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Museums Computer Group meeting, May 2015
Could the pressure for museums to innovate actually be counterproductive? Should we be looking again at what ‘innovation’ means and define it much more broadly than we might do at present? This was the starting point for the Museums Computer Group‘s spring meeting, hosted recently by the University of Cambridge Museums. 50 or so representatives from museums, funders, and the tech sector came together to hear from a range of stimulating speakers, and to debate what digital innovation can really mean in the future.
Speakers included Peter Pavement (Surface Impression) reviewing the long history of technological innovation in museums, Sejul Malde (Culture 24) drawing on experience in the corporate sector, made us think really hard about what a new definition of innovation might be. Lizzie Edwards from the British Museum Samsung Digital innovation centre invited us to think about how emerging technologies could be incoriporated into family programmes, while Jess Suess (Oxford University Museums) described how audience-facing digital programmes had been stimulated across Oxford’s university museums. The day concluded with a discussion with representatives of NESTA and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Emily Perdue, Conservation Intern, and Carl Hogsden, Research Associate, also attended the meeting, and below shares their thoughts on the day.
“I attended the meeting due to my interest in digital initiatives having previously worked on databases and educational websites before training in art conservation. It was a very productive meeting and all of the speakers did a wonderful job. One take-away from the day was that the more people from different backgrounds communicate and share ideas, the more likely we are to be innovative. Conservators are a very innovative group – we constantly find low cost solutions using technologies and materials from different fields; reworking them in new ways to conserve and store museum objects. However, conservators are not often on the list of people likely to be consulted when it comes to digital innovation and reaching out to wider audiences. Getting more of the museum staff from front of house to those behind the scenes could help to develop practical innovation as described by Sejul Malde.”
“I was particularly interested to see that the Museums Computer Group chose Cambridge for its Spring meeting to explore the notion of museums and innovation. For non-‐commercial institutions, as is the case for the University of Cambridge Museums, the idea of innovation is particularly challenging -‐ after-‐all what exactly is meant by innovation. It is easy to think of innovation in technical terms, and it is similarly easy to forget that museums have been pushing their own technical achievements for many decades, as Peter Pavement from Surface Impressions reminded us in his opening presentation. For a sector that prides itself on documentation though, Peter suggested some irony in a lack of celebration of past innovation as the result of an inability of museums to record their own successes. What Peter was effectively reminding us is that innovation is essentially a relative term, a comparison between aspirations and what you are doing already.
The notion of innovation as a culture of the new or the wonderful however can be problematic, as Sejul Malde from Culture 24 pointed out. Innovation in these terms naturally becomes closely affiliated with cost and giant leaps, and what is often considered under the banner research and development (R&D). Here is where the idea of innovation as technology becomes problematic for museums, as Sejul pointed out. R&D involves taking risk, and museums are inheritantly non-‐risk focussed. On the other hand R&D is as much about process as it is about creating innovative digital products, and this seemed to me one of the key points of the day. Rather than an emphasis on technologies, museums can look to innovation as a means to transition organisational change and process – having the capacity to repeatedly try out ideas, effectively evaluate and then reflect. For a research environment such as Cambridge, this seemed to me a very topical thought.
Lizzie Edwards from the British Museum opened up the afternoon programme. Alongside providing entertainment value with a practical session, she also reminded us of a dilemma frequently faced by museums – museum time vs technology time. Lizzie proposed the need to create reactive spaces where experimentation around collections might keep apace with social and technological trends. This did much to reinforce the innovation of process put forward by Sejul earlier in the day. The idea that organisational versatility and innovation being closely linked became all the more pertinent for me and my work for the UCM when Sejul explored this balance through effective content creation and reuse, a cyclic activity that often drains the resources of museums. And here’s the catch. If an innovation of process is only truly attainable by establishing a framework for enabling experimentation through repetitive content creation and provision, then, paradoxically, an inability for effective content management and re-‐use will no-‐doubt cripple museum resources all the more. You cannot be innovative unless your house is in order.
The pitfalls of innovation were expanded further during a closing panel discussion with representatives from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and NESTA. The conversation revolved largely around the innovation process being as much about addressing failure as it is about celebrating success. Karen Brookfield from the HLF pitched in her understanding of innovation as oganisations being able to realise their aims and ambitions. So maybe innovation is simply about trying to do something better than you currently are, and continuing to do so.”
Liz Hide, University of Cambridge Museums Officer
Photos (C) Katherine Biggs/MCG