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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