image of conference hall with 'welcome to museums+tech 2021' slide projected at the front

Please note that this is an archived event

Museums+Tech 2021: Data Tales

Wednesday December 1 2021 to Thursday December 2 2021


Virtual Conference; Book your Tickets (from £10)


What can our data, good and bad, tell us about our museums? What are the opportunities—and what are the pitfalls?

Data, information, statistics—for better or worse they are part and parcel of our world, used to inform decision-making and in defence of decisions made. The collection and use of data is not neutral—it can be curated, used to support or fight causes.

The world of heritage and museums is awash with data that is increasingly interconnecting with moves such as ‘Towards a National Collection’. Sets of data may be regarded as collections in their own right, rather than merely as information about something else.

In response to the ever-more-important questions around data, the increasing scrutiny of how it’s gathered, stored, and interpreted, and the impact of the pandemic, this year’s conference seeks to discuss our relationship with data.

How is our sector is using its data? What insights it has brought to our work? What does this mean for those who run museums and those who visit them?

Book your tickets



December 01

1:30 – 2:30pm: Opening session

1:30 – 1:45pm: Welcome to Museums+Tech 2021
Dafydd James, MCG Chair & Head of New Media, Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

Words of welcome from Dafydd James, Chair of the Museums Computer Group.

1:45 – 2:15pm: Keynote – Museum Data: From collection to action
Chris Unitt, Founder, One Further

With the right data, museums will operate more effectively, tell the stories of their collections, and truly understand the needs of their audiences. Greater impact, relevance, and economic sustainability will surely follow. Right? That’s the promise of data. The reality is always likely to be messier and more difficult, so how can we make sure we’re at least moving in the right direction? This is a talk about overcoming the sector’s challenges and finding value among the rows and columns. We’ll look at practical ways to weave data into day-to-day activities and inform organisational strategy.

2:15 – 2:30pm: Keynote Q&A
Chris Unitt, Founder, One Further

2:30 – 2:45pm: Break
Taking a break? Chat with others in the spiritual queue for coffee. BYO tea, coffee, and/or cake.

2:45 – 3.30pm: User Experience session

2:45 – 2:55pm: Museum Exhibition User Experience
Ellie King, AHRC Doctoral Researcher, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Museums have long collected evaluation data from exhibitions. Usually, the focus is ‘was it good?’ ‘did you like it?’ or ‘how likely are you to recommend us?’ With a lot of visitors keen to tell museums what they think they want to hear, this evaluation often shows a success of an exhibition, but explores little into the reasons why this success is so, and what the museum can do in the future. This research takes methods and ideas from the field of User Experience, which has created some of the world’s best loved products, to develop a new evaluation method that goes beyond these confirmations. Instead, it creates a picture of the exhibition from a visitor perspective, highlighting its key qualities and nature and how this influences visitor enjoyment, learning, and perhaps even a change of behaviour. This new type of data for museum exhibitions has proven valuable, useful and insightful in its use so far at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Hear about how this data is collected, what insights it brings for exhibition visitors, and how it can be used in future development of exhibits.

2:55 – 3:05pm: Understanding Smartify user archetypes
Gwendoline Knybuhler, Product Manager, Smartify

The Smartify platform is currently used by over 250 museums to deliver mobile guides on-site and at home to millions of audiences. By analysing behaviour across the native app and web-app, we were able to develop user archetypes that have informed a total product redesign. We have also analysed user behaviour to personalise the app – understanding art preferences including a wide range of criteria, from favorite period and art movement to favorite colors and themes. For audiences on-site this data is cross-referenced with collection data and maps to offer a personalised wayfinding experience. For example, generating a 30 minute tour of the National Gallery themed on animals. In this session Product Manager Gwendoline will explore how the Smartify data team has combined quantitative and qualitative data; differences across museums and internationally; integrating and analysing data from across multiple museums and what this all means for the future of Smartify.

3:05 – 3:15pm: The Playful Power Hall: Digital Interpretation and Steam Engine Science
Christina Buckingham, Digital Interpretation and Steam Engine Science, The Playful Power Hall

Through inhouse, rapid-prototype development, and early-stage consultation with families and young people, this collaborative venture embraces a science capital approach to iteratively develop digital interpretation methodologies for the Power Hall exhibition (The Science and Industry Museum). Within this process we are turning to discourse data collection and analysis to add efficiency, value, and insight to the lifecycle of museum interpretation planning and design. We are using this data to identify which of the developed prototypes make visitors feel most connected and empowered. We believe that by looking more closely at visitor conversations, we can achieve a more candid and illuminating visitor response to interpretation installations. Our aim is to evaluate interpretation techniques that have the potential to encourage more intergenerational conversations and playful engagement related to the presented steam engine science. The impact of this work is being able to progress to more informed and effective interpretation commissions for the forthcoming exhibition.

3:15 – 3:30pm: User Experience – Q&A
A chance to ask questions to the speakers for the User Experience sessions.

3:30 – 4:00pm: Networking
A chance to chat with others through video chats or messaging.

4:00 – 4:15pm: Break
Taking a break? Chat with others in the spiritual queue for coffee. BYO tea, coffee, and/or cake.

4:15 – 5:00pm: Impact & Engagement session

4:15 – 4:25pm: Museums: The challenge and opportunity of data-driven public engagement
Julian Hartley, Co-founder, DimSumDigital

The automation of urban space and the data generated as people go about their daily lives places spatial data at the heart of contemporary debates about how museums might use external sources of data to drive greater public access and engagement. In these debates, urban/spatial data speaks to sociology’s discussion on the spatialisation of social class and this connection puts data analysis front and centre of the museum’s drive for greater social inclusivity, public equity and mechanisation. Yet, as this presentation maps out, an aesthetic of public engagement and co-collaboration in museums does not sit easily with data driven methods. Using the V&A as a case study, the sensitivities involved in fostering community relationships in the co-production of this museum’s public programmes are seen as contradictory to a public revealed through data. Barriers to data use include an organisational fear, or vulnerability, to do with institutional confusion around the ethics of data capture and analysis. Traced in the attitudes of staff is a distaste in the idea that data could enable some degree of mechanisation in co-collaborative practice. However, the publics revealed in data are necessary to achieve a more equitable museum.

4:25 – 4:35pm: Demonstrating the Impact of Digital Museum Resources: Are we collecting the right types of data?
Shalen Fu, PhD researcher, King’s College London

Amidst accelerating technological innovation and the impact of COVID-19, museums across the globe are being urged to embrace digital transformation. Many are investing more in digital projects for long-term preservation and to make heritage resources more widely available. Yet, how can museums know whether their digital resources (e.g. online collections and virtual exhibitions) are making societal impacts that align with the organisational missions? If so, what forms of evidence would stakeholders find convincing in support of the impact claims? What types of data would help project teams improve quality and ensure resource sustainability? Developing holistic indicators that will help museums assess the multidimensional impact of digital resources is one way to address these important questions. My research project investigates how to best assess the impact of digital heritage and focuses on digital museum resources in China. Using a mixed-method approach that combines desk research, survey, and interview, I defined four sets of indicators to inform data collection that helps memory institutions, particularly museums, reflect upon and improve their practices in the digital domain. These indicators cover social, economic, innovation, and operational dimensions, addressing both external and internal impacts digital resources can make.

4:35 – 4:45pm: Bats about data: Saving the world one byte at a time?
Jennifer Pullar, Communications Manager, Digital Collections, Natural History Museum

Natural History collections are a unique record of bio- and geo-diversity going back hundreds of years. The specimens provide baselines before widespread intensive farming, industrialisation and the levels of climate change we see today. This means that the collections can be used for a wide range of research, from understanding where bats and humans might come into contact to understand viral ‘spillover’ events, to identifying future conservation areas to protect at risk wildlife. When this research is used to inform decision-making, these decisions are based on hundreds of years’ worth of data. The Natural History Museum have been working to digitise our collection of 80 million specimens since 2014. We track the usage and impact of our data so that we can share stories about our data in action, and recently we’ve worked with Frontier Economics to estimate the economic impact of those data. With 4.9 million specimens currently available online we have seen over 28 billion downloads of our data in over 420,000 download events and over 1300 scientific papers citing our data. Our digital collections have been used to tackle some of the biggest questions the world faces today including crop security, human health and climate change.

4:45 – 5pm: Impact & Engagement – Q&A
A chance to ask questions to the speakers for the Impact & Engagement sessions.

5:00 – 5:05pm: Day 1 Close

5:05 – 6:30pm: Virtual pub

We’re halfway through! Hang out and chat over your drink of choice. Bring your own beverages—no corkage charge here! Text chat and video.

December 02

10:00 – 10:50am: Opening session

10:00 – 10:05am: Welcome Back
Sarah Middle, MCG Secretary & PhD at the Open University

10:05 – 10:35am: Keynote – Connecting Data Through ‘Towards a National Collection’
Rebecca Bailey, Programme Director, Towards a National Collection

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the £18.9m research and development programme Towards a National Collection is seeking to dissolve the barriers that exist between the UK’s heritage collections, and to open them up for research and public engagement. At the heart of this endeavour is a vast amount of often messy data. Just how much data, how different audiences want to access it, and how it can be connected and cross-searched, are big questions we are seeking to answer. Let’s look at the research currently underway and look forward to how it can inform a future vision of a national collections digital research infrastructure.

10:35 – 10:50am: Keynote Q&A
Rebecca Bailey, Programme Director, Towards a National Collection

10:50 – 11:20am: Collections

10:50 – 11:00am: Managing Collections Data: Sisyphus had it easy
Richard Palmer, Tech Lead, V&A
Zoe Hollingworth, Collections Systems Lead, V&A

The data held by a museum about its collections provides a store of knowledge for use both within the museum and also, via online collections, accessible to researchers and visitors from around the world. But for most collections, the creation and maintenance of this data is a never-ending task to be carried out with limited resources. Whilst all have a desire for enriched metadata, the often invisible work involved to achieve this competes for time with all the other activities of the museum. This talk will present work carried out on the V&A collections records looking at some measurable aspects of metadata quality. Accompanying visualisations of these quality measurements provide an overview of the ‘state of the data’. Using this overview, a plan of work for data cleaning and improvement will be created, and progress made monitored and celebrated. Although the plan is specific to the V&A collections, the same general approach can be taken with any holder of collections data to maximise improvements within resource constraints.

11:00 – 11:10am: 1753-2019: Examining the history of the British Museum’s collection through data
Isobel MacDonald, Project Curator: History of Collection, British Museum

What new knowledge can a large-scale data-led analysis of collections data reveal about the shape of the British Museum’s collection over time? In this presentation, I raise this question by giving an overview of my current research at the British Museum in London. My role is to perform a data-led analysis of the overall history of the Museum’s collection from its foundation in 1753 to 2019. Taking a comprehensive approach to the collection, I use the Museum’s digital register – Museum Index + – to trace trends across place, departments and time. I read MI+ as a digital representation of the collection; the patterns within it are true, at a high level, to growth of the collection over time. How can a critical analysis of the data held within digital registers augment and challenge our understanding of the Museum’s history? What are the limitations of such a methodology? Presenting some of my initial findings, I provide a critical discussion of the benefits of using a large-data approach for the British Museum and histories of collections more widely.

11:10 – 11:20am: Portraits by Numbers: The bigger picture
Katherine Biggs, Senior Digital Manager and Julia Bell, Digital Collections Manager, National Portrait Gallery

What’s in a portrait? When you look closely it’s just a whole lot of data. Data which shows us how many people are looking at our portraits, metadata and tags linking portraits together, databases recording huge repositories of information from digitisation and records management. But how can this data actually be used to support the work of museums and galleries in responding to current events outside our walls? In this talk we’ll share the types of data we capture around our portraits, and how we’re trying to build a bigger picture of what this means – from spikes in portrait views when ‘The Crown’ is on to Alan Turing’s sudden popularity on being on the £50 note, and how understanding our data has helped us respond to the raised awareness of Black Lives Matter. We’ll share how we are starting to use different data sources showing audience engagement alongside our portrait metadata, tags, and records to build a better understanding of how we can use the Collection to reflect our changing society.

11:20 – 11:35am: Collections – Q&A
A chance to ask questions to the speakers for the Collections sessions.

11:35 – 11:50am: Break
Taking a break? Chat with others in the spiritual queue for coffee. BYO tea, coffee, and/or cake.

11:50 – 12:20pm: Networking
A chance to chat with others through video chats or messaging.

11:50 – 12:20pm: MCG AGM
The Annual General Meeting of the Museums Computer Group, including Committee updates and elections. All are welcome to attend.

12:20 – 12:50: Infrastructures session

12:20 – 12:30pm: A Brief Introduction to Wikidata
Daria Cybulska, Director of Programmes, Wikimedia

Wikidata is a free and open knowledge base that can be read and edited by both humans and machines. It acts as central storage for the structured data of its Wikimedia sister projects including Wikipedia, and for many other sites and services. This talk offers a brief and general taster of how Wikidata’s functionality could be useful to museums’ collections. Many organisations in the sector have become interested, and some actively engaged, in harnessing the power of Wikidata in their collections work. The networked nature of Wikidata offers particular benefits to projects such as the Towards a National Collection.

12:30 – 12:40pm: Linking Physical and Digital worlds
Hembo Pagi, Partner at Archaeovision

We live in the digital era where more and more data is born digitally. Still, when we are looking at the museums, the physical object is still the centerpiece of the collection. Our presentation will share some thoughts and experiences about bringing two worlds together and how to increase the quality -and how to speed up using data. The link between the digital and physical world is the machine-readable (bar)code. One can say that there is no innovation there as barcodes have been around for more than 30 years. It is used to speed up processes and tasks which are monotonous and tedious and intellectually not very challenging, also to decrease human errors. You can see barcode solutions in shops, libraries and warehouses but strangely not so often in museums. We have been working with three Estonian museums where the machine readable labels were implemented to speed up digitisation and inventory process. In our talk we highlight the use cases where well prepared workflows help museums to produce better quality – and more accessible data.

12:40 – 12:50pm: Re-imagining the museum collections API
Peter Pavement (Surface Impression), Kang Peng and Adam Quinn (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum), and Rob Tice (Knowledge Integration)

When Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, released an open API (Application Programming Interface) for its collections data in 2012 it was a pioneer in museum technology. However, over time and with the evolution of technology, it has become clear that different audiences have many different needs from museum data, and that a new approach is necessary. In 2021, the Cooper Hewitt has embarked on the development of a new API, alongside completely overhauled documentation. The project brings together the talents of the Cooper Hewitt, alongside British museum data specialists Knowledge Integration and digital design and development agency Surface Impression. This presentation will explore how user consultation, discovery and creative approaches to documentation are being weaved together to create a new API that will transform access to, and usage of, the museum’s core data.

12:50 – 1:05pm: Infrastructures – Q&A
A chance to ask questions to the speakers for the Infrastructures sessions.

1:05 – 1:15pm: Closing words
Dafydd James, MCG Chair & Head of New Media, Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

1:15 – 2:00pm: Post-event lunch
Bring your own sandwiches and have a chat before you go back to work. Text chat and video.

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