Ideas from Museumnext 2013

Digital Media
May 13, 2013

Some brief reviews of sessions from this year’s fantastic Museumnext. As ever it’s not possible to attend them all (sadly), nor do them all justice, but here is a condensed run through…

Keynote – Seb Chan talks about digital transformation at the Cooper-Hewitt museum New York.

Seb Chan kicked things off with a truly inspirational discussion of how he is working to change the mindest of an entire museum and drive it out into the world in radically different ways using digital data as its core. When Seb arrived at the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York, the Museum was closed for renovation. 0.3% on display and only 7% digitised by having been photographed.  His task was to start completely from scratch and rethink the way the museum functions with digital. 

Seb Chan - considering how users' desires shape the experience of the museum

Seb described how he started off with some good tactics, such as ‘Hire people smarter than you’, ‘Invest in training’ and ‘Make irreversible decisions’. With digital staff on board, one of the first things was releasing the collections 3 months based on a solid data API foundation. Seb admitted he had been surprised that this had seemed a radical idea to many people. It was impressive that they used GitHub to publish metadata as ‘cultural source code” using cc-zero licence. A great example of making a bold positive action to move change forward.

Seb went on to say how to encourage accelerated digital change he moved production and in particular development in-house. His team took a ‘prototype is the product’ approach and started releasing barely-built iterations of collections. He talked about a rhythm of releasing things fast – pushing things out of the door as soon as they are ready. The phrase Seb describes this with, is ‘Institutional Wabi-Sabi’ – essentially living with imperfection and chaos and change. He pointed out that all design is about testing things and reinventing them and refining, so being open to releasing incomplete versions of the developing service was an demonstration of a commitment to open design

Seb also made the point that it is not about technology as such. He described how having live data allowed a change in curatorial practise. Through data visualisations, staff have started to recognise that they need to consider what they really know about collections and data publishing makes it easy to view the collections in new and interesting ways.

Not wasting time on making more exhibition websites or one-off mobile experiences frees staff time up to be spent on building unique value. Rather than trying to write content for everything, they are have been using open web data to connect their knowledge with data from outside the Museum.

One example of this was of course information made available through the V&A’s collections API directly within Cooper Hewitt object records. This sort of agile cross-organisational knowledge can be and is being done because both the V&A and Copper Hewitt web services are based on a data-driven API model. Yay!

Making the museum building itself digital

Seb went on to explore how to make the physical building web. They have started off by exploring with some open scoping questions such as:

  • What does a building have that a screen does not?
  • What experiences do we want our audiences to desire
  • What experiences do users desire
  • When we acquire 3d printed chairs, should we be collecting the source code?
  • How do you collect Facebook anyway?

Metrics of success

Seb finished off with some measures that they are looking at to judge the success of the project by. This include:

  • Increased visitor diversity
  • Increase dwell time
  • Repeat visitation
  • Visitor satisfaction
  • Internal innovation
  • Creating collecting capacity

Takeaway: The importance of open web data publishing as a solid foundation for digital services. It is great to have people like Seb championing change on the ground, doing it for real with services and showing how powerful it can be. A great talk

Keynote – Rijksstudio: get creative with the Rijksmuseum’s masterpieces

Peter Gorgels, Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum website home page

One of the most talked about museum websites in the last year was of course the Rijksmuseum’s new website including Rijksstudio which released 125,000 hi res (2500px +) images with unrestricted access, with the aim of anchoring itself in the new world of digital image culture and open design. The website rightly won Best of the Web at Museums and the Web last month

Peter Gorgels described how the website design had been based around an extremely simple concept, which was focussed on getting people closer to the artwork. He described how the scoping had started by looking at the ways people use digital in their daily life, on tablets, phones, laptops, on the sofa, on the train, while cooking. It was great to hear such a user lifestyle orientated approach. The process design process looked at what people try to do. Of course they made it responsive in recognition of the huge number of devices in use by people.

They looked at Google Art Project and liked the in-your-face close-up zoom and wanted the site to feel like an app which focusses on the art, an ‘appsite’. They started with a brief that they wanted a website with just the art – no buttons or navigation or text. This was a challenging but inspired idea.

The design team established some core values with a working concept being the single word – ‘close’. Peter said how he believed that virtual activity and closeness enhances the aura of the original artwork.

They targeted behaviour identifying a target group of culture snackers. Peter suggested that everyone is a culture snacker. They tried to identify generic ways people use the web in the most intimate way, so looked at what might be the most intimate device.

They used a house style, with the bold Rijksmuseum font and a limited colour palette.

It was great to hear Peter describe their use of agile development. They used scrums to develop a 2-week functionality release and then reviewed this by playing with it making decisions about the direction it should go in.

The concept of Rijksstudio within the new site is quite conceptual. It is about putting art at the forefront and encouraging people to be inspired by the great art and to go on and design their own works. Peter described the large scale marketing campaign which was based on products which incorporated art from Rijksstudio. This included the top Dutch TV anchor wearing a dress on air during the live television launch which featured designs from art taken from the service

Takeaways: Another great talk. The use of develop-and-test agile cycles and the intensely thoughtful regard for how people live their lives digitally really are inspirational. The choice of tablet as the main focus of design because it is a device used for pleasure and intimacy with content is a great example of design thinking. Well done.

Go Tablet First, Go Tablet Proof

Q42, Matthijs van der Meulen & Fabrique, Ebelien Pondaag, Paul Stork & Anna Offermans.

Following on from Peter’s high level overview, there was a welcome opportunity to attend a workshop on design principles for tablets with people who have worked to develop the Rijksmuseum’s beautiful new site.

Interface design

This had great advice on web design for tablets. Some simple but important tips included

  • Make finger-friendly. Tiny text and buttons make a site impossible to use with the finger
  • Don’t hide information under mouseover. If it is important expose it to the touch. If it is not, ditch it altogether.
  • People expect touch on a tablet. Make sure your website gives it to them
  • For closeness, inspire people first, then offer navigation if needed. Fingers should do the exploring.
  • Assume tablet may be used anywhere in either orientation
  • Consider how might sofa users might use your content
  • Keep it simple – choose the priority and strip the interface down to focus on that. (on Rijksmuseum site there are just three main menu options (Plan your visit, Collection, About the Museum)
  • do not use a splash-screen or pop-up prompt as this irritates people


Just develop just one responsive site – not a separate mobile site. Hopefully most people know this, but it is good to hear this being emphasised.

Although they use viewport settings (essentially screen width) to make the site display, which incidentally is what we use at the V&A.

They also used Modernizr – a JavaScript library that detects HTML5 and CSS3 features in the user’s browser. The site is built around html5, but of course not all features are supported by older browsers, so this sounds like a very useful tool. I will be investigating!

They also use Head.js which is a JavaScript loader that manages load-on-demand of various different scripts and style sheets only when needed. This allows CSS to target different screen resolutions, paths, states and browsers. Apparently Head.js does this by detecting various browsers and their features.

As well as responsive layout the design also loads images responsively, so that smaller images are served to devices with smaller screens. This can have significant advantages in reducing download time for the user (and bandwidth capacity and cost for the organisation!)

Takeaways: Loads of sensible practical advice for developing user-focussed tablet web products. Good job.

The Aftermath of Digital R&D

Carolyn Royston, Imperial War Museums and Claire Ross, Centre for Digital Humanities, UCL

Carolyn and Claire discussed the challenges of attempting agile development to implement gallery social interaction, during a NESTA-funded project. They described the concerns that people had over launching unfinished services while they are still being delivered.

They had some success in getting many thousands of comments, with only very small numbers of problem comments.

They were frank in their description of trying to scope a grant-assisted project in a short period of time. They found that ideas they had wished to attempt had proven far too complex to deliver. For example they early on dropped some features to incorporate Facebook social features. The session raised for me interesting questions about how grant applications are assessed and awarded, as the project clearly had not been sufficiently scoped at the start to deliver what it had intended to do.

Takeaways: Agile development is difficult without a strong commitment from the organisation. Grants offer great opportunities, but the nature of grant-awarding processes may possibly encourage hasty project planning.

Keynote – Google Web Labs at Science Museum, London

Dave Patten, Science Museum London

Dave Patten described the interesting challenges of working with Google on the Web Lab, the Science Museum’s hybrid exhibition and digital collaborative experience. Dave described how the entire process of making Web Labs was a live beta not only of the code but of the physical layout of the space.

The development was done using html5 and Google App Engine. Dave described how different Google development teams such as Chrome work in a very fast-moving way and how this could be quite challenging to manage. In particular, he highlighted that software developers did not always appreciate that hardware builds can take longer due to manufacturing. The project highlighted the tensions of working within a slowish moving organisation in partnership with a rapid agile one.

A great deal of effort obviously went into this, such as finding locations for cameras that had to be on 24 hours a day, but not features any people to avoid obtaining permission There was also fascinating insights into the hardware development using Arduino and other kit (lots and lots of kit!) The exhibit is open until June 2013

Takeaways: Working with big talent and resource rich companies can deliver interesting and innovative exhibits, but museums attempting such partnerships need to consider if their  organisations are sufficiently set up to allow for the rapid prototyping and development that digital projects require.

The Future is Incremental – Developing digital services in unstable conditions

Andrew Lewis, V&A

I won’t go on about my own contribution to the conference. Suffice to say it was a conceptual overview of the importance of having a robust data engine at the core of digital work. APIs and data publishing are a core feature in delivering and connecting digital assets with the audience-facing digital services. The presentation outlines how this allows efficient and scalable processes and enables the rapid development needed within an uncertain and complex digital landscape.

Connecting backend digital asset management in departments with frontend service delivery using data publishing via APIsGet the slides from this presentation now on Slideshare

Takeaway: Separate digital asset management is separate from end-user services. A robust data publishing engine is the key to efficient and responsive service development.

What’s Now, What’s Next, What’s within your Budget

Oonagh Murphy, University of Ulster

This was a great practical session with lots of good ideas for smaller museums to help them with digital development. The session was based on a findings of research during a 6-week visit to museums in New York. Her key points included:

  • Embrace Contemporary Culture
    Being cool in your courtyard brings in engaged contemporary people and doesn’t compromise your curatorial kudos
  • Use buildings as creative hubs for experimentation and innovation by visitors, such as Met’s 3D printing hackathon
  • Facilitate peer-learning, collaboration and networking amongst peers by going to conferences, MuseumNext, MCN, Museums and the Web, Drinking about Museums, etc.
  • Look at what can be learned from innovative, agile, mission lead institutions (although she stressed that small museums should not copy big museums, but see how approaches might be used.

​Get Oonagh’s report ‘Museums and Digital Engagement: A New York Perspective’  here

Takeaway: For staff in smaller museums starting out with digital, getting engaged with the museum community will quickly lead you to helpful and experienced professionals who can help you

What’s Next: Affection Management

Luis Marcelo Mendes, Independent Communications Consultant

Luis argued passionately that the management of affection was fundamental to making museum experiences relevant, yet this was something that is barely mentioned in many museum discussions. He raised an interesting point that affection management is really what brand is about. He made the nicely ironic point that brand management actually has quite a negative association in many people’s mind and perhaps needs a rebrand itself.

Takeaway – A good basic message – was start by thinking about how you want your audiences to feel.

Keynote – From Content Provider to Creative Platform: Inventing the Ablative Museum ablative

Michael John Gorman, Science Gallery Dublin

After seeing this session, I just wanted to go straight to Dublin and take a visit. Michael described some incredible work they had done in using art to connect young people wit science. This was not just attending an exhibition, but being involved in actual scientific research. For example the tracking of emotional responses to rejection in one exhibit had produced data that had been the basis of a formal paper in a leading medical journal. Another exhibit involved taking samples of people’s blood, and observing the battle between the defensive white blood cells of each – a really engaging way to get people thinking about the subject by literally getting the living tissue involved.

The development process for exhibits was really interesting. They have a think tank for stimulating ideas and developing themes, with most exhibitions, displays and interactive installations come from open calls for ideas – great stuff.

In the process, I liked the way they treated the point of public engagement as the mid-point in the project, not the end

Project development > project live as an exhibit > project engagement data and research flow on afterwards

Takeaway: commisioning artists to interprete science is a powerful way to mix culture, scientific understanding and produce inspiring experiences

Digital meets physical

Psychic Hive Mind Fortune Teller reveals the collective discussion for Museumnext to a bemused conference attendeeFinally, I had a lot of fun building a fairground-style Psychic Fortune Reader as a fringe activity for MuseumNext attendees in connection with the Ignite session.

This physical interactive was connected to twitter, scanning the live conference twitter conversation continuously throughout the event, and offered attendees a personalised fortune reading, based on the thoughts of the several hundred people all discussing the future of museums at the same time. It was fascinating watching the flow of discussion in real time within its brain!







A great conference. I had so many great conversations with all sorts of people and have come away with many new thoughts about all sorts of things including frontend design, developer recruitment, ways to greater integrate agile development and frankly just raw inspiration from such awesome community engagement. 

About the author

Digital Media
May 13, 2013

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

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