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UK Museums on the Web 2012

§ Information design · Conferences

UK Museums on the Web is a one day conference organised by the Museums Computer Group and held in the lecture theatre of the Wellcome Collection. Representatives from museums and other organisations in the sector shared their experiences over the past year and beyond. Tweets tagged #ukmw12 on the day are archived on TweetArchivist. These are some scattered notes transcribed from scribbles in my notebook.

This year the conference was dubbed ‘Strategically Digital’. It was a fascinating, insightful day with some really engaging speakers. The format worked well, with three lots of three presentations on a theme followed by a brief panel discussion with Q&A. Coincidentally this a format Clearleft will be employing at our forthcoming Responsive Day Out.

Paul Rowe, CEO of Vernon Systems, and with the strongest New Zealand accent I’ve ever heard, gave us a typically witty keynote. He encouraged everyone to share their content and make it available everywhere. APIs, Commons media, and loose licenses to the fore.

Andrew Lewis, Digital Content Delivery Manager (I like that this role exists) from the Victoria & Albert Museum talked about the gradual transformation to becoming a digital first organisation. He described how that necessitated a brand new, top-down, governance structure to ensure consistency and longevity of technologies, and to avoid duplication of ideas across departments. Digital, he said, does not respect departmental boundaries.

Rich Barrett-Small, lead web developer at the V&A, followed up with his view ‘from a dark place’. He used the analogy that his team worked as an Agile barrel tumbling through the waterfall processes of an inherently un-agile organisation. He urged museums not to embark on any digital project longer than 3 months, or if it really needs to be longer than that, deliver something tangible after each three months.

In the audience, Stuart Dempster from Jisc (which works on behalf of UK higher & further education to champion the use of digital technologies and is responsible for JANET) made the point that part of digital strategy should be managing your organisation’s online reputation. At it simplest, that means – among other things – replying to tweets and answering comments on TripAdvisor, and making changes in the real world if those comments highlight areas needing improvement. Stuart also mentioned that the Heritage Lottery Fund has finally agreed that digital output from a cultural institution is something it is prepared to fund.

Charlotte Holmes from the Museums Association, which she said represents museums and their suppliers, talked about CPD with respect to digital. She said they require more mentors to help people achieve the professional qualifications they offer (AMAs). It seems to me that people outside of the sector itself, a digital design agency for example, could be able to help in this regard, although some business development opportunities in return would probably be desirable. It was hard to tell if they was any desire for either.

Tom Grinsted, product manager of core mobile apps for the Guardian gave a brief but entertaining view of the rapidly changing face of digital audiences, or “How I learned that there’s no such thing as a digital consumer”. Which about sums it up. He showed that use of the Guardian iPad app peaks first thing in the morning, but not in the evening; whereas the website viewed on a tablet peaks in the evening but less so in the morning. The main takeaway being: when designing don’t partition people, partition actions; in other words there’s no such thing as a mobile user.

Nick Poole, CEO of the Collections Trust presented some pithy truths about creating digital resources:

  • access ≠ value
  • open access ≠ lower sales
  • digital ≠ audience

Nick talked about determining the return on investment of providing a digital resource, not so much in financial terms but in terms of a cultural return. That linked perfectly into the next talk. Simon Tanner from the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London talked passionately about Curation & Impact for the Digital Age, with the emphasis very much on impact, which is akin to the ‘return’ described by Nick in the previous talk.

Simon defined impact as “the measurable outcomes arising from the existence of a digital resource that demonstrate a change in the life or life opportunities of the community for which the resource is intended.” Put simply, how does your digital presence affect people’s lives? Loads more details, including how to present a convincing evidence-based argument for digital resources are available for download on the KDCS website.

Claire Ross and Jane Audas talked about their experience trying to run digital R&D with the Imperial War Museums. They came across similar difficulties to those highlighted by Rich Barrett-Small in trying to do Agile in a fundamentally non-agile environment. Long term outputs (5 years plus) with lots of stakeholders wanting to ‘sign off’ does not map to a process of continuous iteration.

Part of their project was enabling museum visitors to write comments on the exhibits using a kiosk next to the exhibit itself. A battle won was allowing for ‘radical trust’ and the realisation that post moderation works: visitors may write inane comments, but never offensive ones. Oh, and QR codes don’t work.

Mentioned in passing was the fascinating WW1 Discovery project which aims to make resources about the Great War more discoverable, and find new and innovative ways to present this content for the benefit of education and research. Also cropping up was the Google Cultural Institute, which I’ll admit I’d never come across, probably because while Google claims it is “building tools that make it simple to tell the stories of our diverse cultural heritage” it all looks very closed.

The afore-mentioned Stuart Dempster was up next and quoted Nat Torkington excellent article Libraries – Where It All Went Wrong. The choice bit being:

I look at the results of digitization projects, I find the shittiest websites on the planet. It’s like a gallery spent all its money buying art and then just stuck the paintings in supermarket bags and leaned them against the wall.

Finally came Katy Beale from Caper who talked about a few of their fun ventures, including Culture Hackday and the Happenstance project, the James Bridle and Natalia Buckley part of which happened in Clearleft’s building.

All in all it was a thoroughly interesting day, especially from one who is somewhat of an outsider, and I got to have some fascinating conversations in the break. I’m really looking forward to Clearleft working more with museums, galleries and others in this sector.