Friday, 23 November 2012

Request for research participants: academic historians and historical geographers

(For those who don't know me or who mostly know me through digital heritage work, some background to support my call for PhD research participants...)

I am a PhD student in the Department of History at the Open University. I am conducting interviews to understand how online resources have (or have not) altered historians' patterns of work, and I would particularly like to interview academic historians or historical geographers who are researching people and places in British history from the 1600s-1900. I would like to talk to a range of participants, including those who are not clued up on online resources, those who are enthusiastic advocates of all things digital and people at all stages in-between. I would really love to hear from people researching women's histories or the history of science, but I'm interested in any kind of history.

Interviews are carried out on the phone, Skype, or in person if you prefer and can meet within reasonable distance from London or Oxford. Interviews take 40 - 120 minutes and will be carried out in December and January.  Many previous participants have said they enjoyed the interview and benefitted from the opportunity to reflect on their work.

To volunteer to take part in an interview, or for more information, please email me at mia.ridge@gmail.com

For more information visit Information for potential research participants and for background about my PhD visit My PhD research. Please feel free to pass this on to anyone who might be interested in being interviewed.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Reflections on teaching Neatline

I've called this post 'Reflections on teaching Neatline' but I could also have called it 'when new digital humanists meet new software'. Or perhaps even 'growing pains in the digital humanities?'.

A few months ago, Anouk Lang at the University of Strathclyde asked me to lead a workshop on Neatline, software from the Scholar's Lab that plots 'archives, objects, and concepts in space and time'. It's a really exciting project, designed especially for humanists - the interfaces and processes are designed to express complexity and nuance through handcrafted exhibits that link historical materials, maps and timelines.

The workshop was on Thursday, and looking at the evaluation forms, most people found it useful but a few really struggled and teaching it was also slightly tough going. I've been thinking a lot about the possible reasons for that and I'm sharing them both as a request for others to share their experiences in similar circumstances and also in the hope that they'll help others.

The basic outline of the workshop was an intros round (who I am, who they are and what they want to learn); information on what Neatline is and what it can do; time to explore Neatline and explore what the software can and can't do (e.g. login, follow the steps at neatline.org/plugins/neatline to create an item based on a series of correspondence Anouk had been working on, deciding whether you want to transcribe or describe the letter, tweaking its appearance or linking it to other items); and a short period for reflection and discussion (e.g. 'What kinds of interpretive decisions did you find yourself making? What delighted you? What frustrated you?') to finish. If you're curious, you can follow along with my slides and notes or try out the Neatline sandbox site.

The first half was fine but some people really struggled with the hands-on section. Some of it was to do with the software itself - as a workshop, it was a brilliant usability test of the admin interfaces of the software for audiences outside the original set of users. Neatline was only launched in July this year and isn't even in version 2 yet so it's entirely understandable that it appears to have a few functional or UX bugs. The documentation isn't integrated into the interface yet (and sometimes lacks information that is probably part of the shared tacit knowledge of people working on the project) but they have a very comprehensive page about working with Neatline items. Overall, the process of handcrafting timelines and maps for a Neatline exhibit is still closer to 'first, catch your rabbit' than making a batch of ready-mix cupcakes. Neatline is also designed for a particular view of the world, and as it's built on top of other software (Omeka) with another very particular view of the world (and hello, Dublin Core), there's a strong underlying mental model that informs the processes for creating content that is foreign to many of its potential users, including some at the workshop.

But it was also partly because I set the bar too high for the exercises and didn't provide enough structure for some of the group. If I'd designed it so they created a simple Neatline item by closely following detailed instructions (as I have done for other, more consciously tech-for-beginners workshops), at least everyone would have achieved a nice quick win and have something they could admire on the screen. From there some could have tried customising the appearance of their items in small ways, and the more adventurous could have tried a few of the potential ways to present the sample correspondence they were working with to explore the effects of their digitisation decisions. An even more pragmatic but potentially divisive solution might have been to start with the background and demonstration as I did, but then do the hands-on activity with a smaller group of people who were up for exploring uncharted waters. On a purely practical level, I also should have uploaded the images of the letters used in the exercise to my own host so that they didn't have to faff with Dropbox and Omeka records to get an online version of the image to use in Neatline.

And finally it was also because the group had really mixed ICT skills. Most were fine (bar the occasional bug), but some were not. It's always hard teaching technical subjects when participants have varying levels of skill and aptitude, but when does it go beyond aptitude into your attitude about being pushed out of your comfort zone? I'd warned everyone at the start that it was new software, but if you haven't experienced beta software before I guess you don't have the context for understanding what that actually means.

I should make it clear here that I think the participants' achievements outshine any shortcomings - Neatline is a great tool for people working with messy humanities data who want to go beyond plonking markers on Google Maps, and I think everyone got that, and most people enjoyed the chance to play with Neatline.

But more generally, I also wonder if it has to do with changing demographics in the digital humanities - increasingly, not everyone interested in DH is an early, or even a late adopter, and someone interested in DH for the funding possibilities and cool factor might not naturally enjoy unstructured exploration of new software, or be intrigued by trying out different combinations of content and functionality just 'to see what happens'.

Practically, more information for people thinking of attending would be useful - 'if you know x already, you'll be fine; if you know y already, you'll be bored' would be useful in future. Describing an event as 'if you like trying new software, this is for you' would probably help, but it looks like the digital humanities might also now be attracting people who don't particularly like working things out as they go along - are they to be excluded? If using software like this is the onboarding experience for people new to the digital humanities, they're not getting the best first impression, but how do you balance the need for fast-moving innovative work-in-progress to be a bit hacky and untidy around the edges with the desires of a wider group of digital humanities-curious scholars? Is it ok to say 'here be dragons, enter at your own risk'?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

'Go digital' at Museums Association 2012 Conference

Some people who couldn't make the Museums Association conference (or #museums2012) asked for more information on the session on digital strategies, so here are my introductory remarks and some scribbled highlights of the speakers' papers and discussion with the audience.

Update: a year later, I've thought of a 'too long, didn't read' version: digital strategies are like puberty. Everyone has to go through it, but life's better on the other side when you've figured things out. Digital should be incorporated into engagement, collections, venue etc strategies - it's not a thing on its own.

The speakers were Carolyn Royston (@caro_ft), Head of New Media at Imperial War Museum; Hugh Wallace (@tumshie), Head of Digital Media at National Museums Scotland; Michael Woodward (@michael1665), Commercial Director at York Museums Trust, and I chaired the session in my role as Chair of the Museums Computer Group. From the conference programme: 'This session explores the importance of developing a digital strategy. It will provide insight into how organisations can incorporate digital into a holistic approach that meets wider organisational and public engagement objectives and look at how to use digital engagement as a catalyst to drive organisational change.'

After various conversations about digital and museums with people who were interested in the session, I updated my introduction so that overall the challenge of embracing the impact of digital technologies, platforms and audiences on museums was put in a positive light.  The edited title that appeared in the programme had a different emphasis ('Go digital' rather than the 'Getting strategic about digital' we submitted) so I wanted it to be clear that we weren't pushing a digital agenda for the sake of technology itself. Or as I apparently said at the time, "it's not about making everything digital, it's about dealing with the fact that digital is everywhere".

I started by asking people to raise their hands if their museum had a digital strategy, and I'd say well over half the room responded, which surprised me. Perhaps a third were in the process of planning for a digital strategy and just a few were yet to start at all.

My notes were something like this: "we probably all know by now that digital technologies bring wonderful opportunities for museums and their audiences, but you might also be worried about the impact of technology on audiences and your museum. ‘Digital’ varies in organisations – it might encompass social media, collections, mobile, marketing, in-gallery interactives, broadcast and content production. It touches every public-facing output of the museum as well as back-office functions and infrastructure.

You can’t avoid the impact of digital on your organisation, so it’s about how you deal with it, how you integrate it into the fabric of your museum. As you’ll hear in the case studies, implementing digital strategy itself changes the organisation, so from the moment you start talking to people about devising a digital strategy, you'll be making progress. For some of our presenters, their digital strategy ultimately took the form of a digital vision document – the strategy itself is embedded in the process and in the resulting framework for working across the organisation. A digital strategy framework allows you to explore options in conversation with the whole organisation, it’s not about making everything digital.

Our case studies come from three very different organisations working with different collections in different contexts. Mike, Commercial Director at York Museums Trust will talk about planning the journey, moving from ad hoc work to making digital integral to how the organisation works; Hugh, Head of Digital Media at National Museums Scotland will discuss the process they went through to develop digital strategy, what’s worked and what hasn’t’; Carolyn Royston, Head of Digital Media at Imperial War Museums, who comes from a learning background, will talk from IWM’s digital adventure, from where they started to where they are now. They’re each at different stages of the process of implementing and living with a digital strategy.

Based on our discussions as we planned this session, the life cycle of a digital strategy in a museum seems to be: aspiration, design, education and internal outreach, integration with other strategies (particularly public engagement) and sign off... then take a deep breath, look at what the ripple effect has been and start updating your strategies as everything will have changed since you started. And with that, over to Mike..."

Mike talked about working out when digital delivery really makes sense, whether for inaccessible objects (like a rock on Mars) or a delicate book; the major role that outreach and communication play in the process of creating a digital strategy; appointing the staff that would deliver it based on eagerness, enthusiasm and teamwork rather than pure tech skills; where digital teams should sit in the organisation; and about the possibility of using digital volunteers (or 'armchair experts') to get content online.

Hugh went for 'frameworks, not fireworks', pointing out that what happens after the strategy is written is important so you need to create a flexible framework to manage the inevitable change.  He discussed the importance of asking the right-sized question (as in one case, where 'we didn't know at the start that an app would be the answer') and working on getting digital into 'business as usual' rather than an add-on team with specialist skills.  Or as one tweeter summarised, 'work across depts, don't get hung up on the latest tech, define users realistically and keep it simple'.

Carolyn covered the different forms of digital engagement and social media the IWM have been trying and the role of creating their digital vision in helping overcome their fears; the benefits of partnerships with other organisations for piggybacking on their technology, networks and audiences, and the fact that their collections sales have gone up as a result of opening up their collections.  In the questions, someone described intellectual property restrictions to try to monetise collections as 'fool's gold' - great term!  I think we should have a whole conference session on this sometime soon.

When reviewing our discussions beforehand I'd found a note from a planning call which summed up how much the process should change the organisation: 'if you're not embarrassed by your digital strategy six months after sign-off you probably haven't done it right', and on the day the speakers reinforced my impression that ultimately, devising and implementing a digital strategy is (probably) a necessary process to go through but it's not a goal in its own right.  The IWM and NMS examples show that the internal education and conversations can both create a bigger appetite for digital engagement and change organisational expectations around digital to the point where it has to be more widely integrated.  The best place for a digital strategy is within a public engagement strategy that integrates the use of digital platforms and working methods into the overall public-facing work of the museum.

Listening to the speakers, a new metaphor occurred to me: is implementing a digital strategy like gardening? It needs constant care and feeding after the big job of sowing seeds is over. And much like gardening for pleasure (in the UK, anyway), the process may have more impact than the product.

And something I didn't articulate at the time - if the whole museum is going to be doing some digital work, we technologists are going to have to be patient and generous in sharing our knowledge and helping everyone learn how to make sensible decisions about digital content and experiences.  If we don't, we risk being a bottleneck or forcing people to proceed based on guesswork and neither are good for museums or their audiences.
Huge thanks for Carolyn, Hugh and Michael for making the whole thing such a pleasure and to the Museum Association conference organisers for the opportunity to share our thoughts and experiences.

And finally, if you're interested in digital strategies in heritage organisations, the Museums Computer Groups annual Museums on the Web conference is all about being 'strategically digital' (which as you might have guessed from the above, sometimes might mean not using technology at all) but UKMW12 tickets are selling out fast, so don't delay.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The ever-morphing PhD

I wrote this for the NEH/Polis Summer Institute on deep mapping back in June but I'm repurposing it as a quick PhD update as I review my call for interview participants. I'm in the middle of interviews at the moment (and if you're an academic historian working on British history 1600-1900 who might be willing to be interviewed I'd love to hear from you) and after that I'll no doubt be taking stock of the research landscape, the findings from my interviews and project analyses, and updating the shape of my project as we go into the new year. So it doesn't quite reflect where I'm at now, but at the very least it's an insight into the difficulties of research into digital history methodologies when everything is changing so quickly:

"Originally I was going to build a tool to support something like crowdsourced deep mapping through a web application that would let people store and geolocate documents and images they were digitising. The questions that are particularly relevant for this workshop are: what happens when crowdsourcing or citizen history meet deep mapping? Can a deep map created by multiple people for their own research purposes support scholarly work? Can a synthetic, ad hoc collection of information be used to support an argument or would it be just for the discovery of spatio-temporarily relevant material? How would a spatial narrative layer work?

I planned to test this by mapping the lives and intellectual networks of early scientific women. But after conducting a big review of related projects I eventually realised that there's too much similar work going on in the field and that inevitably something similar would have been created by someone with more resources by the time I was writing up. So I had to rethink my question and my methods.

So now my PhD research seeks to answer 'how do academic and family/local historians evaluate, use and contribute to crowdsourced resources, especially geo-located historical materials?', with the goal of providing some insight into the impact of digitality on research practices and scholarship in the humanities. ... How do trained and self-taught historians cope with changes in place names and boundaries over time, and the many variations and similarities in place names. Does it matter if you've never been to the place and don't know that it might be that messy and complex?

I'm interested how living in a digital culture affects how researchers work. What does it mean to generate as well as consume digital data in the course of research? How does user-created content affect questions of authorship, authority and trust for amateur historians and scholarly practice? What are the characteristics of a well-designed digital resource, and how can resources and tools for researchers be improved? It's a very Human-Computer Interaction/Infomatics view of the digital humanities but it addresses the issues around discoverability and usability that are so important for people building projects.

I'm currently interviewing academic, family and local historians, focusing on those working on research on people or places in early modern England - very loosely defined, as I'll go 1600-1900. I'm asking them about the tools do they currently use in their research; how they assess new resources; if or when they might you use a resource created through crowdsourcing or user contributions? (e.g. Wikipedia or ancestry.com); how do you work out which online records to trust? How they use place names or geographic locations in your research?

So far I've mostly analysed the interviews for how people think about crowdsourcing, I'll be focusing on the responses to place when I get back.

More generally, I'm interested in the idea of 'chorography 2.0' - what would it look like now? The abundance of information is as much of a problem as an opportunity: how to manage that?"

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Why museums matter: 'Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture'

In early October I attended Museum/iD's conference, Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. I've posted the first part of my notes at 'War, Plague and Fire' and 'Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums' at 'Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture'.

I'll start this with a 'too long; didn't read' version: overall, the themes of the day seemed to be a version of Tim O'Reilly's 'work on stuff that matters', whether it's improving economic or social justice or helping museums cope with the need for constant evolution in a time of change. Museums matter, and the work people do in museums matters, whether they're reaching new audiences by reconsidering technology or marketing campaigns. There was also a thread around challenging dominant versions of history and confronting stereotypes, whether challenging YouTube viewers with performance art or democratising the process of documenting history.  Many of the projects we heard about were also strongly tied to the mission of their museum or team (and none of them were about technology in its own right).

The final speaker before lunch was Tate Media's Jane Burton, who spoke on Radical art experiences for the online space. She tied their work in creating 'radical content' for existing online spaces where their audiences are (i.e. not expecting them to come to your museum or your website) to Tate's mission to increase the publics' understanding and enjoyment of art. Their Tate Shots reach an audience of 3 million people a year directly, and more through syndication to the Guardian, Huffington Post, etc. The videos are about 3 minutes long and capture the artists visiting the galleries, working on exhibitions, etc; they're relatively unformated and don't have a presenter - the ease of being able to create them means they have a living archive of films that can exist online for free forever. They refuse to pay annual rights charges to show art in the films so they work with living artists they can get permissions from.

Tate has a small team with limited resources so they collaborate with others to reach audiences. Burton discussed a project with BMW on YouTube ('people weren't expecting to see performance art when looking for pandas' but some of the people who happened upon it stayed, particularly as they were engaged in conversation with art-loving audience members); Tate Kids film project; the Gallery of Lost Art (which turns the gradual release of archival material into an asset: posts to social media keep audiences coming back); Exquisite Forest. She also talked about mobile - 10% of traffic to their website is on mobile devices (which seems low, mobile traffic for a multi-museum project I'm working with averages about 17-20%) - and 'playful apps'. Advice on risk-taking: 'don't ask the directors, just do it'. They did three apps that might not have gotten permission to go ahead if they'd asked. Tate Trumps (updated after getting flack in the iTunes store about not being able to play outside the gallery); Race Against Time - play as a chameleon restoring colour to the world, 'activate the game at Tate Modern for special powers'; Magic Tate Ball shows artwork from Tate's datavase selected by time of day, weather, ambient sound, location of the device. They've had over 100,000 downloads across those platforms. Magic Tate Ball was received really well in India on Nokia phones, highligting that you need to think about your role in the world, not just the UK.

The next speaker was Louise Shannon from the VA's Contemporary Programmes team on Strategies for engagement: contemporary programmes at the V&A. Their goal is to support creative design, engage diverse audiences, be open and engaged, and have a global point of view. They have two exhibitions a year in a dedicated contemporary space; exhibitions that are popular and accessible, agenda-setting and responsive (critical) and creative, spectacular, risk-taking. Their projects include an experiment with an 'open source marketing campaign' for Decode - people could take the animation code, re-work it and re-publish it on the V&A website; through a partnership with a media placement company it might also be projected in tube stations or end up on posters. [Partnerships for broader reach was a theme in Jane Burton's talk about Tate, too, but it's only now that I've thought to ask about advice on partnerships for museums that aren't super-brands in their own right.]. Shannon also discussed the V&A's Friday Lates, part of their programme since 1999: 'the two staples are a DJ and a bar, everything else changes'.

Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community and Access, MoMA spoke on Advanced Style: Why Museums Ought to Respect Their Elders, pointing out that 'we are all apprentice older people. We can do this right, or we can do this wrong'. Like any accessibility issue, 'when we make changes for older visitors we make the museum better for all'. Her talk was inspired by the book and blog, 'Advanced Style', though that's only one model - there's more variety among older people than any other age group. Rosenberg pointed out that older people have time to devote to civil engagement, so design projects so they can participate, or re-market the programmes you already have. MoMA did a study with NYU to evaluate the impact of the programme - less depression, more social connectedness, new appreciation of their loved one. Personally, this was one of the most inspiring talks of the day, partly because it reminded us why museums do this work. The next speaker started by saying that MoMA's work inspired a project that his parents participate in, which just reinforced that.

Adam Rozan spoke on SURVIVAL: The Case for Evolutionary Adaptation In Museums. His
metaphor of 'evolutionary adaptation' echoed Sharon Ament's keynote in calling change 'the new normal'. He talked about 'five ways Starbucks are changing the game (even though they are already doing well)', (an unfortunate choice as many people in the room didn't seem to like Starbucks), then asked why do museums do the things they do? Are museums thriving? Attendance is up but there are lot of museums that aren't doing that well. He added together the museums that increased and decreased visits to get a 'stagnancy' figure. Overall museums aren't doing that well, the US is seeing stagnancy across the board. Our populations are changing, we can't keep doing the same things and expect the same outcomes. Rozan pointed out that lots of people are competing with museum-like experiences, whether MOOCs or Starbucks and called for people to re-imagine the museum - museums as living spaces; as content creators; as education centres.

The tone changed after the break as Lisa Junkin from the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago talked about Report to the Public: dangerous histories, public history and community development and an exhibition about the 'Conservative Vice Lords'. They're interested in how museums contribute to the growth and development of local communities, particularly of under-served communities. The CVL exibition was a co-curated pilot exhibit, taken on by their nineteenth century historic house museum because their museum is dedicated to dangerous ideas, encouraing discourse not as 'superficial consensus building but fostering dissent'. The house is dedicated to Jane Addams, the first woman to be given a Nobel Peace Prize, also called the 'most dangerous woman in America'. But it turned out that the exhibition was so controversial that they struggled to bring it into the neighbourhood because of fear of vandalism from other gangs. They ultimately displayed the original artefacts outside the area itself and put panels in local shop windows instead. The panels had numbers to call to hear audio content or to leave their own memories of the CVL. The exhibition closes by asking 'what next?'. Junkin also pointed out that museums have unique role to play with counterpublics, but museums are still often complicit in marginalising the publics they're meant to serve. In sharing the museum's authority and social capital with community groups, they can amplify their marginalised voices.

Jennifer Scott of the Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn spoke on Normalcy as Innovation: Radical Dignity and the Right to Historical Inclusion. Weeksville marks a history that was erased from the books, but luckily for them both its nineteeth century and 1960s histories were victories. They work hard for historical inclusion: 'everything that we do is to democratise the documentation process of history', and participation is 'never a choice for us'. It was created by the community so they do everything they can to support the needs of the community. They interpret the everyday lives of ordinary people ('what was it like to be a free black New Yorker in 1838?'), normalising them in contrast to the 'histories of deviance' and traumatic events like slavery and civil rights-related violence that usually attends black history in America. The Weeksville site is an answer to assumptions and stereotypes about black history. They've created historical interpretive narratives that they've noticed visitors respond to then translated them into core values that are reflected in their tours, events and programmes. They include everything from 'girls night out' film nights with wine and cheese or a farmers market to cutting-edge art. Like Junkin's talk, this was a powerful reflection on the ways in which museums can work towards greater social justice, and like Rosenberg's talk, it left me feeling inspired by the good that museums can do.

The final presentation was from Tony Butler of the Museum of East Anglian Life, Everybody's Happy Nowadays: How museums can create conditions for well-being without costing the earth. He talked about the need to address 'bigger than self' issues and the challenge of making them relevant to everyday lives of people. People not only beneficiaries but also co-curators of the space at MEAL; they're not just a knowledge-based institution but also part of an active citizenry. He quoted Polly Toynbee on 'the most unequal societies are the least happy' and discussed alternatives to economic orthodoxy - 'one where planet and people matter' like Bhutan's 'gross domestic happiness'. MEAL's principles are: stewardship; participation; social enterprise; mindfulness, and a study has shown that for every £1 invested with them, they have generated £4 of social value. He said 'participation' is not just asking visitors what they think of the museum, and asked museums to get beyond 'participation-lite'.

Disclosure: my ticket was provided by Museum/iD. Many thanks to the speakers for their excellent presentations.  Some of the speakers on twitter include @ljunkin @tonybutler1 @adamrozan @francescatime @sebchan @rjstein.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

'War, Plague and Fire' and 'Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums' at 'Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture'

I've finally had a moment to catch up and post the first part of my notes from Museum/iD's conference, Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. Overall it was a great conference that left me with a lot of things to think about for how museums can adapt and thrive in the current international context, and reminded me why museums should survive: they matter. I've posted my thoughts from the later sessions at Why museums matter: 'Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture' with a short summary of the whole event at the start.
Sharon Ament's keynote at Museum of London Docklands
The day was chaired by Ben Gammon who began by pointing out that innovation is no longer a luxury, it's now critical for survival.

The keynote speaker was the new Director of the Museum of London, Sharon Ament, who spoke on War, Plague and Fire: museums and libraries in the era of participatory culture. Previously Ament was director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum, and she drew on that background in her talk while also relating it to the collections of the Museum of London and the docklands location of the conference. She called for museums to look at what participatory culture means to the people they serve, especially when the individual has the capacity to be heard more loudly than ever before. The international context in which we're living - with civil unrest, economic crises and global warming - is a time of change and fear means that adaptation to the external environment is an important concept for museums today. Her talk, and some of the discussion afterwards, focused on the role of museums and libraries as venues for independent discovery; accessible to many because entry was free. She suggested that creative responses - small things that can happen spontaneously, like the 'pop-up' concept - might be useful for reaching people.

One final quote to close, from the Salzburg Global Seminar and the Institute of Museum and Library Services report on 'Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture': 'technology is a tool, not an objective, and that the creation of increased public value is the end goal. Identifying stakeholders’ needs means addressing human relationships, a sense of organization, and an intellectual construct to shape information and access'.

The next session was a 'fireside chat' with Rob Stein (Dallas Museum of Art) and Seb Chan (Cooper-Hewitt Museum) reflecting on 'Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums' and their experiences in changing museums. They discussed collaboration (Stein noted that everything he's built that's had a modicum of success has been a collaboration with lots of people), the pace of change in different museums (including the need to build a risk-tolerant culture), and the risk of assuming that technology is an inherent part of innovation (Stein observed that the change that needs to happen at DAM is cultural, about shifting ambition). How do you create a culture of innovation? Chan mentioned Elaine Heumann Gurian's Wanting to be the Third on your Block and said that the first thing he did when he started at the Cooper-Hewitt was create a space that gave people permission to change. He set up 'labs' as a space for people to talk about stuff, which also gave his immediate team a public voice for the first time. He pushed fast to get quick results on some straightforward things to start to set an expectation of speed and accelerate culture: 'right now, doing things fast matters more than doing things well'. He talked about cultivating rogues and tricksters in the museum to accelerate change and get a paradigm shift and suggested tackling root problems rather than symptoms for issues like copyright. They also discussed how to play up the fun of museum jobs to make them more attractive in a competitive tech jobs market, and the importance of putting some money into innovation where possible. Stein suggested that it's possible to support innovation without a budget, e.g. museums can hold 'research forums' where people share what they're working on.

Chan also said museums have turned themselves into 'exhibition farms', letting them suck huge amounts of resource; together with the obsession with 'finish' this slows innovation that could come from re-thinking how exhibitions and public programmes work together. Stein observed 'museums seem to like gargantuan problems, things that take five years to get out the door [like] exhibitions, publications, buildings.'

They discussed the mismatch between museum exhibition launch models and software models: 'people want to feel that something's finished when it launches, they want the party and the holiday'. But in software development, no-one takes a holiday straight after launch because they're watching what people do with the new software. [I was really interested in this section as it's something I've thought about a lot (e.g. does a museum's obsession with polish hinder innovation?) - I suspect museum technologists have two clashing mental models about how to work: one is the web agency model, based around cycles of 'launch, observe, iterate, update'; the other is the 'long slog to an unmovable launch date then onto the next project' of museums. When the rest of the world moves on the agile, iterative model, it's frustrating being tied to the museum model, particularly when it seems to have more flaws than benefits for modern audiences.] In closing they talked about the effectiveness of various models of innovation, whether attempts at top-down innovation, departments of innovation or more integrated models of innovation.

This post is already quite long, so I might hit publish now and come back to the other talks later.

Disclosure: my ticket was provided by Museum/iD.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Is it time for museums to go public about the impact of funding cuts?

Back in December last year I posted asking 'Why do people rally to save libraries but not museums?'. Many of the reasons revolved around the different relationships people have with their local library compared to their local museum, the types of services they offer, and especially the idea that part of using a library involves visiting it regularly: libraries are simply more embedded in people's daily lives than museums.  But a few other responses addressed the perception that libraries were under threat, but museums weren't because 'the immediate threat to museums isn't highlighted'.  Libraries took to social and traditional media, asking both famous and ordinary library users to speak up on their behalf  (e.g. Voices for the Library, Speak up for libraries, and sample press coverage on the BBC 'Library closure threats spark campaigns across England' and Guardian 'The campaign to save libraries continues'), but museums were largely silent as they quietly said goodbye to staff, reduced their services or simply closed.

Some reasons why museums might not be taking their fight to survive against cuts to the public are highlighted in this piece from the Museums Association's Museums Journal: Head to Head, with David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool and Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield.  It's a really important conversation for the UK's museum sector, so I'd encourage you to go read it yourself, but to pick up some important points, David Fleming says:
'I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would think it’s useful to the museum sector for us to keep quiet about the funding cuts that are affecting so many of us. ... our sector, unlike many other sectors, appears to be reluctant to talk about the impact that cuts are having, and I don’t know why.'
The reason for silence seems to be (from Simon Wallis):
'I think we do need to be very wary of how what we are communicating can be seen by the public. I frequently encounter derision and anger from some people over receiving what they see as a “public subsidy” taking money from taxpayers’ pockets for non-essential elitist services.'
I suspect there are other reasons that contribute to the silence, like gagging orders about cuts and redundancies at councils, and if you haven't already read Nick Poole's The Ties that Bind, go read it now. One quote that's relevant to museums' silence over cuts is: 'The National Museums will broker a deal under which the cuts to baseline budgets are maintained at 3-5% per annum for the next 2 years, in  return for which they may be fairly quiescent on the question of overall public subsidy of culture and the arts.'

I don't think a fear of comments about 'elitism' should be enough to stop museums taking their fight to the public, especially when, as another Museums Journal article points out, thirty museums and heritage sites have shut in the past two years.  Maybe it's time to get over that fear and ask the public if they want to lose their museums?