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Thoughts on Museum Next 2014

June 24, 2014 - Rachel

So, as previously mentioned, I chaired the excellent Museum Next conference last week. It was a brilliant couple of days – amazing to see lots of people I haven’t seen in a long time and to meet some new ones too. The programme was varied, challenging and full of new ideas and insights: in short I had a great time..

Now: because of the chairing thing I only got to see what was going on in the main hall – but nonetheless there were some common themes which definitely floated up during the whole conference. I’d say they were these:

Prototyping, user testing and being agile are Good Things

This was a strand which came out across many of the talks – and Dana Mitroff Silvers‘ How Museums Can Use Design Thinking to Delight and Engage Visitors articulated it brilliantly, but there were many other moments too as people talked about their various projects in which they alluded to the fact they had a prototype stage, did lots of user testing or spent time actually figuring out what people want.

For me, rapid prototyping and talking to users is an absolute no-brainer. What’s great now is that there are a wealth of amazing tools and resources for doing this: yes, of course there’s things like MuseBalsamiq and MockFlow (or even WordPress – that’s how we do our prototyping!) – but don’t forget pens, paper, postits too. And if you need help knowing what to ask or who to ask, there’s a new edition of Don’t Make Me Think out this year. This book is for me one of the absolute must-haves, alongside the now ancient (2001!) but still indespensible Design For Community.

The user-testing / analytical side of things was encapsulated in an astonishing talk by Colleen Dilenschneider which I’ve embedded below:

Touch, Love, and Museum Data: How Digital and Physical Touch Make The World a Better Place from Colleen Dilenschneider

Colleen talked about what really motivates people – and not from a fluffy maybe it’s like this kind of way, but with some really solid analytics to support her arguments. It’s rare you hear such incredible enthusiasm for a subject, rarer still that you find yourself struggling to keep up taking notes on something so obviously incredibly useful. And, dear lord, Colleen claimed she was jetlagged. I’d actually be pretty frightened to see her on a good day 🙂

Colleen’s full set of notes and resources are here.

Thinking strategically is imperative.

It’s a thing close to my heart so it was great to hear lots of people talking about the importance of strategy – or: thinking about what you’re doing before you do it.

Koven J Smith‘s opening keynote focused on this – he called it being Authentically Digital – the process by which you move digital so it is a lifeblood running through the organisation rather than some kind of add-on at the end. His slides were great and I had very little to argue with – however I think this kind of baked-in-so-naturally-digital-we-won’t-need-to-call-it-digital-any-more thing is very, very hard, and a long way away for most organisations. We still live in a world in which it is ok to say things like “Oh, I don’t do technology, I leave that up to my daughter”. Many of our museum staff don’t use social networks. Some of our senior managers still print their emails. This isn’t a world in which we can embed digital. Yet. But it’s a great aspiration.

On similar lines, Tijana Tasich talked about her role at the Tate. Among lots of other fascinating insights she also talked about how institutions shouldn’t have a digital strategy, calling back to Koven (and others’) take on this – that digital should be part of the framework, not a separate thing.

I agree with this …in principle. In practice, I think it’s ok if you’re in a national museum, not so ok if you’re not. Digital is still at a stage where it needs nurturing at almost every smaller museum I’ve worked with. This stuff doesn’t come naturally, and as a consequence of this it needs its own corner – and a way of articulating how it is going to fit with the institutional strategy. Sure, the longer game is to embed it – but we’re not there yet.

Marketing is way down the list

I’ve worried about this for a long time, and Museum Next didn’t make me feel hugely much better about it. Museum digital projects still seem to be ok blowing all their budget at the beginning on Making The Thing – and then kind of hoping that somehow people will flock to it via…um, magic / luck / someone they know who is famous / a combination of all these.

Marketing is still a dirty word in many museums. The legacy of “Marketing = Selling Things – and THAT IS NOT WHAT MUSEUMS DO” still rumbles on. The fact is, if you don’t allocate time, effort and money to shouting about the fantastic thing you’ve made, you might as well not make it.

What did make me feel better was that there are great ideas happening – and continuing to happen – but the “build it and they’ll come” attitude is still fairly rampant in the sector. We’re launching products (YES, I called it a PRODUCT!!) with names that simply can’t be Googled because they’re so common, terrible SEO, no spend on marketing campaigns. We need to up our game if we’re going to stay visible. And, paraphrasing from Koven: visibilty IS authority.

Content: still king 

Mar Dixon suggests we get away from the notion that content is king (this from Colleen’s talk, where she suggested “Connectivity is King”). It might be a rubbish phrase that’s been done to death (hey, you never worked in an online bookstore where we used to talk about “bricks and clicks”…), but the fundamental point still holds and ever will it be.

“Moving on” from the idea of blindingly good content being at the heart of everything we do is like suggesting we move on from breathing air.

Mobile: we’re all over the shop

I just want to put it down on record that I never said “apps are dead”. I did say: “Will apps disappear? I kinda hope so”.

Then, a moment or two later, JiaJia Fei from the Guggenheim nailed it with this:

The only learning app I use inside a museum is Google!

And, yeah, there you go. That’s it, nicely encapsulated.

This is not to say we shouldn’t build apps. I just don’t think we should carry on building apps without thinking very hard about why we’re doing it, who is going to use them, how much they cost and whether they’re going to have an impact. We should be thinking this with everything, but especially with apps because:

> they’re extremely complicated and expensive to produce
> ..as a consequence they’re almost always done as part of a relationship with a commerical company
> ..who, being commerical, lose interest when they realise that the app isn’t the next Angry Birds

And…the use case is often quite hard to justify. You want a user to download an app which is only relevant to your museum? I’m not at all sure about that. Koven’s post about museums not needing apps. That.

And…my favourite thing?

Tough call. Coming in a close 2nd place was Adam Clarke talking about Minecraft in museums, which was just an energy rush of enthusiasm and crazy ideas. This guy is just amazing – I chatted to him over coffee and he’s spot on with actually thoughts about how we could actually engage with kids. If you’re running any kind of museumy get-together, I’d suggest you get Adam in quicksharp – it’ll get everyone sitting up!

The final talk of the conference – Hannah Fox talking about the absolute arm-hair-raisingly amazing (hey, a rhyme) Re:Make of Derby Silk Mill was my all-time highlight, and it epitomised for me pretty much everything else that had been said. It has innovation and energy, users right at the heart, strategic, clever thinking, a brave but wholly amazing vision. Just ace. Watch this:


Thanks, Jim and the MuseumNext team – that was a brilliant conference and I’m looking forwards very much to the next one!




  1. Andrew Lewis

    June 25, 2014 at 8:21 am

    Great round up of another great #museumnext. I totally agree that the “we shouldn’t need a digital strategy” argument has value, but optimistically aspirational. It is miles off the reality.

    When organisations feel they have to have Computer Clubs just to get their staff on the digital nursey slopes, we clearly need digital champions in as wide a range of shapes and forms as possible

  2. dmje

    June 25, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Thanks for commenting @Andrew Lewis – I think we’ll get there in the end but it’s going to take a while…

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