Friday, 13 July 2012

'Engaging digital audiences in museums' conference

A quick report and Storify summary from Wednesday's joint Museums Computer Group (MCG) and Digital Learning Network (DLNet) conference, 'Engaging digital audiences in museums', which was held on 11 July 2012 at the University of Manchester.  I'm the Chair of the MCG and was on the Programming Committee for this event so I make absolutely no claim to impartiality, but I thought it went really well - great speakers and workshop leaders, enthusiastic and friendly participants and a variety of formats that kept energy levels up during the day.

My notes are sketchier than usual as I was co-chairing some of the sessions and keeping an eye on the running of the event, so this is more of an impressionistic overview than a detailed report.  There are already a number of other posts out there, and we'll have the post from our official event blogger and illustrator up soon for more comprehensive accounts.

For the MCG, this event was experimental in a number of ways - in running an event with another practitioner organisation, in the venue, in running parallel workshops, buying in commercial wifi, and in devoting part of the day to an unconference - and I'm curious to know what response we get in the evaluation from the day.  (If you were there, our short feedback form is online.)

The event was designed to bring museum learning and technology staff together because we felt we were missing opportunities to benefit from each others skills and experience. I know technologists are grappling with measuring impact, and learning people with reaching new audiences in different ways - hopefully each group would have something to offer and something to learn, though it might mean seeing past each others jargon and understanding different views of the world. (This 'Interloper Report' and comments from MW2012 provide some insight into the potential.) We planned the day as a mixture of inspiring talks and opportunities to get stuck into conversation about topical issues. It was also a day for making connections so we'd included coffee breaks, lunch and the unconference so that people could find others interested in similar things or to put faces to names from the MCG and DLNet lists and social media.
The various tweets I've added to storify do a reasonable job of covering the day, but I've left out things like the QR code discussion. Other conversations about generic learning outcomes have taken on a life of their own - for example, Rhiannon's post 'Generic Learning Outcomes - friend or foe?' seeks to understand why non-learning people don't seem to like them.

I thought Nick Winterbotham's presentation of the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) 'self-evident truths' was interesting, and some of his points were picked up and retweeted widely:

  • Our heritage is not about things it is about people
  • Everyone has a right to know about and be at ease with heritage
  • Heritage embraces the past and present of all cultures
  • Heritage is essential as the cradle of everyone's tomorrow
  • Heritage encompasses all literature, science, technology, environments and arts
  • The multiple narratives of heritage deserve respect
  • Learning is an entitled journey, not a destination
  • Heritage learning is an entitlement for everyone
  • The development of heritage learning skills must be a perpetual excellence
  • Learning is not simply a justification for cultural spending, it is THE justification for cultural spending

Nick advocated for a world where no-one hesitates at taking a risk in learning, and said that we love art, digital culture because of how we feel about it, not what we know about it. He urged us to focus on how your audiences live, learn and love your subject matter; to acknowledge the intellectual generosity needed; and find the big idea that will transform your organisation.

Matthew Cock talked about the challenges of audiences, particularly around mobile. The three-pronged model for audiences in museums: attract -> engage -> impact.  He asked, when you see someone in a museum with a phone, what space are they in? Are they engaged, distracted, focused? Is it a sign of disrespect and disengagement or a sign of bonding with the group they're with? And how do you know?

He talked about the work Morris Hargreaves McIntyre had done to understand their audiences and their varying motivations for visiting: social - museums as enjoyable place to spend time with friends and family; intellectual - interested in knowledge; emotional - experience what the past was like; spiritual - creative stimulation, quiet contemplation, etc.  (See also MHM's Culture Segments report). How does this connect to using mobiles to engage people? People have different activities - chat, read, recording audio or photo, playing media back, share something via social media etc. Each fulfills a different need. The challenge is to match specific things you can do on a mobile with your motivations for visiting. He referred to Maslow's hierarchy of needs to think about the needs a museum satisfies in our lives and the experience economy.

People are seeking venues and events that engage them in a memorable (and authentic?) ways - we're shifting from buying lots of stuff to seeking unique and engaging experiences. The visitor wants to walk away with the engagement having effected a transformation (the impact point of the three-pronged model). Measuring that impact is really hard. Evaluation can look at lots of things but it's hard to understand the needs of our visitors and what works for them in this space.

Later I asked what Learning people like Nick could tell us technologists about measuring impact, but it seems like it's the holy grail for their field too. Nick did mention that we go from a stage of cognitive to affective impact over time after an experience, which is a good start for thinking about this.  Judging from the response on twitter, I'm not the only one who thinks that measuring the impact of a museum experience and understanding whether it's ephemeral or lifelong is one of the big tasks for museums right now.

John Coburn's presentation on the Hidden Newcastle app harked back to the buzz around storytelling
a few years ago, but it also resonated with conversations about the different types and purposes of museum websites - an app that's not about sharing collections or objects but about sharing compelling stories fits firmly in the 'messy middle'.  In this case, 'it's the story that creates the impact, not the object. The value of the object is as the source for the story'. I love that they wanted to create intrigue about the people and the times in which they lived and compel exploration.

It was a difficult choice but I popped into the 'tech on a budget' workshop where Shona Carnall and Greg Povey presented some interesting ways to use existing, readily available technologies to create interactive experiences.

I'll leave the detail of the other presentations to the storify below and other people's posts and skip to the unconference.  Because time was short we asked for session ideas and votes from the podium, rather than letting people write ideas and put their votes up on a shared board.  After the unconference we all gathered again to hear what had been discussed in each group. The summaries were:
  • Commercial side of commissioning cool things: reluctant to put a price on it, but UK has cultural expectations around free museums which makes it harder to charge. Digital is received as god given right, something that should be free. But how come the West End theatre is able to charge so much for a ticket? Museums providing paid-for entertainment not just a browsing experience. We pay for entertainment but we don't expect to be entertained in museums. 
  • Learning outcomes: friends or foe? Attitude is sometimes that learning outcomes are rubbish - decided generic learning outcomes (GLOs) are a really good thing. It's not about shoe-horning facts into everything or pure knowledge transfer - it's also about inspiration, experience, skills, wonderment. The wondrous Romans! Trying to change the stigma about what learning actually is, it's an experience as much as formal education. Maybe 'aims and objectives' a better term than 'learning outcomes'.
  • How do you evaluate wonderment - with difficulty. What is it? Element of surprise, something being visceral, physiological responses. Are adults too cynical for wonderment? 'Smiling Victorians' - challenge expectations. Imagine writing a budget to get iris recognition to measure wonder! Hard to measure or evaluate it but should always aspire to it.
  • Coherent experience, call to action in gallery to online with mobile in gallery: talked about pressure museums are under to introduce next tech, be whizzy, or is it addressing a real need? Can you piggyback on software that's already out there?
  • Reaching different audiences: particularly teenagers: find out what inspires them, tap into that. What are the barriers to engaging them? They're creative, maybe we should work with them to create digital offers, empower them. Apps for apps sake - under pressure to deliver them.
  • Big ideas: intellectual generosity. (Goodness! There was a long list of the characteristics MCG and DLNet would have if they were an animal or a tool...)  We are intricate explosions. Intricate - all the stuff we're talking about is detailed and a little fragile but explosive because the world will catch fire with what we're doing.
  • Failure confessionals: web content management systems - maybe simple is the way to go. Failure is a good thing, and at least we didn't screw up like the bankers.
  • Social media audiences: does it make sense just to have one FB, twitter, etc account per org? Keeping a brand together is good but it doesn't always make sense to lump all audience conversations into one channel.
And with the final thanks to the student volunteers, programme committee, unconference organisers and speakers (and particularly to Ade as local contact and Rhiannon as the tireless organiser that made it all happen), it was over.

We're already looking ahead to the MCG's Spring 2013 meeting, which may be an experimental 'distributed' meeting held in the same week or evening in different regional locations.  If you're interested in hosting a small-scale event with us somewhere in the UK, get in touch!  We're also thinking about themes for UK Museums on the Web 2012, so again, let us know if you have any ideas.

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