MuseumNext 2013 condensed: In Amsterdam, museums continue

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Glimpses of the future were offered this year at Museum Next in Amsterdam, but it feels largely like business as usual in the arts and culture sector. To steal from Jim’s opening remark at lunch on day two, with a world of sex and drugs outside, it’s a sign of the community’s dedication that we 400 choose to sit indoors and discuss museums.

But the passion pays off; a hefty wodge of knowledge was exchanged from May 12th to May 14th and the following is a summary of sorts, through the filter of @thoughtben.

Fresh starts

It was a conference of fresh starts. The Rijksmuseum has re-opened after a 10 year refit to world-wide acclaim and queues around the block. Within a few weeks the nearby Van Gogh Museum opened after a shorter closure with a dramatic policy shift in respect of onsite photography. And of course Museum Next itself underwent a facelift, resulting in some eye-melting slides but a gorgeous printed programme.

An overview

The themes of the conference were seamlessly established in an opening keynote by Seb Chan from Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. He’s in the enviable position of reinvigorating the entire institution, from the building itself to the placement of digital at the heart of the 75-strong team. His talk was packed with great examples of lean development and rapid prototyping in action. is a great example of transparency and openness in practice. Many more mentions of minimum viable products were to follow during the two days.

Most popular strategic advice – think long term

Andrew Lewis from the V&A, on fine form again for his talk “The future is incremental”, offered his  practical advice for digital activities in uncertain times with another name-check for incremental development. The V&A site for example, went responsive on a section-by-section basis, tackling the homepage later. Bridget McKenzie from Flow Associates dedicated her slot to scenario planning (presentation here), expanding on Seb’s assertion that long-term vision should drive the heavily-advocated iterative approach. This means defining a “focal issue” and “extrapolating the implications”.

Looking forwards, Jacob Wang (National Museum of Denmark) proposed (in this presentation)that museums and their digital activities are becoming platforms, not simply purveyors of ‘products’. In Day Two’s keynote Michael John Gorman from Dublin’s Science Gallery – where faintings are a KPI – offered up a diagram. He talked about some incredible shows (Blood Wars! Donate and fight your white blood cells…) but what the diagram showed so nicely was how the museum was a platform for collaboration that contributed to society in ways far beyond servicing museum visitors. Partnerships, scientific papers and general bonkers craziness.

Unemployment, austerity and global warming were some of the scarier mega-trends mentioned, but within that we find positive game-changers: 3D printing, alternative currencies, crowd power and rapidly evolving technology.

Biggest geek-out – Can I have a T-Rex please?

With honorary mention to Berg’s Little Printer, github, data visualisation and of course HTML5, the real geek-out centered on 3D printing. This technology is the toy of 2013.

Conference hero / villain – the G word

Google steal the show and not only because of Dave Patten’s glowing account of Science Museum’s Google Web Lab project. What museum wouldn’t kill for a budget and tech team like that? Dave gave a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of big tech in action. Picture daisy-chained Mac Minis and more cabling than Amsterdam City Council could lay in a decade. Those guys love to dig up roads.

Rebirth of the month – Yikes it’s the Rijks!

The Rijksmuseum can do no wrong it seems. After a few beers, Peter Gorgels readily admitted that it won’t be too long until they’re behind the curve again, but in the meantime the new site and Rijkstudio project will enjoy their time in the limelight. Peter’s keynote took us through the process of its development around the theme of bringing visitors closer to the artworks. The irony of the museum moving from closed (a mere 10 years) to close (rip and mix 120,000 artworks) was not lost on the twitterati.

My understanding of the key parts to Peter’s equation:

  • autonomy + trust (or at least operating under the radar of the top dogs until it’s too late and you’ve built the thing)
  • clear vision (bring the audience CLOSER!)
  • scrum agile production (more about that in our Scrum rundowns one and two)
  • impeccable timing (Rijkstudio launched around the culmination of some key themes: transparency, open data, social sharing and a tech-savvy generation of “cultural snackers”)

Biggest challenge – social interpretation

Marlene Ahrens from National Museum of Denmark was scathing in her deconstruction of failed attempts to capture visitor feedback. The summary: bad execution aside, we must ask ourselves WHY this activity will benefit the user. Carolyn Royston and Claire Ross shared a similar story in their run down of a large-scale research project at Imperial War Museum. That it didn’t meet their expectations is an understatement, but 27,752 comments were made via gallery touchscreens and the team learned the value of restricted scope and contingency budgets!

Biggest buzz – start ’em young

N8, the crew behind Amsterdam’s annual Museum Night, ran a series of fringe events to compliment the main program. In terms of the content they curated and the manner in which it was delivered, their youth and energy reflected a key theme at Museum Next 2013. Get young people involved!

Sanne Van de Werf (Royal Museum of Antwerp), along with a precocious and incredibly eloquent 17 year old, described the development of an app by young museum ‘ambassadors’. The lasting impression is that digital development and youth engagement is a walk in the park. Just give them the chance! And some money, presumably…

Biggest elephant in the room – the S word

Is anyone going to mention sustainability? Despite recent cuts, the dutch museum scene is alive and kicking with paid-entry a given. Britain won’t be adopting this approach any time soon but minds are definitely being put to good work on the issue of financial stability. We just haven’t found a solution yet.

Most reiterated point – we already knew that, guv’nor

Everyone loves a bit of co-creation / co-curation, so we’re going to do that a bit more. Involving audiences and being transparent will encourage their sense of ownership. Institutional change isn’t getting any easier but we need to do it from the inside out.

Slides of the conference


  • “Face to foot, not face to face” – Patoo Cusripituck laments the face-planted-in-screen look
  • “Set a rhythm for releases” – Seb Chan argues again for iterative development
  • “Meta data as cultural source code” – Seb Chan geeks out a little
  • “Euthanasia rollercoaster” – An example of Science Gallery’s taste for challenging shows
  • Buzzword bingo from the majority of speakers … “Semantic, flexible, scalable, social, open data, agile, tablet-first, popup…”

Twitter Poster

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Here’s the poster! Download the hi-res version

Many thanks to the excellent Peter Simon once more.

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Our designer is on holiday but we’ll have a beautiful poster for you all shortly.

Any tweets you think need particular mention? Email your tweets

See our previous efforts for inspiration, and this one from Museum Next 2012.

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