Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
The University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) is taking part in Culture 24’s collaborative research project, Let’s Get Real, in which cultural sector organisations are challenged to think digitally and explore their success online.
Below, Sarah-Jane Harknett, UCM Visitor Engagement and Outreach Organiser at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) and Richard White, UCM Communications & Marketing Coordinator, give their views on the project so far.
I do not consider myself to be a technophobe, either personally or professionally. I can generally get my computer to do what I want and am especially interested in digital technology in museums, how it is used by visitors and whether it can help them engage with objects. But my phone still has buttons and I have only tweeted once. Actually I didn’t write that tweet, I just cut and pasted it. So how have I ended up being involved in a digital project that involves both Twitter and Periscope?
The opportunity to be involved with the Culture 24 Let’s Get Real project presented itself and I have been pleased to be able to represent UCM at the workshops and recent conference. It has been a fascinating experience; I have occasionally felt very out of my depth but the workshops have been full of information and opportunities to meet professionals grappling with similar issues, as well as institutions far-better resourced in this area. One of the aims of the project is to “change the way [we] work and develop [our] impact on audiences” and I think our project might make that happen in an achievable way.
We began this process with an idea for the digital project involving a set of data that was already collated. This would not require UCM staff to produce more content and would – I hoped – make the project simple to get off the ground. But it turned out to be rather more complicated. With the advice given by Matt Locke at the end of one of the workshops in mind (“How can you make it easier? How can you make it cheaper?”) and a new member of UCM staff on board we went simpler and decided to use Periscope to engage new audiences.
Our first iteration was to scope a gallery tour at MAA that was already planned as part of Open Cambridge. This experiment was purposefully simple and yet attracted enough people to make it feel like a worthwhile experience. It was simple because, like many museums, we do not have a member of staff who is dedicated to producing digital content. But by using a (borrowed) smartphone I could instantly engage people anywhere in the world with our pre-arranged tour. It did not need special lighting, a camera crew, or a sound boom. We are planning a further iteration over a number of days while we build a Day of the Dead altar. I think we will be able to engage an international audience with this experiment. Further, I think we may manage to subtly change the organisation in a simple way. Who knows, I may even upgrade to a mobile phone that can also access the internet.
So, hands up, it’s my fault we ended up working with Periscope, but judging by Sarah-Jane’s entry above, I can safely put my hands down again. No UCMs currently use the platform, but encouragingly, there’s plenty of evidence out there from others (think British Museum) who are showcasing how useful it can be. From live-streaming museum tours and curator’s talks to providing behind-the-scenes access with questions from viewers – all this points to instantaneous moments where audiences can be transported into our museums from anywhere in the world. And the best part – providing you have a smart phone, Sarah-Jane! – is how simple it is to broadcast. Yes, you need to plan ahead; you need to understand the nuances of what makes a good, engaging broadcast, but ultimately, you can pick up a phone and live-stream there and then.
Our plan was simple. We created MAA’s Periscope account by connecting via their well-established Twitter account. We picked an event: a curator’s talk on The Power of Paper – a print exhibition that looks at 50 years of printmaking from Australia, Canada and South Africa. We didn’t do a huge amount of promotion, given it was our first foray into Periscope. We did film it. And we did have viewers…
All in all, it was a success. Despite the light promotion (a few posts shared on Twitter) we still had decent viewing figures, and nothing went horribly wrong (ie. no one fell over). We had a low retention rate which might mean the broadcast was too long or not of interest to the viewer, but given time to build followers and a reputation for the type of content (magic) we share, the retention rate should build. Finally, we saved the recording on the phone’s camera-roll to later extract and add to the MAA’s Youtube account, and kept those precious stats to mark results and inform future progress.
So next up, the MAA’s Day of the Dead celebration. From Friday 30 October to Sunday 1 November, we plan to interview the Day of the Dead alter builders, record progress and share a range of the MAA’s amazing Day of The Dead artefacts. Follow the @MAACambridge Twitter account for the latest updates and keep an eye out for our ‘scopes’ (yes, we already have the lingo).