Museum Computer Network conference 2012

Digital Media
December 14, 2012

Museum Computer Network conference poster 2012In November we were participating at the annual Museum Computer Network conference (MCN), this year held in Seattle. The MCN conference is a great learning experience. You don’t so much attend as get immersed. 

Our Lead Developer Rich Barrett-Small was on the programme committee for this year’s event. Rich also organised workshops (read more about these in a previous post)

I also offered my thoughts on barriers to success in delivering technology projects and some ways to overcome them. My presentation is available here.

At the bottom of this post there are also links to other people’s posts about MCN 2012.

Here are some highlights of sessions from the conference and reflections on themes and trends that emerged. This is a whiz through, so apologies for any simplifications or omissions.

Conference themes

The MCN conference title for 2012 was The Museum Unbound, with the themes of Shifting Perspectives, Evolving Spaces and Disruptive Technologies.

Shifting Perspectives

One pattern was a continuing widening of open communities within museum technology working practices, with examples in professional engagement, open-source coding, open frameworks on GitHub, open academic publishing and collective authority.

Though the deployment of open products and processes appears to be growing , it is clear that the use of closed proprietory systems is not dead yet. While there may be shift from top-down to open-source, in some sense ‘top-down VS open-source’ dilemmas may also be shifting from desktop to mobile. A few years ago it might have been Flash versus HTML4, whereas now it might be Apple app versus HTML5.  

There was a strong and welcome sense that data-driven models are established as the standard expectation for underpinning services and are shifting from cutting-edge to business as usual. As well as appearing in obvious contexts in sessions about big data and semantic web, data-driven models were also mentioned in sessions about IT maintenance and staff resource management. 

There was evidence of a maturation of agile methodologies in practise. This is nothing new in development, but appears to be moving into IT infrastructure. The need for flexibility being acknowledged and advocated by several IT managers, to allow organisations to respond faster to overall business needs. Also discussed were the steady commodification of cloud hosting and management services and advocacy for DevOps function to help IT and developers work together better.

Evolving Spaces

Digital media delivery in physical spaces was covered in sessions covering the use of open-source hardware for the creation of gallery interactives and in museum learning sessions. The growing importance of catering for hardware that is user-owned, rather than museum-provided, was also raised. This might be expected in discussions about new ways of looking at in-gallery digital provision, but was also raised by IT managers talking about staff equipment and support models.

Using 3D to provide access in virtual spaces was touched upon, and the use of standardised consumer kit, mainly iPads came up to avoid build and maintenance costs in gallery interactives

Disruptive Technologies

3D technology and 3D printing in particular exhibits classic disruptive tech qualities in design and manufacturing, although it there was not agreement about how far this may affect museums yet. . There was a lot of interest and speculation on its potential for object repair, allowing visitors to ‘touch’ rare objects, conservation mounts and even sales items. The rise of free entry-level 3D capture tools was discussed as liberating by making 3D imaging to those without huge budgets.

There was however some scepticism about the quality currently achievable, especially for modelling and documentation purposes. The message was ‘watch this space’. 

The disruptive potential of open-source hardware combined with rapid prototyping may have implications for building of physical interactive services, but again, it was not obvious that this was  yet widely in use.

Other themes

The (slowish) emergence of HTML5

Liz Neely

One shifting perspective that recurred was the gradual encroachment of HTML5. Its not new, but equally not all features are available yet, and it is interesting seeing how it is emerging in live services in a range of levels of implementation.

It is clear that HTML5 is a little way off yet from being a complete open source solution but it’s creeping in.

For example a fairly large project at the Art Institute of Chicago to deliver content via iPads in galleries mixed HTML5 with TAP, TourML and Drupal – a start-from-scratch mobile app presented by Director of Digital Information and Access Liz Neely, Sandbox Studios’ Scott Sayre and  IMA Application Development Manager Kyle Jaebker.
Curtis Wong, Principal Researcher at Microsoft indicated that projects that currently rely on Silverlight will tend to move to work via HTML5, a welcome move towards open standards, during his engrossing keynote speech, which showcased the possibilities of interactive video powered by big data. 

Open sharing becomes the norm

A strongly recurring theme was the normalisation of openness. Open standards and open source were deeply embedded in the ethos of many presentations, but also that of the collective museum professional community. It was heartening to find the ethos of making ideas, data and code freely available for others to build on becoming pervasive.

Open Authority

In her speech at the opening Ignite event at the EMP Museum, US Cultural Partnerships Coordinator for Wikimedia Foundation Lori Byrd Phillips discussed the tensions in museum knowledge authority between tightly-controlled models and open communal models. She cited a 1971 Duncan Cameron article, ‘The Museum: A Temple or the Forum.’ and how closely it compared that with a metaphor from a 1997 piece by Eric Raymond: ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ discussing the trend in coding from proprietory software to open-source coding.  Lori was offering a model of open authority, acknowledging the need for authority, but suggesting it is better reached by open communal working.  

Professional development in the public eye

In ‘Tales from the blog’ Susan Cairns, Ed Rodley, Mike Murawski and Eric Siegel described the realities of blogging as a personal and professional development practise, including the need to realise what your online persona is and develop it, how blogging can widen your professional  network and help you focus on your thinking.

Tensions were discussed about talking professionally in public for example between corporate public image and open personal opinion.

blog session at MCN

Smaller projects and shortening development cycles

Several speakers noted that doing long projects was inherently risky and that the risk was now normal in pretty much all technical activity. 

The general need to move faster and in smaller steps was summed up for me by Jay David of TOKY talking about digital publications, who offered a great quote attributed to Robert Weisberg of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

‘If we’re right, it’ll be out of date in two years.
If we’re wrong, it’ll be out of date and WRONG IN TWO WEEKS.’
This theme is similar to agile methodology in technical development, but several speakers advocated a similar approach in operational technology with mention of new challenges such as desktop to mobile, in-house to cloud and the rise of bring your own equipment, not just for pubic visitors, but for staff.
In the lively session ‘Sustainable Technology Choices for Museums’ Mark Check of the Science Museum Boston advocated continuous evolution not big projects and defined sustainability as ‘strategy for defining long-term responsibility’.
Check wished to be quoted as ‘never again doing a big website redesign’ (paraphrased slightly!). He argued that, within technology, change was so pervasive that at all levels, it could not be relied upon to be stable for any length of time.
Check was amongst several speakers who raised the need for governance advocating the simple mantra “Just because we can, does that mean we should”.
He was refreshingly forthright about common recurring factors in museums that can have very bad implications for technology decisions which included individual museums thinking they were special, the perils of building custom solutions not integrated into wider practise and examples of interactive technologies built into in galleries expected to have lifespans of ten years, amongst others.
He asked the question: ‘Is a technology lifespan of ten years OK?’, which was met with a resounding no from the audience.
He also warned against the risks of accepting external money, pointing out that a considered no shows you have a strategy.

The message was clear. If you invest in delivering a product, service, policy or plan that need a few years to realise it, you are introducing significant risk, as it is very likely it may not be relevant by the time it is finished. 

In the same session, Rich Cherry discussed ideas such as separating front-end development from back-end to allow modular improvements in one or the other, and to be able to change individual blocks of technology more flexibly. He also talked about supporting staff such as the importance of creating a good environment for developers and their natural need to solve problems and be challenged. He also made a case for setting aside a small amount of money for exploring new tech by having a ‘shiny object fund’. Nicely named!

Open data

Tristan Roddis

Tristan Roddis, Head of Web Development at Cogapp described work on linked open data at the Science Museum, London
He used the concept of  ‘graph’ data to describe linked data and discussed how this model is flexible because the triples used in linked open data are not dependent upon their containing database needing to be defined in advance.
He also discussed how graph data has no hierarchy and the appeal of SPARQL as an open standard that works over the web.
The project described was using using a range of data extraction tools including PYTHON scripts on AdLib APIs with FOAF (Friend of a Friend), although he raised the issue of lack of ontology standardisation and that there may be too many to choose from.
Roddis streesed the need for identifiers to be unique and stable, and how they had chosen
opaque identifiers not human readable (to avoid them changing). He also discussed that opening data highlight data inconsistencies and copyright issues.

Openness about costs

In ‘Make it Rain: Condensing Four Years of Cloud Usage’, Charles Moad and Gray Bowman talked about their work at IMA Lab at Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and was commendably open about the operational costs of moving all their public websites onto the cloud for video hosting, transcribing, storing, streaming. 
They use CloudFront, a video streaming service which was very reasoanaby costed quoting a figure of $1000 for 10 Tb over four years, which they indicated had a simple web interface.
The pros they have found are not having to support hardware admin, good uptime, energy efficiency and the convenience and flexibility of pay-as-you-go.
In balance, they described cons such as performance being too slow to use effectively as a digital asset management system and that backup is not included and remains their responsibility. They highlighted that this is a disaster avoidance issues and they have occassionally needed to do a restore. 
They used Amazon (AMS) and were very with the service. They suggested not getting into long-term contracts with cloud providers as the costs should come down. Don’t make 3-year commitments
They also talked about fostering a Dev Ops culture and that it works for them.

Digital publishing for audience hardware

Indianapolic Museum of art session on digital publishingDigital publishing is rather a blanket term for a lot  of activity. From Indianapolis Museum of Art, Director of Publishing and Media Rachel Craft, Application Development Manager Kyle Jaebker and Jay David of TOKY described the pragmatic decision-making involved in launching digital content for tablets, including the online-only publication ‘Graphite’, eventually to be published in iBooks.
Graphite is an interesting attempt to blend the feel of the exhibition with scholarly aspects into what can be described as digital event content. 
They described honestly the limitations of this platform and how they had tried to give interactivity to match an exhibition, but couldn’t get it to work satisfactorily in a user-friendly way in the iBook format.  They found the mandatory table of contents restrictive in what it offered users and discussed creating navigation on a home page as a quicker access to key content. They also described limitations of the paginated iBooks format, and how they had compared this to the news-stand type formats which have up/down page scrolling as well as left/right.
In the session they suggested that expensively designed custom-published apps will become increasingly uncommon, but acknowledged that current aspirations could not always be immediately be met by available platforms. As well as iBook format which delivered the best compromise, they also intend to provide a version in the open ePub format  and essays as PDFs
They use the OSCI Toolkit (available on gitub here) which allows export into different formats. They discussed that digital publishing model options are not established. 
There was so much more not covered here. Below are some other resources from or about MCN 2012 sessions.

Slack Day at Museum Computer Network conference
Previous Digital Media blog post about SlackDay hardware and software intros morning session Friday 9 November, co-curated by our fine Lead Developer Rich Barrett-Small.

3D workshop at Metrix Create:Space, MCN Seattle
Blog post about the great 3D printing MCN pre-conference workshop on Wednesday 7 November in Seattle’s really awesome Metrix Create:Space. 

Technology projects – What could possibly go wrong?
Slides on Slideshare from my presentation in the Saturday morning session ‘Attacking project pitfalls’.

Google Art Project on trial
Transcription of the mock trial of Google Art Project, which I did not attend, but that others spoke enthusiastically about. Essentially pitched, big high-profile access against closed cherry-picking glossiness.

MCN 2012 – Directors’ Roundtable
Another session that clashed with one I was at. This post is from Thinking about Museums and is really inspiring, making great points about leadership being everyone’s responsibility. Wish I had got to this one. Happily rich did.

On Agile Digital Publishing with the Indianapolis Museum of Art at MCN Seattle
Jay David of TOKY discusses issues raised in his presentation with IMA (CHECK)

Photogrammetry videos from the Georgia O’Keeffe Musuem imaging project
Nicely accessible video intros to concepts of photogrammetry from staff working on fascinating use of 3D mesh capturing to understand the works of Georgia O’Keeffe.

About the author

Digital Media
December 14, 2012

Digital Content Delivery Manager at the V&A. Information scientist at work and hacky maker of strange things out of it.

More from Andrew Lewis
2 comments so far, view or add yours


Every time I read a new review I feel like I missed so much just be virtue of the simultaneous sessions. When the videos come out, I’m going to have some catching up to do–it will be like my mid-winder MCNx. Thanks Andrew! -Liz

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