During the last 18 months or so there have been frequent occasions when I have found myself griping or grimacing at the use of the word ‘curating’. Until now, I’ve not bothered to elaborate on my reasons for this, largely because I consider both the use of the word, and my objection to it, to be fairly trivial. But I was recently pulling a face at the word in the presence of someone who assumed my reaction was a conservative one. This riled me slightly, as I don’t like being considered conservative. So it’s time to explain myself.
As someone who used to be a ‘proper’ curator — in the sense of having the word in my job title, and with formal responsibility for a physical collection — it’s easy to assume that my objection is based on the fact that the word is used inaccurately. These days, anyone who organises, gathers, or refers others to online content can be called a curator; surely this is irksome to someone who has performed the traditional curating of museum objects?
But this is not the basis of my objection. There is no ‘proper’ immutable definition of ‘curating’. Language is shaped by use, and evolves over time. Etymology should not trump popular contemporary use. ‘Curating’ is no more bound to practices associated with physical objects than ‘photography’ is restricted to describing the creation of images through light sensitive chemicals.
The reason I dislike the word ‘curating’ is the reason I never used the word when I was a curator, never used it prior to becoming one, and have avoided using it since: it just doesn’t say very much.
For me, ‘curating’ is a bit like ‘policing’. It’s a word that describes a broad series of activities, but not much more. All policemen ‘police’, but I doubt that many police officers use the word to describe the day to day activities of their job. ‘Policing’ can cover anything from directing traffic to solving murders. If I were to ask a policeman what she had been doing at work that day, and her response was that she had been ‘policing’, I would probably think she was being either deliberately evasive or aggressively fatuous.
‘Curating’ and ‘policing’ are perfectly useful terms to describe a set of social functions, but the concepts are better suited to describing a role. Policemen and curators perform lots of different functions, and the broad term is a helpful generic description. But the value of that job cannot be adequately conveyed through such a vague term. To appreciate the importance of a policeman in society, we need to understand the different activities she performs. We can measure the value of a policeman by analysing or measuring the traffic she controls or the murders she solves; we cannot judge or even understand the role by considering how much ‘policing’ she does.
In practice, although all museum curators perform a similar function, their day to day activities will vary according to the organisation and context in which they work. A curator at a national or university museum may have a primarily academic role. At a tiny independent museum, where they may not even have a salaried position, the curator may be more likely to be sorting out a blocked toilet than giving a paper at a conference. These are all valuable activities in some sense, and all ‘curating’ according to a broad sense of the word, but those actions are best understood in narrower, more precise terms.
I believe there are two intertwined reasons why ‘curating’ has become such a fashionable term for various types of online activity. First, it sounds posh. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that: the connotative aspects of language are important, and if they can valorise a beneficial but overlooked activity, this can be helpful. But an activity cannot be defended by connotative value alone; it also needs clarity.
The second reason, and one that may seem more persuasive, is that a popular appropriation of ‘curating’ can effect a democratic shift in power. Curatorial knowledge and expertise is no longer reserved for and protected by a small professional elite; it is open to anyone who wishes to curate. Curatorial power has shifted from the cathedral to the bazaar, in a manner analagous to the shift in authority from proprietary to open source models of software creation.
Laudable though this model may be, it fundamentally misunderstands the basis of curatorial authority. Many curators win their positions through prior expertise and years of studying their chosen subject, but their unique knowledge and authority comes from their privileged access to the collections and the associated archives. That privilege is based on the time they are able to spend with that material, and their ease of access. I know this from personal experience. When I became the Royal Pavilion & Museum’s Curator of Photographs back in 2007, my expertise only indirectly and partially came from prior knowledge and study. It was simply having access and time to work with the collections that gave me the knowledge that allowed me to be seen as an expert of sorts.
I certainly do not object to the redistribution of power through digital media, but it makes little sense to describe this as a popularisation of ‘curating’. Curatorial power is predicated on proximity and exclusive forms of access to physical material that is inherently finite and difficult to distribute. As that material becomes digital, and infinitely reproducible and distributable, the exclusivity of access that marks curatorial power no longer applies. Digitisation and open access do not mark a redistribution of curatorial power: it’s a form of empowerment that is alien to the model of curatorial control. Popular ‘curating’ is an ambitious oxymoron.
If I have one, perhaps non-trivial objection to the over-use of the word ‘curating’ it’s this: many of the online activities described as ‘curating’ are essential for networked models of knowledge distribution, but we do them a disservice by describing them with such a nebulous word. Directing others to useful content, enhancing existing media, and making connections between otherwise disparate pieces of information are all vital activities for the dissemination of knowledge and understanding. ‘Curating’ undersells them.
I’d urge anyone about to use the word ‘curating’ to pause. Just stop for a moment and think: is there a better verb (or gerund) that could be used? Is the ‘curator’ really selecting, ordering, annotating, remixing, recirculating, or even just pointing? All are valuable activities and all best served by words that may be less glamorous but provide more clarity.
To turn this example on its head, when I look back on my time as a curator, the activities that capture that job in my memory are not the occasional TV interview or exhibition preview. For me, the essence of curation is lugging heavy boxes of physical objects. A decidedly unglamorous activity, but it was usually one that led to me doing something of lasting value. If I was moving collections, it was usually because they were being prepared for display, digitisation, or conservation. All important elements of ‘curating’ — but all best described by plainer, less ambiguous language.
Earlier this week,, I attended the excellent Let’s Get Real conference which took place, handily for me, in Brighton. The evening reception took place in Brighton Museum, where the report was launched. Immediately following the launch, I took part in a show and tell session, promoting Story Drop, a new smartphone app we’ve developed with Surface Impression.
There was a rather whopping irony in this. The introduction to the report notes that one of the barriers to making good use of digital is that, ‘senior management want us to build big, shiny new showcase digital “things” that will show everyone we are cool (app, kiosk, game etc.)’, a point Sejul Maide also makes in this article for The Guardian. Yet Story Drop (present teething bugs aside) is almost an archetype of the big, shiny thing, and looks to run almost entirely against the spirit of the Let’s Get Real project and its subsequent report.
All of which suggests that our showcased app really ought to have had the status of a serial adulterer preaching at a True Love Waits wedding. To compound the sin, Story Drop is one of a series of (arguably) big, shiny, new things (BSNTs) I’ve worked on over the last couple of years for the Royal Pavilion and Museums, which include an experimental crowdsourcing project, a couple of apps, and a gamish thing.
Now, this post will not be a defence of the BSNT: ‘innovation’, which is what most BSNTs are promoted under, has always struck me as a limited virtue in isolation. Nor will I take issue with the general thrust of the argument: I should stress that the Let’s Get Real report contains some very useful advice and helpful analysis, and I would strongly recommend that anyone working with digital in the cultural sector ought to read it. Plus, having met Sej a couple of times, I have a lot of respect for him, and largely agree with his article. Who can contest the simple point that if an app or other digital product is produced solely for its value as a BSNT, then some deeply flawed thinking is at work?
My concern is that the BSNT is a mostly mythical beast. I have observed a good deal of discussion over the last year or so about a lack of strategy in digital activity by the cultural sector, but I can’t recall ever seeing any bad examples cited. This is entirely understandable: as a sector, we don’t like to point fingers and name and shame, and since much of this discussion is driven by those who have to work with other organisations, whether through working as a freelancer or by representing a governing or advisory body, no one wishes to risk souring relationships with old, new or potential partners. But without being able to discuss the bad examples of digital work, the debate is a little like fighting shadows.
I would also question how we may ever judge a BSNT? It’s easy to criticise the design, functionality and user experience of a digital product, but making the claim that something is ‘unstrategic’ or ‘non-strategic’ seems fairly difficult to me unless you know a lot about the circumstances and motivations behind it. I’ve seen lots of digital initiatives from cultural organisations that have made me raise a sceptical eyebrow, but unless I’d read the organisation’s forward plan, knew of their aims and objectives for the project (which may not be immediately obvious), and knew something of the impact of that initiative, I’d hesitate to criticise it for a lack of strategic direction.
I’m also sceptical of how much of a magpie mentality really motivates these projects. All the BSNTs I’ve recently worked on have emerged from grappling with a particular audience focused problem — how to reach particular demographics, and how to forge new relationships with co-producers. The starting point has never been to develop an app, website or other form of BSNT; the final form has always been that which best suited the ambitions and audience. Moreover, I can’t recall ever being asked by senior management to produce an app. True, apps and other BSNTs are an easy sell, but in my experience most senior managers need proof of engagement or return on investment. You can’t spin an unsuccessful BSNT for very long.
It is also worth remembering that the impulse to create BSNTs is part of the DNA of museum culture. Think of Richard Owen’s Natural History Museum, envisioned as a ‘cathedral to nature’. Consider the continuing appeal of the blockbuster exhibition. Ask yourself why museums employ designers and take so much care over the look of exhibitions? Historically, museums have done very well by making things big, shiny and new, for the simple reason that they help make an impact on the popular imagination. That impulse should not account for the whole of a museum’s focus, and there is a clear need to adopt new practices; but I doubt it will be swiftly swept away by new agile, iterative practices that have yet to fully make their case. And besides, while there are many reasons why apps are an unwise investment, people like them — and as I’ve previously argued, that can always be a factor in making a business case for developing them.
Bigness, shinyness, newness and even thingyness should not be a cause for judgement. At worst, these are ill-conceived distractions. Dismissing digital products solely on this basis reeks a little of fashionable cat calling; how long before trends tilt, and we start to scorn the apparently rarely used open data API, or a crowdsourcing initiative with seemingly low activity? All that matters is data, and evidence of real impact. And that, I think, is really the essence of what Let’s Get Real is trying to achieve.
I have a problem with video games. My problem is not that I dislike them (I’ve been a gamer for a good 30 years or so now) or that I think they’re harmful (which is nonsense) or that I suffer from an addiction to them (a family and a job keep me on the straight and narrow there). My problem is a professional one. At the Royal Pavilion and Museums I’ve toyed with the idea of making a game for a couple of years now, but every time I have the opportunity to make one, I end up taking the game bit out.
Now, I am not a professional game developer. I’m a museum employee who happens to work with digital media, so there is no clear reason why I should be developing video games in the first place. And the reasons why I don’t make games are well thought through and, I believe, fundamentally sound. But while I don’t make games, I keep producing digital projects which are heavily influenced by games, even though it’s a struggle to call any one of them a ‘game’. The problem is one of identity. I’ve described them in the past as ‘non-games’, borrowing from this Wikipedia article, but I’d prefer to call them ‘gamish’. But even if you accept ‘gamish’ as an appropriate adjective, it doesn’t lend itself to any noun other than ‘game’. Which puts me back in the field of the ‘non-game’ or, perhaps, a ‘post-game’, if that didn’t sound like something bored staff might play in a sorting office.
So what are these gamish, gameless, ungames I’m referring to? Map the Museum was the first example of this. Although it’s a fairly dry, data-focused crowdsourcing project, its deliberate simplicity makes it feel quite playful, and some users have commented that it feels like a game. For my part, I’ve always thought of it as the heritage equivalent of a jigsaw in a waiting room, that attracts occasional contributions from those with an idle interest.
Story Drop, a forthcoming smartphone app we’re developing with Surface Impression, is also a bit gamish. It’s a geolocation treasure hunt of sorts, with rewards and even a points system, yet it’s not really a game. It’s an interpretation tool, and it doesn’t make any attempt to hide this.
Murder in the Manor is the closest I’ve come to producing a game. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the project was originally conceived as a collaboration with game development students, but even when the project took off on a radically different tangent, gaming was in its DNA. The original project description I posted on Wired Sussex cited classic Lucasarts’ point and click adventures as one of the reference points for what we were trying to create, but that was the last time gaming was mentioned during its development. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the last minute decision to establish some prior activity before the user could attempt to solve the murder, there would have been nothing structurally resembling a challenge in the final product. Even now, it’s the fictional genre, the inherently ludic murder mystery, that is closest to a traditional game.
It was only a few weeks after launch that I took to reluctantly calling Murder in the Manor a game. Most people who used it agreed that it was obviously influenced by video games, but felt that it wasn’t really a game. At various points it’s been described as an interactive experience, or a piece of online fiction, but although these descriptions are reasonably accurate they make it sound like a sort of nebulous CD ROM experience from the 1990s. The decision to call it a game was really a striving for simplicity within the harsh attention economy of online stuff. But it comes at a cost. Considered purely as a game, Murder in the Manor is probably a bit rubbish. Given that the game elements were rapidly sloughed off from its design, that’s hardly surprising.
So why didn’t I just take the path of developing a straightforward game? That would have been an option with obvious appeal. Games are growing in popularity, and some museum games, such as the Wellcome Collection’s High Tea, have proven successful in engaging with hard to reach demographics such as 16-24 year olds. They are also being increasingly used in education, and from the conversations I’ve had with local teachers, the BBC’s selection of games are a popular resource. For more personal reasons, I’m also attracted to the idea of making games. Aside from being an incorrigible gamer, I have a lingering academic interest in the subject: many years ago I wrote a Master’s dissertation on video game space (featuring some brutal mashing of Kantian epistemology), and briefly started a PhD on the use of historical narratives within video games. But when it comes to actually developing video games for the purpose of a museum, I’m always struck by a number of severe practical and conceptual problems.
- Video games are expensive. Even the simplest video game requires relatively complex rule based dynamics, which take time to design and program. They also require assets such as sound effects, graphics and visual design, which need to be professionally produced. All of this adds up into a costly piece of work, and although the Royal Pavilion and Museums is presently fortunate to have some substantial funding for digital projects, we have not had anywhere near enough to commission an established game developer.
- There is a lot of competition out there, from dedicated video game developers with budgets that would dwarf even the wealthiest museum. Why would anyone play a video game that we produce, when there is so much choice elsewhere? Even a free game is competing with a lot of other free or low cost games in the App Store and elsewhere.
- Video games rely on systems of player-induced cause and effect which create pleasing feedback loops. Some subjects lend themselves well to depiction in this form, such as physics (eg. the Science Museum’s Launchball), or military and economic history. But how do you tell the history of the suffragette movement through a video game, without becoming crass? Can a video game adequately convey the historical development of impressionism without simply bolting game mechanics onto a linear narrative? It may not be impossible, and the Assassin’s Creed games are one example of a big budget video game series that does a remarkable job at telling nuanced historical truths within a fictional grand narrative; but my suspicion is that smaller, more casual games will struggle to articulate this.
- Even where video games do subjects well, do they do collections well? Tate Kids have done some great work encouraging players to think about the construction and form of art, but it seems to me that many museum games are really about subjects rather than collections. Which is fine, if your museum’s mission is to tell a particular story or promote one cause, or if the game is developed to support a focused exhibition. But for a museum service like the Royal Pavilion and Museums — which like most Victorian civic museums is an accidental jumble of collections bound by time, place and ambitions of permanence — our mission statement is bound by our collections rather than any subject, and this needs to be reflected in our digital activity.
- It’s very, very easy to make a bad video game. As much as I love the medium, the great, or even half-decent games are outnumbered by a colossal amount of crap. To produce a good video game on limited resources requires affordable talent and a lot of luck. It can be a very risky venture.
So where does this leave any museum looking to engage with gaming cultures? Gamification may present itself as a halfway house, but as Ian Bogost has persuasively argued, gamification is bullshit. The term has already been sullied by too many superfluous badges and empty pointsification treadmills to be redeemed as anything meaningful.
One way forward, in my view, is to look at the example of some recent pieces of digital work which have been released through gaming channels, but which defy the description of games. These are the non-games I mentioned earlier, and Dear Esther, Journey and Proteus are the poster children of this slender movement (although it’s so insubstantial that ‘twitch’ may be more appropriate than ‘movement’). These three products are very different from one another: Dear Esther is a single user progression through a linear narrative punctuated by a voiceover; Journey is a wordless narrative with heavily mediated social interaction; Proteus is an entirely unnarrated exploration of a procedurally generated island. Yet, aside from the fact that these are all distributed through traditional gaming channels such as Steam and Playstation Network, these ‘non-games’ share one feature. The experience is derived from the pleasure of traversing through a rich spatial environment. This is not a feature that is unique to these particular works; Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto and many other video games rely on rich imaginary environments that frame the player’s actions. But what is striking about the non-game approach is how potent this sense of exploration can be in the absence of any clearly defined game mechanics.
Dear Esther in particular was a huge inspiration for Murder in the Manor, even if they bear few similarities or comparison. If you haven’t yet played Dear Esther, stop reading this and go and spend the £5 or whatever Steam is presently charging for it. It’s a wonderful journey; and for all its wrapping as a game, for me it’s more of a unique form of modernist literature than a game. What struck me when first ‘playing’ through it, was how such a powerful experience could be created from the fairly stripped elements of space and story. The player doesn’t ‘do’ anything other than walk and look around an island, and listen to a story. Although (mild spoiler alert) the landscape and story of Dear Esther are closely entwined, this got me thinking. Museums and historic houses provide spaces which feel very unlike everyday life; museums are also places for telling stories. A few of my colleagues had already done some good work with young people producing great creative writing inspired by our museums. But putting this material online always made the material feel slightly sterile, and its appeal was diminished by separation from its context. Could we create a digital experience that combined story and space to make an engaging experience that would not only give this creative writing a greater audience, but also promote our collections in a new way?
Preston Manor was an obvious choice, as its authentic history is, to be frank, of marginal appeal, and much of its interpretation, whether through role play or ghost tours, has always leaned towards the fictive. It’s also a site that is hard to promote, and although visitors enjoy the experience, it’s in a remote area of Brighton for many people, and lacks an obvious hook to entice visitors. When a colleague recommended the Little Green Pig writing group (whose motto, aptly, is ‘space to create’) and Say Digital came up with a stable and evocative way of representing the space of Preston Manor, Murder in the Manor folded together.
Of course, Murder in the Manor bears little resemblance to Dear Esther or any of the other works mentioned here. It’s not a studio creation; it was put together in just over six months; and as a slightly improvised collaboration between three organisations, an illustrator, and the eleven young writers who created the story, it may even feel a little thrown together. Yet it has achieved some small but extraordinary things. The visitor numbers have not been huge, although they have stabilised at around 300 visits a month. In part, that’s a result of the decision to build Murder in the Manor in HTML 5 rather than as an app or Flash game. Accessing the site is much more fluid to the casual visitor, and will happily work on iOS devices, but it has meant that we could not promote it through recognised channels like the App Store or Kongregate.
But the quality of engagement has been hugely encouraging. Average dwell time on the manor ‘tour’ sits at between 20 and 30 minutes per month (this compares to 3 – 4.5 minutes on our other websites). As an average this is heavily skewed by outliers, but the site regularly receives visitors spending between 45 minutes and well over an hour on the site. The event tracking also indicates that users aren’t simply looking around the rooms of Preston Manor. They actively engage with the ‘clues’, the stories written by the young writers. Indeed, the number of stories read in a month equates to about half the number of monthly views of posts on our more established blog. There is also strong evidence from Google Analytics that the site is being used by schools in Sussex. I don’t know why, or even precisely where, but there has been clear evidence of it being used in a classroom environment on a couple of occasions, even though the site has never been promoted to schools.
What makes this really remarkable is that the experience is entirely ‘uncurated’, in the sense that it is unmediated by any professional museum voice. I may have hatched the initial idea, but when a user spends an hour or so on Murder in the Manor, they are immersing themselves in content that has nothing to do with me or my colleagues. Enter Murder in the Manor, and it’s simply you, the manor, and the voices of the young writers. Take into account that the murder mystery takes the form of an unusual non-linear narrative (not always the most popular form of storytelling), and that we have previously found it very hard to engage audiences with online content produced by young people, and this level of engagement becomes quite astonishing. It’s certainly far exceeded my expectations.
So where does this leave ‘gamish’ work? Although I’m looking at adapting the methodology used for creating Murder in the Manor for another project, I don’t think the structure would work outside of historic houses. For me, the technology is of secondary importance (although Say Digital did a great job on the site). What’s exciting about Murder in the Manor is how it demonstrates that the gamish framing of outsider voices can create immersive and oblique celebrations of our collections. The value lies in the broad approach rather than the practical implementation. I suspect that narrowly defined ‘games’ may not prove a great (or even sustainable) leap forward for museum engagement; but gamish digital experiences that play with the expectations and literacies of visitors steeped in gaming culture may provide potent experiences that just might fuse new relationships between users, collections and museums.
The only problem is what to call the damn things.
I seem to have a thing about the letter ‘m’. Last year, one of the digital projects I worked on at the Royal Pavilion & Museums was called Map the Museum, a crowdsourcing website. This year, we’ve just released Murder in the Manor, a storytelling project based on Preston Manor. Perhaps next year I should consider Monster Munch Madness, a corn snack eating competition in the Pavilion gardens.
Alliteration aside, Map the Museum and Murder in the Manor are completely different projects, and they probably appear almost antithetical in spirit. Map the Museum is hacky, expressly experimental, and developed on an iterative model. It explores a number of themes current in digital thinking, which I recently discussed in a piece in Museum I-D magazine, co-written with Rachel Coldicutt of Caper. Murder in the Manor, on the other hand, appears hi-tech but feels old-fashioned: it’s decidedly non-iterative in its build, and the collaborative element was restricted to the production. As a user experience, it’s very Web 1.0.
Yet there’s more linking the two than you might think.
Mice, men and death by indifference
Murder in the Manor is a Plan B. Back in spring 2012 I found myself with funding to develop a digital project with young people. My original plan was to work with some young students on a game development course run by a local learning provider, but in spite of some initial enthusiasm, it proved impossible to get a firm agreement in place. With time running short to deliver the project, I merged the idea with something I’d been thinking about for a while. I have held a long fascination with video games, and was particularly interested in the way in which they tell stories through a navigable space. Could these mechanics be adapted to support creative writing in museum galleries and historic houses?
I’ll post more about this aspect at some point, but this really was the sum of my creative input. The rest of my time was spent juggling other people’s talents: Little Green Pig recruited the young writers, and developed the story; Say Digital did a tremendous job in producing the website; Fat Sand made a great video to document the process. Best of all, the young writers came together to produce a compelling narrative, which is surprisingly sophisticated and subtle in places. You can read more about how these elements came together on the blog posts I wrote during the project.
But this method of production wasn’t just a pragmatic response to circumstances. It also reflects my frustration with other models of digital participation. Map the Museum is a case in point. It’s had good feedback from those who have used it, and the only vague criticisms I’ve ever received were from those who wanted to see other elements added. But Map the Museum tends to be admired from afar. Very few people spend the time to contribute to it. There are lots of reasons why this is the case, not least the fact that pinning historic objects to a map of Brighton & Hove requires some degree of specialist knowledge; but I also suspect that a lot of those who look at the site and who could contribute, choose not to do so. They prefer to be passive. Which is hardly surprising if, like me, you still believe that the 90-9-1 rule governs participatory behaviour.
I was also reacting to my experience with an open data project called New Cabinets for New Curiosities which we ran for last year’s Brighton Digital Festival. We offered an incentive for people to develop prototypes with our collection data and images which we would showcase in the museum. In spite of a lot of apparent interest on Twitter, we only received one submission. Fortunately, it turned out to be a very good one, but I was surprised by how little interest the opportunity attracted. Even with an £8000 commission on offer, we only received two enquiries.
In retrospect, there are lots of reasons why New Cabinets didn’t work, and many of them are a result of timing: the summer of 2012 was a bad time to launch any open participatory project. But I also suspect there is a cultural issue at work. Many people simply don’t see the relevance of museum data, and possibly find it hard to comprehend without guidance.
This is really just a hunch, but I found some evidence for this in the form of two post-it notes on the New Cabinets display. (I’d made these available by the way; they weren’t politely reversible graffiti.) One said:
‘What do you mean by digitised collections?’
‘Where’s the exhibition?’
It would be unwise to put too much weight on a pair of anonymous comments, but this confusion made me think that simply releasing open data and re-useable media is not enough for a museum. There are huge cultural and language barriers to cross.
I don’t consider myself a technologist, and my interest in open data is based purely on what might be created from it. But aside from the problems non-specialists may face in comprehending museum data, there are deep rooted expectations at work. Museums are still primarily seen as worthy, monolithic institutions in which the user experience is essentially passive. An active culture of remaking, adapting, and sharing takes time to create. Thinking along these lines made me realise that both Map the Museum and New Cabinets were placing the museum in a passive role. We were essentially opening up our assets and handing them over: laudable, perhaps, but we were still keeping aloof from the collaborative process. If we really want people to start remixing and reworking our assets, we have to start doing this ourselves.
It was this anxiety that triggered Murder in the Manor. It’s a mash-up, and one in which the museum is actively mashing. Preston Manor was opened up to the writers, and they were encouraged to reimagine the building in way that was inspired but unbounded by its history. We exercised very little editorial intervention in the writing process, and once the stories were complete, the website and the design were all shaped by the museum in response to the writers’ vision. (A few people have remarked that it looks as if the stories were bolted onto the panoramic tour, but it was actually the other way round.)
The end result seems to baffle a few people. I’m hugely proud of it, partly because it’s so uncompromisingly counter-curatorial. But it also shows what can be created if you adopt a very playful approach to a museum’s assets. That spirit of creative play, which the young writers developed so quickly when the space was opened up to them, is what drives Murder in the Manor. But for museums to create a space for play they cannot simply define the boundaries in which playful behaviour can occur; they need to actively play with their own assumptions and expectations, and those of their audiences.
I've spent the last two Saturdays at Preston Manor, where I've witnessed twelve young people plot a murder.
You may be relieved to learn that this is an entirely fictional murder, and these young writers are doing for Preston Manor what Brighton crime novelist Peter James did for the Royal Pavilion last year. With the help of creative writing group…
Last night, I did a brief turn at the Museums Showoff night in Brighton. It was a fun night: the format worked well, and it was good to have a chance to mingle with one’s professional peers in a state of mild inebriation. The organisers, Steve Cross and Rachel Souhami, deserve a big thanks for putting this together, along with Rosie Clarke of Culture 24. If you get the chance to go along to a Showoff night — or, better still to perform — I’d highly recommend it.
My turn, entitled The Joy of X was about the history of mapping in Brighton, using the Royal Pavilion and Museums Map the Museum as a jumping off point. My thesis, in so far as it was coherent beneath the layers of lame jokes and innuendo I deployed, was that there is a tradition of using maps to convey narratives that has been largely lost. Digital mapping, and the ability to augment this with additional data, provides an opportunity to revisit and revive this tradition.
In case it’s of any interest, you can download the slideshow I used last night. There is very little text, so I doubt it will make much sense on its own. But if nothing else it’s a chance to enjoy the entertaining photos at the end of the presentation. These are selections from a large collection held by the Royal Pavilion and Museums showing Ordnance Survey officials marking revision points in Brighton. They are one of the funniest collections we hold. We’ve well over a hundred of these photos, and one day, we really, really ought to do an exhibition of these. Until then, I’ll leave you with this wonderful image of a man marking the spot with little concern for his safety…
A few weeks ago I gave a talk at the Heritage Impact 2012 conference at Brighton University alongside Peter Pavement of Surface Impression.We were originally going to talk about the Brighton Museums smartphone app, but we made an eleventh hour decision to broaden our talk to include the mobile content in the new World Stories gallery at Brighton Museum, also developed by Surface Impression. You can find the slides here.
Our decision to broaden the focus of the talk was partly due to the fact that the conference was held on the eve of the gallery opening. But it was also in response to a recent feature in Museum Practice about mobile use, including a case study on the Brighton Museums app (with my tatty HTC on modelling duties). One section (unfortunately requiring Museums Association membership to access) debated whether smartphone apps were a better use of technology than mobile optimised web content. Our presentation was a small way of suggesting that both approaches can be validly used by a single organisation working with a single developer.
Since then, I’ve noticed growing scepticism about apps from museum technologists. There was a strong whiff of this at the Engaging Digital Audiences in Museums conference in Manchester last week, and although I did not attend Mobile Culture 2 earlier this week, a certain distaste for apps seemed to hang over many of the tweets using the hashtag. Apps seem to be in danger of becoming the new QR codes: dead end technology for the unenlightened.
I may be exaggerating slightly, but some discussions around technology remind me less of Gartner’s Hype Cycle, and more of a see-saw that flaps furiously until the technology under consideration is thrown off. For instance, I’ve joked in the past that QR codes are the Japanese knotweed of the information age, but I do believe they can be used effectively. Their deployment simply needs to be given more consideration, explained and contextualised, rather than simply slapped onto a poster with the expectation that magic will happen. Earlier this year, Mashable published an hilarious piece on QR code misuse, but we should not assume this is the whole of the story.
Even so, there is one striking difference between apps and QR codes. There is still very little evidence that many people use or even like the idea of QR codes. Yet apps are clearly popular. That’s observable at the macro level, in the conspicuous success of the App Store and Google Play, but the evidence can also be found at the micro level, in individual case studies. They can be hard to directly monetise, but if ways can be found around that, then the take up is good. We need to conduct more evaluation on the Brighton Museums app, which will follow the launch of the next update, but the early evidence indicates a high conversion rate of downloads to site visits and it seems to be doing a good job of promoting our sites on the fringes of Brighton.
What a lot of technologists miss, I suspect, is that the bounded form of apps seems to appeal. It’s an element of definition that is prior to the technology, and therefore easy to overlook, but it can often be found in language. Earlier today, a colleague of mine told me about his new iPad, and remarked that he liked apps because it was nice to have ‘things’. I doubt his instinctive response is unique, and this should hardly surprise us. We all know that the package often makes the product, and part of that process takes place prior to the branding and the look of a product; sometimes it’s simply down to the shape of things. That’s something I often see with my children. Lately, they have a fondness for Yeo Valley yogurts that come in the form of Yeotubes, plastic tubes of yogurt. The yogurt seems to be exactly the same stuff one may otherwise find in a pot, and the supposed convenience of them is largely lost on us all – especially when the tube spurts all over the kids’ chins. My children also seem fairly uninterested in the branding. It simply seems to be the shape and format of the product that appeals. I’ve spotted a similar effect with cheese strings too. People are attracted to things by their form and shape, and if you think that’s something we grow out of as adults, then just think back to when you first saw an iPad…
While I don’t believe apps are a sensible choice of technology for all purposes, I do believe they will be a big part of the museum digital landscape. Developing sustainable business models and creative uses of apps is a challenge. But the basic ‘appyness’ of the app — that fundamental appeal that’s clumsy to articulate but too potent to ignore — provides a foundation to build on.
And if that’s not enough to persuade you, then bear in mind that releasing an app can still generate a surprising amount of press attention. When we launched the Brighton Museums app last October, there was TV interest, and The Argus ran this flattering, if slightly baffling, story about the app. The coverage would have been more fitting if I’d developed a time travel device, but the press was helpful. I certainly don’t think we would have got the same level of interest with a mobile optimised website…