#Museumnext 2014: Be brave, take risks

After a decade of museums 2.0, the time has come to become truly digital. But it is also time to find a balance between technophobia and technophilia.

Bessie Coleman, the first female pilot of African American.

Bessie Coleman, the first female pilot of African American. Source: Wikipedia.

In its sixth year, after touching down in several European cities – Edinburgh, Barcelona, Amsterdam… –, MuseumNext, the European conference on innovation and technology in museums, returned to its birthplace in NewcastleGateshead. The programme of presentations, workshops and activities revolved around swapping ideas, sharing projects and pooling methodologies to provide a clear overview of how innovation and technology are shaping museums and the cultural sector. This year’s conference motto was “be brave, take risks”: an invitation to take up the challenge of becoming truly digital.

Aren’t museums already truly digital?

In a sense, MuseumNext’s return to its roots in NewcastleGateshead makes it inevitable to look back in time. Museums have been on the web for almost two decades, but real change has not yet arrived. Generally speaking, museum websites are not all that different from the sites that began springing up two decades ago. Their design has obviously been updated, but in structural terms they essentially offer the same basic services. The fact is that museums are still not investing much in this area. This is partly due to under-resourcing, but also under-prioritising and under-thinking their digital efforts.

So what do cultural institutions need to do to become truly digital today? What does it mean to be digital? These are the questions that Koven J. Smith (Kinetic Museums) addressed in the talk that kicked off MuseumNext 2014. Cultural institutions are on the right path: they have blogs, obtain Facebook fans, use iPads in exhibitions, set up digital departments and so on. But as Koven J. Smith says, that’s not enough. Museums need to become truly digital if they are to remain relevant in a future in which the gap between ‘digital’ and ‘non-digital’ people is closing fast.

“We are at your service, so tell us what we should do”

When trying to strike the right balance between the physical and digital sides of a project, the key is to discover the needs of visitors. “We’re at your service, so tell us what we should do” said Tijana Tasich (Tate) as an example of a way of dealing with the uncertainty that many institutions feel when choosing technologies that connect with audiences.

Meanwhile, Colleen Dilenschneider (IMPACTS Research & Development) focused on the importance of “touching” visitors. She described “touch” as that fleeting, thrilling feeling that creates a connection with a work of art, and said that it now takes two forms: physical touch arising from traditional communication based on face-to-face interaction with the work, and digital touch, which takes place in the online communication between museums and visitors.

Although the idea is already familiar, Dilenschneider presented data showing that the reputation of a cultural institution is one of the major factors that make people decide to visit. And, she said, this is where “digital touch” plays a key role.

A good example is the new MoMA digital project called ART140, which is based on social networks. It consists of a website linked to a Twitter account, (@artoneforty) that asks the general public to respond to certain works of art and invites us all to talk about art. The museum, which already has 1.6 million followers on Twitter and 1.5 million Facebook friends, sees ART140 as a means to help it understand what art means to their audience through their responses to six specifically selected works.

Increasingly, people want to be part of the museum. They want to contribute to its preservation, they are keen to communicate through social networks, and they are curious about what goes on behind the scenes. Along these lines, MoMA recently launched a project that follows the day-to-day life of its curators on Instagram (themuseumofmodernart), with informal, amusing photos of them in action and of their wide range of influences. The idea is to use this social network to reach audiences and show the more human side of life inside a big institution.

But ultimately, we end up finding that when the two types of experience – digital and physical – work in harmony, the result is high-quality experiences for museum visitors. An example of these two spheres working together is the Touch Van Gogh and Be Touched exhibition project at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition is enhanced by technological resources such as digital microscopes and 3D reconstructions and includes tablets and touch screens that visitors can use to examine the works and to learn about the research carried out into the work of Van Gogh. The interactive displays can be experienced individually or in groups. It is an excellent example of how technologies and new models of communication have transformed the way complex subjects are presented to the public both online and on-site. The Van Gogh Museum has managed to achieve this “touch”, this experience that all of us seek in a museum.

Data, data everywhere

Colleen Dilenschneider presented a huge amount of data compiled by IMPACTS Research & Development to show the relative importance of the various marketing and communication channels used by museums. The studies prove the potential of social media to connect with the public and attract visitors to the museum. The interesting data that Dilenschneider shares on her blog and in her presentations back up the intuitions that we all have about the recent rapid changes in the way in which people communicate and disseminate information today.

Overall, data was one of the main topics that came up in presentations and conversations at MuseumNext, and there were even claims that museums databases may now be more valuable than their collections. As it is impossible to escape the business of Big Data, museums have to learn and become actively involved.

Personalised but connected experiences

Another of the big topics that kept coming up in presentations was the creation of mobile apps for museums. But in spite of the many talks on the subject at this year’s conference, there was still a lot of debate about whether mobile apps for museums are already dead and gone. The jury is still out, but we do think that there is very little need to have a separate mobile app with the same functionalities for each museum. Before the advent of adaptive web design, mobile apps were the best way to offer visitors basic information. But this argument is no longer valid now that websites can adapt to all kinds of mobile devices.

Nonetheless, applications that are conceived for the purpose of offering a specific experience are still of interest to visitors.

In other talks at MuseumNext, Adam Clarke (The Common People) talked about how the game Minecraft is successfully engaging young people at museums, and Ferry Piekart illustrated the power of mobile apps by presenting an interesting augmented reality example from the Spijkenisse museum in Netherlands.

But perhaps it would be better to join forces and create apps for museums as a whole. This is the idea behind Unique Visitors, a social app created in Barcelona and presented at MuseumNext by Ana Luisa Basso. It revolves around museum recommendations and aims to improve the user experience by personalising visits. The idea is that we are all content curators, we can all create our own narrative or itinerary, and then share it, encouraging more people to visit the museum. Created in collaboration with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) and the Fundació Joan Miró, Unique Visitors was one of the winners at the 2013 Apps&Cultura awards organised by the Institut de Cultura de Barcelona. It is a good initiative that will hopefully be picked up by more museums and continue to encourage citizens to engage with culture and get involved in generating new projects, itineraries and readings in relation to art.

As for personalised visits, a great example can be found at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One, which has created a spectacular installation in which visitors can put together their own collections based on their interests, without prejudices or limitations.

Create prototypes, test them, go beyond the walls of the museum

Connectivity may well be king, or the key, or whatever, but I would go even further: user experience is the key. A good user experience generates word of mouth and brand awareness, boosting the reputation we were speaking of earlier.

Private sector companies have long been using UX Design (user experience design) to develop services and products that are more in line with the needs of consumers. But how can museums apply this model to the development of programmes and experiences? Dana Mitroff Silvers (Design Thinking for Museums) talked about the basic UX Design strategies and principles that museums can apply to their projects, from website redesign to app design. In general, UX Design techniques boost team work and favour allow developers to come up with new problem-solving strategies or to detect errors in time to correct them. And although it may initially seem counterintuitive, they actually speed up production. One of the basic principles of UX Design is to regularly go out and meet people from your target audience, learn from them, and observe what they need/want. It is also important to test prototypes and evaluate them during the entire process, not just at the end. The idea is to ask your audience directly.

Joe Baskerville (CogApp) also gave a great talk at MuseumNext, reminding us of how to make paper prototypes and how to use pdfs and powerpoints/keynotes to test projects on the devices that they are intended for, and mentioning different platforms that can be used for designing and testing prototypes. (You will find his presentation and all the tools here).

Jessica Taylor and Sam Billington from Antenna Lab talked about their project and called for collaboration among museums, encouraging them to create digital storytelling ‘corridors’ in cities and to go beyond the walls of the museum. Drawing on non-museum sector examples (Motorola, Google, the Smart City project) they presented a totally new way to engage with the public.

For example, they talked about the importance of the upcoming Google project, Project Tango – a device that tracks motion and creates a full 3D animation model of the surrounding environment –, which is expected to have ‘huge consequences’ for the future of museums. iBeacon transmitters equipped with a Bluetooth technology used in many new-generation smartphones will also become increasingly commonplace in museums, and their ability to send a signal to notify nearby devices of their presence will allow them to provide location-sensitive data from a local database or the cloud. As visitors move around, messages will come up on their smartphone home screen – even if the phone is blocked – with information about the objects around them, for example.

“We’re only at the beginning of those types of technologies, and it’s exciting to see where we’ll go with that,” said Billington.

MuseumNext award for innovation

This year MuseumNext went a step further and created a new award to reward the best projects that use technology in a transforming way. The winning projects were:

  • National Cinema Museum of Turin: The National Cinema Museum of Turin received a special mention for the “making of” crowdfunding that made it possible to restore the film L’Udienza by Marco Ferreri.
  • Gemeentemuseum Den Haag – Wonderkamers: The Gemeentemuseum Den Haag also received a mention for its Wonderkamers project, an interactive installation that offers an amazingly fresh and entertaining introduction to fine arts, the decorative arts, architecture and fashion. The latest exhibition technology is used to bring the visual arts to life through a computer game that places the individual visitor at centre stage. One of the Gemeentemuseum’s main aims is to interest a wider public in classic modern and contemporary art in a fun, innovative way.
  • EYE Film MuseumEYE Walk project: Another special mention went to EYE Walk, a simple and exciting video tour for children. The project uses tablets and touch screens to guide kids through the museum without the need to be accompanied by their parents. Although this immersive virtual reality experience is relatively simple in technological terms, it was probably one of the most ingenious projects presented at this year’s conference.
  • Imperial War Museums – Computer Club: The winner of the 1st MuseumNext Award for Innovation was the Imperial War Museums’ Computer Club. The winning project is an original, educational tool that provides a space for staff to gain hands-on experience and digital literacy at the five IWM branches. It is structured around a series of fun, informal sessions that cover topics such as Twitter, Facebook, Xbox and gesture control, movie making on an iPad, and so on. In her presentation, Carolyn Royston talked about the idea of boosting people’s confidence in the use of technology, and generating enthusiasm among staff from all departments. This idea that digital media should not be pigeonholed into a single department actually came up a number of times during the conference. All staff should be able to use a computer, follow what happens on Twitter, understand how Facebook works and, above all, be aware of the importance of the digital environment for the future of museums. Participation begins inside the museum, and that’s the way it has to be.

Other interesting projects presented at MuseumNext NewcastleGateshead

Most MuseumNext sessions are scheduled in parallel, so the examples mentioned here are only some of the many projects presented during the two-day conference. Here are a few more highlights:

  • Adidas Archive. For the first time in history, Adidas presents the history and heritage of the brand on a free interactive online platform. Since the project began in 2009, the Adidas Archive team has worked to preserve the company’s history, and to make its content available to a wider audience. The Adidas Archive is available online and uses personalised display and connectivity elements, as well as allowing users to share the experience on social media.
  • Palazzo Madama. Carlotta Margarone presented the inspiring Palazzo Madama Torino crowdfunding project. With the goal of saving a 42-piece Meissen porcelain service, the Palazzo Madama set a target of 80,000€, but ended up reaching 96,200€ in two months! The Palazzo is a small museum (14 staff and 150,000 visitors per year). The initiative was successful precisely because it was a one-off event, but it may not have worked if it had been constantly calling for funds.
  • Andrew Nugée from Imagineear shared a case study around the development of a multimedia guide for patients at the Chelsea and Westminster Health Charity in London. Based on the principle of art therapy, in 2012 Imagineear began working with the hospital’s collection of around a thousand artworks to produce a multimedia guide for patients, visitors, and the general public.
  • ScanLAB & Science Museum. Will Trossell and Dan Evans talked about their huge 3D laser scanning project of the Shipping Galleries at the Science Museum before they were dismantled in 2012. A total of 276 scans were taken of the space and its exhibits to create a digital model of over 2 billion precisely measured points. This digital replica has been used to create a virtual flythrough of the gallery spaces with curator David Rooney providing detailed narration about the key exhibits and artefacts. The next stage of work is currently underway to launch an online, navigable version of the galleries with which the public can interact. Although they’re still not sure what to do with the enormous amount of data that has been collected by the scan, the results encourage us to think about the possibilities that will arise when this technology becomes more affordable and accessible to Museums and their collections in the near future.
  • LACMA Lab. Amy Heibal offered a fantastic presentation about creating innovative projects by putting technology in the hands of the artists. LACMA Lab is an organisation that provides artists with support and space to experiment and develop prototype projects.

Take risks to strike a balance

So it appears that after a decade of museums 2.0, the time has come to become truly digital. But it is also time to find a balance between technophobia and technophilia, between face-to-face and digital projects. Audiences want museums to surprise them, touch them, move them; they want to learn, but also to be entertained. Museums have to provide experiences that reflect our society, and that are legitimised through the social experience that they promote.

There is clearly a big difference between big-budget cultural institutions and small museums, but the same ideas can be applied to both: be brave and take risks, but above all be realistic and create prototypes; test and evaluate projects with your audience during the entire process, to ensure that you create experiences that are enriching for all.

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#Museumnext 2014: Be brave, take risks