Thursday, 22 October 2009

'Cosmic Collections' launches at the Science Museum this weekend

I think I've already said pretty much everything I can about the museum website mashup competition we're launching around the 'Cosmos and Culture' exhibition, but it'd be a bit silly of me not to mention it here since the existence and design of the project reflects a lot of the issues I've written about here.

If you make it along to the launch at the Science Museum on Saturday, make sure you say hello - I should be easy to find cos I'm giving a quick talk at some point.

Right now the laziest thing I could do is to give you a list of places where you can find out more:

Finally, you can talk to us @coscultcom on twitter, or tag content with #coscultcom.

Btw - if you want an idea of how slowly museums move, I think I first came up with the idea in January (certainly before dev8D because it was one of the reasons I wanted to go) and first blogged about it (I think) on the museum developers blog in March. The timing was affected by other issues, but still - it's a different pace of life!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

On 'cultural heritage technologists'

A Requirements Engingeering lecture at uni yesterday discussed 'satisfaction arguments' (a way of relating domain knowledge to the introduction of a new system in an environment), emphasising the importance of domain knowledge in understanding user and system requirements - an excellent argument for the importance of cultural heritage technologists in good project design.  The lecture was a good reminder that I've been meaning to post about 'cultural heritage technologists' for a while. In a report on April's Museums and the Web 2009, I mentioned in passing:
...I also made up a new description for myself as I needed one in a hurry for moo cards: cultural heritage technologist. I felt like a bit of a dag but then the lovely Ryan from the George Eastman House said it was also a title he'd wanted to use and that made me feel better.
I'd expanded further on it for the first Museums Pecha Kucha night in London:
Museum technologists are not merely passive participants in the online publication process. We have skills, expertise and experience that profoundly shape the delivery of services. In Jacob Nielsen's terms, we are double domain experts.  This brings responsibilities on two fronts – for us, and for the museums that employ us.
Nielsen describes 'double usability specialists' or 'double experts' as those with expertise in human-computer interaction and in the relevant domain or sector (e.g. ref).  He found that these double experts were more effective at identifying usability issues, and I've extrapolated from that to understand the role of dual expertise in specifying and developing online and desktop applications.
Commenters in the final session of MW2009 conference described the inability of museums to recognise and benefit from the expertise of their IT or web staff, instead waiting until external gurus pronounced on the way of the future - which turns out to be the same things museum staff had been saying for years.  (Sound familiar?)

So my post-MW2009 'call to arms' said "museums should recognise us (museum technologists) as double domain experts. Don’t bury us like Easter eggs in software/gardens. There’s a lot of expertise in your museum, if you just look. We can save you from mistakes you don't even know you're making. Respect our expertise - anyone can have an opinion about the web but a little knowledge is easily pushed too far".

However, I'm also very aware of our responsibilities. A rough summary might be:
Museum technologists have responsibilities too.  Don’t let recognition as a double domain expert make you arrogant or a ‘know it all’. Be humble. Listen. Try to create those moments of understanding, both yours from conversation with others, and others from conversation with you - and cherish that epiphany.  Break out of the bubble that tech jargon creates around our discussions.  Share your excitement. Explain how a new technology will benefit staff and audiences, show them why it's exciting. Respect the intelligence of others we work with, and consider it part of our job to talk to them in language they understand. Bring other departments of the museum with us instead of trying to drag them along.

Don't get carried away with idea that we are holders of truth; we need to take advantage of the knowledge and research of others. Yes, we have lots of expertise but we need to constantly refresh that by checking back with our audiences and internal stakeholders. We also need to listen to concerns and consider them seriously; to acknowledge and respect their challenges and fears.  Finally, don’t be afraid to call in peers to help with examples, moral support and documentation.
My thoughts on this are still a work in progress, and I'd love to hear what you think.  Is it useful, is it constructive?  Does a label like 'cultural heritage technologist' or 'museum technologist' help others respect your learning and expertise?  Does it matter?

[Update, April 2012: as the term has become more common, its definition has broadened.  I didn't think to include it here, but to me, a technologist ia more than just a digital producer (as important as they are) - while they don't have to be a coder, they do have a technical background. Being a coder also isn't enough to make one a technologist as it's also about a broad range of experience, ideally across analysis, implementation and support.  But enough about me - what's your definition?]

Thursday, 15 October 2009

About 'lessons from a decade of museum websites'

An article I wrote for Museum iD, 'an independent ideas exchange and thinktank for museums and heritage professionals' has been published online. The entire version of 'Learning lessons from a decade of museum websites' is available online, but as a taster, it starts:
2009 may be remembered as the year when various financial crises gave us time and cause to stop and reflect on the successes and failures of the past decade or so of museums on the web. This reflection is aided by the maturity of the web as a technical platform – models are now available for most common applications of cultural heritage online, and a substantial body of experience with digitisation and web projects exists within the cultural heritage sector. It also offers an opportunity to pose some questions about the organisational changes museums might face as both the expectations of our audiences and our own working practices have been influenced by our interactions online.

Some of it's really practical, and comes from my desire to share the lessons I've learnt over ten years in the cultural heritage sector:
Based on my experience and on that of other museum technologists, I’ve listed some sample questions about your audiences, content and organisational goals related to the project. The answers to these questions will begin to reveal the types of interactions your audiences could have with your content, with each other and with the museum itself. In turn, focussing on those social and functional interactions you wish to support will determine the website and interaction metaphors suitable for your project.

And some of it comes from a desire to see museums communicate better internally, and to make the most of existing knowledge and resources, no matter where it sits in the organisation:

Some of the questions above may seem rather daunting, but by involving staff from a range of disciplines in the project’s earliest scoping stages, you gain a greater variety of perspectives and make available a wider range of possible solutions. Inviting others to participate in the initial stages of project design and taking advantage of the innovation and expertise in your organisation is a good way to discover reusable resources, bring to light any internal duplications or conflicts, and to ‘reality check’ your idea against organisational mission and operational reality. For example, most museums contain people who spend their days talking to audiences and watching them interact with exhibits and interpretative content – observations that can help bridge the gap between the physical and online audience experience. Similarly, museum technologists are not merely passive conduits in the online publication process but often have skills, expertise and experience that can
profoundly shape the delivery of services.

If you need to understand emerging technologies, ‘mash-up days’ are among the lightweight, inexpensive but potentially high-impact ways to enable staff to research and experiment with new platforms while engaging in cross-departmental collaboration. Cross-specialism workshops, ‘unconferences’ , social media communication tools and even traditional meetings are a great way to create space for innovation while benefiting from years of institutional knowledge and bridging the disconnect that sometimes exists between departments. Integrating social and participatory (or ‘Web 2.0’) applications for collaboration and consultation into organisational practice can improve the chances of success for web projects by allowing staff to become as familiar as their audiences with the potential of these tools.

A lot of my thinking harks back to the ideas that coalesced around the Museums and the Web conference earlier this year, summarised here and here.

Finally, I snuck in a challenge at the end: "Our audiences have fundamentally changed as a result of their interactions online – shouldn’t the same be true of our organisations?".