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.

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