As part of this year’s MCG:UKMW14 ‘Museums beyond the Web’, we asked guest bloggers to cover the day and share their impressions of our lineup of speakers. In this post, blogger Holly Parsons reports back on a day that considered the relative pace of change in both technology and museums.
The tenth annual Museums Computer Group Conference was held at the Natural History Museum’s Fleet Events Theatre. The conference was opened by Mia Ridge who reflected on rapid digital change and noted that museum years are different to technology years. Technology is like Mercury which moves round the sun very fast, completing a year in a mere 88 Earth days. People are like Earth and move at a medium speed, while museums are like Mars, moving slowly, completing one orbit round the sun for every two Earth years!
Opening keynote George Oates celebrated the fact that even in this technological age, people are still visiting museums – but suggested that museums should make greater effort to move into the world of technology. Oates’ design company is planning to make a virtual museum with “digital in the centre of it”. The talks that followed included a variety of museum and technology specialists sharing their knowledge of bringing technology into our museums.
The first group of talks, Experiences beyond the Web, started with Marco Mason sharing how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum had introduced Google Glass. The glasses were programmed to interact with the displays, showing information in between the visitor and the object, without the user needing to shift attention between device and object.
Tara Copplestone spoke about her research into virtual reality museums. Virtual reality and computer-generated 3D images on specialist devices could help museums to reach a new sector of society – gamers. Copplestone argued that with Facebook’s recent purchase of Oculus VR, virtual reality could soon be making a bigger impact on our lives, and the sooner museums take advantage of this new development the better.
For the final talk before lunch Daniella Petrelli discussed her work with Digital Cultural Heritage within meSch. For the project they deliberately chose not to use screens. Instead, they developed ‘magnifying glasses’ that interacted with display cases, the displays changed depending on the popularity of the objects inside. Another project worked with the history of trenches in Italy where visitors could use an interactive book or belt that work like an audio guide. These came with cards that visitors could use to change the theme of the information.
After lunch the pace picked up with lightning talks. Nick Poole from the Collections Trust shared recent research from a project called ‘Going Digital’ on how the Trust is helping smaller museums to access technology. Pierre Far spoke about what visitors want from a museum website. 77% of mobile searches are done from home or work, and most visitors are looking for the museum opening times, tickets and exhibit information from mobile-accessible websites; museums should respond to this by aiming for their websites to be mobile accessible. Matthew McGrattan from the Bodleian Library talked about the iiif project and the problems of producing digital images. Jon Little spoke about installing iBeacons around Kew Gardens, allowing visitors to get information to their devices through Bluetooth and eliminating the problem of the gardens not having WiFi. Finally, Tandi Williams from Nesta discussed the results from the digital culture survey looking at how organisations use technology.
Mobile Beyond the Museum included three talks on how museums have been using technology outside their own walls. Alex Butterworth discussed the Box of Delights project: when Oxford’s Natural History Museum closed, it lent display objects around the city, and a downloadable app allowed visitors to track these objects down across the city, following the story of their release from the museum by a goddess and their eventual return. Butterworth explained their goal of making the visitor’s mobile phone a “magical device,” sparking their imagination through a story.
Anna Rhodes from Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and Ben Bedwell from Wander Anywhere then introduced the mobile app Collections in the Landscape, which offered two types of trails around Buxton. First, they installed information boards in landscape areas with text or poetry relating to the view printed on them. They also developed audio trails for people’s phones to direct them to local places of interest, ending up in the museum where the visitors could learn more. Rhodes explained how “digital is really enabled into everyone’s job roles” from the curators to the front of house staff, embedding a digital way of thinking.
Finally, Rick Lawrence from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery presented their project Moor Stories. This brought together various sources including objects and stories to spark visitors’ imaginations. The project includes a website where visitors can post their own stories. Like some of the other projects, the main issue for this one was a lack of Wi-Fi signal at some of the sites.
The final set of talks were called Connections Beyond the Organisation. Rebecca Bartlett discussed Centenary Connections, a project connecting stories of the First World War in Manchester, where the museum used digital to pull together their sources so visitors could search them by theme. An accompanying mobile app displayed the objects’ locations on a map and allowed visitors to check in at the museum, with prizes being awarded when visitors had checked in at a number of locations.
Stephen Brown of De Montfort University then spoke about Fuzzy Photo, another project linking several museums who have digitised collections and can now share images and fill in their collection gaps by finding images from other museums of objects that are the same or similar to their own.
Lastly Oluwatoyin Sogbesan spoke about the misinterpretation of some African objects by national museums in their digitised collections. She argued that now most of the world is on the internet, there should be a space on a museums website for people to add their comments about an object and this would encourage a variety of opinions and interpretations from other cultures.
The closing keynote was given by Ross Parry who reviewed the day’s talks and remembered the beginning of the Museums Computer Group. The founder of MCG first used a computer in the 1960s, and Parry compared the differences between PCs then and now. In his closing notes Parry considered where museums stood in a post-digital age and questioned if the MCG would be needed in 5 or 10 years’ time. But thinking back to the opening comments of the conference, as long as technology moves as fast as Mercury, museums will need the MCG to help them catch up.
About our guest blogger
Holly Parsons studied History and Politics followed by Heritage and Museum Studies at the University of Portsmouth. She lives in Brighton and has a keen interest in museums, volunteering in several and visiting as many as she can. Holly splits her time between volunteering and working in museums while also looking for full time work. Find out more about Holly through her LinkedIn profile or twitter @holly_p9.