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Appy Talking

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…


Faking photos

Languages of Colour book cover

Languages of Colour book cover

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…

Records Management Consultancy

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:



The unwitting theatre of the ZX Spectrum, and the improbable patience of a twelve year old boy

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.

Making a mess with Map the Museum

Last Friday, in my day job, I launched a new website called Map the Museum, developed with the help of Caper. I won’t say too much about it here, because it’s fairly self-explanatory if you play round with it, and I’m running an ‘official’ blog on the site that will tell you much more. But what I want to talk about here, is precisely what I can’t talk about through the official channel. And it’s a story about nerves.

When Map the Museum went live, I was unusually nervous. I nudged it on to the stage like an embarrassed parent, with a rather meek tweet announcing the URL. The only project I’ve ever worked on which has caused me anywhere near as much anxiety was the Indian Military Hospital gallery in the Royal Pavilion, which I co-curated a couple of years ago. My nerves then were fairly explicable: it was a small gallery receiving national publicity in a building that receives 300,000 odd visitors a year. Yet Map the Museum will probably only be used by a couple of thousand of users at most. Why did this project make me feel so nervous?

There are two reasons, I think. The first is fairly obvious, but the second is more interesting.

  1. Map the Museum is an experiment. Like all experiments worthy of the description, it could trot out of the stables and fall flat on its arse. Released in beta, with very little user testing before going public, that’s always a danger. Although it’s a very manageable danger, it’s hard not to be a little nervous.
  2. Map the Museum is messy. Not the site itself, which is surprisingly polished for a ‘hack’ project, but its content. The object data used in Map the Museum is unusually raw: it’s pulled direct from our collection management system with very little checking before publication.

If you have never worked in a museum, you may not find the second point very shocking. Even if you do work in a museum, you may still be fairly unmoved. But from the perspective of someone who has spent several years working on carefully prepared projects for public consumption — ranging from edited web text, to exhibitions designed to cater for a range of learning styles — this ‘dirty data’ approach is unnerving. It also seems to have spooked one or two of my curatorial colleagues. So why the hell did I do it?

Again, there are two reasons. Again, the second is the more interesting one.

  1. One of the aims of Map the Museum is to begin the development of an open data strategy. I’ll be writing more about this on the ‘official’ blog at a later date, but if we are to develop a genuine open data strategy then we will inevitably be in the position of releasing information which has not been verified or edited. This not only goes against many museum professionals’ instincts, but museum collection data is inherently problematic because it is an historical record. As any professional historian will tell you, you should always treat your sources with suspicion; as the Royal Pavilion and Museums collection data has been gathered and processed over 150 years, reflecting shifts in personnel and attitudes, there will always be factual errors and awkward expressions of information.
  2. I was intrigued by what it would be like to release a project which was stripped of professional interpretation. Interpretation is a fundamental element of museum practice. Part of their role is to engage and educate visitors, and objects don’t do that on their own. Interpretation has been a big part of my work over the last five or six years. So throwing it out of the window for this project feels like going into professional free fall.

At the time of writing, I still have absolutely no idea whether this was the right thing to do or not. I still feel uncomfortable with the idea. Yet it is refreshing to question my own assumptions, even if I expect to find a flurry of furious emails when I return to work tomorrow.

The public reception of this ‘dirty data’ will be fascinating. If it annoys people, it will confirm my assumptions. But if not, and if museum open data projects like this become more commonplace, they could pose a new and challenging question. If there is an audience willing to consume and re-use the sort of raw data that would previously be kept unpublished, does that change the value of interpretation? Will interpretation be seen as less of a skill and more of a means of withholding public information?

I hope not. There is no necessary tension between professional interpretation and open data. But there is often a tendency for debates to collapse into misleading dichotomies, and I often find discussions about digital technologies disappointingly unnuanced.

In most instances, such as gallery development, the need to educate visitors and engage with new audiences will always demand careful interpretation, and this debate is unlikely to arise. But it may become apparent in the development of online collections. Should you release 5000 records with well produced photographs, and meticulously edited text? Or should you simply dump 50,000 online, warts and all?

There is a bigger debate that surrounds this, of course, about the value of museums as trusted institutions, and the public right to information. But I suspect that one element of this discussion will always be conducted at the level of professional instinct: to shamelessly publish with only caveats for protection, or to remain a point of valuable authority in the digital domain?

My instincts are presently scrambled. I’m not sure they’ll be unscrambled any time soon.

The web and intertextual tellings of history

While clearing out a cupboard earlier today, I came across a CD with a somewhat enigmatic and illegible title scrawled upon it. Recognising this cryptic clue as my own handiwork, I bravely stuck it in the PC to find that it contained a number of documents I thought I’d lost in a hard drive failure several years ago. In truth, most of this material was probably worth losing, but I’ve just read through one essay that I am surprisingly unembarrassed about.

It was written as part of my Digital Media MA in late 2002-2003, and accompanied a DHTML project I developed on newspaper representations of refugees. The project itself I have yet to find, but as it was in flagrant breach of a variety of copyrights I doubt I’ll be uploading it here. But the essay works fairly well on its own.

The essay is about the archival nature of the web and, in particular, whether it delivers a more intertextual telling or reading of history. At the time of writing this I would never have dreamed that I would be working in a museum within a year, so I find myself in the odd position of reading my own outsider’s view from the perspective of someone who now works within an institution that archives and digitally outputs historic data. But I still find this train of thought exciting, and in case it touches on anyone else’s research or thinking, I shall share it here:  internet_archive_v2_final.

Now I just need to work out where museums fit into all this….


Are museums going post-digital?

Lat month, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Let’s Get Real Conference in Bristol. It was an invigorating and inspiring event, and I learned considerably more than I have yet to fully appreciate. At the end of the day, I was one of several people asked to present some take home thoughts for the day, and I really didn’t do the event justice. I praised the ambition of many of the people I had spoken to, but I ought really to have commended the candour of those who presented. Cheeringly, this ranged from the refreshingly honest insight into working life at Google from Tom Uglow, to the ‘failing forwards’ case studies of Emma McLean of the National Maritime Museum and Hugh Wallace of National Museums Scotland. If there was one simple lesson to be learned, it’s that failure can be the foundation of much greater successes.

I won’t attempt a summary of the day, as Hugh Wallace and Katie Smith have done much better jobs than I could manage. But I will reflect on one issue that I’ve been wrestling with since the end of the conference. Do museums need to become post-digital?

The idea was referenced by Tom Uglow in his opening keynote, and surfaced several times during the day. As I understand it, a post-digital culture is one where digital technology has become transparent: it has become so permeated into everyday life that we no longer reflect upon or feel challenged by its digital character. As I recall, Tom gave the generic example of an individual who is woken by their iPhone alarm, spends all day at work writing and reading emails, and goes home to watch BBC iPlayer while tweeting on their mobile. Although the individual will spend most of their waking time immersed in digital media, they will not be particularly conscious of this fact.

If one accepts this concept, there are many conclusions that can be drawn. One inference is that museums should no longer pursue digital strategies per se, but accept that their broader range of strategies, policies and procedures will have a significant digital element.  I have a lot of sympathy with this argument, as it is clearly absurd for digital technologies to be utilised without reference to the organisation’s wider strategy. But this does not necessarily mean that digital strategies are inherently problematic.

The problem, for me, is twofold. First, I don’t believe in the post-digital thesis. It implies stability: for digital technology to become transparent it must not surprise you. Yet the current experience of digital technology is that it is restlessly disruptive. Many of the big players in the digital industry were barely known five years ago, and most of us would hesitate to predict who will be the dominant players in five years time. That’s a commonplace observation, but what underpins this process is that the development of digital media and their infrastructures are driven by fervent capitalism. There is a commercial need to innovate, replace and differentiate that is inherently disruptive. In this model, stability could only be a symptom of commercial complacency and a lack of competition. This may happen one day, but there’s little sign of it yet.

The second problem is that of digital divides. If we consider new models of working in the museum sector, we must consider the scalability of those models. If it works for the British Museum, will it also work for a volunteer run museum in a small Surrey town? The answer, quite reasonably, may be ‘no’, but we should acknowledge the limitations of such models when we advocate them for the wider museum sector.

My concern is that advocating the abandonment of digital strategies will alienate those museums who have yet to go digital. To move away from a digital strategy implies that you went ‘digital’ in the first place, and I suspect an awful lot of museums have yet to do this. Yes, they may regularly use email and host a website, but many have yet to work towards placing their collections online, engaging in social media, or, more vitally, bringing digital thinking into the heart of their organisation. Such decisions, while often reasonable, are frequently formed by internal discussions, and a digital strategy can be an effective tool for providing impetus to expand into these areas. Claiming that we have moved away from such strategies seems rather premature in cases like these.

At the Let’s Get Real conference, I remarked that I wasn’t even convinced my own museum service has gone fully digital yet, and claimed that it was far too early for us to consider going post-digital. I quipped that perhaps we should consider the process of digital transformation as being akin to Marx’s model of historical materialism: a series of necessary revolutions, in which each social transformation eventually sows the seeds of its own replacement. It was a rather wild remark, but I do think there is something to be learned from Marx.

Now, while the disintegration of the late capitalist system has proven Marx right in a great many things, I’m not quite foolish enough to make him a soothsayer for the digital age. But the revolutionary dynamic described by Marx is only the most well known example of a broader set of theories of historical change. Marx’s theory of historical materialism was heavily influenced by Hegel’s conception of history as societal progress, and echoes of this model can also be found in the early work of Michel Foucault.

While neither the Marxist nor Hegelian model of change adequately fit the development of digital technology, they do describe a process of recurring transformations that seems appropriate. The growth of the digital, in museums as anywhere, has been less one of smooth evolution, and more a process of sudden shifts. The problem with both Marx and Hegel, however, and one often shared by their intellectual descendants, is that their models of history end in a static and stable state. For Marx it was the communist utopia; for Hegel it was the end of history, exemplified, somewhat myopically, by the contemporary Prussian state. Yet history shows that history has yet to end, and I suspect the post-digital life will befall a similar state.

Perhaps it is best to think of the digital as a series of revolutions, and borrow and shamelessly refit Trotsky’s notion of permanent revolution. The problem, then, is one of navigation: how do we cope with this disruption? This is where Culture 24’s Let’s Get Real report proves so helpful. It is debatable whether its work will lead to a standardised set of metrics that are used by funders and governing bodies alike, but for me this is hardly the point. What is so valuable about this document is that it outlines the debates and the possibilities; it provides a framework for discussion, and in terms of breaching the digital divide in the museum sector, this is enormously useful stuff.