Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Sharing the R+D load with other museums

Richard Urban at Museumatic rightly brought up the issue of inter-museum competition in a recent post. Understandably, some museums emulate others when bits of good practice come along, but wouldn't a more collaborative approach get us all further faster? The point is:

Working together to develop a community-wide research agenda that can then disseminate information and resources out to the community as a whole seems like a responsible and ethical way to approach this problem.... A research lab seems to be something we are seriously lacking here in museumland.... Who am I missing that does this kind of research on other kinds of museumtechnology issues?

Well, in the UK context, the London Museums Hub captures some of this collaborative spirit. The LMH is a partnership between 4 London museums (including the London Transport Museum, where I work), designed to share skills and improve capacity, with the aim of disseminating shared learning to other museums in the region.

Hub Spoke Wheel Mosaic

Perhaps an even more radical approach could be taken, where more energy is devoted to shared R+D work. What I mean is a kind of think tank approach, where partners even take part in combined brainstorming, and envisioning of museum futures. I have to come clean and say that I'm not really fully in the loop here: it may be that this kind of thing is already going on, either/both formallly or/and informally. If it hasn't been formalised, then there is clearly an opportunity here.

If we think creatively beyond the competition for funding, there may be a way to have our cake and eat it. The whole point of sharing is that the more you do it the better it works. What is unique about any given museum? It's collections. If we work together to develop technologies that can drive improvement in the user experience--even beyond the framework provided by LMH, new and productive combinations might be possible. The growing museum blogosphere is evidence of a collaborative ethos. Let's make the most of it. Overly idealistic? Maybe. Worth thinking about? Definitely.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Offline/online: changing the rules of engagement

It all started with digitisation.

Naturally, this generally works in one direction: offline to online. Objects are photographed; records cleaned, updated, expanded; a user interface designed, tested and launched. All very well.

There's nothing at all wrong with this picture of course: digital collections are fantastic resources and do much to improve access.

Interestingly, though, the process of producing digital collections introduces a limitation at the most basic level. This approach enshrines the opposition 'offline/online' or 'physical/virtual'. This, again, makes perfect sense. Physical objects pre-date their virtual avatars, just as museums have a long pre-digital history.

One consequence worth highlighting is that this creates a reactive relationship: work is done offline, and then this is translated into a given online presence. We've done this offline thing, now we'll put it online--create an online version. A common reflex is to do this with print publications, though there's a growing awareness that what works in print doesn't often work online.

But it's too easy to replicate this way of working across the board, which stunts the process of innovation somewhat.

If museums are going to capitalise on the potential of online (including of course web 2.0 tools and platforms), then this must surely begin with a rethinking of the planning process. This could start with a focus on what participants will gain from the experience, not how this will happen. The point is to take a holistic view so as to undercut 'offline vs. online thinking'.

Thinking in terms of a mixed economy of delivery channels might also yield interesting results. If a project's key deliverables are conceived as offline (a print publication, a temporary exhibit,
a museum-based interactive), then perhaps inevitably, 'online' is short-changed (can anyone remember a project that was meant to have an online component, but that there was no provision in the project budget to pay for it?).

Physical deliverables, like traditional museum objects, are comforting. But it's time to start thinking outside the display case. And this is something of a risk--though a diminishing one.
Online must be integral to project planning, so that it's chosen because it can add value to the project. Everyone who plans projects is now responsible for understanding at least some of
the ways the digital delivery channel can be used, and the innovative options it opens up.

At bottom, this comes down to basics. What sort of institution do you want to be? Web 2.0 means that what was once A to B is now perpetual motion. Even when online interaction between a community of visitors (which includes the museum itself) doesn't lead directly to a visit, it adds critical value. Visitors are getting used to becoming contributors. Are you getting up to speed?

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Confessions of a slow reader

OK, it's time to come clean: I suck at skimming. Skim reading, that is. I seem to have a profound anxiety that I'll miss the next big idea or something essential about what I'm reading. I could blame an early college instructor, who taught us what he called the "Rideout slow-reading method," but the truth is that this is hard-wired into me. I'm almost pathologically curious (see Moby-Dick , Chapter 85 ["The Fountain"] if you doubt the potential danger involved).

And I can't decide whether I have (a) a phenomenally short attention span or (b) an absurdly long one. One up-side to this 'slow' approach is that I seem to remember things. But it also makes things like Twitter--the current (or just passing?) flavour-of-the-month in social networking--a real challenge.

If you don't yet know of it, Twitter is based on a million and one answers to the question, "What are you doing now?" The catch is that answers are limited to 140 characters, so this is clearly a medium for generation txt.

As the developers say, it's "device-independent", so it means you can send a message to your friends, regardless of which mobile provider or instant messaging client they use. So you don't have to care about any of this, or know whether your friends are online or not if you want to update them on what you're doing.

Why bother, you're asking. Fair enough. It's not great for those who like to dwell on what they're reading, mull it over for a while. And it's not brilliant for loners either. Twitter's real strength is in the social dimension. Twitter doesn't care how you like to send your updates (SMS, IM or web), so you don't need to. So keeping in touch with your network of friends is simplified.

As Wade Roush writes, Twitter "essentially turns the one-to-one channels of instant messaging and phone-based SMS text messaging into broadcast media"(Technology Review, April 6, 2007).

Users can broadcast their presence--this IS all about what you're doing now--publicly and to their network, both 'friends' and 'followers' (users who track others' updates).

So what can this do for museums? At London Transport Museum, we've been brainstorming about ways to register some of the detail of the visitor experience--to allow visitors to create a digital fingerprint that captures some of their interaction with our collections and exhibits. And also to give prospective visitors a flavour of the experience they can expect--to generate a buzz around 'what's going on in the Museum right now'.

Critically, this is generated not by what we do as museum professionals, but by the movement, engagement and input of visitors themselves. Very 2.0.

Education colleagues will have a cascade of ideas for how this kind of networking and micro-engagement could work on a small scale, say with individual school groups.

And the museum itself can use this platform to broadcast visitor information, event details, upcoming exhibitions, podcasts--the list goes on. (Nina Simon writes a more detailed post on the subject here, which I've shamelessly adapted to my own purposes.)

A commentator on the Tech Review article cited above suggests that even if Twitter isn't around for the long haul, the lessons learned "can be applied, implemented, observed in other social platforms already in widespread use...." [johnpublic]

A quick glance at some of the add-ons available for Facebook makes the point. Services like Mugshot and fbtwit already merge Twitter with other social networks (fbtwit will update Twitter with your Facebook Status).

What do we take away from this? Well, there is no shortage of creative ways we can use these tools to help create a more engaging experience for vistitors/users--before, during and after their museum experience. Technology is growing at such a pace that we don't have to be satisfied with simply using what's given. We can now ask what we want to do and then go about building creative solutions to deliver the results that we--and our visitors--want. The Brooklyn Museum's efforts are worth a look as a good starting point. Where we go from there is up to us.