MW 2011 themes for the coming year

It seems to be shaping up to be the kind of year where I keep making myself promises to be a more deliberate learner. So, in addition to soaking up all the smartness I could from all the smart people at Museums and the Web, I thought it’d be good practice to try to distill ideas to carry ahead in 2011.

Figure out who the audience is. Hint: “New” is not an adequate descriptor.
Jasper Visser put his finger on a pet peeve of mine that was a constant undercurrent at the conference. We still don’t have a firm enough picture of who our mobile audiences are, and too many projects are going ahead that have “attract new audiences” as a goal, as if “there is a remote and undiscovered country full of people with nothing to do. We only have to give them the right media and technology and they’ll come running to our museums and archives and heritage sites.” Certainly in my own work, the kinds of projects we’re planning all envision people who are in the Museum or planning to come to the Museum as the audience. They’re not new. We already know them. We’re just meeting them in a new space, and (hopefully) delivering on our mission in new ways.

Find ways to let visitors make a meaningful contribution. And keep it focused.
Molly Hanse over at the Technology in the Arts website echoed Jasper’s point about visitors and also highlighted the prevalence of participatory experiences among the most talked-about things at the conference. I would totally second that and add to that the idea of simplicity. Many of the crowd favorites, like Old Weather, do one thing, and do it really well. Finding that one thing should take serious consideration and research. And judging by the current crop of participatory apps, finding that one thing should pay off in visitor engagement.

The other undercurrent that I hope will become a full-blown theme in the coming year is sharing content across institutions. It’s been bubbling around for awhile, and I think it’s only a matter of time until somebody launches a successful effort that draws content from multiple institutions.

Find ways to tell stories with your stuff.
Another theme that I kept hearing was one that Suse Cairns also noted – narrative. My interest in narrative is both professional and personal. As an exhibit developer, any technique or tool that might increase my ability to communicate to visitors is interesting. As a writer, creating stories resonates deeply with me. As a learner, I know narrative works for me. I turn everything into stories, maybe even when I shouldn’t. What is interesting about Suse’s post to me is that she connects the use of personalized narratives to the issue of how people do (or don’t) interact with our websites, harking back to Koven Smith’s provocation about how outdated our design philosophy is. I’ll just quote her here, but the whole post is worth reading,

“Museums might make beautiful looking and functional websites, but unless visitors have reason to personally engage with the site and to connect its contents with their own lives, then surely the relationship will be superficial at best. Engagement will come when visitors have an emotional connection to the site and a reason to invest further in it – like when the experience is emotionally rewarding (and maybe even fun!). Personalised narratives can provide a vehicle to get people in, and lowered barriers of engagement can give them a reason to broadcast and share those stories with others. Therefore, when designing museum websites – or apps – maybe we need to consider why someone would personally engage with the site, and how to ensure they broadcast their engagement to get others involved too.”

Find out what data exist (or don’t) to support your desires.
I happened to be in San Francisco this week at the same time as Kate Haley-Goldman from the National Center for Interactive Learning. We met up, had #tweers, and plunged into discussing issues. She works with lots of different museums who are trying many different ways to connect with their audiences, and she expressed reservations about the benefits of narratives outweighing the limitations they saddle developers with when it comes to educating people.  This debate about storytelling also segued back and forth into talking about gamification, which lots of people seemed to playing around with (pun intended) this year. We only scratched the surface of the topic and I look forward to carrying on the discussion in the coming months. There’s a lot of energy around both topics, and lots of projects being undertaken, but I’m not up to speed on what the research says about the efficacy of either in museum contexts. Maybe it warrants somebody convening a gathering similar to the Tate Handheld conferences. “Storytelling, Games, and the Museum” anyone?


  1. Interesting stuff, Ed. I’ve been wrangling with the question of narrative and gameplay for awhile (though not nearly as long as the debate has been going on among gamers–see , , ). As I see it, narrative made a big breakthrough in museum interpretation in the late 20th c, and has become a, or the, dominant paradigm (though admittedly not always evident on collections-oriented websites). But bringing a strong narrative approach to games is asking for trouble, due to the inherent difference between “story” and “play”–and the importance of giving the player real agency, and real consequences of their actions, in the game. We need to differentiate between the narrative told by the museum/game, and the narrative that the player creates of their own experience with the game. The latter is happening no matter how we design the game, but we can design the game to facilitate meaningful narratives in the player’s mind.

    More thoughts on this in my MW 2011 paper, From Knowledge to Narrative—to Systems?.


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