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Museums and the Web

Statue of Rocky outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A group of us here recently attended the annual Museums and the Web conference, held this year in Philadelphia.  The conference brings together museums from around the world to explore the role of technology in our various initiatives – whether they be online, in the galleries, or even in how our museums function.  Between lunch runs to Reading Terminal Market (amazing), the references to Ben Franklin (ever-present), and meeting with colleagues old and new (always a highlight), we each came away with a list of projects/ideas/encounters that grabbed our attention and will inspire our work throughout the upcoming year.  Here are our top takeaways from this year’s conference:

Rachel Craft:

1) The meeting kicked off with an opening plenary from Kristin Purcell of the Pew Research Center.  She gave a great talk about the actual usage of a lot of the tools we all are focusing on – mobile technologies, e-readers, social media usage, etc. – and shared stats that, for me, helped frame the rest of the conference. Knowing how our audiences are consuming information helps us to better shape how we deliver our content. (If you’re interested, check out her presentation here).

2) This segues nicely into my second takeaway, which is that approach to delivery – how are we streamlining what we produce to accommodate multiple channels (mobile, apps, website) without duplicating our efforts, while still tailoring the resulting media for each need?  I really enjoyed SFMOMA’s presentation on their approach.

3) Philadelphia’s cultural institutions was a huge part of the experience for me, and definitely one of the most inspiring.  The Mutter Museum with its incredible collection (seriously, check it out) also has a really great, dramatic way of conveying the story behind these objects.  Albert Barnes hung his collection in a way that specifically highlighted the (often unconventional) relationships he saw between paintings and objects, creating a powerful visual experience at the Barnes Foundation.  The arrangement of works cross time periods, geographies, and styles for the purpose of comparison and study – which is an interesting approach to consider for multimedia, as well. If we explored different approaches to storytelling, what kind of new, revealing connections could be made?   And at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, well, I could have stayed in this room all day.

Charlie Moad:

1) Drupal, the open source content management system that the IMA uses extensively, seems to have really taken its place within the museum community. I had a nice chat with George from Palantir who has been attending Museums and the Web for several years now. He stated that a few years ago he constantly had to explain what Drupal was. This year however, he was accompanied by a handful of other vendors who were also focused solely on Drupal based services.

2) There was another subtle theme that I picked up on across several sessions. Museums are starting to recognize the inevitability that much of the online interactions that occur with its content won’t necessarily happen on their websites. There was even an unconference session questioning the amount of effort that museums place on their websites redesigns due to this fact. As social networks and search engines provide web visitors with more and more of the information they seek, how can museums ensure they are making the most out of the online efforts?

3) Finally, it was a joy to have people walk up and show me their own TAP-based applications on their iPhones. Seeing others benefit from and use the tools we release has a reinvigorating quality.

Matt Gipson:

1) Mobile is the way of the walk. Mobile was definitely a heavy theme throughout the conference. Everywhere I looked somebody was using an iPad. The Mobile Parade was a great chance for museums to briefly show off their mobile achievements. It was especially great to see how the MFA took TAP and ran with it. The re-design touches they put on their app are superb!

2.  Museum tech people, in the flesh! I got to meet several art/tech people in person who I normally only see “online.” Surprisingly, I recognized several faces just from seeing their Twitter avatar. Looking forward to seeing you all at the next museum conference(s)!

3. How to launch a beta site. During a talk on museum collections on the web, the always brilliant Tate’s James Davis slyly dropped a link to their new art collection browser. There are a lot of subtle and smart things going on here. Also, there is a great paper describing their process here.

Honorable mentions: Mutter Museum, late-night back-room karaoke, cheese steaks, Chifa, Philly micro-brews, and disco naps.

Rob Stein:

1) One of the things I like the best about attending the Museum and the Web conferences are those happy surprises when you learn about work from a different part of the field that compliments your own.  This year was no exception!  I was sitting in a conference session on social tagging as I have so many times before, and was completely caught off-guard by some wonderful work coming out of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).  Gunho Chae, and Jungwha Kim presented their work on faceted tagging with the Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art (GMOMA) and how other museums might improve their own tagging systems by adding facets.  It was so nice to see new quality work extending on earlier work of the steve.museum project.  Gunho, and Jungwha presented really solid work, a well written paper, AND were delightful colleagues at the same time.  What a wonderful occasion! You can read their paper here.

2) While our team from the IMA presents our work often at these conferences, I think we will all agree that the most valuable interactions are those where we get to pick the brains of our peers from other museums.  This year it was so great to meet and talk in more depth with Michael Parry from the Australian Center for the Moving Image.  Michael’s museum was the recipient of the Best Overall Site award from the conference this year for their work on the ACMI Generator, a site that teaches media storytelling techniques through the creation of user-generated storyboards.  Generator is a really sweet tool that provides a nice set of features for storytelling without confusing the users.

Recently, at the IMA, we’ve been working on similar projects related to the ArtBabble and finding that digital storytelling is a skill that’s not well understood in the states.  Michael was gracious with his time and honest with his critiques of our efforts.  In short, a great peer.  A second of my favorite moments was a sort of group review of some in-progress work for ArtBabble.  Michael Parry, Len Steinbach, Paolo Paolini, Nicoletta Di Blas, and students provided good critique and encouragement!  By the way, Paolo and Nicoletta’s paper about reusable exhibition content is a good read.

3) Lastly, I was proud to be a part of a community that can on one hand be very technical and scholarly, but on the other work for and support basic and fundamental human rights.  Supporting the arts, and the work of artists puts museums at the crux of all kinds of political, social, and moral issues.  It’s one of the wonderful reasons to work or volunteer for your local cultural organizations.  Leading up to this year’s conference we saw the arrest of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.  It was great, therefore, to see the Tate’s project for Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds exhibition win an award for the best use of social media. A great project no matter the circumstance, but especially poignant this year!  Along those lines, it was wonderful to see the Guggenheim step up and issue a Call for the Release of Ai Weiwei and for a number of museums (including the IMA) using their blogs to share with our audiences about why this matters.

As a technologist, and software guy by training, there are many places in the world for me to work.  I’m continually happy to be a part of one field that has so much potential for impact and long-term change.

Filed under: Museum Community, New Media, Road Trip, Technology, Travel

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