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…
I’ve contributed a small piece to a forthcoming book to be published by Frogmore Press. Edited by Alexandra Loske, Languages of Colour consists of numerous poems and short essays on the theme of colour. It comes out on 31 May 2012.
I’m rather excited about this because although I’ve been published in a few places before, I can’t recall ever appearing in anything with an ISBN no. By virtue of my surname coming early in the alphabet, I even get to appear on the ISBN record for the book. This, amusingly, means there is now a record of me on Amazon. (Predictably however, it thinks I’m a different Kevin Bacon, although not that Kevin Bacon.)
Aside from the chance to get published in a reputable form, this book has presented me with an opportunity to explore a subject that has fascinated me for a few years: fakery in photography. Although most people have got used to the fact that Photoshop and other image editing software has dented the old cliche that the ‘camera never lies’, few realise that Photoshop merely revives a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of photography. I first became interested in this when researching a small collection of spirit photographs held by the Royal Pavilion and Museums. They are a fascinating collection, principally because they are strikingly inept examples of a very dubious practice. (If you’re interested in the full story behind these, I wrote about them for the Pavilion Review back in 2008, which can be downloaded for free.)
My piece for Languages of Colour is entitled ‘Blue Sky Thinking’, and is about the techniques employed by early photographers to compensate for the medium’s over-sensitivity to the colour blue. It is based on a single photograph of the Royal Pavilion.
Back when I was Curator of Photographs at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, I harboured the idea of holding an exhibition exploring the subject of photography and fakery. I never got round to it then, and having ceased to be a curator, I am unlikely to do so now. But I would love to go back to the idea one day, albeit in a different form. The phrase ‘colour mash up’ occasionally pops into my head, but I don’t quite know yet what that means…
No, not me. I don’t do that sort of thing.
But my wife, Samira, does. And she’s rather good at it. She’s now set up a website too: http://www.recordsmanagementconsultancy.co.uk/
A couple of weeks ago, the ZX Spectrum turned 30. Being one of the generation that grew up with Sir Clive Sinclair’s rubber key marvel, it was a chance to wallow in nostalgia. There was much to be nostalgic about. The Spectrum was a smart and attractive piece of industrial design, and far more artful than anything manufactured by Apple. It hosted a wonderful range of quirky, even mildly deranged games (there’s a good list of them on World of Spectrum, even if, criminally, Nodes of Yesod is only at no. 91). It also introduced many people to programming; although in my case the apogee of my coding career was the ability to make the display machines in Woolworths reel off GOTO loops declaring that ‘Woolies is rubbish’.
But there was one aspect of the Spectrum that I didn’t spot in any of the features and commentaries surrounding the anniversary: the software loading sequence. If you didn’t get to experience it at the time, this You Tube clip provides the entire loading and attract sequence of Manic Miner, one of the Speccy’s most famous games:
I hadn’t experienced this for some time, and I was surprised at how fondly I remembered this. Waiting nigh on five minutes for a piece of software to load seems an unbearably languorous process compared to modern devices But here’s the odd thing: I don’t recall this being much of a problem when I was a child. These days, waiting for my PC to boot is enough to drive me to tears, and that probably only takes half as long at most. Could it be that as a twelve year old boy I was a far more patient person than the present father of two on the cusp of 40?
I doubt it. When I was a kid, my daily use of the Spectrum was rationed by my parents to two hours a day. Those five minutes were precious. Having looked at the clip, and experiencing the load time in real time, I don’t think my memory is playing tricks on me. The long load was, curiously, all part of the fun.
How come? Well, first off, five minutes is a good time to wait for something, especially if you’re at home. You could set the game loading, go off and get a drink, read a comic, talk to your mate who has come round to play. 40 seconds or a minute for an app to load is not enough for that; but it is enough to stare at your iPhone screen with mounting annoyance. The five minute load time of the Spectrum was not directly demanding, but it was enough to build anticipation.
On top of this, the Spectrum load sequence was exciting. How busy it was! Flashes of colour, like a furious rainbow trapped in a jar; squalls of noise, like the feedback on a Jesus and Mary chain record: the Spectrum loading sequence left you in no doubt that exciting stuff was going on under the hood. This was raw data being pulled from magnetic tape into a metal box and magic was about to happen. It was like sitting in a dark theatre, the stage curtain down, listening to the orchestra tuning. Waiting for Windows to load is more akin to queuing in a lavatory and hearing the half-suppressed groans of the cubicle’s constipated occupant.
I’ve no idea whether the load sequence was deliberately designed for this effect. I rather doubt it was. But Sinclair Research pulled off the brilliant trick of taking a piece of inherent friction in the user experience, and turning it into a lo-fi dramatic device. Had it just silently flashed ‘Loading…’ with extensible ellipsis, it would have been a more elegant experience, but utterly dull.