Thoughts on the MCG Spring Meeting 2010

rhiannon_looseley150sq[This week’s guest post is by Rhiannon Looseley, E-Learning Officer (Web), Museum of London, and MCG Committee member. It was originally published on her blog]

Early (very early) on Thursday morning, I got up and got the 7.03 train from Euston to Birmingham for this year’s Museums Computer Group (MCG) Spring Meeting. The theme of the day was ‘Programming, Promotion and Policy’ and I was looking forward to the interesting range of topics that we had on the programme, particularly hearing from the people behind the immensely successful way in which the story of the Staffordshire Hoard find was announced, and the round-table discussion in the afternoon about what the post-election climate has in store for our sector.

The day didn’t disappoint. What I particularly liked, having never attended one of the smaller MCG meeting before, was the atmosphere. Rather than the usual conference atmosphere at the bigger meetings, this was much more informal, chatty, and friendly. I’ve really enjoyed the two UK Museums on the web conferences that I’ve attended but this was refreshingly different.

First up after Ross’s introduction and a few words about Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) from Jo Smith, was my fellow MCG committee member Linda Spurdle. Linda is the Digital Manager at BMAG and talked about some of the projects that she is working on, particularly the new BMAG galleries – Birmingham: A city in the making – for which stories and images will be gathered from the community using social media. Linda talked enthusiastically of the vibrant and flourishing social media scene in Birmingham which I hadn’t heard about before. It was really cheering to hear about a community who are proud of their city and keen to get involved in cultural projects. Linda also talked a little about the Staffordshire Hoard and the amazing scenes of 3-4-hour long queues outside BMAG when it first went on display. 65,000 people visited the Hoard in 19 days and web visit-or figures increased 12-fold. The effect of this amazing find has been felt right across BMAG and it sounds as if staff across the organisation have risen to the occasion to make the most of it, with conservators offering to blog about their work to clean up the treasures and live-question-and-answer sessions happening in the galleries and online. This set the tone for the day for me as the Staffordshire Hoard was a recurring theme throughout the day and what really struck me was the admirable way in which BMAG and all those involved in the project had acted so fast and in such an effective and organised fashion.

Immediately following on from Linda’s talk came Tony Adams from Stoke Museums who also have parts of the Staffordshire Hoard on display. Tony was talking about an ambitious project he is working on to create a virtual Staffordshire museum online by pulling together data from all the museums across the region which will in turn also feed into the Culture Grid and Europeana. I have to admit to glazing over slightly once James Grimster, the web developer for the project started talking the techy acronyms of web geekery which I’m afraid still evade my understanding. Nevertheless, I was already hooked on the atmosphere in the room and already feeling that now-familiar buzz that I get once I realise that a conference is giving me ideas and helping me to think properly again (I blogged on the evening of the conference about what I love about conferences and this freeing up of my thought processes is a key aspect). What particularly struck me about Tony’s talk was the fact that he described the project as ‘writing the rule book’ as they go along. This, to me, would feel a little frightening in a world where we’re increasingly encouraged to be accountable at all times, but I admired Tony’s brave and enthusiastic attitude as he described how exciting he found this.

After these two talks, Ross Parry, chair of the MCG, set the tone for the relaxed nature of the day by taking time out of the programme to encourage some discussion about the talks. He encouraged Jeremy Ottevanger (recently of the Museum of London, now at the Imperial War Museum but also heavily involved in the Europeana project) to describe what was going through his head as he heard James talking through the technical aspects of the Staffordshire museums website and the way that data would be collected. I don’t know if Jeremy will blog Thursday’s conference but I hope he will as he might be able to give you a better idea of some of the things James covered which I couldn’t do any justice to here. Keep an eye on Jeremy’s blog over the coming weeks!

After a short break we moved on to the next part of the day: the Staffordshire Hoard and the publicity campaign around it. This session stemmed from an idea by another committee member (and key organiser of the spring meeting) Gemma Sturtridge who was really struck when the story of the breathtaking find broke by the coordinated way in which everyone pulled together so that nothing was leaked in advance and that various aspects of a slick media campaign exploded all at once. As a committee we agreed that hearing about how this had happened would provide valuable lessons to us all. We weren’t wrong.

The session started with an interesting talk by Dan Pett of the Portable Antiquities Scheme who is responsible for building theStaffordshire Hoard website (Dan has shared his slides for his talkonline already). As an archaeologist by background, Dan was able to give us an insight into how big a story the Portable Antiquities Scheme immediately realised this was. Whereas a usual find is worth around £50-100, this one was valued at about £3,285,000! The impressive thing to note about Dan’s work on the website is that he was given 1 week’s notice and no budget to build it, and so it cost £0 to make! Using textpattern, Dan built a website which relied heavily on social media. All the images were uploaded to Flickr under a Creative Commons license (so no images were actually hosted on the server making the site faster under the strain of a lot of visitors) which proved popular as it allowed people to make use of them on their own blogs and websites and the site also pulled in people’s tweets as the news broke.

Once the news broke the website did come under a certain amount of strain with 2000 connections a second at one point but Dan was able to harness the power of the great network of museum web geeks that we have on Twitter to ask for advice on what to do to manage this. A quarter of a million people visited the site within three days.

Following on from Dan, we heard from Kerri Keiwan of the Art Fund about the tremendous ‘Save the Stafforshire Hoard’ campaign which raised money to ensure that it was able to stay on display in the region. I’m aware that this post if getting longer and longer so I’m not going to go into detail about every talk here but after Kerri, we heard from Jon Pratty, a man with many hats, but talking here with his journalist hat on who gave some very insightful tips on breaking news stories on a museum website. These included amongst much other valuable advice, discussing what stories you will have coming up 6 months in advance, making sure that you always put a sensible and useful subject when you email a press release to journalists, and making sure you always attach a small, unedited picture to your press release.

During the lunch break we had an interesting tour of the Museums Collections Centre where the meeting was held, getting a behind-the-scenes insight into BMAG’s collections which are housed here.

After lunch, Caroline Moore of Renaissance East Midlands talked to us about the project that she and Bryony Robbins are working on at present called Mubu which gathers together a series of learning and community projects across the East Midlands which all have a digital output. Caroline also touched on the project that I’ve blogged about before called My Life as an Object which used four different social media platforms over four weeks to experiment with engaging audiences with museum collections in different ways. It was a project with Rattle Central and I was delighted that Caroline gave me a copy of the newspaper that was produced to gather together the results of the projects at the end.

We then moved on to the open mic session which I was chairing. This is where we open up the floor to up to speakers to talk about a subject of their choice for 5 minutes, without slides and with only internet access. The call that we had put out had been fairly general but it was great to see that actually the four talks that were eventually presented pulled together some of the themes for the day quite nicely.

Firstly we heard from Laura Whitton from the Collections Trust who talked about the new Culture Grid website which has recently been launched and had already been on everyone’s lips earlier in the day. The website basically pulls together data from across the sector and allows cross collections searches – check it out, it’s pretty cool!

Next up was Lucinda Donnachie from the National Maritime Museum with a quick five minutes on a project she’s working on withwww.naval-history.net to improve the data that they have based on an old card catalogue of 20,000 vessels.

Following on from Lucinda, we heard from Rebecca Cadwallader about the fascinating http://www.wevee.co.uk/ which encourages users to ‘mashup’ film footage from the UK Film Council to make their own creations.

Lastly, Jon Pratty gave an off-the-cuff presentation of a personal project he’s working on called Americanium which pulls together RSS feeds from various different cultural sites to make a website which is simple to produce and pulls together a lot of American cultural material in one place – quite a cool idea! This was the first time Jon had talked about this project in the UK so you could say it was a national premier!

We then moved on to the round table discussion of the effect of the events of 6 May 2010 on the digital heritage sector. My notes here become quite sketchy because there was so much to say and many people speaking. I hope I can give a flavour of what was said but I can’t promise that there aren’t inaccuracies. Here are a few of the main points:

Katie Peckacar, MLA Policy Advisor warned us that we still don’t know a lot of what will happen but that it looks like we will be a lot more scrutinised than we were about why projects are important and whether or not they are aligned to our organisational strategies and aims. Partnerships with software developers and academics who have priorities aligned to ours will be important. An example model Katie quoted was the Tank Museum which has given a games company access to their collections in order to create a game which they can then use for free. MLA are also putting together a kind of buddying system to pair up software developers in academia who are interested in solving practical problems with museums and various events and hack days are being organised to further these kinds of working models.

Katie had to leave at that point but it was then the turn of Bridget McKenzie of Flow Associates to put her thoughts across. Bridget wants to push for a more creative cultural strategy – one that’s much more about advocating the value of cultural content to the economy and to cultural public life rather than risk a return to silo-ised way of working that might come out focussing in to much on local need and the improving each institution. Bridget spoke of the need for a body to strongly advocate for the value of our content and the potential of the services that that content can make rather than the fun stuff that technology enables you can do for the sake of it.

Jon Pratty pointed out at this point that the digital inclusion agenda and the work that Martha Lane Fox is doing to to regenerate and to empower and to join people up using technology seems to be one of the few growth areas of digital heritage. He suggested that perhaps culturally we should be projecting ourselves over towards that sector. Jon advocated, along similar lines to Katie, ensuring that your organisation has a very joined up and cross-thinking perspective when writing its digital strategy to ensure it is aligned with business plans etc before applying for funding.

These interesting and valuable discussions were rounded up with Ross’s summing up of the themes for the day and then some of us moved on to see the Staffordshire Hoard for real at BMAG in Birmingham City Centre. This was a great ending to a really interesting day. I would recommend going to see the Hoard if you haven’t already. I know very little about the Anglo-Saxons but the thing that struck me was the detail and the amazing craftsmanship of these sometimes tiny objects that were thought to have been produced around 600AD. We were lucky enough to get a curator’s tour which made the whole thing so much more meaningful and really rounded off a great day. Once again, I was struck by how quickly and effectively BMAG must have responded to the news of the find. In a sector that can sometimes feel slow to move, I was really struck by how well they appear to have worked together so that the hoard could be dug up, put on display, funded and publicised so smoothly in such a short time.

I hope that those of you that weren’t there on the day have been able to get some sense of what went on and the positive threads of enthusiasm, creativity, inspiration and joined-up thinking that went on. It was a great, informal, friendly day that, as conferences often do, reminded me of my passion for the sector I work in and the work I do. I hope that those of you were there shared my enjoyment of the day and urge you all to keep an eye on the meetings section of the Museums Computer Group website for details of our annual conference which should be held in London in November/December of this year.

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Posted in Archived Events, Article, Events, Guest posts on cultural heritage technologies, Meeting report

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The MCG is for technologists, curators, educators, marketers and more in and around museums. Posts and event news by Mia (Chair), Jess, and the Comms team