UKMW14's opening keynote, George Oates

UKMW14’s opening keynote, George Oates

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, our first blogger, Kasia Kwiatkowska looks at a day that covered Google Glass, low-cost mobile tours, the ‘post-digital museum’ and more.

“Every screen is a touchscreen, right?” – an automatic reaction of a majority of museum goers visiting collections of our UK museums today, whether big or small, London or Dartmoor based.

Digital permeates every aspect of our lives and cultural institutions are not exempt from this movement, putting pressure and rising demand for digitally fitted-out exhibition spaces, sometimes with the latest innovations of the tech world. How shall the arts cultural and heritage sector respond to these and provide best possible experience to its visitors, all at the same time creating dialogue and engaging the public and not only broadcasting the knowledge? These were some of the issues or questions raised during the sold-out ‘Museums Beyond the Web’ conference organised by the Museums Computer Group on 7 November 2014 in the London’s Natural History Museum.

Over 200 attendees from diverse cultural institutions and related disciplines wanted to know how best to take their institutions into the future and respond to the constantly evolving digital presence in a sustainable manner, whether they are a team of 8 or 200, highly funded national institution or a small regional entity trying to make ends meet.

The conference was opened by MCG chair Mia Ridge, emphasising the importance of dialogue and pointing that new technology discussion is all about understanding changes and using technology when appropriate to facilitate access to knowledge and collections, whether digitally or in person. Ivan Teage from the Natural History Museum, the event host, gave an overview of the Natural History Museum’s investment in technologies, viewing digitisation of their collections as a key necessary investment, similar to analysis of their customer contact data and creation of mobile apps for their visitors.

George Oates who recently moved from California to London gave an entertaining Opening Keynote, looking at the evolving landscape of cataloguing, open libraries, archives and maps over the past years.  Quoting usability, simplicity, talking to humans who do the work, and making things, she discussed emergent collections on Pinterest; Zooniverse where millions of people establish new conversations, and contribute to scientific research; and Twitter as a platform for establishing new conversations and engagement with the public, where like a snowflake we should be stretching out from our original shape of who we think we are towards adapting ourselves to what we can be for the ones who come to us. The apparition of 3D printing gives us an opportunity for a new kind of souvenirs to take home, and the last 10 years rise in technology/audience awareness proposes an open source approach to data, to help museum catalogues stay alive.

Marco Mason from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Leicester grabbed our attention by presenting his research project at MIT utilising Google Glass as a visitor experience monitoring device, a wearable novelty top high-tech glasses. This has given rise to many questions of necessity versus novelty for the institutions and the visitor, and ‘Could Google Glass facilitate social experiences in museums? Yes! If the price comes down’ has become the most popular tweet of the day, following his comment that most of the project’s funding has been spent on the device itself.

Tara Copplestone gave us an overview of the virtual reality (VR) as has been used and could much better be used in the museums sector, making the visitor feel as if actually physically being in the space, as a pervasive immersive presence experience. With an enormous scope for improvement, VR could lead to virtual cultural tourism, connecting with the emerging market to become truly relevant, and provide experiences for the cultural heritage beyond its physical walls.

Daniella Petrelli from Sheffield Hallam University presented their 2 year project – meSch – Material Encounters with Digital Cultural Heritage, which looks at the use of technologies to connect with the collection and not to distract from it, by designing prototype devices specific to each exhibition, constructing personalised narratives through spoken word, poetry, to bring the artefacts alive in the most appropriate way.

Post-lunch, a series of 5 Lightning talks filled us with a mass of information to explore further:

  • Nick Poole from the Collections Trust gave a very refreshing view of going digital meaning going simple, with no digital nirvana to aspire to, but keeping digital and IT output well connected as a financially and logistically long term sustainable aim, by understanding current strengths and weaknesses, implementing an action plan, and doing small helpful things that progressively add up: dealing with databases, photography, visitor services, marketing, retail. And not forgetting to celebrate the progress made! It’s all about demystifying digital for non-digital people, considering that in some countries 80% of cultural institutions have 10 or fewer staff.
  • Google’s Pierre Far gave a concise tour and a reminder of what should a website really do, ie. “enlighten us and make it quick”. The same goes for a mobile website, across various platforms and devices, as users expect same abilities of a site on their mobile phones as on a desktop.
  • Matthew McGratton spoke about importance of images in communication and lack of sustainability of digital image delivery per project, thus library databases and their place, International Image Interoperability Framework being one of the solutions.
  • Jon-Paul Little from Kew Gardens talked about their experiments and findings so far on introducing iBeacons at Kew Gardens and recently at Wakehurst, devices that pick up on the main things that people come to see on their sites, bringing proximity-based information for the user along on-site trails. (For more info Jon-Paul suggested looking up Doug Thompson’s BEEKN, a 101 on iBeacons)
  • Tandi Williams from Digital R+D Fund for the Arts which supports technological innovation in museum projects in the arts cultural sector in the UK spoke about their report due 2 December 2014 on how arts and cultural organisations use technology. The report will be available online.

Next, Alex Butterworth from Oxford University Museums presented their ‘Box of Delights’ – a project that aimed to conceive a location-based narrative for the city, to find a common-ground for the many experiences to be had through storyboarding, story of objects, places, people. The app uses freeform tagging across the city, sequences of narratives, and directs the flow and movement of the viewer on a treasure hunt of historical artefacts throughout the city.

Anna Rhodes from Buxton Museum together with Ben Bedwell, University of Nottingham gave an insight into their project ‘Collections in the Landscape’, created by their small team for the small local museum, in partnership with National Trust. Placing info boards along 4 trails/stories, families were encouraged to explore local sites and museum object related to these, through a specially created low-tech WordPress based app, downloadable beforehand due to the wifi receptivity issues in the area, in the forms of PDFs, onscreen info and navigable maps. Normal apps being too costly to justify for the very small institutions, a web-based WordPress site with plug-ins serves the purpose very well, as feedback of the users has shown, with people wanting more of everything! The app contained images, audio, scripted audio, younger voices mixed with older ones for historical descriptions, and more traced trails. As the result of the project, footfall in the museum has visibly risen and the visitors made clear that they came following the app experience, as the project was branded as part of the museum and not a separate entity.

A similar case was presented by Rick Lawrence from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, where two simple websites have been created: ‘Moor Stories’ and ‘Church Detective’ to experience the museum outside in the landscape despite a near non-existent wifi signal sometimes. Both are fast loading websites downloadable in cafes with free wifi before exploring the site. The project involved many different stakeholders and participatory groups: university, local history groups, schools, student volunteers, national park authority, all of which generated a huge database of resources to expand upon in the future, and very importantly created new insights, challenging assumptions, and generating much community engagement. Rick’s final advice was to accept wifi / tech limitations and work with them, involving users along the project development and with testing the app, planning for the future by utilising the collected wealth of information for new funded applications, and marketing with seasonal tourist centres through leaflets. A very low tech yet locally effective marketing strategy!

Rebecca Bartlett’s landscape based project: Centenary Connections, exploring WW1 in Manchester has a website and a mobile app developed specially for it, with a theme and map presented info. Narrative-based, published across platforms, with collaborative content development by a range of on-project organisations, it was promoted through local press amongst many usual local promotion channels.

As the day was nearing its end, Stephen Brown from De Montford University presented challenges of linking real world data and cataloguing it, extracting titles of real meaning using WordNet. Finally, Oluwatoyin Sogbesan spoke about the challenges of interpretation of different socio-political contextual historical artifacts from Africa, and the dangers of projecting meaning onto objects, layering them with our own film of cultural accumulation. Do we rely on a curator to tell us the story or the ‘truth’ as to what they are, or do we want to interpret their meaning ourselves, and to what danger of distortion? Curators thus become facilitators of discussions and discourses, online or off-line, allowing the project to evolve through crowd-communication and engagement. She discussed narrations of power versus narrations of meaning, open annotation allowing for expansion of in-museum labelled information on the collection objects thus allowing the data-info to grow organically through community participation – a few of the issues and challenges relating to collections of non-European cultures and our take on them.

A full-on intense day, very rich in insights and amazing sharing of experiences, was crowned by a wonderful slow-paced closing keynote by Ross Parry, who walked us back through the day through its highlights, summarising and opening up from the questions risen, exploring the progress of the digital in arts cultural heritage institutions since the 60’s, remembering the 1st Museum Computers Group Chair Bill Pettitt who has been an employee of the NHM, the place, the same room in which we’ve been sitting the whole day, the place where it has all began.

Terming ‘the post-digital museum’ as the times we are living in right now, when the digital is part of each and every person’s workload and flow, where the term will soon disappear from job descriptions as all jobs are part of and supported/powered by digital, with no need to strategise for digital separately, where everyone becomes a curator and creator through knowledge crowdsourcing, it is still and always will be about delivering the best experience for a museum goer, through all the visual and sensory experiences, of sound and music embedded into the design process of exhibitions too, not only hand held screen-based tech devices.

It is and always will be about participation, engagement, responsive relevant compatible to conditions content, designing magical things, opening up and sharing – the post-digital practice discourse.


About our guest blogger


kasia bio thumbnailAfter 15 years living in London, in the winter of 2013/14 Kasia Kwiatkowska sold all her belongings, packed her bags, and left to Asia in search of a much more fulfilling life. After some travels through India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, she found herself in the foothills of the Himalayas in the north of India, teaching English and French to local Tibetan community.  After 6 weeks back in Europe in October/ November 2014, she is now back in Kathmandu, Nepal, on a closed monastery retreat and taking Buddhist philosophy classes, after which, mid-2015, she’ll be going back into the Himalayas to engage with local community projects relating to arts cultural heritage and socio-economic development. You can find out more at and follow her on twitter at @kasiaonline_com