Takeaways from the Museums Computer Group #Musetech19


This October, I was lucky to volunteer at the Museums Computer Group #Musetech19 conference held in London at the beautiful British Library.

The event centred around Openness: what it means and how cultural institutions can go about achieving it. Read on to discover key ideas taken from my favourite guest speakers!

Openness starts with a C

An idea that was reiterated throughout: there’s no point in delivering shiny digitisation projects if the culture of the institution hasn’t transformed itself first! Institutions that start by working openly and transparently can then deliver projects with greater impact.

We heard a few excellent suggestions on how to instigate openness in an institution, such as:

  • Turn your team into Scrum masters. That’s the approach Loic Tallon took when working as a Chief Digital Officer at The Met. The Scrum framework is based on transparency, constant feedback and regulated meetings to deliver quality work.
  • Shake the tree from below. By leading side projects and workshops at The National Gallery, Emma McFarland inspired change, found allies in unexpected places and wasn’t stifled by broader strategies coming from above. 
  • Share what you (don’t) know with everyone. A clear takeaway after listening to Valerie Johnson’s research was that institutions shouldn’t be afraid to fail in public, because there’s a definite thirst for knowledge in the sector. Share what worked in your institutions’ projects, what didn’t and what you have absolutely no idea about.

Openness is not the goal but a means to an end

Another recurring message throughout the conference. Paraphrasing Loic, you shouldn’t be evangelical about openness. Rather, you should assess if being more open is strategically logical to achieve your institution’s goals. As Valerie Johnson’s research pointed out, projects that are tactical and part of an institution’s broader strategy are much more successful.

I particularly appreciated James Morley’s take on the subject. After presenting this fantastic project, he reminded us that marketing-related worries such as not selling enough HQ prints or having low click rates on a museum’s website shouldn’t justify why we don’t open up our collections. If your institution’s statement of purpose is to make your collections more accessible, openness and digitisation should be on your radar to achieve it.

Openness takes many great forms

#Musetech19 was an opportunity to showcase what happens when projects are done right:

  • Hanna Hethmon showed us how podcasts can bring materials at The National Archives to life for the average person. Podcasts were recorded on-site using an affordable recording kit, making it a budget-friendly project.
  • Abira Hussein and Sophie Dixon explained their exciting Nomad project. Centred around 3D modelling workshops, Nomad allows Somali communities to engage with and contextualise Somali objects while digitising them.
  • Sarah Dick made it clear that some good-quality memes can blow up an institution’s Social Media presence. That’s what happened with the Royal Institutions’ Twitter takeover. The recipe for success lies in establishing a takeover theme, having strategic objectives and letting other institutions know it’s happening.
  • Is Wikipedia GLAMs’ new best friend? The exciting projects presented by Jason EvansMarti Poulter and James Morley made us think so. Wikipedia enriches institution’s datasets, improves with contributors constantly editing articles and makes digitised collections reach a MUCH larger audience.

Openness is not neutral

After listening to all those exciting digitisation projects, Mathilde Pavis and Andee Wallace splashed us with the bucket of cold water we all deserved. Showcasing their research on digitisation and colonialism, they reminded us that opening up certain objects to the public carries ethical considerations.

What community did those objects originally belong to? Do we actually own the copyright to digitise them? Digitisation carries the ability to appropriate digital work and take it further away from the communities they actually belong to.

On the subject of neutrality, Helen Casey also offered insight into the murky waters of digitising content. Her research exposed that there are legal, political and social reasons that hinder digitisation. There are also polarised interests between artists, loaners and institutions’ reputations that affect projects. It’s not only a lack of funding after all.

Like always, Musetech provided plenty of food for thought. There’s no definite answer to what Openness means and how to incorporate it, but it’s events like these that help us point our institution’s compass in the right direction. See you next time!

This post was originally published on Medium by me on October 24th, 2019. You can check out the original here.

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