Sitting in Southampton, imagining Ightham Mote (and Petworth)

I spent an interesting half-hour yesterday, listening to somebody repeatedly telling me that we were in the Great Hall at Ightham Mote. But we were not. I was in a sound engineering lab in Southampton, and “she” was a recording, or rather one of thirty recordings. There was also a slightly more random gentleman, repeatedly excited about how so many words could be made out of such a small alphabet.  I put the headphones on, listened and answered questions. Where was the sound coming from? Was it more or less resonant that the previous one, was the one or timbre different or the same? In which were the words easier to make out? And repeat.

Its all part of an experiment by Catriona Cooper, who has, with university colleagues, spent some time mapping the acoustics of the Great Hall at Igtham Mote. The experiment I was involved in is part of her work to simulate the feeling of being in the all aurally, just as 3d computer graphics might attempt to do it visually.  As I sat there wondering why, when I wear headphones, the sound always seems to be coming from behind me, I could immediately think of an application for such a simultation.

The day before I’d met with NT archaeologist Tom Dommett, who among other things has a three year project on at Petworth. He took me out to where the stables used to be, pointing out the shallow dips in the ground where walls once stood. We talked excitedly about how a mobile device might interpret the story. WE was all for a 3D modelled VR, but I impressed upon him how good it was just to listen to him explain it. And while I sat listening in Catriona’s experiment, I thought “wouldn’t it be great if I was listening to Tom on a mobile device, and as I stepped over the ditch into the the “interior” of the long-gone building, the tone and resonance of his voice changed to help me imagine the space that once would have surrounded us.

Catching up on Statistics One

I’ve caught up with my fellow students on the Coursera stats course I’m completing, having managed to do four weeks worth in a little over one. I’ll probably need to go back and review over the coming week, especially as there is a Mid-Term exam coming up! A mid-term exam?!? It’s not like this even earns me any credits. Never mind though, I find the quizzes at the end of each week’s study very good practice at actually applying what I’ve learned. I’m beginning to “get it” too. The notation Prof Conway uses in the course is very different from what I’m used to from my “O” Level Maths, which I realize, is the last time I learned anything like this formally. But I suddenly realized it makes it easier to translate the maths into the command-line code at R uses.

It’s also, by-the-by, teaching me a little about data collection too. I finally realize why so many questionnaires have so many questions that sound a bit like one I’ve already answered. It’s an attempt to  get some measure of validity, in circumstances when you can’t pull your sample in to repeat the test, as might happen in a better funded medical study. Humanities studies are rarely so well funded, so they have one chance to interact with their participants, and they need to minimize any chance for error. Then again long questionnaires often discourage full participation, and tend towards sampling error in that only those people who really like questionnaires complete the survey. So the number of questions becomes a bit of a balancing act.

So its making me think about what sort of questions I might ask to test some of the emotional drivers identified here. Lets imagine testing some sort of hypothetical interpretation app at a heritage site. One of the things the Statistics Once course has reminded me, is that humanities studies, in the absence of the resources to “test and retest” often build on review studies. So If I’m looking at an app, I should perhaps ask some of the questions from this recent study of apps for a museum space and an historic church.

  • My sense of being in the [place] was stronger than my sense of being in the rest of the world

This one for example tests the idea of presence, and as it appears in a previous study, I’d have something to compare my results to. But that previous study didn’t involve the people I’ll be asking, so to minimize error within my own sample, I need to think of a question that asks the same thing in a different way, and see how well the answers for the two questions correlate. I could try:

  • I forgot about the outside world;
  • I felt transported to the [significant period of history]; or, for a negative correlation,
  • During my visit I remained aware of task and chores  I have back at home/work

The challenge of course is to try and make questions that aren’t too binary, with simple yes/no answers so I may need to work on these.

Othman also has a question that addresses my spectacle and sensation driver:

  • I was overwhelmed with the aesthetic/beauty aspect of the [place]

Overwhelmed seems a strong word to use here, surely too binary? Can you be “a little bit overwhelmed” after all? But it could be worth me including, if only to compare my results with Othman. What other questions might address this driver?

  • The [place] was impressive?
  • The [place] was beautiful?

Binary, Binary. Blimey, this is tough. When I composed the questions for my Ghosts in the Garden research I tried to make questions like these by asking “how strongly do you agree/disagree with these statements?” I can’t decide now whether that’s a cop-out or not. What I need to do is apply some of the new statistics tools I’ve learned to the results I got. Though my first thought is what’s “Normal” when all the answers are clumped at one end of a Likert scale?

If the strongly agree/disagree scale isn’t a cop-out, I’ve got a whole bunch of questions about the social impacts on the visit, like:

  • We enjoyed visiting as a group
  • I prefer visiting with other people
  • I enjoyed talking about [the place] with the people I visited with
  • I enjoyed discussing the place with people I’d not met before
  • I liked conversing with the [staff/volunteers]
  • I like visiting when: I have [the place] to myself; there are only a few other visitors I don’t know; [the place] isn’t too crowded; [the place] is busy; [the place] is very crowded.

This last isn’t even binary! But there’s an interesting challenge in wording it in a way that everybody has the same understanding of the answers. And of course, its a less continuous scale than Strongly disagree/agree. Hmmm…

Othman also came up with that interesting question about acquisition:

  • I wanted to own exhibits like those that I saw in the exhibition

Of course not every cultural heritage sites has an “exhibition” with “exhibits,” but it does make me think of a whole bunch of questions about a sense of “ownership,” like:

  • I wish I could live here;
  • I wish I lived here when [the place was at its prime]
  • I wish I could stay as long as I wanted;
  • I wish [this place] was mine;
  • I’d like to buy a souvenir; and,
  • How many photographs did you take? How much video did you shoot?

(Ohh, I like that last one as a measure of acquisitive desire/engagement/the tourist gaze. It might even correlate with the answers to the spectacle/sensation questions above. I wonder if any other studies have been done on the number of photographs visitors take. It seems so obvious now I’ve thought of it. Similar questions must have been asked before. )

There are some questions I’m thinking of that might manage to measure visitors’ perceptions of challenge and learning. (Of course there are all sorts of ways to measure learning, for example, give them a test pre- and post-visit. but I’m not actually trying to measure learning, rather the impact of learning on emotional engagement.) You could have a bit of fun (and get away from Likert scales) with a question like:

  • If this were a test on the history of [the place], what do you think you you might score, out of 100?

But of course I’ve got plenty of Likert “strongly agree/disagree” questions as well:

  • What I learned on the visit challenged what I thought I knew about [the place/the period]; which could negatively correlate too
  • I didn’t learn very much new today; or
  • What I learned re-enforced what I knew already about [the place/the period].

Or there could be Likert style questions where the middle rank is the desired response, something like:

  • The family trail was: Too easy-2-3-Just Right- 5-6 – Too challenging; or,
  • There was Too Little-2-3-Just the right amount- 5-6-Too Much interpretation

Plenty to think about.

I think I’ve exhausted by thoughts for today. But its good to have got them out of my mindspace and recorded in this blog. Feel free too tell me how rubbish these measures are (as long as you suggest alternatives!). These are very early thoughts, not by any means precious to me, so you won’t crush my ego if you point out flaws. I’m also aware that I have come up with any ways to measure the impact of character arcs or music yet.

Character Arc


R me hearties!

Having discovered how little I know about statistics. I’ve been looking for a basic course which might equip me to more robustly interrogate the data I might collect for my PhD (or indeed the data I’ve already collected, such as about Ghosts in the Garden). My supervisor found a suitable course at Southampton, but frustratingly (given that its running on one of the days I’m normally free to concentrate on my studies) its at a time that I need to be available for the school-run, as my wife just got a new contract which lasts just a bit longer than the course.

I’ve also been looking on-line. This is the age of the MOOC after all. Most of the courses I found assumed a level of knowledge I realize I don’t have, until I discovered this one, from Coursera. The introductory video convinced me this was going to start with the basics, like standard deviation – which I know of, but damn me if I could remember what it is, or how to do it, if i ever knew. What I particularly liked was instructor Dr Conway’s admission that he’d learned a lot from running the course last year, and had now doubled the length of the course to concentrate on the basics like definitions. This is what I wanted to hear.

If I’d found it when I first realized my need, it would have started at exactly the right time. as it is I’m starting four weeks into the course. I’ve spent the best part of the bast couple of days catching up. I’ve done two weeks worth now and yes its pitched at the right level for me.

The practical elements use a piece of software called R, which seems  a very powerful statistics package. Well, I say package. Its more of a programming language to be honest, command-line interface and all. I bit tough to get  my liberal arts minded head around, but the introduction has been very gentle so far.

I may be a bit quite on here for a while, as I concentrate on this. You want be wanting to hear about my triumph every time I work out how to add a legend to my density graphs after all.

Speaking of which – check out how I managed to add a legend to my density graphs:

R graphs


All through the power of code!

par(mfrow = c(1,2))$SR,
pre$condition, xlab = “pre SR”)
legend(“topright”, levels(pre$condition), fill=2+(0:nlevels(pre$condition)))$SR,
post$condition, xlab = “post SR”)
legend(“topright”, levels(post$condition), fill=2+(0:nlevels(post$condition)))


Now you can’t do THAT in Excel (well obviously, you can add legends to graphs in Excel, but you’ll have a devil of a job posting the results in WordPress).

Memory Palace

There was one speaker at last week’s Museum Ideas conference that sent me scurrying, the next day, to the V&A. Ligaya Salazar, late of that parish told us about curating Memory Palace, a temporary exhibition that remains until only the 20th of October. Not very long at all, so stop reading this and go.

Just go. Now!

Assuming, if you are still reading this, that you are doing so on your mobile device while taking bus, train or tube to South Kensington, I’ll continue.

With the idea of the “death of the book” hanging heavy in the Zeitgeist, the museum wanted to explore what a novel might be in the post-print age. They sought out a writer to collaborate with, and when his text was complete, worked with 20 artists to turn it into an exhibition.

I’d heard about it before, and thought it might be a “nice to do” thing if I had the time, but after hearing Salazar talking about it, I had to go. The thing that excited me most was her description of the hunt for the “right” author. She explained that while some authors start with a broad idea and hone in down to the final product, the V&A were looking for the sort of author that started by shooting off in all sorts of directions, exploring them until some turned out to be dead ends and another turned out to be the path to follow.  This second sort of author being more likely to produce a work that would fit the three-dimensional shape of the idea of a novel exhibition as opposed to a linear book.

Here's the slide that Salazar used to illustrate the kind of author they were looking for.
Here’s the slide that Salazar used to illustrate the kind of author they were looking for.

There is a book of course, which contains the the final text and some of the concept sketches for the pieces that appeared in the exhibition, as well as a couple of essays about its creation. In Curating a Book which Salazar co-authored with Laurie Britton Newell, they say:

Unlike reading a printed book, visiting an exhibition is not usually a linear experience. A narrative that moved around in time and that could be accessed in different ways seemed like a good starting point for a story that could be encountered physically. The search for an author began with writers who had previously written non-linear narratives.

In the end they chose Hari Kunzru, who had indeed played with form in short stories and books like Transmission and Gods Without Men. He, paid homage to regular V&A visitor Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, creating a future dystopia, where the “Magnetization” has wiped out all knowledge, and indeed the survivors of that event had effectively declared knowledge illegal. I won’t share more of the the story or the world, because I know you’ll be there shortly and I don’t want to spoil it, but when Salazar explained this conceit in her presentation I was immediately excited by its resonance with something I made years ago. When I started my design degree, we each had to do a short presentation to our cohort, introducing ourselves. I started mine by transporting my audience to a world where all knowledge had been lost because of an art movement called Mnemart, started by a mysterious figure called Matthew Tyler-Jones. Everything about this person had been forgotten, along with everything else, so I had my fellow students trying to piece together a biography of him from unexplained fragments of popular culture. Of course I didn’t let them discover anything about me. Instead I let them create an amalgam of Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Hendrix, Cyrano de Bergerac and others. Ah… such warm memories.

Ahem, back to the exhibition. it was great, I think, but also a missed opportunity. The works produced to “illustrate” it were humourous, challenging and at the same time, for a long-time comics reader like me, comforting and homely. I would have spent hours there, had the exhibition been larger than it was.

The narrative, as presented in three dimensions, turned out to be more linear than I was expecting. I felt, despite the intention to create a narrative “that could be accessed in different ways”, the final design and had succumbed to the curatorial conceit of (as they say later in the essay) “giving the visitor a narrative thread to follow.” So the visitor starts the experience by being funneled though an introductory section, that defines the terms used and indeed, gives an opportunity to read the book. Then a section clearly puts the story in context explaining the history of the world before allowing the visitor to wander more freely around the exhibition.

I’d have preferred the context to remain a mystery until later in the exhibition, so that I might have had the opportunity to piece together a possible chronology of my own before a “moment of revelation” (as Tyman Sylvester puts it) towards the end of the experience. I also wished more than twenty selected passages of the book had been available. It might have been fun to have others scattered amongst the permanent collection, to hunt down, or to intrigue visitors into exploring the exhibition.

Despite my disappointments I enjoyed myself and I recommend it. Sophia George starts as Games Designer in Residence this month, and I hope she comes up as something as lovely as, but maybe a little more ambitious than, this.

(Are you nearly there yet?)

Museum Ideas 2013 conference report

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend (thanks to my employers, because it wasn’t cheap) Museum Ideas 2013, hosted by the Museum of London. It was a one-day heritage conference jam-packed with presentations from all over the world.

Patrick Greene kicked off the day with Leadership in the Networked Museum. Patrick was an archaeologist before running first the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, and now Museum Victoria in Melbourne Australia. By Networked, he means the social management structure, rather than IT infrastructure, He called it the antithesis of the traditional top-down command and control museum.

With a clear strategic plan, he said, a networked organisation can let good idea’s be nurtured by individuals and groups working together without silo walls and territory disputes. As an example he put up the museum’s Field Guide app, a tablet based database if Australian wildlife. This was the brainchild of an individual but has now become a successful partnership project. The museum released the source code and worked with other Australian State museums to help them produce their own versions of the app. And content is now contributed by users uploading their own photos and audio recordings.

It looked lovely, but I’m interested in how individuals’ projects like this get prioritised and resourced, particularly given the tough financial climate which Greene said is having an impact even in Australia.

I ask this because the next speaker, Mike Sarna, from Royal Museums Greenwich mentioned how digital projects were difficult to sell to managers and trustees, partly because the end result could be very different from the initial concepts and even prototypes.

Mike is a great speaker, and inspirational. He told us about how a forensic entomology exhibit he created in the US led him to an epiphany. The exhibit was a series of pig carcasses that had been set out on the museum’s front lawn, caged to protect them from scavenging birds and mammals, but open the the attention of insects … and interested bug-hunting visitors. This was quite a controversial exhibition and he was on the lookout for upset visitors when he spied a mother in tears while her daughter searched a carcass for creatures. Anxiously he asked the Mother if anything had upset her. She replied no, rather she had just realised that her daughter, who always shown an interest in bugs, might actually become a scientist. The mother’s response was emotional. And so, Sarna suggested, museums’ transformative power might be emotional rather than didactic.

I think I’ll be contacting both Greene and Sarna for the next stage of my research, which concentrates on the creative relationship between tech SMEs and cultural institutions.

Another speaker I’ll be contacting is Martha Henson, currently working for Tate, but speaking most eloquently about games that she produced for the Welcome Collection.

One of the games she produced was High Tea, which was a representation of the British Empire’s Chinese Opium trade. Another, Axon, involve growing different types of nerve cell. Both were released as on-line games, publicized by the portals and bulletin boards where on-line gamers gather. Her presentation was useful and informative (High Tea cost £40,000, Axon even more) but of particular interest to me was the short chat we had during a break, when she spoke if the challenges of working for charities or publicly funded institutions, whose procurement requirements are sometimes at odds with the design process.

Martha was part of an after-lunch session that was far from the Graveyard slot, focusing on digital engagement. It started with e a presentation from Robin Dowden of the Walker Arts Centre, Minneapolis, who talked about their New Models of Online Publication. She began by summarizing all the text formats that the Walker Arts Centre produces – marketing, magazines, and many others including”didactics” – a nice use of the word to cover labels and panels, but not gallery leaflets or guidebooks, which were mentioned separately. She then talked about how the Art Centre has created processes and systems to more efficiently create and use content, moving long form articles out of the printed magazine and onto the web (which seems counter-intuitive at first, but they also seem to be positioning their web offer as the go-to site for contemporary arts news). Somebody beat me to a question about whether the publishing systems were the same as the ones curators used to create exhibition content, and Robin admitted they were not. All the time I was thinking about the Storyscope software I saw at the Museums And Heritage show earlier in the year.

Peter Gorgels followed Robin, and started his talk with the viral video I’d been hoping for, to announce the reopening of the Rijksmuseum:

Peter went on to talk about the philiosophy behind the museum’s new website (and as it turns out, the whole digital offering). Putting you collection on-line he said, didn’t have to mean putting grand works of art in tiny boxes on text heavy pages. That approach distanced the audience from the work. Instead the decided that the overiding philosophy should be CLOSE. Taking inspiration from tablet apps (but avoiding actually creating an app, because the web is more technology agnostic) the new website gets the audience up close to the work or rather a detail of the work. Users can make their own collections, using details from the paintings. Peter showed us a collection of moustaches, and another of “bottom-left corners.” Users are encouraged to turn details into their own works of art, by ordering prints online, or using the museum’s media lab to laser cut pieces. Peter’s slideshow is available on line, so don’t take my word for it, see for yourself.

Shelley Mannion, of the British Museum, finished up the digital session with a sterling effort to convince us that Augmented Reality wasn’t just hype. She showed us a number of projects that Samsung have sponsored at the British Museum, sharing the successes, the issues and the workarounds. I started the presentation tending towards the “just hype” position, but I think she managed to convince me otherwise.

There was a more thorny debate coming after tea, though it had been started in the morning by Tim Corum, with his presentation on Shared Stories and Contested Spaces. He challenged the neutrality of museum spaces, and showed how, by co-creation with the local community, Bristol’s MShed had engaged a far more representative audience. The most impressive evidence of that was that 21% of his audience was aged between 16 and 25. Neutrality was sacrificed though as the spaces became places of argument and discussion. “The decision-making process is quite complex” Tim said.

I’ll bet.

The Museum of London’s own Cathy Ross put up a Stirling defence of curatorial (or anthropological?) neutrality as she discussed collecting London’s contemporary protest material culture. Well I say “material.” In fact, despite being taken to task by unions for collecting unusual, even artistic and humourous protest placards rather the the unions’ own mass produced ones, the biggest learning the Cathy and her colleagues got from Occupy London and other recent projects is that museums need to think about collecting digital culture, and indeed the Museum of London has since appointed their first digital specialist curator.

Michelle Lopez stepped in with a call that museums and art galleries should be more active players in their communities. But then, like a whirl-wind, came the last speaker. Richard Benjamin of the International Slavery Museum. Now you can’t really be that neutral about slavery can you? You don’t hear (many) people saying “Well yes it how its downsides, but the work gets done, and its cheap” do you? So Benjamin is un-apologetically partisan. The museum, which began as the Transatlantic Slave Trade Gallery of the National Museums in Liverpool, changed its name to the International Slavery Museum, and of course that subtly changed its scope, shifting the focus from the historical triangular trade that so benefited Liverpool, to global and contemporary slavery. So the moment of revelation at the end of the ISM’s exhibitions is concrete, in many cases, its a call to action. Benjamin seemed to be challenge the rest of the sector to be less neutral, more concrete in their narratives.

On the other hand, he might have be saying “this is what we do, you do what you want.”

There was one other speaker, but I’m saving her for my next post.