Computer Club awesomeness: An interview with IWM’s Carolyn Royston

One of the coolest ideas that I picked up at Museums and the Web this year was the Imperial War MuseumsComputer Club; an “informal club for all staff that aims to provide a hands-on experience with technology.” It was so cool, in fact, that I’ve asked Carolyn Royston, Head of Digital Media at the IWM, to tell us a bit more about it.

Carolyn Royston, IWM
Carolyn Royston, IWM

Carolyn, first up, can you tell me what Computer Club is and how it all works?

Computer Club is a new museum-wide initiative that we launched in May. The Digital Media department runs informal monthly lunchtime sessions that aim to develop digital awareness and skills across the museum. It’s open to everyone and we run the club across all of our five sites. We want to introduce staff to new digital things in a very practical hands-on way, perhaps try something they normally wouldn’t get an opportunity to do in their job and hopefully just get excited about digital. We have specifically made it informal and non-museum focussed so that people will come along and just have fun in a relaxed and friendly environment.

The initial sessions you’re running cover topics like Twitter, Facebook, Xbox and gesture control, and movie making on an iPad. How did you decide what topics to cover in the first instance? Were these choices a response to particular institutional needs, or were the subjects chosen for another reason?

My team came up with a list of initial ideas based on what we felt would be of most interest and use to staff. In the first instance, we thought that most people would know about Twitter and Facebook but not necessarily have accounts, or know how they work, or not necessarily know how to get the best from them. So for the Twitter session, we give people the opportunity to set up their own account, show them how to follow organisations or people they are interested in and everyone sends a tweet. It’s just a taster really but it gives people the chance to have a go and see what it’s all about. We have a long list of ideas but have only suggested six so far as we want to ask staff what sessions they would like us to run. We want Computer Club to be as user-focussed as possible.

Have you held your first session yet? How did it go?

Yes we ran our first session on how to use Twitter at our London site last month. We had a great response – fifty people from across different departments (including two directors) signed up. We want the sessions to be totally hands-on and we provide the equipment. We had to run the session three times so each person could have their own tablet and ensure the group was small enough for the team to provide help and support. There was a mixture of experience from people who already use Twitter and wanted to learn more about it to someone who had never held a tablet before and didn’t even really know what it was.

We also learnt an awful lot about the practicalities from the first session like dealing with wifi issues, trying to support sixteen people signing up for a Twitter account at the same time and just running out of time to get through everything we wanted to cover. A session is only an hour long and it’s surprising how quickly the time goes so we have learnt very quickly to limit the number of people per session to a max of 16 and keep the content very simple so there’s more time to play and experiment. We realised that we could always run a more ‘advanced’ session later on if people wanted to learn more.

We have just run the first of our second sessions on making a movie trailer on an iPad using iMovie. This is very different to the Twitter session as we ask people to work in small groups, give them a genre for a trailer, and let them go off for twenty minutes to make a trailer using iMovie. A member of the Computer Club team goes along to help them. They then get to do a very limited amount of editing and we upload the trailer to YouTube and watch each group’s trailer together. It’s a fun session that gets people collaborating, introduces them to the video camera on an iPad and shows them how easy it is to make a film and put it on YouTube. Hopefully, they will be encouraged to go off and try making a movie for themselves. Again, we’re thinking of running a more advanced session later in the year that focuses more on iMovie editing and shows what’s possible for those people that might want more than just a taster.

One of the things I love about the program is that you actually recognise people’s achievements with stickers and rewards of different kinds. Do you think this kind of recognition is important for other units seeking to run internal training sessions?

Firstly, I should say that every single person that has come to Computer Club has wanted a sticker at the end. I think the stickers are a really important part of the Club. Everyone, no matter what age, loves a sticker! – It’s recognition that a person has come along to Computer Club in their lunch hour to have a go at something digital. We have designed several different stickers and we give out a different one depending on the content of the session. It would be great if in the future we could build in rewards and other badging ideas perhaps when we have a more established programme. We got some nice tweets from staff after the first session and I have started to see stickers proudly displayed on people’s computers and staff badges. It’s great to see people really engaging with Computer Club and the stickers definitely help with that.

I really think there is scope to think about recognising people’s achievements in this way in other areas of staff development. For some reason as we get older, learning and development seems to become more and more boring and predictable in its delivery. It’s hard for me to think of one really interesting training course that I have been on since I entered the museum sector. I think Computer Club has caught people’s imagination partly because its different to anything else that staff have been offered before at the museum and also that it’s not tied to more formal training. It’s light touch sessions that people come along to because they’re interested and want to learn more about an area that perhaps they don’t feel very confident about. You come for a fun taster session that lasts an hour, get a sticker to say you’ve attended and then go back to work. Why can’t that approach be adopted for other areas of skills development? Ultimately, my aspiration is that Computer Club stickers are recognised by managers as a form of achievement. The more stickers a person gets, the more it shows their interest in digital. If this is recognised, then perhaps it can lead to people taking on digital leadership in their area of work and provide further opportunities for people to develop their digital interest and skills. This has to be of benefit to the organisation.

IWM Computer Club stickers
Computer Club stickers

In the piece you wrote for Sarah Hromack and John Stack’s Institutional Strategy Digest, you mention that that IWM’s digital strategy has “at its heart an aspiration – to develop the confidence, initiative and digital capabilities of staff at all levels, so that they embed digital media instinctively in their work.” I think this is the sort of aspirational ideal that digital staff at most institutions would love to see in their own museums. How do you intend to build this sort of digital confidence and competence into your institution? What role do you expect Computer Club to play in this process?

This relates to my answer above. I firmly believe that in order for the museum to transform into a modern digital organisation we must raise the digital skills of staff. Computer Club is just one part of this strategy and is firmly about reaching the widest number of people and introducing them to digital possibilities. However, there are three other key strands to this strategy that support that approach and are designed to increase the confidence and digital capability of staff in a more sustained way:

One is identifying ‘transformational’ projects that have a strong digital component and will move the museum to where it needs to be more quickly. These projects are classed as ‘priority projects’ and provide an opportunity to work in ways more suited to digital development, illustrate good practice as a model for others, and enable us to demonstrate the difference and value that this approach brings if investment is made in this area.

Secondly, to support working in this way, the role of the Digital Media department will need to evolve into more than just providing digital project delivery. We need to mentor and coach project teams working on transformational projects, giving them the confidence and support to ‘own’ their projects, better embed them into their overall programme of work and show initiative when thinking about future development and planning in this area. This requires the Digital Media team to develop their skills in coaching and facilitation.

Finally we are introducing a new set of digital competences and digital leadership roles across the museum. These are applicable to Directors, Heads of Departments and all staff members. The digital competences will be applied to job descriptions, annual job plans and appraisals as well as newly advertised roles. The introduction of these new competences sends a very clear message about the importance of digital skills, about the need for on-going development and training in this area and raises expectations about what is required and expected from all staff in terms of digital skills and knowledge in their areas of work.

My goal is that through this strategy we will start to see a more digitally capable museum. This could be expressed in a number of different ways:

  • Staff are excited about all things digital and displaying an appetite for doing more and taking initiative in this area
  • Staff feel more confident in using digital tools in everyday work
  • Staff are more skilled in managing public participation projects and using social media
  • Computer Club continues to grow and staff are actively involved in choosing topics
  • Digital competences are implemented and digital leadership from staff at all levels starts to emerge across the museum

What do you think the challenges will be in running Computer Club?

There are definitely logistical and capacity issues trying to run Computer Club across our five different sites. Successful delivery relies on everyone in my department being involved in some way – from brainstorming session ideas to designing sessions, to leading and supporting their delivery. This obviously becomes a big challenge for the department from a capacity point of view as at the moment we are doing this in addition to our normal workload. The team have been brilliant in taking this idea on and making it happen and I hope that once we have a developed programme of sessions it will become easier to manage. However next year, if Computer Club is successful, then I want to ensure that it is built it into our overall programme of delivery and not seen as an add-on.

You’ve committed to run the program for a year initially, to have time for evaluation. What will Computer Club success look like for you? What would you love to achieve with the program?

I think there are a number of success criteria including the number of people that we’ve reached across the organisation over the year – looking at how many attended multiple sessions, range of departments and types of work they do. We also want to run some surveys over the year to get some qualitative feedback as a measure, and also find out which sessions were the most popular and useful. I think we need to look at the how the Club develops over the year; we have changed things after just one session so I imagine that they will continue to evolve and improve as the year goes on. There are also practical operational considerations – is it sustainable for the Digital Media department to run the sessions across five sites?

I will also evaluate how Computer Club has contributed to the success of the digital strategy along with the other activity we are doing. Are there signs that we are raising digital capability in the organisation? Is digital leadership emerging, perhaps in surprising areas? Are we starting to see staff embedding digital media more instinctively in their work? Have our expectations changed around the digital skills and knowledge that we are expecting our staff to have?

The IWM is a pretty large institution, set over a number of locations. Do you think that a program like Computer Club can scale to suit institutions of different sizes and types?

Why not? There are lots of ways you can champion digital in your organisation. This could be anything from running a Club like we’re doing, to simply sharing links and ideas of things you’ve have seen and are excited by, to just talking enthusiastically about digital with colleagues. For me, it’s all about displaying digital leadership and positioning yourself (and your department) as the digital champion in your organisation – whatever the size. You just need to work out what’s right for your organisation, what skills and knowledge the staff need to have to make the organisation more digitally capable, how you can contribute to raising the digital agenda so its seen as important, and who in the organisation can help you to achieve this. Start small with like-minded colleagues and aim for some quick wins!

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Computer Club?

Just that I’ve had a really positive response from the museum community since I announced Computer Club at Museums and the Web. I’m really interested to see if, in the future, it’s a model that can be replicated or adapted in other organisations.

Carolyn Royston is Head of Digital Media at Imperial War Museums and is responsible for the strategic development, delivery and provision of all public-facing digital outputs across the museum’s five branches: IWM London, Churchill War Rooms, HMS Belfast, IWM Duxford and IWM North. Carolyn’s work spans web, in-gallery multimedia, mobile and social media. She has transformed the museum’s approach to digital engagement so that it is now central to organisational thinking and planning. She is a skilled digital project leader and manager with over 15 years of experience working in the cultural and education sectors. Prior to joining the museum in 2009, Carolyn was project director of the National Museums Online Learning Project where she was responsible for co-ordinating and managing the needs of the nine national museums and galleries to create a range of educational resources. Prior to this, she was Head of eLearning at Atticmedia, a top 25 UK digital agency, where she led several large web projects in the education and cultural sectors. Before moving into digital media, Carolyn was a primary school teacher.

Thank you so much Carolyn! Now I’d love to know what you think. Does your museum have anything like Computer Club for internal staff development? Could you see an approach like this working in your institution?

Guest post: What can Museums learn from nonprofit leadership?

This post is written by Janet Carding, Director and CEO, Royal Ontario Museum, who very generously offered to share some core takeaways from attending a Harvard Business School executive course on Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. Although the focus of museumgeek is ostensibly technology and its impact on museums, questions of change, strategy, and complexity intersect with any discussion that occurs in this space, as does the subject of museum leadership. Janet’s insight as a museum director, then, is one that I am sure all readers will benefit from.

Janet Carding
Director & CEO, Royal Ontario Museum

When you are leading a museum you get lots of advice from all different directions. Some of it is lobbying about specific issues. It often ignores the complexity of running a mission-driven organization, which serves many different audiences with limited resources. And whilst there are mountains of management texts for business leaders, very few of them spend much time on the nonprofit sector. So I felt very fortunate this year to secure a place on the week-long Harvard Business School course for non-profit leaders called Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. There were around 140 Directors and CEOs in Cambridge, MA for the course, and I was one of only a dozen from the cultural sector. For me one of the main draws of the course was a chance to hear more about the challenges CEOs from charities, independent schools, development agencies and non-profit health care providers were facing now, and how they were adapting to deal with them.

It is not too big a claim to say that the week was one of the most intense learning periods of my life, and I am only now really starting to process what we discussed and think about how it applies to the ROM. But there were many areas that are very relevant for museums and other cultural institutions, and I’m very happy to share and have others help me reflect through this guest blog!  I’ll just pick three highlights from the many that I could choose.

Firstly, every lecture and discussion flagged the importance of a clear theory of change. On our first full day Professor Dutch Leonard, one of the course leaders said, think about exactly what you are trying to accomplish, and be clear about how what you do brings about what you are looking to achieve.  I think museums often dance around these questions, perhaps because in the past the role of museums wasn’t questioned so much. Now I think we are all trying to answer the question, “what are we trying to accomplish?” If the answer to that question is framed in terms of impact, then the next questions we should ask are about the activities, outputs and outcomes that are required to have that impact. This kind of logic model was used again and again during the week at HBS. (See this Kellogg Foundation guide that usefully outlines the theory of change, and logic models.) While conversations about outcomes are not new in museums, I feel we still spend a lot of time talking about what we do rather than what change we are trying to make, and when we are asked to measure success, it sometimes exposes gaps between the programs we create and the claims we make.

Next, many of the case studies we reviewed looked at the array of different pressures that our various stakeholders put on nonprofits, and in those circumstances how hard it was to avoid fragmentation, and forge alignment of your different activities. Allen Grossman talked about the importance of managing upstream (your funders, donors and those who buy from you), and reinforced that a clear theory of change was a starting point that then led to performance measures, not just to demonstrate to funders, but so that you know if your organization is succeeding. He also spoke about the importance of building leadership capacity, and of creating cultures where measuring impact was seen as important. It feels to me that performance measures are often seen in museums as hurdles imposed by funders, rather than important tools for us to use in assessing our own success. Similarly, while we are places of learning for our visitors and users, we often reduce our own professional development, and don’t invest in the capacity building and culture changes Grossman flagged as important.

The third highlight came courtesy of Frances Frei, whose lecture was something of a revelation for the whole group.  Based on her new book Uncommon Service Frances explained that her research had shown that, in order to succeed in customer service, organizations had to trade off being excellent at some things, with being bad at others. She convinced us that the alternative was not to be excellent at everything, but exhausted mediocracy. What a lovely expression! Again and again I hear from colleagues that the reality of working in a museum is not what they thought was the potential, and so that phrase, “exhausted mediocracy” really resonated with me.  It is tough to consider being bad at some things when you are a public service, but I think her approach is spot on, and would encourage you to look at her research. How do you choose where to be bad, and where excellent? Frances suggests you ask your audience what is important to them, and concentrate on being excellent in the areas that they say matter most.

Now you might be reading this blog and think, well none of these ideas are exactly new, and I would agree, but I think the clarity the HBS faculty brought to the points they made, coupled with a chance to consider them when away from the messy reality of day-to-day life in the museum made them very powerful. The net effect for me was one of validation. They provided an evidence base through their research for issues that, in less focused form, many of us spend a lot of time talking about, but aren’t always sure how to start changing.  This week gave me a lot of material, in a very concentrated form, which I think will help those conversations.

Some think museums and galleries need to more business-like, but in many ways after this course I think we instead need to be better nonprofits, say clearly why we make the world a better place, work closely with our users, and demonstrate the impact we make.

My thanks to the HBS Club of Toronto who, with the support of KPMG, awarded me a scholarship to attend this course.
My thanks also to Suse for the opportunity to do this guest blog, and for her interest and enthusiasm for all things museum!

This post will be republished on the Royal Ontario Museum website.

i can has mewseum (Or, Should Your Museum Acquire A LoLCat?)

This post is a joke. Or at least, it started as one. A week or so ago, when everyone was busy meowbify-ing their collections, Oonagh Murphy pondered whether any museums had a curator of cats. Not too long after, my own thoughts turned to the question of whether any museums had acquired a LoLCat.

At first blush, it might seem like a frivolous inquiry. Why would photographs of cats overwritten with bad language or any other Internet meme be worth preserving in a museum collection?

But the idea is actually less silly than it might immediately appear. According to Wikipedia, a meme:

is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.

Thus LoLCats or Rickrolling (or even Hey Girl – the Museum Edition) are cultural units, through which the ideas of Internet culture are spread. After all, there is even a LoLCat Bible Translation Project, and Ryan Goslings abound for us geeky girls.

Mike Rugnetta from PBS Arts recently asked Are LOLCats and Internet Memes Art?, drawing Leo Tolstoy, Aristotle and Warhol into his argument. He says:

But wait? People are creating images and sharing them with strangers for the purposes of communicating their personal experiences? That, my friends, is art plain and simple…What’s exciting is that this is a body of work produced collaboratively by tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, across the globe. Anyone can get involved. That’s something we’ve never seen before. It’s pretty astounding.

Whether you agree that Internet memes are art or not, it is still worth asking whether these collaboratively-created cultural units belong in a museum. I think they do, but I decided to call on someone with more expertise than my own to think through these questions. So allow me to introduce Tom Woolley, New Media Curator at the UK National Media Museum. Here’s his perspective on the issue.

Tom Woolley

Hi Tom! Tell me a bit more about the Media Museum, and what your role as new media curator for the museum involves.
My job involves working on galleries and exhibitions, programming events and building the Museum’s collection. I’ve recently been working on the Life Online gallery – a new permanent space that explains the history of the internet and its impact. I also helped curate the Games Lounge gallery which is our videogames exhibition full of original arcade machines, consoles and emulated titles that lets visitors get hands-on with the history of digital games. I’m also currently working on the games events that form part of the upcoming Bradford Animation Festival.

As you know, today we’re talking about LoLCats and other Internet memes. Do you think LoLCats are cultural artefacts that belong in museum collections? Why/why not?
Yes, I think they are – the evolution of an internet meme is quite fascinating and is a valuable example of the type of media people consume in the early 21st century. LoLCats and other memes demonstrate how the internet has provided an international platform for people to publish their own material and potentially influence millions of others. Some people might argue that memes are just silly jokes that don’t deserve to be part of a museum collection but I think if we look back at ancient civilisations and find out what exact jokes amused the general population that would be deemed valuable information. Memes and online culture is also impacting the way we speak so they would be very interesting to research from a linguistic perspective too.

Although the Media Museum has an exhibition on Life Online which features LoLCats, you haven’t acquired any memes. Has that been a conscious choice?
Within the Life Online gallery we feature several screens that show a looping video of famous memes, viral hits and iconic moments of citizen journalism. The aim of the video wall is to illustrate the culture of the net alongside the rise of online video due to faster broadband speeds and the proliferation of digital video devices. The Museum is currently investigating digital video archiving and I hope to start acquiring memes and viral videos into the official collection in the future.

How complex would it be to acquire a meme? (I’m thinking about provenance, deciding on format etc.)
Each one would need to be treated separately and some would be far more complicated than others. For instance, something like the famous ‘Double Rainbow’ video has a clear single creator (Paul Vasquez) and with his permission we could acquire a copy of the digital video into the collection in the highest resolution possible. To illustrate the influence of the Double Rainbow meme it would then be ideal to collect other videos that echo the original and interviews with Mr Vasquez to provide a full story around its impact. Something like LoLCats is a bit more slippery to track down – I believe it started with the ‘O RLY?’ owl and grew from their across forums such as 4chan and Something Awful. Many of the images have been added by anonymous or now defunct users so it could be a thankless task trying to contact all the individuals. I think this is where an element of fair use would have to be applied and we create a copy without permission.

A few months ago, Seb Chan proposed that most museums won’t embrace digital as a core competency until they have significant born digital collections. What do you think about that idea?
I tend to agree – libraries have had a head start on born digital collecting and it’s something we’re playing catch-up on. We have a large collection of software and videogames on portable storage media such as floppy discs and cassette tapes that we urgently need to transfer to a secure digital archive. This then raises issues around operating systems, copyright infringement and emulation. But the best way to try and solve these issues is to roll our sleeves up and make a start collecting digital assets.

What other challenges accompany born digital or new media curation and acquisitions that I maybe haven’t thought of, or thought to ask about?
Emulation and interactive experiences is an interesting aspect. Within the Games Lounge we feature an emulation of Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum. We thought about playing the original tape on an original machine but this would have led to constant maintenance, serial crashing and someone having to physically load the game every morning. Instead we went down the route of using a Spectrum emulator on a Windows XP PC rewired to an original ZX Spectrum keyboard to provide a near-authentic and maintainable experience. Also, games, software and digital artworks that use live data raise lots of challenges – will it be possible to experience World of Warcraft in fifty years time when maybe all the players have left or all the servers are down? Capturing videos of player performance and fan-generated websites would be a good alternative.

Tom became the Museum’s first Curator of New Media in 2007. In 2010 he curated the Robbie Cooper: Immersion exhibition and the Games Lounge gallery. In 2008 he helped to establish the National Videogame Archive in partnership with Nottingham Trent University and in 2012 work was completed on Life Online, a new gallery dedicated to the story of the internet.

Now it’s your turn. Should museums be collecting LoLCats (or other Internet memes)? What sorts of museum collections do you think they would belong as part of? Art museums? Social history? Media? Whose responsibility should it be to capture these ephemeral cultural units.
And if your museum has acquired a LoLCat, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

Guest post: Making the Museum Publishing Band

A couple of weeks ago, I was captivated by Liz Neely’s Tweets from the National Museum Publishing Seminar in the USA. The conference sounded really interesting, and so I asked her to do a quick write-up for museumgeek. The resulting post is much more than that. Calling in two co-authors, this post explores museum publishing through a pretty rock’n’roll perspective. Enjoy. 

Making the Museum Publishing Band

Liz Neely
, Katie Reilly and Sarah Guernsey

Quite randomly, the National Museum Publishing Seminar, held June 21-23, holds the distinction of being a band reunion of sorts for us. Back about 8 years ago, the three of us shared stages and practice spaces.

We all worked at the Art Institute of Chicago—Liz in technology and Katie and Sarah in Publications—but we rarely actually worked together. In that large museum and at that time, our worlds infrequently overlapped. But as a band, we were particularly collaborative—we all wrote songs, we all sang, and there isn’t a tune that doesn’t have harmonies or some kind of backing vocal. One of us would bring a song to the group and we would all start tinkering with the idea, adding parts, experimenting, iterating, reviewing and building the song. We had to be comfortable accepting and responding to critique. We made songs; we booked shows; we made T-shirts and burned CDs—we never practiced enough, but we created something together that we loved. In the best of cases, the song transcended the sum of our individual parts. These songs, this accumulation of voices, formed the identity of the band.

Katie, Sarah and Liz, circa 2004.

Seeing each other again at the MPS got each of us thinking about the band again, not just nostalgically, but because in some odd sense it captured the spirit of this year’s conference. The theme was “The Voice of the Museum,” and both the roster of attendees and the agenda reflected that the profession of museum publishing is changing profoundly. No longer a forum only for professionals in publishing departments and their distributors, the conference encompassed digital and social media interlopers (bringing Katie, Sarah, and Liz together at a conference for the first time). Centered around a wider dialogue about publishing as a key and central feature to a museum’s identity formation, the gathering recognized the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of our work.

Some museums have already implemented this wider definition of publishing by centralizing efforts among various publishing silos, such as the Walker, or by centralizing budgets with cross-departmental committees, such as MoMA. Paul Schmelzer, Web Editor at the Walker, stated, “the Walker is one voice comprised of many.” In thinking about ‘voice’ as a concept, it’s important to recognize that each individual ‘voice’ is not a static set variable. This is what keeps our institutions evolving and alive—but also why strong vision and leadership remains paramount in keeping efforts moving in the same direction. Both Schmelzer and, in a later panel, Kristi McGuire from the U of C Press emphasized a move from using digital communications strictly for promotion to creating a content model that emphasizes and supports the institution’s personality. McGuire reported that since transitioning from a publicity-focused blog to something more editorial, the traffic has tripled.

How do we harness each person’s contribution to create amazing publications across all platforms? As the definition of publishing gets wider and the channels more complicated, we must harness the contributions of a larger set of talents and expertise in a truly collaborative manner. Robert Weisberg called for a “content launch instead of a book launch” to set up communication early in the planning process among publishing, digital media, marketing, and distribution stakeholders. Stakeholders need to build from the strengths of other collaborators. Publishers should iterate and be experimental like a technologist while developing an appetite for risk. Dan Sinker, the keynote speaker at the conference, who has has built a career at the intersection of a DIY punk aesthetic and technological savvy, particularly spoke to this need. He noted that so many developers and tech people he meets nowadays he discovers he knew back in the ’90s punk scene—making music, publishing zines, setting up record labels. They were people who made things that were ephemeral and constantly evolving yet important and rich. Technologists could learn from the organized workflow planning  and strategizing that publishers have honed. Kara Kirk pointed out that publications departments should be comfortable slowing things down appropriately. “Everyone wants to have their foot on the gas, but it’s not fun to not have brakes.”

The emerging role of the ‘publishing technologist’ is analogous to that of the editor.  Kate Steinmann defined the editor role with the following keywords “Ally, Advisor, Mentor, Magician, Meddler, Diplomat.” These are the qualities that a technologist also needs to take on in collaboratively helping the author best reach his or her vision. Editors, for their part, need to embrace an iterative approach to publishing, to balance their deeply rooted desire for perfection—for authoritativeness—with the realities and opportunities of new media.

We’d like to suggest that we approach museum publishing strategy as a collaborative creative process. Should we start a publishing band at the museum? How big is the band and what instruments do we need? Depending on the project, do stakeholders play collaborative vs. supporting roles? Are there project leads? Do we have enough roadies, sound guys, and photographers to pull it off? Do we want to attain the rough-hewn simplicity of the Ramones or insist on the polish of Steely Dan? Instead of viewing new challenges and uncertain roles with anxiety, can we see it as writing a new song?

Channeling Richard Holland from Bad at Sports: “Don’t be boring!” We should not continue doing things because that’s what’s always been done. There is an urgency and an opportunity to transform our processes in a way that creatively and effectively supports dialogue with our audiences across print and digital platforms. If we don’t grab a hold of it, we—both technologists and traditional publishers alike—will all be marginalized.

Visit the Museum Digital Publishing Bliki (a blog + wiki) to discuss museum publishing.

museumgeek: What do you think? Can museum publishing strategies be a collaborative creative process, as Liz, Katie and Sarah suggest? How would this idea work in your museum? 

Guest post: Could a Collection Management System be like Facebook?

One of the things I love most about spending time at the Powerhouse Museum is the conversations that occur. Last week, the Registrar for Collection Management Systems, Lynne McNairn, and I had an interesting discussion about CMS’ and their ease of use. In response to that conversation, she has written this post with some of her thoughts.

Lynne McNairn

Could a Collection Management System be like Facebook?
Lynne McNairn
Registrar, Collection Management Systems

This post is partly written in response to recent posts about museums making the digital shift, and partly some observations from working in a museum.

One of the major tools in museums is the Collection Management System (CMS). These systems are very much about the object as a single item– they come from tradition of small white cards in wooden cabinets. But what could happen if a CMS was more like Facebook?

One problem faced by CMS administrators (I’ve spent many years plugging away at this) is that many people – particularly content providers such as curators – hate using the CMS. At the Powerhouse our CMS feeds directly to the Web as our Collection Search 2.53. When this was implemented (now 8 years ago), I thought it would be the answer to this problem. Surely when content providers could see their work posted online they would now be delighted to use the database! Sadly, although Collection Search has had an enormous positive influence on documentation at the museum, it is still the case that a great deal of useful and interesting collection research and documentation is undertaken that never reaches any sort of central repository and ends up being lost to the organisation.

What is it, then, that curators do with their documentation? I’m of course making sweeping generalisations but a look at an average curator’s PC will reveal many Word files and good number of PowerPoint presentations, as well as an overburdened Inbox. These files contain articles, publication manuscripts, exhibition ideas and the talks they give to groups.

So are there lessons in the huge popularity and ease of use of Facebook, which could make CMS a better tool for the work of interpreting museum collections?

There is no getting around the need for a detailed set of fields that record the acquisition, administrative and storage locations of an object, in order to manage the individual objects in the physical collection – but where does the interpretation of the collection fit?

Here is one idea for a ‘Facebook’ style CMS.

  • Each object gets its own profile (a subset of the fields we have in a CMS).
  • Users have options similar to  “Create photo album” (remember all those PowerPoint presentations). This feature could prompt users for some overall contextual information such as Title, Date Range, and Places etc, and ask them to state “What this presentation is about?”
  • The photos (or videos and other content) are loaded and the user adds the captions. At this point (as in Facebook), the user can tag the photo with any other relevant object profile. This content would not need to be restricted to “official” images of an object. It could include ‘happy snaps’ which a curator may have taken with a donor or maker etc as well as related material which supports the story being told.
  • Much like Facebook, this ‘photo album’ could then appear on the profile page of all the objects that have tagged.
  • The public could also be given access to comment and even create their own slide shows using our objects.

This idea could obviously be developed further. However, I think that for museums to really make the ‘digitisation shift’ there need to be new tools that make it easy for non-technical users to do their traditional work of interpreting and presenting the collection. Facebook has made it so easy for non-technical users of all types connect to their social networks. How could a museum CMS built on the same principles allow for easier capturing and linking together of museum objects and their interpretations?

museumgeek thoughts: Lynne’s post makes me wonder if there are any museum CMS’ that take this kind of social and non-technical approach to capturing collection information? Do you think this approach would work to better capture all that fabulous interpretative information that gets lost when individual curators leave an organisation?