New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC: 3 Social Interpretation and QRator


3rd  post of Notes from ‘The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC’ conference at Leicester’s school of Museum Studies, part of the AHRC-funded iSay project focusing on Visitor-Generated Content (VGC) in cultural heritage institutions.

My Notes on both Jeremy’s and Jack’s presentations are brief as I know both projects pretty much inside out.

Jeremy Ottenvanger – Inbound Communications as a catalyst for organisational change

  • A tale of two fiefdoms- who is responsible for responding to VGC
  • Characterising online contributions:
  • personal: emotional, opinion, personal information, anecdotes, family history
  • requests and queries: object info, valuation, family history, digitisation and licencing, offering material, access, history, general/website
  • informational: new information, corrections
  • online comments tend to be more thoughtful than in-gallery comments online commenters have sought out the content, so already have a deeper engagement with those specific items, rather than just coming across them while moving through the physical gallery.
  • important issue of sustainability of VGC. How do museums resource it in the long term?
  • IWM trying to find an internal workflow that was appropriately responsive to online comments
  • A gap between two departments – collections access and digital media
  • Sources of value:
  • External mission value- giving people what they want
  • Engagement through UGC contribution
  • Internal mission value- strengthening the missions values
  • Shaping future services
  • IWM don’t have a plan. Yet.

Jack Ashby: The Grant Museum and QRator

  • A turtle is a turtle. That’s a fact. How can visitors participate in Natural History Museums
  • For the Grant Museum the act of participation isn’t enough. It has to have a more in depth levels.
  • Are museum visitors unwitting guinea pigs?
  • allowing content to go live post-moderated
  • Both Areti and Jack raised issues about the subjective nature of moderating VGC.

Things we’re learning about Digital R&D in a museum context

Squander Bug (a cartoon character to persuade people to avoid waste) air rifle target, 1940s

Squander Bug (a cartoon character to persuade people to avoid waste) air rifle target, 1940s

Hasan Bakhshi  said earlier in the year that:

“Unlike science and technology, very little is known about how R&D is managed by cultural institutions, how it should be evaluated, and how well the knowledge created through R&D diffuses (or not) across organisations” 

With this in mind over the past year we have been muddling through on the Social Interpretation project (SI) at The Imperial War Museums with the overarching aim of finding out what R&D is in a museum context, what’s possible in the timeframe and within certain budget constraints.
So here’s a list of things we’re learning about R&D in a museum context:

It’s hard

Over the year SI has been utilising R&D and innovative practice to fundamentally challenge the way in which museums interact with, and provide for, audiences. We set ourselves a huge task: to rebalance the authority / audience divide; turning museums into social, participatory organisations –syncing up the online, mobile and in gallery experience.   Not only did we have an aspirational project to deliver but we were trying to do it in a fairly conservative museum, with a difficult subject matter, across three domains. It was a risk. A certain amount of risk is always associated with digital project because they are ‘new’, ‘innovative’ and ‘cool’ but how much is too much risk? How far can you push the boundaries with one project? How much tolerance does the museum have?   These are questions that all museums are now facing and questions which SI have been trying to tackle head on.  Do we have the answers? Not yet, but we can tell you a bit about the process. And to sum it up as succinctly as possible; it’s hard. Very hard.  Is it worth the investment? I think so, but still, it’s hard.

It’s fast

Agile project management principles, a user centred approach, and only a years worth of funding meant we had to do things fast. Really fast.   One of the problems with R&D digital lifecycles and museum exhibition lifecycles is that they are completely different. The pace of technology change is misaligned with the fiscal, creation, development and installation cycles of museums.  In a climate in which new technology platforms emerge on a weekly basis, there is a dramatic mismatch between the cycle of technology and the long planning cycles that exist for most museums exhibitions.  Social Interpretation is no exception.  By the time we had secured funding for the SI project, the exhibition which we wanted to be a part of, had already been signed off and was waiting to be installed. It is a gross understatement when I say we came in very late to the build of the Family in Wartime exhibition. It is fantastic that we could incorporate SI into the exhibition.  It looks really good with the time and resource we had available. But it does mean due to this lack of time and resources alongside agile sprints and iterations it meant that we didn’t have enough time to do a lot of robustness testing so we were snagging on the fly after installation.

Adapt or Die

The fast pace leads on nicely to the next point: Accepting change and adapting. Speed for the sake of speed in a project can be like a taking a spin in rollercoaster without an end.  We have tried to mitigate this by being really clear on what we want to achieve, and reflecting on the work we have previously done. But sometimes it all gets a bit muddled and bits and pieces get lost in translation.  Agile R&D can be bamboozling.   We have tried to be as collaborative, open and transparent as possible from the beginning, but it can be hard to work with when you have less time than you would like to, and a meeting is already half way over before the tea and biscuits have even arrived. You have to become very good at adapting to change and adjusting the process accordingly to match that change.  But it is challenging. You need to be prepared to compromise.  If you hit a brick wall, you need to find a way to circumnavigate it.  Digital R&D is like going on a bear hunt.

Be a Good Communicator

From the outset we wanted to be as open as possible; we stressed the necessity in including users, stakeholders and the project team into a systems design process. But the reality is very different. There is always the aspiration, and we tried so hard to uphold that.  But then the day to day running of the project takes over.  Once you hit delivery mode, the ability to communicate everything, to everyone, all the time, becomes increasingly hard to do. If you are going to take on any form of R&D ideally you need someone leading on internal coms, otherwise arguably the most important aspect of a R&D project gets left behind when the deadlines begin to loom.

Advocacy, Advocacy, Advocacy

This goes hand in hand with good, open, transparent communication, not only externally but internally. I cannot stress enough the importance of having an advocate for the project.  Someone who can do talk the talk, highlight the positives and believe that the challenges can be overcome.  If you don’t have an advocate, project teams become demotivated, the aspiration and the goals become obscured by every brick wall and every huddle appears twice the size.  Ensure you have a believer who has fairy dust and cake.

Manage expectations

Not only the expectations of your visitors but the museum expectations.  There is still an ingrained ideal that everything on gallery has to be perfect. So snagging on the gallery floor, is a big no no.  Can you stick a big ‘beta’ sticker on it and be done? Again this comes back to communication.  A lack of communication is usually at the root of most problems associated with different expectations. When communication is direct and transparent, trust forms and helps to creates a solid foundation all stakeholders. Normally you would agree on a strategy, the aims and objectives and the timescales for completion. But due to the agile nature of R&D the strategy, objectives and timeframes are in a constant state of flux. Leaving you always at risk of others not understanding what ‘success’ is and how it should be measured. Be prepared to manage relationships, with visitors and every single department in the museum.  Be open and understanding with people’s opinions and questions and try to answer them all.

There are no benchmarks

R&D is hard to evaluate.  For us digital engagement is actually quite subjective, one person’s positive is another’s negative.  Be prepared for confusion over expectations and difficult conversations on measurement.  Be clear about what the project team considers success and tell people, be prepared to compromise.

and finally


In order to finish an R&D project with an semblance of sanity, you need to have a fantastic team, which you trust, advisers who you listen to, and the ability to laugh at disasters as well as the successes. Every day might not be a good day, but if you can focus on the positives, or at least poke fun at the negatives you are on to a winner.

Digital R&D podcast 1: UCG, social media & audience curation


The Arts Council has now launched the first two episodes in the series of six Arts digital R&D podcast audio podcast programmes.   The series, hosted by arts and culture broadcaster and journalist John Wilson (who I didnt get to meet), the aim is to explore the innovative use of digital technology in the arts and cultural sectors.  Each programme in the series will focus on one of the themes at the core of the Digital R&D Fund for Arts and Culture (I’m holding my tongue about the New Digital Fund… thats for another post): User generated content and social media; Digital distribution and exhibition; Mobile, location and games; Data and archives; Resources; and Education and learning.

Carolyn and myself are featured in episode 1. It was really fun to make and the guys at MontyFunk were brilliant.  We had our extensive 45min interview about the Social Interpretation project at IWM whittled down to 5minutes, so understandably some key elements were overlooked.  But the programme does raise some interesting points about social media and UCG in cultural spaces.

Joy of Text and Digital Labels?

It’s often the case at conferences that I feel like I’m preaching to the converted.  I’m always surrounded by like minded people, who are enthusiastic and ‘get’ digital technology and what it can do to transform experiences.  But then you start to think, what if I’m only really talking to a bubble, a cool exciting bubble, but a bubble nevertheless.  So it was fantastic to be asked to speak at the Museum Association Joy of Text Event.  The audience all had notebooks, not the Mac kind, you know those paper and pen thingies? At most conferences I go to, notepads and pens are non existent. This was a very different crowd.  In fact, it is probably the crowd that we really need to be talking to in order to highlight how and where and why digital tech in museums can and should be used.
Jane and I were there to wax lyrical about the potential of digital labels.  We ended up playing good cop bad cop about digital interactives in gallery spaces.  Using Social Interpretation and QRator as examples.  Jane and I had different ideas about slides, she cringes at mine, and I cringe at hers. So our slides are a bit higgledy piggledy, but we managed to get our point across.  It’s not about the technology, it’s about the experience.  Focus on content, your visitors and the experiences you want them to have.

It was an interesting conference, and I was really pleased to hear that the speakers all agreed that there has been a culture in museums of writing text, for text sake. Text is not always the most appropriate form of Interpretation.  Lucy Harland made a fantastic point right at the beginning of the day, stating that text should earn its place in the social dynamic of a museum gallery space. Museums should think seriously about how they choose to communicate with words and whether this is always the best way to convey meaning.  It’s quite interesting that you can swap out the word ‘museum’ in that sentence an replace it with ‘academics’ and the same thing applies. Choose what to say and say it well. These were the two key messages from the day.  It’s a nice mantra for all public engagement really. Digital or not.

For a nice concise round up of the rest of the day check out Ellie Miles Blog

What does success look like for museum QR code usage?


Image from IWM Family in Wartime Gallery

We all know that developing ways to define, evaluate and ultimately measure the success of digital activities is an issue faced by all parts of the cultural sector.  It’s a difficult task, particularly as definitions are still fluid, and what is measured is ultimately down to the requirements of funding rather than visitor engagement.

So as part of the Social Interpretation Project we have done a lot of thinking about how to evaluate success on all three digital outputs.  For online success we have taken a lot of ques from Culture 24 lets Get Real Report.

But for Digital interactives on the gallery floor and QR codes we’ve had to be a bit more inventive. By inventive, I mean ask other people what they have done.

We’re going to try and tackle QR code success criteria first.  This is where the twitters came in.  I asked

“ Does anyone have any benchmarks for success on QR code usage that they would be willing to share with us for #socialInterp?”

And I had a great response.

First up looking at some of the scan rates of QR code use in museums.

QRpedia use at Fundació Miró

Here QR codes were placed alongside 18 of the most prominent artworks of the exhibition. These codes linked to Wikipedia articles. The sample is from October 1, 2011 – March 30, 2012 (data taken from here)

The scan rate is pretty impressive!

month scans
OCT 2124
NOV 2293
DEC 1990
JAN 1966
FEB 2014
MAR 1994
Total scans 12381

Next is

QRpedia use at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Children’s Museum has four QR codes against four specific labels. Again the codes linked to Wikipedia articles. The sample data is from June – November 2011. (data taken from here)

QR code label Scans Average scans/day
Broad Ripple Park Carousel 1300 8.5
Captain Kidd’s Cannon 797 8
Reuben Wells (locomotive) 378 3
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis(The Museum itself!) 69 1
Total scans  2,544

These QRpedia examples, with really impressive scan numbers give QR code use in Museums hope.  However when not linked with Wikipedia, QR code usage leaves a lot to be desired.

Brooklyn Museum have done various trails with QR codes, and admitted to multiple fails, including a five fold drops in traffic.

So should we all be linking QR codes to Wikimedia?  Shelley asks “Could Wikipedia get visitors over QR code hump of technical hurdles and poor user experience?” 

But then comes another benchmark case study

QR code implementation in the Love Lace Exhibition, Powerhouse Museum

Data below is from a 4 weeks period. (data taken from here)

What’s nice here is that the Powerhouse built a bespoke app, with a QR code scanner built in, just as we are doing with IWM.  So it was really interesting to see the number of app downloads.

iOS Androids
Downloads 572 165
Sessions 3,126 502

When it comes to actual scans – has had 844 scans including 45 failed scans and 17 non-exhibition codes. Despite many objects not being scanned at all, 844 scans in a 4 week period is massive!

During the course of the Social Interp project we’ve had a few mental fisty cuffs about the use of QR codes.  In an post on the Social Interp Blog  I asked several questions: Are the useful? Are they just a transient technology? Are they even a technology? How do they help visitor experience? Where do they lead the visitor once they have scanned it? And ultimately who actually scans QR codes? Is it just us?

We haven’t really reached any conclusion on this, but in reality whether you love them or hate them (yes QR codes are the marmite of the digital tech museum world) the fact remains that QR codes are an incredibly cheap, easy and compelling way to provide information, get visitors interacting, and illicit responses from them.

Now I have a couple more questions to add to the QR conundrum list:

  • Should all QR code content take the QRpedia approach, and utilising an already existing, well used platform?
  • Will a bespoke Museum specific application solve the barriers to access when using QR codes?

Any answers or other benchmarks for QR code usage in museums would be gratefully received!

So this hasn’t really given us some clear cut success measurements, other than number of scans and number of app downloads.  You can break that down into time spent on page, shares etc.   But if we can get anywhere near the QRpedia case studies, I’ll be more than happy.

Social Interpretation explained with hand actions


A few weeks ago Carolyn Royston and I headed to Nottingham’s New Art Exchange ( if you are in Nottingham do go and see the exhibition by Hetain Patel, the piece called To Dance Like Your Dad, is brilliant) with the other Digital R& D projects for a day of discussion and catch ups. Part of this day was a voxpop.  I hate being in front of a camera.  I always manage to not look how I think I look.  Which is always disappointing.  This video is no exception.  The only redeeming feature is the fact that I may be doing the macarena dance moves with my hands whilst trying to sound competent.

But here it is a brief introduction to the Social Interpretation project at the Imperial War Museums

you can watch the videos from the rest of the projects here. Punchdrunk are my favourite.