Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Museums and the Web 2009 – the final word

And the final word, I promise on this. It’s always interesting to see post mortems on international conferences like this, because everyone comes away with a slightly different perspective. The UK is about to run its own one day version (World Wide Wonder: museums on the web) and Sara Wajid writing in the latest edition of the UK Museums Association Journal makes some succinct comments on MW2009. What she got out of it is that the web is moving from being a place where museums can dump their collection content and feel ‘ job done’ to a place which facilitates an online landscape, which is a fertile breeding ground for future museum visitors and donors. She cites the dynamic Nina Simon, who runs the Museum 2.0 blog who said at the conference that ‘ ...people in positions of power in museums are finally getting interested in the internet … as a starting point for innovations.. They are looking for information about how the rise of the social web will affect the business model and viability of museums”.

Sara also picked up how Google analytics are now providing more and more sophisticated data about web site use (incidentally now considerably better than physical visitor data), but that museum evaluation staff are reluctant to switch to it because it notoriously shows lower (although more accurate) figures. Don’t think that response is going to hold water much longer.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Queen Victoria rises again on the Tamar

Just back from a quick visit to Launceston, where exciting things are happening at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. The Museum extended itself onto the Inveresk Railyard site 8 years ago, and since then there has been some pressure to relinquish the original Museum site in Royal Park to avoid the ineffiencies of a dual campus. However Patrick Filmer Sankey, who was appointed director in 2008 has conceived of the idea of clearly separating functions, so that the fine and decorative art and design collections (the Gallery function) are retained at Royal Park and the historical and natural science collections (the Museum function) are exhibited at the Inveresk site.

The active support of the City Council and the State Government has quickly seen $7m thrown into the equation, and the Royal Park site has now closed for its revamp with a late 2010 opening planned.

The even more exciting thing about this plan is that it will allow all the internal additions and linings from this late Victorian /Edwardian purpose built gallery to be removed and the original spaces reclaimed. I had a dusk tour with project development manager Glenda King yesterday showing me tantalizing glimpses of what is going to be possible.

So with the revamped QVMAG , probably the country’s finest regional gallery, coming on line next year along with the privately funded MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) at Morilla on the outskirts of Hobart, Tasmania is going to be a significant cultural destination.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Museums and the recession – the lipstick phenomena?

We all know about the theory of people turning to things that make them feel good in trying economic times – the so-called ‘lipstick phenomena’ driven by increased sales of lipsticks in recessions.

But now comes news from the UK that it appears museum visits may fall into the same category, with a recent Art Fund museum survey showing that over 35% of museums recording an increase in visitation, and 38% managing to hold numbers stable. Ok, that still means that over 25% saw a drop, but the overall picture is more positive than negative.

Unfortunately the funding picture is nowhere near as rosy, with 65% of museums suffering a budget cut, and 60% expecting further cuts. That is resulting in direct reductions in staff, ironically just as the rise in visitor numbers requires more staff resources. One of the consequences is that staff are being diverted to front of house duties away from curatorial and other functions. There is also pressure on volunteers to fill broader roles.

More broadly the health of the sector is difficult to read. On the one hand it appears that shop sales and charitable giving (where applicable) are holding up reasonably well. And one small silver lining is that reduced market prices are allowing acquisitions to continue with some gems finding their way into public hands at bargain prices.

On the other hand it is clear that corporate spending in the form of direct giving and venue hire for corporate entertainment has died. The fall in the value of investments for charitable organizations is also clearly going to effect the funds they have at their disposal.
And the biggest impact of all, which I have discussed in a previous blog, is still to be felt, when the claw back resulting from the current government spending begins. That is when the sector is really going to have to be on its toes as funding cuts bite.

If that is the UK story, how is Australia looking? Difficult to tell is my view. There are funding cuts occurring at major institutions, but it appears that contract staff rather than permanent staff are being effected. And whilst the economic picture here is not as serious as in the UK, there is no doubt that the same overall scenario holds.

Friday, May 8, 2009

RFID solutions for tracking collections

I have long been a fan of the application of new technologies to the museum sector. The fact remains that the sector is too small in most instances to invest in developing its own, so must rely on other large industry sectors to undertake the R&D and then see if there is application to our own world.

RFID or Radio Frequency Identification has been around for some years now primarily in the warehouse and freight tracking sectors. The original concept was that RFID use would take over from bar codes, as it offered not only the opportunity of storing increased data but also no requirement for line of sight reading, i.e. RFIDs can be read through packaging material. Supermarket shopping could dispense with the check out person, and rely on a portal scanner.

The stumbling block however has been the cost of the RFID tag, which as it contains both a microchip and a small antenna costs in the region of US20c as against a bar code which cost US.01 c.

The reality therefore is that we are unlikely to see rollout into the supermarket shelves until the price can be reduced to a viable level, but to give some idea of how fast this technology is taking off, UPM, once of the largest tag providers in the US is printing 400 million tags this year and expects this figure to be over 1 billion by the end of 2010.

The library sector is already using RFID technology extensively, though mostly using the older High Frequency (HF) technology. The museum sector is only just beginning to see its benefits, which are considerable, and can be summed up as follows:
  • line of sight not required, so objects/artworks can have their accession number read whilst in crates or on the wall
  • tags can be read up to 5 m away
  • multiple tags can be read at one time, when groups of objects are being moved
    the data, and the personnel moving the objects, can be directly integrated into most collection management systems
  • misplaced objects can be found
  • audits and stocktakes can be fast tracked
  • collection preservation is improved through reduced handling

Frustrated by lack of any RFID providers who are seriously looking to work with museums and galleries, we have set up a company to provide this service, Smarttrack RFID . We are using the more advanced technology of Ultra High Frequency (UHF) tags, which now have a global standard. We are already running pilot projects in Australia and the US, and finding considerable enthusiasm for the accuracy and cost benefits of the technology.
Come and see us at the Museums Australia National Conference in Newcastle from May 17th to 20th, where we have a stand.