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You are here: Blog Anchoring Communities - keynote to ILMS WebWise 2014

Anchoring Communities - keynote to ILMS WebWise 2014

altThis article is a transcript of the keynote address given by Collections Trust CEO Nick Poole to the IMLS WebWise 2014 conference in Baltimore. The title is 'Make it personal - designing services that people will love', and the conference theme is 'Anchoring Communities'.

So I’d like to start today by taking you on a little trip. To a place called New Brighton. It’s a township outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa, with a population of around 40,000 people, an unemployment rate of 80% and around 30% of the population currently HIV positive. And right in the middle of this township the people, with the support of the South African Government, have created a museum, called the Red Location Museum.

The museum is located in the Red Location shack settlement, New Brighton's oldest neighbourhood, scene of one of the first public acts of defiance against apartheid when, in 1952, black railway workers refused to show their 'passes' to enter railway property.

Sitting among the Memory Boxes of the Red Location MuseumThe museum was demanded by the community, and it is designed, both in terms of architecture and collections, around the idea that there isn’t one story of the fight against Apartheid in South Africa. It is a museum designed and built around the idea of civic action and participation. It is structured around a series of personal memory boxes, each offering a different perspective on the Apartheid story. The idea of a memory box is central. When working men would travel from the country to the city, leaving their families behind them, they would take with them a memory box, featuring trinkets and reminders of home.

The displays only work if people bring their own perspectives to it. And I wanted to share with you the words of Local Councillor Jimmy Tutu said about the opening of the museum: “It’s marvellous. People will see. It’s not about us. It’s about another generation that will come, who are preparing a fertile ground for the generations to come. So that they can learn from this institution around them. Not going far away. This institution is not in town, but in front of their doorsteps.” And what was really striking about the Red Location Museum is local people love the place – it is the focus of civic pride, people who have nothing or very little contribute time, effort and support to it because they are proud of it.

Our job as the custodians and guardians and evangelists for the collective memory of our societies is to use the best tools at our disposal to bring as many people as possible to the simplest, most inclusive, most accessible experience of their cultural inheritance as we can. That’s the cultural and professional imperative that society has handed to us.

People trust us to look after their culture, to keep it safe and to use our professional expertise to create experiences that are local, emotional, personal and relevant. Speaking at the ICOM Triennial meeting last year, the Mozabiquan writer Mia Couto said of culture and memory that, “The whole exercise of remembrance is also an act of invention. Memory and creativity are not a conflicting duality, but rather constitute the single process by which we give life to today.”

The theme of this conference is taken from the 2nd IMLS strategic objective, which reads, “IMLS promotes museums and libraries as strong community anchors that enhance civic engagement, cultural opportunities, and economic vitality.”

I think it is something that we don’t celebrate often enough – that for the vast majority of our museums archives and libraries, we already anchor our communities and are anchored, loved and cherished by them – whether those communities are communities of place, or practice, or shared cultural values. Part of the challenge, though, for our institutions is to find ways of translating civic engagement and into economic vitality to sustain more cultural activity in the future.

Talking about how the Museum of London can learn from the London riotsThe Age of Discontent

We have a generation right now that are growing up angry. Whether it is the Occupy Movement, or the London riots or the student protests in Chile – our young people are angry about inequality of opportunity, about wage inequality, about feeling marginalised from the political and economic processes that shape their lives.

And we have a generation that is growing up with a greater degree of civic engagement than we have seen in some time. One of the most heartening things for me about the London Riots was the army of civic-minded young people that emerged onto our streets the following day to re-assert ownership of the streets.

And when the dust settled, it was London’s archives and museums that helped people engage with what had happened – this is an event at the Museum of London that provided a forum for rioters and citizens to engage with and learn from each other.

One of my favourite Chuck Palahniuk quotes is this: "The first step – especially for young people with energy and drive and talent, but not money – the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.".

This is the generation we’re designing services for – not ourselves. And we have to be so careful about how we do it – not to lose our identity or abandon our values, but to be true to our identity and values so that we can create services that don’t make people feel marginalised or excluded – so that we can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. We have to help people model and demonstrate the kind of world that they demand to live in.

The Right Tools for the Job

Today and tomorrow, we have a hugely exciting programme of expert speakers looking at different aspects of the digital opportunity for your museums, archives and libraries – but the thing that really stands out to me is that the focus is much less on the technology itself and much more about how we can choose the right set of tools to unlock this cultural imperative.

If you look 10, maybe even 5 years down the road, saying that something is ‘digital’ will be as quaint and olde-worlde as talking about things being ‘atomic’. Because like anything else, whenever we get a new tool to play with, the first thing we do is obsess about the tool.

I’ve got a hew hammer we’ll say! This hammer is awesome! This is the radical transition from hitting things with rocks that we have all been waiting for! God, can you believe those guys over there are still hitting things with rocks? Now you have to excuse me, I have to go create a Hammering Strategy for my library. And off we’ll go and quite happily spend millions of dollars and countless hours finding things to do with our hammer.

Because when you have a hammer, as Abraham Maslow told us back in the 60’s – everything starts looking an awful lot like a nail. But eventually, the magic wears off - the hammer goes into the toolbox, and you find yourself only bringing it out when you’ve got a job that needs it.

And that’s how it is with the range of tools which digital brings us – whether its digitisation, or social media or online catalogues or an API or your mobile app. The point is not what they are capable of in themselves, but how good we are as engineers and designers and custodians in choosing the right tools to do the job that needs to be done, to tell the story we want to tell and to build the relationships we want to build.

The Attention Economy

We live in an attention economy – in which people expect information to be free in exchange for the time they spend engaging with it.

In an attention economy, your focus is relationships, not products – because relationships deliver more value, more income and more repeat business. If people love what you do, if they feel personally engaged with it, responsible for it, if your achievements are their achievements, then they will repay you with their time and attention.

IWM & National Archives working with Zooniverse on the War Diary projectOur National Archives recently worked with the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse recently to release a crowd-transcription site for the war records from the First World War. Just to share with you some of the statistics from their first week – 85 war diaries were transcribed, in a week, 116,638 named individuals were identified and classified. 212,832 dates were identified and tagged. In all, citizen historians provided in the course of a single week the equivalent of a person year of effort for a professional cataloguer. By opening the doors to citizen history, we can benefit from the financial value of this collaborative effort.

I was lucky enough to spend some time working with archives and museums in Brazil recently, and came across the Ecomuseum of Santa Cruz. If you haven’t come across the concept of an ecomuseum before, it is defined as “a dynamic way in which communities preserve, interpret, and manage their heritage for a sustainable development. An Ecomuseum is based on a community agreement.”

An ecomuseum is a participatory approach to culture by definition. And their motto at the Ecomuseum of Santa Cruz is ‘a people will only preserve what they love and they will only love what they know’. The values of participation are encoded into their DNA, they are the very reason why the institution exists and they affect everything about the experience, from the language it uses to the way people experience it – the soul of the organisation.

The ecomuseum movement is about equipping the people with the tools to care for and interpret their heritage, and in return they care for and protect the institutions they create. Nor is an ecomuseum necessarily bound by the specifics of a place or collection. To share with you the description of the ecomuseum of Flodden. Flodden was a decisive battle between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. It wasn’t a single event, but an unfolding conflict that took place in many locations:

The Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum is a museum without walls which links together over 40 sites and other aspects of heritage nationwide which have a connection to the Battle of Flodden, through history, folklore, or legend.

The sites are all existing attractions in the care of their communities and include castles, bridges, churches, museums, walls, statues, and of course the battlefield itself.

As well as these physical places to visit, the Ecomuseum also encompasses traditions such as the border Ride Outs and also the bagpiping tune of Floo'ers O' The Forest.

All the Ecomuseum sites, and the information found on this website, together tell the wider story of the Battle of Flodden from multiple perspectives.

The ecomuseum of Flodden is sustainable because it is loved by the people that participate in it, and it is effective because it uses a layered, complex model to convey a layered and complex story. Critically, it is a perpetual beta – it will always continue to grow and adapt as new knowledge and perspectives are added to it.

The concept of the ecomuseum is not in itself intrinsically digital, but the open-ended, polyheirarchical nature of online information, the ability to reach across geographic and spatial boundaries and to make knowledge collective and incremental, all lend themselves to the new capabilities that digital tools have given us.

Love, not likes

Every major digital platform wants to be loved. Look at Facebook’s ’10 years of me’ campaign – the digital equivalent of your ex-girlfriend sending you a mix-tape of your old ‘our songs’, only your ex-girlfriend is a global corporation with a population larger than the whole of Europe - but each time they do something like this, it reveals a fundamental underlying truth about the attention economy. In an attention economy, trust, authenticity, provenance and credibility are the things which give you a competitive advantage.

As Julien Smith and Chris Brogan put it in Trust Economics, ‘buzz is suspect. It can be bought’. But legitimate credibility, trust and influence can’t. Online consumers know when you’re faking it. They have developed finely-honed lie-detecting apparatus almost as an evolutionary defence against the incessant torrent of spam marketing.

Making effective judgements about who to trust - and how much – is survival trait in a connected age. And this fact, this need for trust and confidence gives us a tremendous home field advantage – because authenticity is what we do.

Our subject matter is the length, breadth and depth of human experience. Not only this, but we happen to be working in an industry the primary product of which is authenticity in a time when authenticity has a direct financial value.

And it isn’t hard to create services that people love by weaving together our physical and digital strengths as museums, archives and libraries. This is Merete Sanderhoff at the Staatens Museum for Art in Denmark talking about her project to create a shared mobile platform for 16 museums, galleries and archives using open content, twitter hashtags and a collaborative community to create a ‘shared mobile experience that users will actually need. To create something that the users are actually looking for, guided by their wishes and needs’.

In November 2013, more than 100 archives across France participated in the ‘Grande Collecte’ – a mass-participation project to record the family history of the First World War through documents, photographs and personal histories. The Grande Collecte generated more than 70,000 new images and narratives, all created by members of the public, who participated in their thousands.

Animated GIF created using the tate's openly-licensed contentOr the new tate project to get members of the public creating animated GIF images from the works that they have opened up under an open content license...

So how do we go about creating services that are local, personal, relevant and authentic?

Design for the user, not for ourselves

The first, and perhaps most obvious but hardest way to approach creating services that are local, personal, relevant and authentic is to start by designing the experience around the needs, expectations and behaviours of the people its intended for.

We have to engineer our organisations to deliver services that deliver something people need and want, in a way that fits with the way they live their lives today.

I have been involved in some $150m in digitisation programmes in the UK and Europe. I have seen some succeed and many fail. And in almost every case, the single most decisive factor is not the standards, or the metadata formats or the licensing model. It is whether, from day one, before a line of code was written or a picture was taken, the project was designed around a real personal, identified need. Whether you could identify a beneficiary of the project and say with absolute certainty that the project was defined around their needs and not the needs of the institution.

Because it is far, far easier to find a small group of people and work with them to build something great that they will love than it is to create a product – no matter how great – and then go out and try to find people to love it after the fact. It is a peculiar irony of the times we live in that it is easier to take a $100 project and scale it up with the support of a dedicated niche community than it is to take a $1m project and scale it down to make it feel personal and relevant.

Genuine user-centric design – particularly in an industry with a 150-year-old history with organisations that have operated perfectly well for decades – requires courage, leadership and vision.

Celebrating the National Museums LiverpoolI wanted to share with you the example of the National Museums, Liverpool and the leadership of its Director, David Fleming. In a city marked by urban deprivation, poverty and unemployment Fleming has turned his museum into a campaigner for social justice. The Mission of his museum, set out in his Strategic Plan 2011-15 is,

“We are a democratic museum service and we believe in the concept of social justice. We believe in the power of museums to help promote good and active citizenship, and to act as agents of social change.”

And this model of civic engagement is certainly good for business – visitor attendance at the museum has increased by 330% during Fleming’s tenure as Director, and the city council has continued to invest in the museum because it is loved by the people who vote for the city councillors.

The National Museums Liverpool model is that of an interventionist institution – their role is not to observe or document, but to become actively engaged in the civic and personal life of the community, because that is what their community demanded of them.

Look to your Mission

This idea of mission seems to be critical in designing services that people love. Some time ago now, I published a survey of the Mission Statements of 40 National institutions. This wordle is based on a statistical analysis of the words that appeared most frequently in those Mission statements. If you look at the 3 most frequently-used words, in order, they were ‘people’ first, then ‘collections’, then ‘future’. However, that was because we filtered out 3-letter words – if you include those, then the second most common word was ‘our’. Our museum, our collections, our service. And the problem is that ‘our’ is ambiguous – do we mean us, ourselves, or do we mean we collectively with our audiences?

If you were to start today, designing your institution from scratch to deliver that cultural imperative I mentioned earlier for as many people as possible, would it look the same as the place you work in today, or would it look fundamentally different? If you look at it honestly, does your mission speak to the language of inclusion and shared ownership, or does it speak to possession and a purpose that is essentially reflexive?

One of the most fundamental design principles, if we are going to create cultural services for the way people live their lives today, would be flow – the ability for people to flow seamlessly between experiencing us in person, through their online identities, via handheld and mobile, even wearable technologies. Truly user-centric design in the world we live in involves the eradication of boundaries - people need to be able to connect with us, share with us and make use of us across whatever platforms and channels they happen to be using.

It is striking that the conception of the ecomuseum is as a process, not a thing. With equal validity, it can be both physical and conceptual. It may be that the archives, libraries and museums we design to meet the future needs of our users may well look like a virtual ecomuseum – an ongoing process of exploration and discovery and shared authority.

Because in this world, status, trust and authenticity are apportioned not according to what you control, but what you share.

Make it Local

In a networked age, being ‘local’ doesn’t mean being rooted in a physical locality. It means putting our services in the heart of the community – whether that community is based around a physical location or a virtual one, a community of practice or ideas. Making it local means being prepared to go to where the users are and engage with them on equal terms. It means that the soul and identity of our institutions occupies a consistent and valued emotional and psychological place in the hearts and minds of our users.

One of the most successful strategies we have been working with European libraries, archives and museums on is called COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere). This was inspired by futurefriendly’s Brad Frost who said:

Think of your core content as a fluid thing that gets poured into a huge number of containers. Get your content ready to go anywhere because it’s going to go everywhere.

In practical terms, this means adopting the principles of responsive design – create experiences that can re-flow naturally and beautifully across many different platforms, both physical and digital – because that it how consumers will expect to engage with what we are doing.

Responsive design is about stripping away barriers. If the barrier is distance, let’s design services that overcome distance. Let’s make use of technologies which facilitate transmission and broadcast.

If the barrier is time, let’s design services that reward brevity but promote further exploration and repeated use.

If the barrier is language, let’s design services that are expressed simply without feeling we have to lose the professional skill of taxonomy.

If the barrier is copyright, let’s learn how to use licensing to manage risk and facilitate sharing, creativity and use in a way that is compatible with our values and core purpose as cultural organisations.

If the barrier is marginalisation, let’s design services that proactively empower people to take ownership and feel part of what we’re doing.

A key strategy that we’re seeing in more and more museums, archives and libraries is encouraging people to work together across teams and silos. Instead of a front of house or back of house, or a digital team and a collections team, we’re seeing cross-cutting activities which unite knowledge and expertise with delivery and customer service. More and more archives, libraries and museums are adopting an internal structure which emphasises collaboration and interdisciplinarity over departments.

Technology can support the whole mission of the archive, library or museum to become more connected and personal, but only if it is woven across the whole organisation, its services and the fabric of the building – not as an external factor, but as an intrinsic part of the relationship we want to build with our audiences.

Designing services in the image of our users means being spontaneous, natural and credible – we can play with the idiom of museums, archives and libraries without losing our authenticity. But fundamentally, perhaps most fundamentally of all, it’s about doing things not because we want to do them, not because we think they’re what’s expected of us, but because we have learnt how to engage with people on a level that is personal and emotional, authentic and relevant.

Understanding the return on our investment

To me, there are two profound challenges that confront our sector. And as technologists and cultural specialists, I think we have a profoundly important role to play in overcoming them.

The first is relevance. And the second is value.

Relevance is the defining challenge for our generation. Not how we achieve relevance, but how we sustain it. Most of our institutions were born in a particular social and historical context – many evolved from private collections and some were established as public institutions. We were optimised for the job as it was back then.

But the world changed, and we are no longer optimised for the way things work now. We have to adapt, and in fact, as a professional community, we have been adapting for most of the past decade. But the reality for many of us is that our institutions have stopped moving forward, and quietly the job has become to protect and document perfectly a specific body of material acquired between 1890 and 1980.

But that is not what society expects of us. Society expects that as it rolls ever onward, we will be there, collecting the important things, taking note, drawing out connections. That is the basis of the social contract and it is the basis on which much of our funding depends.

We are having a funding crisis in Europe, much as you are here. But the underlying cause is not that people don’t love what we do, it’s that they can’t understand why we have stopped doing the job they thought they were paying for – providing a dynamic record of how their lives are changing – and are instead doing a job that they don’t believe is possible – keeping everything perpetually protected from the process of time and decay.

This should be our heyday – the age demands exactly what we have – authenticity, expertise in filtering and connecting, giving people the skills to curate their own digital lives. But when people come to us for experiences that are immediate and personal and relevant, all too often what they get is an undifferentiated shopping list of everything we’re keeping in our store-rooms. When politicians look to us to account for the value we add, all too often we tell them about the cost, but not the benefit.

Which is why the second great challenge is value. In this connected age, we have to find a way of learning that value is what flows through us, not into us. It isn’t about measuring how many people walk through our door, or how many unique hits we receive on our websites. In this brave new world we are judged on the value we add, the knowledge and relationships we create, the social capital we generate and the social and economic benefits that happen in every individual’s life because of the values we helped to promote.

This could be our heyday. People already love the services you provide. There are people out there who feel a strong, personal sense of connection to the work you do every day. There are people out there who will do countless hours of work for you for free because they love your place and the stories it contains. All we need to do is learn how to let go of the aspects of our practice that are holding us back, and embrace the things we already do that make us personal, emotional and relevant for our users.


The question I set out to address in this talk was ‘how do we create museum, archive and library services that people will love?’. So I offer you these thoughts by way of conclusion.

I think people already love what we do. Our job is to welcome those people in and to put as little in their way as possible. In reducing the friction between the user and their experience of us, I’d ask these things:

• Are you connected to the soul, the values and identity of your institution? Is your brand and the way you engage with people consistent with that soul?

• Does the mission statement or forward plan of your institution make a positive assertion about peoples’ right to engage with you on equal terms?

• Does the culture or your organisation look like an uneasy equilibrium between warring factions of unreasonable, super-smart, underpaid people, or is there a common sense of connection to the identity and purpose of the institution?

• Can you find a way to re-discover your institution through the eyes of a visitor – to experience what it is that people love about you when they’re not involved in the daily routine?

• Can you think about the tacit barriers that your organisation puts in peoples way and think creatively about how to overcome them?

• Can you use technology in a way that is subtle and integrated and consistent with your mission to help overcome those barriers?

• Can you imagine that you were starting again today with a clean slate. What would you change and what would you keep?

• Can you identify people whose lives have changed as a result of what you did, and learn to do more of that for more people?

• Can you do something small and low-risk that is playful, that lets people make things with you and for you that will surprise you?

• Can you leave gaps for people to express themselves and their stories through your institution?

• Can you be unafraid in sharing both what you know and what you don’t?

• Can you change your ideas about what constitutes success – can you come to see success not in terms of how much you have, or how many people come to visit, but in terms of what you share, the value you add, and how many people leave your institution changed for the better?

This age demands museums, archives and libraries that are personal, local, emotional, authentic and relevant. In a time of social, economic and political change, people need us to be honest, accountable and unafraid. They don’t need to understand what we do, or how we do it, but they do need us to help them find their place in it.

I look forward to hearing over the next 2 days about some of the exciting ways that you are harnessing technology to this mission. I welcome your thoughts and ideas. For the meantime, thank you for your attention and have an excellent conference.


Comments (1)Add Comment
written by warksMDO, February 16, 2014
good stuff as usual Nick. Inspiring leadership talk. Not always easy for museums to follow through but you give excellent examples of large, small and distributed museums ad how they do it. All great Happy Museums and Participatory Museums stuff. Potentially rather changes the nature of how UK institutions might measure value to decide on investment and funding .. is the excellence mark of accreditation and the current definition of museum too narrow ?

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