Thursday, 30 April 2015

Museums and Heritage Show Part 2

It's the end of day two at the Museums and Heritage Show and I have to say that I have come out feeling quite reassured that the NT is considering everything it should be!

The first talk of the day was a Q&A session on tech for newbies.  A rather broad topic, which quickly focused on Twitter and Instagram.  There was nothing particularly new to learn here but it was nice to know that I am doing it right.  At the NT the social media is the remit of a member of the Marketing team so I don't feel like I need to know for my working life but I do use it professionally and am always careful of that distinction.  What was interesting though was the level of engagement that you need to have in order to get the most out of it - it is a social platform and so you need to be sociable.  If you schedule tweets then who is there to manage replies and engage in that socialising with users?

There was a sector update on HLF, which was jolly interesting as someone from an institution currently coming to the end of an HLF grant and as someone who was not involved in the application process.  The Head of the Museums, Libraries and Archives department took away some of the fear that has been instilled in me about grant applications.

Another interesting programme animal

The talk from Historic Royal Palaces' Digital Producer was really refreshing.  I was expecting him to champion all kinds of fancy and expensive technology but it was quite to the contrary.  Very sensibly he spoke about identifying your audience and matching your technology to your content and audience.  Most of the HRP visitors are against having screens in their visit as they visit palaces to take a trip back in time and suspend their contemporary baggage.  Another really fascinating point was that you should consider who your competition is on the platform in question eg. if you create a game for your museum, you will be in competition for downloads from the likes of Angry Birds - can you really compete?  He asked, have you ever seen someone playing on a museum app on their commute?  Nope, so perhaps you should focus your efforts elsewhere.  Another great takeaway point was that you should be giving your visitors the best museum experience they have ever had, not the worst iPad one they have ever had.  Very valid point and refreshing to see someone in his position being honest about where digital does and does not work.

I was genuinely flummoxed by cyclists' parking decisions...

I also went to talks on entrepreneurship in independent museums as well as how to 'do' retail, which were not terribly on topic for the National but interestingly talked about the same ideas that have been recurring over the two days:

  • know your aims and objectives
  • identify your audience
  • identify your learning objectives
  • use tools that suit the above

I am glad to say that the NT has these bases covered and the past six months of working on a couple of exhibitions, a new physical exhibition space and digital exhibition platform have taught us their importance.  You could say that I've had a baptism of fire into the world of exhibitions but I am encouraged and enthused that I, together with our Learning, Digital, Marketing and Commercial departments, am on track and thinking through the same issues, challenges and solutions as the rest of the heritage professions!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Museums and Heritage Show Part 1

It is the end of day one of the Museums and Heritage Show and I am exhausted.  There is a jam packed schedule of talks and stalls to keep you stimulated all day long.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to reflect on some of the talks that I attended and flesh out some of the ideas that started to formulate as I sat predominantly on the floor of the lecture theatres.  I should preface this by saying that the National Theatre has just opened its first dedicated archive exhibition space front of house, the Lyttelton Lounge, and I have unexpectedly found myself deep in exhibition territory.

The first talk was on the choice between high tech and low tech exhibitions.  Although this was the topic of the talk, the focus was really on your interpretation of the subject area and how that should lead you to the decision of whether you need a high or low tech solution for your exhibition.  It hadn't occurred to me that I am an interpreter in that I help people to appreciate and explore theatre history - there is an Association of Heritage Interpretation, which I am sorry to say I hadn't heard of before.  A couple of the trustees were speaking and it was very interesting to hear the work they are doing to advocate interpretation as a profession in and of itself.  They are encouraging everyone to think about their exhibitions so that they are thematic (rather than fact based), organised (so that they are easy to follow for people who will be in 'leisure-mode'), relevant (personal and meaningful) and enjoyable.  Having just worked on two exhibitions, one purely digital and one both physical and digital, it is very helpful now to reflect on some of the questions that we should perhaps have asked ourselves before the whole process started.

One of the adorable programme animals

The second talk was on transforming thresholds.  I wasn't entirely sure what this meant before the talk but any ideas about how to improve visitor experience in terms of space and signage are always welcome.  The main thrust was that AHRC funded research has been carried out to look at how thresholds are used in museums and in what ways they can be made more effective.  In order to carry out this research, the team looked to three sectors, which are more used to considering threshold use: retail; gaming; and performance.

In retail there is a lot of focus on the threshold of a shop and trying to engage users from their first entry through the doors.  Gaming also considers thresholds in terms of the start of a game and how users can be educated in the rules, goals and size of the game.  The one that really stood out to me was the use of performance in the research.

Directors and actors need to consider the theatre space and where and when a performance is deemed to have started.  The research team decided to use 'invisible' performance, which is where a performance or rehearsals take place in public without those around being aware.  This took the form of actors embedding themselves in a threshold space and asking for information, going up stairs, reading signage and engaging with the space as a visitor is expected to do.  The research team had studied visitor flow prior to the 'performance' and visitors tended to get their heads down and walk through the space completely ignorant of the signage and features.  Once the visitors were mixed with actors they were far more likely to engage with material.  This suggests that people feel the need to be given permission, in a sense, to stop and engage.  I have spotted this in our Lyttelton Lounge where, if one person stops to read text, more people will be likely to.  This is particularly true of AV material or listening posts.  The next step is figuring out how to take this forward.  We are already considering how else we can advertise the digital aspect of our Lounge so that people are encouraged to hire an iPad or use their own device and perhaps the sense of permission and encouragement needs to be integrated into those plans.

The third talk I want to mention was on designing successful temporary exhibitions on a tight budget.  The budget of the exhibition being presented was actually fairly large in my opinion but the points were very valuable all the same!  I was pleasantly surprised to hear that we have approached the Lyttelton Lounge with many of the ideas expressed in this talk.  We have used large graphics to engage visitors instantly and in a cost effective way.  We have also made sure that the capital expenditure on shelving has resulted in a reusable and adaptable solution.  There was a big focus again on identifying the audiences and desired outcomes of an exhibition and this was repeated in several of the talks I attended, whether they be geared towards interpretation strategies, marketing or visitor engagement.

All in all, it was a very interesting day and I am looking forward to tomorrow, which promises to be more techy, starting with a feature on 'Tech for newbies'!