ShelleyMannion[This week’s guest post is written by Shelley Mannion is Digital Learning Programmes Manager at the British Museum’s Samsung Digital Discovery Centre]

Four recent events have prompted me to think about trending topics in digital heritage:

– Museums and the Web 2010;
– Museums, Mobile Devices and Social Media;
– MuseumNext;
– Museums & Heritage Show

This post gave me the opportunity to revisit my notes and attempt to pull out some common threads. Here are three:

Sober social media

At MW 2010, the ever-prescient Sebastian Chan described his investigation of how school children and teachers accessed the Powerhouse Museum website. To his surprise, these educational users were not using the modularised collections database with its tags and other free metadata. Instead, they preferred 10-year-old microsites whose content was no longer maintained. These silos of stranded content without web 2.0 features and without links into other areas of the Powerhouse site, appeal to teachers because they are walled gardens within which students could complete structured classroom activities. Statistics showing a dramatic drop in the number of students accessing the museum sites during school holidays, demonstrated the failure to of the microsites to convert formal learners to informal explorers. Seb’s findings reinforce experiences at the British Museum and Museum of London, where dated islands of content on sites like Ancient Egypt and Great Fire of London Game attract massive numbers of educational visitors.

In attempt to deliver more current content to school audiences, Seb and his team repurposed records and pushed them out to an external resource portal for teachers at www.thelearningfederation.edu.au. However, because of the time and effort involved in repackaging museum data for the external venue, the practice was not sustainable. Seb’s presentation and its ensuing discussion in which Peter Samis asked what we would do if, when asked, teachers said they preferred microsites to the integrated web 2.0 websites we are designing, drove home for me that social media has now come full circle. Now that the initial excitement has worn off, and data on the usage of completed projects is available to analyse, we are entering a more sober phase. We are returning to questions we have always asked, namely, how does what we are building meet (or not meet) the needs of the specific audience it is intended to serve?

Further examples of this trend emerged at MW including Koula Charitonos’s research on Tate Kids, which showed that social media features like commenting on artworks did not work for primary school children. Even at MuseumNext, where the strong marketing focus meant that some attendees may have been more inclined to hype social media, there was a sense that the honeymoon is over. Seb summed things up simply: ‘Setting data free is not enough because our audiences may not get it.’

Mobile uncertainty

I followed the fascinating discussions from Museums, Mobile Devices and Social Media on Twitter, attended the Mobile Untours un-session at MW, and saw lots of promising iPhone apps the M&H Show, at MW. Still, I cannot shake the feeling that the mobile space is dauntingly chaotic. There has been undeniable progress since Kate Haley Goldman talked about moving beyond the pilot stage with mobile in 2007. After trialing various devices during its Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint exhibition, SFMOMA forged ahead with partner NousGuide to launch an iPhone guide that launched earlier this year. The Brooklyn Museum, IMA and National Gallery are all successfully serving up iPhone apps and nearly every established audio guide vendor is offering or plans to offer iPhone versions of the traditional tour. Clearly, Apple has cracked a model – but it is still only one model.

For many institutions, including my own, for which Apple devices present numerous practical and logistical challenges, the way forward for mobile is far from clear. Android devices are promising, but not mature, with great variation in implementation across hardware manufacturers. (A developer from Toura complained to me about the problems building for Android phones with inconsistent screen resolutions.) Other mobile platforms seem at risk of expiring without notice. Roaming costs across national borders still discourage phone usage by foreign visitors. And hardware is only one piece of the puzzle: What about the types of interactions they provide?

The Un-tours unconference session at MW identified some potential alternatives to the traditional gallery tour based on serendipity, user generated content (oral histories, photos), geo-positioning and theatrical soundscapes like those created by multimedia artist Janet Cardiff. The exhibition floors at MW and M&H Show were scattered with Augmented Reality and 3D applications – most of which were in limited use within highly specific contexts. At MuseumNext, Mike Ellis pointed out the ubiquitousness of text messaging which a few companies like SCVNGR are exploiting. Despite numerous exciting ideas, it feels like practical constraints are still holding back museums from jumping into meaningful experimentation in the mobile space.

Conversations

Another strand from the last few weeks was discussion-based interpretation. Collaborating with the Portland Museum of Art, the team from Smarthistory (Beth Harris and Steven Zucker) recorded museum staff talking in pairs about works of art. The resulting videos were shown to visitors whose reactions were analysed. Visitors seemed to appreciate the more casual, conversational approach which was intended to draw them into the debate and empower them to form their own opinions. I was encouraged that the technique was found to work with non-Western art as well as previously tested Western artworks. Presumably, this initial pilot project will be developed further.

Another interesting link to discussion-based interpretation surfaced at Museums, Mobile Devices and Social Media: PlayDecide – designed to get groups of people talking about controversial topics. At MuseumNext, Georgina Bath Goodlander pushed these ideas further still with inspired examples of visitor participation at the Luce Foundation Centre for American Art. Among the examples she described were informal audio recordings of docents telling stories about the collection which are available for visitors to browse, and a plans for a new Alternative Reality game which builds on the success of Ghosts of a Chance.

I am interested to hear what others have observed, and, as many of our colleagues head to Los Angeles next week, I am curious to see what new themes may emerge from the technology sessions at AAM.