Museum as distributed network: sustainability for small gods


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Presentation to the Museum ID Technology Colloquium, 8 September 2010, by Nancy Proctor

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  • Inevitable, because whether the museum wants to or not, it is already part of a larger cultural discourse that is largely beyond its control.We can look at it this way: The Museum has its traditional platforms for communicating about the collection: wall labels, brochures and catalogues that it publishes. It probably also offers some sort of guided tour, and may use new technologies in the galleries for wayfinding or to provide additional information on objects and exhibitions. It may offer audio or even multimedia tours to visitors, or a tour that people can take using their own mobile phones. Some museums provide podcasts and downloadable audio tours on iTunes and iTunes U. Most museums now have at least a modest web presence, or even a blog. But whether or not a museum runs its own blog, chances are at least a few of its visitors are blogging about the museum themselves. In the same way, they are taking photos and making videos in the museum and sharing these through Flickr, YouTube and Facebook – and this is happening even where it is forbidden to take photos in the Museum. They as well as Google are adding information about museums to Google Maps and Wikipedia, and generally talking about their museum experiences through Twitter and other instant messaging services, both through computers and smartphones.So whether it has embraced social media or not, the Museum has become social media.Now you may think this is easy for me to say, coming from the Smithsonian which is probably better resourced than most institutions, although we of course always feel very poor and hard done by! But I think that even very under-resourced museums are immersed in a similar sort of network. To demonstrate what I mean, I decided to think through what this network might be for the Museum of Antioquia in Columbia, about which we heard such a moving and inspiring presentation yesterday.The Museum of Antioquia has actually already gone beyond this network, because in addition to its outreach programs that bring new audiences into the museum, they are taking the museum to the people through their innovative travelling exhibition program. Now unfortunately I was unable to speak to Signora X… before she left to check my assumptions, but let’s imagine for now that the Museum cannot afford expensive in-gallery technologies like computer kiosks, or multimedia tours, or even audio tours on traditional museum players or cellphones. As far as I can tell the Museum in Antioquia doesn’t produce podcasts or downloadable audio tours, and are not present in iTunes or iTunes U. Maybe they sometimes don’t even have enough money to publish catalogues or brochures; I know that at the American Art Museum print publications are an expensive part of any exhibition budget. The Antioquia Museum does have a website and you can find information about its projects on other websites from Columbia as well.So when we take away everything that costs a lot of money here, what are we left with? Well, we are left with our human networks. We still have our guided tours and outreach projects that help connect visitors with the museum both on site and in the community. And interestingly we have our social media networks as well. Because even if the Museum is not actively blogging, or using Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook etc., their visitors are. I found 891 photos of the Museo de Antioquia on Flickr. There are numerous videos made by visitors to the Museum on YouTube, and the Museum is referenced on Facebook pages as well as blogs and other websites. None of these forms of outreach has cost the Museum a penny; the visitors have done it all themselves.
  • Creating a network means going beyond the hub & spoke model: broadcasting one one message out from the center and striving to add more spokes to the wheel. On the fixed web this is called brochureware, otherwise known as Web 1.0.
  • It also goes beyond simply adding twitter,fb and ‘email this’ functionality to our mobile programs. Retweets and fb posts can extend the reach of the museum’s message, but they do not fundamentally change the model.
  • Museum Mobile 2.0 should do more than this: it should leverage social media to listen and receive as much as it lectures and transmits. It should connect people with the things they find meaningful, and also the people who share those interests.
  • And ultimately become part of a vast, 3D rhizome which, like the Internet, becomes almost self-sustaining because it’s impossible to eradicate from any single central point. Speaking about business models for museums’ mobile initiatives yesterday at the Tate Handheld Conference, I referred to this kind of network as at “non-profit network effects” model.Network effect businesses are ones in which the product or service becomes more valuable to the end-user the more users there are of it. Telephones and fax machines are the classic examples, along with email and all the social media platforms. Just as you’re not going to need a fax machine if no one else has one, nor are you likely to use Facebook until a critical mass of your friends are using it. On the other hand, they are perfect distributed network models: they get smarter and more powerful the more they are used.As I’m sure you’re all well aware, museums can use social media to create a network of conversations and value around the museum’s collections, exhibitions and events, supporting both free mission-related services and revenue-generating activities. Social media acts as a multiplier on the size of the audience reached, making the free product a marketing and outreach engine.
  • In this sense, museums are rather like the ‘Small Gods’ described by Terry Pratchett in his novel of the same name: their power is directly proportional to the number of true believers they have. Like the God Om, one of the main characters in the novel, museums become more vulnerable the less relevant they are to society, and risk being dashed upon the rocks to make a tasty meal for more powerful economic forces. When cultural discourse recognizes and values the museum and its collections, even without the museum itself being the central hub and monitor for the conversation, it renders the museum omnipresent, if not omnipotent!
  • And it can seem that museums are expected to perform under constraints that are Herculean if not divine:Their stock in trade is by definition Invaluable, so impossible to capitalizeTheir mission is to serve the public good, so they have to achieve the widest possible reach and relevance, regardless of individuals’ means to help pay for this serviceAnd they have to do this forever: in other words, their business, like their collections, must be sustainabie indefinitelyThese are constraints that would daunt even the most seasoned of entrepreneurs, and have prompted Max Anderson to call museums, ‘red ink businesses’. . As Max Anderson has argued, museums have done themselves a great disservice by promoting themselves as “drivers of economic benefit”, by hiding many of the true staff and opportunity costs of blockbuster exhibitions and other ostensible profit centers, and thereby encouraging the measurement of museums’ success by yardsticks and metrics that are simply not appropriate. Museums are inevitably “red ink businesses”, he argues, and we pretend to be great financial entrepreneurs at our peril. Similarly, simply measuring footfall or visitorship to our buildings doesn’t paint the full picture in an ever-more connected world.Instead, we need metrics that are more appropriate to measuring our success against our core business goals in the age of social media:Quality, Relevance & SustainabilityMax Anderson, Prescriptions for Art Museums in the Decade Ahead, CURATOR,The Museum Journal,Volume 50 • Number 1January 2007
  • We’ve already touched on how non-profit network effects help ensure the museum’s sustainability. The network effect also extends to our other two metrics of relevance and quality. Quality & relevance are very closely connected of course; as Chris Anderson has said, “in the eye of the beholder” because whatever is relevant to us, responds to our interests and needs in a given moment, is what we place the greatest value on. Value is not the same thing as quality, but something experienced as value is often perceived as quality.
  • And this is nowhere truer than in our niche passions. As Chris Anderson noted in his talk at SI 2.0, it is our hobbies – often niche activities and content - that inspires the most passion in individuals, and from which we derive the most meaning and personal relevance.
  • And the niche is the space that museums know best. They’re staffed to a large extent by people who have been lucky enough to turn their passions into professions: specialists who understand subjects in the greatest depth and finest nuances, working with rare content and collections.Museums, like the Internet, can offer space for them all, when we are structured to benefit from the ‘network effects’ of the distributed network.
  • Like museums, mobile lends itself both to the extreme personalization of niche activities, and to connecting disparate, passionate subject specialists and longtail markets. There is a powerful network effect of connecting lots and lots of people who are passionate about the same niches. As some of you may be aware, the niche I’m rather passionate about is mobile in museums: interpretation, games, crowdsourcing, social media.So I have been asking myself of late: what would a mobile social media experience be that connects museums’ strengths in niche content and collections with the passion and power of niche communities in the distributed network?So I’d like to try out an idea on you. This is a very fresh and raw idea, just formed this past weekend when I was working with a team at Wyspa Art Institute in Gdansk, Poland on an upcoming contemporary art festival called Alternativa.
  • In this project I’d like to leverage the fact that mobile is both very social and very personal. Mobile is an ideal vehicle for niche content, experiences & audiences because both personal – intimate, even - and social.The highly personal nature of the mobile experience also makes mobile a great vehicle for the kind of niche content and experiences that museums excel at. + How many people do you let whisper in your ear?Or put content onto your personal, mobile device that is always with you, and usually carried very close to your body? Although it’s arguably the social applications that make mobile products revolutionary, it may just be the intimate, personal nature of the mobile experience that ‘makes them stick(y)’! ;-)
  • I’d like to think outside the audiotour box a bit to go from headphones to microphones
  • And I’d like to meet people where they are, and take them some place new by connecting them to a network, however, niche, of people who share their interests.
  • And my desire to create a mobile experience that is a social media platform, an opportunity for encounter and meaning-making of the most personal and powerful sort, is inspired by the work of Joanna Rajkowska, a Polish artist whose work I first encountered at Wyspa in Dec 2009. In her work she creates platforms and meeting spaces, “agora”…
  • The festival will take place in and around the Wyspa Institute of Art,
  • Which is located in the Gdansk Shipyard
  • This is where the Solidarity movement started; these are the gates behind which the striking shipyard workers barricaded themselves, and in front of which tanks waited.
  • It is the shipyard where Lech Walensa worked as an electrician; his workshop has been reinstalled and opened to the public as both an artwork and a tourist attraction by artist Grzegorz Klaman
  • The art festival will include contemporary artworks installed in and around this evocative industrial estate, which is both on the national register of historic sites and a functioning shipyard even today.
  • And there are ambitious urban revitalization plans to develop a ‘young city’ in the heart of the shipyard.
  • So I’m thinking about a way to connect on-site visitors to the festival with the past, the present, and the future of the site, as well as with the art and audiences interested in all of these who might be reached through the Internet.My proposal is to provide what is at first glance a fairly simple mobile interpretation solution for on-site visitors. It will offer images and audio, text and video about the artworks in the festival but also the locations they are place in. Augmented reality – both visual and audio – will help people glance backwards and forwards in time to consider the evolution of the shipyard. Visitors will be able to take photos of whatever interests them, but also bookmark or collect items and information of interest to them from their self-guided tour.
  • Elsewhere, online visitors will be able to access anonymous collections of saved items and new photos from on-site visitors. A story-writing game will encourage and help them to ‘connect the dots’ – to write a narrative that makes sense of each personal collection of photos and artifacts. It is a way for remote visitors to connect to Gdansk, the shipyard, and the Alternativa Festival at Wyspa even if they can’t visit in person.And it is a way for people interested in art, in history, in the solidarity movement, ship-building or urban renewal to find each other and connect in a Twitter-style way that permits as much or as little anonymity as participants like. Perhaps most importantly, the game foregrounds the subjectivity and the relativity of history and art history. It is, perhaps, one way to make of the experience a distributed network where the whole is much greater, and much more sustainable, than the sum of its parts.
  • So what do you think: will you consign my idea to the rubbish heap of conference history, or has it got legs?
  • Museum as distributed network: sustainability for small gods

    1. 1. Museum as Distributed Network:<br />Sustainability for Small Gods<br />Museum ID Technology Colloquium<br />8 September 2010 Nancy Proctor<br />
    2. 2. Are museums a fad?<br />Nancy Proctor,<br />2<br />
    3. 3. What is the Museum<br />in this Web 2.0 world of information on demand? <br />3<br />
    4. 4. The Smithsonian Institution<br />The world’s largest museum & research complex<br />
    5. 5. A Network for the Increase & Diffusion of Knowledge<br /><ul><li>19 Museums
    6. 6. 156 Affiliate museums
    7. 7. 9 Research centers
    8. 8. And a Zoo</li></ul>More than 30 million visitors in 2009<br />& 180 million ‘virtual’ visitors<br />
    9. 9. Our audiences now access the Smithsonian through a wide range of platforms beyond our walls and websites<br />Photo by Mike Lee, 2007; from the American Art Museum’s Flickr Group<br />6<br />
    10. 10. The Smithsonian has become a Distributed Network<br />7<br />
    11. 11. The Museum is a Social Network<br />
    12. 12.
    13. 13.
    14. 14.
    15. 15. Non-profit network effects<br />Edward Hoover, 2010, from Flickr.<br />
    16. 16. Small Gods<br />
    17. 17. Museum Metrics <br />Invaluable = highest possible quality<br />Public good = relevance & service for all<br />Forever business = must be sustainable<br />
    18. 18.<br />
    19. 19. Playing to the niches<br />
    20. 20. Museums are very good at niches<br /><ul><li> Niche collections
    21. 21. Niche expertise
    22. 22. Niche content</li></ul>“It's possible to be niche and popular at the same time. <br />– Natasha Waterson Royal Observatory <br />
    23. 23. Idea by GrzegorzKlamanWyspa Institute of Art, Gdansk, Poland<br />
    24. 24. Mobile is personal<br />andsocial<br />
    25. 25. Think outside the audiotour box<br />From headphones to microphones<br />
    26. 26.
    27. 27. Oxygenate!Joanna Rajkowska2006-7<br />
    28. 28. Wyspa Institute of Art<br />
    29. 29.
    30. 30.
    31. 31.
    32. 32.
    33. 33.
    34. 34.
    35. 35.
    36. 36. Idea by Grzegorz Klaman Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdansk, Poland<br />