Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Changing platforms: creating effective digital content

As I've just mentioned in my previous blog where I've pasted my handout, I spoke this morning at the Museums Association conference called Changing platforms: creating effective digital content

I think that choosing the right people to work on your project and carrying out effective and thorough planning together at the start of your project are key elements of creating effective digital content.  I was talking, therefore, about the key people to think about including in your project, and the things that you and they need to consider when initiating an online learning project.

I could only stay for the morning unfortunately as I have things I need to get on with in work but there were a couple of things that I took away from this morning which I thought were worth mentioning here.

Vicki Porter from the Welcome Trust was chairing the event and I found her opening address really interesting.  It raised lots of points about how technology in museums has changed over the last 15-20 years.
One of the points that I wanted to raise myself this morning that needs to be considered at the start of an online learning project is 'why are we as an organisation providing this resource?'  It sounds like an obvious question but it prompted some really interesting discussions in a project I was working on recently about what we could bring to this kind of resource as a unique selling point.  Vicki pointed out in her opening talk this morning that the web has really changed museum's outlooks because it's made them be, rather than a single authoritative voice, part of a multiplicity of voices describing and writing about historical events in the public domain. This has made it imperative for museums to think carefully about our 'brand'/our identity and what we can provide that is unique.

Dave Patten from the Science Museum later alluded to a possible future model for museums where we move away from the big museum website and towards a model where museum content is distributed on lots of different websites.  This made me think back to the lecture I gave at Westminster University last week and the discussions we had about Wikipedia as a competitor to museum websites.  As I mentioned then, I think the the British Museum/Wikipedia project is really fascinating and potentially part of this new model that Dave describes.

The other thing that I wanted to mention from this morning came from Kevin Sumption at the National Maritime Museum who mentioned in his talk that the Mass Observation Archive are effectively crowd sourcing material for their archive.  I used some stuff from the Mass Observation Archive for my History MA dissertation on the French soldiers evacuated alongside the British from Dunkirk in 1940 (published in shortened form in History Today) but I had no idea they were still gathering information today.  For anyone who doesn't know, the website says that Mass Observation...

'specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organisation (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material collected continuously since 1981. The Archive is in the care of the University of Sussex and is housed in the Library in Special Collections.'

Sadly they're currently only recruiting men from regions other than the south east which is a shame as I'd love to contribute! 

So this morning was yet another example of why I enjoy taking a little bit of time out of every day work (even just a morning) to hear other people talk about their work and remind myself why I chose to work in such a fascinating sector - thanks everyone!

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Handout for Creating Digital Content event

 This morning I spoke at the Museums Association event Changing platforms: creating effective digital content (more later).  Here is the information from the handout that I intended to be in the delegates' packs.

Things to decide about the resource
  1. What are you producing?
  2. Who is the resource for?
  3. What will it do for them?
  4. How and where will they use it?
  5. If applicable, what areas of the curriculum/programme of study etc does it relate to?
  6. What area of the organisation’s work does it relate to? E.g. is there a taught session that it links to? Or a gallery on the same subject?
  7. Why should (or should) your organisation be creating these specific resources?
  8. Have any other organisations created similar resources for the same audience?
  9. What benefits will come from the project?
  10. Will there be any dis-benefits or negative effects of the project?
  11. What are the outcomes against which you will evaluate?
  12. What limitations are there to what you can achieve?
  13. How will the project maintain momentum once it’s over - sustainability
  14. Will the project require the use of images from the Museum’s collection? If so, which ones, what restrictions on use are there?

Practical things about how the project will work

  1. What role is each individual on the team going to play?
  2. What needs to happen in the project and what are realistic timescales for these activities?
  3. How are you going to sign things off?
  4. Who needs to be kept informed?
  5. What risks are there to the project?
  6. What different ways of approaching the project are there?
  7. How will you evaluate?
  8. What will need to be covered in each meeting agenda
  9. Will there be any training needed?
  10. How will you communicate?
  11. When will we meet?
  12. What do all of the people in the working group want out of it

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Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Museums and the web lecture at Westminster University

I gave my first ever university lecture this morning at the University of Westminster.  The students are BA History students and are studying a module on London and its Museums.  My former colleague Helen Glew asked me to come to talk to them about Museums and the web.

I was delighted to be asked to do this by Helen as although I'm happy in some ways that my time on my two MAs is over, I miss the world of academia.  I took some time when I first came back from the Christmas holidays to think about what I was going to talk about today and realised how much I missed the opportunity to do this kind of rigorous thinking about the sector that I work in and the more intellectual issues that surround it.

I started this morning's lecture with three questions that were up on the board for the students to think about when they came in.  These were:
  • Why should museums be on the web?
  • Should museum websites be online museums?
  • Should museums be authoritative or participatory online?
I wanted to get the students thinking and discussing these issues for themselves before I stood and talked at them about what I think.

I wasn't sure what to expect but the discussions that came out of these questions were great and a lot of the points that I wanted to talk about were raised. 

Inevitably people's first thoughts about why museums should be on the web centred around the fact that we expect to be able to find out about everything on the web now and it would be frustrating to not be able to find out visitor information etc online prior to a museum visit.  When I probed a bit further about whether museum websites were simply about visitor information, somebody brought up the issue of online collections database as useful for finding out more about objects on display prior to a museum visit.  The discussion of this question focussed mostly around information to support a visit. 

One interesting point that came out here was from a student who talked about a particular exhibition that she'd visited where the exhibits were not arranged in a way that engaged her in the physical exhibition, but were more systematically arranged online which appealed to her.  I thought this made a good point about meaning making and learning styles that we use as one of our justifications for using technology in Learning at the Museum of London i.e. that it caters for lots of different learning styles and perhaps enables people to organise things and information in a way that makes a meaning personal to them. 

I then turned to the idea of museums on social media.  The first comment was that one person found it slightly irritating when, as he perceived it, museums 'tried to be hip' by being on social media.  The discussion then continued and people pointed out that social media was a good way of reaching audiences in spaces where they were already spending time rather than expecting them to come to museum websites and we had a good discussion about social media as a way of engaging as well as just as a broadcast mechanism.

One student also pointed out how effective she found Facebook advertising, particularly if it picked up on her geographical location, she found that more effective than museums necessarily having pages on Facebook. 

Moving on to the second question about online museums immediately prompted some quite definite opinions that so much about a museum visit was to do with the physical building and that this could not be replicated online.  It was also acknowledged, however, that online museums could be a real boon for people who could not physically access a museum building for whatever reason, and also that it's a good way of providing more information than is possible on an exhibition/caption panel.

The third question about participation/authority was a hard one if you were new to the topic and it didn't get as much response but we generally agreed that a halfway point between the two would be preferable!

Once we'd started off proceedings with this discussion I talked for the rest of the lecture about other questions that I felt that these questions raised and looked at websites and projects that I felt were relevant to them.

We compared different types of museum websites with Hackney as an example of a museum website within a local council website, Wandsworth as a local authority website with its own URL but still essentially an online brochure, and Tate, at the other end of the scale.  I pointed them in the direction of the 2004 Jemima Rellie article about Tate's online strategy which put Tate Online as a brand on an equal footing with the other physical Tate sites in terms of providing a museum experience. 

In the 'online museums' discussion I talked about museum websites as a way of enhancing a physical visit but also gave some examples of times when an online experience could be differently and arguably 'better' than a physical one.  The first example came from my own work digitising the R M Phillips collection at The British Postal Museum & Archive.  Digitising this rare and important philatelic collection and scanning the images high res and 150% made it possible for a global audience to access a collection which had previously only been available to view under one-to-one supervision, but we also made it possible to zoom in on the images and see the philatelic material in arguably greater detail than you can in person.  I also talked about some of the 3d objects that we've had made at the Museum of London, some of which you can see in our SEN resources.

In the authority/participation discussion, I talked about my experiences of the BPMA Wiki (I won't link to it because I believe it won't be there for much longer now) where in some cases our audiences were quite uncomfortable with the idea of sharing their knowledge on the BPMA's website because BPMA was seen as an authoritative organisation that users wanted to provide 'the truth' and they were concerned that their information may be inaccurate.

On the flipside, I also then talked about Flickr Commons and the tremendous response to the Library of Congress images when they were first uploaded a few years back.

I touched on the British Museum/Wikipedia project which I think is absolutely fascinating and I talked a little bit about the Digital Learning Network Think Drink that I attended a few months back where we discussed the perceived differences in looking at sensitive material online and in person.  

I finished by talking a little about my job and my background and how it's lead me here.  It was nice to see at least one person who's considering a museum job in the group.  I hope I encouraged and inspired others to join our profession even at this challenging time!

Big thanks to Helen Glew for inviting me to lecture today. I really enjoyed the experience and I hope the students did too!

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