I’ve just come back from the excellent MuseumNext conference up in Edinburgh, two days jam packed with inspiration! What I love about MuseumNext is its honesty, and its enthusiasm, odd things to describe a conference, but Jim Richardson and his team at Sumo somehow manage to make a conference a living, breathing exciting organism that seems to feed off the buzz from over 200 museum nerds in one room. It was a brilliant experience, Stimulating talks from the great line up of speakers, followed by excellent conversations with new and old faces in the digital museum geek world. MuseumNext focuses on how technology is changing the expectations of museum audiences and these two days focused on building active communities, empowering audiences and digital fundraising (a sign of the times with the cuts going deep in the cultural sector).
I’m going to take each speaker in turn and try and explain my main take aways from each. The two days were pretty intensive and my brain has been overloaded with imaginative, exciting, engaging ideas. But I can feel them slowly seeping out of my ears, lost forever. Luckily there is a archive of all the tweets (day 1 and day 2) so you can get a feel for the information overload yourselves.
One of the main reasons to attend MuseumNext this year was of course the legend that is Shelley Bernstein (I bet she gets sick of hearing that) – Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum. If you want to know anything about engaging museum communities digitally you look to Brooklyn. Shelley and her team really are leading the way in which museums are engaging audiences through the innovative use of technology. What a great way to open the conference!
Shelley opened with the idea that museums should be about museum experience, community and diversity. One of the first thinks Brooklyn did was deal with the architecture of the museum, changing the imposing facade into an inviting Plaza. The outside of the building has changed people’s perceptions of the museum. Once you break down the initial barriers to entry you are more likely to open up a wider audience to the museum. Changing perceptions of museum both physically and digitally produces the Youngest and most diverse audience in the country.
One of the key things Shelley raised was the importance of top down support and a clear mission. Brooklyn have a Visionary Director, who fostered the ability to know, understand, listen to and provide a platform for their local visitor voice which lead to a massive and diverse audience. Tip: Read the census, find out who your local audience is, and knowing this will make a difference to your organisation. Brooklyn really is a community museum, local aftrer the locals and the rest will fall into place. At Brooklyn audience Participation is central not off to the side or an after thought.
Another key concept was that the Ideas from the web team inspire the physical exhibitions. Brooklyn has created a strong sense of interdepartmental collaboration rather than silioing of departments which goes on in many museums. Having a Great balance and interweaving of online and in gallery projects shows how this mix can produce real engagement with audiences and with museum staff. In order to do this you need to think about your advocates in the museum. Find your natural allies when trying to innovate.
It also came across strongly in Shelley’s presentation that if you want to create pioneering, engaging projects you need to read more. Books on my list are Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, who discusses the power of thinking, without thinking. And The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.
In order to show what it means to think about the visitor experience Shelley discussed Two projects: Click; a crowd curated exhibition, an old timer of a project started in 2008, but still has such powerful audience engagement that is very much apt to be discussed as a project that should be nurtured by many more museums in the future. Click had a very quick turnaround, 6months from the idea being proposed to being installed and opened in the gallery. The reason it worked was due to the fact that the question was taken seriously and valued by the museum as a whole. Again highlighting how important vision and buy in are to a successful project. The next project launched this year Split Second- Indian Paintings. Visitors often make up their minds in less than 6seconds, how do you curate an exhibition to engage in under 6seconds? Split Second tries to answer that question. Both are outstanding for completely different reasons, you can read about them in full over on the Brooklyn site. Personally I would love to explore some of the ideas raised in split second within my research, I can’t wait to have a ponder about the practicalities of this. It’s at times like this, that I wish I had more programming skills. Yet another thing to add to the wish list.
Oh and Shelley hates Metrics (this made me happy) it’s about going deeper than the initial numbers and apparently once you get into looking deeper stats become “like crack.” You get hooked on them.
Finally, Shelley’s Key message was to lobby for ideas and take risks. Take risks seriously, without risks there is no reward. Let the audience come with you and look at what happens, learn from it. Be deliberate and open and your visitors will love your museum.