Friday, 1 February 2013

Notes from 'The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC'

I've just spent two days in Leicester for the 'The Shape of Things: New and emerging technology-enabled models of participation through VGC' conference at the school of Museum Studies, part of the AHRC-funded iSay project focusing on Visitor-Generated Content (VGC) in heritage institutions. There will be lots of posts on the conference blog, so these are just some things that struck me or I've found useful concepts for thinking about my own museum practice.

I tweeted about the event as I headed to Leicester, and that started a conversation about the suitability of the term 'visitor-generated content' that continued through the event itself. I think it was Giasemi who said that one problem with 'visitor-generated content' is that the term puts the emphasis on content and that's not what it's about. Jeremy Ottevanger suggested 'inbound communications' as a possible replacement for VGC.

The first keynote was Angelina Russo, who reminded us of the importance of curiosity and of finding ways to make museum collections central to visitor engagement work. She questioned the value of some comments left on museum collections other than the engagement in the process of leaving the comment. Having spent too much time reviewing visitor comments, I have to agree that not all comments (particularly repetitive ones) have inherently valuable content or help enhance another visitor's experience - a subject that was debated during the conference. A conversation over twitter during the conference with Claire Ross helped me realise that designing interfaces that respect and value the experience of both the commenter and reading is one of the interesting challenges in digital participation.

She then used Bourdieu's ideas around 'restricted cultural production' to characterise the work of curators as producers who create cultural goods for other producers, governed by specific norms and sanctions, within relatively self-contained communities where their self-esteem depends on peers. However, this creates a tension between what curators think their role is and what museums need it to be in an age when museums are sites of large-scale cultural production for 'the public at large', driven by a quest for market share and profits. Visitor-generated content and the related issues of trust, authority, or digitisation highlight the tensions between these models of restricted or large-scale cultural production – we need to find 'a pathway through the sand'. Angelina suggested that a version of Bourdieu's 'gift economies', where products are created and given away in return for recognition might provide a solution, then asked what's required to make that shift within the museum. How can we link the drive for participation with the core work of museums and curatorial scholarship? She presented a model (which I haven't gone into here) for thinking about 'cultural communication', or communication which is collection-led; curiosity-driven; is scholarly; experiential; and offers multi-platform opportunities for active cultural participation, engagement and co-creation.

Carl Hogsden from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and University of Cambridge talked about the Reciprocal Research Network and moving beyond digital feedback to digital reciprocation. This project has been doing innovative work for a long time, so it was good to see it presented again.

Jenny Kidd from Cardiff University posed some useful questions in 'VGC and ethics – what we might learn from the media and journalism' - it's questionable how much VGC (or user-generated content, UGC) has actually changed journalism, despite the promise of increased civic engagement, diversity, more relevant news and a re-framing of the audience as active citizens rather than consumers. One interesting point was the impact of the 'Arab Spring' on UGC - content that couldn't be verified couldn't be shown by traditional media so protesters started including establishing shots and improving the quality of their recordings. This was also the first of several papers that referenced 'Whose cake is it anyway', a key text for conversations about visitor participation and museums and Jenny suggested that sometimes being seen to engage in participatory activity is currently possibly end goal in itself for a museum. She presented questions for further research and debate including: is the museum interested in quality of process or product of VGC and do creators feel the same? How does VGC fit in workflow models of museums?

Giasemi Vavoula's paper on 'The role of VGC in digital transformations in Museum Learning' (slides) was fascinating, particularly as it presented frameworks for audience engagement taken from learning theory that closely matched those I'd found from studies of citizen science and engagement in heritage and sport (e.g. cognitive engagement model - highest is theorising, then applying, relating, explaining, describing, note-taking, memorising... Good visitor experiences get most visitors to use the higher engagement level processes that the more focused visitors use spontaneously). I love learning from Learning people - in museum learning/visitor studies, social interaction facilitates learning; visitors negotiate the meanings of exhibits through conversation with their companions. Giasemi called for museums to weave VGC into the fabric of visitors social contexts; to scaffold and embed it into visiting experience; and to align with visitors and organisations' social agendas.

In 'A Tale of Two Workhouses' Peter Rogers and Juliet Sprake spoke of 'filling in the gaps rather than being recipients of one-way information flow', which tied in nicely with discussion around the role of curiosity in audience participation.

In the afternoon there was a Q&A session with Nina Simon (via skype). A number of the questions were about sustainability, designing for mixed contexts, and the final question was 'where next from here?'. Nina advised designing participatory experiences so that people can observe the activity and decide to take part when they're comfortable with it - this also works for designing things that work as spectator experiences for people who don't want to join in. Nina's response to a question about 'designing better questions' - 'find questions where you have genuine interest in what the visitor has to say about it' - resonated with wider discussion about meaningful visitor participation. Nina talked about the cumulative effect of participatory work on the museum itself, changing not only how the museum sees itself but how others see it - I wonder how many museums in the UK are engaging with visitor participation to the extent that it changes the museum itself? Nina also made the point that you tend to have either highly participatory process to make conventional product, or conventional process to make highly participatory product, and that not everything has to be wholly participatory from start to finish, which is useful for thinking how co-creative projects.

On Friday morning I gave a keynote on 'crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage'. My slides for 'Crowdsourcing as productive engagement with cultural heritage' are now online. I partly wanted to problematise the power relationships in participatory projects - whose voice can affect change? - and to tease out different ways of thinking about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage as productive both in terms of the process (engaging in cultural heritage) and the product (the sheer number of items transcribed, corrected, etc). I've been going back to research on motivations for volunteering in cultural heritage, working on open source projects and reviewing discussions with participants in crowdsourcing projects, and I hope it'll help people design projects that meet those altruistic, extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Thinking about my paper in the context of the other presentations also got me thinking about the role of curiosity in audience engagement and encouraging people to start researching a subject (whether a ship's history, an individual or a general topic) more deeply. On a personal note, this paper was a good chance to reflect on the different types of audience engagement with museum collections or historic sources and on the inherent value of participation in cultural heritage projects that underpin my MSc and PhD research and my work in museums generally.

Areti Galani presented research she'd done with Rachel Clarke (Newcastle University), and asked 'how can accessible technology lead to inaccessible participation paradigms?'. I was really interested in the difference between quality of the visitor contributions in-gallery vs online (though of course 'quality' is a highly subjective term), a question that surfaced through the day. Areti's research might suggest that building in some delay in the process of contributing in-gallery could lead to better quality (i.e. more considered) contributions. The novelty of the technology used might also have an effect - 'pen-happy visitors' who used the technology for the sake of interacting with it but didn't know what to do after picked up the pen.

The paper from Jeremy Ottevanger (Imperial War Museums) on "Social Interpretation" as a catalyst for organisational change generated more discussion on possible reasons why online comments on museum sites tend to be more thoughtful than in-gallery comments, with one possible reason being that online commenters have deliberately 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. Jeremy talked about the need for the museum to find an internal workflow that was appropriately responsive to online comments - in my experience, this is one of the most difficult issues in planning for digital projects. Jeremy presented a useful categorisation of online contributions as 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), and informational (new information, corrections) and looked at which types of contribution were responded to by different departments. He finished with a vision of the IWM harnessing the enthusiasm and knowledge of their audiences to help serve the need of other audiences, of connecting people with expertise with people who have questions.

Jack Ashby talked about finding the right questions for the QRator project at the Grant Museum of Zoology - a turtle is a turtle, and there's not a lot of value in finding out what visitors might want to call it, but asking wider questions could be more useful. Like the wider Social Interpretation project, QRator always raises questions for me about whether museums should actively 'garden' visitor interactives, pruning out less relevant questions to create a better experience for other visitors.

Rolf Steier and Palmyre Pierroux discussed their findings on the role of the affordances of social media and visitor contributions in museums. Rosie Cardiff talked about the Tate's motivations for participatory projects with audiences, and audience motivations for participating in Tate's projects. She presented some considerations for organisations considering participatory projects: who is the audience? What motivations for visitor and for organisation? What platform will you use? How will the content be moderated? (Who will do it?) Where will it sit in relation to organisational space online or in-gallery? How long will it run for? What plans for archiving and maintaining content beyond lifetime of project? How will you measure success? How will you manage audience expectations about what's going to happen to their work? This last point was also picked up in discussions about audience expectations about how long museums will keep their contributions.

The final presentation was Ross Parry's keynote on 'The end of the beginning: Normativity in the postdigital museum. Based on new research into how six UK national (i.e. centrally funded, big, prestigious museums) have started to naturalise 'digital' into their overall museum vision, this paper gave me hope for the future. There's still a long way to go, but Ross articulated a vision of how some museums are integrating digital in the immediate future, and how it will integrated once the necessary stage of highlighting 'digital' in strategies, organisational structures and projects has given way to a more cohesive incorporation of 'digital' into the fabric of museums. It also makes sense in the context of discussions about digital strategies in museums over the past year (e.g. at the Museums Assocation and UK Museums on the Web (themes, my report) conferences).

I had to leave before the final session, so my report ends here, but I expect there'll be more reports on the project blog and I've saved an archive of isayevent_tweets_2013_02_01 (CSV).

I think the organisers, Giasemi Vavoula and Jenny Kidd, did a great job on the conference programme. The papers and audience were a well-balanced combination of academics and practioners - the academic papers gave me interesting frameworks to think with, and the case studies provided material to think about.

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