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Museums & the Web 2012 Conference Notes

It’s been a couple of years since I attended the annual Museums & the Web conference. A must-stop for professionals working in the field of museums + all things online, this conference celebrated its 16th anniversary under new management with the same great content we’ve come to expect. A few of my conference takeaways: Cultural […]

It’s been a couple of years since I attended the annual Museums & the Web conference. A must-stop for professionals working in the field of museums + all things online, this conference celebrated its 16th anniversary under new management with the same great content we’ve come to expect.

A few of my conference takeaways:

Cultural data sculpting
Sarah Kenderine kicked off the conference, wowing us with her work in immersive environments using panoramic and stereoscopic display systems. I was entranced by recent installations using 3D imagery, high resolution augmented panoramas, and circular screens to recreate cultural heritage sites, performances and narratives (imagine dancers animating images in a cave painting and physical interactions with enormous datasets). From Hampi, India, and the Mogao caves, Dunhuang, China, to adaptions of Beckett narratives, the work of Kenderine’s lab at the City University of Hong Kong demonstrates the amazing possibilities for enhanced exploration, interactive interpretation, and new modalities of human interaction for cultural heritage preservation. Project documentation available here.

Be where the puck is going
In a session on Digital Strategies, Bruce Wyman evoked Wayne Gretsky’s advice to “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Bruce spoke to the permeability of place as the future of interactive media and suggested restrictive digital strategies may run counter to our needs. In a period of fundamental change, we need to evolve the things that we are good at, be nimble, and design not for the device but for the visitor and their engagement. Wyman encouraged us to trust our audiences and serialize the experience by developing content that transcends and crosses platforms.

Like Wyman, Rob Stein is an eloquent technology advocate. In the same session, he advised to make sure your digital strategy reflects the larger museum strategy. And all you technologists who think you have difficulty getting upper management’s ear, work on your communication skills. Learn to write! Despite his claim that writing doesn’t come easy, Stein’s paper is excellent: Blow Up Your Digital Strategy: Changing the Conversation about Museums and Technology.

After Gutenberg
There was much talk in conference sessions and informal meetups about changing publishing models. In the session After Gutenberg, the Whitney’s Sarah Hromack described the evolution of Whitney Stories, a blog wherein the museum is wrestling with questions of authority—what stories do we want to tell, which staff are qualified to speak on behalf of the museum, editorial approval—and issues of sustainability. I haven’t had a chance to read the paper but the presentation was a refreshingly honest assessment of the inherent problems in this work and the reality of making it a part of our daily practice (not in addition to what we do but rethinking how we do our work).

A museum without labels
The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is Australia’s largest private museum, a “secular temple” of 6,000 square meters to worship materialism with nary a label on the walls. Visitors use the ‘O’ mobile device to read about art on display and listen to interviews with the artists. The museum’s unique take on audience engagement—including claims to remove the most popular work as evidenced in ‘O’ stats and restricting online collection access to visitors who have actually experienced the artwork—suggest this is indeed a museum visitors are unlikely to forget. I enjoyed this article on MONA’s founder, David Walsh, describing his vision for this “subversive Disneyland.”

Spreading an analytics culture
There were a number of good sessions addressing the importance of continuous evaluation and building a culture of analytics. The panel on the Culture24 research project focused on the key findings in their recently published report. Among them, be clear what you are trying to do online and who it is for. Revise the whole suite of metrics you care about and the tools used to measure them. Google Analytics is only part of a multi-tool solution that begins with a good problem definition.

One of the participants in the Culture24 project, the Tate went into more detail on its efforts in a subsequent session and paper Making Sense of Numbers: A Journey of Spreading the Analytics Culture at Tate. Using the Tate Liverpool Alice in Wonderland exhibition as a test case, they described the analytics tools used (including Hootsuite, Adwords, Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, ticketing system, and YouTube analytics), matrices, and reports built in response to the exhibitions communication plan and areas of activity, both on and offline. While the exhibition reporting was awe-inspiring in its quality and thoroughness, Tijana Tasich, Tate’s senior digital producer, admitted that more work, training, and resources are required to implement similar evaluations across the organization and its programs.

Epic fail
There’s much to learn from failed projects in our field and #MW2012 used this as a topic for its closing session. Hats off to the project cases studies that took the stage to reveal what didn’t work and why. Each project report included a round of bingo, with categories for failure occupying spaces on the card. Among them: poor organizational fit, must-be-invented-here syndrome, feature creep, tech in search of a problem, no user research, pleasing donors and funders, no local context, no backup plan, and not knowing when to say goodbye. Wifi was off during the session, forcing all of us to listen, learn, and not tweet specifics. Everyone should feel good after their time in the chair with therapist Wyman and his Labrador. We appreciate your honesty and hope we’re brave enough to take the stage at future conferences.

Best of Web Awards
The Walker was lucky enough to walk away with two awards for the redesign of our website (best in the category of Innovation/Experimental and best Overall). We are honored to receive the recognition of our peers and humbled to be in the company of so many excellent projects. The full slate of winners is available here.