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Thursday, Apr 24th

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The Responsive Museum

altCollections Trust CEO Nick Poole explores the challenge of designing museum services - both online and onsite - that are responsive to the needs and expectations of the user while placing as little 'distance' as possible between them and the experience.

Last October, I was invited to speak at the Digitisation Fair at the Smithsonian. My talk included a slide about the difference between content (essentially, pictures and stories) and metadata (structured information about those pictures and stories). Content, I argued, is what you need to develop rich, fun and engaging experiences for people. Metadata is for researchers, academics and curators. You can see the slide in question below. 

Nick Stanhope of Historypin echoed these sentiments recently at a Europeana event in Dublin when he said "you can't build a time machine out of metadata". The point being that if you are trying to create moments of wonder and entertainment for people, database records just aren't going to cut it. You need high-quality, richly-interpreted and engaging content.

More recently still, we started working on a new approach for museums called 'COPE' (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) which takes as its mantra the idea that in the future, content created by museums is as likely to be experienced on someone else's website as it is the museum's own. 

These developments are key to unlocking the power and potential of museums in a connected age. At the heart of all of them is the question "what do museums want to mean to people in an age of mobile and social experiences?"

Designing the experience around the audience

I have been thinking a lot about this question recently following a discussion with Trevor Horsewood of the Visual Arts and Galleries Association (VAGA) about his simple and powerful idea to turn the museum inside-out. Trevor's point is that we tend to think about and design our museum and gallery services around organisational concepts like 'front of house' and 'back office' and around competences like 'learning' and 'conservation'. 

In place of these, Trevor argues, we ought to think about designing user-centric services, structuring the museum around the audience rather than museology and focussing not on the differences between professional communities but on how responsive, relevant and accessible the experience is for the user. 

Trevor's vision of a user-centric museums is inherently about balance - that in order to design seamless, valuable experiences for people, we need a balance of all the competencies working seamlessly together. Instead of arguing about the primacy of collections or experiences (as in the recent debate on Curatorship with the MA's Maurice Davies), what museums ought to be building are relationships structured around both.

Tricky things, people

But, and this is where the challenges gets really interesting, people are inherently tricky things to build services around. When, as is the case for museums, your target audience is 'All of the above', it quickly becomes apparent that people do not fit neatly into a few simple patterns of behaviour. Whether it is online or onsite, people are rarely predictable - they move between roles and preferences, change their minds, have different needs on different days (even the same day!). Sometimes they want to be entertained, sometimes left alone, sometimes they want to be serious, sometimes they're just looking for a warm place to sit for half an hour.

We live in what is sometimes referred to as an 'attention economy' - users know that current business models depend on their attention and that while they may not pay directly for access to the services they use, the time they spend looking at them has a financial value.

In the online world, as in the real world, the attention economy represents the new competitive environment for museums. Many of the debates of recent years have focussed on whether we are confident as a community in our unique proposition in this environment and our ability to compete with the huge range of other attractions that daily life has to offer. 

In practice, however, the lure and unique appeal of museums remains as strong as it has been for the past 150 years. What is key, though, is bringing this experience to as many people as possible through as many channels as possible. To do this, we have to design museum experiences that are responsive to the user rather than creating a single experience and asking people to adapt themselves to it. 

A responsive museum

In the world of the web, 'responsive design' has come to refer to the design of online experiences that work fluidly and consistently across a range of different platforms while minimising the 'distance' between the user and the experience (through techniques like minimalist presentation, clean user interface design and navigation). 

For museums, this concept of minimising the distance between the user and the unique experience of both physical artefacts and the stories they tell is critical. In the future, the best museum design will be the one that works seamlessly between the digital and the real world, that puts the 'museumness' in the background and places the users experience to the fore.

In the responsive museum, the underlying architecture of the user's experience needs to be flexible enough to adapt to their behaviour. Hence, if they want stories, we need to be able to push back everything else and simply surface stories. If they want aesthetics, we need to subdue the narrative and emphasise the visual and the tangible. If they want depth, we need to be able to provide them with the connections and tools to dive beyond the surface of the narrative. If they want authority, we need to present to them what we know about the objects, suitably contextualised and curatred. If they want to interact, we need to greet their contribution with respect and enthusiasm. If they want to keep the kids quiet for half an hour, we need to be able to do that too.

Technology is the key, not the door

 For a little while now, the international museum community has been aware that 'digital' is an enabler, not a destination. As Culture 24's Sejul Malde argues in this week's Guardian Culture Professional Network, 'no-one under the age of 20 talks about anything 'Digital' anymore'. The point is not whether something is delivered using or through a computer, but how digital tools extend our pallette of options in delivering user-centred experiences.

In this context, the question is not whether museums ought to focus on services based on content or metadata, but on how we can use this extended pallette to deliver responsive services which meet the different needs of our multi-faceted audiences. The answer, then, to the question of whether museums should focus on content or metadata is 'both, and much more besides' - we need to harness our metadata to reach out into the digital world and provide pathways to our door and we need to harness our content to provide seamlessly integrated physical and digital experiences (I can say 'digital', I'm nearly 40...)

I would further argue that the real issue with our sector's approach to copyright is not to do with the law, or the instinct to protect the integrity of the works in our care, but the extent to which a lack of clarity about intent fundamentally disrupts the kind of seamless flow of experience which contemporary audiences have come to expect. A license is nothing more or less than a statement of permission, and the more clumsy and disconnected our approach to rights, the greater the distance we put between the user and the experience. 

COPEing strategy

All of which brings me full-circle to COPE. What we are talking about is less an individual approach to documentation, or cataloguing or digitisation or content creation. What it is about really is designing the kinds of flexible, adaptive and future-proof platform on which we can build genuinely responsive and user-centric services. 

The aim is to encourage museums to create knowledge, assets and systems which are capable of powering this kind of flexibility both now and into the future. It is to move away from the 'we'll bodge it this time to make it work and do the job properly next time' to doing the job properly on an ongoing basis so that we can be agile, adaptive, quick to respond to an ever-changing world or technology-enhanced consumer experiences. 

COPE is about moving on from an organisation in which 'Web', 'Collections', 'Learning' and 'Licensing' are separate departments and towards one in which users can discover, enjoy, download, use, adapt, upload and share their creative output both with us and with their own communities.

Because if we constrain the user's behaviour, if we place ourselves between them and their experience of culture, we make ourselves a point of failure. If, on the other hand, we turn our services around to provide the conditions in which people can have the most real, most immediate, most uncluttered experience of that unique cultural hit, then there is no limit to how many people we can reach out and be relevant to.

It is, in the words of the Smithsonian's Mike Edson, 'all about scale'. 

The next phase for the Collections Trust

This agenda - providing tools, standards, ideas and encouragement which help people to design user-centric services, lies at the core of the next phase of development for the Collections Trust. Our role has always been to support museums and galleries in managing their collections to maximise their sustainability and use. From the earliest days of documentation and cataloguing to the large-scale programmes we run today, there is a golden thread which builds towards open, adaptive and responsive cultural experiences. 

Over the next 3-5 years, we will aim to drive this vision of responsiveness and the user-centric museum through a series of related programmes, including: 

  • Seeking out, working with and celebrating museums that are putting the focus on the end-user experience over professional silos;
  • Evolving the SPECTRUM standard to encompass the open distribution, use and re-use of content and metadata;
  • Delivering and supporting public-facing programmes which encourage museums & galleries to share their knowledge and stories as widely as possible
  • Forging connections between professional communities, with a greater emphasis on front-of-house, exhibition, learning and outreach

Our aim is both to promote the vision of the responsive museum and to ensure that our industry embraces these new approaches not at the periphery, and not as a project, but permanently and at the core of what we mean to people in a connected society. We look forward to working with you to get there!

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