I’ve just left the UK Museums Computer Group‘s annual conference, Museums+Tech 2016 (which was previously known as Museums on the Web), the second conference for the group that I have helped to organise since joining the committee this time last year. My role mainly included promoting the conference via Twitter, linking to online content that had previously been created by our speakers, such as blog posts, videos and articles. The conference sold out, and I’m hoping that my marketing work played a part in that, but it may also have been due to our fabulous lineup of speakers from throughout the sector.

As one of the organisers, I did spend a lot of time rushing around so unfortunately wasn’t able to take advantage of the networking opportunity these conferences normally provide, but it was good to see some familiar faces and have some brief catch-ups with people. I’m always struck by how friendly the MCG conferences are, and even though this is the biggest we’ve done so far (about 200 attendees), Museums+Tech 2016 was no exception.

In terms of the talks, the one that immediately stood out for me was Jason Evans’ lightning talk on the National Library of Wales’ engagement with Wikimedia, such as releasing all their images with an open licence to encourage reuse. This has also involved linking their collections together and to external resources using Linked Data, obviously of great interest to me. At a previous conference, it was mentioned that one of the issues with Linked Data resources is that they often consist only of internal links within the content, rather than linking externally (meaning that it does not achieve one of Tim Berners-Lee’s five stars), so the National Library of Wales seems to be a good example of Linked Data Done Right. I’ll be very keen to have a look at how they’ve achieved this during my research. It was unfortunate that this was such a short talk as I would have loved to hear more about this exciting project – generally I’d like to see more data-focussed talks at MCG events, but perhaps I am in the minority here!

Another talk I particularly enjoyed was Sarah Younas’ presentation on Tyne and Wear Museums’ Try New Things (TNT) initiative, which encouraged all members of museum staff to propose ideas for new digital projects – successful projects would then have a small funding budget for a pilot. This has been a great way of embedding digital within the organisation, and engaging more non-technical people with digital work. It also sounds like it could be achievable for small organisations with more limited funding and overstretched resources, as digital becomes everyone’s responsibility rather than that of a specific person. I’ll be very interested to hear what comes out of this programme in future.

One of the themes of the conference was that of producing digital content with limited technical skills, which may provide some good examples of platforms that I could relate to my research in facilitating use of Linked Data resources by non-technical researchers. These include James Lloyd from the Ure Museum’s use of photogrammetry software Autodesk Remake to create 3D images of artefacts by stitching together 2D images, and then sharing these collections online via Sketchfab. Another example was Time Image’s Sarah Cole’s use of GoodBarber.com to create the Poetic Places app, which pushes relevant poetry, art and contextual information to a mobile device when the user is near a particular point of interest, like Westminster Bridge. Similarly, Chloe Roberts at the Wellcome Trust has used Optimizely to perform A/B testing, thereby improving and enhancing the user experience of their digital resources.

These talks were all sandwiched between two engaging keynotes. The first was from Sebastian Deterding, whose talk centred on the idea of curiosity. He used the example of ‘clickbait’ headlines to demonstrate how audiences can be drawn into content by carefully regulating the amount of information that is provided, encouraging them to dig a little deeper. Each layer of a digital trail, for example, should resolve their need for information on one front, but then provide sufficient information about another aspect to tease them into continuing. Another important consideration with this approach is that the user should feel ‘safe’ at all times – they should feel proud for solving puzzles, not embarrassed when they are unable to. He also illustrated the success of this approach by explaining how people are unlikely to engage with brain teasers in themselves, but that they find them much more exciting when they appear as part of a series of challenges with an end goal, particularly in a timed setting. The curiosity idea was not something I had come across formally before, but it will make me analyse content like this much more closely, and to think about how the different levels of content unfold to tell a story, if designing my own user interfaces or navigation systems in future.

The final keynote was from Shelley Bernstein, who was previously in a digital role at the Brooklyn Museum but has recently taken up the new post of Chief Experience Officer at the Barnes Foundation, an art museum in Philadelphia. The choice of wording in her new job title is significant as the idea of ‘digital’ is no longer seen as being part of a silo, but is integral to the audience’s experience as a whole. Similarly, Shelley’s work did not in fact start by considering the digital, but looked at how visitors used the space in and around the museum, establishing that there were various navigational issues that prevented them from finding the main entrance, for example (this goes back to Sebastian’s point about not making the user feel stupid). As they were not able to move around parts of the building, Shelley worked to resolve this by using strategically placed ice cream stalls to gather visitors at particular points.

Shelley is now directing her attention to inside the galleries, and has looked at how visitors interact with each other, and with the audio tours – while they start off listening closely to the tour, they gradually remove one earphone to be able to talk to their friends as well, then once they are deeper into the museum they have removed both earphones and only replace them if they feel a particular need for information. To work with this idea, she will be experimenting with pushing short-form content to smart watches, in a similar way to the New York Times’ one-sentence news stories. Users can then save relevant content for later, and this can be used by the museum to send similar content to them in future. Watches have been chosen for this trial as it was felt that there was a higher expectation with mobile phones that an app would contain large amounts of interactive multimedia content, and users may be disappointed with something more simple (Shelley experienced this previously with the ‘Ask’ app at Brooklyn Museum). I will be very interested to hear about how this pilot project progresses, as it is completely different from anything else I have heard about. It may solve the problem of how to engage with people during their visit to a museum, yet additionally enabling them to have a conversation with each other, while gauging their level of interest and identifying popular topics or objects.

All in all, it was a great conference – I learnt a lot and it gave me a large amount of food for thought. We are still working on the format of our Spring Event for next year (it is unlikely to be a conference as in previous years) but hopefully there will be a chance to attend another MCG event soon.

Museums+Tech 2016
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