About a week ago I went on my friend Alissa McArthur’s radio program The Storytelling Show on Co-op Radio 100.5FM based out of East Vancouver. Alissa’s show is about women and storytelling in its many different forms. The episode focused on museums and galleries. Alissa spoke to Zoya Mirzaghitova Gallery and Program Assistant at Satellite Gallery about storytelling in galleries and myself about digital storytelling in museums (starting at 12:30min mark).



Download audio file

Bear with me as I travel back to 2008/9 and debate Newsletters vs. Social Media. I’m in a new role where I am in charge of both of these offerings and, like many of you, have limited time and resources so it’s been on my mind.

Successful newsletters provide something of value. For museums that is things like a behind the scenes look at the work going on in the museum, heads up about upcoming news and events, and information about the collection direct from experts. But this is no longer exclusive to the newsletter. All of this content also gets shared on social media platforms. Perhaps with a different tone or emphasis but still the same content. Plus social media allows more opportunities for learning and engagement because you can actually interact with your audience. So what’s the point of having a newsletter?

Image by Flickr user Christopher Penn.

Image by Flickr user Christopher Penn.

With a lot of museums these days moving towards doing less better (for example the Brooklyn Museum cutting back on social media), I got to thinking – why have both social media and a newsletter? Why expend resources on something that does the same thing, and you could argue, does it worse. But does it?


Social Media Newsletter
Opt in Opt in
Two-way communication One-way communication

  • Behind the scenes
  • News & Events
  • Collection highlights  

  • Behind the scenes
  • News & Events
  • Collection highlights
Function is to connect with the visitor Function is to connect with the visitor
Tone is personal and conversational Tone is personal and conversational
Meant for anyone, including those who have visited the museum, will visit or will only ever visit online

  • Most are peripherally interested
  • Some “super fans” who regularly interact and advocate for the museum
  • Has the potential to reach out and get new people interested in the museum
Meant for members, as a membership perk, exclusive

  • These are people who are interested and invested in the museum
  • Always to the same already converted group, expansion based on membership levels and subscribers
Huge reach Smaller reach
Used to build brand Used to keep loyal customers happy
Frequency is daily Frequency is monthly or quarterly


Use newsletters for selling and social media for learning

While reviewing articles claiming social media had not in fact killed the newsletter I discovered the difference between the two. Email communications, such as newsletters,  are still more effective at attracting customers to your website and are better at conversion – getting people to spend money. So we might not want to scrap newsletters altogether.

Social media, as I mentioned above, is stronger at developing engagement and learning.

Solution = Repurposing Content?

Save time and energy by repurposing content. I’ve seen some newsletters that are simply images with a couple sentences that link back to content on blogs or other areas of an organization’s website. This could increase traffic to your website and decrease time needed to write a newsletter. On the other hand some followers might wonder why you are sending them a newsletter at all if it doesn’t have orginal content. But it could be seen as curated content from your website and blog – just the most popular and relevant. As you can see I’m undecided on this one.

What do you think? What have your experiences been either writing newsletters or receiving them?  

Personal Impressions from Museums and the Web 2014

It’s been over a month since Museums and the Web and I already shared a post on it. I collected tweets and storified them to capture the collective takeaways from each of the sessions. I have not written about my own impressions yet, maybe because I needed to let them marinate. Maybe also because I’ve started a new job and life is incredibly busy!

It’s actually useful to think about what has stuck with me and why. So here, in stream of consciousness style of Jack Kerouac, are my personal impressions from Museums and the Web 2014.

Poll of Where Digital Positions Sit in Museums at Museums and the Web Conference. Personal photo by Mairin Kerr.

Poll of Where Digital Positions Sit in Museums at Museums and the Web Conference. Personal photo by Mairin Kerr.

The Interlopers Report

My first MW was a couple years ago in 2012. In that short time the crowd at MW changed immensely. I come from a museum education background and at the 2012 conference it really felt like there were very few people at the conference like me. My fellow museum educator, Dr. Rainer Mack described this eloquently in The Interlopers Report. In his report Rainer wished that more educators would attend in the future and that technology would be part of all of our roles (not jealously guarded by one group or nervously trivialized by another). Rainer, your wish has come true. There were SO MANY educators at the 2014 conference. Plus there were representatives of all areas of museum work. Technology has infiltrated all of our jobs; we have all been converted by the digital evangelists of 2012.

I highly recommend reading Rainer’s report not just to see how far we’ve come in incorporating digital media throughout the museum but also why the mentality of people who work with new technology is so important for all museum workers.

Google is helping the little guy

Google Cultural Institute has been travelling to large museums and digitizing their masterpieces. But what about small ones? They are now opening up the tools they used on the larger museums to smaller galleries and artists. You can apply for access and when approved you can upload images, video, and street view imagery. You also get access to tools that allow you to compare images and use their powerful zoom-in feature. Read Google’s Blog Post announcement for more info.

I heard a lot of people say how they enjoyed hearing about these really amazing projects at large museums (or medium ones who received massive grants) but that they really wish to see what cool things smaller museums (with small budgets) can do. Not surprisingly Google is ahead of the curve on this – giving us tools to help small museums do cool stuff.

New Innovative Apps

These prove that museum apps don’t have to be boring. I will probably devote a post to them later but for now here’s a taster – a list of the apps we were all talking about at MW

Speaker tents ready to be taken to sessions at MW 2014. Personal Photo by Mairin Kerr.

Speaker tents ready to be taken to sessions at MW 2014. Personal Photo by Mairin Kerr.

1)      Hearst Castle app by Guidekick

This app tracks your movement and tells you when there are objects near you with audio or video about them. Developed by four recent Cal Poly graduates, it’s one of the few museum apps using location based services to push content to visitors as they wander the site. This app is not just cutting edge for museums, it’s received validation outside of the museum world – it was rated by Apple as the best new travel app.

2)      Touch Van Gogh

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam created this app to share the artist’s studio practice. This app let’s us all do what we want to, but know we shoudn’t – touch paintings. Once touched, the paintings reveal secrets such as the fact that some were made on recycled canvases with other paintings underneath them, or that the pigments have discoloured over time and were originally much brighter.

3)      Art Lens

What does the Cleveland Museum of Art’s app not do? Augmented reality, wifi triangulation to deliver local content, pre-loaded tours and the ability to make and share your own, updated top ten lists from curators and visitors….And it comes preloaded on iPads you can borrow from the museum if you don’t want to download it onto your own iPad or iPhone.  No wonder it won the Best Mobile category of MW’s Best of the Web Awards. But does it do too much? Does everything work? How are people using it? Questions to look into.

It’s been a little over a week since the Museums and the Web conference finished in Baltimore. While at the conference I diligently collected tweets so I could storify them and save all the fantastic advice, tools and ideas to use in the future. I also took a few short videos of my fellow participants impressions of the conference. I’ve been struggling to edit the videos and sort all the amazing tweets; in the name of transparency this might have to do with the amazing spring weather we’ve been having here in Vancouver. If you know anything about the city then any day it’s not raining it is important to get outside (for my international friends, Vancouver has roughly the same weather as Seattle).

I’m still in the learning/experimental stage of video making. I already knew it was important to shoot in horizontal so as to avoid Vertical Video Syndrome.

After reviewing the footage I took at the conference I have now learned how important lighting and location is. I will also be investing in a mike for better sound quality. But Content is King and I got some really good analysis of the conference from some of the people attending.

My note taking style has evolved along with the conference. The first one I went to, in 2012 in San Diego, I wrote notes by hand and tweeted a bit. Then I went to MCN in Montreal this past November and I started writing notes digitally, while tweeting, retweeting and favouriting others tweets. This time I almost exclusively took my notes through twitter – by favouriting tweets I felt captured the key messages of the presentation well. So I have created a few storifies of the tweets based on different themes I saw emerge.





There are more themes to storify like the amazing Google tools from the Cultural Institute and Google Glass, lots of content on mobile, a theme of scaling down and doing less well. I could keep storifying until I’m old and grey. I might add some more if I get time to put them together to stay tuned.

Other Impressions

Many people who go to Museums and the Web have blogs and have been much faster than me in getting their impressions up. Here are the blog posts that I found tweeted out with #MW2014 and they are all worth a read. If you have written one that I haven’t listed here please let me know and I’ll add it.

Unpacking MW2014 – Part One by Ed Rodley

The Internet is a vast and endless ocean by Micah Walter

Ten digital lessons by Kati Price

Museums and the Web 2014: Digital Arrival, unpredictability and churn by Andrew Lewis

HCLE at MW2014 and MW2014 Provided Perspective by the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum

A growler station in a hipster grocery store in Portland. Photo by author.

A growler station in a hipster grocery store in Portland. Photo by author.

I had a hankering for craft beer and hipster watching so I ventured down to Portland to indulge. While I was there I checked out the Portland Art Museum where one of my favourite museum bloggers works – Mike Murawski of Art Museum Teaching.  I had read about their video interpretation called Object Stories. Mike wrote a great post about it where he explains the danger of a single voice representing an entire culture and how Object Stories helps to introduce multiple voices into the museum where traditionally it has been dominated by one.

Peer-Led Learning

Object Stories integrated into the Portland Art Museum's galleries. Photo by author.

Object Stories integrated into the Portland Art Museum’s galleries. Photo by author.

For me, I enjoyed the Object Stories because instead of getting information presented like a dry textbook which can often be the case when you try to cram as much information into as little space as possible on object labels, I got to learn from a peer who explained the objects in a way a friend would describe something to me. Like most projects it did not start out perfectly, the early Object Stories are individuals talking about their own favourite objects and it often lacks a collection connection or anything more meaningful than a show and tell.

Recently, the Object Stories have become more directed. PAM partnered with the Native American Youth Association where young people picked an object in the collection, researched it, and then recorded their narrative about that object. These stories are integrated into the galleries. Under Mike’s guidance Object Stories has evolved into powerful interpretation tool for PAM’s collection.

Viral Videos

I’m taking a class on digital content and storytelling and decided to do some of my own digital storytelling in video format. I thought I’d have a bit of fun and spoof the recent First Kiss video which by now has gone through the full viral cycle – shared positively and extensively, critiqued, found to be a fake (actually an advertisement), and finally parodied.

Here’s the original First Kiss video.

There have been a lot of re-makes of this video already like Jimmy Fallon’s First Lick featuring puppies and cats kissing for the first time (so unbelievably cute!), and Hye Yun Park’s First Kiss NYC which shows average New Yorkers kissing strangers and all the awkwardness that ensues.

I decided to jump on the bandwagon and, like a lot of great art, copy something to send my message. My First Kiss video was created to advertise museums.

So if you are trying to target young people, possibly creative people, like many museums are, why not use this desire to replicate the things in their world with their own version (I have to admit I had a lot of fun making my video). Have teens create their own versions of viral videos using museum content. Then, like PAM did, use them as a way to interpret the collection for each other. A way to integrate more than one voice and lens into the museum (haha I made a punny!).

Rubbish idea or stroke of genius? Tell me what you think in the comments below.

Everyone has heard a lot about the Cleveland Museum of Art’s recent digital media projects, Gallery One and ArtLens. I  chatted with a couple of members of their education and interpretation department to find out a little bit more about how these projects fit into the department’s mission and goals. Here’s what Jennifer Foley, Director of Interpretation, and Seema Rao, Director of Intergenerational Learning, had to say about these innovative education efforts.

Conceiving with and Adapting to New Technology

Jennifer and Seema discussed how the museum engaged in a variety of audience research studies prior to beginning Gallery One and ArtLens.   One key study, a large audience research project in 2009, had a direct impact on the development of these digital media projects. The research revealed that visitors to the galleries were mainly falling into one of two groups: people either wanted a structured experience with a pre-determined path laid out for them, or a self-directed experience. The structured experience folks are the kind who go on tours and use audio guides, and the self-directed experience visitors tend to walk into a gallery, spy an object of interest, walk to it, then to the next one that catches their attention, and the next and so on. Most of us are pretty familiar with these two types of behaviors. I just encountered them myself while testing a game prototype – some people loved the structure a game gave them for experiencing the museum, others didn’t care for the way it interfered with their own exploratory impulses.

ArtLens in action in the CMA galleries

ArtLens in action in the CMA galleries

While talking to educators about their projects, again and again we have run across an interesting aspect of the integration of digital media into museum education work – the way we are all adapting traditional ideas to new platforms. ArtLens grew out of a project to revamp the CMA’s outdated audio tour, in which they were seeking to bring community voices into audio tours, and it was developing alongside the Gallery One project, which had grown out of the idea of creating a space for intergenerational learning and play in the museum. There were many earlier inceptions of what that space might be like.  Eventually it became conceived of as a space where education, technology and design would come together. The goal of this reconceived space would be to have a place where the museum could engage visitors in surprising new ways.  As that idea developed, everyone became involved – curators, education, design, technology, collections management, publications, and audience research. In the end, it was very much a group creation.  As part of the design process for Gallery One, an idea had been floated that there would be some small touch screens near objects. Then the iPad came out, changing the landscape and opening possibilities. The team working on the audio tours had already been thinking of designing an app, and the Gallery One team began thinking about an app – so the two projects came together and ArtLens was born.

The project team then developed ideas to meet the needs of these two visitor behaviors. It was delightful to learn how closely the museum responded to visitor needs.  The ArtLens App has both a tour section featuring predetermined paths through the museum created by museum staff as well as ones designed by other visitors.  But the “Near You Now” section identifies works of art with interpretive content which are near your current location, allowing people who like to wander and explore to find works that intrigue them.

Both of these digital media efforts have been in place for several months now and a huge evaluation project has been going on to gather data about them.  The CMA has an in-house evaluation and audience research team, and they won an IMLS grant to support doing the project. The evaluation plan includes observations, visitor interviews, and audience panels. The final report should be ready early in 2014 and the team will be presenting results at AAM, because we’re all going to want to see that!  In what is becoming standard thinking about projects using digital media, shorthanded as “perpetual beta”, the CMA team is also thinking of the data coming from this evaluation as formative to the next iteration.

Design Thinking in Action

My colleagues and I have been working to incorporate design thinking into our process and, from the sound of things, some of those principles worked very well for the CMA as well. In fact, some of the lessons for K-12 students that is presented in Gallery One focus on Design Thinking.

5 steps of Deisgn Thinking - repeat as necessary

5 steps of Deisgn Thinking – repeat as necessary

While discussing the process of creation for these projects, both Seema and Jennifer said that audience research is really, really key before you begin (I could hear the bolded words when they said it). “Do a really good study of what’s happening with your visitors so that you can engage them.” That’s Empathize – understanding what your visitors feel about their visit. Define would be how they made decisions such as: we want a space that surprises and engages, we want to give visitors control over their visit. Ideate is when you conceive many possibilities of how to reach your goal. So far, most of this is simply the way we all go about our work. But where museums tend to skimp is on the next two steps and the cycling back around to the beginning to go through it all again. The CMA, however, did use prototyping: Caroline Goeser, Director of the department of Education and Interpretation did the first revamp of the audio tour which functioned as a prototype for content that went into ArtLens.

ArtLens allowed the CMA to realize their goal of incorporating community voices.  There is video, audio and slide shows, and content includes interviews with a variety of people – curators, conservators, scholars, and community members.

ArtLens page on Prayer Niche (Mihrab), Iran, Ishfahan, early 1600s, Gift of Katherine Holden Thayer

ArtLens page on Prayer Niche (Mihrab), Iran, Ishfahan, early 1600s, Gift of Katherine Holden Thayer

For instance, for this Persian Prayer Niche (Mihrab), there are four videos attached. Two incorporate a variety of voices, such as an imam from a local mosque, and footage of congregants being called to prayer at their prayer niche, all of which is interlaced with curator interviews. Other interesting interpreters include a plant curator from the Natural history Museum to talk about a painting which brings together lots of plants that don’t really go together, and a ballet instructor to talk about works by Degas.

Gallery One from an Educator’s Point of View

All of the objects in Gallery One are in ArtLens, so the two projects are deeply woven together even as they have different goals and purposes.  Seema put it like this, “ArtLens is an extension of you, it’s a small group device, but Gallery One is a place that congregates people.”  She said lots of school groups are signing up for active learning experiences in Gallery One.  These programs are not quite a studio and not quite a tour, more like a lab experience in the space.  The Intergenerational Learning department offers a math, a science, and three language arts based programs.  Despite frequently expressed concerns across the field about making use of technology for educational purposes in museums, Seema has concluded that “the technology does not negate people – it needs people.” Volunteer Gallery One Hosts report seeing a large number of repeat visitors, something that is substantiated by the museum’s audience research, and more and more families are coming to Gallery One as well.

There are approximately 60 artworks installed in Gallery One. They spoke to hundreds of visitors to determine what they would want.  Again mirroring Design Thinking as it is recommended for use in museums, while outside contractors helped to develop the front-end protocols for gathering this information, staff implemented the interviews. And it was well that they did, for big basic questions emerged from visitors about art work and creativity.  People wanted to know how were art works made, what was happening in the world when it was made, and what was it used for? Staff then used those questions as beginning points and asked themselves how they could create groupings that interest and surprise people? Seema said, “We drew from across the collection.  We’re really well known for an Asian collection, but we have a very broad collection.  We wanted to really draw on all of those things. The curators were incredibly generous and sometimes removed art from their galleries, sometimes giving over very powerful objects to install in Gallery One. Design had a big hand in it as well. Design was an incredible partner and advocate for the space.”

Discussions about the reinstallation and new interpretive strategies fed into the object selection for Gallery One.  This helped to give some parameters to the selection of objects. “We present objects we know people love and that draw high level of return visitors. People have lifelong relationships with these objects and this factored into the choices,“ Seema explained.

Visitors explore connections to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection

Visitors explore connections to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection

Then she had some great nuggets of wisdom to share about the practical aspects of running the space.  “Always keep in mind that everything’s going to break.  Assume you’re never getting money again so you have to have multiples of everything, which also means you need storage.  Think of technology as flexible but don’t be tied to the device or the platform. Be tied to the idea. Scale the technology to meet your needs and be sure to spend under what money you have so that you have a cushion to deal with contingencies for when things break. Think about operating costs in terms of opportunities. Scalability is really important. A huge space may not be the thing for your institution; geolocation in an app may not be that important – think about your institution and match your tech projects to your capabilities and resources. Remember that content is king and everything else is just delivery.  There is some technology that really works and some that doesn’t, just like some people are great teachers and some people aren’t.  It’s just another tool. Museums are at the point that they don’t need to allocate specifically for technology just to prove they can, but if technology can serve a need, then it should be used.”

Jennifer added, “I used to work at the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the last several years there’s been an upsurge in the idea of digital humanities, but it’s not real to think about humanities and digital humanities as separate things. Eventually digital will just be part of the way we do the humanities.  It’s the same in museum education.  We’re in a bridge period, but eventually it will be fully incorporated rather than seeing it as something separate. We’re not thinking about it separately.”



White Cube aesthetic typical of art museums. Personal photo by author.

White Cube aesthetic with little to no interpretation historically typical of art museums. Personal photo by author.

I recently read the Globe and Mail’s article about the Glenbow, Primed for a renaissance, with great interest. In it the director of the Calgary based museum, Donna Livingstone, spoke about a revitalization she plans to implement by re-framing the museum and it’s collection as an art gallery. I’m guessing she read the article in the Economist, Contemporary Art: On a Wing and a Prayer, which talks about the popularity of Contemporary Art Galleries over other types of museums and the move of many galleries to add or emphasize the contemporary art in their collections.

I don’t have an issue with Livingstone trying to breathe new life into her museum which has been bleeding money and jobs – her predecessor was kicked out of office on a no-confidence vote from the staff. It’s clear something needs to change and good on her for making a plan of action. What I do have an issue with is that part of the plan involves putting a large part of the collection on display with absolutely no interpretation. I thought we were past that, sigh.

Livingstone’s plan to have a changing exhibition of the permanent collection every three months is pretty great. Museums have such massive collections and only 3-5% is showcased in their public galleries. What a wonderful way to share more of the treasures in the storehouse with the public! What I do have an issue with is how Livingstone plans to make this feasible. She explains in the Globe article –

There would be no curation, no label copy, no fancy mounts or anything. We’d just say: Here’s all our cameras, or here’s all our jewellery, or here’s all our quilts. So the visitor would…have to do the work. They’re going to have to make the stories around what they see.

We should be breaking barriers down, not building them up – asking visitors to make sense of objects and come up with their own stories with no help is yet another obstacle they don’t need. I understand that it could be very expensive to have to make new interpretive labels every three months. But there are other ways to deliver content.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has digital labels in some of their exhibitions and have shared the open-source software that they built them on. Why not have digital labels installed which can remain in place but have different content with the changing exhibitions (it can be updated from the comfort of a staff member’s computer)? Yes it’s expensive to get the initial hardware and install but perhaps worth the investment. And if there is no staff time to research and write constantly changing labels then the Glenbow could repurpose the content they already have online in their collection, library and archives databases.

Another option is to deliver content to visitors’ mobile phones so you don’t have much hardware to invest in. It’s now possible to set up iBeacons using Raspberry Pi’s which is very inexpensive. There’s even a DIY tutorial on how to make a PiBeacon. With the iBeacons set up there would still be a need to create an application to detect the signal and push out content so there is cost there. But having an editable application could be useful to more than one museum. Why not join up with a few museums and pool resources? We’re seeing this with museum games like Green Door Labs Edventure builder which uses a common platform that can create a variety of games by adding different content.

To transform this history museum into an art gallery you don’t have to go all hipster – removing all the context so that only those in the know understand the objects. Please do orchestrate a renaissance for the Glenbow, but don’t leave out the interpretation – give the museum visitors something to craft their stories with or risk alienating them.

Guest Post by Kellian Adams

I met Kellian at the Museum Computer Network conference in Montreal this past fall where I was blown away by her presentation on games. Her energy, enthusiasm and pure unadulterated passion is positively contagious. As the co-founder of Green Door Labs, Kellian has worked on games such as Murder at the Met and Agents of Change. Erin and I were thrilled when Kellian agreed to share some of her game design experience and advice on Edgital. Enjoy!

wuss owl

Meme by Kellian Adams.

From grad school, one of my favorite stories was about a teacher who had her first graders make the infamous paper “hand turkeys” as part of a class. The class struggled, there were tears and glue and paper cuts and they survived but it wasn’t stellar. Afterwards, the teacher advisor asked the teacher.

“What do you want the kids to learn here?”

“I wanted them to learn about Thanksgiving.”

“Did they learn what you wanted them to?”

“Well mostly I wanted them to have a fun holiday craft to take home.”

“OK. Could that have been done in a simpler way without complicated scissor tasks?”

“Can’t we just let the kids have some fun?!”

“If it’s fun we’re after, let them play in the playground for an extra 45 mins.”

This story really struck me because it begs two really important questions: what are we really after and how do we know we got it? As a gamebuilder, this is near and dear to my heart. It’s work to build lesson plans and programming. It’s work for people to experience it. People will mostly do what you ask them to do in education and games so we’d better not waste their time with unclear goals.

So what do we want? Of course we want people to experience the museum and enjoy it. Of course we’d like them to learn. We all have more lofty goals as well. We want them to have one of those museum “moments” where things become more important. We want to increase creativity, empathy and curiosity. But those won’t work as goals. Why? They’re “turkey hand” goals. We’ll never know if we got them. You have to take all of those lofty intangibles and make them boring, unromantic tangibles. We need goals that can be measured.

For instance:

goal: we’d like people to make a personal connection with the portraits at the museum.

(Okay that is great but how do we know when we did that? How do we  make that assessable?)

Assessable goal: we want people to take pictures of their “portrait doppelgänger”. Find someone who kinda sorta looks like you. Take a photo of you and your art doppelganger.

Measure: Were pictures taken? Did people do the task you asked them to do?

Check out the Flickr set.

Did the achievable goal of collecting these photos also hit the intangible goal of having people make a personal connection with the art? Take a look at these pictures and tell me it doesn’t. #Nailedit! For me this is an example of taking an ephemeral goal and tying it to a measurable goal that can be assessed.

Maybe the trouble with non-assessable programming might be that we’re confusing goals with throughlines. Throughlines are the BIG ideas. The ephemeral things that you’d like people to take away- hopefully.  But goals are the measurable little things that when added up, will hit those through lines. You don’t want people just doing little tasks, you want to change lives. But how can you know if you’re changing lives without little tasks that measure it? You can’t have goals without throughlines. You can’t have throughlines without goals. New technologies (and games especially) offer tools that make assessment easier than ever. The trick is to know what you’re assessing and why.

When I work with people to build games and responsive programming, often the goals are something unmeasurable to start:

Meme by Kellian Adams.

Meme by Kellian Adams.

  • We want to engage the 18-35 crowd
  • We want to use 21st century learning tools to engage a new generation
  • We want them to have fun

These are good throughlines, but terrible goals. To make those into goals and measure them, you might say:

  • We want to attract 100 new people between the ages of 18-35 to the museum within three months
  • We want to be tweeted about, facebooked about and blogged about by 18-35 yr olds
  • We want pictures of happy, engaged people in our museum
  • We want spoken or written feedback from people saying that they enjoyed the program

These are goals that we could actually measure. And when you can measure, you know when you’ve won. As a gamebuilder, I’m especially conscious of measurement in activity. Often people want to win a game, earn points or level up. One thing to remember is that humans are measurement MONSTERS. They’re assessing themselves while they’re in your program: Did I look at the right art? Did I learn something? Did my kids learn a thing? Did I look smart? Help them out by making your assessment clear.

So don’t be wimpy. Create measurement metrics. Don’t say learning can’t be measured. You’re a talented museum educator and you can create programs that without a doubt show you, your administration, your guests and the rest of the world that you #Nailedit! And if not, you’ll know so you can fix it- and that’s good too.

Many of you will have read the special report on museums featured in The Economist’s holiday issue. The report included five articles:

Temples of delight

Discussing the current success of museums in terms of high visitor numbers; the success is due to the more visitor-centered attitude of modern museums.

The Bilbao effect

Exploring how thriving cultural centres have the power to make a city great.

On a wing and a prayer

Stating the popularity of Contemporary Art Galleries over other types of museums (possibly due to the strength of the contemporary art market).

Mad about museums

Reporting on the museum building boom in China and the many empty museums needing to be filled with collections that don’t exist yet.

Feeding the culture-vultures

Looking at the future and what museums need to do to keep alive such as playing to tourists, being niche, reaching out to different demographics, and creating international partnerships.

As you would expect from the Economist there is a big focus on money

  • museums induce tourists to spend and can earn a lot of money in taxes to help reinvigorate a city
  • museums are funded usually with a mix of public, corporate and individual giving
  • museums can make money by selling expertise to other museums
  • museums can generate income by loaning art
  • the recent slashing of public budgets means less funding for museums
  • contemporary art galleries are popular because of the growth of the art market in this sector (the super rich are diversifying their portfolios by investing in art)
  • not-for-profit museums take advantage of state and federal tax concessions (which can be seen as using poor people’s tax to pay for rich people’s pastime)

Overall the feature concluded that museums are successful and can continue to do well, for the most part. So what is this success due to according to the Economists analysis? The main reason pointed to is that museums have become more visitor centered.

The most fundamental change that has affected museums is the now almost universal conviction that they exist in order to serve the public. – Kennneth Hudson

We have changed museums from temples where we lectured at visitors and put our objects in a context-free vacuum into a place where visitor experience is facilitated according to the ways visitors want information served up to them.

Museums offer narratives in their exhibitions, provide a context for objects by linking them to other people and other places, work with digital experts to enable visitors to participate as well as watch and listen, and create innovative public programmes to bring in the young and inexperienced.

This isn’t anything new. I would argue that the use of technology and the mentality behind digital initiatives, giving the public greater control over the content of the museum and a means of interacting, is what is making us great and will continue to help us thrive. If we want to ensure the long term future we need to invest resources into, and reap returns from, digital interpretation.

What do you think? What is the key to our success?

And should success be qualified in terms of visitor numbers to begin with? Or should it be the more subjective notion of engagement (a difficult word to quantify)? Or is success merely survival? Whether museums can earn their right to stay alive by attracting funding?

I know it’s been a little while since the Museum Computer Network conference in Montreal but I’ve finally gotten over the conference cold and am ready to talk about what has stuck with me.

Digital Humanities Unicorn

Let’s address the unicorn in the room first. It’s all thanks to Don Undeen’s opening Ignite Talk that had us all in serious stitches. Maybe it’s best to watch his talk in order to understand. It’s kinda hard to describe…

Don’s talk is from 20:28 to 26:48

For the rest of the conference the Digital Humanities Unicorn gained celebrity status with its own twitter handle (@DHUnicorn) and celebrity sightings.

Design Theory

One of the most inspiring presentations came from the Digital Strategy workshop By the People For the People run by Annelisa Stephan (@Meowius) and Emily Lytle-Painter (@MuseumofEmily) from the Getty along with Dana Allen-Greil (@DanaMuses) from NGA. I didn’t get to go but when reading the slides of the presentation that were posted afterwards I kept thinking YES! This makes so much sense! And it’s exactly the framework I needed to feel like I can tackle things like creating a digital engagement strategy and rapid prototyping.

One thing that really stood out in the presentation was Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is a mindset and methodology for reframing problems. It is centered around empathy with a user, collaborative ideation with your team and rapid iteration.

The whole presentation is filled with gems of knowledge and actual methods of tackling things. If you read one thing from MCN please let it be this.

Rapid Prototyping

Micah Walter from Cooper Hewitt did a session on Rapid Protoyping in Museum Office Culture. It’s really logical but then again sometimes it helps to have someone tell you how they create their amazing stuff by breaking it down into those logical steps.

I think the most important part of Micha’s talk is that it is inspiring. Read his description of how to take an idea and make it something great. Then tell me you don’t want to do some rapid prototyping of your own.

Come up with even a notion of an idea, talk about it with your peers, your friends, even your dog… whatever, just talk about it, and then come up with a short term plan to build the thing with whatever tools and materials you have at your disposal. Once it even comes close to being a working model, put it out there for all to see. Put up the source code if you can, put the project up on the simplest free webserver you know how to work with, and then write

Managed to fit in a delicious Montreal Smoked Meat Sandwich

Managed to sneak out for a delicious Montreal Smoked Meat Sandwich

about it. Tweet about it, share it with your friends, send it to your parents and see if they have any clue what you are talking about. Nine times out of ten, if they do, you’re on to something big.

Open Everything

There were a lot of sessions about Open Access – such as these which explicitly had Open in their titles: Minimal Friction, Maximal Use: Optimizing Open Access Image Delivery; Museums & the Digital Public Library of America: The Role of Museums in Building the DPLA and the Power of Open LAM Data;  To Open or Not to Open?  A Technical, Legal or Philosophical Question; and Defining Open Authority in the Museum. But pretty much every session had an aspect that talked about openness.

One session about openness that really stood out was After You’ve Opened Pandora’s Box about experiments with Wikipedia at the ROM (Ryan Dodge @wrdodger), the many outcomes of trying to be more open at PEM (Ed Rodley @erodley), image releases at LACMA (Heidi Quicksilver @MissHQ.), and after opening up at SMK (Merete Sanderhoff @MSanderhoff).

What Ed said about the social media being too PR focused really struck home. On those lines I attended a really wonderful session about social media facilitation –  Facilitation Matters: How we Used Facebook, Mobile Phones, and Sketchpads to Measure Learning in Online Communities with Tory Livingston, Beck Tech and Jeff Brabill. The three explored if learning can happen online and if facilitation makes a difference to whether or not learning occurs. The answer was yes and yes!  The Facilitation Toolkit was generously shared so we can all use our social media channels to facilitate learning.

The importance of #Selfies

One of my favourite sessions was Beyond the #selfie: Connecting Teens and Art through Social Media. Dana uses existing visitor behaviour to get teens to interact with the collection at the National Gallery of Art. Teens are already taking photos of themselves (selfies) and sharing on social media. Dana uses a printed gallery guide, highlight objects in the collection, and prompts on how to interact with the art to share on social media. A hashtag is used to follow what’s being shared. What a great idea! It’s also appropriate for young adults which brings me to the next selfie related presentation….


Rich conversations about the conference can be found on twitter with #MCN2013

Rich conversations about the conference can be found on twitter with #MCN2013

Onsite Social Media Activation, in Real Time with Ryan Dodge from the ROM about how to activate social media at museum events. Ryan talked about the ROM’s Friday Night Late series which is exactly what the title implies – a series of Friday nights where the museum is open late. During these events the museum opens up bars, dance floors, live music and activities. It’s aimed at young adults and is very successful in getting them into the museum. At these events there is a photo wall set up and anyone who uses #FNLROM will get their images up on the wall for all to see. There are a lot of selfies and the popularity of the wall is largely due to the thrill young people get when they see themselves up on there – a brief moment of fame. I can attest to this as fact as I’ve been to FNL at the ROM and have been psyched to see my tweets and instagrams projected on the photo wall. And I’m also guilty of doing the meta selfie – taking a photo of a photo of myself up on the wall. Sharypic is how the wall is made possible. It grabs images with a specified hashtag from a number of social media platforms and then puts them in sequence. You can use a moderate feature that allows you to approve the images before they go up. It’s a great way to get us self-obsessed young adults to engage with the museum. Ryan has tried running contests to get people to engage on deeper level without much success. Something to contemplate and keep experimenting with.


Rolin Moe presented on MOOCs and Museums (MOOC = Massive Open Online Courses – see Erin’s post on them). Rolin explained what MOOCs are, different types of MOOCs and why he thought they would be a good fit for Museums. MoMA is currently running one so it will be interesting to find out how it goes once its completed. Rolin promised to create a DIY guide on MOOCseums for us to use. Something I’m eagerly anticipating.

My MCN Heroes

Dana Allen-Griel – for her work as an education technologist, providing a useable framework for creating a digital engagement strategy, and showing how you can integrate visitor behaviour into education programming.

Ryan Dodge – for his reinvigoration of the ROM through his innovative social media initiatives. Super inspiring.

Ed Rodley – for his deep thinking that makes me an avid reader of Thinking About Museums


You can find the conference sessions that were live streamed on MCN’s YouTube Channel. There are also sessions from the video booth, MuseoPunks and slides from presentations with audio overlayed. Enjoy!

There were some great tweets using #MCN2013 Kajsa Hartig has put them together in a helpful Storify that’s worth scrolling through.

Lots of amazing people have already written posts about MCN. Here are a few:

If you know of anyone else’s’ reflections on MCN please post them in the comments section below. Thanks!