At the end of this year’s Museums on the Web conference at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) we were asked what our “key takeaways” from the day were. The presentations and discussions covered a wide range of interesting topics but I was most impressed with the work going on in the area of public engagement with creating and using digital resources; and the emphasis of the importance of user-centred design processes in enabling this.
Mark O’Neill from the Government Data Service opened proceedings with a keynote speech highighting the challenges of improving user experience for the use of digital resources; particularly important given the commitment to “digital by default” for government services.
An interesting comparison was suggested: how are museums different from Ikea? Comparing a search across the Ikea website and a museum website (which will remain namless!) for an object, “vase” it was clear which one of these had a more seamless user experience: the commercial website was designed around the needs of users to easily achieve their goals (in this instance find a vase for sale) whilst the museum website lagged somewhat behind, its interface designed around the institution’s own internal language, not welcoming outsiders.
Subsequent speakers gave presentations on participatory projects initiated by their institutions. The Pallant House Gallery‘s Outside In project provides a platform for artists with disabilities to display their work, uploading images of it via a web interface developed in an iterative manner during workshops with the artists themselves. The next stage is to develop a mobile app which removes further boundaries to involvement: direct upload via mobile involves fewer cognitive steps as images can be selected directly from the device that created them.
Tom Grinsted from the Imperial War Museum and Claire Ross from UCL department of Digital Humanities described an IWM project in development to make use of visitors’ commentaries of museum objects: Social Interpretation — bringing the levels of engagement and interaction that users experience with social media to the museum environment. The project is being run using an agile methodology at all stages: design, development and management to ensure that the outputs are produced iteratively and thoroughly tested with users at every stage. The project aims to develop interfaces to allow visitors to add their commentaries and interpretations via kiosk in the museum and web and mobile outside.
Another exciting participatory project run by the IWM is Lives of the Great War: using public involvement to recreate the stories behind those who served and died in the First World War. It aims to support this by providing direct access to the various information resources, currently dispersed across the web, some behind paywalls. It is also hoped that the data generated will be released under a “CC0” licence (the most permissive Creative Commons licence) and be archived permanently.
Interestingly, the IWM were shown to be pioneers in crowdsourcing: their earliest request for objects and memorabilia from the Great War took part at the war’s end in the form of a leaflet included with ration books!
Issues surrounding crowdsourcing received attention: namely questions of moderation of content and authority. Some basic moderation can be handled technically (e.g. via filters to remove swearing) but the community itself can also be a useful moderation tool (as it is currently on the Guardian website). Data release under Creative Commons licences (particularly “CC0”) can be more problematic in some areas than others, e.g. the performing arts.
Other presentations covered some very interesting areas I haven’t discussed here, including planning and measuring your digital strategy, refining your metadata and demonstrations of some very innovative software; it will be worth checking the MCG website for links to the presentation slides.
Overall I was impressed with the level of innovation — and collaboration — in the sector; something I’m sure the digital humanities as a closely related area could learn from and share in.