Musings from MuseWeb 2019
MuseWeb (formerly Museums and the Web), one of the biggest global conferences for all things museums and digital, took place in Boston, USA last week. Several hundred delegates from institutions across the world enjoyed an eclectic and intensive few days of talks, workshops, panels, crit sessions, demonstrations, have-a-go’s, networking and, well, eating. This was my first MuseWeb conference and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as well being lucky enough to present. As I recover from the weird exhaustion of sitting in artificially-lit, casino-like conference rooms, trying to absorb a huge amount of information, I thought it might be useful to note down some of the main themes, takeaways and tips that emerged for me. Of course, with so many sessions running in parallel, it was impossible to catch everything. That’s why the lovely people at MuseWeb have put all the papers online and you can find plenty of salient observations and comments under the #MW19 hashtag on Twitter.
The big themes that stood out for me included storytelling, data for change, holistic digital, use and reuse, and playfulness. That, and the all-important message of the keynote to, you know, get outside of ourselves for a moment and see the big picture. On this occasion, it was the job of the clearly hyper-talented and inspirational Professor Hiroshi Ishii of MIT Media Lab to remind us that our tech, our solutions and even the problems we’re designing for are rather transitory. Vision, however, is long term and should be reflected in all we do, from design to application to preservation.
There was an illuminating tour of selected Harvard Museums on Tuesday. I was particularly impressed witht the Semitic Museum’s rolling-sleeves-up-and-diving-in approach to digital engagement, from smartphone escape rooms for students to 3D printing of a now-lost Egyptian throne, from an AR recreation of the Sphinx to creating a video avatar of a chap in Australia who likes to dress up as an ancient Assyrian...
Thereafter followed the conference proper. Basically, I wanted to be everywhere on Wednesday, immersing myself in the plethora of tools that are helping us to package, target and disseminate our content through different means to different audiences. Practical sessions on initialism-tastic things like RFID, IIIF, GIF, AR, and CRM all looked enticing (all things that will no doubt feature on Tristan Roddis’ algorithmic hall of shame of forgotten trends in 10 years’ time). In the end, though, I plumped for the Big Picture workshop by Duane Degler– a post-it wall approach to mapping digital activity across one’s organization. If the outcome was slightly predictable — digital is omnipresent and involves every department and service — it was still useful to take a step back and revel in the interconnectedness of it all, allowing one to see where digital and physical mingle holistically, to accept that digital is naturally disruptive, and providing the ammunition to make the case for digital with passive managers or reluctant budget holders.
As the next few days of sessions unfolded, most memorable and impactful were those that offered genuine and candid insight into processes and advice rooted in learning. Generally in our sector, we are institutionalized in the professional sense — often working towards common goals but behind closed walls and within the confines of our own collections, spaces, budgets and cultures. Projects become proprietary, knowledge becomes rarefied, and success becomes a closely guarded secret in the race for reputation, KPIs and funding. Digital is helping us to break down those barriers — through blogs, online toolkits, webinars, social media and mailing list communities — but it’s at these in-person events that one starts to feel that real sense of shared purpose and like-mindedness with those around you. I found it remarkable how coffee conversations revealed the extent to which many colleagues are facing the exact same challenges and pursuing the same strategic goals as we are in Oxford GLAM — adopting new DAMS or Collections Management Systems, integrating these with online collections APIs, dealing with legacy websites, moving to the cloud, scrambling for digitization funding, advocating for internal digital transformation and leadership, looking for ways to increase co-creation and partnerships, and leveraging digital to address big sector issues such as social prescribing and decolonisation.
Particularly generous with their advice and advocacy was the ebullient Hannah Hethmon, whose tips on podcasting — and marvelous free book — made us all want to immediately down tools and pick up a microphone to go in search of aural awesomeness. The revival of sound as an interpretive tool is one worth paying attention to. A useful recourse against the ‘heads-down’ problem of visual digital experiences, it also ties in closley to emerging patterns of media consumption and activation, especially among young adults. In a recent keynote to the Bodleian Libraries, Christopher Marsh asserted that voice is the interface of the future, offering both intimacy and poly-vocality. Given that Google own half the global voice assistance market, they probably know this better than we do.
Meanwhile, Alice White and Jenny Staves from Wellcome Collection were warmly received for their bold defiance of the recent trend towards abbreviated content with their long-form Stories site, recognizing that people do read on the web if the hook and content are right. Tips such as pitch, commission and pay; varied formats (series or essays), not dead-ending readers, known writers who bring their own audiences, and encouraging new talent nicely endorsed their assertion that digital channels don’t just promote your collection, they are your collection.
In the session on ‘opening up online collections’, it was great to hear support for aggregators such as Linked.Art, Wikidata-driven projects (here‘s an example of an Oxford pilot) and Europeana — big platforms for big ambitions, not just to bring related but separate collections together into one authoritative and rich resource, but to use people-power to do that. As Neal Stimler and Louise Rawlinson put it, we need to shift from online collections simply being online versions of old card catalogues to something genuinely more interactive and participatory, in a web era of expected personalization and UGC. When it comes to open access, it was great to hear that Rijksstudio remains a benchmark for fun and agile online collections. For example, I really like their ‘Hints and Tips’ page on how to collect and reuse artwork images. In a related session on a digital humanities approach to collections data publising and visualistion, we were reminded that questions and answers don’t always flow one-way:
A collections data set might be used by a researcher to find an answer. A collections data set might be used creatively to find good questions
Ah, data, data, data. In ‘The Data Driven Museum’, Douglas Hegley, Heather Hart and Jane Alexander looked at non-collections data (visitor experience, commercial etc.) and took the starting point of ‘we all have it, but what are we doing with it? They talked about the fact that it’s hard enough to put systems and people in place to collect and analyse data, but that it was harder still to actually communicate results and use it to drive change. Too much time is still spent asking ‘what happened?’ and it would be better to move to a Descriptive data > Prescriptive data > Anticipatory data model or in other words, Hindsight + Insight = Foresight. Dashboards were cited as something that too many institutions underuse and could really help monitor company health, measure progress, analyse patterns over time, make adjustments and stay on track. Finally, there was the useful reminder from a legal and procedural point of view to think hard about what data you need and why (particularly if it falls into personal or sensitive data categories)— there’s no point asking a question if you don’t plan on doing anyting with the answer.
There are an increasing number of tools available to help us in the battle to tame Big Data. I was particularly interested in the SENSIOM project that’s developed a museum-specific NLP tool to undertake sentiment analysis on various user-related topics (price of tickets, queues, access needs) etc and benchmark these against other institutions.
Finally, playfulness. The MWX Immersive Arcade featured a variety of game-based experiences, from role-play to puzzle-solving. It was refreshing to hear the approaches taken by artists towards designing such experiences, who are genuinely concerned with aesthetics and interaction, and often able to avoid the museum trap of simply dressing up ‘things you should know’ in a veneer of fun. I really enjoyed the Wigwam Escape by the Institute of American Indian Studies, an escape room experience that has become the talking point of this small, relatively remote museum in Connecticut. The IAIS recognised a gap in teen and young adult visitors and developed an experience that transports people from modern-day technology to a pre-contact, survival environment of AD 1518. Executed with fine detail and conscious lack of exoticism, this is a great example of a high quality, memorable and tactile learning activity achieved on a budget. It perfectly echoed Hiroshi Ishii’s earlier exhortation that ‘our eyes are in charge, but our hands are under-employed.’
A lot to process. I thought it might be useful to note down some random brief tips I found useful and to think about a few quick(ish) things I could apply in the context of my work.
#1. Decolonisation is more than just repatriation. Think about the language and structures, often with inherent bias, that govern how collections are managed and interpreted. A simple but effective example was, in cases of indigenous works, changing ‘anonymous’ to ‘author / artist once known’.
#2. When it comes to web content, put your most crucial stuff above the scroll break. Obvious, I know, but easy to forget.
#3. Ironic and pun-filled article titles might get you props in the office but won’t do you any SEO favours.
#4. Treat every page like a homepage because you don’t know what route users take to your content. Have clear navigation to main menus and related topics to encourage further exploration.
OK, so now some things to action:
1.Revisit QR codes. We have a bunch of them in our museums. I had assumed they were dead but now most smartphone cameras have in-built scanners so perhaps there’s life in them yet, argued Carlos Austin-Gonzalez of the British Museum. But we need to think about what we’re asking people to do with them. As Carlos talked, I imagined a QR code to be the equivalent of a closed door in gallery wall. If there’s no invite to open it, no suggestion of what could be on the other side, why would you bother?
2. I will endeavour to find out more about IIIF. One of Oxford’s biggest institutions, the Bodleian Library, uses it for its online collections platform Digital.Bodleian of 800,000+ images but it is largely underused in our museums. I now have at least an elementary grasp of what OpenSeadragon and Mirador viewers do and there’s lots more info at iiif/io. The excellent examples from Tristan Roddis showing how the standard can be implemented ranged from a bit of fun (Face Scrambler) to effective crowdsourcing tools (Transcriptinator).
3. As we at Oxford GLAM look to develop our online collections offer, we need to be cognizant of a MVP that supports both search and browse and, if possible, builds in functionality for sharing, repurposing, and augmenting.
4. Pay more attention to our Net Promotor Scores as a neat and (generally) reliable way to benchmark against our own performance and other organisations. Given that recommendations usually privilege experience above expectations, this also beats the trap of relying on the ‘met/exceeded expectations’ metric which sometimes hides the fact that ‘met expectations’ might mean people expected to be disappointed / bored etc. and were indeed proved right! In the UK, museums have an average NPS of 66 and the cultural average is 74 (Museums Audience Report 2018, p9). Oxford GLAM’s NPS is pretty good, with one site — the Pitt Rivers Museum — having one of the highest scores in the UK at 89 (ALVA data, 2017). This deserves digging into.
5. Finally, journey mapping. We’re in the middle of this process for our institutions and it is indeed proving to be a useful way of collaborating with colleagues, empathising with the visitor and storytelling the venue. However, as Michelle Grohe of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum pointed out, plenty of people do journey mapping but nothing changes. Recommendations such as plotting solutions back on to the journey map to help with prioritsiation, and distinguishing quick wins from long-term change will help turn a useful desk exercise into a functional implementation plan for change, with an iterative, user-centred design process at its heart.