Guest post: Rhiannon Looseley on ‘Go Collaborate,’ the Museums Computer Group spring meeting

It was fantastic to be able to host the Museums Computer Group spring meeting here at Culture24 Towers. The following guest blog post is a condensed report from Rhiannon Looseley, Online Learning Manager at the Museum of London: you can read her full report here on her blog.

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These are a few points from the MCG Spring meeting that took place on Friday 17th June 2011. The opinions expressed here are my own and not those of my employer, the MCG, or anyone else present unless stated.

Culture24 director Jane Finnis wanted the day to bridge relationships between sectors that aren’t yet working together.  She suggested that the ‘space’ that we work in is in some ways full of exciting opportunities, but can also be challenging.  It’s changing rapidly, with the MLA’s responsibilities shifting to the Arts Council. Jane senses some trepidation among those of us working in the not-for-profit sector about working with the commercial sector, possibly due to discomfort with their goal of making money, which is not our primary aim.  The pressures of the funding cuts mean that we are going to have to generate our own income: we need to reflect on what we don’t have the expertise to deliver, but the commercial sector might have.

Andrew Nairne, Executive Director of the Arts Council, talked about this transition and how museums, libraries and archives can fit into the Arts Council’s world. The functions of the MLA would be transferring to the Arts Council on 1 October this year.  Reassuringly, he explained that they are currently in close collaboration with the current MLA staff to work out the implications of this changeover.  A lot of discussion at present is centring on how to integrate the work of museums and libraries into the strategic aims of the Arts Council, established three years ago in their publication ‘Achieving Great Art for Everyone’. A companion volume to this will be published online in the autumn that will explain how our sector will fit in with all these goals. (Archives will not fall under the ACE banner – MLA’s responsibilities for archives will apparently go to The National Archives).

Andrew then announced a new funding stream, run together with NESTA and the AHRC that asks arts and cultural organisations to work with those with digital expertise :

‘to help them understand the potential offered by new technologies and together develop innovative project proposals for submission to this new research fund, which is for projects that will harness digital technologies to connect with wider audiences and explore new ways of working.’

I found the press release about the funding on the ACE website. The funders seem willing to fund experimentation, which is important if we want to continue to innovate.

Honor Harger talked about some of the collaborative projects that Lighthouse (our venue for the day) have been working on – one really cool-sounding one got artists and scientists to work together on a project where the public were also allowed to drop in and participate – it involved infected textiles, and fruit flies and smelly things: http://www.lighthouse.org.uk/whatson/laboratorylifeopenlab.htm

Ross Parry led a discussion with Andrew and Honor and the audience.  For Oliver Vicars-Harris, what makes collaboration succeed is ‘mutual respect – respecting differences, different skills and different relationships.’  Honor agreed that it’s about compromise. Collaboration is seldom easy and one of the hardest things is what you have to give up, which can often be your whole way of working.

I was also interested to hear Jon Pratty’s account of a presentation he’d heard at the Open Cultures conference by Matthew Cock from the British Museum and Andrew Caspari from the BBC who were talking about their recent collaboration on the A History of the World project. Both recognised that they had underestimated what would be involved, but Jon found it interesting that they had reached a place in their collaboration where they were able to talk openly and honestly. (Thanks to Mia Ridge for pointing out this blog about this session: http://www.meanboyfriend.com/overdue_ideas/2011/06/open-culture-2011-a-history-of-the-world/).

Mia also noted that the research information network is releasing a report quite soon about some of the barriers to collaboration, some of which is based on work with museums.

Kevin Bacon gave an interesting talk about photography digitisation and image sales in Brighton Museums, and led a lunchtime visit to Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

The afternoon featured four presentations from commercial companies on why they wanted to work with the cultural sector. It seemed clear that the museum sector may need to adjust some of its working practices with external companies, but I felt strongly that this readjustment needs to happen on both sides.

Chris Thorpe’s presentation about Artfinder explained their approach and raised some interesting points about user-centred design, e.g. that users are often looking to apps as a distraction, and that their size, context and finishability are also significant.  I felt that everything that was being discussed at that point was about art.  This was perhaps inevitable given that Chris worked on Artfinder but I began to think ‘but what about other museum objects?’  I tentatively tweeted ‘Museums aren’t just about art though…’ and was cheered to find a number of people retweeting and seeming to agree.  Perhaps this was a slightly unfair criticism, but if the object of the presentation was to demonstrate our shared goals and understanding, I remained unconvinced since the collections I work with and my background is much more history-based.  There seemed to be an assumption that understanding/being passionate about art meant understanding museums.

The second presentation was by Andy Budd from Clearleft.  Andy pointed out that small companies like his are not solely about making money and ensuring ‘a retirement fund’. They don’t see the museum sector as ‘a market segment,’ but like solving problems and their ultimate goal is to add value and make the world a better place. I could see that Andy was genuine about this. He did add, however, that just as we fear profiteering, so the commercial sector fear cost-cutting and ‘design by committee’ and that if they ask for more money, it’s not because they’re money-grabbing but because more money means more of their time and better and smarter solutions.

While I understood Andy’s points, it was also challenging for museum professionals worrying about funding cuts, squeezed budgets and possible redundancies to be told that it could be necessary to invest more money, not less, to deliver creative outcomes.

Furthermore, whilst ‘design by committee’ can be frustrating, it’s important not to confuse it with simply taking advantage of the many different skills in our sector. On the learning projects I work on, those that have input from documentation experts, curators and learning staff plus senior management sign off are the richest.  If managed properly, this number of ‘cooks’ don’t necessarily ‘spoil the broth’.

Certain further comments from the commercial sector that afternoon added to my sense that the bridge between the commercial and museum sectors goes both ways, and efforts to cross it need to be equal:

  • ‘Having a certain budget creates constraints. There is an urgency to get stuff done to move on to the next project…’
  • ‘A lot of what the cultural sector is doing is marketing. Sometimes people don’t want what you’re selling.’

Further presentations from Sky Arts and Google were also very interesting.

There was lots of discussion about museum procurement policies and practices.  Certain practices are incredibly frustrating for designers, and may mean certain companies won’t work with our sector.  There was a feeling in the audience, however, that we as a sector know that our processes are flawed and have tried to change it, but are in many cases powerless to do so.

Useful advice for us included running a ‘thinking day’ at the start of a project where you pay people from several companies for their time to come and discuss ideas: you get to know them, and choose one or two to take discussions forward with before going through formal tendering requirements.

I also found myself wondering what exactly we all meant by ‘collaboration’.  The BBC/British Museum History of the World project was obviously a collaboration, but Friday’s discussions seemed to become about describing scenarios where museums commission commercial companies to build things (which we are already doing, albeit with potential room for improvement).  These scenarios seemed to offer little help with the financial constraints we’re currently facing. Collaboration to me implies more of an equal footing, and a way in which we can work differently to continue to reap benefits with smaller budgets. If this is to happen, the mutual respect and willingness to change working practices that were highlighted by Oliver and Honor earlier in the day are crucial, but my feeling from the day is that this isn’t just about the museum sector’s willingness to change.

I’d like to represent what seemed to be perceived as a rather clunky and frustrating sector in a better light. We’ve got breathtaking collections for starters, we’ve got some incredibly knowledgeable people who make the stories of those objects come alive, we’ve got learning experts who know our audiences and are skilled and practiced at interpreting our collections in a way that fascinates and engages people and actively improves their lives.  Yes, we can sometimes seem idiosyncratic and slow, and sometimes lots of people will have input into a project, but I love those idiosyncracies, and I love that I work in a sector where it’s still OK to have them.  We’re unlikely to ever have much money in the foreseeable future, but I hope that the commercial sector can see us as creative, intelligent people who have some amazing and unique stories to tell.  We’ve got things we need to learn and we’re doing our best, so perhaps take some time to get to know our working practices, and then maybe we can all work together towards the greater good!

I hope those that were at the conference think this is an accurate portrayal of what happened. For those of you that weren’t there, I hope this is useful.

You can read Jane Finnis’s take on the day on her blog here: http://janefinnis.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/notes-and-take-homes-from-the-museums-computer-group-spring-meeting-culture24-hosted-in-brighton-in-june-2011/

Please feel free to discuss any points in the comments!

A black and white photo of a woman smiling

Rhiannon Looseley

Rhiannon Looseley is a museum professional working in the field of museum online learning. You can connect with her on Twitter (@rlooseley) or LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/rhiannonlooseley).

One response to “Guest post: Rhiannon Looseley on ‘Go Collaborate,’ the Museums Computer Group spring meeting

  1. Pingback: Notes and take homes from the Museums Computer Group spring meeting Culture24 hosted in Brighton in June 2011 « Jane Finnis