Friday, April 15, 2011

Museums and the Web 2011 – the web site picture

One of the highlights of the annual Museums and the Web conference is the Best of the Web awards. Museum web sites are submitted from all over the world and vetted by a panel of web developers, museum professionals and general tech heads. It is peers critically judging the work of their peers, and the awards are highly valued within the museum community.

So it was great to see Australia doing well with Museum Victoria taking out the award in the Audio Visual/ podcast category, and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) getting not only the award in the education category but also the best web site overall – quite an accolade.

More broadly what I came away with from the papers I heard on web site issues is the depth of thinking now going on in the museum world about how web sites are used and the opportunities they provide for creating a quite different experience from the museum visit. I would particularly highlight:
  1. The work of the National Museum of Denmark in bringing art stories alive (including an innovative and embedded use of what conservators do and what they can contribute to art stories). Read the paper here.
  2. What the Tate are up to in rethinking their web site as a result of a massive four year rebuild. The Tate has always been at the forefront of web site development being one of the first major art museums to place their entire collection of 60,000 artworks on line. They realised that the budgetary and cultural restrictions imposed on museum websites was holding them back from competing in terms of leveraging the power of relational databases in a way their commercial rivals do, and that their website displays artworks on line in the same paradigm as print publishing – namely as reproductions. No real surprises there but the conclusions they come to are worth reading.
  3. And finally the Smithsonian. They are engaged on a collaborative project across the whole Institution to review their web strategy, which involves a series of staff workshops open to all staff . Each of the workshops includes a real-time transcription of the proceedings posted to a wiki, where it can be openly evaluated, sifted, weighed, and considered by all. The project has very clear goals namely to define the optimum role for the Smithsonian in the next 100 years by:
    • Embracing new models of knowledge creation and dissemination
    • Providing better access to knowledge for geographically and demographically diverse audiences
    • Providing richer, more engaging means (storytelling) for different types of audiences to engage with our knowledge assets
    • Creating opportunities for inter-disciplinary collaboration and learning
    • Identifying new revenue sources to support the ever-growing programs
It is a great model for where the museum web site is going. Check it out here.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Museums and the Web – in praise of Google Art

I was rather dismissive of Google Art when I blogged about it a few weeks ago, principally due to the fact that I could not see what it was offering beyond promotion of Google that what was not already available on line.

Our final session at Museums and the Web 2011 involved a Q&A session with representatives of institutions who are part of it plus a member of the Google Art team. And I must say that their comments, along with a further play I have had with the web site, has turned me into a bit of a fan.

First up, a bit of background. Google Art is a project developed in house by Google staff in their 20% time (the day a week all Google staff are given to pursue their own ideas). It involved 17 art museums in Europe and the USA allowing Google’s ‘street-view’ technology to document their principal galleries along with each museum providing Google with 35 high res images of key artworks. In addition each museum had to choose one artwork for Google to photograph at super high res (gigabyte level). The project cost the museums nothing beyond their own staff time.

In good Google fashion each museum was locked into a very tight non-disclosure agreement so that for the two years the project took to develop, each one had no idea which other museums were involved. It’s clear that some museums had reservations about this and pulled out and are now regretting doing so.
And the reaction now that it is up? High praise from the museums that were represented on the panel, complementing Google on how good they were to work with, pleased with the results, and all of them citing massive increase in web activity on each of their sites, and significantly increased visitor numbers (which is why they did it in the first place). Concerns over copyright were allayed by artworks being blurred out in gallery views (particularly noticeable in the National Gallery, London’s site), and the potential loss in revenue by giving away high res images, which they normally sell, compensated by the higher visitor numbers. The representative from the Tate made the interesting observation that many of their curators who have tended to dismiss the internet were now excited about it and finally understanding its power in their sphere.

And the downside? I had sensed during the conference that amongst the museum web site fraternity there was some unhappiness. This manifested itself during the Q&A session in questions about Google’s lack of openness. Why could not the statistics on Google Art visitors be made public, why could not the ‘street-view’ sequences and technology be made available for the museums to use as tours themselves or for recording temporary exhibitions, and why did they not undertake the whole exercise as an open collaborative exercise with the museum sector?

The Google Art rep’s answer to each was politely circumscribed but was clearly that this is ultimately about driving traffic to the Google site as cost effectively as possible.

For my money, the end justifies the means. The project has created a significant new asset for the museum sector.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, April 8, 2011

Museums and the Web 2011

I am in geek land surrounded by shiny new iPad 2s and a sea of tweeters - to be precise I am at Museums and the Web 2011 in Philadelphia, the annual get together of those of us interested in this space. There are apparently nearly 700 of us here from 23 countries. It has a similar buzz as my last attendance in 2009 in Indianapolis, the difference being that this could almost be called Museums and Mobiles, such is the focus on where mobile technology and use is taking us.

Lots to comment on, but I will confine this blog to the opening plenary this morning from Kristen Powell of the Pew Research Centre talking about their Internet and American Life project. Kristen's mission was to update us as museum folk on the latest data on the rise of mobile internet use and social media to help us to identify how these trends are shaping the way that content orientated organisations like museums interact with our audiences.

What came out of her presentation is best summarised in bullet point form. Bear in mind it is US data, but the trends it indicates are in my view global:

  • In 2000 46% of adults used the internet and 53% owned a mobile phone. There was no social networking. Those figures in 2010 were 74% used the internet and 85% owned a mobile phone (surprisingly low in my view). 25% of households do not now have a landline.
  • 69% of internet users, which is half of all American adults, watch videos on line and 14% have uploaded their own video content.
  • Those going on line daily from their phone rose from 36% to 55% last year alone.
  • A typical teenager sends 50 texts a day with 33% of teenagers sending over 100 texts per day.
  • 40% of internet users access social networking sites (SNS) daily with older adults (those over 65) the fastest growing sector, partly because younger adults are already at a very high percentage use.
  • Only 8% of internet users use Twitter compared to 61% for other SNS, i.e. Twitter is not that popular particularly with teenagers.
There were lots more stats, but in summary the emerging themes are that information gathering is becoming portable, participatory and personalised.

So what Kristen sees our role as museums as increasingly being is:
  1. A filter - providing trustworthy information, that is relevant and directly accessible, e.g. by app.
  2. Curators - collecting all relevant material and linking to primary and secondary sources.
  3. A node in a network - making it easy to network, and being prepared to loosen control of content.
  4. Community builders - sharing experiences and listening to feedback.
  5. Tour guides - connecting content to real world locations, using such tools as geo location and augmented reality.
More from Philadelphia shortly!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Ice Bear cometh to Sydney

As a conservator I have long been of the view that the main purpose of our work is not the conservation of artworks and objects per se, but rather providing through our conservation work the ability for those items to tell their stories. So it is not a long leap to my latest project, the Sydney Ice Bear Project, which uses an artwork to metaphorically tell a massive story, namely the impact of climate change on the environment,

I first met Mark Coreth, the artist behind the Ice Bear Project, four years ago, although I had been aware of his work as one of the UK’s preeminent animal sculptors for some time. A number of his wonderful life size animal bronzes are in private collections in Australia, which we look after. Mark has long been a keen environmentalist, but a visit to Baffin Island to sculpt polar bears led him to want to do more to promote awareness of their plight.

So he came up with the concept of creating a polar bear in ice, and then letting it melt to reveal a bronze skeleton as a metaphor for the melting ice caps and the impact on the polar bears, and indeed more broadly on our planet.

The first ice bear was a centrepiece of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) stand at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, with the second following in Trafalgar Square, London.  A travelling ice bear was carved in early 2010 in Quebec, before moving to Ottawa and finally Montreal where it melted, and then another in Toronto in June last year. The latest was carved on 31 March in Manchester. Check out this video from the BBC of last week's carving.  The Ice Bear is a highly dramatic artwork, and has received much media attention at each venue.

Anyway, I have been keen to see the Ice Bear in Australia ever since I heard about it. The Ice Bear team have been working to bring it here for the past year, and finally we have the funding for it to take place around World Environment Day on June 5th on the forecourt of the Customs House, Sydney.

Mark will be carving the ice bear over 6 hours from dawn on Thursday June 2nd and the bear will then start melting (we reckon it will take 4-5 days at that time of year) with a major public event around the melting sculpture to be held on Sunday June 5th involving some leading climate change experts. WWF, 1millionwomen and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition will all be project partners.

The frozen ice bear, encased in a large box and weighing over 9 tonnes, actually arrived in Sydney late last year, and has been in cold storage since then.  International Conservation Services are managing the logistics for the Ice Bear Project in Sydney, so we shall be placing it in the forecourt pre-dawn on June 2nd ready for Mark and his team to carve away. I will keep you posted on progress as the time nears.  Put the dates in your diary now, and come and see it if you are in town.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

A non-political project, Ice Bear made its world debut at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009, attracting global attention.  Sydney Ice Bear will encourage the public to visit and touch the sculpture and learn more about the impacts of climate change.  It will be on display from Thursday 2 June to Friday 10 June 2011.

Sydney Ice Bear has been made possible with the support of the Purves Environmental Fund.  Additional support has been provided by the City of Sydney, public and fine art conservators International Conservation Services and social marketing and communications agency Momentum2, as well as Aurora ExpeditionsWWF Australia, 1millionwomen and AYCC are partners in the project, and all funds raised locally will go to support these partner organisations.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Visitor numbers as a chart of success

“Attendance at LA Museums lags behind” states a headline last week in the Los Angeles Times. It’s the familiar issue that, like it or not, those visitors coming through the door are the fundamental measure of a museum’s success. In the article Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum in LA bravely states in response to a question about visitor numbers: "We care about it certainly, but it is not at the top of our list of measures of success. When attendance figures are overvalued in museums, it can lead to mediocrity in programming".

Nobody disputes the latter comment - it is just that those that pay the bills, whether they are governments or philanthropic foundations like to see visitor numbers on an upward curve.

Check out the article that prompted all this breast beating at the Art Newspaper
The top ten art museums world wide in 2010 are as follows and there are no surprises here:

8,500,000     Louvre Paris
5,842,138     British Museum London
5,216,988     Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
5,061,172     Tate Modern London
4,954,914     National Gallery London
4,775,114     National Gallery of Art Washington
3,131,238     Museum of Modern Art New York
3,130,000     Centre Pompidou Paris
3,067,909     National Museum of Korea Seoul
2,985,510     Musée d’Orsay Paris

And critical to drawing those crowds are the temporary exhibitions. The article details a most interesting range of statistics drawn from a comprehensive survey of exhibitions around the world listed in order of daily attendance including:
  • The top 30 exhibitions (the top two are both in Tokyo and drew over 10,000 people per day! Not sure what anyone could see at that density)
  • The top ten Decorative Arts, Antiquities, Impressionism, Old Masters, Mediaeval and Thematic exhibitions
  • The top ten 19th Century, Asian, Architecture and Design, and Photography exhibitions
  • The top ten exhibitions in Tokyo, London and Paris
  • Comparisons with previous years
So it looks as though the blockbuster is alive and well and critical to keeping those numbers up. But before we all get too disheartened about this being the only way forward, bear in mind the phenomena of the response to British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s radio program in the UK. Broadcast three times daily on Radio 4, MacGregor gave a series of 15 minute lectures on 100 objects in the BM’s collection. Not only did this result in an extraordinary 20 million downloads from the Museum’s web site, but attendance jumped by 250,000.

What I particularly love about it is the medium MacGregor chose to use. No visuals, just people’s imagination as he described each object and the history behind it. Perhaps that is what largely drew people to explore the Museum’s collections further

Julian Bickersteth

Managing Director