Museums and the Web 2012 – Epic Fail?

No, not the conference, which was a most enjoyable three days in San Diego last week. This was the title of the plenary session in which five brave volunteers came onto the podium and told us all about their projects that flopped. A sympathetic audience (with no access to wifi and with a promise not to tweet) played ‘epic fail bingo’ as we competed to identify nine common reasons for project failure.


This was a refreshing change, as conferences tend to focus on the success stories, but if we are going to push the boundaries of what is possible with museums and digital media we have to accept that not everything we try will work. The key is understanding this from the outset and honestly assessing the risk profile of a project before it starts. Carolyn Royston (IWM) and Charlotte Sexton (National Gallery) touched on the importance of an understanding of risk in their interesting presentation about implementing digital strategies and Carolyn explained how the IWM are moving from being risk averse to risk aware in terms of their approach to digital projects. 

In what I thought was one of the most interesting conference sessions, Bruce Wyman and Rob Stein (Indianapolis Museum of Art) countered that museums don’t need a separate digital strategy but that their digital work should line up with the overall museum strategy. While this is, of course, a desirable long term aim, judging by the questions from the floor, many museums are not yet at that stage of digital maturity and there was a lot of interest in a digital strategy, perhaps as an intermediary stage.

Another interesting session was about online finding, in which we presented our work with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection (for further information please see our slides here.)

Gunho Chae (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) and S. Joon Park (Drexel University) talked about a project that they are doing in conjunction with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, looking at how affective computing can assist users with little knowledge of art to navigate their collections. In this project affective computing, which focuses on users’ emotional responses, is being represented as an animated search agent (AMARA) helping non–expert users to find artworks that might appeal to them based on a series of questions about the user’s mood, interests and preferences. This idea sparked some discussion in our office and it will be interesting to see how it works when launched.

At the same session there was an interesting talk from Katerina Tzomanaki (Institute of Computer Science, FORTH) about a new framework for querying semantic networks. As the session chair remarked, linked open data may be the future for online collections. This is certainly something we are excited about, having just started our first project in this area with one of the UK national museums.

Shelley Mannion from the British Museum shared some valuable findings from their experimentation with augmented reality (AR) in the museum galleries. Shelley and colleagues have undertaken various initiatives looking at how AR impacts learning and the use of tablets in museum education.  The BM have tried two different approaches to AR, marker-based AR and location-based AR. Both have issues, as putting temporary markers around the galleries is time consuming (and not always popular with curators!) but the BM have found that location-based AR doesn’t work well in an indoor setting as it isn’t detailed enough. Even spoofing the location by giving users a marker to scan to get the initial location didn’t work too well as the compass on the devices wasn’t sensitive enough. 

As well as some fascinating presentations, the Museums and the Web conference offered a number of usability labs, including one run by Cogapp’s Chris How and our former colleague Silvia Filippini Fantoni (now at Indianapolis Museum of Art), crit rooms, an unconference session, plenty of exhibitors and a vast array of demonstrations resulting in a rich and varied conference that gave us all plenty to think about. 

And we were delighted that our work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art was recognised with a Best of the Web Award for best online collection.  Many congratulations to the other worthy winners of the Best of the Web Awards!

Top image from kajsahartig on Flickr.