Digital Media in Museums, from 2013 to 2016 and Beyond: an Interview with NMC on Their New Museum Horizon Report

For over 20 years the New Media Consortium (“an international not-for-profit consortium dedicated to the exploration and use of new media and new technologies”) prepares a handy guide to the role of digital media and learning. Recently they have begun to dig deeper into specific communities, museums just being one of the latest. Released last month, the NMC Horizon Report > 2013 Museum Edition follows the formats of the others: six technologies described, two expected to rise to prominence in the next year, two alexmore within two to three years, and two final ones within four to five years.

This year they identified BYOD and Crowdsourcing as crucial for museums in 2013, Electronic Publishing and Location-based Services in 2014 and 2015, and tSamanthahe Preservation & Conservation Technologies and Natural User Interfaces for 2016 and beyond. The report describes these six followed by key trends and critical challenges.

For the last report, I interviewed project’s founder and NMC’s CEO Dr. Larry Johnson. This time around, for their new report, I asked Samantha Adams Becker, Senior Director, Communications and lead writer/researcher for the NMC Horizon Report series, and Alex Freeman, Director of MIDEA and Museum Edition editor, to share with us their latest findings.

Thanks for joining us today. Congratulations on the latest report. So let’s jump right in. As always, like a list of Oscar nominations, the ones left out are often as interesting as the ones that made the cut. So what happened to items from previous years, such as Augmented Reality, 3D Printing, and Games-based Learning? These are areas that have not yet been adopted but are having significant, perhaps increasing, impact.

Samantha: It IS like a list of Oscar nominations! Except instead of ballgowns and bow ties, our nominees are decked in the latest wearable technologies. <crickets>

So, yes, exploring which technologies that did not make the list can be as compelling as discussing the ones that did. That’s why for every edition of the NMC Horizon Report, we release the interim results, which feature six other technologies that almost made the report. This year, for example, both 3D printing and Augmented Reality made the interim results, but not the final cut (I can hear them now — “It’s just an honor to be nominated!”). It isn’t that they are not exciting and useful in their own right; it’s just that our expert panel selected six other technologies whose impact they feel may be larger for the next five years, or there are clearer applications to museum education and interpretation.

For technologies that do not make the interim results or the final report, often they are still thoroughly discussed on a project wiki. Sometimes they don’t get voted in because our expert panel believes a technology has already arrived (Perhaps cloud computing, for example, could be called the Meryl Streep of this Oscars ceremony?). Other times, they believe the technology is more than five years away from widespread adoption (Perhaps machine learning, for example, could be considered the young ingénue actress whose time will come in ten years). And finally, there are just some technologies that, while intriguing, do not have as many or enough credible project examples to substantiate them.

Sometimes, from year to year, we see items continue on the list, moving closer or further to the present. But this year only had one repeat from 2012 – Natural User Interfaces – and the rest were new. What do you take from this?

Alex: That’s a good observation. The near term technologies are more likely to move off the list as they are very close to mainstream adoption at the release of the report. The other technologies really reflect the industry chatter and shifting focuses,. For instance under Electronic Publishing, the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative is in the implementation stage and there are a lot of new examples of these art catalogues. Same thing with Location-based Services — a lot of movement in that realm. Natural User Interfaces was repeated from last year due in large part to the 40’ multi-touch Collection Wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the experimentation (hacking) that continues with the Microsoft Kinect in museum setting.

As I reviewed the list of six I tried to identify themes that cut across the emerging technology, such as participating, personalization and sharing digital versions of physical collections. When you review the list, what do you see?

Samantha: I think you hit the nail on the head with the theme of personalization. BYOD, location-based services, and even natural user interfaces are all catalysts for visitors to have unique experiences in museums that are driven by their personal interests. I’d also add to your list the theme of scalability. Museums implementing BYOD must scale their IT infrastructure to accommodate both staff and patrons bringing their own technologies to the space, while one of the biggest focuses of electronic publishing is creating content that can be published on a multitude of platforms across all devices. Crowdsourcing also takes scalability into account, enabling museums to reach large groups of people and tap into their ideas, even outside of their patronage. Furthermore, the hope for preservation and conservation technologies is that museums will be able to identify successful workflows for safeguarding digital and physical assets that other institutions can apply.

Alex: The list reveals a lot about how museums think about their external audiences as well as their internal operations. The BYOD and crowdsourcing movements in the near-term horizon show a fundamental shift in how museums are engaging with their stakeholders, while mid- and far-term topics like electronic publishing and preservation and conservation technologies demonstrate a shift in the way museums are thinking about workflows and how best to care and present an increasingly changing collection of digital and analog content.

The top six often get the most attention, but as you know each Horizon Report also lists trends and challenges, which can be rich to explore. The first one particularly caught my eye: “Cross-institution collaboration is growing as an important way to share resources.” What interested me was that the collaborations described were more passive than active, such as contributing to a shared resource. Why do you think?

Alex: One important thing to think about regarding this trend is that museums are working with a shrinking pie of resources and an increasing expectation to engage in digital projects or processes. For institutional survival its critical to engage in cross-institution collaboration, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its done actively. Third parties are helping more than ever to help facilitate the sharing of resources and data. The Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative by the Getty and the Google Art Project are good examples of this. The work done in these passive cross-institutional collaborations are helping to build a set of knowledge and skills that make innovation more accessible to smaller, less endowed museums.

Another trend describes the increased value of rich media based on collections, which is of particular interest to me at a Natural History Museum. Please say more.

Samantha: I think it’s clear that more people want to be able to interact with museums’ exhibits and collections outside of the physical spaces. The growing value of rich media stems from the demand for people to be able to access high quality content online, as many people, due to time and distance, may never be able to step foot into a particular museum. The videos, audio, imagery, and other media that museums place online is the sole manner in which people experience exhibits and collections, so making sure the content is engaging and dynamic is very important.

The report makes the case that museums are changing as a result of new expectations for civic and social engagement and, as a result, this expectation can be addressed, in part, through engaging people remotely. But can offering museums collections online really provide those unable to visit the physical museum with meaningful ways to participate and be engaged?

Alex: I believe that museums need to get a better understanding of their physical and virtual audiences — they are very different but equally important. While the experience of deeply looking at a sculptural object in a museum gallery is very personal and has yet to find a digital replacement, virtual audiences can engage with an object by contributing to the body of knowledge surrounding it. That’s what they are doing at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. The museum is closed for renovation and their digital presence is the main way they continue to engage audiences during this time. They have fun ways to browse collection information, using color for instance, and the museum also includes opportunities for audiences to connect with their holdings. At the bottom of each object in the Cooper-Hewitt’s online collection it reads:

Do you have your own photos of this object? Are they online somewhere, like Flickr or Instagram? Or have you created a 3D model of one of our objects in SketchUp or Thingiverse? If so then then tag them with ch:object=18670191 and we will connect ours to yours!

This is shifting the idea of museum authority by acknowledging that visitors whether physical or virtual can contribute valuable data about an object.

When it comes to challenges, the report makes the case that constraints existing within museums themselves are likely the most important factors in any decision to adopt — or not to adopt — a given technology. What sort of constraints?

Samantha: Some of these constraints are undoubtedly financial, and that is especially the case for small museums that are short on staff and do not have big budgets to spend on new technology. In some cases, the building itself may be old and not set up to seamlessly accommodate strong mobile broadband and wireless power that technologies such as  location-based services require to be effective. And finally, a lot of technology decisions are made by Boards of Trustees, who simply may not see the merits of the new tools. What we do know for sure is that technology adoption calls for a shift in attitude from the top down. People need to understand how it fits into museum education and interpretation, and can benefit both staff and visitors. That’s where the NMC Horizon Report series comes in. We hope to illuminate new ideas and applications of technology that can inform successful institutional strategies and influence change.

How are these changes causing museums to rethink how they define their audience, or the boundaries between departments?

Alex: Internally, technology is becoming increasingly pervasive across all museum departments. Departmental silos continue to erode due to changes in workflows and the integration of cross-departmental digital strategies. Electronic publishing has been one way to unite the various pieces of content created across the museum from conservator to educator as is seen in SFMOMA’s Robert Rauchenberg Research Project. Initiatives like the Friends program at the Dallas Museum of Art has united the staff more than ever before because this membership strategy impacts everything the museum does. Externally, technology has enabled museums to augment their physical audience with a virtual one. Intellectually curious audiences that don’t have the capability to visit a particular museum still expect to engage with a high quality museum content. Good digital content is not just a “nice to have”, but a “must” for most museums.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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