University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums


2015-06-17 13.00.13-1The recent CultureGeek conference at the Southbank Centre provided a forum to reflect and discuss how organisations and individuals from a wide spectrum of cultural forms are using digital developments to connect with their audiences, to raise revenue, and to stimulate new types of programming and curation.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York is a leader in social media engagement, with  1.19m Twitter followers and 635k on Facebook.   JiaJia Fei, the museums Associate Director of Digital Marketing gave us some fine starting points by inviting us to think about the language barriers in communicating digitally with our audiences – how to find common ground between the vocabulary of artists and techies.  She highlighted examples of language from both artists and techies that alienates audiences –  ‘Oeuvre’ ‘semiotic’ ‘vis-à-vis, vs RMS and CMS  and provided some key lessons in good digital communication, including the powerful Never Stop Learning.

Sarah Ellis, Head of Digital Development at the Royal Shakespeare Company invited us to take a long view of innovation and creativity, with the  introduction of candlelight to theatres in the C17th being a great example.  The role of technology is to push society forward, challenging us to find new ways of working.  Jiajia Fei’s acid test of good communication was ‘would my mother understand it?  By contrast, Ellis made the important and powerful point that social media is about tribes – we don’t follow people we don’t agree with, so the challenge for an institution is to bring a spectrum of views together.   ‘It’s ours to lose if we just talk to ourselves’

In a two-part talk, Rob Gethan Smith, Chief Information Officer at the Southbank Centre, outlined his organisations’ ambitious new approach to opening up its web presence.  The Glass Box project saw the web development team spending two weeks in the foyer of the Centre engaging with audiences and having discussions which (we understand) will inform the development of the new website.  The  Centre is developing an open CMS system for events, one that could set standards across the sector and will be available to all cultural organisations to use in whichever way suits them.  Here in the UCM we have been looking at how we can bring together the wealth of events data from across our venues, so we’ll be watching this project closely as it develops.

Me and My Instagram, a presentation by the writer and design critic Alice Rawsthorn, outlined how she has been posting images, and long-text captions, to Instagram, The content she was posting was fascinating – outlining and promoting the importance of design in our lives, I wanted to know more about who was engaging with it, and what the outcomes were.  Perhaps this is an example more of Instagram being used as a blog, rather than a tool for two-way dialogue.

Conrad Borman, Head of International Relationships at the British Film Institute invited us to think about how gaming and gamers are reflected (or not) in our collections and exhibitions.  Exhibitions validate gaming culture, and the suggestion that currently the lack of critical writing on the subject is preventing further exposure.

In a really inspiring presentation, Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator at The British Library outlined the Off the Map project, a competition for game design students in partnership with GameCity in Nottingham, using the library’s map collections as a starting point.  Stunning results included Pudding Lane ‘materialising a 3D London before the Great Fire.

Finally the presentation by  Chris Micahels, head of digital and publishing at the British Museum, was the most ambitious, and yet in some ways one of the more practical of the day.  With huge ambition, and a certain amount of chutzpah, Chris is transforming all aspects of the BM’s digital presence.  As well as outlining his impressive achievements in just over a year in the job, he emphasised some key principles in approach.  Above all, the Go Fast, Break Things approach to driving digital development forward provided a powerful end to a stimulating day.

As part of our delegate packs, we were provided with a pair of (mock) geek specs. Ironically, a good half of the delegates were wearing specs (geeky or otherwise) already, and as the inimitable Danny Birchall tweeted ‘nerd specs are for life, not just for conferences’.  Nerds are people too.

Susie Biller, Head of Communications at Kettle’s Yard, also attended the event, and below shares her thoughts on the day.

“For me hearing how digital was shifting the organisation and in some case the mission of those organisations represented was really interesting. That the Guggenheim has added digital to their mission statement as well as restructuring and renaming posts to reflect the importance of digital engagement to them is significant. Equally, hearing that the British Museum are tearing up the rule book and looking afresh at the place of digital across the board was really interesting. I am especially keen to see what their future plans for e-books turn out to be. As Chris Michaels pointed out, this is a massively under-exploited area for museums. The BL’s fantastic presentation gave me the first insight into how museums and their collections can be creatively and excitingly used in the exploding world of virtual reality.”
Susie Biller

Liz Hide, University of Cambridge Museums Officer

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