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Innovating in Museums

2 June 15 -- jsuess
Jessica Suess, Partnership Officer, Oxford University Museums

This month I had the pleasure of attending (and speaking at – you can read about my talk here) at the Museums Computer Group’s spring event, 'Innovation: the Emperor's New Clothes', at which we were exploring the cult of innovation and its impact on museums. Attended by around 50 delegates, including museum professionals, funder and technologists, we heard inspiring case studies and debated the value of innovative practice and how we can imbed innovative practice within our organisations.

A history of media innovation in museums

The day kicked off with a lively presentation from Peter Pavement, Director of Surface Impression and a PhD Student in Museums Studies at Leicester University on the history of innovation in museums – demonstrating that museums have an established history of being at the cutting edge when it comes to making us of the latest technology to tell stories and engage audiences. Following a fascinating historic journey through the ‘dramaphone’, ‘guide-a-phone’ and ‘senster’ of the 1950s-70s, Peter reflected on the process of managing innovation in modern museums, starting with a technology trigger, leading to a peak of inflated expectations, followed by a trough of disillusionment before we begin to understand the technology and enter a plateau of productivity. In the discussion the group suggested where current technologies sit on the scale: it seems indoor location and wearables are teetering on the edge of inflated expectation and the trough of despair!

Peter’s top tips for innovation in modern museums was to innovate in bursts, maintaining enthusiasm and forward momentum, and the importance of documenting what has been done and sharing learning across the sector, both so that we can move forward together, and maintain an environment of positivity about the ability of museums to innovate.

First Museum audio guide (1952)

Innovation from the ground up – a new form or R&D

Next up Sejul Malde, Research Manager at Culture 24 looked at redefining innovation and shared learning from the Let’s Get Real programme.

Sejul questioned the definition of innovation as the new and cutting edge, which often translates into costly R&D projects that aim to result in significant leaps forward in technology. This definition of innovation is problematic for museums without the budgets to take these risks, and with a public trust to protect.

Sejul suggested that rather than focus on digital products and technology – the traditional innovation territory of tech companies – museums should focus their attention on how technology is changing human (and therefore audience) behaviour. This is where museums have the expertise and opportunity to innovate.

Sejul also talked about the innate rhythm of an organisation, and ways of changing organisational rhythm to one that encourages innovation. He suggested concentrating on small process focussed innovation rather than large and costly projects, and setting the organisation up to be able to continuously try, evaluate and reflect on their activity.

At the end of his talk Sejul turned a traditional definition of innovation on its head to come up with a new definition:

 

Raise the Curtain: Revealing Collections in Edinburgh

Next Scott Renton and Claire Knowles from the University of Edinburgh provided a case study on using crowdsourced metadata to develop collections.

I was very impressed by their online collections portal, which uses library resource publications methodology to publish all their library and museum collections.

They then used gamified crowdsourcing platforms to work with students to tag collections to add metadata – as expected metadata required multiple verification, and was treated as a separate field to the metadata produced by curatorial staff.

You can see their slides here.

Prototyping ‘Innovation Lab’

After lunch Lizzie Edwards, Education Manager at the British Museum’s Samsung Digital Discovery Centre delivered a practical session on using new technology as educational tools. Lizzie explained that because sessions at the SDDC after often booked up months in advance, it can make it difficult to experiment with developing new education sessions using the latest tools. In order to facilitate this they have created a monthly Innovation Lab session where they will test sessions developed using the latest technology. By doing this Lizzie and her team are hoping to create a reactive space so that experimentation and development can keep up with technological trends.

To give delegates a taste, Lizzie handed out cards describing new technologies and asked small groups to come up with an educational activity for their museums that could use this technology.

Enabling Innovation

Following Lizzie, I gave a talk on how we have tried to create a similarly reactive space at Oxford University Museums through our Innovation Fund, and how this programme over the past three years has changed our organisational rhythm to allow innovation. You can read more about it here.

This was followed by a session of lightning talks sharing some innovative case studies from the sector. This included a look at the Integrating iPads project at the Ashmolean Museum, funded by our Innovation Fund. Find out more from the video below.

Funding Innovation

We finished the day with a discussion with funders on what they thought of innovation. Represented by Karen Brookfield, Deputy Director (Strategy) at the Heritage Lottery Fund and Anna Kinnon, Assistant Programme Manager for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts based at Nesta, they talked about what they saw as good innovation.

Discussion focussed on organisations being ambitious in what they want to achieve and the need for organisations to share their learning, of both successes and failures, and how funders might be able to support this. Overall the conversation was very positive, with a focus on organisations and funders working together to move the sector forward as a collective.

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