Monday 27 June 2011

MCG Spring Meeting 2011: 'Go Collaborate', Brighton, 17 June 2011

I wanted to write up a few points from Friday's MCG Spring meeting while they're still fresh in my head. Just to start with a few caveats - my notes vary in quality throughout the day, I'm not recording everything that went on here, and any of the opinions expressed here are my own and not those of my employer or the MCG or anyone else present unless stated.

Jane Finnis, Director of Culture24, opened the day after a welcome from Ross Parry, Chair of the MCG, with an explanation of the theme of the day. Jane wanted the day to bridge relationships between sectors that aren’t working together as yet.  She explained that the people in the room represented a group of people who ought to be working together and that the ‘space’ that we work in is in some ways full of opportunity and great and exciting but sometimes quite a difficult space.  Its also a space that is changing with the move of the responsibilities of the MLA to the Arts Council. 

The day was to start with Andrew Nairne, Executive Director of the Arts Council talking about this transition and how museums, libraries and archives can fit into the Arts Council’s world.  The rest of the morning would then be spent thinking about what collaboration means and giving examples of it.  In the afternoon, Jane explained, representatives of four commercial organisations would talk about why they want to work with the museums sector.  Jane senses some trepidation in our sector about working with the commercial sector. She attributes this to a discomfort with their driving force being about making money, which does not sit comfortably with us who work in the not-for-profit sector.  The pressures of the funding cuts mean that we are going to have to generate our own income and there is a need to reflect on what we don’t have the expertise to deliver but that the commercial sector might have.  These four representatives were here to show us that they are not just about making money and to explain what drives them to work with our sector.

Andrew Nairne opened by telling us that the functions of the MLA would be transferring to the Arts Council on 1 October this year.  Reassuringly, he explained that they are currently in close collaboration with the current MLA staff in order to try and work out the implications of this changeover.  Andrew explained that a lot of discussion at present was centring on how to integrate the work of museums and libraries (I was interested that archives were scarcely mentioned but I assume they were inferred) [update 28 Jun 11: I have been reliably informed that archives will not fall under the ACE banner. MLA's responsibilities for archives will apparently go to The National Archives.] into the strategic aims of the Arts Council established three years ago in their publication 'Achieving Great Art for Everyone'. I have yet to read this and made a mental note to do so. A companion volume to this will be published online in the autumn that will explain how our sector will fit in with all these goals so that's another 'must-read' on the list.

Andrew then announced a new funding stream run together with NESTA and the AHRC that asks arts and cultural organisations to work with those with digital expertise :

'to help them understand the potential offered by new technologies and together develop innovative project proposals for submission to this new research fund, which is for projects that will harness digital technologies to connect with wider audiences and explore new ways of working.'

I found the press release about the funding on the ACE website if people are interested in finding out more.

I got the impression that the key thing was that they were willing to fund experimentation which is important if we want to continue to innovate and not always possible when budgets are limited so I imagine this will be welcomed in the sector.

I'm going to skip over Honor Harger's talk about some of the cool collaborative projects that Lighthouse (our venue for the day) have been working on (not because they weren't interesting - they were - one really cool-sounding one got artists and scientists to work together on a project where the public were also allowed to drop in and join in - it involved infected textiles, and fruit flies and smelly things... looks like you can find out more about it here: but because I haven't got space for everything here and there's lots I still want to talk about!

After Honor’s talk there was a group discussion lead by Ross Parry with Andrew and Honor.  My notes are long here but I’m not sure I’ve totally digested them yet so I don’t think I’ll write coherently about them here.  A couple of questions did stick out though.  Ross asked Oliver Vicars-Harris in the audience what makes collaboration succeed and he said ‘mutual respect – respecting differences, different skills and different relationships.’  Honor agreed that it’s about compromise and noted that collaboration is seldom easy and that one of the hardest things is what you have to give up which can often be your whole way of working.  Re-reading my notes about this sheds an interesting light, I think, on some of the discussions in the afternoon (more on this later).

I was also interested to hear Jon Pratty’s account of a presentation he’d heard recently by Matthew Cock from the British Museum and someone from the BBC who were talking very openly and honestly about their collaboration on the A History of the World project recently. Both recognised that they had perhaps underestimated what would be involved but Jon found it particularly interesting that they had clearly reached a place in their collaboration where they were able to talk openly and honestly.  I think the talk that Jon was referring to was one where Matthew Cock presented with Andrew Caspari from the BBC at the Open Cultures conference last week. If anyone knows of a transcript or anyone who's blogged further about it, please let me know, I'd be interested to read it. [update 28 Jun 11: Thanks to Mia for pointing out this blog about this session:].

Mia Ridge also noted at this point that the research information network is releasing a report quite soon about some of the barriers to collaboroation, some of which is based on work with museums.  Ross Parry added that a lot of the work of the Knowledge Exchange programme is useful here too.

Again - I'm going to skip Kevin Bacon's interesting talk about image sales in Brighton Museums (sorry Kevin!) and the visit to Brighton Museum at lunchtime because of lack of space and time.

I want to move on to the discussions that happened in the afternoon which raised lots of things to think about and rather a lot of discussion.  We had four presentations from commercial companies talking about why they wanted to work with the cultural sector.  As mentioned above, the purpose here was to encourage us as a museum sector to consider collaborating more with commercial companies to work towards a common goal and to see them less as entities that are just about making money, and more as people with similar goals to us that can help us fulfil our aims.  After the four presentations, an open discussion began to prompt reasonably impassioned exchanges of views which I will attempt to represent some of below.

The overall message that I took away from all these discussions is that while the museum sector does potentially need to do some readjusting in its perceptions and practices with regards to the commercial sector, there is also scope for the commercial sector to take some time to learn about our idiosyncracies, practices, passions and motivations/restrictions as well if we are to work together in harmony in the future.

This first struck me during Chris Thorpe's presentation about Artfinder  and other projects that he has worked on.  He explained the approach they take and raised some interesting points about user-centred design and remembering that users may not always find the things that we do interesting.  He explained the importance of considering time and space, the fact that users are often looking to apps as a distraction (e.g. on the train), size, context and finishability (i.e. users like to be able to complete something and get a sense of achievement reasonably quickly).

As I listened and typed up what I was hearing, my impression was that everything that was being discussed was about art.  Looking back this was perhaps inevitable given that Chris worked on Artfinder but I began to think 'but what about other museum objects?'  I tentatively tweeted 'Museums aren't just about art though...' and was cheered to find a number of people retweeting my point and seeming to agree.  I wonder now whether this was a slightly unfair criticism but at the time, if the object of the presentation was to show that our goals were shared by the commercial sector, I remained unconvinced since the collections I work with and my background is much more history-based.  It felt like there was an assumption that understanding/being passionate about art meant understanding museums. It was the first flag that maybe there were misconceptions about our sector.

The second presentation was by Andy Budd from Clearleft.  Andy pointed out that small companies like his who employ 14 people are not solely about making money and ensuring 'a retirement fund'. They don't see the museum sector as 'a market segment' but like solving problems and their ultimate goal is to add value to the world and make the world a better place. I could see that Andy was genuine about this. He did say as well however that as we fear profiteering, so the commercial sector fear cost-cutting and 'design by committee' and that if they ask for more money, it's not because they're money-grabbing but because more money means more of their time and better and smarter solutions. 

At this point I was feeling pretty sympathetic to Andy's points but it raised another flag in my mind - here were we, a room full of museum professionals worrying about funding cuts, squeezed budgets and possible redundancies being told that sometimes we need to spend not less, but more money to get creative outcomes.

Furthermore, I'm a little sensitive when people jump to criticise what might appear to be 'design by committee'. While design of every single detail by a committee of non-design experts is obviously to be avoided because it slow things down, sometimes what might appear to be 'design by committee' may be what I perceive to be taking advantage of the many different skills in our sector. On the learning projects I work on, those that have input from documentation experts, curators and learning staff are the richest.  Couple this with the inevitable need for management sign off and that makes a lot of 'cooks' but, managed properly, that doesn't mean that they necessarily 'spoil the broth'. 

Further presentations from Sky Arts and Google were also very interesting but I want to focus on the group discussion that continued later.

As I say, at this point my notes become sketchy at best but the bits and pieces that I have remind me of some of the comments that added to my growing sense that perhaps the bridge between the commercial and the museum sector goes both ways and efforts to cross it need to be equal. These include:

'Having a certain budget creates constraints. There is an urgency to get stuff done to move on to the next project...'

‘A lot of what the cultural sector is doing is marketing. Sometimes people don’t want what you’re selling.’

There was lots of discussion about museum procurement policies and practices.  It seemed clear that certain practices are incredibly frustrating for designers and probably do mean that certain companies choose not to work with our sector.  There was a feeling in the audience, however, that we as a sector know that our processes are flawed and have tried to change it, but are in many cases powerless to do so.  I picked up a few bits and pieces of useful advice which I will definitely remember - for example, why not have a 'thinking day' at the start of a project where you pay people from several companies for their time to come and discuss ideas.  This will allow you to get to know them and then you can choose one or two to take forward discussions with and go through the more formal tendering requirements then.  Rather worryingly there was also a perception from someone that there wasn't much creativity in the museum sector.

From the audience, it felt a little bit in the end like we were being lectured at/got at for things that may well need changing but that are outside of our control. I also found myself wondering what exactly we all meant by 'collaboration'.  The BBC/British Museum History of the World project as obviously a collaboration, but discussions on Friday seemed to descend into describing scenarios where museums commission commercial companies to build things, which we are already doing, albeit with room for improvement potentially.  These scenarios seemed to me to do little to help the financial constraints we find ourselves faced with. Collaboration to me implies more of an equal footing, and potentially a way in which we can work differently to have we have in the past to continue to reap benefits with smaller budgets. If this is to happen, it seems to me that the mutual respect and willingness to change working practices that were highlighted by Oliver Vicars-Harris and Honor Harger earlier in the day are crucial, but my feeling from Friday is that this is not just about the museum sector being willing to change.

I'm presenting on a panel of heritage/cultural sector content commissioners at the Children's Media Conference (CMC) in a couple of weeks.  Friday was a great chance for us to hear from the commercial sector about how they work and how they would like to work with us. It struck me over the weekend that, along similar lines, the CMC may well be my/our chance, although it won't be the same people there, to respond by talking a little about how we work and why.

I hope that in my ten minutes I might be able to represent what seemed on Friday to be perceived as a rather clunky and frustrating sector in a better light. We've got breathtaking collections for starters, we've got some incredibly knowledgeable people who make the stories of those objects come alive, we've got learning experts who know our audiences and are skilled and practiced at interpreting our collections in a way that fascinates and engages people and actively improves their lives.  Yes we can sometimes seem idiosyncratic and slow, and sometimes lots of people will have input into a project, but I love those idiosyncracies, and I love that I work in a sector where it's still ok to have them.  We are unlikely to ever have much money in the foreseeable future, but I hope that the commercial sector can see us as creative, intelligent people who have some amazing and unique stories to tell.  We've got things we need to learn and we're doing our best, perhaps take some time to get to know our working practices, and then maybe we can all work together towards the greater good! 

Incidentally, I've promised that I will be the person on our panel of four who will put in a word for smaller museums as well and try and represent the sector as a whole.  If you have anything that you particularly feel is important to tell companies about the way we work, or if you want me to feed back on anything after the conference, please let me know.

I hope those that were at the conference think this is an accurate portrayal of what happened. If not, please feel free to use the comments to add to it/change it.  For those of you that weren't there - I hope this is useful. Please remember that it is only the way I remember it, based on somewhat haphazard notes!

Quick plug as well for a Culture24 conference in September called 'Let's get real' about how to evaluate online success.

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Blogger Mia Ridge said...

Thanks for that really thoughtful summary of the event and discussions.

Owen Stephen's live-blogged Matthew and Andrew's talk on the BBC/BM collaboration on A History of the World at OpenCulture 2011 at

27 June 2011 at 17:47  
Blogger Rhiannon Looseley said...

Thanks Mia! And great news that someone has blogged that talk, will definitely check that out!

27 June 2011 at 19:35  
Anonymous Andy Budd said...

Hi Rhiannon,

I think it's worth pointing out that design by committee is a very specific form of "group think" where design decisions are made out of the desire to let everybody have their say and out of fear of not upsetting any one individual. Alternatively, people will refrain from making bold decisions for fear of making the wrong decision.

The results can either be overly conservative designs or designs which try to satisfy the needs of every individual in the room, but typically fail in satisfying any of them.

The truth is, not everybody in the room is equal and some people have more knowledge in specific areas than others. For instance, the financial team will typically have more knowledge about the business aspects of the product while the marketing team will be more qualified to make brand decisions.

As such, design by committee tends to overlook each individual members area of expertise and instead weights every voice as being equal.

The reverse of this can also be a problem, when one person in the room has undue sway, not because of their domain expertise but due to their position in the hierarchy of the organisation. As such you often see the highest earning person in the room making decisions which are not their area of expertise, while the opinions of the actual domain experts get brushed over.

Now none of this is to say that you shouldn't listen to all the stakeholders. In fact good designers will interview all the key stakeholders in order to extract people's needs and requirements. However in well functioning teams, decisions will be made by topic experts and somebody (the design, project manager or product manager) will act as arbiter and filter.

22 July 2011 at 18:07  
Blogger Rhiannon Looseley said...

Thanks Andy. I think museums are getting better and better at project management though and working out who needs to have what input into which parts of the project so hopefully we'll get better and better at this.

25 July 2011 at 16:45  

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