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Turning digital thinking into Museum practice

This talk explores activity undertaken at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museum to build digital literacy and creative practice across its 10 museums, galleries and archives. How does a museum turn digital thinking into museum practice?

John Coburn discusses a number of initiatives including a Try New Things approach, an action research project set up by a mix of departmentally disparate staff to connect new ideas, energy and generosity and Future Makers which connected museum collections with gaming communities and maker labs.

John Coburn: This is a photo of the Shipley Art Gallery in the early 1930s. The Shipley is in Gateshead, which is just over the river from Newcastle, where I am. This is in in the north of England. It’s one of the nine museums my organisation continues to manage and the curator of the Shipley was once a guy, a progressive man named Mr Matthew Young. It was reported in 1931 in a local newspaper that the gallery was gifted a cutting edge electronic gramophone. Mr Young used it for recitals that were attended by over 1000 people. Just to give you a sense of scale the current capacity for the gallery is 600.

It was also used to entertain and educate parties of unemployed youths from instruction centres. In Mr Young’s words the gramophone was intended to show the public the affinity between paintings and music and all forms of art. Unfortunately Sir John [McCoy] who was chairman of the Shipley Art Gallery committee did not think a gramophone at all suitable for a place like an art gallery. People go to art galleries to look and pictures and study art and not listen to a gramophone and with that the recitals stopped. The gramophone largely became a gallery ornament. So an outward looking member of staff with new ideas. A technology that enabled audiences to experience art differently, strong evidence of public impact, but ultimately an idea defeated by traditional views on what a museum or gallery is for.

So this story does not sound familiar to any of you right. So really what I’m most curious in all of this is what became of Matthew Young. His spark, his optimism, his drive to change gallery practice. What I’ll briefly talk about this afternoon is some of what we’re doing at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museum. I’ll say TWAM, so please be comfortable with that. What we’re doing to support staff to create digital creative practice and explore the role of our museums and our galleries. So I lead the modestly sized digital team at TWAM and some context on what digital looks like operationally for us these days … we now have no web team. We deliver a lot of collections with [unintelligible 00:02:25] projects, but core online collections activities managed by curatorial and documentation.

Social media, core web is managed by communications. Like you we are in the business of this, of making sense of impossibly large amounts of old stuff. Which translates as 1.1 million objects and 12 miles of archived shelf. So we have everything from art to science and industry, to archives, to social history, to archaeology. The role of our team, of our digital team, it’s not about putting all of this online or in apps. We do use those platforms, but they don’t define the work. It really isn’t about virtually reproducing the physical museum, it’s hierarchies of information, it’s object centred way of looking at things. For us it’s about better responding to changing audience behaviours and changing digital cultures.

Which is ultimately to achieve the same end, which is personal and social change inspired by collections. So I’m going to briefly talk through three principles that underpin our work at TWAM, how we like to steer conversations in the museum away from simply the idea of emerging technology to more fundamental audience focused principles, informed by digital thinking and practice. So for us digital literacy is less about technological sophistication and more about digital as a way of thinking and doing. Less and less within our work we separate the digital museum experience that we build from the non-digital museum experiences, because our audiences increasingly don’t make the distinction.

It means we’re permanently in the grip of an existential crisis of why we are there and what we’re for. So really instead everything we do we describe as building new authentic museum experiences, which is loose and it’s vague, but it’s comfortable to us for now. Everything we do, every project, every collaboration strives to influence positively the wider practice or our organisation. So from our work within our organisation we have observed that the key challenges in raising and building digital literacy and [unintelligible 00:04:28] resistance or lack of technology or resource or understanding. Two things for us, organisational capacity for creative space and freedom. Secondly the absence of structures that require us to continually reflect and develop and evolve our practice.

So this might be familiar to some of you, who is trying to drive small or large change within your organisation. The major blocker being that perpetual sense of busyness stifling any attempt to encourage more reflection, more outward looking thinking on the creative application of collections. So what drives a lot of our work is developing strategic initiatives that help staff find the room to evolve their digital thinking and practice. We need to make these initiatives easy and compelling for them to engage with. So that last slide referred to innovative digital practice, which is three words if you raise these, this is the typical museum person response to conversations framed in those hollow concepts. So really when we’re talking about innovation we do use the words, but we try not to with colleagues.

We’re not talking about technology or a siloed team of radical thinkers, we’re really just talking about simple, cultural behaviours that have given us space to grow, can enrich our programmes. For us a team functioning in this way is much more likely to consider the application of digital thinking and practice in the development of their work. A researcher named [unintelligible 00:05:59] and I’m sorry if I’ve mispronounced that, did some really interesting work at Cooper Hewitt, the design museum a couple of years ago into open innovation models. Open innovation cultures were described as those where channels were created through which ideas can be transmitted to and from the organisation during the [unintelligible 00:06:16] process.

The key sign of an open innovation culture is that there is a high spirit of belonging and interconnectivity within the staff who work there, interconnectivity with external practice. With this in mind I’m going to talk about a couple of projects we’ve developed over the past two years to build this capacity at TWAM. How do we affect organisational change most efficiently? We do it through violent force. No, TNT Try New Things is an action research project which was originally set up by five champions from curatorial outreach and exhibitions departments. It just provides a structure and a modest amount of funding to small scale R&D projects that can be delivered by staff in three months.

It’s open to and actively secures representation from every department in the museum. So TNT it supports activity that asks rich and speculative questions first and foremost about what museums can be. Rather than fake perceived problems with existing practice. For us language is really important. We talk much more in terms of meaningful experimentation than we do digital or innovation, which we feel can constrain or cloud the ambition of an idea. So we encourage staff not to follow fads, but to actually focus on cultural change that we aren’t responding to in our work. Committing to a project means committing to sharing insights and the challenges, successes, frustrations and failures of its development.

The group meets regularly and invites proposals throughout the year. So some of the projects, is public biometric and socioeconomic data a source material for social history storytelling? So two keepers of social history were really interested in the idea of new collecting methodologies for capturing a sense of time and place. Traditionally they would do this through oral history gathering, through photography, through collecting objects. They were interested in the potential of government data, socioeconomic data, biometric data as a [unintelligible 00:08:26] material from which they could create more three dimensional interpretations. They worked on this with some computer human interaction designers and artists at Newcastle University.

I should say that the digital collaborators that our colleagues worked with they’re either identified by applicants or recommended by a steering group that has been established. What is a natural history’s museum responsibility to the invisible biology within its collections? So some events and curatorial staff at one of our museums wanted to understand the public interest in the world of microorganisms. They produced a series of public smelling tours, working with biologists, chefs, brewers, technologists and artists to develop this. Sensory technology amplifying smell enabled the public to get a glimpse of the effect of microorganisms that exist across all of our collections, from taxidermy to ancient Greek clothing, loin cloth.

How does the museum respond to emerging cultures of independent contemporary collecting of Tyneside? So some colleagues have been interested in the large numbers of people who collect sounds of contemporary Tyneside and then publish those sounds widely online on platforms like SoundCloud or Radio Aporee. What they wanted to explore was what the museum’s role was in all of this, did it even have a role? So they’re just about to launch Tyneside Sound Society, which is a network for museums and for the public to begin to understand what this relationship could be. TNT it’s really about connecting creative, generous people who operate naturally in an interdisciplinary way and don’t see digital as something separate to their own area of expertise.

The network currently comprises 47 members of staff many of whom have never met each other before, let alone worked together on projects, let alone worked together on digital programmes. Part of the group’s success is that it does have that high sense of belonging. It was conceived and is shaped by curatorial outreach and exhibition [departments]. Everyone is always frank about this being an experiment. It’s really important that we say that, because it works well a lot of the time, but not all of the time and there are some pretty fierce, savage debates about what new practice looks like for our organisation. So these are some of the types of external practitioner that we work with on digital programmes. A pretty diverse bunch of people who use digital tools, digital thinking relevant to their own fields.

So from roboticists to artificial intelligence researchers to theatres, to members of the black metal community, that is a project. We want … what we’re trying to do with all this is we want to identify points of connection between their diverse practice and our rich, multi varied collections. So a major challenge for us is in communicating to these people outside the museum, who don’t necessarily assume that their practice relates to the museum that actually the attitude of us is when that is open, it’s generous and we’re interested in hearing their ideas. Our goal with all of this is to push the notion that this is an extended network of our museum. We want novel collections research developed by these kinds of people to feel more visible and familiar to all departments.

So how do these projects and activities emerge? Well actually we do employ a number of pretty simple on the ground tactics to build organisational intrigue. It boils down to this which is all we’re really doing is effectively engineering social encounters that are unlikely, but feel rich and easy and compelling to be involved with. One of these is called new perspectives. This is a series of events that brings researchers, technologists and museum staff together in novel ways. We produced this with our [open] lab and culture lab, who are departments at Newcastle University dedicated to digital creative research and computer human interaction. We always try to get outside buildings for these events. This was a city walking tour.

You can see Sylvia, our keeper of geology talking to a bunch of tech researchers about weird, invisible geologies of Newcastle. Our next event is going to be a sound walk, where staff move through the city and listen to a live mix of environmental sounds in contemporary and historical locations. This is staff learning how to use Sonic Pi software to turn collections data into sound. So these events continue and they continue to run. Following these events we offer 10 day placements within culture lab and open lab for museum staff to formulate and prototype ideas. So for the digital team there are obvious reasons why the practice of these professionally disparate people should be better connected.

Biomedical researchers who are using cutting edge sonic tools to diagnose bone disease, this is an incredible thing to be sharing with archaeologists who are in the habit of excavating skulls and [unintelligible 00:13:50]. Data artists are always really interested in archivists who have access to 200 years of log books dedicated to shipyard employment. All we’re doing here, it feels so simple is just programming [rich], but unlikely conversations. A further network we support is the Digital Culture Group, which we’ve led for five years. We’ve really wanted to take an active role in this network building. This is comprised of 90 arts and tech professionals. It’s simple. It’s sharing practice and inviting collaborations throughout the year and a broad mix of our museum departments are represented.

Actually a key reason why myself and actually John are here today is that Arts Council have funded a year of activity where they’re trying to grow this model across the north of England and to build international links. So if anyone wants to build international links following this presentation, please give me a shout. In terms of real impact from this activity it is hard to measure. But staff delivering digital programmes has tripled in two years. It doesn’t necessarily tell you much, but it’s one indicator. 12 projects have been developed independently of our team and have been funded externally. Three examples of those projects … two history keepers worked with technologists and researchers on using facial recognition tech in our migration gallery to provoke visitor reflection and empathy.

Sorry about the disturbing picture of me. So this is a simple installation of two chairs in front of what appears to be a mirror, but is in fact a screen. Intrigued visitors or folks who just want to sit down, they sit themselves down on a stool and a face from the archives of a man or a woman who migrated to Tyneside appears ghostly, superimposed on their face. The lives of this individuals are not fully explained, but instead clues to their status and background appear on screen. There’s been some interesting results with this. Some people highly engaged, some confused, some completely unaware. Another example, so World War I, World War I was a really concentrated period of invention for science and technology that were devised to aid the war effort.

So things like hydrophones were developed to listen underwater to U-boats. Shortwave radio transmitters were developed and as part of our World War I commemoration programme, rather than interpret our existing collections we chose to work with engineers and with artists to rebuild these technologies with the public and in public using contemporary, digital and electronic materials. So here is a test being conducted on a sound mirror in Sunderland, nearby. This is a concrete listening structure that was used to detect approaching Zeppelin aircraft. So the public did this and then they also visited historical radio masts on the coast. They dangled hydrophones in the North Sea and then streamed those live across the internet, so people could listen to these experiments.

Really this activity was about provoking a passing public, striking up questions and conversations from people unaware to what the hell is going on. 8000 people engage with this project, 82 percent said it made them feel differently about World War I. The keeper of geology I’ve already mentioned. She’s never previously worked on a digital project, but she’s currently exploring the singing sands collection with some engineers and artists. For those of you who don’t know … does anyone know what singing sands are? Okay, it’s a natural phenomenon whereby the movement of sand creates another worldly musical sound. There’s some amazing [unintelligible 00:17:37] of this on YouTube within the Sahara and on the coast.

They’re looking at reanimating these sands and inviting the public to perform a natural musical score on the northeast coastline. This sample is from our collection and it sings at a low frequency. It’s from New South Wales. So the final principle to talk through … it’s through this extended network of ideas that we’re looking to challenge orthodoxies around what museums and galleries are for. That sounds ambitious and a bit high level, but we mean it. Like Mr Matthew Young, this was about thinking of technology’s role in the context of building new authentic museum experiences. Maybe these are new museum experiences that become less concerned with objects and screens and more concerned with addressing things like increasing public fatigue with the prevailing historical themes in our museums.

This is something we actually hear a lot from the folks we work with. They’re driven to present alternatives to the prevailing narratives that heritage institutions like mine talk about, which in the north east of England is industrial heritage, it’s rivers and they want to move beyond that. In 2013 that actually formed a theme for an open call, inviting the public to contribute any media that challenged perceptions of the northeast’s past. So we work with a really great independent cinema and music events company called [Tusk] to deliver this. In the end we collected 37 hours of rich media material that was broadcast on an internet radio stream, called Basic FM, which doesn’t exist anymore really sadly.

So musical recordings, personal recordings, found sounds, recorded conversations, field recordings, imagined soundtrack to the construction of the Tyne Bridge. 8000 listeners from 26 countries tuned in and listened for an average of 14 minutes. Final project, future makers, we delivered a programme that was focused on public design and making experiences in our museums. We delivered this with an innovation lab in the north of England called Future Everything. Programmes across our museums were delivered that focused less on objects and more on evoking the spirit of designers, inventors and artists whose work we collect and exhibit. We really wanted what was produced to be live and open in the space, not locked away and for it to feel visible and credible in those museum spaces.

So seven of our museums co produce programmes with various communities of digital practitioners. Again, just to come back to the point these were practitioners who wouldn’t see themselves necessarily as having thematically related work to museums, but they were and they were doing exciting work in the fields of design, craft, engineering, archaeology and they worked with us, with our curatorial teams, our learning teams, our events teams to produce each strand. This included a programme at the Shipley Art Gallery, which I’ve already mentioned, which is home of nationally important craft and design collection. At Shipley they produced visitor programmes, schools’ programmes, evening socials, based around the principle of live digital design and inhabiting the gallery.

So things like [unintelligible 00:21:05] machines, wearable tech, data driven, 3D printed jewellery. Our museum of science and industry worked with the company technology will save us on a family focused digital and electronic inventing programme. So this museum tells the story of an invention through pioneering achievements. But it doesn’t share the stories revealing the more human side of inventing like frustration and failure and human error and catastrophe. We wanted the [loud] message spectacle of inventing to be live in this museum. So build your own DIY synthesizer, hacking battery operated toys, sculpting with electronic dough. This pilot activity has evolved into discovering museums core family brand.

A permanent [unintelligible 00:21:53] workshop is launching next week and a large scale programme of events is continuing. So these are just two examples of the seven which we ran. In total 44 percent of participants had not visited that museum before. 91 percent said they would continue to engage if we produced this kind of [thing] in these museums and galleries. Now 40 staff and seven partner production teams are planning and delivering the 2017, 2018 programme. To quickly sum up for us you know digital change and transformation cannot come through strategy or restructure alone, but actually through building cultures that actively support cross-disciplinary thinking and reflection.

Create internal structures that give a home to bold ideas that otherwise would never exist. Shout more loudly that the attitude of your organisation is open and generous to non-museum thinking that speculates on alternative futures on what a museum can be. Thanks.

Male Voice: I’m wondering where the original drive for the programme came from? Was that from the audience, from you, from the director [unintelligible 00:23:22] where did it start?

John Coburn: It did come from our team, but my organisation is kind of … and has been for a long time a people focused organisation. We were one of the first in the UK to have that as our vision, as our mission. So we are always listening to what people are telling us about what they want their museums to be. We work with digital creative practitioners, you know we have done for ages. The last two years of activity is the culmination from what we’ve found from a lot of what people are telling us. So there are things that museums are bad at, that these people tell us and that then informs our practice and the principles that we use to underpin our work. The principles that we have are completely live and changeable at any time, but one example … we work with a guy called Richard Dawson and some filmmakers to reuse collections and just produce media content which we stream online.

They had said to us that if we weren’t there to support them they wouldn’t do it because the collections data that we were giving them was so bad that they couldn’t navigate it meaningfully, because our collection records was only giving them the surface level stuff that didn’t inspire them. They also wanted really rich, abstract search terminologies that we don’t give. So Richard turned up and said what have you got that relates to death in the collections? Or what have you got that relates to post European urbanism in the collection? It requires interpretation. So that’s a long answer to say it does come from us, but it also comes a lot through learning from what practitioners want from the museum.

Male Voice: Thanks for that. An extension from that question, as a result of that has that had an influence on the [unintelligible 00:25:27] systems, the sort of work that’s happening at that more [unintelligible 00:25:32] level?

John Coburn: Yes. It’s not easy, but in response to that finding about the collections data, we produce a collections interface with [Microsoft] research, Newcastle University which was all about abstract thematic search and browsing, visual search. So it was effectively a good prototype that we built called Collections [unintelligible 00:25:56], which you want to have a look at. But it still didn’t fix the basic level problem which is the data is not good enough. So following that project, we’ve worked with collections and documentation teams just to reinforce the point, but also to support them with the idea that the user experience of our collections begins at the point of data entry.

So just imagine any kind of possible entry into that collection and how we would differently evolve our practice for folks who want to come in through a more abstract thematic way or a visual way. So it’s hard, we’ve done practical things, we still haven’t fixed the problems I don’t think.

Male Voice: I was just wondering if they had any challenges with securing the resource to pull off something like TNT and diverting it I guess from day to day running of the museums?

John Coburn: Yeah, it’s a permanent challenge. People are only there if they want to be there, unless they’re in my team, we rely on them being interested enough. You know it’s completely simple, but time consuming. We actually target and identify folks who we feel would benefit from being in this group. So the group is a representation of people who are interested, but also people who we’ve worked with over time to encourage that this could be a good thing ultimately for their practice, for people who otherwise might feel departmentally or organisationally separate, which is such a shame because there’s tons of [sparky] people within my organisation. Because our buildings are stretched across 20 miles of geography, there’s sometimes no reason for these people to be in contact.

There’s no department that would support them all to work on the same project. Their involvement in TNT, unless they’re delivering something, it’s relatively small really. So unless they can … you know, there’s only so much we can do advocacy wise, but I think over time the group and the results of the work that have been produced serve as advocacy to their wider teams.

Male Voice: As a follow on to that one which is how often does that team [unintelligible 00:28:27], like the practical [unintelligible 00:28:29] how does TNT work?

John Coburn: They meet every two months, the proposals come throughout the year. Generally two or three projects are funded every two months. Some aren’t finished and they give us the money back. But yeah, it’s always rolling and it’s always visible. I mean I’ve given two examples there of formats which is TNT and new perspectives, but they’re all intertwined and they’re all different channels that are effectively trying to do the same thing which is build creative practice and give it an outlet.

John Coburn asked ‘how a museum turns digital thinking into museum practice?’ at MuseumNext Australia in February 2017. 

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