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What does innovative museum practice look like?

6 June 14 -- jsuess
This post was contributed by Ted Koterwas, Senior Project Developer, Mobile Oxford, University of Oxford

Last month Oxford ASPIRE held a sandpit event, bringing together staff from across the Oxford University Museums and the wider university to develop innovative new ideas for the museums. As part of the event, ASPIRE invited some key friends from within the university to present provocations, asking them the question: 'What does innovative museum practice look like to you?'

What does innovative practice in a musuem look like to you?

Mine is not quite an outsider perspective: I’ve worked in a museum where innovation was at the very heart of what we did. Exhibit development at the Exploratorium happened in public. The shop was like an open kitchen and we put iterative prototypes on the museum floor as a matter of course; in fact, exhibits were never really finished. They were always considered "working prototypes". Creativity had no hierarchy: ideas were expected from everyone. It was common for project managers, graphic designers, copy editors, maintainers, operations, and frontline staff to originate ideas and work on them as part of their job. Tinkering and experimentation was in the DNA of the organisation and an idea only had value if you actually tried it.

What is not innovation?

The thing that got me interested in "digital" was an art installation. I didn’t even see it in person but on television. It was a large projection of a tree, and if you shone a torch (physical, in the gallery) on a branch, a caccoon would begin to grow. If you "warmed" it long enough with the torch a butterfly would emerge, but if you warmed it too long it would shrivel and die. This was magical in many ways: aesthetically, metaphorically, and technically.

Fast forward a decade and at Ars Electronica just about every projection was interactive. Wave your arms and something happens. And minority report. Fast foward a bit further and you have the Kinect. 

This progression started with poetry—a digital haiku of sorts—about nature and nurture, and more broadly about society and technology. One could write a thesis about it. But it culminates in a sea of vapid arm waving: "ooh look! no hands!" This is innovation gone awry. The technologically magical distracted from the poetry and eventually became commonplace and crass.

What does innovation look like?

A colour wheel. Three primary colours: What we have, what they need, what’s newly possible. 

  • What we have: exhibits, visitors, websites, education programs, activities, social media accounts, an app.
  • What they need (or want): better way finding, more context, something to do with the kids, intellectual fun to feel good about.
  • What’s newly possible: computers with touchscreens and wifi are now in many pockets, enabling location sensing, environmental sensing, new gesture recognition, crowd-sourcing that people want to engage with (sharing), push technology that people actually want (twitter, etc).

Innovation is about mixing these colours, not on an expensive canvas with expensive brushes, but on cheap paper with your fingers. Take a little of what you have, blend in a lot of what they need, and brighten it up with a bit of what’s newly possible.

Ted presenting at the ASPIRE Innovation Sandpit