Friday, April 20, 2012

Labels or no labels

Should galleries allow the art to speak for itself or should they provide information and interpretation for visitors? asks an article in the December 2011 UK Museums Journal.  It’s a question that is as old as art itself, with two components.The first is how much interpretive material should be provided, the dilemma described by Nicholas Serota of the Tate as that of ‘experience or interpretation’ i.e. either helping visitors experience a sense of discovery in looking at artworks or leaving them to find themselves ’standing on the conveyor belt of history ‘ (great quote!). 

The second component is how that interpretation is physically imparted. The common label is under some threat at present, witness the label-less MONA (see blog) and experiments that National Gallery in London has been trialing (having no labels but a pocket size guide book for visitors), and the Getty in LA (exhibiting a room full of Rembrandts with no labels for 4 weeks before they put the labels up). Whilst the National Gallery speaks favourably of visitor reaction to their trial, the Royal Academy note that  visitors struggle without them. Kathleen Soriano of the RA noticed that ‘ the absence of labels can make audiences quite nervous. They tend to walk past more quickly’. 

And of course this is also where technology is making serious inroads in offering new ways of ‘seeing ‘ art.  Whilst the Getty substituted no other form of interpretive material for their label-less Rembrandts, MONA provides a highly sophisticated iPod touch info package. 

In between there are lots of new techniques that can be tried. I visited the National Gallery of Denmark over Christmas where in their splendid newly refurbished European galleries, they have included as well as labels;
a)         a large touch table in the first gallery where the highlights of each successive gallery are able to examined in  detail as a taste of what is to come
b)         each gallery has  a small ‘break out’ area, literally an open topped cubicle, where one painting only is hung with a seat to contemplate and earphones for audio information
c)         a series of desks with board games for kids down the middle of one of their major galleries, with the games answers derived from the surrounding paintings.

Museums and the Web last year concentrated on the critical role the mobile was beginning to play in museums .  Much of course has happened since, and it seems amazing that we were discussing then how some art museums still did not permit mobiles. Smartphone use has now passed 50% of all mobile use and web access via mobile overtaken desktop access.
So a number of papers at Museums and the Web 2012 last week looked at strategies to deal with this fast changing world.  Messages I picked up from them included:

  • Know your audience and environment – mobile delivery of content via smartphones or multi media devices is not always applicable. Some visitors choose to come as a fun family outing, and accessing content whetrhe visual or audio through mobiles  can provide solitary experiences that do not enhance this.
  • Awareness of apps that can be downloaded onto your own smartphone is still low (people imagine that the museum’s equipment has to be used as at MONA) or visitors can be wary of app use (they presume it will cost them as part of their plan or can expose them to viruses).
  • Be aware that no one has quite sorted out the business model, i.e. whether apps or providing iPod touchs should be free
Check out particularly relevant papers at:
But returning to the label debate, we will never completely ditch them, but I continue to believe that hand held devices as the principal interpretive tool are going to be the way of the immediate future.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, April 16, 2012

Measuring online activity

Much has been written over the last few years about how to measure online metrics, with Seb Chan’s Fresh and New blog and dynamic presentations helping to set the benchmark. But not a lot has been written about what those metrics tell us. So it was timely for the UK’s ‘Let’s Get Real’ report to be presented at Museums and the Web 2012 last Friday. Undertaken through 2011 the project sought to benchmark common online activity amongst 17 UK cultural venues, including Tate, the British Museum, and the National Museums of Scotland and Wales, to generate practical outcomes to inform the cultural sector as a whole and improve working practices.

The key ‘take aways’ I got from it were:

• Don’t let’s kid ourselves about how much online activity the cultural sector generates - the combined traffic to the partner organizations (which included most of the UK majors) was 0.04% of total UK web traffic in June 2011, equivalent to just one site that provided info for expectant parents

• Understand how to use Google Analytics and undertake a ‘health check’ to ensure consistency of results. This should include segmenting traffic between internal and external visits ( the British Library for instance generates 7% of its traffic internally – staff, and visitors to the public reading rooms), and understanding how Google Analytics calculates time on site.

• Be clear what you are trying to do online and who the content is for

• Recognise the limits as well as the value of social media

• Engage with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – a process that is fundamental to commercial web sites but under used by cultural organizations

• Ensure digital activities are not separate to physical ones and linked with your overall strategy

• Ensure your website is mobile friendly given mobile access to the web has now overtaken desktop/laptop access

Check out the whole report on line - it makes for interesting reading.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Friday, April 13, 2012

Museums and the Web 2012

I predicted a couple of weeks ago that the underlying theme of Museums and the Web 2012 being held here in sunny downtown San Diego would be digital leadership.

Well after the first day of proceedings I can report that this issue is certainly on the agenda, but I think the bigger issue is actually going to be about whether this conference (now in its 17th year) should be renamed Museums and the Digital World.

Few of the papers mention the web, and papers this morning by Bruce Wyman and Rob Stein pushed hard the concept of the necessity for museums to have a digital strategy. No longer is this strategy just about how a web site is used to benefit the museum but it is about the integration of everything digital from digitisation of collections to building apps and the onsite and offsite presence of the museum.

Bruce sees that everyone in the museum should be aware of the need to produce digital content with three roles critical to this:
  1. The content creators - they need to be aware that all content will be picked apart, mashed and reused in ways they never envisaged. Alongside this, accurate metadata, as the conduit to much content, is more important than ever before.
  2. The constructors (i.e. those that build the content) - be aware that consumers want to interact with content on many different platforms, and find it transportable easily between them. Interestingly Bruce straw-polled the conference delegates to show that the vast majority have iPhones not Androids, reflecting his view that iPhone users are much more engaged with content than Android users (who he claims tend to buy their phones largely as clever phones rather than a window to the world). The usage flies in the face of the stats published in USA Today this morning which showed that 2011 global smartphone sales were powered by 49% Android operating systems as against 19% iOS.
  3. The consumers - be aware that data is everywhere for consumers, and the museum data needs to stand out and where possible link back to the museum, as it will invariably not be accessed via the museum's website.
Rob summed it up well I thought by saying that we need first and foremost to be museum experts not technology experts if we are going to convince and engage with our consumers. More soon.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director