Despite a thousand (mis)adventures – including a flight canceled and a plane still flying from the 90′s -, we managed to survive our experience at #MCN2014, and we are now back from Dallas ready to share with the #svegliamuseo community what we have learned from the 42nd annual conference of Museum Computer Network.
“Think big, start small, create” left us with a nice feeling of having been part of a momentous meeting featuring some of the biggest names in the museum world, which, at times, looked very much like a reunion between old friends, karaoke night included.
The conference program was rich and the approach to the topics very “energetic”, starting from the Ignite talks, which opened many windows on different issues of the museum debate at a global scale: the interconnections between institutions; the sometimes difficult relationship with the museum management; accessibility and inclusion/exclusion of minorities; opportunities offered by new languages for interpretation, as well as the need to establish more effective internal processes. We strongly recommend you to have a look at the Ignite Talks on the MCN YouTube channel to learn more.
Dramas, triumphs and longings of the digital museum professional
A reflection on the changing situation of the digital professionals in museums has been a recurrent theme throughout the conference to different degrees.
In his Ignite Talk, Maxwell L. Anderson discussed the need to translate the vocabulary belonging to technology, innovation and digital to make it more accessible to museum directors, traditionally not at ease with this issues. One of his many hilarious advices was to delete the words ‘digital’ and ‘tech’ from any project plan and funding proposal, and focus instead on the two words that really matter to directors: ‘crowds’ and ‘buzz’. Thus, in speaking with the senior management, it would be more effective to focus on the problems that you are going to solve with technology, rather than attempt to explain the processes that inform its adoption.
The Tate Digital Strategy was often cited to stress how important it is for the digital sector to be absorbed within the organizational tissue of the institution, rather than stay a department detached from the rest. It is vital to increase the tech skills of the “operative” staff, starting form the senior management, which ought to have competences to be able to understand and support strategic decisions. As Jeffrey Inscho highlighted, “Technology needs a voice at the adults table”.
In this sense, the institutional ability to even recognize the professional profiles that are needed is to be questioned. Communication professionals, content creators, analytics specialists, all need to work side by side to the technical staff. If we look at Italy, for example, the role of the IT manager in museums is rather an administrative one – he/she is often that guy/lady whom you call to fix your printer. However, the digital transformation needs museums to go beyond this narrow view. We need professionals that are able to think about technology beyond the help-desk functions, figures with a specific know-how that is key to inform strategic decisions regarding in which direction digital should go.
Finally, the discussion moved on what happens when professionals leave, and why leave in the first place. All the panelists of this session, among the most recognized voices in the field, chose to leave the large institutions they were working for to move “where they can make a difference in the field more radically”, free from institutional boundaries. Some of them have started consultancy firms, moved to smaller museums or changed sector completely. Sadly, we can see how, while professionals abroad are up to the point of leaving, in Italy they still need to officially enter the museum world.
Small steps: keep ideas simple + never forget the visitor
MCN’s motto this year contained the catch phrase “Start small”, and the concept was indeed the heart of the debate in many sessions. Even the largest institutions need to proceed through baby steps in order to achieve their most ambitious ideas. Iteration, visitor-centered approach and analysis of results are keywords in order to make the case (and raise the funds). From digital projects that start with the observation of visitors’ reactions on comments books, to Google Cardboard - a low cost solution for experimentating with VR, we were able to see first-hand how effective processes can be when they “start small and simple”, allowing time to test ideas and use feedbacks/results to take the project to the next level.
A survey conducted by Antenna Lab + IMA Lab + Cleveland Museum of Art revealed diversified approaches towards data analysis in museums. In a sector in which resources are scarce, it is paramount to start from the observation of visitors’ behaviors to inform the ROI, justify investments and direct subsequent decisions. We wonder how many museums in Italy are actually considering this point? It seems to us that what happens more often than not is that services, products and experiences are guided by the institutional ego rather than by a problematization of accessibility which takes effectively into account learning modalities and abilities. A particularly interesting session on digital accessibility focused on how the design of digital interfaces should address visitor’s needs according to the principles of universal design, by leveraging existing access tools.
Co-creation & social media
Speaking of social media and audience engagement in a broadest sense, MCN2014 revealed that we are almost over a distinction between virtual and real audiences. Museum communication professionals are moving towards integrated solutions, to give the museum a clear and recognizable voice. Co-creation of content and enhancement of in-gallery interaction were the two main topics.
In this sense, social networks can be of help in the way that they provide a unique and accurate insight on the visitor’s experience inside the museum. Consider how much a simple 6-seconds video uploaded by a visitor on Vine can tell us: it can reveal which are the artworks that drew his/her attention; his/her movements throughout the galleries; how did he/she approache spaces and content of the museum.
Moreover, tools like Instagram are useful for the institutions as they allow the audience to see a kaleidoscopic set of images of the museum activities and content. Creativity here serves the purpose to create a unique tone of voice. An amazing example was presented by Morgan Holzer of the New York Public Library: their account @nypl is a must see for all those of you who are looking to being swept away by stunnig new ideas!
But Instagram is not only an opportunity for the public and the museum to show creativity, it also gives a chance to create content together. An example? The Instameets - organized, among others, by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Instameets are get-togethers during which visitors are invited to capture, in the classic squared format, their personal interpretation of a specific artwork, following assigned prompts. It is from similar experiences that Alli Burness has drawn her reflections on the#museumselfies and her ability to recognize in these photos the will of the visitors to make an artwork part of their own experiences, to read it in the light of their identity and transfer it to the art piece, looking for a dialogue with it. As mobile technology becomes more and more part of our everyday life, selfies will be accepted and normalized as a simply a mean of self-expression.
As the use of social media becomes more and more spread among the visitors and – although more slowly – among the museum, a few fundamental need to be addressed to outline future strategies, such as: how shall a cultural institution best connect with the variety of online audiences? What is the core purpose of social medias in a museum? How can museums go beyond the mere promotion to foster personal connections, deepen learning, and create meaningful engagement with their audiences?
If there was a secret recipe for the museum social media manager, who wouldn’t want to know it? Luckily enough, Ryan Dodge of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto gave us one: strategy + staff guidelines + training + more training + mutual trust. As Ryan has succeeded in creating a shared management of the museum’s social accounts (and there’s about 8 of them!) throughout the institution, we can trust that this may be the right approach to follow.
Other random inspirations
Finally, we’d like to include a list of random recommendations that we thought you should be aware of: 1) follow the hashtag #biggiesmalls + #mcn2014, used during the conference by the “small museums” which featured in the panel “Small-Museum Innovators and the Little-Known Small-Digital Museum Revolution “; 2) monitor the Facebook Group International Museum Social Media Managers, recognized by all as a good antidote to the loneliness that can affect those who work with digital in the cultural field.
MCN was also the stage for the exploration of all types of media and topics connected to the multi-faceted world of digital. From 3D printing to video production, from digital publishing to the definition of open authority, and educational games, ending with the makers group Layers of Chaos. The latter literally invaded the conference with tech assemblies of all kinds, such as a (very useful) machine with laser pointer attached to a pipe of tequila. (YES!)
By now you should have got an idea of how MCN2014 has been a great opportunity for learning and for having fun while doing it. As we have already observed on other occasions, the international community of digital professionals in the museum field is very close knitted as well as very open to the exchange of resources. MCN emphasized this aspect, multiplying the opportunities for interaction among participants – suffice it to say that we took part to a “speed networking” and our uvolas are still aching from a crazy night at the karaoke.
Once again, what we would like to stress is that – beyond a shared passion for Bohemian Rhapsody -the Italian museum community has many things in common with the other professionals from all over the world, and that is only through an open approach to discussion and criticism that we can make change possible. Collaboration is definitely the key to switch from the “think big” to the “start small” and the “create” that can slowly trigger the change. Not surprisingly, the word that has accompanied all the conference was UBUNTU, or “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
@mapnoterritory + @thePorden