Innovations and trends in museum tech

Top 3 observations from MuseWeb 2019

Earlier this April, I had the opportunity to present some of our work with the Art Institute of Chicago at MW19, Museum on the Web’s annual conference, held this year in Boston.

I took advantage of my attendance to survey some of the latest thinking in the Museum technology sphere — an industry that AREA 17 has been fortunate to participate in several times alongside clients like the Barnes Foundation, Harvard Art Museums, and the Art Institute of Chicago. While a wide variety of topics and themes were covered, I identified three underlying questions that many of the papers, panels, and presentations seemed to be responding to.

What do we choose to preserve for future generations, and how do we preserve it?

This was the question posed by Dr. Hiroshi Ishii of MIT’s Media Lab in his keynote presentation, “Remembering the Future: Archiving for 2200,” and kicked off an overarching theme that later talks and presentations touched upon. Through several deeply personal anecdotes, he drove home the point that the invention of new media and technology can result in the unintentional loss of meaning just as easily as it can result in increased distribution of those works — for example, putting a piece of calligraphic poetry into mass-market paperback format extends its reach but removes all traces of whatever meaning was communicated through the brushstrokes of its author.

Dr. Hiroshi Ishii gives the keynote presentation at MuseWeb 19 in Boston. Photo by MuseWeb

It was a timely reminder of our collective responsibility as archivists and design/media/technology professionals to future generations and helped set up a useful framework for the discussion of many exciting new technologies that followed.

In a similar vein, Seema Rao of Brilliant Idea Studio urged us to confront the complex legacies of previous generations in a museum and institutional context, and consider how we can position those legacies for future generations.

She posited that augmented reality and other emerging technologies could effectively be used to add a layer of interpretation on top of a museum’s historical collection — using a technology that is becoming more widespread in museums as a way to quickly and effectively “decolonize” a museum’s collection.

“Overall, AR could be an indispensable tool for museums to transform from a position of Enlightenment-derived intellectual authority to shared-authority spaces. The return on investment would be huge, increasing the validity of their interpretation considerably but also making collections more relevant to an ever-increasing global audience.” – Seema Rao and Margaret Middleton, Illuminating Colonization Through Augmented Reality

And Mia Smith (p/k/a Loving) of Invisible Majority highlighted a few of the ways that museums can leverage their own cultural standing to engage with and elevate local artists in the here and now, ensuring that the institutions more fully reflect the diversity of their own communities and help carry their legacy into the future.

How can we use the latest technology to enhance the experiences of our staff and visitors?

It doesn’t matter how groundbreaking or well-designed your app is if nobody uses it. This is a lesson that many museums have been finding out the hard way as they experiment with new technology — visitors just don’t really want to download proprietary apps onto their own devices once they get to the galleries.

In their talk titled “Innovation on a shoestring: testing BYOD concepts without building anything,” Natalia Hudelson and Carlos Austin-Gonzalez of the British Museum discussed releasing curatorial audio tours — otherwise only available by renting devices in the museum — onto streaming services like iTunes and Google Play. To everyone’s surprise, they proved to be as popular as the in-gallery guides, even with a paywall. Interestingly, downloads were coming from all over, not just from links on the Museum’s website and marketing materials, suggesting that one big draw is that users already have these services on their devices.

“… The average app for a cultural organization is downloaded fewer than 1,000 times and opened less than once. Successes are few and far between, meaning that any investment has to be considered, carefully managed, and the encounters created as a result must be well promoted.” – Dafydd James, Graham Davies, Jenny Kidd and Allie John, Awe or Empathy, Fast or Slow? Articulating Impacts from Contrasting Mobile Experiences

Dafydd James and Graham Davies of the National Museum of Wales shared a related but contrasting example: they developed an in-museum AR device that visitors could rent for £10 that acted like an augmented-reality version of an audio tour. The program proved extremely popular and outperformed other similar experiences that required visitors to download apps on their devices. However, it came with some unique logistical challenges, such as training the museum shop staff to sell and manage the devices.

ExplorAR by National Museum Cardiff. Photo by Cardiff

This touches on a sub-theme: how technology affects in-house teams. Illya Moskvin of the Art Institute of Chicago discussed how he and his team built a single Data Hub that unified all of their systems — from their internal Collections database to their ticketing platform — into a single API. This makes ongoing maintenance exponentially easier and was one of the keys allowed us at AREA 17 to unlock the Institute’s full collection during our website redesign.

Finally, Karen Voss and Kelly Smith-Fatten of the Getty Museum discussed revamping their Docent portal — an internal resource that too often winds up on the bottom of everyone’s priority list — and how the nature of this task engendered a radically user-centered approach. By keeping the focus always on the volunteers that make up their docents and working closely with them to test out their hypotheses, they were able to unite their cross-disciplinary team around a common goal and create a digital product that truly serves their users’ needs.

How can we best advocate for innovation and user-centered design within our institutions?

The Getty project overlaps with the final theme: how to advocate for the end-user in change-averse institutions. As frequent partners of these institutions, this topic is near and dear to our hearts: there’s a constant risk of being in lockstep with an institution’s digital team, only to find resistance or missed opportunities when presenting our work more broadly.

The best way to avoid this, according to Doug Hegley of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Brendan Ciecko of Cuseum in their forum, “Growth Hacking Museums: Institutional Innovation and Intrapreneurship,” is to do everything you can to ensure that your initiatives are solving user needs, and then make sure you can prove that to whoever needs to be convinced.

“It all goes back to the customer: if you can prove there’s a material problem that the customer cares about, you increase your chances of internal sell-in a thousand times … [Otherwise,] you’re setting yourself up for subjective rejection.” – from the Forum, Growth Hacking Museums: Institutional Innovation and Intrapreneurship

But people visit museums and their websites for all sorts of different reasons — even once you get everyone to agree that a site should help its visitors, how do you execute on it? As Mark Andrews of the Exploratorium explained in the forum “What’s Holding Us Back? True Stories Of User-Centered Design,” they created a set of user personas by combining research and analytics with expertise from within the institution. These personas set a decision framework for their web redesign project and shifted the conversation from “What should we put on the site?” to “What do our users want to see on our site?”

The homepage of the new exploratorium.edu

The other crucial element is assembling a cross-disciplinary team, which helps ensure both that your solution is comprehensive and that it has buy-in from all relevant departments.

Michelle Grohe of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum discussed a journey-mapping exercise that her team facilitated to map out a visitor’s experience start-to-finish. The group they put together for this included everyone from curators to security guards, and although the ultimate goal was focused on their visitor experience, the process gave them just as much insight into how their own colleagues viewed the institution and their place within it, increasing empathy and understanding across the board.

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Overall, now that the initial excitement over the unlimited possibilities of digital technology has settled and there are case studies of successes and failures to consider, museums are taking a step back and approaching innovation in a more methodological, strategic way. Rather than innovating for innovation’s sake, they are reconsidering how they can use technology to benefit their visitors and staff alike, to fulfill their missions both as disseminators and preservers of knowledge, in ways that are meaningful and not gimmicky. It represents a maturation of sorts and a recognition that building sustainable infrastructure requires thoughtful long-term planning.