MuseumNext Digital Summit: Day One

Welcome to my first blog post of 2021! A huge thank you to all my readers and subscribers for continuing to follow and for making 2020 the best year yet for new audiences and blog post visitation. This will be the first post in a series reflecting on the MuseumNext Digital Summit. For those of you who have never come across MuseumNext before, it is essentially a business driven to connect those passionate about museums and the future of these institutions. I have always wanted to attend one of their conferences, so took this opportunity to join the digital summit. Hopefully, one day soon, I’ll be able to attend one of their conferences in-person. I will add here that the focus and theme of this particular summit is, no surprises here, everything digital!

Because I enjoy sleeping, I am not watching the conference live. Instead, I am watching the recordings. This does mean I miss out on the live Q&A sessions, but taking you back to my initial point, I cannot stress how much I enjoy sleeping. As soon as I signed up I knew this was going to be a collaborative and intriguing conference. Keeping in mind this is my first virtual museum conference, I was expecting Zoom links and a folder of Zoom recordings to go through. Instead, there is a whole forum to join where you can connect with everyone else at the conference through chats, questions and even by selecting your specialty area and speaking to others in the group. I find this to be such a great way of getting people to not only watch the presentations, but engage and network – similar to what you would do at an in-person conference. I was also surprised to see you have full access to the Digital Summit from 2019 including all the recordings. Immediately impressed, I was ready to start the first day.

Above is a screen shot of the talks that took place on day one. As you can see, after watching each presentation you are able to mark it as ‘watched’ and a little green tick appears so it is super easy to keep track of where you are up to. The following are some reflections on the talks that were either particularly relevant or enjoyable to me.

  1. Wow! Signal: A Comedy Variety Show Made by a Space Museum
    Presenters: Lucianne Walkowicz (astronomer) and Meredith Stepien and

The Wow! Signal comedy variety show is a series of YouTube videos released by the Adler Planetarium that aim to engage audiences through an emotional connection rather than strictly delivering content. It was created as they saw a new need with their audience. Those wanting to engage didn’t want pretentious science and art videos but something fun. Something they could watch that would be a distraction and bring joy. So, the Adler Planetarium used COVID-19 as an opportunity to get creative and engage in what Chris Bresky (part of the team) termed ‘oops education’. The kind of education you get from watching something enjoyable and then oops, you’ve learnt something (I personally am now going to use this phrase a lot). Another great quote from their presentation was ‘we need art in order to do science’. By combining creative sketches together with the ‘oops education’, the Adler have been able to engage wide audiences in learning about their mission and collection. If you want to see their videos you can click here.

2. Let the Games Begin!
Presenters: Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, John Sear and Maegan Douglas

What stood out to me about this talk, and so many of the others, is how before COVID-19 so many museums hadn’t really delved into creating or following a digital strategy. At the centre of the museum experience is the physical – physical spaces, objects, etc. What happens, however, when you can’t have that? What happens when your audience is now stuck at home, but they still want to engage? The Newark Museum of Art went on a ‘finding themselves digitally’ journey to keep up levels of engagement. They started with some academic lectures but wanted to introduce something more interactive. This includes the ‘Art Olympics’ program where two museums come head-to-head to see who has the better artworks representing a whole raft of categories. My favourite category was ‘hipster beards’. This program is held via Zoom and gives people the opportunity to vote for which painting they prefer in each category. Anothe program they are running is their upcoming ‘Art Roast’ where comedians have been asked to respond to the collection. Finally, they were able to create a virtual escape room that can be visited by school groups and the public. By using the breakout room function on Zoom, people are divided into teams and must work through puzzles and riddles to gather clues and eventually find an ale recipe that they have been asked to steal.

3. Lightening Talks

In this session there were seven presenters who each had five minutes to tell us about their digital learnings and experiences. A couple of points I want to draw from these talks. The first was raised by Anna Jansson from the Nationalmuseum in Sweden. Jansson spoke about how the Nationalmuseum couldn’t just keep posting the same usual content. It had to become more direct, engage new audiences, and venture into the realm of videos. A really great point Jansson made was that going digital made it even more crucial to have the presence of a person. Whether that be through a video or Zoom meeting or some other kind of digital event, people are wanting that connection. All the talks touched on this issue of keeping people connected. If your audience can’t come into the museum then how do we keep them engaged and feeling as though they are still valued and having a worthwhile experience? Following on from that, Thomas Byttebier from Base Design spoke on a digital exhibition where visitors had little avatars viewing the artwork and you can ‘bump into’ other visitors or just see what they were looking at and get a similar-ish feeling of actually being in a gallery with other people. Finally, the talk by Winoka Yepa from the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts touched further on this idea of building an online community. The Museum took their artist in residence program online including blogs, Zoom interactions and digital community town halls that related to the themes raised by the artists. It seemed like a great way to continue a program that was clearly having an impact at this museum and taking it into the digital realm.

4. How to Make Your Virtual Experience Better than Netflix
Presenter: Rachel Grate

The last few talks on day one started to lay down some useful and practical lists for viewers. Rachel Grate used her experience of working with museums to produce digital content to outline the six most common ‘let’s go digital!’ mistakes. These are: not knowing why you’re hosting an experience, picking a time that doesn’t resonate, not planning content, overlooking technical details, not rehearsing and assuming people will find the event without marketing. In a later talk by John Shevlin, it was noted that the most frustrating thing to go wrong with an event is bad audio quality. Building on this, Josh Dyer and his team at the Myseum of Toronto also highlighted the importance of making content accessible. Going digital needs a checklist so that everything is discussed, considered and integrated into planning. As Grate pointed out, even knowing if there is one spot in your museum that has terrible Wi-Fi could be the difference between a great, or frustrating experience for your digital visitors.

At the end of day one I felt as though I had learnt oh so much about the world of digital and museums. It was inspiring to see how small, medium and large institutions all found the transition challenging for different reasons and how they adapted in order to create content and keep people engaged. It just fills me with joy listening to the amazing, creative and flexible people that are in this industry. Rather than seeing the pandemic as being too big a challenge, they’ve been able to use this time as an opportunity to problem solve, gain new audiences and build empathy and closer connections within their teams.

As I head into day two, I am excited to learn more about how museums have been collecting during the pandemic and how these collections will be archived for the future. If you are attending the conference please feel free to add your thoughts as a comment or find me on the conference forum page.

All images in this post have been sourced from the MuseumNext Digital Summit website.

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