Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New technologies in the museum sector

A notable aspect of the recent Museums Australia conference in Perth was the extent of interest in new technologies. From the impact of the NBN to social media engagement, from virtual palaeontology to iPhone apps, there was hardly a parallel session which did not have a new technology paper. This is a significant change from the same conference only a couple of years ago, and judging by the numbers in each session, there is a real demand for knowledge in this area. Perhaps this is partly due to a fact that Michael Harvey, Head of Exhibitions at the Australian Museum, commented on in his paper, that from his experience museum visitors tend to be early adopters of technology and to use social media above the average of the general population.

I gave a paper in one of these sessions on the opportunities for Smartphones in museums co-authored with Seb Chan. This particularly reported on the latest thinking on Smartphone communication technologies, from QR codes, NFC (Near Field Communication), and Google Goggles to wifi (see my blog for more details). But we started by picking up on the recent New Media Consortium's Horizon Project which examined emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in education and interpretation within the museum environment (2011 Museum edition).

It’s worth repeating some of their key findings which include:
  • Increasingly, visitors and staff expect a seamless experience across devices. More and more, patrons want the experience of interacting with museum content using the device of their choice, wherever and whenever they choose to do so.
  • Collection-related rich media are becoming increasingly valuable assets in digital interpretation. Museums are beginning to see the value in developing formal strategies for capturing high-quality media documentation at every opportunity. Museums are embracing the opportunities provided by rich media to enhance multimodal learning both online and in the galleries. Video, audio, and animations are no longer seen as afterthoughts in interpretation but increasingly as necessary components of an interpretive plan.
  • Digitization and cataloguing projects continue to require a significant share of museum resources. Visitors expect to be able to readily access accurate and interesting information and high-quality media. This requires museums to plan strategically for the digitization and cataloguing of collections.
  • Improving our ability to measure impact using new digital technologies is a critical need. Museums are good at traditional program evaluation, but determining the impact of new technologies on knowledge, attitudes, skills is more challenging.
One of the issues that I constantly hit in major museums, as I talk to them about new technologies, is their reservation about investing in a technology that may soon be superseded. One that I have had my own reservations about are QR (Quick Response) codes. So I was not surprised to read that recent research in New York has confirmed their limitations. In summary it was found that although there was general awareness of the codes, and an understanding of how to make use of them, very few people actually expressed an interest in doing so, mostly because they felt they could access the information/links more easily (and more cheaply) in other ways. Seb has blogged most interestingly on the issue.

Whatever the technology it must always be seen as an enabler, only as good as the content behind it, and the stories being told through it. So it’s good to read in a recent blog by Bruce Wyman, formerly Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum, that evaluation has shown visitors are getting more from their experiences using technology aid in museums and learning more about artworks than if they did not have access to such. That must always be the driver.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, November 25, 2011

Museums Australia meeting in Perth

I spent last week in Perth with 600 fellow museum bods at the annual Museums Australia Conference. It was held at the splendiferous new Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre complex just north of the CBD, a great venue in terms of both the theatre itself and also the break out spaces, and Perth turned on some balmy weather to get us all in the mood. The conference was run jointly with Interpretation Australia, which was always going to appeal to me, as I believe strongly that one of the key reasons for our existence in this sector is to be able to tell the stories behind the objects we look after.

What did I come away with?

Some great papers (which I thought were to be posted on the MA website, but do not seem to be at present - I will explore further).
  • Susan Cross from the UK on the power of story telling, and the way in which people are looking for shared memories. Stories are contagious, namely by getting people talking they are more likely to pass them on. An inspirational speaker – you can get a flavour of her from a talk she gave in Scotland here.
  • Margaret Anderson from the History Trust of South Australia on the ‘About Time’ history festival, which in seven years has grown to a state wide festival of 500 events run by 300 organisations.
  • John Holden from the UK Demos Institute talking on the changing face of culture. John’s fellow Demos researcher, Sam Jones had talked at the AICCM conference in Canberra in October (see my blog), and their outputs are always worth reading/listening to. John’s angle this time was that creative culture has suffered from market failure, i.e. that not enough people are prepared to pay sufficient amount to support it, so it relies on government subsidies. In the long term this is unsustainable, and we need to move to a commercial model where the outputs are seen as providing a justifiable return on investment. This does not mean that there cannot continue to be government run models but that mainstream culture needs to get with the current generational aspirations in this radically different social, technological and political context of the 21st century.
A strong view that the mining royalties that are pouring into the WA Government treasury are about to be spent (finally) on a new WA Museum. Alec Coles, the recently appointed director, is clearly a man with a mission and appears to have the ear of government, judging by the relevant minister’s comments at the conference opening. Interestingly Alec said he was quietly pleased that the planned $450 million redevelopment of the Swan River powerstation as the new museum was canned as result of the GFC, as it would have been a disaster of a place for the Museum being so difficult to access.

A win for the work of the AICCM Taskforce on Environmental Guidelines for Museums and Galleries that I have been chairing. Not only did we pick up the MAGNA (Museums and Galleries National Awards) Sustainability Award but also the Overall Award. This is a great result as it gives us leverage into the senior corridors of power in museums and galleries to sell this message of the gains to be made by relaxing environmental parameters.

And finally the chance to view one of my favourite objects namely the Ife or Olokun Head from the British Museum (see my blog) It is part of a small but stunning exhibition currently at the WA Museum of treasures from the British Museum. If in Perth in the next few months, make a beeline to see it and the related objects. As always the real is much more spectacular than the image.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ignite the Power of Art

Understanding different visitor requirements is something I have recently blogged about, particularly the work of Gail Davitt at the Dallas Museum of Art. Gail has been in Australia for the last few days and gave a great talk at the Australia Council in Sydney.

What was really interesting was to understand the context in which DMA’s research was undertaken and how they reached the conclusions they did. As a reminder they concluded that there are four types of visitors namely:
  • Observers – those that stand back, having limited knowledge of art, preferring a guided experience
  • Participants – those that enjoy learning and the social experience of being in museums and galleries
  • Independents – those that are more confident with their knowledge and prefer independent viewing
  • Enthusiasts – those who are confident, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and comfortable looking at art
Gail first talked to the context, namely a Museum-wide view that it should seek to understand the triggers that get visitors to engage with art, hence the project title ‘Ignite the Power of art’.

The process involved 1) undertaking the research, 2) applying what was learnt, and 3) measuring the impact both on visitors and Museum staff.

  1. Research produced the above visitor category breakdown, with some interesting side issues, e.g. that 30% of the Observers (least engaged) category were members – why?
  2. Application involved everything from changing exhibition labels to provide for different levels of engagement to encouraging responses to exhibitions and using smartphones to deliver varying levels of interpretation
  3. Impact involved both a much greater level of collaboration between staff and visitors and more listening to the visitors’ voice, changing in branding and mission of the Museum, better collaboration between staff departments and a much greater appetite at the Museum for experimentation.
So the take-aways from the exercise Gail identified as:

  • Visitors now being perceived as individuals
  • A much deeper sense of understanding of the quality of the visitor experience by Museum staff
  • The research that DAM undertook, whilst applicable to other museums was also very institutional specific
Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, November 7, 2011

Museums and entry charges

The National Maritime Museum (NMM) in the UK has seen a ‘drastic ‘drop in visits since they put in place an entry fee ( surprise, surprise) according to the latest UK Museums Association Journal. Visitors dropped from 706,952 to 470,800, but the entry fee generated an additional £521,000.

Meanwhile the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto under new director Dr Janet Carding (ex Deputy director Australian Museum, Sydney and prior to that the Science Museum, London) has made an early call in her directorate to cut admission prices by up to 35%, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. Adult admission is now $15. Funding for the ROM is about 17% from visitor revenue, with 965,000 visitors in the last year. Janet is hopeful, based on survey results, that the reduction in admission will boost the numbers over 1 million.

Further south the opposite is happening with entry fee hikes going on (see two articles in The Art Newspaper). At the Met in New York prices have increased from $20 to $25, with MoMA following suit ($20 to $25) and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lifting theirs from $20 to $22.

Three interesting issues here:
  1. Do the numbers around charging for admission add up? In the case of the NMM their visitors dropped from 706,952 to 470,800, but the entry fee generated an additional £521,000. At a simplistic level the 706,952 pre entry fee visits generated no income at the turnstiles, but say £1,413,900 at an average £2 net in retail and catering sales. Now with entry charges the 470,800 visits generated £521,000 in entry fees and at £2 net in retail and catering sales a further £941,600, totalling £1,462,600. Once you deduct the cost of selling tickets and the related infrastructure it looks pretty line ball to me. In the UK of course this is academic where the Government makes the call that national museums have to provide free entry. They have found that increased retail and catering income tends not to cover the extra cost of dealing with larger crowds.
  2. Is pushing up the price, as in the case of the Met and MoMA or bringing it down as in the case of the ROM likely to significantly affect visitor numbers? My guess is that in New York an extra $5 for those who were probably going anyway is not going to make that much difference, and based on the numbers staying the same, it will mean an extra $8m a year into the Met’s coffers. 10% of their annual budget (currently a whopping $320m) comes from admissions. Conversely in a less affluent city like Toronto my thinking is that reducing the entry fee will have less effect, as those deterred from coming at $22 may well still be deterred at $15.
  3. Are members harder to attract if a museum does not charge, due to the loss of incentive of being able to offer free entry to members? It appears that the answer is yes, witness the astonishing 133,000 members that MoMA now has, driven in part by local visitors wanting to return regularly.
What everyone does know is that when charging museums turn to the free entry model, the numbers go roaring up. The Indianapolis Museum of Art saw numbers rise from 185,000 to 462,000 in a year after free admission was introduced in 2006.

And finally the problem of the reverse is not always a financial one, witness the political ramifications for the British Museum considering introducing paid entry. The model they were looking at was to make UK citizens free and everyone else pay. Hang on said the Europeans, isn’t the UK a part of the EU, so Euro citizens should be free? And then the Greeks joined in, pointing out that one of the key justifications for the BM holding onto the Elgin marbles is that they can be freely seen by anyone. Complicated!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director