A wrap-up: every bit of the #MuseTech17 conference

Brexit, Trump, fake news and the post-factual world have prompted more soul-searching in museums, and Museums+Tech conference 2017: Museums and tech in a divided world began by asking whether museums can address the angst, and whether digital initiatives can help.

The answer is: kind of.

There are many colourful, ambitious and worthy projects making museums relevant and valued. While these projects are often successful, though, not every museum nor museum professional is equipped for a digital age which is not coming, but is already here.

Outgoing Chair of the Museums Computer Group (MCG) Mia Ridge laid the provocation before us: what do we value in society, and is it the place of museums to interrogate and reflect on these issues?

Mia certainly thinks so, and believes that by embracing empathy we can bridge the divides in our polarised world. This means not just more projects, but a radical overhaul of how museums operate.

Hannah Fox: What makes a museum?

Just such an overhaul was put before us by Hannah Fox, Project Manager at Derby Silk Mill.

And, to paraphrase Robert Cawston, if we were seeking to define the 21st century museum then Derby Silk Mill would be it.

After a failed HLF bid in 2008 the museum became a Trust and went through a painful restructure. It also pivoted entirely to audiences, opening up the ground floor as a project lab space, with a fully functioning community workshop. It’s open four days a week to ask simple questions:

  • what do you want your museum to be?
  • how can we help you?

Their thinking is encapsulated in Human centred design (see their free handbook), and a commitment to the idea of STEAM, not STEM, reflecting both the Silk Mill’s origins as the first factory in the world and the current economy and needs of Derby.

I almost can’t put into words the respect I have for what is being achieved in Derby — the vision, the culture, the pure commitment to public good. Their situation is the result of years of hard work, an unrelenting vision and a new way of thinking.

Museums thinking of emulating the Silk Mill, however, may rapidly realise they need to raze their current organisational culture to the ground before their phoenix is born.

Session one: Museums in a post-truth world of fake news

Questioning museums’ responsibilities to truth in a ‘post-truth’ world

Our first session of the day drew on the provocations of Mia’s opening speech, with Alison John of Yello Brick up first.

She introduced us to With New Eyes I See, a playful, disruptive project which projected archival material onto buildings in Cardiff city centre for the 2014 centenary of the First World War. It gave audiences agency in choosing their journey.

It reveals an audience ready for digital cultural heritage that embraces ambiguity in the examination and negotiation of meaning.

Alison also walked us through St Fagans’ storytelling app Traces, which instead of the usual audio guide aims to give visitors an experience which plays with the idea of truth and facts. I really liked their co-op option, with two routes that interweave over the 40 minutes of the journey, but the playfulness with the truth sparked a bit of Twitter debate.

News or Nonsense: an exhibition about the working of news

Up next, Karen Drost from the swish Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision showed off their current exhibition, News or Nonsense, which explores how news is made and proliferated.

The museum is full of interactive opportunities to explore how life is mediated through sound and vision, and what truth is. The theme of Karen’s talk was picked up in the Q&A, where attendees debated whether museums should do more to make the interpretative process visible to visitors.

Session two: Challenging Expectations

The Man in the Mirror and the death of the label

Our second session was introduced by Kevin Bacon from Brighton Museums, and one of the most disarming and funny speakers I think I’ve seen. His entire talk revolved around this relatable series of events:

  • Have a popular art installation
  • Think of legacy of installation only when project is over
  • Get an iPad on Thursday
  • Make a Wordpress site on Friday
  • Install the iPad on Monday
  • Tell the curator on Tuesday

This process has a name, by the way:

And it’s one I hope is familiar to anyone working with museums and technology.

The resulting simple kiosk was a working prototype, and did the job of putting content in front of the visitor with minimal fuss. The interesting bit came when Kevin’s off-the-top-of-his-head titles for certain pages outperformed the content the site was originally made for.

The in-gallery site has a function where moving over the picture allows you to zoom in, revealing the man in the mirror.

It turns out that prepositions makes people click on them – so the Man in the Mirror or Eye on the Sty work far better than Dr Blighty.

It also led Kevin to ask whether collections are merely MacGuffins

MacGuffin: an object or device [in a film or book] which serves merely as a trigger for the plot.

I don’t think curators would be as horrified at this suggestion as many might think — objects may often be MacGuffins, but they give tangible evidence and value to the stories they tell. Both are necessary.

Critical Digital Museum Practice in the Context of New Capitalism: Tactics, Strategies and Case Studies

Our next speaker, Alexandra Reynolds, delved into critical museum practice in the context of new capitalism.

With a particular interest in how digital technologies can help promote critical and progressive cultural commons, she namechecked projects such as Graham Harwood’s Uncomfortable Proximity, the AR experience Into the Wild at the ArtScience Museum, and how a crowd-sourced project around LGBT histories led to English Heritage re-listing buildings to incorporate these histories. All went to show that digital projects can have tangible, real-world impacts.

Making Contact: Digital experiments with visitor donations

Rob Cawston wins the award for dissemination, having already written a really useful blog on National Museums Scotland’s contactless donation points.

He talked us through from concept to execution, from having to negotiate between three different companies to having to relocate the terminal because they weren’t allowed to drill into the walls.

It wasn’t just a case of the technicalities either. The new contactless donation point had to prove itself against the Vortex, the ubiquitous coin donation dome. This was a refreshing reality check when so many projects are accused of doing digital for digital’s sake.

The extra step of making videos of curators to entice visitors to the terminals also really impressed me. They add value to what could easily have just been a contactless point shoved into a wall.

Will you start the fans please? Museums meet Live Escape Games!

John Sear not only has a load of amazing open source resources for museums to use, but is also on a mission to promote escape rooms in museums.

Already present in places like Norwich Guildhall, escape rooms require groups of paying guests to work together to find clues that enable them to escape a room. The potential for museums to base escape rooms on stories found in their collections or histories is obvious. If you’re interested, John suggests working with local companies who know what they’re doing!

Session Three: Post-lunch provocations: Dealing with distance; bringing the museum to the people; taking care of accessibility

Museum in a box: Digital Remembrance

In the first of our provocations Frances Jeens showed us the Jewish Museum London’s partnership with Museum in a Box, who’ve been experimenting with the potential of 3D printing in museums for a while now.

The offer is a group of objects and 3D printed objects with RFID tags that trigger audio in a box (see video below). In her honest walkthrough, Frances explains how their original favoured object couldn’t be 3D-printed because it was too complex, requiring them to go with a war grave monument the museum didn’t even own instead. Rather than focusing just on the past, they also sought out new audio interviews with charismatic and contemporary figures, such as the Chief Rabbi of HM Forces.

Popping Up: New Ways to Animate Old Spaces

The National Maritime Museum (NMM) recently acquired two paintings by Stubbs depicting a kangaroo and a dingo, which he painted just from description.

Lucy Yates and Daniel Rollings talked us through Travellers’ Tails, a project which included a pop-up museum in Lewisham shopping centre, which invited the public in to create art in response to the paintings. Kids drew animals of their own just from description, made poems and posed for photos. The art was then turned into an augmented reality overlay to paintings in the museum, audio tours and more.

Democratising Museums

Abira Hussein pulled no punches in her experience and opinions of the sector.

After stating that diversity conferences were a symptom of the problem and that conference fees prevented many from attending, she also noted that diversity traineeships are almost pointless if there are no adequately paid jobs for those trainees to move on to. Museums can also be patronising in how they describe their community work, making it seem as though they’re a charity rather than a partner. She ended in pressing for museums to avoid being glorified hoarders, and to use their objects in the community.

For a thread of Abira’s provocations, see Danny Birchall’s Twitter thread.

Technology as empowerment tools for visually impaired visitors: an embodied museum experience

The Petrie Museum at UCL have quietly been doing very cool digital things for a while, all in order to get around the ‘Do not Touch’ problem. Rafie Cecilia’s PhD is exploring indoor navigation, tactile maps, audio-descriptions triggered by bluetooth, original objects for handling as well as 3D replicas. The aim is to explore how those with sensory impairments can be empowered in the museum.

Session Four: How can museums use sound and chatbots?

You can put them in a chat room but you can’t make them talk

I’m grateful that Adam Sibbald at Historic Royal Palaces is aware that not everyone wants to talk to strangers or be forced to talk to strangers. And yet, they thought they’d experiment with a chatroom function for their The People’s Revolt project anyway.

The results? 22% of the audience used it, though only 50% of that 22% actually had conversations that went further than ‘hello’ or ‘is anyone there?’.

The conversations that did take place looked like they added something to the project, but he freely admitted that this kind of feature requires some facilitation from staff rather than just throwing it at the public.

Getting the message out there: telling Anne Frank’s life story with a messenger bot

Our next chatbot was one donated to the Anne Frank House Museum by Facebook — all Lotte Belice and her team had to do was populate it with content. After working through a ton of different scenarios which include practical information about the Museums as well as historic content and automated rebuffs to holocaust deniers, Lotte now loves Excel.

They’ve had some trouble with people not understanding they were talking to a bot, people persisting with foreign language (the bot is english-only), and other confusions which affect all chatbots. Nevertheless, it works — only 5% of people have to click through to the website because they cannot find the answer they need.

And if you’re on Facebook, you can try it out yourself on Messenger. (You can also view Lotte’s slides here)

space=sound. A plea for holistic sound scenography

After seeing Maurice Mersinger showcase of Kling Klang Klong’s work, I rapidly realised we in Reading will never be able to afford them.

They’re a group of composers, artists and sound programmers based in Berlin experimenting with soundscapes that change with a person’s movement, VR environments and seemingly just about everything else. Their videos show what they’re about far better than word, so I’d recommend browsing them:

I also love Kling Klang Klong’s name, but it makes for a very unfortunate acronym.

Anagram — immersive experience, creative collective and the Imperial War Museum

May Abdalla of Anagram was clear that she previously wasn’t interested in history or museums before working with Amy Rose, previously Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), now Imperial War Museum (IWM).

This worked to their benefit, allowing projects which drag both HRP and IWM outside of their comfort zones. Nightwatchers at the Tower of London is an audio journey across the site, covering both Jesuits and contemporary surveillance in London in the context of terrorism.

Fake News reared its head again in I Swear to Tell the Truth, a project about the war in Syria intended to get people to question how narratives about the war are constructd. At one point in the experience they come across the department of the Bureau of Alternative Facts, where they can rewrite object labels.

Closing Panel: Looking (back to look) forward

Building the digital literacies of the museum workforce

After the previous talk I was thinking how the sector’s coolest projects are almost always done in a creative partnership. It’s rare to see a purely in-house public digital project, because of a whole host of issues relating both to funding and staff skillsets.

It turns out a lot of other people are thinking the same thing. It’s clear that museums are not equipping their workforce for the digital present, let alone the future. DCMS, ACE and other funding bodies are telling us we need to head in a digital direction.

Ross Parry then introduced One by One.

Culture 24 are banding together with membership organisations and museums to explore the digital skills and assets museums need, but also the change that we need to enact in society and in our institutions. Using practice-led research methods and a design thinking structure, their intent is to prototype, test and share approaches to dealing with our digital difficulties. They will then share everything with the sector.

Our own #digiRDG project between the Museum of English Rural Life and Reading Museum has been grappling with the issue of workforce digital skills for around a year now. What struck me about the One by One list is that small museums are entirely absent — no doubt because they would find it difficult to commit the time and resource.

Conversely, this general lack of time and resource is exactly why they need to be included. The vast majority of museums do not have a marketing officer — let alone a digital post or team — and are most in need of knowing how to embed digital skills across a small team.

In Reading we have trialed various types of training from self-led to group workshops, but have rapidly realised that it is not enough to teach digital skills — you also need to give those skills a purpose. This means re-evaluating how your museum operates, taking into account all the new digital means to achieving an institution’s ends. This is not something that can be solved in one easy workshop, but is a cultural shift over the course of many months, even years. But it is a not a shift that happens naturally — it needs to be led, and I hope One By One gives us all the lead.

Technologies and tactics for museums as agents of change in a divided world.

Bridget McKenzie closed the session by suggesting museums need to move towards being more socio-cratic and driven by social need. That we need to overcome neutrality, take more risks, heal divides and include more voices. Doing so ties into the tensions of retaining a neutrality which the public often expect and respect us for, but being brave enough to still make an impact in our post-factural world. Above all, we need to move into a phase where museum design is focused on the emotional needs of our audiences. Only then can we secure our relevance.

It was a fitting end to a conference which always had an eye on the wider sector and the world. Digital skills and projects are no longer the preserve of digital teams but are becoming integral across all museum departments and roles. Our job is to use our skills to enable museums to make a difference.

Thank you, MCG

The length of this conference summary is testament to the variety and novelty of the talks, all organised on time volunteered by the Museums Computer Group committee. Outgoing chair Mia Ridge was given a long round of applause for her work and leadership f the Group, and handed the baton over to Dafydd Jones of National Museum Wales.

Thank you, MCG.