Last Friday I had the pleasure of speaking at the Museum Computer Groups UK Museums on the Web: UKMW12 ‘Strategically Digital’ conference at the Wellcome Collection, London. I love the MCG’s annual conference, it is always a great opportunity for people in the museum sector to get together and think about the big and little ideas about how digital technology is changing how we do things.
I thought I’d post the notes from Jane’s and my presentation on the Positive and Negatives of Digital R&D. In our proposal we wanted to highlight the differences between the aspirations and the reality of undertaking a digital innovation project: Digital Research and Development (R&D) projects are being classed as a quick win; offering museum professionals’ rapid, new and experimental ways of engaging visitors and to develop more efficient ways of working within organisations. However the reality of R&D can be very different. The Social Interpretation project (SI) at IWM has been utilising R&D and innovative practice to fundamentally challenge the way in which museums interact with, and provide for, audiences. The aim being to rebalance the authority / audience divide; turning museums into social, participatory organisations – with all the challenges this entails. We would like to share the learnings from this national project, focusing on reflections on R&D processes used to engage audiences and the implications for the use of digital technology that encourages participatory content creation by visitors. We will balance these external-facing findings with a discussion about the challenges of trying to implement R&D in a museum environment on time and on budget. In particular we will discuss the challenges of trying to work in an agile manner in these most un-agile of institutions. We will cover key themes facing the museum in a modern digital context: moderation, community engagement, co-production of design and content, internal support, external advocacy, technical development and of course funding. Although this paper will concentrate on technology and concepts created for IWM, issues of R&D and digital innovation are applicable to any museum.
“Last year Tom Grinsted and I spoke at UKMW2011 (slides and notes) about this project and its aspirations. We were described as a pair of excitable puppies so here are a pair of real puppies General Montgomery with his puppies “Hitler” and “Rommel” at his mobile headquarters in Normandy, 6 July 1944. Jane and I would now like to explain the reality and the differences between the two and the share our learnings with the sector.
The last year summed up: The Social Interpretation project asked 2 key questions – 1. Does applying social media models to cultural collections successfully increase engagement and reach? 2. Is social moderation an effective response to the moderation challenge?”
“We delivered 3 Applications kiosks in gallery, qr codes in some places, mobile app and online. Can’t collect and share in gallery – too difficult to implement.
In reality looks OK – but robustness testing was live on gallery. We didn’t have enough time to properly develop and test the software.
SI came in late, November – to Family in War. To the yearly cycle of resourcing and exhibitions and facing the closure of the museum for redevelopment.
And content isn’t a quick thing to develop in a museum..for SI it was oversold and under achieved and meant full potential wasn’t achieved.”
Moderation and Co-Production
We experimented with moderation and co-production of design and content with visitors. We found that post- moderation works. There is an ingrained fear in museums that if you let visitors participate they will write rude things. Just because they can doesn’t mean they will. Trust your visitors.
But moderation can become resource heavy. The comment kiosks generated a significant amount of ‘social interpretation’. The kiosks also generated significant nonsense and ‘cool’ comments. Moderating such high levels of activity was a considerable task for the IWM team.
Adaptation and adjustment to the SI process was required to deal with this. From the outset the SI project aimed to be as open and transparent as possible; stressing the necessity in including users, stakeholders and the project team into a systems design process. The reality, however, is very different. There is always the aspiration, and the SI team endeavoured to uphold that. But with a one year project, once it hits delivery mode, the ability to communicate becomes increasingly difficult. This from a UCD perspective is disappointing, as it is felt more testing and ability to act on recommendations would have enabled a better final user experience with the applications.
Visitors are up for discussion but are institutions? Do they have the time and resource to iterate? These are important questions museums need think about before you commit to user centered design.
In a nutshell, Museums don’t know how to do R&D. Trying to be agile in a non-agile institution. Can’t do iterative development fully – costs, timings, resourcing. Robust exhibits, project based development cycles (limited time and budgets) all work against live digital R&D in museums. There are challenges around advocacy, communication, timescales, iterations etc. But there are some positives and we’ve learnt a awful lot in the process.
Key Take Aways from the Social Interpretation Project
- Content, Content, Content
- Post moderation works
- Deeper engagements happen online
- QR Codes ain’t all that
- Communication and advocacy
- Be prepared to compromise
- Raising Awareness
- Build in evaluation
- Incremental institutional change, baby steps
- It’s not about the technology it’s about the experience
- Is R&D right for your museum? – robust, stakeholders
In the next post I’ll talk about some brief highlights from my favourite sessions and the key ideas that were buzzing about; namely mobile, impact and evaluation.