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Murder in the Manor: a confession

May 3, 2013

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?’

The other:

‘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.

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