to kids at the Met, they realised that they saw the museum as a kind of time machine, an idea they ran with.

And at AMNH, kids were actually co-designers on a new digital experience – Crime Scene Neanderthal. They were involved in what sounds like a long but fruitful (and fun?) process, coming up with ideas and helping to shape them. At the talk, one person asked, but what if the kids come up with terrible or impractical ideas? Fair point. Barry pointed out that their job as facilitators of this process was to be open about what was and wasn’t possible, but also to refer the kids back to the set of objectives they themselves had developed to check these ideas against it. Which I was thrilled to see, since it’s our technique on design projects as well. It works pretty well with adults too. Barry’s slides are here.

Barry Joseph also ran a playful pop up museum session which I really wish I’d made it to, everyone who went kept telling me how much fun it was, as well as being thought provoking. You can read Barry’s description of it here.

This kids session finished just an hour before my own on designing digital experiences for families, and it was a good complement to it. Mine focussed more on design research before getting to the actual development, and shared findings from research projects across four different museums. My main message, families are a diverse audience and a bit of a moving target, make sure you know them well and design flexible and simple activities for them. Paper here, slides below.

Trying something new

Several projects that attempted something new caught my eye. I’ve already mentioned Danny Birchall and Anna Faherty’s paper on Digital Storytelling at Wellcome Collection, but their presentation was also great. It described the process of trying to tell a story not about  their collection, but one that they knew was true because of their collection. One that might work for the casual audience member, and which took inspiration from digital storytelling in journalism such as the multimedia Snowfall. It’s a project that took a tremendous amount of resource, which, let’s be honest, is beyond the means of most. But since Wellcome can afford to experiment on this scale, it’s great to see them do this, and share their results with others. It was also a reminder of how narrative can bring together collections that become atomised in their online world, and bring meaning to them.

It was also good to see the British Museum experimenting with virtual reality, creating a bronze age roundhouse experience that they then tested with hundreds of visitors. I liked the tidbit from Juno Rae’s presentation about their realisation that they should find out the visitor’s name, because they often became so absorbed in the VR experience that they would become unresponsive. Apparently using their name would help bring them round.

Shelley Mannion at the BM also discussed their experiments with audio guides in her paper: Innovate or stagnate: Disrupting the conventional audio guide. They took two different approaches in two different exhibitions (specific vs thematic, narrator vs discussion) and then looked at the audience response.

Another experiment that caught my eye was an attempt to make an audio guide work for a social visit at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük . We’ve often heard visitors say that they don’t want to take a guide because they fear it will be isolating, and they want to be able to spend quality time with their friends during a visit.  So, this is an interesting idea. Basically, it used a withheld information mechanic (I’m all about this in games at the moment) to prompt visitors to speak to each other, one having information that the other doesn’t: “This object has an interesting purpose, ask your companion about it”, sort of thing.

Their paper shared both the positives and negatives of this approach. Some liked it, some found it annoying and repetitive. It seemed like an idea worth developing.

So much more

There were so many other interesting things going on, I highly recommend looking at the hashtag and the papers. I also enjoyed hearing about and seeing the Nature Lab at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and #museuminstaswap. I had an amazing visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which has to be seen to be believed (or not). I missed the following sessions that looked great, and I must catch up on:

And I will be looking through the reading list for this session on using tools from gaming to create innovative museum experiences. And of course, Laura’s session on online scholarly catalogues, which I will leave her to tell us more about in a future weeknotes.

Finally, I ran a fun tabletop gaming night on Thursday with various museum folk. For those that came we played: A Fake Artist Goes to New York, In a Grove, Nuclear Poker, Love Letter and Kakerlaken Poker Royal. For those that didn’t, I suggest coming along to my games workshop in May, which will include at least one or two of these, and many other examples of interesting mechanics from digital games as well.

Back in the UK

Lindsey was working on a tender, but also her presentation on the Post-Digital Museum at the International Symposium of Museology in Antalya, Turkey. She did the presentation this week, so more details in next week’s weeknotes.

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