Museum Research Visitor Profiles

Perhaps one of the least talked about audiences, within the museum sector, are research visitors. Here I don’t discriminate between what makes a researcher a researcher, it could be a titled world expert wanting to study objects, an enthusiastic budding biologist with some specimens to identify or an artist wanting to paint, sketch or draw museum specimens, and everything in between. Basically, all the behind the scenes visitors to museums as opposed to the tourists, day trippers, event attendees, school and university groups.

Facilitating research visits is one of the hidden, often time consuming, yet brilliant parts of museum work. In larger museums it’s a endless troupe (troop, troop?) of visitors and enquiries that can take up half the working year. At smaller museums it may be a quieter flow of enquiring minds a year. I say this work is brilliant because this kind of self-directed access to museums is one of the best things about them and speaks from the heart of a function of museums. We hold this stuff and information about this stuff with a dash of expertise (although many researchers bring their own) for you to access. How can we help you? First-time visitors (although often the first of many) express gratitude and often surprise at the help they receive but, although it may be forgotten or not often shouted about, it’s a big part of what museums are here for and we record and report researchers. In part this use justifies museum’s existence and is an absolutely unique function of them.

In my experience, there is a smidge of snootines sometimes about curation/collections management as service provision, but it is rare. Many museum colleagues go to extraordinary lengths to help enquirers and visitors despite it not especially being the big shouty project work or generate numbers that can in anyway compete with the raw through-the-door numbers, the flawed but unshakeable yardstick that still carriers a lot of the weighting of museums comparative worth. For my money the fact that you should be able to book a visit to any museum, see objects from their collection for reference, study or sheer pleasure is a key part of what they are there for, baked into the ethos of many museum’s founding and a fundamental function of accessibility to human knowledge held for the wider good in theory without cost, discrimination or judgement.

Read on for One and Done-rs, Precocious Prodigies and Inside Cricketers…

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Museums and… Good Exhibitions

Another blogpost shamefully recycled from Twitter, here’s the thread if you wanted to check out the thoughts as they were. I spend a lot of time thinking about exhibitions and they’re kind of a silly format for doing any kind of communication I think. There’s something quite quaint about the notion of “We want to say something important so we’ve put some things in boxes with labels and if you don’t come and see it in this specific time period, well you missed experiencing it as it was intended”. Of course there’s online versions of exhibitions and some museums create excellent catalogues but it’s a thing you have to see or it’s gone! The upside to an exhibition as a form of media is it’s hanging in there as an authored and authoritative medium whereas other modes of communication have all but disappeared inside themselves trying to compete with the likes of spotify, social media, bloggers, infinite hours of free video online etc. that’s all but killed off the music industry, printed news, the book industry and TV respectively. In the BIG SCARE QUOTES post-truth era p’raps there’s a value in being so… so analog.

Inspired by the always slick Wellcome Collections going as far as to publish their inclusive design guidelines alongside their online version of the exhibition and creating a lot of noise around their new ‘permanent exhibitions’ that largely eschew the modern penchant for exhibition gimmickry (museums without objects, objects covered up, exhibitions of light or coloured fog or post-it notes or…)  I tried to put my thoughts about the best kinds of museum exhibitions in my humble opinion. Continue reading

Archives, Libraries & Museums: Time To Let Newspapers, Radio and Television Die.

A historic decision was made this week at the International Museums, Archives, Libraries and Heritage Committee (IMALHC) annual congress meeting in Oslo by international representatives of the global heritage sector. IMALHC members voted to stop giving deadmedia (newspapers, radio and television broadcasting) a free ride in order to let them die with “a bit of dignity left”. This welcomed decision is expected to be respected and actioned by heritage organisations in the coming year. The decision taken is to stop giving free time, resources and assets to deadmedia organisations to run cutesy stories or prop up the same three documentaries they keep making.

Brione Poplio, IMALHC member and Curator of Massmedia at the Museum of Communication, said “As an expert on obsolete media it was a difficult decision to pull the plug on creative industry stablemates. However, it’s been a rather one-sided relationship for the last hundred years or so. We waive filming and reproduction fees, give up our already limited staff time, help with their research and they run the same headline about ‘discovering lost artefacts in dusty basements’. It’d almost be offensive if anyone was actually reading listening or watching”.

Cereza Bayonetta, Head of Brighton Archives Centre added “We had the perfect example of this last month. We gave up two days of time and museum space for BBC filming How Old Is Your Celebrity Caravan and got three likes on our ‘we’re on the telly’ tweet. A local popular LGBTQ+ podcaster happened to mention they came to the centre in passing and our Instagram follower quadrupled overnight. They also got the name of the institution correct, unlike the BBC”.

Ian Dunlop, Director of Wenlow Museum of Horticulture said “Exposure is cheap these days. I was on the Today programme recently talking about hoes and I couldn’t even buy a coffee in my local cafe with the exposure. The young barista didn’t even recognise it as valid currency at first!”.

Jenny Jenson, Head of Marketing, Communication and Innovation at the Museum of Rocks and Dairies, offered: “We’ve got a live webcam of a creaky floorboard that once belonged to Charles I that has more viewers than at least three national newspapers have circulation figures. If we wanted to get a message out, we’d put a Post-It on the floorboard to be honest”.

Some heritage professionals welcome the decision to allow traditional journalism to end with some dignity such as Mia Norwich, Head of beeswax at GYRATE!: “When the lights do finally go off and the doors do finally close on the fourth estate and traditional journalism let’s remember them for speaking truth to power, for making world leaders quake in their boots. For holding those at the top accountable. Let’s make the memory of dead media one of these messages, not the papping celebs on the milk run in their PJ’s or the giving platforms to trendy fascists that they’re known for nowadays”.

Not everyone was unconcerned for the future of popular culture, newsmaking and communications though. N’Gari Hattershank, Chief Senior Junior Librarian from the Potter’s Library, warned: “Obviously, the Internet and social media remains the Wild West when it comes to ethics, checks and balances and accountability. This is a slight change to traditional journalism which has these ethics, checks and balances largely ignored but at least on paper”.

 

 

Google Cultural Institute and The Natural History Museum

Last week, the Natural History Museum London was the latest institute to engage with the mega brand x mega brand love in that is Google Cultural Institute partnerships. Presumably, they’ve partnered with most of the major art museums so the attention has finally turned to natural history* (at the time of writing, Google Cultural Institute still haven’t announced the project on Google+, evidence perhaps that even Google doesn’t use Google+). Although these projects, where the Google Cultural Institute partners with a museum to present their collections through the Google Arts and Culture platform, aren’t exactly new, the addition of one of the UK’s big natural history museums is a chance to examine whether these are any good yet.

The tl:dr version of this blog post is no. No they aren’t. Continue reading

Digital, huh, what is it good for?

I maintain what I hope is a healthy scepticism towards the use of ‘digital’ when it comes to museums and heritage which mostly involves being a snarky bastard on the Internet and probing platitudes about digitisation in museums. This has led some to believe that I’m some sort of Luddite or just anti technology because it takes us away from the 300 year old unique selling point of museums which is people come to look at and experience things and only use the Internet for shopping and boobies.

Which couldn’t be further from the truth (ish)! I’ve been a keen gamer my whole life and a denizen of the Internet for a little less than that, cutting my digital teeth trolling the witchcraft forums, surviving the great LiveJournal wars of the early 2000s and arguing the finer points of the Colony Wars lore. I’ve written book chapters and lectured on the virtual museum, colour laser scanning, museum websites and the use of technology in museum spaces.

I’m not against ‘the digital’ in general, I’m more for a holistic view and use of digital technologies in resource poor museums and as a user as well as a creator, against implementing  costly projects because of the ‘machine that goes bing factor‘ or without evidence of need, use or longevity that continues to plague many museum digital projects. Continue reading

Gamifying Museums- The Logical Extreme

Last week my Twitter feed was all #MWXX which I presume had something to do with Museums and the Web, probably the 20th conference, it may also still be happening such is the opaque nature of the events conference hashtags refer to.

In any case whatever #MWXX was, it seemed to be filled with some of the best and brightest of those working with museums ‘and the web’ but more broadly digital. Ever since my Museum Studies training, I’ve had an interest in museums and the digital as a digital native urghhh, I mean ‘millennial’ but more importantly the incredibly slow pace in which museums are really getting to grips with the interesting stuff that is happening on the Internet and in video games, digital art etc. Last year, there were some very silly suggestions that museums are now ‘post-digital’ and we should stop banging on about the digital as some magical future thing.

Digital is everywhere. It’s just another tool in the toolkit. I’d very strongly argue that with rare, normally uncelebrated good examples, most museums are very much analog and that Digital still equates to a not very good website, crappy gallery interactives, an unreliable app developed circa 2009 and not very good online databases. Which might actually be fine because I suspect that us urghhh ‘millenials’ are actually quite bored of digital. Give us bespoke, handmade, tangible, esoteric and analog. I’m a slave to digital platforms at work and play and I want to spend my downtime away from them. There’s a seed of a thought there that I’ll expand on in another post, maybe. But, as a keen gamer I’m quite sad to see that gamification of museum spaces just hasn’t happened in a very real way. Sure, if you read Reality is Broken in 2012 you’d have believed that by 2016 even our toasters would be recording our high scores and spamming our friends with toasted bread updates but turns out that gamification flourished in the Silicon Valley Petri dishes but didn’t squirm much further.

When you do see museums engaging in games and gamification, it’s often in a very earnest, shallow and eduware kind of way. More Fun School 3 than Never Alone and 100% less interesting, engaging and inspiring than Minesweeper. Museums should skip steadily progressing 20 years behind digital culture and jump right up to date borrowing the scummiest and unethical but addictive and sometimes lucrative practices from current social media platforms and the ballooning free-to-play models that even giants of gaming seem to be pursuing. Introducing the MyMuseum app (working title). Continue reading