MuseumNext condensed : bright minds in Barca

Over two bright and enlightening days (Thurs 23rd & Fri 24th May) Barcelona played host to the world’s leading thinkers and do-ers in the arts and cultural sector. MuseumNext is Europe’s big conference for Museums and Thought Den were there to soak it all up (and present in Friday’s last pre-pub slot!) Here follows a quick summary of a truly great event, jam-packed with clever people. And all so friendly! Many thanks to Sumo and Jim Richardson for organising, and we hope to see you all in Amsterdam for 2013.

Biggest change : Opening up

Quick summary : Throw open your doors and share

All kinds of institutions and government organisations are sharing their data. There are even a few recognised activities in the cultural sector (most notably Culture Hack). A team from the Rijksmuseum lead a hands-on workshop explaining how to do this and what the benefits are. With over 100 developers registered, and more than a dozen apps released, it is clear that sharing with a motivated community is a great way to broaden engagement.

The V&A’s extensive collections API is one of the market leaders in this space. In their Keynote address the Walker Art Center discussed their new site, which is also heralded as a game changer.

Allegra Burnette from MoMA spoke about the challenge to unite the in-situ experience with the digital one. Technology has made this possible, and organisations are changing the way they share content, but the battle is far from over.

Biggest success : Social media

Quick summary : Fruitful relationships built with social media

Anna Guarro from Museu Picasso made a simple and striking case for social media: it shows you’re listening, and shows you care.

Going social was the big theme of the conference, with countless institutions making the case for engaging over the digital airwaves. In Nancy Proctor’s opening Keynote address (of the Smithsonian Institute) she focused on the shift from interpretation to conversation, from headphones to microphones. This shift was summarised excellently by Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired, arguing that a museum’s best curators and interpreters are outside the institution. By harnessing the wisdom of the crowd museums will become the “wikipedia of the physical world”.

Kunstpalast added further fuel to the fire with two strong examples of social marketing on a budget, choosing community-sourcing (already engaged with the museum) over crowd-sourcing (larger audience and probably less interested) Indeed the Smithsonian suggested the process of crowd-sourcing content (such as user-generated interpretations for non-sighted visitors) is often more valuable than the resulting data.

Timebook was a lovely, wry but also informative take on the Facebook generation, bringing famous artists back from the dead.


Biggest challenge 1 : Internal buy-in

Quick summary : Is everyone singing from the same hymn sheet?

Even though the case has been made for an open door policy and publicly available data, there remains an incredible struggle to get every team on board. Marketing teams are STILL having to justify social media activity to curators and traditionalists. The rapid march of technology does not sound the same bell of opportunity to every organisation stakeholder. The message is: keep talking, maintain those conversations with other institutions who can share their success and improve buy-in.

Biggest challenge 2 : Infrastructure

Quick summary : At its worst, technology is expensive, unreliable and difficult

Wouldn’t it be great to just point your cameraphone and instantly see deeper into a piece of art? Hear the stories, connect to other artworks. Technology promises it all, but at MoMA they’ve been putting it to the test. Image recognition is still flakey, indoor positioning is still a costly exercise (NB: our thoughts on indoor positioning) and things are changing so fast it’s hard to know what infrastructure to invest in.

At the Denver Art Museum Koven Smith is arguing that agility and speed should be a key focus in the response to technological changes. We could remain forever in awe of tech’s inexorable march, but at some point organisations must strike, put their stakes in the sand and make digital work hard for them. Bridget McKenzie from Flow Associates talked about the strategy behind putting this philosophy into action.

Most practical tool : Google Analytics

Quick summary : A free tool that makes you cleverer

In two separate presentations, two members of the V&A’s talented tech team spoke about the benefits of knowing your data. Andrew Lewis spoke entertainingly about how to drill deeper into your data and affect change in user experience design. The team learnt, for example, that 10,000 clicks to the V&A shop came via the main menu, while over 20,000 arrived having clicked a big picture in the promo module. Good pictures equals good click-throughs!

A team from Tate, followed by Rui Guerra from INTK also spoke about understanding the message in the numbers. Their solid examples and candid presentations provided some great collateral for people hoping to sell analytics up the chain.

For what is essentially a free service –  which is not to mention internal management costs, and there looks to be a fair amount of processing required – knowing your data is a no-brainer.

Most popular slide : The Hype Cycle

Quick summary : gunning for the plateau of productivity

Honourable mention goes to the faceless white dudes holding hands in a ‘social network’ but the clear winner was the Hype Cycle! In order to make an informed decision it may well be worth knowing where the latest innovation sits on the graph. Hein Wils and Ferry Piekart made a great case for Augmented Reality coming back from the brink. Could it be cool again? Jason DaPonte (of Swarm) also advised caution, and Nancy Proctor kicked the whole thing off with a very measured assessment of what good technology can actually help us achieve when it comes to engaging wider audiences.


Best soundbites

Quick summary : Twitter loves a snappy summary

Probably far more than I can summarise here, but these are the best that spring to mind.

  • “Mobile snacking” from Nancy Proctor’s Keynote, the idea that a museum experience shouldn’t be dominated by the mobile phone. Visitors are whipping them out now and again to ‘snack’ on extra bits of self-initiated research
  • “The silent conversation” from Jason DaPonte‘s Keynote, from the Internet of Things, the connected objects that are starting to chatter. Museum artefacts are perfectly placed to make this silent conversation a vibrant, informative and entertaining story.
  • “Virtuous Circles” from Paul Baron and Tomomi Sasaki, talking about their Tokyo museums product MuPon and the self-fulfilling cycle of goodness that comes when a good digital experience encourages more visits, more advocates and happier museums.
  • “Museums aren’t telling good enough stories” from Marc Mertens of Seso, making an argument for better user-experience design from institutions who already have the content and the technology at their fingertips.
  • “Everyone has a playful side” from Thought Den, proposing that play is the best way to harness our natural curiosity to experiment with technology in museums. In a Friday conference-closing pre-pub graveyard slot I attempted to lighten the mood with a rundown of our latest in the field of playful learning: Magic Tate Ball for Tate, Capture the Museum for National Museums of Scotland and Zoom for Bristol Zoo.

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