New connections

Russell Dornan, 23.11.2016
How technology can create more human-centred museums
The 2016 Museum Computer Network (MCN) conference recently took place in the vibrant melting pot of New Orleans. A complex city of contradictions and cultural intersections it was perfect for the conference theme: the human-centred museum.

This year’s programme looked at how we can leverage technology in our institutions to achieve inclusion, accessibility and agency to ensure museums remain robust, adaptable and future-proof.

Topics discussed ranged from the intersection of race and social media, to strategies for social inclusion; from the relationship between emotional state and engagement, to using data to “do better”, whether that’s describing artworks to a blind audience or making informed decisions to improve video content and visitor experiences. The conference also covered lighter subjects.

A session on Snapchat and Instagram Stories was a particular highlight: the speakers snapped themselves and the audience in real time, ending in a follow free-for-all with everyone in the room following each other on Snapchat, using GPS to find nearby accounts.

For me, the conference began on the Tuesday with the tour “The World That Made New Orleans ”. We explored the history that made the city what it is today, meeting some of the keepers of New Orleans’ musical, food and oral history traditions in the French Quarter, the Treme and the Lower 9th Ward.

It was in the latter area that we visited the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, celebrating the rich history and preserving the stories of its unique neighbourhood after only one in five residents returned after Hurricane Katrina.

It is volunteer-run, inclusive, community driven and is one of the most powerful and inspiring museums I’ve ever visited, providing a space for otherwise forgotten voices to be listened to on their terms. This set the tone of the conference for me.

In this increasingly digital world, what will set museums apart and inspire and involve our communities? Frith Williams, the head of writing at the Museum of New Zealand, attempted to answer just that.

Over a five-month, Fulbright-funded odyssey across the US, Frith looked at the digital delivery of content, prompting questions like: “So what if we create innovative digital content when our primary interpretation remains impenetrable?”

Citing Cleveland Art Museum, among others, as offering great content digitally, Frith said it was better than the information on the label, which she felt was too academic, dry and boring. So even with innovative digital work, the curatorial voice is still the most prominent one in the gallery, sometimes to the detriment of the material.

Museums have something to say; that doesn’t mean our audience necessarily cares. A strong theme at MCN was emotion: use it. Provoke and inspire, push people’s buttons by being human and telling stories that will get an emotional reaction, even if that reaction is “ew”.

After all, our museums are capable of inspiring wonder, but we should never take that or our audience for granted. Ryan Dodge from the Royal Ontario Museum talked about delivering content that has real value for our communities. Before posting content, ask yourself a few questions. Will it get an emotional response? Is the topic relevant, interesting, surprising and useful to your community? If not, why are you posting it?

When it comes to content, we know museums have so much potential. But so do our visitors. Participation was explored in different ways at MCN, including a talk about learning from museum visitors’ social photos. As part of an engaging panel, Jenny Kidd talked about how social photography can sometimes be a performance of power (think feminists reclaiming the selfie) and can even provide a civic refuge.

Kidd, quoting Ariella Azoulay, said, “Photography, at times, is the only civic refuge at the disposal of those robbed of citizenship”. In a museum context, social photography can offer different truths and perspectives; inspire empathy, creativity, curiosity and new ways of looking; and give our audience a voice and allow them to offer their valuable perspectives. If you have a “no photography policy” at your museum it might be time to think again.

Listening to the diverse communities you’re trying to reach or represent is key. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) positions itself on social media as a safe space for discussion. Through a partnership between public programming and social media, NMAAHC has been able to amplify undervalued stories and voices in the physical space and online.

The museum engages in conversations that often result in haters or trolls on social media, but having public community guidelines empowers Lanae Spruce, the person behind their social presence, to simply block those individuals (cue cheers from the audience of social media managers).

They also don’t take sides in discussions, but stay rooted in facts, informed by context, history and scholarship. I’m hard pushed to find other museums stepping into much-needed discussions like this so fearlessly.

Museums are doing a better of job of listening to their audiences than ever before. And so they should. To paraphrase an #MCN2016 tweet: “We're at a point now where we have an unprecedented capacity to collect people’s experiences and stories.” The challenge is to make this exchange meaningful and memorable; to make it matter.

While being bold is perhaps woven into the fabric of a museum representing African-Americans, what does this mean for the rest of us? Museums without the mandate to weigh in on politics or disenfranchised communities or social justice? How do we channel inspiration from conferences like MCN to make a real difference?

If creating a human-centred museum means being more human, then we need to stand up and let our voices, and the voices of our communities, be heard. Now more than ever.

Russell Dornan is the web editor at Wellcome Collection.

Founded in 1967, the Museum Computer Network (MCN) is a members-based organisation for those who believe that digital technologies are transforming the way cultural organisations reach and engage audiences. Through diverse programs, MCN advances members in their roles as leaders and agents of change for the cultural sector.