Monday, June 22, 2009

Museums and the future (2)

I’ve blogged before about the Center for the Future of Museums report Museums and Society 2034. Such publications take a bit of time to filter out and debates around them to start. So there is now some interesting discussion getting underway, such as:

- The Report picks up on the aging of western society, with people staying fitter longer, and due to current economic necessity, staying in jobs longer, thus causing the risk of a generation of talented individuals not gaining employment in museums. Is this not a broader phenomena and problem, I ask? Certainly I do hear that jobs in museums are very hard to come and I do wonder where graduates of museums studies courses are finding employment. But then isn’t it part of the attributes of Gen Y-ers that they are resilient and will find other ways to contribute? Certainly Museums and the Web 2009 was full of young people working in and around the museums sector and the web.
- Accessible design is something that keeps rearing its head – this is all about ensuring that everything we exhibit in museums can be accessed by 100% of the population whatever their background or physical state. Maybe by 2034 we will achieve this, but I can’t help feeling that in the process we run the risk of compromising the very things we are trying to make accessible.
- The Virtual taking over from the Real is another theme that keeps reoccurring. My view is this debate has been and gone. The virtual cannot supplant the real, and indeed if anything it enhances the experience of the real. The virtual makes access far more possible, but cannot provide the excitement and thrill of seeing the real in the flesh.
- Museums as energy hogs – now this one resonates with all that I blog about. We cannot sustain the current levels of environmental controls, and have to design museums that rely on passive climate control systems, with a whole new approach to operations.

As always reports like these are as useful at engendering debate around the issues as much as they are about really understanding what the crystal ball is showing us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Using the museum building to its full potential

The role museums play in society seems to be much under discussion in these recessionary times. One US wag has suggested they should be turned into soup kitchens, using their generally large, warm and centrally located buildings to look after inner city down and outs. The interesting broader question is whether it is entirely ethical for museums to focus on ‘higher’ aesthetic/educational/intellectual matters whilst basic social needs go unmet.

I must confess to being a bit bored by such discussions, not because they are not valid but because they lead nowhere. It’s like discussing whether the NSW Government should have contributed $3 million to completing St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney a few years back to allow two spires to be erected. No benefit whatsoever to the adjacent down and outs but a mighty aesthetic improvement.

What DOES intrigue me is what more we could do with the spaces in museums by leveraging off the subject matter they contain. I’ve always loved the idea that the Royal Society for the Arts in the UK has had of setting up coffee conversations in Starbucks. As I understand it, they place a convenor/facilitator in a high street Starbucks at a regular appointed time, who choses a subject and invites the coffee drinkers to stay a while and get into a good debate.

Wouldn’t museums be such good places to do that, acting as convening places and drawing people into lively discussions, using one of their exhibits as a focal or starting point. It doesn’t have to be for ever – just something that is tried and if it takes off so much the better.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Recessionary effects on conservation

I have blogged before about the impact of the recession and the GFC on museums, particularly in the US, where so many of them rely on philanthropic foundations for their principal source of revenue.

But now out of left field has come news that Stanford University Libraries is laying off 32 employees. Now that is having a wide world ripple effect in the conservation profession because Stanford has for years published two of the principal communication tools that conservators rely on, namely CoOL (Conservation On Line) and the Cons Dist List.

Between them they have been one of the most important ways for conservators to share and find information. The former is estimated to provide access to some 120,000 documents, an incredible resource now at serious risk of being lost. The latter has been the meeting and stomping ground for a never ending range of issues that we as conservators seek to share and understand. Not to mention the fact that the ConsDist List has been the principal resource for advertising conservation job vacancies.

AIC and IIC have already waded in to express their concern about the potential demise of these vital resources, but it is difficult at present to see who is out there that is prepared to take them on.

Walter Henry, the organizer of both for the last 22 years, has some heartfelt comments to make as he sees all that he has worked on about to collapse:

"It has been a great pleasure and privilege to work with this community and I look forward to finding ways to continue to do so. I’ve always held that conservation professionals were, as a class, unusually committed to the cause they serve; we really do care deeply about the cultural materials we are lucky enough to work with, and that care takes form in a remarkable dedication to theprofession, to the ethical foundations upon which it is built, and to the community of practitioners from whatever discipline or specialty.

So, at the beginning of what would have been the DistList’s twenty third year it is with great sadness, but also with some sense of pride, that I finally give up this enterprise and that of Conservation OnLine as a whole. I don’t know exactly what will happen to the resources here but I have every faith that their fate will be in good hands.

I would like to thank, with all sincerity, Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources, my own department, the systems and IT staff, and most of all the directorate, who have been unfalteringly supportive of my work all these years, and I know would continue to be so were the world in just a little better shape than it is now."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tracking those visitors

Visitor evaluation is a significant part of the operations of any major museum or gallery these days. Understanding what attracts visitors, and most critically why they would want to come back or recommend others to make a visit has become a sophisticated process. Museum personnel now specialize in such activities, and the tools at their command have moved on from the simple exit poll and questionnaire, not that this is not a valuable part of such evaluation.

With the rise of Google analytics, we now know more and more about who visits museum web sites, which pages they go to and how long they stay on each page. But when it comes to physical museum visits, we generally know how many pass through the front door, but very little else about where they go or what they do, once they are inside.

I’ve long been interested in seeing how technologies developed in big sectors, such as retail, can be applied to our specialist sector, which will always have limited resources to develop its own technological solutions. To that end, I have become very interested in how the Shoppertrak retail traffic counting system can be utilized in our sector.

Shoppertrak is a Chicago-based traffic counting company, which has developed some very smart hardware and associated software primarily for the retail sector. They use stereophonic digital cameras to count traffic. This is not only the most accurate form of counting, but because it is stereophonic it can, through triangulation, work out the height of visitors, and thus differentiate adults from children. In addition the system can separate out staff from visitors, using RFID tags, and work out ‘dwell times’ in front of displays.

But it is the analytical tools that they have developed that really gives this data value. Shoppertrak suck all the data back to Chicago for analysis over night and then issue it verified and analyzed according to the client requirements. This could be as simple as the raw traffic data detailed hour by hour or as sophisticated as analysis of the data against trends over the past week, month or year, including ‘what if’ scenarios for working out anything from guide/attendant requirements to when and where the most dense visits are occurring, and what are the most popular exhibitions and indeed exhibits within them.

For an industry which still relies largely on manual clickers or simple IR beams to work out visitor traffic, we need to lift our game to get some more sophisticated metrics. After all government budgets can be determined by such. We at Smarttrack RFID are looking at what we can do to tailor this great technology to our sector.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Web 2.0 and the museum sector

The American Institute for Conservation has just held its annual conference in Los Angeles, around which there has been some interesting side discussions on the use of email and the web for providing information to AIC members. As one of the organisers has said "While some people are very comfortable these days with all their information being digital, there are others who still use dial-up connections (due to geographical limitations), are Luddites (not meant in a derogatory way) or just prefer paper and appreciate its longevity (understandable given our constituency)."

This has prompted some great correspondence, turning up some really useful information around the fundamental change that web 2.0 technologies is bringing about in the way information is shared, and how we communicate. Try:

"The American Press on Suicide Watch," by Frank Rich in the NYT

"The Death of Scholarly Publishing," by Larry Cebula in the Northwest History Blog.

"Why Blog? Does Blogging Matter?," Charles Ellwood in Ancient World Bloggers

"The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online," by Kevin Kelly in Wired Mag

Is blogging really making a difference, I ask myself, or am I just being self indulgent in writing about issues which interest me? My view is that I have spent my working life collecting and sifting information in all sorts of ways, a process which constantly stimulates me. Blogging seems to me to bring about a form of communication with which there is no other direct comparison. In particular it allows for the passing on of information as per the articles above in a way which no other medium offers. used to quite admire people who made a virtue out of not using email (or mobile phones), and their (possibly) calmer lives. Now I know they are missing out on too much. Roll on Web 2.0, I say.