Themes and brain food from Museums and the Web 2013

Digital Media
April 25, 2013

Diane Borger from Punchdrunk Theatre live via video link at Museums and the Web 2013

The ever thought-provoking Museums and the Web was in Portland this year. Several themes emerged for me from the sessions I attended, but first… 

Free downloads and links from tactics session

This is quite a big review. Before diving into this, if you just want the free stuff, here’s some. In my session on tactics for delivering digital projects, I promised attendees I’d make a PDF version of the audience activity handout that they could download. Here it is.
It’s a simple template for working up a force field analysis as part of project scoping. This is a mthod of identifying barriers to success to help plan counter-measures to overcome them.

Forcefield Analysis scoping aide

Also, here is a reminder link to the full presentation on Slideshare.

Tactics and Decision Making for Successful Museum Digital Projects

Thanks to all who attended. It was a really engaged session.

Overarching themes from sessions and conversations

Museums and the Web always has something interesting to set one off thinking. The themes that emerged for me from the sessions I attended were (roughly)…

  • Spectacle and wonder – the opening and closing plenaries both explored how Museums should adapt in an information-, entertainment- and communication- saturated world, and what part spectacle and wonder might have in designing Museum experiences.
  • Users not technology – there seemed to me a focus on user motivation and behaviour, which was most welcome.  Several sessions explored how digital is integrated in almost all aspects of people’s daily lives, and asked what being a museum technologist even means, when digital is not a new thing to be explored, but is ubiquitous.
  • Technology lifecycle –discussions surrounding technology appeared to acknowledge that technology has a beginning middle and end, and that each new idea emerging really won’t save the planet, but instead users will assess it, play with it, absorb it and ultimately leave it obsolete.

Having the collective brain-power and expertise of hundreds of museum-professionals all active in digital makes for a lush hot-house to experience, but there is never enough time to take it all in, even while simultaneously attending and cross-talking with other sessions.

You just can’t get to everything, let alone do the conference justice in a single post, but here are some more detailed thoughts on ideas it raised for me. 

Theatre, spectacle and designing challenging experiences for audiences

In his conference-opening session ‘When the Rare Becomes Commonplace: Challenges for Museums in a Digital Age’ Larry Friedlander explored the idea that we have now irreversibly changed from an urban to a global culture. He stated the traditional model of museums – as peaks of knowledge giving value and separating quality from the unchecked – was over.

Cultural information, how its value is described and communicated is dispersed across a wide unpredictable number of digital channels and all of these are cultural competitors. He considered the challenges museums faced from these multiple channels which mean it is not credible for anyone to assume they have a single authoritative voice.

Friedlander asked the question: ‘How do you get people to stop and pay attention?’ His suggested response was that when designing new experiences, museums should make it harder rather than easier for audiences, reasoning that ‘people are very good at thinking. They do it all the time. They just don’t think in schools’. His argument was that museums should not push pseudo-educational directed learning, but allow people to use their mental agility.

This theme was mirrored in the closing conference session featuring Dianne Borger from Punch Drunk theatre discussing the confrontational and provocative design of the immersive theatre experience Sleep No More. This session led by Seb Chan made the case that museum design should look at wonderment and providing unique experiences.

This chimed with Friedlander’s point that digital has disrupted traditional boundaries of authority by creating chaotic changing connections and that increasingly there is a need to outperform the other noise. To use theatre and showmanship to gain attention.

These sessions were thought-provoking. Undoubtedly spectacle and emotional immersion are powerful methods of engaging people although they are not new in museums.

Hands on multiple-person engagement are commonplace in science museum, such as in the London Science Museum’s Launchpad. The semi-theatrical model has also been adopted in other related experiences such as the London Dungeon which was originally presented as  museum exhibits to explore, but has for many years been conducted as an ‘actor-led’ guided tour with audience participation in torture scenes, mock trials and so on.

For art museums the comparisons with cutting edge theatre companies like Punchdrunk undoubtedly have much to add to the discussion of exhibit and exhibition design. It is interesting to ponder the comparative business models. Although Punchdrunk is subsidised, it is really operating this show on a commercial model.  To bring Sleep No More to production there were substantial upfront costs involved (in the region of £5million).

The business model requires a high entrance price (£100) and a reasonably lengthy and blockbusting run to break even. In the closing plenary Ed Rodley asked the question that if you pay a lot for something, do you take it more seriously or make more effort to explore it? This is a hot topic. There has been criticism of the exclusive nature of blockbuster shows in museums such as at the IMA.

Some interesting questions of mission and strategy are raised here. Are such shows exclusive? If so, is that a bad thing, or just one aspect of a well-rounded thing? Is the experience the product, or is it a means to an end?

What do people want and how do they actually behave?

I am interested in how people live their lives independently of museums and how services should consider how this drives service design. There was a good range of sessions that in one way or another, tackled this issue. Some utilised well-established qualitative surveying and user feedback to study digital.  There were also a number of interesting attempts to use the characteristics of digital technology to understand behaviour in new ways such as scanning for the signals mobile devices pulse out periodically when searching for Wi-Fi.

Visitor detection in the Hecht Museum – Tsvi Kuflik, Eyal Dim

How do groups of people really behave inside a museum?

This session explored experiments with the observation of groups of users inside a museum space, and whether there were identifiable patterns behaviour that groups of people exhibit.  The study was quite small scale and focussed on couples, which the presenter cheerily admitted because it was the simplest group to experiment and was achievable. He did say he regretted not having a post-visit survey, which was not done to avoid intrusion.

Their interesting approach was actual videoing of people in the galleries combined with location-data recording obtained from tracking devices. The participants in the study were recruited on entry to the museum, and those who chose to take part were issued with RFID technology which could send location-based information to RFID beacons inside the Museum space. They identified six recurring behaviour patterns, which they described using a range of animal metaphors: Penguins, Geese, Lone-Wolves etc. Video taping of participants was also to identify recurring patterns of behaviour.

This research was conducted over 2 years. There is a detailed paper to accompany it, which raises interesting implications about physical space design, as well as highlighting the complexity of behavour patterns.

Testing new services by just asking people to use them

Tijana Tasich, Elena Villaespesa, Tate, London

This workshop was very direct and practical. It started by challenging how true our claims really are that ‘users always come first’, if we do not ask the users themselves.

They described how they had engaged users in the most recent Tate website design. They described how they used simplified active html mockups of the site as they built it which, although not fully functional, allowed users to use it, not just look at it. This quickly showed some significantly confusing issues and surprising preferences users had, such as the invisibility of drop-down menu items, preferences for symmetry in image layout and so on. The workshop also featured some useful group ativities aimed at focussing on user journeys and expected outcomes. 

Simple lesson: Just ask people, but have a live useable test product or you are not testing usability. More details here:

Eye-tracking technology as a means of understanding behaviour in museums – 3 case studies

1. The Indianapolis Museum of Art: Gauging the Practical Use of Eye Tracking in Museums –Kyle Jaebker

Calibrating eye-tracking

In this session, Kyle Jaebker Director of IMA Lab at the Indianapolis Museum of Art outline attempts there, to use eye-tracking to study how users look at their art works (paintings). Seeking to explore useful and practical means of applying eye-tracking technology to common problems faced by museums, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) was awarded in the spring of 2011 an IMLS Sparks! grant with the aim of:

  • gauging the practicality of using such devices in a gallery setting
  • determining the ability of current eye-tracking technology to measure precisely how long and what people are looking at
  • exploring the potential use of this equipment in a practical setting like a Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) discussion 

This was using Used an EyeTech VT2 equipment. This was hoped to be non-intrusive as it sits in front of the art and the users does not have to wear anything. Kyle had quickly found that what he had hoped would be potentially rich source of data for understanding users proved difficult. Some quite careful calibration had been needed to get accurate results. With calibration they recorded useful results but a cost of forcing the people looking at the art in a very restrictive way involving a fixed head position

This was clearly intrusive way. It may have some use in lab testing, but it was clearly not delivering the low-impact they had intended for visitors. It was mentioned in passing that the next generation Microsoft Kinect may have eye-tracking, so this me become more affordable.

2. The Hatfield Marine Science Center: Eye Tracking on a 3-D Digital Exhibit

This session described the use of eye tracking with the digital 3-D exhibit piece in a gallery setting. Fourteen adult subjects were recruited from visitor groups to the Visitor Center. They more or less found the same problems that Kyle had. It only works with a standing subject, and they suggested that a chair would help, which while maybe OK for empirical testing of use of an exhibit, was clearly not something thatcould be used in a real life scenario. 

3. The Deutsches Museum: Exhibiting “The Real Thing”: Do Visitors Perceive Authentic Objects Differently?

Interesting study of mobile eyetracking in the DeutchesMuseum which used head mounted eyetracking camera. This is clearly intrusive, but looked much more likely to get believably representative results. Their subject of study was interesting. They were using eye-tracking to  test the traditionally held view that using real objects lends exhibits higher intrinsic value and there for is likely to gain higher user engagement. Their method was to use interchanging displays at different times and track the visitors’ focus for displays with real objects. Their results indicated that visitors were indeed more engaged, but that there were many factors that mean the data was inconclusive

Practically a calibration grid had to be fixed on the wall and its position could not be changed for every single test person, causing issues for different sized people. Very tall or very short participants wee difficult to calibrate and calibration was often difficult when the distance between the eyes of the test person is either under or above average.

Using Commodity Hardware as an Affordable Means to Track On-site Visitor Flow

Gray Bowman, Kyle Jaebker. IMA

I am very keen on looking at base-level characteristics of digital technology. This is the best way to get new thinking on how they might change how we provide services. By studying the nature of things we discover new connections. This session was a great example of this. It described a project at Indianapolis Museum of Art which used phone technology to understand user behaviour. By considering what phones do when they look for wireless, they used the signals that visitors’ smart phones omit and used this to track location within the museum space – simple, but very clever.

They used Raspberry Pi as the hardware tech (which cost around £50/$70), TShark to do data packet detection and analysis and Python to handle the data with MySql.  They were able to verify data against the network request traffic to check it was reliable.

They typically found about 455 unique phone per day (active wireless mobile devices basically) which could rise to as high as 3000 devices at Final Friday events (which attracts younger audience). They had lots of interesting results that show great potential. They could use the data to detect the number of devices that return. Most were  single visits, but some visits were as high as 23 times over the period of study.

This ability to track the range of repeat individual user patterns obviously has great potential.

They started with one device, then added two more to give location tracking. They want to develop using more devices to spot patterns, etc. There are privacy management issues. They had used one way hashing to encrypt the MAC addresses, but could be enhanced to higher level.  Although anonymised, this could be extended in theory to allow users to choose to let through their data as a means of identification to get member benefits for example.

This was a really good session. Hats off to them (again) for putting the code is on GitHub. INTERESTING PROJECT!


Other sessions

In Other Words: Crowdsourcing Translation for a Video-Driven Web

Jonathan Munar, Art21

Jonathan described how they used volunteers to crowd source translations.

They used YouTube which is well optimised for languages. They found that starting with subtitles for in English, then translating the subtitles was the most effective method. as well as being useful for accessibility, the English subtitles  were easier for volunteers to translate than listening to the video soundtrack.

Crowdsourcing was not chosen to save money. It was chosen to build community and mission. They do use professional translators too. This is more expensive. It can be faster sometimes, but does not have the community benefits. They use Amara (TED also use this). Jonathan noted that community management was extremely intense. They had to be rewarded. They put name credits on Youtube descriptions, and next to financial donors on their website

Takeaway – using English subtitles can make it much easier to get other language translations made by volunteers

What does it mean to be a Museum technologist

Rich Cherry, Rob Stein

Rich and Rob asked the question. As museum technologist, what is our role in a  ‘post-technology’ world. Rob suggested that Museums and the Web does not mean a load of museum technologists, but a load of museum professionals discussing how technology can be used for museum purposes.

This was based on a pre-conference survey. In this, they found that personal enjoyment was prime reason for technologically-skilled staff to stay and the top reason for leaving the museum sector (e.g. development staff) was salary. In the discussion, Seb Chan said that he believed that coders are driven to stay by the ability to “ship code”.

Takeaway – pay developers industry wages, not museum wages but also employ people who love museums.

Mobile parade 

Takeaway – I didn’t catch much of this session from the vendors, designers, developers and content producers behind some museum mobile projects of the past twelve months, but I did get this slide!

Development takeaways from Mobile parade

Open data session

This was a really good session. It raised lots of typical data issues like the need to keep URIs permanent, that people names are problematic (names are unique, but unique names are not unique people – e.g. John Smith is a unique name, but not a unique person) and that linked open data is NOT EASY!

There was discussion of using LIDO at the Yale Centre for British Art, where they used Oxygen to validate the schema. 

In the discussion, session-chair Ryan Donahue made the point that people talk all about the concepts of linked open data and big schemas, but few people have actually made anything work as a useful service for audiences, which is really the true test of their merit. Another way to make open data work is to adopt a more agile hacky way. This can show possibilities faster and offers a way to avoid the risks of waiting for the sector to widely adopt slow-moving standards.  The people from Open Cultuur in the Netherlands showed some great examples from their hack days

In their session, they made the point that GLAM accessibility really often means our content is on other people’s sites. The most obvious example is where they have put

1700 images into Wikimedia on open licence and got 40,000,000 views in a year. Another great point was that museums should not use terms that imply organisational ownership. We shouldn’t claim we are doing people a favour by giving data away, if it is public already!

Serving Tea on the Rapids: – An Architectural Approach for Managing Linked Open Data
David Henry, Eric Brown

Using open source tools to expose YCBA collection data in the LIDO schema for OAI-PMH harvesting.
David Parsell

Open Culture Data: Opening GLAM Data Bottom-up
Johan Oomen, The Netherlands

Finally, during various discussions about using digital to make people feel wonder and delight someone tweeted round this fabulous example of digital projections on the facade of the Clyfford Still Museum, which I think is a great example of where someone has created something really memorable.

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Just beautiful.


About the author

Digital Media
April 25, 2013

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
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