Museums Australia (Victoria) Conference

I recently spoke at the Museums Australia (Victoria) Conference and thought I would share a short note about it.

As some of you will know I convened a theme at last year’s UK Museums Association Conference in Liverpool on the theme of museum futures. In the session we covered a lot of ground, from developments in digital interactives to the development and training of museum staff and volunteers for the future to some ideas derived from the academic discipline of futurism – the study of how we forecast the future.

What the theme was not about was inventing a future where everyone wears suits of aluminium foil and eats pills instead of food!  My aim with it was to encourage people to lift their understandable focus on the very important immediate issues which we face – in particular economic issues – and begin to plan, at least in outline, for a longer term future.  It is important that we recognise that the children visiting museums and archives today will, in 20 years’ time, be bringing their own children and these children who are visiting now are growing up in a world which is significantly different to that of their parents – in particular they live in a very globalised world, a world with increasing disparity between rich and poor, a world in which economic power has shifted from the west where it has lain for the last 200 years, arguably longer, a world facing significant ecological challenge and of course a world with instant digital access.

Melbourne is a long way to go from north east England for a half hour paper. It is interesting that given that I went to talk about museum futures to the Museums Australia (Victoria) Conference I still had to travel in the conventional way and we aren’t as a minimum using some sort of video conferencing. I guess that says two things. Firstly we still really like to be in the physical presence of people and whilst Skype is great it is just not the same. Secondly I think it’s the fact that learning and development doesn’t just take place in lecture sessions but that with events such as conferences the discussions held in coffee breaks or that are stimulated by the coming together of different people and themes are just as important as the set piece presentations. This serendipitous development is just not possible by dialing in with Skype.

Colleagues at Museums Australia (Victoria) – in Australia the state museums associations appear to be stronger than the federal association –  had read the reports of the session we had worked up for Liverpool and asked me to present a session at their conference reflecting on current developments in Europe which they might be able to process in an Australian context.

There are a number of themes in the paper I presented. I started with the difference between old style museums presented on behalf of our visitors as opposed to new style museums delivered in association with our users. This doesn’t mean that every exhibition has to be co-curated and doesn’t mean an end to curatorial knowledge. What it does mean is thinking about how the visitor fits in the development of the exhibition, how they engage with it (there are great examples where visitors actually become part of the exhibition) and what learning or impact or action the visitor will take away. I also reflected on the economic crisis which has impacted on the west over the last 6 years. In museum terms this means that most museum development is now happening in places such as the Middle East, China, and potentially the BRIC and MINT countries. It is interesting to reflect on whether they will simply adopt the western museum tradition or will they do something different with it reflecting different cultural traditions.

I spoke about museum buildings. In many museums across the world there has been an emphasis on ‘epic’ buildings designed by signature architects. It is worth asking how these buildings relate to collections and visitors and to consider museum concepts where the building, at least initially, does not exist – with examples such as The Museum of Innocence and The Museum of Broken Relationships.

I asked the audience to consider the museum as ‘agora’ – the ancient Greek market place where people met not only socially but to conduct all the business of the town, the role of museums in presenting issues and championing social justice, museums and the leisure industry, museums and well-being (who pays – the cultural pound or the healthcare pound) and of course digital. With digital it is so important that we don’t get hung up on the technology but look at what it can do in answer to needs and problems. The first digital systems in museums were largely just faster ways of doing analogue things – being able to search a digital catalogue rather than work through a card index certainly improved the searching power of curators. So I have argued that whilst the first museum webpage wasn’t revolutionary (it was pretty much just a new way of promoting a printed brochure) once museums started engaging with Facebook and Twitter and other social platforms that was revolution (what futurists call a disruptive event) in that museums suddenly were in a new type of direct and immediate contact and dialogue with audiences. Just as in a library full of books you often stumbled across things of interest apparently by chance (or at least not through a studied search) so in the digital world there is an opportunity for playful interaction, exploring data  and creating your own meaning from the information in front of you. Related is the development of gamification – creating games based interfaces to activity for individuals and groups. This could be as simple as making a treasure hunt in a museum and doesn’t have to use digital technology – an ‘old school’ approach like a hopscotch grid could be used to encourage visitors to choose their path around a museum.

A final example of the sort of idea I discussed is an aspect of big data. Big data is defined as datasets so large that they can’t be processed by conventional database systems. In TWAM if you can imagine that we captured data about all our 1.3 million visits and not only, for example an email address for the visitor but also which exhibitions or galleries they visited, which text panels they read, which objects they looked at, which documents they viewed in the Search Room, which interactive they used and even what the output of the interaction with that interactive was we’d certainly be into the ‘big data’ zone. You might ask ‘why would we do this?’ A few reasons are:

  • To allow us to target marketing more effectively
  • To understand more about visitor behaviour so that we can improve design of our buildings and systems
  • To test, research and improve interactives
  • To more effectively target retail by knowing which collection items visitors are interested in
  • To create a badge or reward system where users can sign up and be rewarded for completing certain challenges building their engagement with the museum or archive.

I hope this is interesting and I will follow up with another note on my experiences of museums in Australia.


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