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 .

Conferences and event reports Powerhouse Museum websites

Upcoming talks and presentations (November/December)

If you missed any of the recent conference presentations in Australia, the Powerhouse’s web technologies, strategy and expertise will be discussed/dissected/analysed at the following (public) events.

On Saturday December 1 at Focus Fest 2007 Agent Provocateurs I will be presenting under the theme ‘Provoking a shift in the dialogue:
Art audiences, galleries and the web’ which will look at the new ways in which art museums are engaging audiences online, as well as how new audiences are making new demands of cultural institutions on the web.

On Wednesday December 5 at Online Social Networking and Business Collaboration World 2007, I will be presenting under the theme of ‘Web 2.0 for Government and Non-profits’ examining how Web 2.0 opens up considerable new opportunities for service delivery, marketing and citizen engagement, but brings with it significant challenges.

If you are attending either of these feel free to get in touch.

AV Related Digital storytelling Interactive Media Powerhouse Museum websites

True Design – Powerhouse Museum’s latest digital storytelling productions

We are very lucky to have within our museum a pair of media production labs – SoundHouse VectorLab – where the public can do short, low cost courses in video and music production. A spinoff of these facilities is a series of digital storytelling projects. Usually these projects are run in regional and rural communities and with at-risk youth as a means of engaging and stimulating (and diverting) creative energies.

However this time the museum has worked with a different audience – professional designers. As part of Sydney Design 07 and with our design portal, Design Hub, the museum has released a series of digital stories written and produced by practicing designers. A series of short, two minute video pieces were written and produced in an intensive two day workshop in small teams run in the SoundHouse VectorLab and organised by Nicole Bearman (Design Hub editor), and Helen Whitty (from the Education and Public Programmes department). True to digital storytelling methodologies, ultimately these stories are about the process more than the final output – skill sharing, collaborative narratives, cross-disciplinary communication.

This project offered participants the opportunity to contemplate their design practice through a new medium and to present for the viewer a significant insight into design processes, inspirations and working life. It also gave them the opportunity to collaborate and network with industry peers who they might not otherwise get the opportunity to work with, such as curators, editors and writers.

Take a look.

They are screening in the galleries in high definition during Sydney Design, and will also be later syndicated to other media.

(update – there is an interview with Peter Mahony in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section today. It is not yet online but once it is I will link it)

Museum blogging Powerhouse Museum websites

Great Wall museum bloggers reach their goal!

One of our most successful, and earliest public facing blog experiments, Walking The Wall is almost over.

Even though the Great Wall of China exhibition moved on from PHM a while ago, our intrepid Great Wall walkers continued their trek, blogging as they went.

146 post and 630 comments later, they have finally finished their walk which is still being documented at Walking The Wall.

Brendan and Emma have walked thousands of kilometres and taken gigabytes of photos along the way. As you may remember, they were injured and had to return to Sydney to recover before continuing their journey. It is important to remember that Brendan and Emma approached the Museum as volunteer walkers and have done the whole trip at their own expense!

The blog of their travels has received over 150,000 visits during their trip and has been extremely successful with national radio coverage as well as several broadsheet stories, both locally and internationally. These online visits are in addition to the thousands who stopped by the blog as an interactive in the galleries in Sydney and Melbourne.

You can continue live vicariously through their stories and images and feel free to leave comments – they do read them frequently.

I’d like to thank Brendan and Emma for their generous efforts.

Powerhouse Museum websites

New Powerhouse front page

Another long awaited change to our website has rolled out – a slightly updated front page and navigational redesign.

Obviously we are not in a position for a wholesale site redesign – something that is probably becoming a luxury these days – not just in terms of money but also in terms of user familiarisation. (Why change your website on a grand scale if you have a significant number of ‘regular’ visitors?)

However, we’ve managed to squeeze some more ‘value’ out of our front page, increasing the promotional banner spaces to six as well as allowing for horizontally scrolling ‘extras’. Not much else has changed – the navigation remains the same.

We found that 800×600 and less only represented under 8% (49% use 1024×768) of our site visitation and thus moving to a slightly longer home page (although not wider) would not impact on the majority our users.

A small footer change is coming soon.

Museum blogging Other museum blogs (from Powerhouse Museum websites Young people & museums

What to do when it comes time to retire a museum blog? The end of Dragon & the Pearl

‘What to do when it comes time to retire a museum blog?’ has been a question that has been bouncing around for a few weeks.

Our Great Wall of China exhibition closed a few months ago and with it our Dragon & The Pearl blog. The dragon blog was always conceived of as an experiment in ‘public programme’ blogging – a blog attached to a time-specific, audience-specific event series. The problem, we discovered, was that once you start a blog like that the audience isn’t always just confined to those who are aware of the ‘public programme’ aspect – and we guess that a fairly large proportion of its readership may never have seem the dragon at the Museum. Of course, those who did see the dragon at the Museum were all told to go home and keep track of its progress on the blog and it is also likely that the children reading the blog may not have been aware of the time-limited nature of the project (I doubt many of them even thought of the dragon as ‘a project’ – judging from the ‘live’ appearances it was very real to a lot of them).

So how to let them down gently?

Well, after a few more public comments and questions came in over the past week or two, the Education and Visitor Services department have made their final concluding post to the blog.

We used the Comment Timeout plugin for WordPress to bulk-close commenting on all the old posts.

Other museum blogs (from Powerhouse Museum websites

Free Radicals interviews World Without Oil

Over on one of our other Powerhouse Museum blogs, Free Radicals interviews the makers of the interactive storytelling game World Without Oil.

Although short, the interview contains this –

FR: How do you suspect that the game nature of WWO will effect its ability to speak to the population at large?

Ken: Not very much. It’s a very accessible game. It’s very easy to play. People can participate by phone or email. The barrier to participation is deliberately very low.

This harks back to the key message of one of our recent workshops was strategy first, technology second. WWO is much less like a game than I had expected having read some of the pre-release media, and in many ways its low barriers to entry is what makes it work. That said, it is also what makes it more diffuse than expected – more like collaborative multi-threaded and distributed story generation actually – and I’ll be interested to see how it is tracking over the next few weeks.

Copyright/OCL Earliest posts General

Checking US Copyright Renewals

If you need to check the Copyright status of an American book published 1923-1976 then you should use this resource

Copyright/OCL Earliest posts General

Australian Fair Use Discussion Paper

The Attorney General’s Dept has posted a discussion paper on the implementation of ‘fair use’ in Australia post DMCA/FTA.

Read it here

Earliest posts General

Broadband Reality

Broadband uptake is still woeful.

From Whirlpool –

“OptusNet announced today that its subscriber base has passed the 350,000 mark after adding 63,000 subscribers in the last three months. Optus Consumer MD Allen Lew attributed the growth to the bundling of Optus landline, mobile and ADSL products. The company’s success “stems from the increasing strength of the company’s bundling strategy which now sees more than 95 per cent of OptusNet DSL customers taking up multiple Optus products,” Lew said. He also noted the importance of broadband in future strategic planning. “With the trend across our industry for consumer fixed line voice revenue … flat to declining, broadband revenue is key to the future of integrated telcos like Optus,” he said. Despite this recent growth, OptusNet remains just under half BigPond’s size. Six months ago BigPond claimed 533,000 broadband subscribers and OptusNet 250,000. BigPond’s latest available figures, confirmed today, claim 718,000 broadband subscribers. ”