Monthly Archives: April 2011

What to do?

So I’m stuck with three half-finished posts all competing for my limited attention and time.  Help!  Like all brainchildren, I love them each deeply, but obviously I need to focus on getting one done. Which one should go first? They are:

  • Still more gold to be mined from Kristen Purcell’s MW2011 keynote on mobile usage trends and how museum apps could take advantage of them.
  • A synthesis of what I learned at MW2011 and how I hope to apply that learning in the coming year.
  • Thoughts on the similarities between Agile Development with Scrum and exhibit development and how the former could influence the latter.

They’ll all get done (I’ve got a couple of transcontinental flights coming next week), but somebody needs to come first.  Help me decide which one, please!

Disambiguating the physical from the digital

One of the best parts of Museums and the Web for me is always the interesting thinkers one gets to meet. And a highlight of this year was finally getting to hang with Koven Smith from the Denver Art Museum. I’ve followed him on Twitter (@fiveeasypieces) for ages, and he was a great sounding board when I was trying to write my article for the upcoming AAM ePub on mobiles in museums. In our Mobile “Unoturs” workshop, a lot of the discussion centered on trying to rethink the usual way of approaching mobile experiences. That desire to question the dominant paradigm kept cropping up throughout the conference, and at the unconference sessions. Koven proposed re-imagining museum websites as his topic, and not surprisingingly, drew a large crowd.

It usually takes me about a week to digest and process all the content I consume at a conference, and MW is definitely the biggest firehose of all the conferences when it comes to sheer amount of new idea per capita. Koven managed in less than a week to pull off a talk at Ignite Smithsonian that almost gets at the meat of a really big question. You should watch it. It’s short. It’s provocative. It’s good. The title of his talk was “What’s the point of a museum website?” and he started off by saying, “I don’t think I believe in museum websites anymore.” Wow.

The gist of presentation was that we continue to make more sophisticated versions of a kind of construct that is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the people who we want to use them. It reminds me of the old adage that if Henry Ford had given his potential customers what they wanted, he would’ve invented a better horse, not an automobile. Our websites, Koven says are “the most kick-ass Conestoga wagons you’ve ever seen.” For you non-Americans, the Conestoga wagon was the premiere form of land transport for people migrating south and west across the North American plains from the 1750s until the railroads came along in the mid 19th Century. Our digital product design philosophy is, in other words, wicked out-of-date.

Conestoga wagon from the B&O Railroad Museum courtesy of Flickr user elh70

When he talked about online collections, I think he made one of the most powerful points of his talk, and it’s a throwaway line. Discussing online collections research, which is often held up as one of the pillars of museum web efforts, Koven asked, “How much research are you doing here? You don’t link to external sources, you don’t get other things here.” And as one of those rare few who use online collections databases, that drew me up short, because it’s true. I very rarely am interested in an object exclusively as it relates to the current collection it resides in. I’m after deep content and broader context, and I usually wind up disappointed on the latter count.

When I started thinking about counter examples, the only one that sprang to mind was the MFA’s Giza Archive site ( which has been around forever, but just won a Best of the Web award this year. The Archive manages to provide a pretty good sense of where else one might start to look for more information on the Giza plateau and gives one access to a tremendous amount of primary material relating to the decades of work the Harvard/MFA expeditions carried out there.

Gize Archives site

It’s the exception that I think proves Koven’s point. We build our collections databases and our websites with ourselves in mind more than our audiences and it limits their utility.

The main point of his talk was really a question. Aside from the purely logistical and visit-planning content (maps, hours, ticket sales) what should we be building online? Koven didn’t have an answer (yet) or a mental model, but it’s a great question. What he does offer is a suggestion. We should disambiguate the physical visit from the digital experience This brought me back (again) to Kristen Purcell’s MW2011 keynote about what roles museums can play online. I’d been thinking a lot about her suggestions and looking for a context to examine them through. And having the traditional museum website in mind, I was having difficulty. Freed of that model, these suggested roles might be ways to conceptualize how we could make new digital experiences. Think about your museum’s digital offerings, forget about the website structure, and take a look at Kristen’s list below. What kind of experiences could you make that would deliver on these roles? I bet it wouldn’t anything like your current site. And it might be a whole lot more useful to your digital audiences.

Role #1: Filter
People still need trusted experts to help them discern when information is accurate and trustworthy
People also need filters to explain how information relates to them
Show people how/why information is relevant
Allow people to customize information to meet their own needs
Provide people with direct access to the information that means the most to them

Role #2: Curator
Be a one-stop shop
Collect all relevant work/info (not just your own content)
Provide links to primary and related sources and material
Recommend other sources, experts and places

People seek both aggregation
and deep dives into information

Role #3: Node in a Network
Be a node in a network
Each person you touch represents an entire network
Make your information easy to share
Your information can have an organic life beyond your presentation of it – package it with that in mind
Networking can be multi-layered
Be prepared to loosen control but monitor conversations around your content

Role #4: Community Builder
Create your own networks and build communities around your content
Facilitate shared experiences, connect people with shared interests
Get, listen to, and respond to feedback
You can identify and meet people’s needs by tuning in to the online conversation

Role #5: Lifesaver
Provide timely information when and where people need it most
Make your information portable
Operate in a 24/7 world in which there is constant connectivity

Role #6: Tour Guide
Geo-location changes everything…
In-gallery tours and information provision
Connecting your content to real-world locations, sending the information to the patron
Create opportunities for information immersion and augmented realities

Three Cheers for Nina!

I love it when friends move up in the world where they can do more great work.  So I’m especially thrilled that Nina Simon is the new Director of the Museum of Art & History at McPherson Center in sunny Santa Cruz, CA.  Someplace to add to your California museums itinerary!

Museums and the Web 2011: mobile content issues

The Franklin Institute, from the #mw2011 Flickr pool

One of the themes that has risen up from the torrent of great thinking that characterizes Museums and the Web has been content and narrative and their importance. This is obivously music to my ears being a content person, but also interesting given the overtly technical nature of a lot of the conference sessions.  I take this as a good sign. In past years, the talk was about the platform or the device and I always got the impression that mobile was a solution looking for a problem. Now the sector has matured to the extent that the problems are clear and solutions are out there. Mobile is just another part of the landscape now.

At our mobile untours workshop, Sandy Goldberg shared some interesting data she’d discovered at the Museums and Mobiles web conference.  Sandy polled 1,200 museum professionals about what was important in developing effective content, and the results were illustrative. Far and away, the most important quality museum content should posses is emotional resonance.  The next two most important qualifiers were content that makes visitors think in a new way and content that provides visitors with a new context to appreciate the content. Clear concise content and depth were at the bottom of the list. At her great plenary talk, Kristen Purcell from the Pew Internet and family life project presented findings from their latest surveys and their implications for museums. Among the tons of great data she presented, which you can get here, were some nuggets that really resonated with me.  On the Internet, there’s lots of data, but not a lot of good storytellers, and that’s an opportunity. It’s not enough to make the collections available, it’s necessary to provide some kind of context, a narrative that establishes the relevance of the mountains of data and gives the explorer a path to follow. This isn’t news.

When she walked through how Americans look for information on the Web, Kristen reminded the audience that online visitors still want authority. They want to know that they can trust the accuracy of what they find, and that is an opportunity for museums. The challenge to that is that in the 21st century  information is now ambient, and search engines have created the expectation that one should be able to find all the relevant content on a topic, regardless of where it was created or where it’s housed. The old model of just linking to content within the institution’s information space is becoming unacceptable.  People want relevance and connections to all relevant resources, not just your own. How to think about doing that is a huge issue, but it’s one that people are starting to talk about. Content sharing and content economies were themes that kept cropping up at sessions, over drinks, in the hallways. Open standards have been proposed and are being used, linked data and federated search are realities in the museum sector. We can see there from here.  This is exciting, and daunting.  Kristen reminded the audience that If you put information out on the Internet, expect to lose ability to control it.

Thoughts from Museums and the Web 2011

Our Mobile “Untours” or “Detours” workshop went really well, I think. We had an overflow crowd. They actually brought in extra tables and chairs. Nobody walked out early and all of our small group discussions ran the full length of time we allotted them.
Each of the facilitators spoke briefly on some project that embodied for them a possible mobile “detour”. You can get the whole list at the MuseumMobile wiki. It’s a good starting place if you’re interested in knowing what’s out there that’s outside the tour paradigm.
The format we had decided on beforehand was to break into small groups and brainstorm mobile apps for an institution. To have a more focused discussion we used one of the mobile interpretation worksheets you can get at MuseumMobile that encouraged people to think concretely about their audience, the functionalities possible, and more. To make it a bit more fun and introduce some wildcards, we produced a set of cards that listed potential audience motivations (using Falk’s categories as inspiration), possible locations for interaction(in a gallery, in a museum, anywhere…) and potential stumbling blocks (no time, a bespoke tech vendor, curatorial intransigence…) that would have to addressed. If you want them, you can download a set of our MW detour cards. Artwork is courtesy of Michael Horvath.

It was very interesting to see how quickly very disparate groups could ideate outside the box when there was a good focus. One thing that happened in both my groups was that we picked a real museum that somebody was familiar with as a way to answer all the unknowns that would otherwise make it a purely intellectual exercise and not as useful. I think it might be something I’d try doing at the Museum as a team exercise because it turns out that our groups did the things that I always struggle with in my projects. Keeping the audience focus intact in the face of technology enthusiasm is just hard. Even though we had a card stating our primary audience were spiritual pilgrims, people coming to recharge their emotional batteries, it was just easier to dive right into the cool kinds of stuff we could deliver to them via a mobile experience that was really more appropriate to an audience composed of explorers or hobbyists. Maybe, it’s not just me…

Other learnings:
Museum people seem to have an insatiable appetite for case studies. One thing that came across to me loud and clear was that people wanted to know what worked and how they could use that knowledge to do their own work. Having a workshop on something that doesn’t really exist yet is a challenge, but a stimulating one and I’m glad we attempted it. My hat’s off to my fellow facilitators, and above all to Nancy Proctor, who herded us cats into getting the workshop organized and managed to keep us all on time and on topic for four very busy hours.