Since I’m not a member of the MCG Committee I’m allowed to say this: UK Museums on the Web 2010 was a great success. Not only because it had a record number of attendees in comparison to previous editions, but also because it gave museum professionals the opportunity to be informed and inspired in times that are tough and undoubtedly will get tougher still. Around the theme ‘Doing more with less: rising to the digital challenge in difficult times’ speakers and audience discussed four aspects of (digital) museum work that can provide us with the ammunition and resilience we need to overcome the challenges our museums will meet. Funding, collaboration, aggregating our online collections, and the use of open source were the main topics of the day, introduced by a keynote address from Nick Poole, Chief Executive at the Collections Trust.
To summarise an event that was so packed with valuable information, insights and discussions is quite the challenge and I am aware that this blog post is much longer than any blog post should be. So please follow the quick links to the different sections of the post below to get straight to the information you are looking for, or, if you must, read it all.
Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the Collections Trust
In his keynote address Nick Poole described his vision for museums as institutions that can help society to reconnect with itself. They should be accessible through a wide range of media, but should also provide high quality interaction between real objects and real people. While describing the strength and importance of museums, he also emphasised that it will be necessary to find alternative ways of funding in order to step away from the current situation of government dependency. His speech didn’t hide his strong conviction that museums can make money and should make money with their digital and online activities. These activities, according to Nick Poole should be aimed at satisfying audience needs, rather than provide what we think visitors want. Additionally, the use of technology should no longer be regarded as an ‘add-on’ to our existing programmes and activities. Our audiences are becoming more confident in using technology and this technology becomes easier to use and access at a fast rate. Museums have to adapt themselves to these changes, and develop products that can compete with commercial standards. However, no museums will be able to achieve this alone. Therefore, Nick encouraged us to collaborate within and outside our own field of work, we have to share our experiences and knowledge and be open about our lessons learned and the methods that we used. In his speech he seemed to advocate an all for one and one for all approach, encouraging ‘museum techies’ to fight the necessary battles within their own organisation, but to also look beyond the walls of their own museums in order to join forces and rise to the challenge together.
Nick Poole’s complete speech can be found on the Open Culture blog.
Alex Morrison (Managing Director, Cogapp)
Alex Morrison talked about the opportunities of online fundraising. With 30.1 million adults in the UK accessing the Internet on an (almost) daily basis there is a very large potential online audience. What is even more interesting is that a large part of this audience is comfortable with making online donations. The UK website Just Giving makes it possible for people to raise funds online for their charity and currently has 12 million personal accounts. On average the charities represented on here raise £77,000 each, although some charities raise much more and others considerably less. Currently very few museums and galleries are represented on Just Giving, and Alex believes that using Just Giving could offer interesting funding opportunities for the museum sector.
Using a case study of the online archive and collections related to the Airborne Forces. Alex continued to describe how museums could build successful online donation opportunities into their website. With regards to the design of the donation form, he referred to a paper by Jakob Nielsen. When it comes to the content of the form his two tips were: Make it easy for people to engage and make it easy to give. Originally, people who wanted to use the online collections and archive of the airborne forces museum had to pay a registration fee. However, this didn’t prove successful. After changing this to free registration and an optional donation it turned out that 5% of the registered users made a donation with an average of £15 per donation and sometimes even more than one donation per user. Because many people register to use the service, the museum can contact the remaining 95% of its registered users to keep them informed on the work that can be done with the use of donations, encouraging them to make a donation as well. The aim is to make the service, including its staff, self-sufficient through the use of the donation scheme.
John Stack (Head of Tate Online)
John Stack discussed how various teams worked together on the Gaugain exhibition to create a coherent online experience for their visitors and to raise the revenue generated through the website. Like Alex Morrison, John emphasises the importance of visitor engagement. Visitors that feel engaged with a museum or exhibition are more likely to donate. John described three ways in which Tate’s web presence can generate income. Besides donating money, visitors can also purchase products through the online shop. Additionally, through targeted advertisement people are encouraged to visit the exhibition, which has an entrance fee. The online team, curators and marketing department have worked together to create an online environment in which people are stimulated to use one or more of these opportunities to donate or spend money. The exhibition has its own webpage, but instead of making this a highly designed (and expensive) page, it is kept relatively simple and is backed up by a wider web-presence for the exhibition. For example, people that have visited the Tate website will find banners for the Gaugain exhibition on Google and Facebook and instead of an automatically generated newsletter subscribers will receive a more personal message from a curator. Additionally, the exhibition curator has a blog on which she regularly publishes new posts. Just like the Airborne Forces Museum, Tate stimulates visitors to their website to register. After their physical visit to the museum people will automatically receive a request to review the exhibition, with the aim to keep them engaged after their visit and to stimulate them to be an advocate for the exhibition and the museum in their online communities. Although this wider web presence seems successful, John acknowledged that the curator’s engagement meant that more tasks were added to her workload. It was interesting to see how two museums that were very different seemed to benefit from using the same approach to generating online funding. Encouraging people to register on the website and providing them with an engaging online experience, rather than using more traditional marketing tools seemed to be the key points in both museums’ approach.
John’s presentation can be found on slideshare.
From grant funding to online funding
Martin Bazley (Online Experience Consultant, Martin Bazley & Associates): & Peter Pavement, (Director, Surface Impression)
Martin Bazley & Peter Pavement approached the issue of funding from a slightly different angle. They have developed an online learning resource called MyLearning which makes it possible for content providers, like schools and museums, to create their own online learning resources. It is designed so that teachers can easily grab content from the website and leave again, because studies have shown that this is often how teachers work. A current aim for the project is to make it a national rather than local resource, which means it will be accessible for a wider range of content providers. Additionally searchability and findability of the different types of resources can be made more coherent, with links to Culture24 and Europeana as a result. This project was commissioned and funded by Renaissance Yorkshire and funding will probably be in place for another two years. However, when this runs out another funding model should be in place to fill the gap. In theory, schools could be charged for using the website and research has shown that they would be willing to do so. The bottleneck here lies with the actual process of registration and payment, which is something most teachers are not willing to spend time on. Therefore, in this case Martin and Peter suggested that it would be more effective to find external funding for the project. Securing funding is something that could be done by either a freelancer, an agency or by somebody within the organization.
Because finding and securing funding can be a laborious process with uncertain outcomes, it can be difficult to predict how much money will eventually be available for the project. A way to solve this problem could be the use of the Income Pipeline model. In this model all (possible) funding for the project gets classified based on the various phases of the funding process. Is the funding merely an opportunity, are you in the process of discussing the opportunities with the possible funder, has a proposal been written, are you awaiting a decision or has the funding been awarded? All these phases of the process are then awarded a percentage, representing the likelihood the funding will be received. When a funding opportunity is being discussed with a possible funder, there is a relatively small chance the funding will indeed be awarded. Of all the discussions held with possible funders, maybe one in 10 will prove to be successful. This can be translated to a likelihood of 10% for any funding that is being negotiated. For funding that has been awarded, the likelihood of receiving it is close to 100%. By adding up all the funding in the various categories and multiplying it by the likelihood percentage, it is possible to predict the total amount of funding that can be secured for a project. This process works well if you are trying to secure funding on an ongoing basis and have the opportunity to pursue large numbers of funding opportunities. With a small number of opportunities the percentages are less usable. Possible ways of funding a project like MyLearning are public funding, grant funding, revenue income through a commissioning structure and the use of advertisements through websites like Adify.
After this presentation questions from the audience focused on the fact that charities already have much more experience in online fundraising than museums and the issue of collaborating in the fundraising process. Is it possible for museums to work together on this point?
Partnerships between museums and communities
Angelina Russo, Associate Professor, RMIT University, Melbourne andwww.museum3.org)
Angelina Russo has been working on collaborative projects for several years and in her experience museums today are less anxious to work together than several years ago. Funding models often support collaboration, although they are, according to Joanna, not necessarily designed to support sharing resources and outcomes amongst museums. Angelina was involved in setting up Museum3. This online space was originally developed as a space where museum professionals could share knowledge and develop new partnerships. Users can create a profile and join in discussions on the forum and respond to blog posts. Just like MyLearning, Museum3 originally received funding, but when this funding ended a new model to generate income was needed, or it wouldn’t be possible to maintain the website. After positive feedback from the community, the decision was made to reshape Museum3 into a ‘real’ organisation. The constitution was written together with the community. To generate income users are encouraged to become paying associate members and this model seems to be a success. Angelina stressed the importance of finding ways to engage and creating possibilities to participates in ways that are not one-off projects. By stimulating ongoing engagement, museums can demonstrate their value to their community. As an example she mentioned the possibility to work with communities of ‘makers’, like people involved in arts and crafts, but also movements as DIY Citizenship. Additionally, Angelina encouraged museums to look for unexpected partnerships, like the partnership with the Australian Football League she was involved in and which was funded for entirely by the Football League, without the need of any government funding.
Partnership with BT
Joanna Pollock (Knowledge Transfer Strategy and Development Manager, Arts and Humanities Research Council, John Seton (Head of Regional Strategic Partnerships, BT Innovate and Design)
John Seton introduced the work of BT Innovate and Design. At their offices, which John described as “100 acres of nerds” BT Innovate and Design are doing research in collaboration with universities, governments and customers. The main strand of research looks at creating faster networks and the uses customers could and would have for them. Where it’s relatively easy for BT to find and approach big organisations, they also want to work together with smaller institutions. BT works together with a wide variety of clients and in the past had worked on digital heritage projects in an EU context. In order to do more research on this subject in the UK, BT has been collaborating with AHRC. The AHRC brokered a workshop that enabled BT to get in contact with organisations from the arts and heritage sector. With the use of AHRC funding for collaborative research networks, five of these networks formed a research community around the use of digital media in a museum and heritage context.
Although these five networks each did their own strand of research, they got together regularly and discussed and shared progress, outcomes and information on their projects. One of these projects was LIVE!Museum, which was launched at UKMW09. According to Ross Parry, what was special with these projects was that the research questions rose from within the museum community, rather than from the academic field. It also released the potential of the Museum Computers Group as a place where people can meet and collaborate. This collaboration with AHRC has provided BT with a wealth of new contacts within the arts and heritage sector from University College Falmouth, to a number of Welsh Museums and from the Science Museum to Goldsmiths. BT is hoping to continue this kind of collaboration in the future and is hoping to make use of future AHRC calls for funding to further their collaboration with the heritage sector.
John’s presentation can be found on slideshare
Variables and must-haves for successful collaboration
Kevin Walker (Research Officer, London Knowledge Lab)
Kevin Walker discussed various possible models for successful partnerships, but emphasised that a consistent vision was key for any form of collaboration. As an example he mentioned A History of the World in 100 Object, the successful collaboration between the BBC and the British Museum which was very much shaped by Neil MacGregor’s vision. He also briefly spoke about projects he worked on at Kew Gardens, Centre Pompidou and the Foundling Museum. By discussing this wide range of projects, a number of variables became discernible: has the end product one voice, or many voices? Does it involve a large number of objects, a few or just one? And how many stories are being told? For example, can visitors all give their own interpretation of an object or is there one very clear story line? These variables might be useful to create a clear outline of a project from the beginning. Besides these variables, Kevin also discussed a number of elements that he deemed crucial for a successful collaboration. Firstly, the clear single vision can bring consistency and makes clear branding possible. Secondly, working with a commercial partner can guarantee quality of technology and design. And lastly projects that are education-led tend to be more successful that the ones that are led by technology. It avoids the “we should do something with pda’s/tablets/wifi/qr-codes” trap and allows the museum to question its needs, before deciding what technology to use.
Kevin’s presentation led to a discussion on the role of story telling in museums. Kevin stressed that story telling should always aim to help visitors connect with the museum and its collections and Angelina drew attention to the fact that Neil MacGregor spoke about museums as cultural broadcasters and curators as cultural publishers. This challenges the way some museums and curators perceive their role.
Jill Cousins (Executive Director, Europeana)
Jill Cousins talked about how Europeana aims to bring museums, archives, audio and visual collections together in Europe by aggregating the aggregators. In 2008 a prototype was launched and what started with 2 national aggregators has grown out to a database that is being fed by 28 national aggregators with over 1000 participating institutions. So far there has been no marketing campaign for Europeana and instead of actively collecting data, Europeana is trying to convince aggregators to feed into the database. This makes standardisation easier, but it is still challenging to overcome issues relating linked data, data enrichment and multilingualism of the system. To avoid broken links, a persistent identifier is needed. Instead of copying the actual content, Europeana only keeps the metadata on its server and one of the goals for the future is to make this metadata interlinked open data. The current agreement that the content is for non-commercial use only means that it is not possible to share content with Wikipedia. Currently Europeana is working on Collective Licensing and a structure that can provide participating organisations with fair compensation. The goal for Europeana is to distribute, facilitate, aggregate and encourage people to engage with the content, because they believe access to culture nurtures creativity, which can stimulate growth.
The slides for this presentation can be found on Slideshare.
The importance of online collections
Linda Ellis (Project Manager Online Collections, Wolverhampton City Council / Black Country History) and James Grimster (Director, Orangeleaf Systems Ltd)
Linda Ellis and James Grimster talked about their project that aimed to open up the collections of the Black Country, but also looked at the challenges museums face when it comes to engaging online communities. As James put it poignantly: More people farm electric sheep in Farmville than use digital collections. Why are people willing to become a mayor of a car park with foursquare, but are they not consulting our databases as often as they could?
Black Country History aims to make collections of institutions in the region accessible to an informed audience in a way that is Google-friendly and cost-efficient. It is trying to reach its audience through a main website, microsites that are all aimed at different target audiences and through social networking tools. The content is being delivered by four museums and four archives and currently +127800 records are available. Besides these eight partners, another eight parties are involved in the project. Because the records are aggregated from different databases issues with regards to terminology, spelling, data quality and missing data had to be overcome. The use of different date formats in the various collection management systems also proved to be a problem. The content that is available on Black Country History is also available through CultureGrid and Europeana. It is also part of a wider project called Digital Midlands which provides access to a quarter of a million records.
James drew attention to an issue that is not only of importance for the Black Country History project, but will probably resonate with many museums that are working with online collections: how can we show our importance to the online community? Can we create an environment where people can earn virtual rewards or do location based treasure hunts? Should it be possible to digitally discover your local area during a sponsored pub crawl? James is interested to find out in what ways other museums have tried to engage online audiences with their collections. What are the experiences? What works and what doesn’t?
After this presentation there was a discussion on finding new ways to engage users with our collections. Linda Ellis mentioned how they were looking into the possibility of letting people comment on the objects and their information and Jill Cousins described how some museums try to engage people through their passion for a certain subject. Laura Whitton from Collections Trust suggested that maybe museums shouldn’t be suggesting new uses of their collections, but that they should encourage users to be creative. She referred to the hack day that will be hosted in the Midlands. In response to this Jill mentioned how some museums themselves still need to be convinced of the importance of opening up collections online, because they fear loosing income in the future. Any comments or thoughts on this subject (or any others mentioned in this blog post) are more than welcome.
New Media in the Museum of London
Paul Clifford (Programme Manager (Digital Learning), Museum of London)
At the end of a very long day filled with little geek talk, but mainly inspirational examples and useful tips, Paul Clifford talked about the use of digital media in the Museum of London. The Museum of London tries to use open source software where possible, to make it possible for visitors and school groups to use the same software at home or at school. As an example he mentioned easy to use digital cameras (such asFlip cameras and Prezi as an alternative for Powerpoint. Because there is only a limited amount of time available for a blended learning session in the museum, any software and hardware that is used during these sessions must be easy to use. The Museum of London has an impressive array of gadgets and software available, from digital cameras, interactive whiteboards and QR barcodes to Bluetooth, WIFI and WordPress. However, Paul emphasised that “It is not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it that counts.” He encouraged us to take time to play with open source software and to “build fast, build cheap and build often.” With products and services being updated and improved all the time, we have to change the way we work. “Perfect is the enemy of good,” Paul advised. It seemed like his boundless enthusiasm and energy rubbed off and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people present at the conference have since taken up his advice and are testing out new cheap and easy ways of introducing digital media into their museums.
How open source influences our way of working
Mark Polishook (Open Source artist)
After Paul’s enthusiastic talk, Mark Polishook talked about how the use of open source can change the way we work. He described how, when he first started using open source, he felt it was easier to collaborate with a wide range of different people. Everybody was keen to share their knowledge and experience with others using the same open source software. According to Mark, because of this open source seems to foster collaboration much more than conventional software. Because everybody can change and add to open source, we are also more likely to have a deeper sense of ownership. The traditional: “What does it do?” makes place for a new question: “Can we make it do this?” This characteristic of open source was described by Mark as potential energy. Where open source can help different departments within an organisation work together, it can also be a battle to convince colleagues of the use of new working methods and software. Introducing open source is often hard work and Mark warned us that we have to seriously consider the risks of stimulating change. Introducing a piece of software that doesn’t work well within the organisation may put colleagues off using open source all together. With this message the presentations of Paul and Mark counterbalanced each other perfectly. Wonderful things can be achieved when using open source, but it will require organisational change, which always bring its own challenges with it.
Open Source and Open University
Trevor Collins (Research Fellow, Knowledge Media Institute, Open University) & John Lea (Open University)
In the last presentation of the day, Trevor Collins and John Lea again emphasised the positive aspects of open source. It is generally quick to install, it is tried and tested, easy to use and reliable. They described a photo competition they organised in a museum during which teams of children had to take three photographs, each of another pre-determined topic, within an hour. These pictures where then shared and discussed. To establish a network in the museum, they used an open source web server on one of their computers. When they were explaining how this server worked, I realised that a certain amount of geekiness is sometimes still required, no matter how user-friendly software has become these last few years. But then again, maybe that’s just me. And I must admit that throughout the day there had been very little ‘geek talk’ indeed. It seems like we have really come to a point where everybody can get involved and I certainly intend to follow Paul Clifford’s advice and play more.
It is a UKMW tradition to have an energising session in the day where, through a series of super short ‘micro presentations’, members from the floor have just 4 minutes to update on a project, call for partners, pitch an idea, ask for support, highlight a new initiative, or just contribute to the event and the life of the MCG more widely.
Danny Birchall from the Wellcome Collection talked about Things, a recent participatory event that was held at the Wellcome Collection. Visitors were encouraged to add to the collection by bringing in anything they thought valuable or special during the bring-a-thing-athon. The only rule was: It can’t be bigger than your head. All things were accessioned (either temporary or permanent), displayed and photographed. Volunteers then added the pictures and any additional information to the Wellcome Collection website, using Flickr. Displaying the objects online as well as in the exhibition space gave the objects and the project much more visibility. By using a well-known and free system like Flickr meant little training was needed and the project could be run with limited costs. Finally, working with artists provided a chance to experiment and to work outside the boundaries of normal institutional procedures.
Charlotte Connelly described the Public History of Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine project at the Science Museum. Since the late 90’s the Science Museum has been rethinking the way it talked about science. A more participatory approach was introduced for developing new exhibitions and with the Public History project the museum wants to introduce this way of working in the more historical galleries. A workshop on co-curation and Social History was held in the museum during which various museums came to share their experience with co-curation. For more information on this workshop, you can visit the wiki. With a couple of one-off exhibitions and events the museum wants to investigate how it can give audiences more chances to participate and how it can use the web to encourage visitors to create content and help the museum to improve its knowledge about the collections. The first exhibition will aim to have visitors engage with one iconic object from the museum’s collections: an early music synthesizer, whose samples could me made available online for visitors to remix.
Oliver Vickers-Harris is a consultant who worked on the Louis Vuitton Young Arts project. This project is the digital expression of a wide-ranging education programme, which has three key themes: Collaboration, integration and co-creation. Five galleries worked together with Louis Vuitton, which was a partner as well as the sponsor. The online presence was to be integrated in other activities the partner organisations were already undertaking. The young people who worked on the project were seen as the ‘key client’ and their ideas fuelled the project. They also decided on the project name and brand. Crowd sourcing was used to express the project’s identity. Of course, working with multiple partners as well as young people was a challenge, but it was also a great opportunity. Oliver believes that it will become more common in the future to work in this way.
Simon Ford works at Prescient Software a tech start-up specialising in using linked data. They are working on a project that uses intuitive thinking patterns of users to enhance the flexibility and future proofing of web content. Users will be better able to define their own journeys, which will make it possible to increase the stickiness of content. It gives people the opportunity to search through databases using filters and database queries. It uses the concept that ‘navigation is the data’ in creating a web environment for users. Simon was interested to find out if the delegates thought this could have a useful application in a museum context.
Gemma Sturtridge works at the Museum of Croydon, a local authority museum that is threatened by closure due to government cuts. She was wondering what MCG members could do to assist museums in similar situations. She suggested to create a statement about the importance of digital heritage, which can then be shared by museums as a tool to prove their relevance and importance. It is agreed that members that are interested can develop this statement together. Gemma will write a draft version. After the conference there has been a discussion about this advocacy statement on the MCG website.