“If you build it they will come.” Yes, but what will they learn? What will you learn? What will be the relationship between your intention and their experience? These are a few of the questions that swirl through my brain and keep me from sleeping off the intensity of four days of conferring at the 2015 Museums and the Web meeting in Chicago.
The majority of the attendees hail from art museums — they are on the staff of, provide digitally related services to, teach or study about, established physical institutions that house fine arts artifacts and display them to the public. I don’t fit so well into this crowd. HCLE is virtual only, having no walk-in exhibit facility. It is still far from “established”. Its ‘artifacts’ lean toward the conceptual (documents and software) rather than the graphic or three dimensional. And, although I certainly have intentions about the user experience I want to facilitate, my tendency is to focus on what happens to the virtual visitor as he or she explores the HCLE ideascape rather than the objects HCLE will present. I am ‘learner-centric’ rather than ’teacher-centric’ or ‘curator-centric’. In spite of these differences valuable information and insights are pouring over me from every lecture session and hallway conversation. Now that the conference is over I’m suffering from a case of intellectual indigestion that will take weeks of recovery.
A recurrent theme woven throughout the conference is that of ‘story’. How does a museum exhibit team combine displayed objects and accompanying text, video or audio to craft a story that engages, entertains and enlightens the visitor? As with any story teller, that team must anticipate the age, interests and cultural background of the audience to maximize engagement. This leads to discussions of tracking attendance and data analytics to provide feedback to the design teams. Increasing emphasis on the museum’s online presence brings problems of identifying and satisfying a broad and unseen audience into high relief. Many conference presenters offer strategies for tying objects together thematically or promoting interaction among the artist, curator and museum visitors. A key issue is the use of the now ubiquitous hand-held device. Your or ours? Highly structured tour or social media site? Integral to the museum experience or peripheral, supplementary? In-house developed or outsourced? Although HCLE’s virtual exhibits must play nicely with smart phones and tablets, our online-only format makes much of the discussion about hand-held devices irrelevant to us. Building an engaging web site is different from integrating apps and physical objects.
‘Story’ is important to all museums whether online or brick and mortar. However, I find myself perplexed by the notion of ‘engagement’. To some of my colleagues, ‘engagement’ seems to be a means to the end of stimulating visitor traffic — an important mission for institutions that depend on event tickets, food service and retail store for a significant portion of their operating budget. Even in the online environment, quantity can outweigh quality. For me, ‘engagement’ is all about stimulating curiosity about a topic and then providing a path for the ‘visitor’ to explore deeply, resulting in new knowledge of the topic and construction of meaning to that individual’s life. It’s not about the displayed object itself. Our trick is to use the stories of the early computer users and edtech pioneers as invitations to our visitors to construct their own stories and to live them. It’s not about us; it’s about them. In our hearts, most of us museum folk share this vision, but the practicalities of running a brick and mortar institution in the 21st century can easily obscure this point of view.
What now? At MW2015 I looked for and found many new leads to solutions for problems HCLE has confronted during the past year — issues of metadata schema and linked open data, access to scholars interested in our themes, ideas for web site design and how to crowdsource content. I’m thankful that MW2015 publishes all the presenters’ written papers so that there is free access to the content I missed while completing animated debates in the corridor rather than sitting through another ‘death-by-power-point’ in a conference session. I have more than enough business cards, as-yet unanswered emails and numerous ‘tweets’ to satisfy my appetite for networking. Most immediately, I need to sleep.