Developing a digital museum idea should never start with the technology

 

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Incredible #museumgif from remixthemuseum.com

 

Last week I was part of a Digital Creative Media workshop for museums and heritage sites organised by the University of Portsmouth Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries Cultural Heritage Research Group held on 27th July.

The event explored opportunities for using creative and digital technologies to enhance museum and cultural heritage interpretation and management, my quick and dirty notes are below.

The guest speakers for the event were the equally brilliant Kevin Bacon from Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove and Pat Hadley from Cogapp.  Despite coming at it from different angles the overriding message from both talks focused on the fact that any digital experience should never start with the technology and should always be visitor focused and object centred.

The Use of Digital Media at Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums, Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager, Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove

Kevin started from the position that it is actually quite difficult to articulate the collections online, as it is such a diverse collection.   So it is important to think about the collections strategically rather than as a cohesive whole.

When it comes to talking about digital, the conversation tends to be framed to touch by the technology.  Should we always think about digital as products? If we were a tech company that would be fine. But we are a museum. Digital, therefore, should be about relationships. At Brighton Staff digital literacy is all about transparency and communication.  Digital is pervasive.  Only 2 actual members of Digital Staff who focus on helping other staff to develop digital ideas and skills.

Golden rule: developing a digital idea should never start with the technology

Start with two questions:

  • What assets do you have? – museums are about stuff, stories and staff
  • Who are you aiming for? Audiences

Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums Examples

  • Getting a young person to run the museum Instagram account.
  • Discovery – how can we help other people find and use our collections? Collections search – what is the point of the museum online catalogue? At Brighton, they are moving towards a Digital media bank – digital asset management system. Creating a sense of agency. Creative comments – system works much better for users
  • Blogging has been really successful for Brighton. 69x more views than a collection record.  People like narratives. It also opens up opportunities for new perspectives
  • Remix the Museum and excellent uses of museum gifs.  A very good reminder that being playful with collections is really important!
  • From 2D design… to 3D model: Coins and Medals. A great example of  Reflective transformation by working with the University of Brighton to do PTM-RTI (Polynomial Texture Mapping-Reflectance Transformation Imaging – in essence taking lots of photos with different lighting conditions and different angles and then stitching them all together)
  • Blogger in Residence. Bringing other voices into the collections.
  • Map the museum – stripping back to a very simple idea. Release raw Collections data to the public, and get people to locate objects on a map, correcting items that are in the wrong place. The data collected helps the museum to learn more about our collections, and the data is also released as open data.
  • Story drop mobile app – reminded me a lot of the TWAM’s Hidden Newcastle app.  A way of discovering the hidden histories and surprising stories geolocated across a city.

Final top tips from Kevin

  • Importance of narrative over objects
  • Build in scope for failure.
  • Be happy with a smaller audience.
  • Be more experimental
  • Use your prototype as a real thing.  – appreciate this is quite hard to do with public funding.

Thinking through digital: Top tips for designing projects and working with technologists, Pat Hadley, Developer, Cogapp Digital Media Projects

Pat’s slides are available here.

 

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contemplating post-its

First off Pat got us thinking with a Post-it notes exercise about what types of digital technology we use, and what digital stuff we had heard of, but had no clue about.  It was an interesting exercise and a great way of seeing where knowledge gaps are.

 

Making museum collections and heritage sites engaging, accessible and useful for today’s audiences. This set of problems is one of the most exciting challenges areas to apply digital technology. Collaboration is key, with staff and visitors, and external partners. When thinking about digital projects you need to consider organisational culture, visitor centred approaches, and content.  Joining these up can sometimes be quite challenging sometimes. Ultimately, when thinking about digital projects, other museums are not your competition. The competition is Netflix and Candy Crush.  How do museums compete with that?

Pat touched on lots of excellent ideas and lots of projects, and then really hit home the following points:

  • How do people use technology?
  • YOU ARE NOT THE AUDIENCE
    • Unless… you are the audience.
  • How to think through Digital? rather than stuff, stories about the stuff, technology and then people.  It should be People first, with a lit bit of stuff, a little bit of stories about the stuff and a little bit of technology.
  • It comes down to what do you want the visitors to leave feeling….?

How to write a brief… think about the audience. 

  • What do you want the Visitor to feel?
  • At the start of any project, you know the least about the end point. Don’t demand a race car and then realise you need a horse.
  • Find experts – collaborations with external partners, your audiences, your nephew.
  • Get perspective. What can we uniquely do? What problems can be escaped?
  • What is your unique capability to offer audiences?
  • Think big, start small, move fast.
  • Adjust goals accordingly.

Lots to think about.

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Exploring participatory exhibition development in gallery spaces

cropped-img_2556-1External participation in exhibition design and development is being used more and more in museums, galleries and science centres, in an attempt to enhance the institution’s relevance and accessibility for visitors and help inform and energise the design process.

For the past year we have been working on a participatory design project which is exploring the challenges and benefits of partnership working between the Centre for Life and Durham University, and whether it is possible to successfully collaborate and co-produce new gallery exhibits that enhance creativity and innovation in young visitors.  We are particularly interested in finding out if we can design an engaging exhibit for visitors but also an exhibit that can actively capture useful research data (and lots of it). In essence we are trying to work together to blur the boundary between research and practice.

So far we have been using participatory action research (PAR) as a framework to help us through the design process because it is based on good communication, cooperation, collaboration and trust.  We have used the PAR approach to co-produce a series of simple design decisions to iteratively develop a new exhibit pod – specifically to encourage creativity and innovation, and to allow us to collect data and hopefully measure creativity. The exhibit pod hosting the experiments is now in the new permanent gallery the Brain Zone, at the Centre for life.

It has been a really interesting process to date, not only working with the Centre for Life (who are awesome) but also working with a range of academics at Durham from anthropologists who are really keen on social learning and behavioural innovation in fish to information systems specialists who focus on change management.  Now that the first exhibit is live in the Brain Zone we are actively collecting data, so we shall see whether or not it works.

The project has a website which will be updated regularly with what we find out.

What Can We Learn from Digital Artists’ Projects in Museums?

Innovation and experimentation in museums has been a growing topic of conversation of late, and an increasing number of organisations have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects that push the boundaries.  As part of this shift in museums, more and more institutions are working with artists in new ways that go far beyond simply placing their works on the walls.  New collaborative projects that consider the roles of art, artists, and visitors from a fresh perspective are becoming more common. More museums are inviting artists to bring their creative artistic practice to focus on museum collections and on creating new participatory and immersive experiences that actively engage visitors and, in many cases, also interrogate the role of the museum.

While you do hear stories about these types of projects meeting some resistance from within the museum for seeming to be trivial, ‘arty-farty’ or without intellectual content, in my opinion more often than not these collaborative creative projects largely succeed in transforming museums into spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity.

This post looks at the process of working on Decoded 1914-18 as part of the umbrella Wor Life project at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Between October 2014 and February 2015 Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice came together to explore some of the issues and questions surrounding experimental digital art projects in museums, thinking about public practice as well as working with digital artists.  The final project – Decoded 1914-18 produced a programme of AV installations and events that explored the First World War and its effect on those living in Tyne & Wear. Seven artists took inspiration from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) collections to create artworks and performances which examined and interpreted Tyne and Wear in the First World War in innovative ways. It was a fantastic process and I learnt a lot, and I have well and truly been bitten by the power of AV for visitor engagement.

In an excellent blog post entitled “Do We Need Artists in Art Museums?”, Annelisa Stephan states:

“Inviting artists into the institution … has ramifications far beyond any individual project. Including artists means taking risks and ceding control; it means changing how museum staff work together; and it even means shifting what a museum is, from a space for art to a space of art.”

This is very much something I would agree with after working on the Decoded 1914-18 project.

So here is what I learnt about working with digital artists in museum spaces during Decoded 1914-18:

N.B.

Before I started at Durham University I held the position of the Assistant Digital Officer at TWAM, my role was to work with the Digital Coordinator (the excellent John Coburn) to deliver a programme of digital projects that would innovate digital access to TWAM’s collections and increase public engagement.   Decoded1914-18 was one such project.

 

1. Museums Need to Embrace Risk

Working with digital artists to create visitor engaging projects inside the museum is fundamentally different from, and more challenging than, simply commissioning works of art. It means working collaboratively and bringing artists and creative practitioners into the organisation, and equally involves bringing museums in to the risk-taking of the creative process.

The aim of Decoded 1914-18 was to invite a fresh perspective to discover and reimagine stories and material from museum collections.  The project focused on creative arts practice where museum collections, artists and innovative digital practice merge to create a new kind of digital audiovisual experience.  This collaborative innovative creative practice fundamentally disrupts the way in which museums interact with, and provide for, visitors.   This was no mean feat. Not only did we have an aspirational project to deliver but we were also trying to do it with a difficult and challenging subject matter (the impact of the First World War on the North East), across a range of TWAM venues. It was a risk – and to TWAM’s credit, one it was willing to take. Rob Stein in 2012 suggested that creating a culture in museums that embraces risk is a prerequisite to allow significant innovation to take hold.  A certain amount of risk is always associated with digital projects because they are ‘new,’ ‘innovative’ and ‘cool,’ but there are uncertainties about how much risk is too much risk. How far can the boundaries be pushed with one project and how much tolerance does the museum have? These are questions that all museums are now facing and questions which Decoded1914  tried to tackle in a relatively short amount of time and budget.

 

2. Artists Disrupt the Institutional Voice

One of the most dramatic effect of digital artists’ interventions in museum spaces is to disrupt the institution’s voice, content and collections so they can be seen, reimagined and presented from a new perspective. This can transform the museum from a place of information and authority to one of experience, engagement and curiosity.

For example, one of the Decoded artworks took place in the basement museum store of the Discovery Museum, completely changing the space from a working museum collection store not normally open to the public to an immersive art experience.  This was challenging and involved a lot of risk management but the final artwork was well worth the oodles of risk assessments.  Including artists in the exhibition process means taking risks and letting go of authority, and challenging staff working practices. All good things in my book.

 

3. Friction is a Good Thing

Differing perspectives create tension and friction, sometimes unpredictably so.  But tension can be incredibly good for the collaborative and creative process.  If everyone worked in the same way, it would make for a very boring world. For Decoded we worked with a range of artists and creative practitioners.  I was surprised how much friction there was on some projects, whereas others went smoothly without incident. Now I don’t mean friction in terms of disagreements, misunderstandings or negativity.  It is more of a friction in terms of approach and expectations.  There was a disconnect between museum timescales and artistic timescales.  It was really refreshing to work with varying perspectives on timescales and project management and throughout the process we learnt a lot about expectations around museum collections availability, documentation and retrieval.  Despite some difficulties the friction between artists and museums is really interesting.Our ideas were challenged, tested, and in turn better projects were produced. This is the kind of useful friction that leads to new ways of working.   It highlights the challenges of working in a museum, and particularly highlights the need for museums to evolve their understanding around public expectations of collections access in projects.  Friction pushes all staff and can innovate all areas of the museum, by engaging them in the creative process.

 

4. Adapting and Compromise

Flexibility, adaptability and accepting change became key components of the Decoded project.  The nature of creative practice means that things can change quite quickly and often, for example in terms of what is possible. As a result of such changes, there can be impacts upon such things as collections material availability, installation, and evaluation. There is therefore a need to be able to react quickly to changes to the project, by both the artist and the museum, but also to find the space to accommodate these. It is important to constantly refer back to the aims and objectives of the project, and to reflect. Both artists and museum staff need to become very good at adapting to change and adjusting the process accordingly to match that change.

 

5. Encouraging Dialogue, Provocation and Confusion

By working with digital artists to reimagine museum collections, it encourages dialogue, provocation, and confusion for staff and for visitors. Confusion is a profound tool, because it prompts museum staff and the visitors to ask questions.  Seeing museum collections through an artist perspective has really challenged my perceptions of what is possible when it comes to digital interpretation.  It has made me think beyond text and image and to look at the abstract, the immersive and the noisy.

 

6. Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

Decoded resulted in a two week temporary installation, it was ephemeral by its very nature. It’s not unusual for artists’ projects in museums to be ephemeral, which makes documenting them essential. They are full of lessons that can guide future projects inside and outside the museum, so despite the short nature of the installation, it is important to document the process and the outcomes.   For Decoded we decided to use video to document the process of the project as well as to act as a legacy for each of the Decoded artworks.  This rich video documentation serves as a archive of ideas that can be used as inspiration for future digital projects.

 

A big thank you to all the artists,TWAM and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice, and Dominic Smith.  It was a great project!

I’d love to know what you think. What else can we learn from digital artists’ projects in museums? What have I missed? Are the learnings different with an artist in residence project compared to a collaboration for a specific theme? 

 

What is Digital Change in Museums anyway?

Or to put another way: Do we need to understand Digital Change in Museums?

I’ve been thinking about digital change a lot lately. Change is very difficult to do, let alone manage, and what happens when you throw digital into the mix?  We continuously wonder and marvel at the possibilities digital presents, yet we seem to be constantly separating ‘digital’ out as an individual entity and therefore struggle to make sense of its impact on our lives. And if individuals find it difficult to understand, adapt and accept these digital transformations, how do cultural organisations deal with digital change?

But the more I think about digital change, the more I begin to wonder what on earth is it?  Is the term ‘digital change’ a bit of a misnomer? Is it still true are we really struggling to understand digital? Personally I feel like we are at a tipping point, where digital isn’t something separate anymore but is something which is embraced and no-one runs screaming from the building when the term is mentioned.

Today digital touches everyone and everything. It is part of everyday life – communications, retail, entertainment, education, medicine etc. So why when it comes to museums and change is it seen as something separate, and actually quite daunting?

Over the past few weeks there has been the Arts Council and Culture 24 Digital Change: seizing the opportunity online’ event at BALTIC – Centre for Contemporary Art and the Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2015 by Baroness Martha Lane Fox – both discussing the need for change when it comes to understanding technology and the internet.

But what does Digital Change actually mean to cultural organisations?  How is it defined? How is it understood?  And what is the appropriate response?

It may very well mean one thing to large national cultural institutions – “Digital as a Dimension of everything” from the Tate springs to mind and large ongoing digital transformations at the nationals are prime examples, leading Ross Parry to believe that the cultural sector is at the beginnings of being ‘Post Digital’.  But what about the smaller organisations? The museums in the regions? Are they ‘Post Digital’? Do they understand digital change?

One thing the Digital Change conference at the Baltic discussed was the fact that doing digital well is difficult. “It takes skills that cultural organisations often don’t have in-house, it costs money they don’t have and it’s hard to measure if anything is really having an impact.”  This doesn’t sound like something that has been accepted and embraced now does it?

But really should we be talking about digital change or just change?

Instead of thinking digital change perhaps we should be thinking about organisational change and how it is managed within museums. Ultimately how we think about and understand change affects our ability to anticipate, shape and direct it using digital technologies.

Within museums there is a sense of fluid, fast-moving change arising from the proliferation of digital technologies. Signs and talk of change are everywhere.  But, there’s no avoiding that museums are generally conservative, and change and innovation are often lost in translation in between the realms of bureaucracy, financial streamlining and supposed time and resource efficiency savings. This friction is clearly a frustration for those angling for change.

Perhaps we should reconsider the overemphasis on digital and of digital strategies and planning in our discussions and management of change processes within museums.  Instead, we should focus our attention and effort on the dynamic, interactive and conversational basis of organisational change.  One of the best books I’ve read about museums and change is Robert Janes’ Museums and the Paradox of Change.  It suggests understanding change is more about encouraging responsiveness and learning, not necessarily strategic planning.  If you haven’t read this book, I do recommend it.  It’s a really honest and open account of organisational change within a museum.

Once we understand organisational change processes then we can start to think about our ability to predict, shape and direct it using digital technologies.