Dan Collins on our move to virtualisation

Our IT manager, Dan Collins, is in the Australian broadsheet today talking about our move over the last year to virtualisation of our servers.

“We have got a much-reduced infrastructure spend in terms of the replacement cycle of hardware,” Mr Collins said. “When you look at what it saved us having to replace over three years, I would say that is about $200,000 worth of equipment.”

There were additional savings on labour costs for maintaining the equipment, along with reduced service calls, he said.

“We have gone down now to three host servers, a massive change from 35, and that has obviously had effects on power and cooling in our server room. It is much quieter than before.”

The museum has cut its technology power costs by 33 per cent . . .

Interviews User experience

Fictitional narratives & visitor-made labels – The Odditoreum

At the Powerhouse we’ve just launched something called The Odditoreum. An incredibly low-tech “exhibition” with no technology-based interactive experiences and minimal web presence, The Odditoreum feels remarkable for the level of participation it is engendering. Visitors are actively writing their own labels for the objects and even before launch there was a lot of interest when Paula and Erika blogged about seeing some of them in the workshop.

I spoke to Helen Whitty, Public Programs Producer, about the project.

F&N: What is The Odditoreum?

HW: The Odditoreum is a moveable feast whose essential ingredients are a selection of collection objects and a well known author – Shaun Tan. Combined they have made a small exhibition, book, limited edition print and the core of the July school holiday program.

The Museum allocates significant resources to our quarterly school holiday programs and on the whole I think we do great holiday programs and we work hard to maintain the standard regardless of whether that particular holidays are minor or medium size.

The motivation for the theme of the July period came about because the Museum did not have a new temporary exhibition to promote. Nor had we changed much of our permanent exhibitions for children for many years. The specialist facilities of Zoe’s House and The Magic Garden are an exception and had both already been covered in prior holidays.

The Odditoreum’s small exhibition component is 18 ‘odd’ objects that are not currently in storage. Shaun Tan, a celebrated author was invited to write ten of the labels (in fact that’s all he said he had time to write – then wrote eleven). Seven labels were written by young children (from Stanmore Public School) to inspire other visitors to write their own ‘labels’ during the holidays.

The brief for Shaun was to write about 100 words for each object and he could write whatever he liked about each one. I sent him a package with about 20 objects to choose from, each with a photo and extracts from their official documentation file.

He selected those with the most potential to respond to his touch.

F&N: Tell us a little bit about Shaun Tan. Where did you come across Shaun’s work before?

I love children’s books and could barely resist purchasing stacks for my own children. For years I’d been angling to incorporate children’s authors into my programming.

Shaun Tan’s work is a particular family favourite and I thought the imagery in The Lost Thing could have had the Powerhouse in mind. His stories are often simple, elegant and profound – with extraordinary illustrations. I had contacted Shaun a couple of times to work on projects but whilst interested, he was always too busy.

He told me he was attracted by the name (Odditoreum) and ’10×100 word’ labels felt achievable within his busy schedule. The possible material he was sent to work with intrigued him.

Shaun’s writing style can be quite dark as a way of being thought provoking. He told me that happy, or at least fully resolved endings don’t stay with the reader, don’t prompt them to look for alternate scenarios. I like that.

As for the reader – he doesn’t see himself as an author for children necessarily. He describes his audience as:

‘…anyone who is curious, who enjoys strangeness, mystery and oddity, who likes asking questions and using their imagination…[I always ask myself] what are the ways that something can be represented to most effectively invite us to think and ask questions about the world we live in.’

I think he describes the spirit of what we try to do with our work with visitors.

F&N: How were the objects chosen?

At the end of the day the final selection was going to be determined by –

– the available showcases (my initial planning submission referred to ‘within existing infrastructure’ — I love that expression, basically saying ‘its gunna be cheap’ in business plan speak).
– the location and whether it was easily moved (there goes the front window of the passenger jet)
– conservation and display requirements (did I mention cheap?)
– was it intended to be lent out or used in a planned exhibition (unlikely)
– part of a tour for our offsite open storage (yes, the prawn on a bicycle is part of the schools technology offer – sigh)
– sensitivity of donors and/or curators

And ultimately Shaun’s selection.

There were certainly a few of my favourite things in the array.

I don’t claim to know the collection but I have prowled the basement on many occasions for books I’ve authored for the Museum. And not being a curator I wasn’t tied to any particular area (though I do find myself strangely attracted to Z4). I used OPAC. I even circulated an email titled ’31 odd heads are better than one’ to our curators, and sent begging emails to registrars. Many responded.

Suggestions came from carpark conversations, voice messages (“have you seen what’s sitting outside the Transit Room lately?”) and so on. I didn’t actually look in the stores this time, as to be honest I was fitting all this in between too many jobs — but in the end this chaotic series of conversations threw up a lot of interesting stuff.

I gathered up a little selection team (Rebecca, my champion from Exhibition Coordination, Judith, a Casual Assistant and mother of young children (nothing casual about her), Alison (an expert Registrar), Malcolm (our ‘silk purse out of sows ear’ exhibition designer) and we sorted through the piles of images, object numbers and descriptions.

In my head I was looking for things that had some familiarity to a child but looked a bit strange or were made of strange materials. I felt I wanted the selection to come from different collection areas (rather than, say, all clothing) and also from different time periods — so things weren’t odd just because they were old.

I also felt the backstory should be interesting (“oh that’s what it is!”).

The most obvious thing we should have done was to invite children to make the selection. I thought about it but time was slipping away and in retrospect I let go of this idea too easily.

What we all found hilarious was what people thought was odd, and not.

Someone had suggested the barbed wire display which I found a bit odd, but at which a curator commented …’what’s strange about that? Its not even the best collection of barbed wire in Australia’ and I imagined the label could simply read “The second best collection of…”. We didn’t present the barbed wire to Shaun as the Conservators all shuddered, though I think he would have loved it.

And I paused to think about oddness being about lack of familiarity – who know, rural kids may have found the barbed wire too ordinary for words!

In the end things were dropped as they wouldn’t fit or they just got left behind. I miss Lucky Starr’s star shaped guitar as I would have liked a musical instrument

Maybe there’s a bit of ‘curator’ in us all.

And even then some peculiar things arose after the final choice was made.

Sue Gatenby writes “A slide collection of unusual microscopic specimens were selected for display in the Odditoreum exhibition. Amongst this collection was a microscope slide containing a blood smear from an Anthrax patient from the 1890’s. This slide was assessed for its risk. Several specialists were contacted including Dr. Andrew Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Molecular Microbial Ecology at the University of Sydney and the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) – transport of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). The risk assessment and management, including the storage and handling guidelines. It was determined that the Occupational Health & Safety risk was low and with the recommended storage and handling guidelines the slide can remain in the collection.”

F&N: How did Shaun approach the labels?

When I first approached him I sent him about 6 images to whet his appetite and with out me asking he sent back labels for the prawn on the bicycle; the shirt from Cameroon covered in human hair and the giant model of the garden pea. I think these objects caught his eye or in the case of the shirt it just sounded weird.

He was interested in the official file information I sent him and the back story did inform his writing. He was less interested in the objects that were made by an artist or designer. He argued that these already had the overlay of an interpretation which he would need to break through. So he didn’t do the Encyclopaedia of Dresses or the Vivienne Westwood shoes.

The exception was the Liquorice Allsorts Shoe (a parade bicycle made for the Sydney Olympic Games Opening Ceremony). In Victoria they still use Guard Dog Collection boxes. Shaun often throws change into the one at his local shop and Somehow the two images folded together into this combinatory label text:

Guide dog testing device number 6

This enormous liquorice all-sorts shoe is one of several outlandish objects used to test young guide dogs for their susceptibility to distraction while on duty. A tricycle inside the shoe allows a rider to manoeuvre this colourful vehicle while prospective guide dogs are put through their paces. The shoe appears at the moment an important task needs to be performed, such as crossing a road, laying quietly in a restaurant, or entering a lift. Dogs are then assessed on their ability to maintain composure and focus, thus preparing them for the challenges of the real world.

Other ‘canine distracters’ commonly used by training staff include a Volkswagen covered in sausages, an ice-cream van that spills colourful rubber balls, and a litter of kittens riding on a miniature steam train.

Shaun wrote them up and Judith Matheson (Editorial and Publishing — “all authors are edited Helen. I’ll only do a light edit…”) did indeed tidy them up expertly for their final label.

The actual format of the label was chewed over as they were to be larger and we did think about appropriate reading fonts for children and included a picture of the object. Christina Fedrigo was the Graphic Designer across all media and had a wonderful feel for the spirit of the project.

F&N: The exhibition is very frugal – it uses an otherwise vacant gallery, and there is a lot of ‘space’. Tell me about this. How cost effective was it?

The Odditoreum did not start out as an exhibition. It was put up as a public program with a small display for school holidays. Being a public program it was more or less in my control and budget. In the past (though this is changing) public programs were not subject to the same level of scrutiny as an ‘exhibition’.

Exhibitions are on longer – they are more expensive, they have donors and sponsors and layers of stated and assumed reciprocal arrangements and protocols that can make them the jewels that they are.

But I also feel they are seen as more significant or of a higher order than their “frivolous cousins” – that is public programs who are mostly doing stuff for families.

I felt I could pull off a program for July whilst an exhibition would need to be scheduled and polished and is so doing quite possibly might disappear. In the end the Project Submission which proposed a gamut of outcomes was enthusiastically approved and supported to a level not previously experienced.

The display of objects was intended to sit within a fairground space in a highly trafficked area of the Museum. It was a decision of the Executive later to move it into a gallery and that is about when I stopped calling it a display.

It took on the persona of a small exhibition which cost about AU$7000 (excluding staff time).

I was nervous when it was decided to move it from a programming area into a gallery as I felt it would need additional funds for an ‘entry experience’ and I wasn’t sure how the objects would sit in another context and whether the ‘existing infrastructure’ would really just ‘look cheap’.

But on the other hand it has been great to run the experiment – which isn’t over yet, it is only just beginning – and so far it ‘reads’ like an incredibly cost effective exhibition.

F&N: I imagine that this is quite a radical shake up of a traditional exhibition – although I understand non-museum types ‘get it’ pretty much straight away. Were there conflicts over objects between the public programs team and curatorial?

Initially I heard that there was concern from some curatorial quarters about this approach, but none directly to me. As curatorial staff apply focused attention to these matters and indeed caretake the collection they were concerned that the proper checks and information wouldn’t be included into the process. I also think that sometimes the ‘caretaker role’ of curators sometimes drifts into an ‘owner role’ (if only unconsciously).

The Cameroon Hair Shirt was put forward indirectly as a potentially problematic object as it may have had spiritual, if not ceremonial, associations for some communities. We simply didn’t know.

My view on this was that we should put any ‘odd’ objects forward without this sort of censorship (the exception being secret sacred objects that we would not be putting on display anyway). The shirt had already been on show. So I decided to try and censor the choices as little as possible. And I had faith in Shaun Tan.

Whilst his labels would be quirky at a deeper level they would still be respectful.

But these concerns did not really eventuate into even a formal conversation, as I think this new method, if you like, was digested.

Directly curators have been extremely positive and curatorial involvement has been to suggest objects and then to check if my ‘real’ object description was correct.

F&N: How did curators and others in the museum respond to the ‘fictional’ labels? How long did it take for them to get on board?

I wanted children and families to be curious enough about the objects to want to find out what they were and demand to know — wouldn’t that be great! But I didn’t want the fantasy label immediately next to the real information, thus spoiling the approach (‘really you thought we were going to fun but really its business as usual’).

We can be so didactic in our approach to the extent that we overstate the obvious, for example directions that say “Look around the exhibition to find out more”.

The Curators and Editorial did want the real information nearby and it was starting to surface as a point of conflict. But after interviewing Shaun and showing children I realised that part of the joke (if you like) was knowing what they really were. At the end we put this info in another format nearby (not on top of) and written in a very child-friendly style.

F&N: How has the public responded? When I visited the entire ‘make your own label’ wall was full!
The public response is amazing. I think we have really tapped into something with this approach.

All ages are writing.

It is clear from their own labels that they are reading all the information and thinking about it. It is as though we have put out the invitation in such a way that they want to respond.

Here is one of the (edited) labels about Object 17431–1, a ball of puree, purchased in 1887, from the children at Stanmore Public School. I think this also gave everyone confidence to write.

Elephant Wee

Elephant’s wee

This lovely little ball is a great treat for all to eat. Made out of pure elephant wee, it is a luxury and only served at the finest of places. It was discovered in Africa in an elephant café when an elephant peed in a glass and another elephant drank and said it was good! So the elephant chef figured out how to make it into a great treat!

It then made its way to humankind and I guess some one drank it and liked it and sold it to the museum where it is now. If you want to try it, eat it now at your closest elephant restaurant shop.

Augustine, aged 9
Stanmore Primary School

F&N: This reaction doesn’t seem to ‘just be kids’ – despite this being clearly identified as a ‘for kids’. Do you think that this sort of ‘fictional’ museum can scale? Could you have an entire museum created as an ‘experience’ in this way?

That’s a good question and I’m not quite sure at this stage.

I think putting something different in makes you relook at it all. By considering what’s odd you consider what is ‘normal’ if you like. It is the juxtaposition of approaches that is effective.

Possibly because it is in a ‘kids exhibition’ it gives permission and confidence for adults to write. Or perhaps Shaun’s own ethos about who he writes for is coming back as who is responding to it;

‘…anyone who is curious, who enjoys strangeness, mystery and oddity, who likes asking questions and using their imagination’

Thanks to Helen Whitty for the interview and Paula Bray for the photographs.

If you are in Sydney, pop in and see the Odditoreum and tell us what you think!

Conferences and event reports Interviews Social media

Transformations in Cultural and Scientific Communication 2009 conference and short interview with Shelley Bernstein

In early March at Melbourne Museum the follow-up conference to last year’s Social Media & Cultural Communication takes place. This time the conference has been re-named and slightly refocussed as Transformations in Cultural and Scientific Communication and has a great lineup of speakers from around the country and overseas.

Join leading national and international experts at the Conference to share their experiences of the Web 2.0 revolution – and how it is changing museum and library practice. The four conference sessions will explore:

1. How to communicate with non-traditional visitors, and capture new audiences.
2. How social networks allow audiences to form communities of interest.
3. How scientific knowledge can create and sustain cultural participation.
4. How organisational change is critical in a world of user-generated content and social media.

The Conference builds on the themes of the 2008 Sydney event by looking more broadly at how museums and libraries can contribute to the development of general understandings of science and culture by communities and publics. How is museum and library knowledge created and disseminated in the Web 2.0 environment?

Read the full conference information and programme and book your tickets.

I am doing a presentation as well as running a workshop on metrics and measurement for the cultural sector (which is an alpha version of the one I am running in April in the USA). If you are interested in the workshop then book in early as spots are very limited.

I’m very excited because amongst the speakers in the conference session I’m speaking in is Brooklyn Museum‘s Shelley Bernstein. I asked Shelley a couple of questions.

(pic courtesy of Shelley Bernstein)

Q: What are you going to be talking about at the conference?

I tend to be one of those neurotic presenters that changes and tweaks everything until the very last minute, so I’m not entirely sure at the moment. Every day changes my perspective just enough to keep me rethinking, so I’m still mulling things over and bet that’s going to be one long plane ride with me and my laptop. Generally, I’ll be discussing what we’ve found to be the rules of the road: community is not marketing; personal relationships are key; transparency is essential; personal face on the institution in social areas is vital; trust your audience, they rock.

Q: The Brooklyn has an enormously impressive online presence. I’m really interested in your 1st Fans initiative and also how the museum has been connecting the local community in the galleries *and* online.

1stfans is a membership program that Will Cary (our Membership Manager) and I started with the aim to lower the barrier to entry in terms of joining and supporting the museum. The idea is to engage two groups of supporters. Those in our local area who come often, but have not gotten on the membership escalator yet. Also others who may have seen what we were doing online the past several years and would consider supporting us from far away. The challenge for us to make sure the far away supporters feel just as involved with their membership as the local ones and we are experimenting with that.

For instance, during the Swoon printing event, we asked Swoon’s studio to make a handful of prints for the 1stfans we knew lived outside of the area. We knew they just couldn’t make it to Brooklyn and we wanted to go out of our way and surprise them for being early adopters, so we are shipping those prints which is pretty cool. For the next event at First Saturday, we are planning to video the event then do a Facebook Q&A with the presenter in our 1stfans FB group. I think in each case, it just requires us to think outside the box and say…OK, how can we involve the supporter half way around the world via the web? … and then perhaps go a little out of our way to create something special, so those far away supporters feel less like outsiders. Each time it will be a little different – it will depend on what each event entails and how best to adjust it for everyone…and we are learning as we go, so our 1stfans are learning with us and that’s kind of cool.

Q: Everyone is talking about how social media (and museums) will fare in the economic downturn. What is your view of this in light of recent events?

I’m obsessed with one of Surowiecki’s latest New Yorker Columns and think it’s an interesting example of how people may need to adjust their ideas of what is and is not sustainable. I’m going to be blogging about that soon, so stay tuned.

Q: Melbourne and Sydney, especially, are renowned for their diverse and well priced cuisine. Which Australian native animal are you most looking forward to eating?

Ha! Well, I’m a vegetarian, so I’m more hoping to meet a ‘roo than eat one :) I tend to raid the cookie aisles of the supermarkets in foreign countries, so I’m sure you’ll find me there endlessly fascinated by the differences in cookies Down Under.

Q: Given that you are visiting the country with the most deadly animals on the planet, which are you most afraid of – the spiders, the snakes, the jellyfish, the sharks, or the octopi?

Sharks, for sure! I grew up in the Jaws generation, but I will say I’m way more afraid of being on a boat than being in the water with a possible shark lurking about!

Read the full conference information and programme.

Interviews Wikis

Implementing an internal wiki – Dan Collins on the Powerhouse’s rollout of Confluence

Wikis are the sort of knowledge management tool that you’d immediately think of as having great value to museums. However it seems that in the sector they are rarely found outside of IT departments – if at all.

We’ve been looking at them at the Powerhouse for quite a few years now. We tried simple installs of MediaWiki (the open source tool behind WIkipedia) and a couple of hosted ‘free’ solutions – Wikispaces and pbWiki – but none of these were really suitable as an organisation-wide solution.

Recently our IT team rolled out Confluence, an enterprise wiki solution, which is being progressively implemented across the organisation on a project by project basis. Confluence is a commercial application built by Australian software company Atlassian but it has a good user community and 50% discounts for non-profits.

I spoke to Dan Collins, our IT Manager (and web enthusiast) about Confluence and why he chose to go down this path.

What were the initial internal drivers for a wiki inside the Powerhouse?

Dan Collins: Initially my team needed something that would store large of amounts of IT documentation. I was frustrated that we continually kept creating new documentation within the department, and that our servers were always filled lots of outdated and bloated Microsoft Office documents. A wiki model worked well for IT as the information in the wiki represented ‘live’ information and slowly staff began to trust it as the central location for all our departmental information.

After a short while I began to see opportunities where a similar wiki model might work well in other areas of the Museum. Our intranet (built as a stop gap in 1999) was an obvious choice as it contained lots of static information – mainly forms, policies and procedures. As a result staff rarely go to the Intranet – whereas ideally I felt an intranet should be be a hub for all types of organisational happenings – not just static documents.

A wiki model would be able to assist in reducing the bottlenecks of creating content for the intranet by radically distributing the ability for staff to create there own content in the areas for which they were responsible. Hopefully this would also increase ‘ownership’ of the intranet.

How was the choice made to select Confluence? What are its benefits? What else did you look at?

We came to use Confluence after using a few other systems along the way. Initially in the IT department we were using forum software called Invision Board. Then a CMS, Drupal, to manage our documentation. For the purposes of managing documentation Drupal worked well, and I liked that there was a vibrant user community contributing to its overall development.

However, I found that Drupal required a large investment in time to understand how all the various components and plugins fitted together. Whilst Drupal is a very flexible tool and there was never just one particular way to achieve what you were after – which has its benefits -but also posed a number of difficulties.

The Web Unit had also trialled MediaWiki for use by the Powerhouse Media Labs staff, and we had looked at a few online based solutions. MediaWiki was too unfriendly in terms of user interface, and it became clear that a hosted solution would become problematic due to the sensitive ‘internal’ content we would want it to host.

Around the same time I was looking to replace our under-performing and expensive corporate helpdesk software. We came across a product called Jira from Australian firm Atlassian. Jira provided many of the features that we were after for a fraction of the cost of commercial helpdesk systems, and it so happened that the support pages for Jira were hosted on another Atlassian system called Confluence, which was impressive in its own right, and things happened from there.

Initially I was impressed with how quickly we could get both products underway. A fairly painless install with most of the common database servers supported.

Configuration time was reduced by being able to link into our existing groups and users via LDAP. And being web based, it meant no client was needed. WebDav functionality allows easy copy of existing content into the system.

During the initial trial period I installed as many plugins as possible to get a feel as to what could be done. I was impressed with the support, and the stability of the system and I was able to get the system to where I thought it should be without the need the need for extensive customisation.

I hadn’t personally spent a lot of time using the editing features of wikis prior to using Confluence, so a bit of time was spent in understanding how it all fitted together. During this time it became that clear that the wiki model addressed a number of the issues we were struggling with in IT across the Museum – overuse of email, duplication of data on our file servers and in email, and a complicated and onerous corporate document management system.

A key benefit is the ease of use of the system – people are writing and attaching documents with little or no training. Collaboration of this nature is something we’ve not had before – staff are now sending links to documents on Confluence rather than large emails to hundreds of people, and using Confluence as the forum for centralised discussion rather than extensive email trails.

Another key feature is the ability to work with existing Microsoft Office documents – either import from Word, or work in Word and then sync back to Confluence. This means that staff don’t need to learn any special wiki markup. Keeping informed of work in other departments is done via alerts and the internal search works well.

The more people work in Confluence, the more file duplication is reduced and we can dedicate our disk space more important functions.

How is it being rolled out? Why are you using this approach?

We have been working with users across the Museum who have shown a willingness to try a new approach. Working closely with these staff have given us insights into the pros and cons of the tools.

We have been very cautious not to change things for the sake of it, and to take it slowly – a group or a project at a time. The approach has been to keep the existing systems running in parallel, but show how things could be done to greater benefit in the new. This way staff always have a fallback position if something doesn’t work as expected and need to meet a deadline.

We have found that after a few days of cautious experimentation, most staff are off and running, looking for new projects to bring into Confluence fold.

Positive word of mouth from staff who have come to across to the system makes it that much easier in gaining greater levels of adoption in areas that aren’t particularly tech savvy.

What strategies are being employed to boost its uptake and use by staff?


As much as the tool is easy to use, it does require a different approach to the normal document creation process for many staff, and this takes time. Providing detail on what can be done when using a wiki is important to convey. I’ve found that Wikipatterns has been helpful in that regards.

Lately I’ve been using a tool called Wink to capture screen shots and make videos of different functions and ways that it can be used. I’ve found these to be quite popular as people can view them when they have a few free moments.

In addition to training, supporting those users who are quick to adopt the new system has been very important. Making sure that they are across all the features and benefits will (hopefully) reduce the chances of staff reverting back to the old ways.

Support from senior management has also been key in getting people to participate. I’ve found they are very supportive as they are generally the most ‘time poor’ and can see the organisational benefit of simplified collaboration, reducing the need for meetings etc.

Do you think the wiki will accelerate or drive organisational change?

I believe it has already.

For too long we been haven’t been pursuing the best strategy for managing our day to day work. Everyone has had the standard set of tools, Word, Excel etc. However, little thought has gone into whether this is actually the best way we can be working with each other.

In a short space of time, I’ve seen people across the Museum collaborating and discussing projects that just wouldn’t of been possible using the standard Office suite.

I believe that evidence is there to suggest that it doesn’t take people long to get comfortable with the system and become active contributors. When the bottlenecks to creating content are removed – various ideas, concerns or suggestions bubble to the surface where previously they wouldn’t.

I’m excited that there is now a way that I can better understand what my colleagues across the Museum are working on, and that they can also engage more with the work of the IT team.

As an organisation we’ve been very focussed on using the web and various social media tools to engage with the public, and I see that now we can use some of these technologies to better engage with our work colleagues.


Commons on Flickr: an interview with Bob Meade (part two)

This is the second part of our interview with Bob Meade. (Read the first part)

Bob Meade has been one of our most prolific ‘friends’ on Flickr. He has done an enormous amount of tagging, added a great deal of additional research to our images, and was the man behind the discovery of the Mosman Bay Falls.

I am posting this with the permission of Bob, with the intention of helping other cultural institutions learn more about behaviour online, and to also begin to understand the opportunities that now exist to engage audiences around collections and other content. These stories, ultimately, are far more powerful and important qualitative research than raw usage figures.

I have made only minor edits to the transcript so bear with the conversational tone and flow.

If you find this useful and would like to cite it in research papers and the like, I would appreciate it if you would tell me about it in the comments or via email.

To read more about the Museum’s experience of the Commons on Flickr read our three month report.

Hobbies, identity, reputation, and etiquette

Paula: So, you’ve kind of answered a lot of questions for me, but the work that you do on the common, is very prolific, and you do a lot of research. So is that part of your background that you had in previous work?

Bob: Well, a man’s got to have a hobby and I like being enthusiastic about my hobbies, so I get satisfaction out of looking at something and I am inspired by the Earl Morris/Roger Fenton thing that I was talking about before.

I think there’s a lot of things in photographs that I now look at closely and enjoy looking at closely and analyzing details to try and discover something that may have been not realized was there or not officially noted or not noticed by other people. I find it exciting discovering something.

Seb: Have you become a bigger user of Flickr, the comments. Have you re-engaged with your own, putting your own images up on Flickr now?

Bob: Yes and yes. Part of the etiquette of Flickr seems to be that, if you want to be valued as a Flickrite, you should have something on there, of your own, that cannot be found anywhere else. So I’ve tried to put up just a few images that reflect some of my interests, mainly in military and naval history so that when I comment on some of the groups to do with those topics, people can come back and say, oh, yeah, this guy’s got an interest and also some potentially valuable images.

Because I’ve got a private collection of photographs that belonged to my father, relating to his World War II service, I’ve got access to some images that thus far I’ve seen nowhere else in Australia. That’s sort of tantalizing bit of value.

But also because I have the interest in blogging, part of the question is which place to choose to put content up to – put it on my blog or put it on Flickr?

Mainly, my feeling at the moment is just put it up on Flickr to grab a little bit of interest, but what I really would rather spend my time on is blogging on my own blog. 

Where to focus energies – blogs or Flickr?

Seb: Because you are a blogger, have you or would you review the material that the Museum puts up and others put up in your own blog to contextualize it, write about it, flesh it out in more detail?

Bob: Well, one of the things that I noticed on Matt Raymond’s Library of Congress blog was that they were very interested that someone went to the trouble to recreate a photo, from one of the World War II era sort of color transparencies. As soon as I saw the Tyrrell collection photos, particularly of things around Sydney, I immediately thought, hey, I could use this on my blog.

This would be great for a ‘Sydney Then and Now’. I could use a Tyrrell collection photo, take my own photo, and it’ll be something that’ll be interesting on my blogs. Some good content, and something that I would enjoy doing, going to particular spots saying, “how close can I get to the exact spot that this other photo was taken from?”

Then the Museum started the Tyrrell Today Group, and I thought, “OK, it’s a good idea. I won’t use that for my own blog” – because that seems to be sort of rude since you had your own idea, to do exactly the same thing.

If I put any effort into that (by taking contemporary photographs to match the old Tyrrell images) , I’d give it eventually to the Tyrrell Today Group rather than try and siphon off from your photo stream to my own blog.

It just seems sort of a bit rude, ungenerous.

So I haven’t used any of your images on my own blog in ‘then and now ‘photographs, because you’ve got your own thing going there. I think I prefer to contribute to that.

In terms of whatever I can add in terms of context or richness or specialized knowledge that I have or something else that I discover, I’m happy to just put it up in the comments area of your Tyrrell Today photo stream rather than in my own blog.

However, some of the other institutions that are putting things on Flickr, for example, the State Records Office of New South Wales, and they’ve got a lot of similar images. They don’t seem as sort of interested in creating their own sort of thing like your Tyrrell Today Flickr group. So I’m directly blogging off a couple of their images to do the same sort of ‘Sydney Then and Now’ type thing that the Tyrrell Today Group does – but with their images.

Other Australian institutions on Flickr

Seb: What about State Records’ photos? Do you comment in the State Records photo stream, or is the context placed in your blog when you reuse an image?

Bob: Mainly in my own blog. I put a little bit in the comment area, of their own photo stream, on Flickr, but mainly in my own blog. I’m also doing a full photo thing where I take the photo then, my own photo now take it from approximately the same position.

Seb: Has anyone from State Records contacted you through Flickr or through your blog to acknowledge your doing this or invite you to participate more further?

Bob: Yes and no. When I saw the images on State Records’ Flickr, they had the ‘Blog This’ functionality on Flickr activated, but they also had a note saying, if you want to use these images, you must have prior permission, blah, blah, blah. Contact us if you want to use it. There’s, obviously, a conflict there which ‘Blog this’ has sort of implied permission, that we’re saying, yeah, go blog this. Go and use it, but no, come and seek permission. [laughter]

It’s not very easy if every time I want to use something I have to seek permission. So what I did was I blogged an image.

I sent them a note saying that I wanted to use an image on my blog, but I noted this conflict there.

They wrote back saying, “Oh, yeah, we inadvertently left that functionality on there. We sort of didn’t realize that that was a default position. So we’ve now disabled that, but we’re happy for you to use anything you like off here on your blog, but just please give it the correct sort of attribution and link back to the Photo Investigator.” (Photo investigator is State Records NSW website’s own online photograph library.)

They just wanted the digital ID, which is the number in their system, but I also incorporated a link that goes straight back to that, which is slightly exceeding what they asked for.

Seb: How important is it that the Commons says ‘no known Copyright’, because those images, too, if they predate a certain date of publishing, are also in the public domain? You seem to want to play by the rules of the organization putting those images in?

Bob: Well for a lot of the images, it depends on how you define publish. A lot of the images from the, say, State Rail Archives were used on trains and trams just to like decorate and create a bit of visual interest. They can’t be certain whether it’s been published or not. A lot of those images, for example, in the State Rail Collection, were there for that purpose, but they can’t be certain if they were actually used.

So I just want to be nice with people . . . I was only the first person that ever asked them this question

I regard it as my heritage and everybody else who’s here. And also it should be available for research from overseas as well. So yeah, I think it’s my right to use it . . . But I also understand that there are financial constraints involved in the mere act of trying to release them. It costs money to do that.

 On the National Archives of Australia, they had the same situation where it said they had the “blog this” functionality, which they were sort of reasonable happy for people to do. But they also said if you want to use these images, you have to seek our permission.

It linked to an area on the National Archives of Australia website that sort of explained the Attorney General Department’s view of Crown copyright, etc. etc, and made you think that, “gee, they’d be unlikely to give permission”.

But I also knew from other research I had previously done utilizing things from the National Archives of Australia, they’re only too happy to give people permission to use things so long as it’s cited according to their citation convention.

So I blogged something straight off . . . I thought, if I blog something and it’s nice and they like it, I’m more likely to get permission. So I blogged something which was an image of Lionel Rose the boxer, and I associated it with some childhood memories I had of meeting Lionel Rose.

Then I sent the message saying, “Hey, I used your functionality”.

They then said, “Yep, we’re very happy for you to blog this. Blog anything you like. We’re happy with what you’ve done. Please just let us know so we can see the sort of how it’s being used.”

Interviews open content

Commons on Flickr: an interview with one of our Flickr friends, Bob Meade (part one)

Bob Meade has been one of our most prolific ‘friends’ on Flickr. He has done an enormous amount of tagging, added a great deal of additional research to our images, and was the man behind the discovery of the Mosman Bay Falls.

Paula Bray (the Museum’s Image Services Manager) and I conducted a long face to face interview with Bob who very generously agreed to speak to us about his background and motivations.

It was an incredibly revealing interview that demonstrates the power of museums and cultural institutions opening up their collections to ‘amateur’ researchers and enthusiasts. It also explores the Flickr and the Commons experience from the perspective of a user – the motivations that drive participation, frustrations and expectations – as well as touching on Flickr etiquette and Copyright.

I am posting this with the permission of Bob, with the intention of helping other cultural institutions learn more about behaviour online, and to also begin to understand the opportunities that now exist to engage audiences around collections and other content. These stories, ultimately, are far more powerful and important qualitative research than raw usage figures.

I have made only minor edits to the transcript so bear with the conversational tone and flow.

If you find this useful and would like to cite it in research papers and the like, I would appreciate it if you would tell me about it in the comments or via email.

To read more about the Museum’s experience of the Commons on Flickr read our three month report.

Here is the first part.

Further parts will follow.

On blogging, photography, and discovering the Commons.

Bob: One day, my wife, told me that she’d been to a Hill & Knowlton Breakfast Bytes presentation, at which Frank Arrigo had spoken. Frank Arrigo works for Microsoft. He used to work in Australia. Now, he works in Seattle. He’s a very keen blogger and one of his jobs was to be a Microsoft evangelist.

My wife was very excited telling me about blogging. She came home and told me something, “You know Bob, look this up.” I looked up Frank Arrigo’s blog, and thought it was very interesting, what he did was a mixture of things to do with his work; things to do with IT, also, things to do with his family; a mixture of his personal views on things; a mixture of what his children were doing.

I thought, yeah, this blogging is interesting. I need to know what it’s about. I thought the best way to understand it was to do it. I wanted to start a blog, and I thought about what I could blog about.

Because the conventional wisdom is that, a blog should have a theme. I thought I’d blog about my life as a stay-at-home dad, and also to document my son growing up.

Even now, just looking back a few years, I like to look back at some of the things I wrote about when he was a one-year-old, or a two-year-old. Now, he’s four-and-a-half.

Being a blogger led me to interest in reading other people’s blogs. One day, I was reading a blog post by Jason Kottke, who, as we know is a well regarded blogger who writes about design and ideas.

Kottke mentioned that Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker, had a blog at The New York Times. On it Morris was talking about a photograph by Roger Fenton, in the Crimean War, and having a discussion about these two, almost identical, images taken by Roger Fenton in 1853, or thereabouts.

One had cannonballs on the road. One had cannonballs off the road.

I don’t know if you are familiar with both these photographs. Apparently it was like pretty famous, because that was sort of one of the first cases of documenting war in photography.

One image appears to be more dramatic because the cannonballs are on the road, and one image is less dramatic because the cannonballs are sort of spread about kerb side in the gutter of the road.

Morris read a book by Susan Sontag, where she referred to this picture and referred to a guy, who is an expert in the history of photography who said that the photograph with the balls on the road was taken after the one without the balls on the road.

The balls must have been put there by Fenton’s assistants to create more drama in the photograph. And Morris, thought, “That’s interesting; I wonder if that’s true?” And then he started researching it, got the two images then thought, “you ought to know, maybe this photograph came first.” So then he talked to other experts in the history of Fenton’s photography, who said, “Yeah, we don’t agree with that guy. We think that the photograph, without the cannonballs on the road, was the second photograph, because it was known that cannonballs were harvested and recycled.

And then this like caught fire on his blog in The New York Times. He had people from all over the world analyzing it, looking at the angle of the shadows on the cannonballs, counting the cannonballs, which is very hard to do.

A huge debate over which photograph came first ensued, and that got me to thinking, that there can be a lot behind the surface of a photograph and also close analysis of a photograph can reveal information that’s not apparent at first glance.

And also, taking into account the historical factors that are known at the time can reveal something about the photograph.

For example, the idea that cannonballs were harvested. Yes, maybe that means yes, the ones with “balls off” as it was called, came second.

He also drew into the mix, a lot of historical documentation, letters of Fenton that were written at the time to his wife, memoirs of Fenton’s assistants, all those sorts of things. And, ultimately, Morris went to these places near Sebastopol, finding the exact same place and sort of did a bit further analysis about what he thought had happened.

I found it very fascinating, and the contributions of people who were not designated experts made to these sorts of discussions. The comments were really extremely valuable, which Morris, himself acknowledged.

That idea in my head lay dormant for awhile.

Another blog that I read is the Library of Congress blog by Matt Raymond, who is nominally the PR director of communications (for the Library of Congress) and he blogs about different things.

Earlier this year, he blogged about the Library of Congress putting images up on Flickr. I didn’t really pay much attention to it, at first, because the pictures that he chose to illustrate it with on his blog, revolved mainly about baseball, so I thought it was going to be mainly all about baseball.

But then, he blogged again later, maybe it might have been a few weeks later, where he talked about the fantastic response that they had had and the rich information that they had derived from the community, adding details, tagging, all that different sorts of things.

And I thought, “I don’t really understand what he is talking about”, because I don’t really understand about the value that people were adding by tagging.

So I went back and had a look at Flickr.

I had started a Flickr account in 2005 and uploaded maybe four or five pictures of my son, just so I could understand a little bit how Flickr worked. I had never touched it again.

However when I was looking for at the Library of Congress photographs and seeing how people were like contributing information, I saw something. I can’t remember exactly what it was but I thought, hey, I know something about this. I think I might put that in there. So then I had to work out, how you put a comment on, and sort of go back and try and remember the password to my Flickr account and things like that.

So then I started out, doing it on the Library of Congress Flickr photostream.

I thought, “maybe, I know a bit about some of the things here”, but they’re, of course, USA-centric in the main. Although in the Bain collections, the Library of Congress has got that, there’s a lot of historical figures who were prominent in, early 20th century, late 19th century also appear there.

I thought it would be interesting if something like this was happening in Australia. Then lo and behold, the Powerhouse Museum started putting up the Tyrrell collection of photographs. So I started commenting there too.

Now I still have a look occasionally at the Library of Congress photographs, but now that there’s the Powerhouse Museum, the Library of Congress doesn’t hold as much interest for me.

On the Powerhouse and cultural institutions

Seb: Were you a regular visitor to the Powerhouse?

Bob: An occasional visitor. I’ve been here, once in the last five years before my recent visit with my son. So then I’ve been here maybe twice, three times, maybe four times in the last 20 years.

Seb: So the Powerhouse wasn’t top of mind.

Bob: No.

Paula: What about using the Powerhouse website? Have you searched our collection online?

Bob: Only once before, in the middle of last year.

Bonhams and Goodmans Auctioneers were auctioning off a piece of memorabilia belonging to Sir Isaac Isaacs, who was first of all, one of the fathers of the Constitution of Australia. He then went on to become an Attorney-General, a High Court judge, and ultimately Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, and then Governor-General of Australia.

The memorabilia was a medal that had been presented to him at the time of Federation. It was up for auction.

I was vaguely interested in how much it would be worth and thinking it might be a good investment. So I started researching about those particular types of medals and it so happened that the Powerhouse Museum has several of almost identical medals in its collection.

I started searching online for the medal, and that led me to the Powerhouse Museum’s online collection. There’s a lot of photographs up of various medals like that and I was using the zoom function to zoom in and get a good look at them.

There were also a couple in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales and other similar institutions around Australia.

However they appear only as a medal, but the one of Sir Isaac Isaacs also had a ribbon attached and a bar saying somewhat Isaac Isaacs M.L.A.

So that was my, really only other contact with the Powerhouse Museum website.

Seb: Do you visit other museums or cultural institutions?

Bob: Yeah, I’ve gone to New South Wales, State Library of New South Wales, The Royal Australian Navy Museum at Garden Island and that’s about it here, recently.

Seb: Would you describe yourself as a museum-goer or as a causal visitor when there’s something special on?

Bob: Occasional visitor.

Seb: Has the Powerhouse’s participation changed your opinion of the Museum or engaged you more with the Museum overall?

Bob: Oh, it’s engaged me more, yes. But it doesn’t change my opinion. I’ve always thought there was a lot of valuable things here and, obviously, incredible depth to the collection. Engaged me more – but it hasn’t changed my opinion.

Part two coming soon.

Interviews Museum blogging

Rich collection-oriented curator blogging – an interview with the Australian War Memorial

In the Australian cultural sector, one of the best examples of curatorial blogging is at the Australian War Memorial. In a few short years they have created a lot of blog content and blogging has provided a much more efficient way of creating engaging content for exhibitions than standalone resource-hungry web microsites.

Interviews Museum blogging Powerhouse Museum websites

Sydney Observatory blog – lessons from the first 2 years, an interview with Nick Lomb

The Sydney Observatory blog will turn 2 in June. It has been an enormous success for the Observatory with its traffic now accounting for at least half of all traffic to the Observatory website each months. Since its launch there have been 291 posts to date and 1073 filtered comments.

The Sydney Observatory blog is one of the quiet success stories of museum blogging and ‘easy’ social media. The Observatory itself is an important heritage site in Sydney and is run by a small dedicated team of staff. Whilst the public can visit small exhibition spaces during the daytime the Observatory is best known as a historic building and a place for star gazing. Night visits are extremely limited in capacity because of the size of telescope dome, and the static Sydney Observatory website was established almost solely to promote through-the-door visitation.

The blog was started as a strategy to expand the Observatory’s online content and to expand its potential audience. We knew that there was a large online audience for astronomy and that the Observatory staff were extremely knowledgeable, well-connected and able to produce some fantastic astronomical content tailored for a southern hemisphere and Sydney audience – but they lacked a quick publication method to do this efficiently.

To celebrate the upcoming anniversary I spoke to Nick Lomb, Curator, Astronomy, who is one of the two bloggers who post to the Observatory blog. Nick has written 209 posts so far.

The blog has been an enormous success. How much time do you allocate to blogging each week? How has this impacted on your other work?

Nick: A post takes me between 20 minutes and one hour to put up. It all depends whether I am preparing it from scratch or it is material I already prepared for another person. It could also be material from someone else such as an amateur, but sometimes editing material from someone else takes longer than writing my own. This is especially the case when I have to work on images that have been embedded inside a Word file and need to be extracted or if four or more images have been put into one and I need to untangle them before posting.

The time spent on the blog does mean I need work extra hours to be able to complete my other work. However, I find that I get more satisfaction on having put up a well laid out and informative post than almost anything else I do.

How do you choose what to blog about? What impact, if any, has there been on content choices as a result of questions from the readers of the blog?

Nick: I am an astronomy educator so I my posts tend to contain worthwhile astronomical information. At the same time I do not want to repeat news items, but want to provide information that people generally would not come across elsewhere. For example, if there is an event in the sky such as an eclipse or a conjunction of a couple of planets I would write about that from a southern hemisphere perspective. It is important as our [local] news media often quote reports from the United States or Europe without noting that the view from our part of the world can be very different.

Other posts can be triggered by a question from a member of the public. If a question is of interest to one person then it could also be of interest to others. Recently, I had a long email discussion with someone about dark matter and, after obtaining approval from my correspondent, the discussion went on the blog. Still other posts are related to what I see on the rare occasions I have the opportunity to travel. And, of course, it always helps if I have a suitable image in my own collection to illustrate a post and I enjoy being able to reuse my own photos in this way.

How have you engaged amateur groups in the blog? WHat has been the response from the amateur groups and particular individuals like Monty?

Nick: There is an amateur group long associated with the Observatory called the Sydney City Skywatchers. A few members of the group not only make excellent and useful observations, but are happy to tell people about what they do. Occasionally, others have sent me their work from other groups such as the Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group and even from the Irish Astronomical Society. I encourage these amateurs to send me their reports to put on the blog as it not only provides a useful outlet for their work, but it shows others what useful and fascinating work can be done as an amateur astronomer.

You have added a ‘Report your sightings’ section. What is this for? Why did you do it? Have you found that conversations emerge between readers/contributors?

Nick: Sydney Observatory often gets reports of meteors or other strange lights in the sky. In the past these were often written down on scraps of paper and lost. I did prepare report sheets placed in a folder so that my colleagues could keep all reports in the one place. That worked well though sometimes the folder went AWOL and then for a while the reports went unrecorded. The idea was for us to keep the reports so that if there were many reports for a particular bright fireball then they would be sent to an interested astronomer who could use them to work out the path of the object and the possible location a remnant may have fallen.

The ‘Report your sightings’ page does the same as the folder and the report sheets. Except, of course, it does not go missing and the media and other astronomers can look at the page to check the sightings of any event.

Many of the events relate to sightings that are clearly not astronomical. A common one is the sighting of small backlit clouds or aeroplane vapour trails in the west at sunset. People are often disappointed and hard to convince when I explain that that their sighting is not of something unique. A recent amusing one was the case of someone who observed two bright lights in the sky very close together and claimed that they were moving all over the sky. I commented that two planets were in fact very close together in the sky that morning and were slowly rising in the east, but otherwise they were still. The original correspondent was unconvinced.

There are sometimes comments and support for particular sightings from other readers. Generally, however, people expected an authoritative reply and explanation [which the Observatory is more than happy to give].

Do you read all the comments? How do you choose what to respond to? Roughly what proportion have you had to remove because they have innapropriate (except for spam of course!)?

Nick: I do read all comments and respond where I can say something useful. For instance, I respond to comments on the ‘Report your sightings’ page if I can explain what people saw – it could have been a planet, a backlit cloud (as mentioned above) the International Space Station (if I determine that it made a pass at the right time), an Iridium flash or a genuine fireball. However, if the description is not clear enough to determine what the sighting was then I do not answer.

How has the astronomy community, especially fellow academics, responded to the blog? Do they admire it or find it rather frivolous? Do you feel that it has reinforced the Observatory’s reputation/brand or undermined it in any way?

Nick: I presented a paper on the blog at a professional astronomical conference at Macquarie University last July and I had very good feedback from the professionals. Soon after the conference I was highly gratified when accidentally coming across the webpage of a high-profile Australian research astronomer and noticing a link to the blog with the comment “a really cool blog”. So I think the blog has helped the Observatory’s profile both with the public and with the research community.

The monthly podcasts are a fascinating addition to the blog. What audience needs are you trying to serve with them? Has it had any positive or negative impact on visitation?

Nick: The best way to learn about the night sky is for people to go outside on a dark night together with an astronomer to point out interesting sights and tell them about what they are looking at. The podcasts provide the next best thing that people can download to their iPods or MP3 players and listen to outside. The blog also provides monthly star maps that they can use while listening to the podcasts to help them become familiar with the night sky. And, of course, the more people know the more they want to find out. A good way to do that for people in Sydney is to visit Sydney Observatory.

Thanks to Nick for the interview. Visit the Sydney Observatory blog .

Interactive Media Interviews Young people & museums

Behind the scenes of Launchball – an interview with Daniel Evans, Frankie Roberto, and Mike Ellis

There is a lot to learn from the Science Museum’s (London) recent success with their Launchball online game.

The project has been enormously successful and recently won ‘best of show’ at SxSW. I conducted an interview with Daniel Evans, Frankie Roberto, and Mike Ellis to explore some of the ideas and processes behind the project.

Launchball was built to support and extend the Launchpad gallery experience. Launchpad is a highly interactive physics exploration space specifically aimed at 8-14 year olds.

How did it start?

Frankie Roberto:

“The key idea came from a realisation that the mission of the gallery was to allow kids to explore and play with real physical phenomena. As it’s nigh-on-impossible to experience real physics through a computer screen, we decided to drop this element and use simulation instead, and to focus instead on the exploration, playing, open-ended nature of the gallery . . . it follows the ethos of the gallery completely, and covers much of the same topic areas too (electricity, light, energy transfer, etc).”

Daniel Evans:

“As Frankie says Launchball is quite closely tied in to the gallery in many ways: the same set of themes are explored through similar types of activity. This isn’t a groovy game vs. a worthy gallery – Launchpad is a riotously popular place itself. We were very lucky that the exhibition team had an extremely thorough understanding of their brand and its meaning and were able to strip it of its gallery-specific contingencies and give us a brief at quite an abstract level. We were therefore able to work with a useful set of ideas (“Launchpad is about learning by doing what you fancy and seeing what happens”) rather than a more facile and literal interpretation that would have left us doomed (“Launchpad has a machine for blowing bubbles therefore its presence on the web must too”).

… we had series of brainstorms over a year or so exploring what Launchpad was and what it could look like online, with the web and gallery teams (including, importantly, the people who manned the old gallery on a day-to-day basis and really knew the audience) and a few gurus from outside the museum (Ben Gammon, Joe Cutting). This was interspersed with some research into audience needs and expectations and resulted in an ideas harvest, followed by an ideas elimination and finessing process.”

How did you keep the focus on making the game engaging, fun and addictive versus a more straightforward approach to making it overtly ‘educational’?

Mike Ellis:

“I had a really interesting meeting with the Head of Content at the Science Museum very early on in the project. I specifically asked her whether she thought the concept that we had just presented was “too fun and not educational enough”. She absolutely backed up our approach, pointing out that people in the “real” Launchpad space were having a great time and that the learning followed on from that rather than the other way round.”

Frankie Roberto:

“I felt strongly that the game should avoid the trap of having a traditional arcade-style gameplay, with a light level of theming and text-based interstitial screens that carry the educational method. 90% of museum games fall into this category. Instead I felt strongly that the playing and experimenting with the game should be an educational learning experience in its own right, and a fun one and enjoyable one.. For me, this idea follows the constructivist theory and follows in the footsteps of things like Lego and the Logo programming environment (which I also played with at school).

That said, when producing any simulation game, from a football manager to a theme park game, there have to be some simplifications from reality in order to make the game playable, and just to be able to physically make the game. In Launchball, for example, there’s no real friction, light can’t be diffracted, batteries never run out, and so on. Adding these in might have added additional learning outcomes, but it’d have made the gameplay more complicated, and not to mention would have made the game more complex to produce.

One of the key decisions we made, which I really insisted on, was a ‘sandbox’ mode where people could just play with all the blocks, with no limits, no set task, no specific learning objective. This I think is critical, as it really allows people to truly play, in an open-ended fashion, and to learn through doing all the way. Additionally, the sandbox allows people to create their own levels, truly opening up the game.”

Daniel Evans:

“It’s an interestingly loaded word, “educational”. In a sense your question is based on the very model that we were determined to avoid – the idea of using a game as a sort of diversionary tactic to buy some goodwill while you cram some facts down the audience’s throats, with the challenge for the developers being getting the right balance between sugar and pill. It’s amazing how persistent this fundamentally rather pessimistic idea is – the number of commentators for example who have seen the factoids at the end of a launchball level and thought “ah, that’ll be the educational bit”, when in fact the educational bit is the bit they’ve just finished.

It was absolutely crucial that the game was the education and the education was the game: the activity and the ideas it was communicating were indivisible. The key assumption behind the whole of Launchpad is that there is no tension between an activity being fun and it being physics-based. Online this is amply evidenced by the fact that almost all commercial games, including those with no educational remit whatsoever, are built around … physics engines. In a sense Launchball is just a giant exercise in drawing attention to this fact.”

What was the role of the external developers?

Daniel Evans:

“. . . it is impossible to overstate the role Preloaded had in the success of Launchball, both in terms of the craft skills of game design (hats off to Henry Cooke, Jon Mallinson and Phil Stuart in particular – three exceptionally talented individuals) and in terms of their endless willingness to rise to each new challenge (and we threw them quite a few) to deliver something truly excellent rather than just acceptably good.

User testing was the other major factor – there was a huge amount of testing by our in-house team on real members of the target audience at all stages of development. If you’re clear about your objectives, work with talented and creative sources of good ideas and then subject those ideas to really searching evidence-based quality control (and the developers engage positively with the findings, which Preloaded to their credit always did), then you stand a pretty good chance of getting a decent product.”

Digg played an early role in the viral promotion of the site, generating an enormous rush of visits to the site, putting strain on the servers.

Mike Ellis:

“I had actually left the museum at the point when I punted it to Digg :-) I got some fairly sharp words from the IT dept telling me I should have told them but to be honest what would they have done, gone and bought a server farm if I had let them know?”

Frankie Roberto:

“To be honest though, if it wasn’t Mike that had submitted it to Digg, someone else would have, and I think it would have had the same effect. Ultimately, it was the users of Digg who decided that the game was good enough for it to have made the Digg front page. Digg hasn’t actually been the biggest referrer to the game, that accolade falls to, followed by 2 Norwegian sites, then, then Digg. However Digg was certainly the most sudden.”

Daniel Evans:

“It wasn’t so much the traffic, it was when it hit: we hadn’t tested it under heavy load at that point. A few weeks later, bottlenecks identified and fixed, the game was coping comfortably with several times the traffic that Digg drove. In our final stress testing we simulated 100 times the load that brought the site down and although the servers were obviously straining they didn’t collapse. We were a bit naive and were caught slightly unawares by the instant attention. Although we were confident the game was pretty good, we underestimated the full extent and immediacy of its viral strength. Still, a nice problem to have, on balance.

… [now] we’ve had over 1.5 million visitors and about 100,000 people saving levels. 25% of Launchball visitors (most of whom are new and there for the game) go on to visit other parts of the Science Museum website … the figures for duration are a bit unreliable as it’s all on one page and a lot of people never go to any other page, but it’s obviously a lot longer than the website average.”

Frankie Roberto:

“It’s now the most popular page on our website!”

How much involvement has the museum had in engaging with the communities that have sprung up around the game? How is the education sector responding to it?

Daniel Evans:

“We’ve had ‘design a level’ competitions, there’s a facebook group and we’re continually getting feedback. There are over 25,000 pages on the web discussing Launchball though – so we can’t keep track of them all. Launchball discussions spring up in lots of surprising places too – there was a fansite for one of the other games at SXSW that had a thread complaining that Launchball won, that swiftly turned into a discussion about how you complete ‘The Volcano’. We’ve had lots of positive feedback from teachers too, including some unexpected stuff – for example some teachers are finding it very useful for teaching English as a Foreign Language.”

What are the lessons you have learnt from the experience?

Daniel Evans:

1. The quality of the brief is key: being clear what’s an end and not up for negotiation and what’s a means, with creative interpretation and challenge welcome, is vital in terms of both briefing and being briefed.
2. Argue your point strongly, and work with people who argue back just as strongly.
3. There are few challenges that can’t be overcome with a really first-rate Project Manager.
4. It’s fun. Enjoy it.
5. On the web you have no say in whether you’re doing things quietly or not.

Frankie Roberto:

1. Better to have one big, high-quality, immersive game than lots of smaller ones.
2. Trust in constructivism.
3. Shoot high.
4. Work with the best.
5. Build a multi-disciplinary team, and work together.

Mike Ellis:

1. Trusting the web team is absolutely vital in making a success of web products. The ‘traditional’ model of curator/content type coming up with web idea isn’t usually as well focussed.
2. Give freedom and time to ideas and let them flourish.
3. Use storyboards and wireframes at every stage of the process to help explain what exactly it is that you’re on about.
4. Be prepared for the Digg Effect (not even now entirely sure how?)
5. Go to creative agencies with a good idea of what you want to acheive. Brief it well and have lots of user testing research on board too.
6. Fight hard for realistic budgets.

Thank you to Mike Ellis, Frankie Roberto and Daniel Evans at the Science Museum for their time and openness in sharing more about the experience with Fresh & New.

Mike has blogged about the initial stages of the project with some early wireframes.

Interactive Media Interviews Web metrics

Museum transparency and the IMA Dashboard – an interview with Rob Stein

Last year the Indianapolis Museum of Art launched their Dashboard – a visual display of various data about the museum and its activities. Updated regularly the Dashboard gives open public access to much data that would usually be buried deep in an annual report.

The ‘transparency’ that the Dashboard offers is remarkable – it not only makes that information available on an ‘almost live’ basis, most importantly it makes it ‘accessible’. Everything from the number of new artworks on view and website visitors to new plantings in the gardens and budget performance, many statistics are available, and many more can be drilled down and explored in greater depth.

I’ve been very interested in the project and how it might have impacted organisational change at the IMA. I conducted an interview with Rob Stein, Chief Information Officer at the IMA, about the project.

Rob Stein explains the genesis of the project;

“Our CEO, Maxwell Anderson, has been interested in the role of transparency in museums for quite a long time. He has also spent a lot of time thinking about what kinds of metrics museums can use to measure their performance against mission based statistics (see his paper ‘Metrics for success in Art Museums‘). So, the decision to investigate what it might look like to create an institutional dashboard that could inform both the staff and the public was certainly initiated by Max, and reflects the museum’s commitment to operating as transparently and openly as possible.

Our goal was to create a site that could be accessed and understood easily and that would be of general interest at one level, but that could also eventually support a depth of investigation into how this museum measures up to our mission and strategic priorities. We don’t see that there’s any reason to keep these things secret, and in fact believe that making it easy for the public to see how we’re performing will offer a great incentive to the staff to understand why this is important.

The visual design of the Dashboard has been instrumental in making ‘sense’ of the data and opening up access.

Since statistics can sometimes been seen as boring and not interesting to the general public, we tried to keep the site as visually engaging as possible. We took quite a bit of inspiration from the dashboard screen of the Google Analytics tool as well as from Apple’s general design aesthetic. Google’s Analytics tool is great in that it offers bits of relevant information in one screen (the dashboard) that are easily digested, but also provides the ability for users to dig deeper into statistics that interest them. I think we were able to accomplish this effectively by incorporating “teaser” modes for each statistics on the Dashboard.

We also make pretty liberal use of an underlying set of taxonomies to help in organizing the information. Each statistic can be tagged, or categorized against a pretty simple taxonomic structure. This allows us to group statistics by department, or topic, or to say which statistics need to be grouped together for some reason (i.e. 2007 end of year reporting) The navigational tabs at the top of the screen are generated on the fly from these underlying taxonomies, so that whenever we add a new statistic, or topic to the dashboard they are immediately available.

Each node of the dashboard currently [also] provides its own RSS feed that users can subscribe to, In addition, users can also subscribe to any topic or departmental page as well. So, for instance if our finanace committee wants to always pull in new statistics related to IMA’s finances they could subscribe to the RSS for the Finance Topic.

Likewise there have been some sensible choices in the data made available to the public. Rob explains the focus on ‘interestingness’ in the choice of what to present;

We polled the staff and asked them to solicit information or statistics that they felt would be interesting, and particularly focused on those statistics that mirrored an activity or priority that supported the museum’s mission. We intentionally chose a small set of these statistics to start with, and probably placed a bit more emphasis on those statistics than changed relatively frequently. Now we’re in the process of going back and expanded on those sets of statistics and opening up the Dashboard to items that maybe don’t change very often, but are of general interest (i.e. the square footage of gallery space, the acreage of the museum’s grounds, etc…)

Dashboards rely on timeliness and there are many challenges in integrating back-end systems to deliver cross-organisational data. I asked Rob how important ‘live data’ was to the objectives of the project, and some of the implications that this has had internally to the museum.

This question illustrates a pretty important philosophical nuance that we’ve been talking about internally at the IMA. Currently, most of the statistics shown on the Dashboard are updated by staff members from many different departments at the museum. Our thinking in this is that the staff member responsible for tracking any particular statistic should, as part of their normal workflow be required to report that statistic to the dashboard. The reasoning here, is that we feel that when reports are automated, it is easy for staff members to become disconnected to the tracking of the information. We want the dashboard to be useful and interesting to the public, but also a tool for the museum to use in tracking its own progress across time. By asking staff members to take on the responsibility for reporting this information, we’re sure that they are aware of the trends in performance.

The flip side of this coin is that this does open the door to having statistics that could be fudged to make them look better than they really are. Also, if the responsible staff member is away from the office on vacation or a trip, the statistics they are responsible for may lag in their updates.

Our implementation of the Dashboard is definitely a work in progress. Since we created the software and web design in house, we’ve planned all along that we would feel our way through some of these difficult issues, and make changes to the sytem as we got feedback from our audience and the community on how dashboards should be operated. For example, in the next few weeks, we will be launching a set of new Dashboard nodes that will completely automate the reporting of attendance. We have systems in place in the museum that make this possible, and now understand and feel comfortable that these systems are reporting their numbers accurately. We’ll be moving from updating these numbers by hand on a weekly basis to live data being reported to the web every 5 min.

We’ve also been toying around with the idea of producing some kind of integration between the Dashboard software that we’ve built and Crystal Reports and the Flash integration that they support. We feel like this might give us a way to better integrate the Dashboard framework that we’ve built with a typical way that business systems support automated reporting. In doing this however, we’d still want to address the staff’s connection with the data and it’s reporting, and we haven’t quite figured that one out yet.

Might Dashboards ever ‘replace’ annual reports in terms of general public access?

I’m not sure that Dashboards should ever replace annual reports. I think annual reports are sometimes criticized in that they are hard to digest and tedious to produce, and of ultimately limited value in some settings. This may actually have more to do with poor execution than a critique of the annual report as a medium for communicating about the state of an organization. Dashboards, by their nature are designed to be good at communicating small bits of information in a somewhat random order. Navigation can facilitate themes or grouping of statistics, but Dashboards will have a hard time supporting much of a narrative regarding the performance of an institution. Annual reports or other long format texts can do a much better job of this, but will probably always struggle to interrelate large sets of seemingly disparate statistics. Given those two thoughts, it seems that dashboards and annual reports are probably pretty good compliments to each other, and we should probably leverage that relationship better than we do today!

With all this data now being publicly available there would be some exciting possibilities for cross-institutional data sharing and analysis. Rob explains some tentative future plans for the project;

We’d love to open source this product at some point in the future and hope that it would encourage other institutions to take the transparency of their operations to the next level. In order to make that really successful we’re in need of some good partner institutions that could look at the existing system with a critical eye and provide insight and resource in determining how the Dashboard could be more broadly applicable for many different kinds of institutions.

We take software quality pretty seriously here, and feel like there are some projects that treat open sourcing their software as almost a dumping ground for stuff they’re done with. We think that casts open source software in a bad light, and is not helpful in communicating that there are a lot of open source projects that are of extremely high quality and value. We’re not underselling what it would take to package the Dashboard in a way that’s easy to use and install, and to providing at least some amount of support to a future community of users.

Thanks to Rob for taking the time to answer my questions and being so open in his responses.

Try out the Dashboard.