Museums and the Web Florence 2014: thoughts and takeaways

In two thousand years, our descendants will arrange cases full of our artifacts from this dawn of digital history. They will wonder about the curators and historians and archivists who were their progenitors. The professionals who, more than anyone else, had it in their power to understand what it meant for, what potential it had. You can choose how history remembers you. Whether you served a future history in which our informational roads were used to conquer and control us. Or to give us the freedom to communicate and collaborate to our enduring and universal benefit.

With these words Cory Doctorow opened MWF2014 (read the speech here).
Apparently, we are in an era in which the future is being decided. Now more than ever, museums, which have always been about the past, seem to have a crucial role in defining the future of information, knowledge, identity and memory.
Museums professionals are like an army of superheroes here, defining strategies and kicking off revolutionary changes, as long as they have plugs available to recharge their devices.

What follows is a list of things that I liked and disliked about MWF2014.

Being open is a plus, not a less

Funny thing about MWF2014: it corresponded with MFW2014 (Milan Fashion Week 2014). If you followed the hashtag MWF2014 you certainly stumbled upon statements about Prada’s new collection or Dolce&Gabbana’s astonishing new accessories from people that misspelled the hashtag. A rather puzzling experience when you are seriously focused on museums stuff.
For MWF 2014, “open” is the new black.
Open as in an interchange process among the institution and its surroundings, the city, the community. Open as museums can reach out to their audiences through their digital tentacles, becoming part of the daily life, integrated and relevant. Open to the extent that nobody can’t tell you that you can’t instagram the hell out of the Primavera.

As pointed out by Laura Longo, future audiences will be more and more different, coming from many places and backgrounds. Pre-digital natives, digital natives and mobile born: three generations are now out there, accessing and consuming contents in new ways. Museums need to adapt their communication strategies accordingly. And new technologies, paired with open and fPluto__Revolve_in_Peace_by_violayouree access to collections and researches, allow us to unveil stories and create connections that audiences could not experience otherwise.
While Cory Doctorow highlights how archives and DRM go together like rare book collections and flamethrowers, I wonder to what extent concerns on copyrights status of collections is what really prevents museums to be open. Resistances are more about a certain mind-set rather than a bunch of legal issues. Museums keep things and have done so for ever. Like Pluto, they may feel that they are being demoted: from elitist keepers of knowledge and priceless collections, to some real life version of Wikipedia set in a very old building.
What happens if a museum can no longer talk about art because art is everywhere anyway? Probably museums would become places that make us talk about art instead.
In the meantime, let’s ask Pluto for his therapist’s number.

The end of the “faceless audience” era.

Evaluation is more and more embedded in the natural cycle of a project. We have seen it in many of those presented at MWF2014. But what do we do with the data that we gather? Evaluation should provide institutions with the coordinates necessary to pursue relevancy and sustainability of experiences and products. As Nancy Proctor pointed out, we have this bad habit of building things and expect people to come, evaluation should make museums stop assuming what visitors might want and expect. Acknowledging audience’s diversity in terms of interests, abilities and preferences in consuming contents, is the first step in the creation of museums that are truly accessible.

The Dallas Art Museum is interested in metrics such as repeat visits, diverse participation, increased affinity, ability to motivate action. Through a rewarding strategy, visitors can earn points and truly take part in the museum’s activities according to their interests. DMA Friends doesn’t talk to an indistinct mass of visitors, but engage every single participant through personalization and relevancy of the experience. Take a look at the numbers here.

Palazzo Madama works on developing its community through social media, a tool that they use to spread knowledge, interpretation and fun, but also to listen to their audiences.

Helen Pertie, researcher at the University of York, presented two papers. The first one is a study on different learning styles in museum contexts. How do we learn? Through frameworks, images or experiences. These categories of learners can be targeted and explored also through museums websites and digital tools. The second study focused on verbal descriptions of online objects for people who are visually impaired. The research started by trying to fill a gap in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that doesn’t provide instructions on how to transcribe contents. The study also questioned a series of urban myths about verbal descriptions: for example that they are supposed to be of 8 to 6 words to be effective. By understanding what people wanted Museum Victoria was able to give guidelines to crowdsource relevant descriptions of the objects featured on their website.

Content needs to be put in

How do we use technology in museums and how do we adapt to the rapid changes of technological innovation in a sustainable way?
Another recurrent theme at MWF2014 was the concept that technology is a means to an end and not an end itself.

As Paolo Paolini, from the Politecnico of Milan, pointed out: users of mobile experiences want a seamles experience – stories they need when they need them.
This make us reflect on how, to be successful, use of technology should be invisible, without astonishing flashlights and digital tricks. In this sense, augmenting the museum’s reality through technology should help enhance the way visitors look at objects, rather than distracting them from the “real thing” by providing more stuff to look at.

A lot of questions were asked about how the use of leading technology can find a balance with the relatively slow pace museums innovate. In particular, during the session on Google Glass by Neil Stimler.
According to him, society is in a new cultural paradigm – one defined by the hybridity of our physical and digital lives. The public’s engagement with museums on social media and open access to digital content via personal mobile devices are keys to sustainability.
Google Glass and other wearable technologies are part of the immediate present – the now. Wearable technology is a fact of our world. Museums and cultural institutions can engage wearables in an effort to understand applications for their staff and public. Curiosity about the world is vital to the process of humanistic scholarship in museums. This openness applies to innovations in technology as well as new methods and means of intellectual inquiry.
(Read the interview here).

Agnes Alfandari from the Louvre, told us about the audioguide developed in partnership with Nintendo 3DS. This choice attracted young audiences that, however, remain disappointed from it as they expect the device to be paired with more “playful” contents. Studies on how different visitors approach the audio guide will inform further development of the project.

Mobile was the main topic of the Best Practice Mobile Parade. The session consisted in a number of companies selling their products, more or less explicitly. Although the audience expected something different from this session, all in all it showed the reality of things: most of the vendors don’t have the slightest idea of what the sector might need. In the current scenario, they should put far more effort in understanding the field by developing collaborations, real partnerships with museums, rather than getting institutions to buy technology as door-to-door bibles salesmen would do.

All in all, context [and content] are king. We have talked a lot about how institutions should design stories around collections to engage with audiences, especially online. But, as Cory Doctorow pointed out, a good story is the one that makes you feel the elements of a story. I believe that the creation of emotional and personal connections  is what museums should really strive for when using mobile, social media and the web (along with their power to establish two-ways conversations among visitors).

The dawn of the deads, or, wake up, museums!

An interesting article came out this week on La Stampa (in italian). As many other articles of this kind point out in Italy and abroad, museums are accused to be slow in embracing new technologies and social media (in this case Twitter).
dawn-of-the-deadBut why italian museums should embrace Twitter? Just because museums abroad do so? I believe that articles of this kind are the main problem here. In my personal experience working in press offices, I found them to be favorited by museums’ directors. Right after having read them, they immediately go to the new media department (when there’s one) saying “I want a Twitter account” (or a mobile app or a game etc.), “and I want it fast”.

Institutions feel that they have to strive in putting together resources and energies just to enter the “new media era”.
As highlighted in many sessions at MWF2014, we should always ask “why” before start using these tools. And we should start from listening and observing our audiences to determine how we can use them in meaningful ways.
As Theo Meereboer pointed out in his Masterclass, social media are at the core of your institution, you wouldn’t hire an intern to manage your collection. Investing in training and professional development is thus part of the picture here, along with the crucial role of  networks and collaborations among museums to share learnings.
The project svegliamuseo reflects upon this concept by connecting a number of international museums around the world with small italian institutions. Svegliamuseo asks the former to offer the latter with advice on how to develop a social media strategy and engage their audiences with these tools.

A bunch of hugs at the summer camp

MWF2014 has been the first international conference in Italy dealing with digital tools and practices in museums. Although extremely awesome people attended, I experienced the usual “we won’t be able to do these extremely cool things in Italy because our system sucks”. It is true, italian system sucks, big time. But as long as we keep complaining about it, things will just stay the same. I know that this sounds extremely Kumbaya. But that is what it is.


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