Izzy Bartley attended UKMW15 ‘Bridging Gaps, Making Connections’ as a guest blogger. She has written the following post in response to the day:


This year’s Museums Computer Group conference was held in the British Museum on the 26 October with the theme of Bridging Gaps: Making Connections.  The wide variety of presentations made for an inspiring and stimulating conference.  Below is an overview of some of the projects, arguments and viewpoints presented throughout the day, split into two interwoven themes of collaboration and digital engagement.

Collaboration as a positive force

Collaboration – between individual organisations as well as organisations and their audiences – was a central thread running through many of the day’s presentations.  Examples were given where collaborative projects have led to a widening of audiences, an increase in connections with those audiences and opportunities for public involvement.

John Coburn, the digital programmes manager at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam) spoke about the museum service’s Decoded 1914 – 18, a two-week programme of digital and AV events and workshops with sound artists held in the galleries.

Passing visitors, drawn to the spectacle of the creative process, were able to become part of that process, working collaboratively with the artists to produce original work.

Coburn also reported on internal efforts to affect positive change through fostering inter-departmental collaboration.  The focus here is on trying new things through small-scale R&D projects where staff are given the space, time and support necessary to develop their ideas, thereby fostering a sense of ownership.

As part of the quick fire round of provocations, Russell Dornan, the web editor at the Wellcome Trust in London,  gave an entertaining and myth-busting presentation on #MuseumInstaSwap – an Instagram project involving 10 museums in London, which each paired off for site visits and publishing content generated from the visit on their own institution’s Instagram account.  The museums involved in the project reported a subsequent increase in followers of their Instagram accounts, and a rise in engagement with the material presented.

As a mechanism for illustrating, celebrating and exploring multiple viewpoints and contexts, this simple project shows how using a social media platform as a vehicle for collaboration can enable deeper and richer engagements and understandings, both between the organisations themselves and their multiple audiences.

This project is now being adopted by other cities internationally and it will be interesting to see if similar results can be achieved.

Collaboration between digital artists and museums is a risky and uncomfortable. But Andrew Richardson from the University of Sunderland argued in his presentation, it is also an ultimately rewarding process that (despite its risks, compromises and challenges) can result in spaces of creativity and opportunity.

There is a fine balance between digital technology as the star of the piece and it becoming the villain, though.  Ultimately, the application of digital art in museums is about engagement and dialogue, and where “friction and confusion should be embraced”.

A completely different approach to collaboration was presented by Raphael Chanay, the interpretation developer at the Natural History Museum, who shared a fascinating overview of the 2014 MuseumixUK project at Derby Silk Mill.

“Locking” teams in the mill for three days resulted in their emergence with prototype interventions of ways to reinvent objects in the museum.  These were subsequently evaluated by visitors.

This event also traversed geographical space, with real-time communication to a simultaneous Museomix in France, enabling the swapping of ideas and approaches, and further diversifying the range of skills and creativity available for the project.

Continuing the theme of collaboration, Rebecca Sinker, Natasha Bonnelame and Camille Gajewski from Tate presented an overview of their ongoing project with the Khan Academy and the benefits of producing content for a well-established third-party platform.

The reflection on lessons learned from the collaborative process so far bore echoes of the conference’s first presentation by Cassie Williams, who shared the Royal Institute’s insights into building an audience on YouTube.

Both sets of speakers stressed the need to customise content to reflect both the chosen platform and the intended audience, and the need to react to feedback and user behaviour in order to optimise engagement.

As Williams put it: “If you don’t like moving targets, then digital is probably not the place for you.”

In addition to these challenges, the construction of a strong and coherent institutional identity melded from the multiple personalities inputting to the project, was flagged as an issue that needs to be carefully planned and managed.

Alison Clague, from Leicestershire County Council, reported on a different approach taken by the council, where guest curators with specific interests were invited to explore the collections for inspiration to produce new creative works.

Encouraging ‘heads-up’ engagement through digital media.

The need to maintain the focus of users on actual objects or exhibitions, rather than any digital device used to aid interpretation, was another central theme that emerged during the course of the conference.

The question, or challenge, is how to harness the power and flexibility of digital media to promote deeper engagements with collections without producing a “heads down” individually-isolated experience.

Several exciting projects showcasing innovative approaches to this challenge were presented.  Scott Billings and Ted Koterwas from Oxford University Museums described a projects that utilises geolocation mobile phone technology to enable users to use their device to mimic the function of a sextant, an instrument used to measure the angle between any two visible objects, on display at the Museum of the History of Science.

As a kinaesthetic learner, I found this an exciting use of digital technology and one that bridges the gap between old and new technology through an understanding of shared functional capabilities.

Managing to engage teens in museums has a reputation for being notoriously difficult, so I was intrigued by the British Museum’s Juno Rae’s presentation on a project that asks participants exploring the museum’s great court to collect images in order to create a name plate collage.

This sounded like a really constructive way to not only get teenagers to really look at objects (and from a different perspective to normal) but also an opportunity for them to build up skills and start collating a portfolio of work.

Gail Boyle, senior curator from Bristol Museums reflected on The Hidden Museum app, which uses iBeacon technology to share specially-created and layered content to visitors.

The app encourages users to explore areas of the museum that are typically under-visited and aims to promote a social experiences through the use of traditional parlour games and encouraging interaction with museum staff.

This focus on museum visits as social and interactive experiences was shared by Katherine Biggs from Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) who presented the experiences of the HRP in utilising 3D mapping technology to create an immersive pop-up palace, recreating the interior of a royal palace in a portable dome.

On evaluating the impact of the project, HRP found overlaying the interior details with opportunities for interactions (such as sneaking past virtual guards and finding mystery objects) left visitors with a much greater understanding of life in a Tudor court. But the fabric and details of the palace itself became lost in the background. This served as a constructive reminder of how, sometimes, less is more and, sometimes, more turns out to be less.

Looking at a different, but no less challenging application of digital technology, Mark Pajak, head of digital at Bristol Museums, took us on a digital signage journey where “lifts are to digital signs as stairs are to daleks” and the intricacies of programming cupcakes to appear on signage boards in time for lunch.

Richard Light, in kicking off the morning’s series of provocations, made a very pertinent point regarding the lack of linked data held by museums.

Data held in silos obstructs re-use and frustrates collaboration between individual organisations. He cited Pelagios and Geonames as examples of where cooperation is both possible and preferable.

The need to enable re-use and sharing of resources was also highlighted by Fiona Talbott, from the Heritage Lottery Fund, in her presentation reporting on recent research undertaken by the funder, which all too often reflected a lack of quality discoverable outputs from HLF-funded digital projects.

Unsurprisingly, Fiona’s presentation elicited a large volume of responses from conference attendees.  Audience feedback centred around a real need for an increase in the flexibility within the structures of HLF bids, allowing for changes in project direction without fear of losing funding as a result.

The lack of funding to ensure the sustainability of digital projects was also raised as a major concern.

On a more positive note, Talbott announced the creation of an HLF online community, and invited MCG members to set up discussions, share case studies of good practice and provide constructive feedback to help HLF develop a more effective funding application process.

The day rounded off with closing responses from members of the audience.  Joe Padfield from the National Gallery reiterated the need for the sustainability of projects, by focusing on training museum staff to prevent the loss of skills.

The importance of legacy was underlined by Gillian Greaves along with the need for a supportive environment in which risks can be taken.

Kim Plowright ‎a freelance new media project manager charted the journey that museums are making away from a focus on academia to more entertainment-oriented offerings – and how gaps museums’ knowledge and skills can be closed by collaboration with industry partners.

Finally, Ben Templeton, creative director of Thought Den, called for the building up of a rhythm of high-quality digital projects, rather than a flash-in-the-pan approach. He also highlighted how the cultural sector has the freedom to play fast and loose with digital platforms, which suits both institutional and audience needs.

With funding continues to be a major issue for many museums, increasing the opportunities for meaningful collaborations (whether between different cultural institutions or between museums and industrial partners) may well continue to prove a vital approach to bridging current gaps in knowledge, skills, funds and availability of creative space.

Combining this with the kind of digital interventions that focus on the connections between users, objects and stories – rather than the device being used to tell them – can result in exciting projects that foster audience engagement and interaction. It’s an exciting adventure to be part of.

Izzy Bartley @FireflyHeritage