MuseWeb 2019, Boston: Notes from the conference

The glorious Boston Public Library reading room

The annual North American edition of the MuseWeb conference (formerly Museums and Web) was held in Boston from April 2–6. The conference is an opportunity for the museum sector to share its latest projects and research. For me this conference had a definite shift from digital being the primary focus, to more holistic discussions on how digital fits with immersive experiences, accessibility, inclusion, risk taking, and ethical choices.

You can find the Twitter stream for the conference here: #mw19

Immersive experiences

Seb Chan described why ‘immersive’ matters: “to create a clear distinction between the outside world and inside the exhibition, a magic circle where the visitors attain superpowers”.

The opening plenary from Hiroshi Ishii — “Remembering the Future, Archiving for 2200” — was filled with examples of immersive experiences.

“No-one has invented a process which fully captures an experience. There’s no perfect way to archive these things, but we can create things that evoke the feelings and recall our memories of an experience.” — Hiroshi Ishii

Examples included “MirrorFugue: Conjuring the Recorded Pianist” where a piano included projections of the player, including their hands moving over the keys, to bring them back into the room where the recording was being played.

A further challenge is then preserving these exhibitions. This could include preserving the technology that runs the exhibit, as well as videos of it in operation, and interviews with the makers and participants.

Accessibility

Sina Bahram speaks on the accessibility and inclusion panel discussion. Sessions in the main ballroom included live captioning.

Accessibility covers the technical aspects of making an experience available to different groups and accessibility improvements help a much wider audience than is sometimes assumed. For example, adding visual descriptions for collection objects doesn’t just help those with vision difficulties — it helps people on a cognitive level and it can help people feel more comfortable with experiencing and understanding the object.

Sina Bahram has set up accessibility lunches at organisations he has worked with. These can start by identifying easy wins, like increasing the font size on newly printed wall labels. The lunches helped form relationships with like-minded colleagues who wanted to make accessibility improvements. They celebrated their successes, but publicised what area they wanted to work on next so that the achievements became stepping stones to further improvements.

The sector needs to move from remediation, when accessibility is done (with difficulty) as an afterthought, and instead build in accessibility into projects during their development. Accessibility constraints often lead to more beautiful and inclusive outputs.

Tip: When creating PDF documents in Microsoft Word, use Save as PDF as this will preserve the accessible structure of the original document, while Print to PDF will not.

Inclusion

Inclusion looks at wider considerations such as meeting the needs of groups with different languages, cultures or abilities. Even basic considerations such as table height in activity areas can ensure that both children and wheelchair users can have the same access as other visitors.

Seema Rao’s lightning talk on “Illuminating Colonization Through Augmented Reality” gave examples of how AR could be used to overlap new contextual information about colonialism within our collections. This reminded me of recent changes at the American Museum of Natural History to overlap new transparent labels on an out-dated diorama, highlighting the colonial views inherit in the original display. The New York Times article “What’s Wrong with this Diorama?” describes this in more detail.

There’s also a lot of work still needed to make our sector more inclusive of all people who work within it, regardless of gender, race, or culture. This flows through to the MuseWeb conference itself, including ensuring we have panels that reflect the diversity in our sector, and monitoring that everyone in the audience has a fair share of panel question times.

Risk taking

All innovation includes a degree of risk, and we can’t improve or change without trying something new and managing the resulting risks. There was a strong feeling from attendees that most museum working environments were risk averse. This leads to ‘hand-slapping’ of individuals that are trying to innovate, limiting the growth of each museum and ultimately pushing some of the talented people elsewhere.

Koven J. Smith as written an excellent summary of the conference Twitter discussion on risk taking: “On bravery, risk-aversion, and hand-slapping”.

Ethical choices

There were many discussions about the toxic nature of social media platforms. “Me me me” culture, self-contained bubbles of people with the same beliefs, and poor moderation resulting in the amplification of extreme messages, all being current problems. Damon Krukowski noted that the more interactive the environment the more we need to cater for the worst behaviour.

There are ethical choices when museums use social media platforms. We can consider how we are using the platforms (are we engaging with people or just selling ourselves) and we can consider which platforms we want to be aligned with.

Corporate giants are increasing put profit ahead of the user base. Examples include Spotify’s low payments to musicians, Google’s promotion of ticket resellers ahead of official museum ticket sites, and Facebook’s promotion of negative content when they benefit because of the resulting increase in dwell time on the site. Again, museums can consider whether there are alternatives. Aron Ambrosiani noted “ BBC pulled a podcast from Google podcast player because Google was promoting their own player ahead of BBC’s in the search results.”

Museums ethical choices are reflected in how they spend their money. Douglas Hegley stated “a budget is a moral document”, or alternatively, show me your budget and I’ll tell you exactly what your organisation values.

Lastly, there has been a world-wide movement towards more ethical use of collected data, including a recent proposal for a ‘Hippocratic oath for data scientists’. We should be asking critical questions about why we are collecting data and how we intend to use it.

Final tips

I’ll close with a few simple ideas I picked up from the conference:

Serpentine Gallery app promotion inside their gallery toilet stalls

Promote digital in the physical spaces

If you have in-gallery digital experiences, you must promote them in your physical spaces where attendees will notice. This could be a formal on-boarding step done by front of house staff and/or through signage. The inside of your toilet doors (providing the toilets are in good order) is one effective location.

“Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them” — Martha Henson, Consultant.

Nobody downloads apps

Downloading a museum app is a barrier. Providing preloaded devices can greatly increase uptake.

“The average app for a cultural organisation is downloaded fewer than 1,000 times and opened less than once.” — Frankly, Green and Webb.

Be creative in our work

User research is important to understand what you visitors want, but we want to leave room for creativity in our delivery of products and experiences to meet the user needs. The supposed Henry Ford quote comes to mind: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Front of house staff are a great resource for gathering direct feedback from visitors.

Use language your visitors understand

It is essential to translate sector jargon for public use. This could be through automated translation or replacement of technical terms as part of the publishing step, or through the careful writing of the text interface and content hierarchy in the design of label, app or website.

QR codes back from the dead?

Most modern phones can now just use the in-built phone camera app to recognise a QR and allow the user to go to the embedded web page address. However, placement of QR codes make a big difference to use statistics. When paired with just an object image, usage rates significantly increase. It’s also important to explain their purpose and entice visitors to scan them.

Thank you MuseWeb!

The co-chairs Nancy Proctor and Rich Cherry, along with their group of assistants and volunteers, do an amazing job putting the conference together. It’s always enlightening to be part of both the challenging and the entertaining discussions that the conference triggers and I look forward to next year’s conference in Los Angeles.