Museums and the Web 2009 roundup

If you couldn't tell from my Twitter feed, two weeks ago I was at a conference in Indianapolis, USA, called 'Museums and the Web 2009'. As the name suggests, this is an annual shindig, and as it happens, I also went to the previous conference, aptly enough titled 'Museums and the Web 2008'. One key difference is that the previous year I went representing the Science Museum, where I worked at the time as a Web Producer, whereas this year I went on behalf of Rattle, a research and development agency where I focus on interaction and 'experience' design. So in one sense, I was coming at it from a different side of the tracks. However, it was also a good opportunity to catch up with old friends, meet some new ones, and discover where the world of museums on the web is at.

As with the previous year, I opted to go on a pre-conference museums tour. It's a great way of getting to visit some new museums, plus you also get the benefit of some behind-the-scenes tours from the members of staff that work there. And even better, this year the tour included a zoo - Indianapolis Zoo - where we got to watch walruses being fed and dolphins performing tricks. The zoo housed almost every different zoo animal you could name, and actually felt oddly different from UK zoos, in that it is so supremely focused on entertaining the visitors. Each enclosure has enough viewing windows for it to be impossible for the animals to hide from view, plus the dolphin show is literally a show, with a themed 'set'. There's even a water playground and a rollercoaster for kids who get bored of pulling faces at the animals. This all helps to keep the zoo self-sustaining, with no public funds, and supports conservation work, though, so I guess it'd be churlish to complain. That said, I did feel sorry for the two polar bears (only one of which is allowed out at a time, as they're solitary animals and don't get on).

The highlight of the pre-conference tour was undoubtably the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. This was so good, and so jam-packed full of exhibits, that I went back on the Sunday, in my own time, spending my own money on a full-priced admission ticket. Rather than bang on about it here though, I thought it'd be best to write up my experience in a separate blog post at a later date.

So, on to the conference. Well, not quite. In the second of the pre-conference days, I ran a half-day afternoon workshop called 'Interaction Design for Museums on the Web'. I was actually pretty nervous about this, partly because it was the first time I'd presented a three-and-a-half-hour workshop, and partly because the workshops are something delegates have to pay extra for, and at $175 a pop, I thought I'd better provide good value!

Thankfully, I think the workshop went pretty well. It was perhaps a little slow to get going, and a bit basic at first (though I wanted to cover some first principles). The first couple of exercises I designed perhaps didn't work as well as I'd hoped though, in retrospect, they needed a bit more structure. The second half felt much better. I talked through some case studies, both from my personal experience of projects I've worked on, and two non-museum examples of the Jammie Dodgers 'Give us a Giggle' campaign (which failed miserably) and the Walkers Crisps 'Do us a Flavour' campaign (which was a huge success). Using two confectionary-based marketing campaigns was perhaps a bit of a curveball for a museum audience, but I wanted a) to get across that it's not just museums who are competing for the public's attention and crativity, and b) to analyse the reasons behind the success/failure of these campaigns from a more social/psychological standpoint which could be applied to any kind of 'social media' project. I also invited case studies from the floor, which was interesting, and got people talking.

The second curveball of my workshop was to study the 'text the nation' feature on the Adam and Joe show. I used this, because radio is a medium where 'user generated content', in the form of text/email/phone-ins, is used day in, day out, and Adam and Joe are masters at it. Whilst the standard radio phone in methodology is the shock-jock approach of trying to provoke an angry reaction from people, Adam and Joe get a response by encouraging people to take a quirkier look on life, to make some observations they wouldn't otherwise have stopped to consider. It's a formula I think museums could adopt - if only because it creates such compelling content.

The final element of the workshop was for the participants to split into groups, and come up with a social web-based idea for an upcoming museum exhibition, taking into account all of the things discussed earlier in the workshop. They had to present these back in a Needs/Approach/Benefits/Competition format. The 'twist' was that each of the exhibitions were real exhibitions, belonging to a museum represented by someone else in the room. This, I think, helped to add a bit of jeapody to the task, as at the end I asked the participant from the relevant museum what they thought of the idea and whether they'd consider commissioning it! Some of the ideas generated were actually pretty good, and at least one participant asked if they could discuss and seriously consider the ideas after the workshop. The only downside to this activity was that I should have left more time for it - the half an hour on it should probably have been doubled. Still, it was a learning process for me, as well as (hopefully) for those that came.

Onto the conference itself. It started with an opening keynote plenary from Max Anderson, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which has been doing some interesting and innovative work online, including launching Art Babble, a pan-art-museum video site, and the IMA dashboard, which offers a huge amount of transparency into the workings of the museum. You can actually watch his full talk online, appropriately enough over on Art Babble, with relevant links literally popping up as the video plays out. However, the key word, and message, he used was that museum experiences online and offline should be about the 'visceral' rather than the 'virtual'. I have to admit that I wasn't exactly familiar with the term, and some of the dictionary definitions don't really help ("pertaining to the internal organs of the body"), but it can be summarised in this context as pertaining to "emotional" responses to museum experiences, rather than factual or intellectual responses. Anyway, it was thought provoking and provocative, and helped set the tone for the rest of the conference, which is what a good keynote plenary should always try to do.

Next up was the session in which I and Rhiannon Looseley presented our paper comparing two museum wikis. I'm not going to say much about this, as you can either read the paper, or our previous blog posts on the subject. The session went well though, and we both felt confidant enough to give our 20 minute talk with not much preparation, and very few slides (preferring to show the actual respective live websites instead).

With both my speaking duties out of the way so early into the programme, I could relax for the rest of the conference, and concentrate on soaking up the other presentations, and debating issues with other delegates.

Across the rest of the conference, the formal presentations I valued most were Action, affection and control...,which was looked at new models of interface design, and was thought-provoking if hard to follow in person, Aaron Straup Cope's The Interpretation of Bias..., which showed how powerful (and weird) aggregating user data can be, and finally the 'Location-Aware Services' session, which was a mixed-bag of presentations, but got me thinking about how geo-tracking technology was really pretty boring unless you create a very compelling experience around it. In particular, an RFID experiment was discussed, which was technically interesting, but seemed to be a solution in search of a use-case, some mobile-based learning experiences were described, some of which had intresting elements to them (particularly the one that was interface-free, and simply involved exchanging photos with someone the other side of the world), and finally a GPS-triggered national park handheld tour, which frankly seemed about 10 years out of date.

My biggest wake-up call from the whole conference, however, came from Richard Morgan at the V&A, who led a very entertaining and provocative (that word again) workshop called 'What Is Your Museum Good At and How Do You Build an API for It?'. In his preamble, he put across the argument that, whilst there has been a lot of discussion previously about the neccesity for museums to offer APIs for their collections data (which I contributed to with my paper from last year), "a museum's collections are not the only and sometimes not even the most interesting service which a museum provides".

He went on to suggest that museums aren't even always very good at describing and managing their collections information, and instead that the value of museums often comes instead from the value they add, including their expertise, interpretation, user contributions, events, shopping, and so on. Put simply, he argued that museums should focus more on "services" and less on "data". Whilst he admitted playing devil's advocate with this a little, I think it was a great point, and a valuable thought exercise. Museums have previously mainly concerned themsleves with developing read-only APIs for their data, but for services, you can build read-write APIs that can give people a much richer, more engaged experience.

Looking back, I touched upon some of these themes in a previous presentation I gave at the 'UK Museums on the Web' mini-conference in 2008. I wrote this up as 'Making sense of cross-museum collections websites', and tried to argue that simply aggregating collections data was interesting, but not hugely compelling, and that it'd be better to develop services that have a clear purpose and use-case, and which (usually) allow users to express something. I threw out 5 fairly random and spurious ideas, but all of these were related to collections, and Richard's talk took this much further by suggesting that musuem services don't have to directly relate to their own collections at all, as the V&A's Wedding Fashions feature demonstrates. In fact, the V&A is surely one of the few museums to have a 'things to do' section of their website, which is chock-full of online activities, few of which relate directly to 'museum objects'.

Anyway, so I applaud Richard on his session, which was entertaining, stimulating, and contained examples of things he'd actually done (rather than just thought about), including a beta of their collections API, which was created using Django and by screen-scraping their own website! In fact, this session was so potentially ground-breaking, that I'd encourage Richard to expand upon it by proposing a hands-on, half-day workshop on the subject for next year's conference.

To comment briefly on the structure of the conference itself, the most notable thing I can talk about was the newly-introduced 'unconference' session. This was introduced, I think, in response to a feeling that the world of museums and the web can sometimes move so fast that submitting a paper abstract 6 months in advance can be too slow. I've been to plenty of barcamp-style unconferences, but the 400-500 delegates at this conference meant that it was on a bit of a bigger scale. The self-organisation aspect of the unconference session was done via a set of whiteboards, and people coming up to a microphone in turn to propose sessions. This worked remarkably well, and the resulting sessions had between 2 and 30 or so participants, which led to sessions that were far more interactive and participatory than the usual 'powerpoint followed by q&a' format. My only slight quarm would be that the tight scheduling meant that we spent as much time organising the unconference as doing it, with there only being time for one lot of sessions run in parallel (and I had to pick between at least 3 interesting sounding topics).

Finally, I can't end without mentioning the people, who really are what makes the conference. It was great to catch up with old friends, including Seb Chan, Dan Z, George Oates, Nate Solas, Rhiannon Looseley, Mia Ridge, and the conference co-chairs David Bearman and Jennifer Trant (apologies to anyone I missed). Even better was to put faces to names and meet new friends, including Nina Simon, Claire Ross, Paula Bray, Shelley Mannion, Justin Heideman, Mark Matienzo and Koven J. Smith (apologies again, I know I've missed even more people this time).

Unlike last year, I haven't come back with a list of 'to-dos' (of which I appear to have done about 50%), rather a head full of ideas, inspiration, and a greater sense of the museum online community (of which I am now only a very small part of, but still hanging on...).

If you were at the conference, or found this marginally useful, you may be interested to read other people's reflections upon the conference (I'll try and keep this updated):