Notes from #musetech18 presentations (with a strong “collaboration” theme). Note that these are “live notes” first-and-foremost for my own use and so are probably full of typos. Sorry.

Matt Locke (StoryThings, @matlocke):

  • Over the last 100 years, proportional total advertising revenue has been stolen from newspapers by radio, then television: scheduled media that is experienced simultaneously. But we see a recent drift in “patterns of attention” towards the Internet. (Schedulers, not producers, hold the power in radio/television.)
  • The new attention “spectrum” includes things that aren’t “20-60 minutes” (which has historically been dominated by TV) nor “1-3 hours” (which has been film), but now there are shorter and longer forms of popular medium, from tweets and blog posts (very short) to livestreams and binging (very long). To gather the full spectrum of attention, we need to span these spectra.
  • Rhythm is the traditions and patterns of how work is done in your industry, sector, platforms and supply chains. You need to understand this to be most-effective (but this is hard to see from the inside: newcomers are helpful). In broadcast television as a medium, the schedules dictate the rhythms… in traditional print publishing, the major book festivals and “blockbuster release” cycles dominate the rhythm.
  • Then how do we collaborate with organisations not in our sector (i.e. with different rhythms)? There are several approaches, but think about the rhythmic impact.

Lizzy Bullock (English Heritage, @lizzybethness):

  • g.co/englishheritage
  • Partnered with Google Arts & Heritage; Google’s first single-partner project and also their first project with a multi-site organisation.
  • This kind of tech can be used to increase access (e.g. street view of closed sites) and also support curatorial/research aims (e.g. ultra-high-resolution photography).
  • Aside from the tech access, working with a big company like Google provides basically “free” PR. In combination, these benefits boost reach.
  • Learnings: prepare to work hard and fast, multi-site projects are a logistical nightmare, you will need help, stay organised and get recordkeeping/planning in place early, be aware that there’ll be things you can’t control (e.g. off-brand PR produced by the partner), don’t be afraid to stand your ground where you know your content better.
  • Decide what successw looks like at the outset and with all relevant stakeholders involved, so that you can stay on course. Make sure the project is integrated into contributors’ work streams.

Daria Cybulska (Wikimedia UK, @DCybulska):

  • Collaborative work via Wikimedians-in-residence not only provides a boost to open content but involves engagement with staff and opens further partnership opportunities.
  • Your audience is already using Wikipedia: reaching out via Wikipedia provides new ways to engage with them – see it as a medium as well as a platform.
  • Wikimedians-in-residence, being “external”, are great motivators to agitate processes and promote healthy change in your organisation.

Creative Collaborations ([1] Kate Noble @kateinoble, Ina Pruegel @3today, [2] Joanna Salter, [3] Michal Cudrnak, Johnathan Prior):

  • Digital making (learning about technology through making with it) can link museums with “maker culture”. Cambridge museums (Zoology, Fitzwilliam) used a “Maker in Residence” programme and promoted “family workshops” and worked with primary schools. Staff learned-as-they-went and delivered training that they’d just done themselves (which fits maker culture thinking). Unexpected outcomes included interest from staff and discovery of “hidden” resources around the museums, and the provision of valuable role models to participants. Tips: find allies, be ambitious and playful, and take risks.
  • National Maritime Museum Greenwich/National Maritime Museum – “re.think” aimed to engage public with emotive topics and physically-interactive exhibits. Digital wing allowed leaving of connections/memories, voting on hot issues, etc. This leads to a model in which visitors are actively engaged in shaping the future display (and interpretation) of exhibitions. Stefanie Posavec appointed as a data artist in residence.
  • SoundWalk Strazky at Slovak National Gallery: audio-geography soundwalks as an immersive experiential exhibition; can be done relatively cheaply, at the basic end. Telling fictional stories (based on reality) can help engage visitors with content (in this case, recreating scenes from artists’ lives). Interlingual challenges. Delivery via Phonegap app which provides map and audio at “spots”; with a simple design that discourages staring-at-the-screen (only use digital to improve access to content!).

Lightning talks:

  • Maritime Museum Greenwich: wanted to find out how people engage with objects – we added both a museum interpretation and a community message to each object. Highly-observational testing helped see how hundreds of people engage with content. Lesson: curators are not good judges of how their stuff will be received; audience ownership is amazing. Be reactive. Visitors don’t mind being testers of super-rough paper-based designs.
  • Nordic Museum / Swedish National Heritage Board explored Generous Interfaces: show first, don’t ask, rich overviews, interobject relationships, encourage exploration etc. (Whitelaw, 2012). Open data + open source + design sprints (with coding in between) + lots of testing = a collaborative process. Use testing to decide between sorting OR filtering; not both! As a bonus, generous interfaces encourage finding of data errors. bit.ly/2CNsNna
  • IWM on the centenary of WWI: thinking about continuing the crowdsourcing begun by the IWM’s original mission. Millions of assets have been created by users. Highly-collaborative mechanism to explore, contribute to, and share a data space.
  • Lauren Bassam (@lswbassam) on LGBT History and co-opting of Instagram as an archival space: Instagram is an unconventional archival source, but provides a few benefits in collaboration and engagement management, and serves as a viable platform for stories that are hard to tell using the collections in conventional archives. A suitably-engaged community can take pride in their accuracy and their research cred, whether or not you strictly approve of their use of the term “archivist”. With closed stacks, we sometimes forget how important engagement, touch, exploration and play can be.
  • Owen Gower (@owentg) from Dr. Jenner’s House Museum and Garden: they received EU REVEAL funding to look at VR as an engagement tool. Their game is for PSVR and has a commercial release. The objects that interested the game designers the most weren’t necessarily those which the curators might have chosen. Don’t let your designers get carried away and fill the game with e.g. zombies. But work with them, and your designers can help you find not only new ways to tell stories, but new stories you didn’t know you could tell. Don’t be afraid to use cheap/student developers!
  • Rebecca Kahm @rebamex from Pelagios Commons (@Pelagiosproject): the problem with linked data is that it’s hard to show its value to end users (or even show museums “what you can do” with it). Coins have great linked data, in collections. Peripleo was used to implement a sort-of “reverse Indiana Jones”: players try to recover information to find where an artefact belongs.
  • Jon Pratty: There are lots of useful services (Flickr, Storify etc.) and many are free (which is great)… but this produces problems for us in terms of the long-term life of our online content, not to mention the ethical issues with using services whose business model is built on trading personal data of our users. [Editor’s note: everything being talked about here is the stuff that the Indieweb movement have been working on for some time!] We need to de-siloise and de-centralise our content and services. redecentralize.org? responsibledata.io?

In-House Collaboration and the State of the Sector:

  • Rosie Cardiff @RosieCardiff, Serpentine Galleries on Mobile Tours. Delivered as web application via captive WiFi hotspot. Technical challenges were significant for a relatively small digital team, and there was some apprehension among frontline staff. As a result of these and other problems, the mobile tours were underused. Ideas to overcome barriers: report successes and feedback, reuse content cross-channel, fix bugs ASAP, invite dialogue. Interesting that they’ve gained a print guides off the back of the the digital. Learn lessons and relaunch.
  • Sarah Younaf @sarahyounas, Tyne & Wear Museums. Digital’s job is to ask the questions the museum wouldn’t normally ask, i.e. experimentation (with a human-centric bias). Digital is quietly, by its nature, “given permission” to take risks. Consider establishing relationships with (and inviting-in) people who will/want to do “mashups” or find alternative uses for your content; get those conversations going about collections access. Experimental Try-New-Things afternoons had value but this didn’t directly translate into ideas-from-the-bottom, perhaps as a result of a lack of confidence, a requirement for fully-formed ideas, or a heavy form in the application process for investment in new initiatives. Remember you can’t change everyone, but find champions and encourage participation!
  • Kati Price @katiprice on Structuring for Digital Success in GLAM. Study showed that technical leadership and digital management/analysis is rated as vital, yet they’re also underrepresented. Ambitions routinely outstrip budgets. Assumptions about what digital teams “look” like from an org-chart perspective don’t cover the full diversity: digital teams look very different from one another! Forrester Research model of Digital Maturity seems to be the closest measure of digital maturity in GLAM institutions, but has flaws (mostly relating to its focus in the commercial sector): what’s interesting is that digital maturity seems to correlate to structure – decentralised less mature than centralised less mature than hub-and-spoke less mature than holistic.
  • Jennifer Wexler, Daniel Pett, Chiara Bonacchi on Diversifying Museum Audiences through Participation and stuff. Crowdsourcing boring data entry tasks is sometimes easier than asking staff to do it, amazingly. For success, make sure you get institutional buy-in and get press on board. Also: make sure that the resulting data is open so everybody can explore it. Crowdsourcing is not implicitly democratisating, but it leads to the production of data that can be. 3D prints (made from 3D cutouts generated by crowdsourcing) are a useful accessibility feature for bringing a collection to blind or partially-sighted visitors, for example. Think about your audiences: kids might love your hip VR, but if their parents hate it then you still need a way to engage with them!

Secrets of Magic

When I was younger, I thought that magic was all about secrets. I’ve since changed my mind. Twice.

That the secret of magic is secrets isn’t an unreasonable assumption. We all know that magicians famously don’t reveal how their tricks work, so it feels like the secrecy is what makes magic… magical. When as a kid I watched Paul Daniels make an elephant disappear on his (oh-so 1980s) TV show, and I remember being struck by the fact that he must be privy to some kind of guarded knowledge, and my school friends and I would speculate wildly as to what it was. I saw the same kind of speculation when Derren Brown predicted the lottery a few years back: although the age of the Internet changed the nature of the discussion, making them more global and perhaps more-cynical (not helped, perhaps, by Derren’s “explanation”).

Paul Daniels makes an elephant disappear.
Given the quality of this VHS-grade recording, you ought to be told that the big blob is the tent, the medium-sized blob is the elephant, and the small blob is a lens flare caused by reflection off of Paul Daniels’ head.

But as time went on, I came to learn that the key to magic isn’t secrets.

That’s not to say that secrets aren’t important to the enjoyment of magic – they truly are. In the case of 95%+ of all of the magic tricks you’ve ever seen, you’d be considerably less-impressed if you knew how they were done! And that’s because, most of the time, the principle behind any illusion is something so simple that you just can’t see it for looking. As my childhood interest in magic grew, I acquired a small collection of props and books (one of which I rediscovered while removing things from my late father’s house, the other year), and my model changed: in an age when information is as easily-available as your local library, magic isn’t about secrets, I decided, but about practice.

A 125-trick Paul Daniels' Magic Set
Did anybody else have one of these wonderful, if plasticky, magic sets? I wonder how many contemporary magicians started out this way.

Practice, practice, practice. A magician’s art starts alone, possibly in front of a mirror. And then it stays there for… quite a long time. If they’re interested in doing anything beyond the most-basic card tricks, a card magician has at least half a dozen different moves and sleights to perfect, from which they’ll be able to derive a multitude of different effects.

(There’s an anecdote about a young magician who tells her mentor that she’s learned a hundred tricks, and asks how many he knows. He thinks for a moment, and then he replies, “I would say about nine.” If you feel like you ‘got’ the joke in that story, then you’re probably either a magician or else a Buddhist: there are some strange similarities between the two.)

If they want to learn how to link rings or rejoin cut ropes or make things levitate, then the same rules apply. But even while that’s true, and practice is absolutely critical… practice is also not the secret of magic.

Dan with the King of Hearts
“Palming” a card is difficult at the best of times. This particular King of Hearts might require larger hands than mine. Still, you know what they say about a magician with big hands…

The key to magic – the thing that’s even more important than secrets and practice is… showmanship. I’ll come back to that, but first, let me tell you how I lost and, later, rediscovered magic.

I loved magic as a kid, but my interest in it (as a performer, at least) sort-of dwindled in my early-to-mid teens. I can’t explain why; but you’d be forgiven for assuming that perhaps I was distracted by discovering, like many teenage boys do, a different kind of ‘one-handed shuffle’ that provided far more-instant satisfaction. In any case: aside from a few basically-self-working card tricks here and there, I didn’t perform any magic at all for almost twenty years.

Until Christmas of 2013.

Temporary tattoo showing the seven of diamonds
Is THIS your card? Damn… I probably shouldn’t have got it inked, then, should I?

At Christmas, Ruth‘s little brother Robin visited. And at some point – and I’m not even sure why – he said, “I want to learn a card trick. Does anybody know any card tricks?”

“I might know a couple,” I said, thinking back and trying to put my mind to one, as I reached for a pack of cards, “Here: give these a shuffle…” I can’t remember what I performed first: probably a classic like Out Of This World or the Chicago Opener: something lightweight, and easy to learn, and based entirely in muscle-memory manoeuvres and not in anything as complex as even a basic misdirection.

And somehow that act of teaching Robin a couple of beginner card tricks, and challenging him to take that knowledge and develop them some more… that simple act was enough to flip a switch in my brain. Suddenly, I wanted to jump headlong back into magic again.

Dan holds up a card for a spectator.
I’ve been performing at whatever opportunity presents itself: at bars, around the office, to passers-by in Oxford’s Covered Market. Basically – anywhere they haven’t thrown me out of, yet.

Since last time around, there’s not only books (and so many great books) but also DVDs from which to learn (and relearn) magical principles. I’ve been learning new sleights as fast as my brain – and my hands – can take it, and gradually building a repertoire of effects that fall somewhere between confusing and delighting. Because I’ve for so-long had such a strong belief in the importance of practice, I’ve been trying to find excuses to perform: to such an extent that I’ll spend some of my lunchtimes in any given week hanging around in Oxford’s public spaces, performing for random passers-by. Practice in front of a mirror is good and everything, but practice in front of a stranger is so much-more valuable… especially when you’re forced to think on your feet after a spectator does something that you didn’t anticipate!

I also accidentally ended up starting a local magic club: I joined a thread of people bemoaning the lack of a club in Oxford, on a forum on which I participate, and after I’d found a couple of other guys who felt them same way, suggested a date, time, and venue, and made it happen. Now it happens every month, and we few are the closest thing Oxford’s got to a magic society.

Evening event at the Ashmolean.
I tuned up at the Ashmolean Museum for their magic-themed event, in May. They’d hired some professional magicians, so I parked myself away from the main events and just spent a few exhausting hours performing for an endlessly-renewing crowd. A few people asked which of the entertainers (named on their brochures) I was, and I had to explain that no, I was just a guy who liked magic and had turned up. With props. Yes, really.

But yes: showmanship. If there’s a secret to magic, then it’s that. Any fool can find your card in the deck (even if you don’t know a way to do this – the “secret” – then I can guarantee that at least one of your friends does). Any magician can do it in several different ways (the “practice”), and thus keep you guessing by eliminating the options – how did he do it blindfolded? But a magic trick is only as enjoyable to watch as it is well-presented: like any entertainer, and perhaps more than many, a magician relies on their presentation style to make the difference…

This is an opinion that sometimes puts me at odds with some of the other magicians in the club. I’ll demonstrate a new routine I’m working on, and they’ll ask how it was done… and when I reveal that I used the cheapest, simplest, easiest or plainly cheekiest approach possible, they’ll be instantly less-impressed. There are plenty of magicians more-talented than I, for whom the artistry comes from the practice, and to see somebody achieve what is – to a layperson – the same result in a way that requires less sleight-of-hand or a less-subtle misdirection than ‘their’ way is apparently a little grating! They’d rather perform an illusion using their best moves and their most-sophisticated sleights than to simply do it “well enough” to get the desired effect (and thus, the desired reaction). Certainly, it’s desirable to have several ways to perform the same trick (just in case you end up performing it twice), but those ways don’t all have to be the most-complicated approaches you know: sometimes the magical equivalent of “look behind you, a three-headed monkey” is more than enough.

(For those with access to the Mega Man Lounge, I’ve kicked off a debate about this very topic.)

Blacksmithing

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[dropcap1]E[/dropcap1]arlier this year, my colleague Liz and I were talking  – as I’m sure the staff of every academic library’s communications team have at some point or another – about the most-valuable survival skills for a post-apocalyptic world. Once it’s time to rebuild society, we probably don’t have much need for computer programmers, magicians, or social media experts, and the value of librarians is tertiary, so we decided that we needed to learn some new skills in order to improve our quality of life. You know, after the radioactive dust has settled/zombies are under control/firestorm has ceased/disease has passed.

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Obviously we’ll need food, for which we’ll need farmers. But it seemed to us that anybody can learn to plant and harvest crops: we’ve all grown food in our gardens and greenhouses before… and there’s a far more-comfortable position to be had being the person who makes the tools for the farmers. And the builders, and the woodcutters, and the soldiers, and so on.

The correct career choice for the post-apocalyptic world is… blacksmith.

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We arrived at the Avoncroft Museum, near Bromsgrove, early on Saturday morning. It looked to still be closed, but I asked a conveniently-nearby man, who had that certain look of a blacksmith, if he was the blacksmith, and the responded affirmatively. Liz and I followed him down through the grounds of the museum, between expansive model train layouts and the National Telephone Kiosk Collection (of course that’s a thing), to his little forge.

Liz leant back to try to fit as much of the forge as possible into the viewfinder. Meanwhile, I simply stood outside the door. The forge - apparently originally a nailmaker's forge - was pretty compact!
Liz leant back to try to fit as much of the forge as possible into the viewfinder. Meanwhile, I simply stood outside the door. The forge – apparently originally a nailmaker’s forge – was pretty compact!

The smith gave us a brief tour, showing us the different parts of the hearth, the (140-year old) anvil, the slack tub, and so on, then went outside to gather up some kindling so that he could get a fire going.

A blacksmith's hearth: the fire is just lit.
A pile of newspaper and some old logs act as kindling for the coke that’s to follow.

Then, he showed us what we’d be making today: a fire poker (“here’s one I made earlier”). He pointed out the different elements of the work: the broadened tip with its sharp point, the tapered end and stem, the decorative twist, and the hook at the top. This, he said, represented the majority of the basic techniques of traditional forging (except for fire welding): upsetting, drawing out, and bending.

Dan hammers out a point on an anvil.
The first time you do it, there’s something quite intimidating about picking up an iron rod when you can see that the end is yellow-hot. By the third time, you don’t even think about it.

The talents of a blacksmith are actually quite broad and complex. There’s the ability to determine the heat (and thus malleability) of a metal by its colour (which in turn is affected by the type of metal: light steel, wrought iron, aluminium, brass etc. all have different thermal characteristics). Then there’s the skill required in accurately positioning and moving the metal, and the vision required to appreciate how it’ll behave when it’s more-or-less plasticine. And that’s without mentioning the physical strength that’s needed: forge-temperature iron turns out to be only a little more-flexible than cold iron, and it takes quite a wallop to make the impact you need… and all while trying to maintain the control you require to shape it the way you’re looking to.

Liz begins to shape the point of her poker.
Liz turned out to be a natural, showing good instincts and great control, but having less upper body strength and height (relative to the anvil) made each of her blows count less, and she spent a long time finishing a few stages.

Something quite magical about the process, for me, was that the work we were doing used effectively all of the same tools and techniques that have been practiced by blacksmiths for at least 3000 years. With only three exceptions – the striplights over our heads (rather than lanterns – although the blacksmith did have a good number of those around too!), the electric fan that pumped air into the hearth (rather than a nine-year-old boy pumping the bellows) and the angle grinder that the blacksmith used initially to cut us each off a chunk of steel to work with – what we were doing wouldn’t have looked remotely out-of-place to a blacksmith of ancient Rome or Greece. Well: except for letting a woman work metal, I suppose.

Dan holds his piece in the slack tub. Does that sound dirty to anybody else?
The slack tub was a trough of frankly disgusting water which we used to cool the parts of the metal that we didn’t want to work with.

Twelve hours later, Liz and I left – pokers in hand and ready to fight off any zombies we came across! – completely exhausted. We’d each gotten a few small burns and some memorable aches in our arms and backs, but we’d succeeded in the tiny first step of our plan to make ourselves indispensable after the apocalypse happens. In nearby Bromsgrove, we each devoured half of a pizza, then finally made our way to our respective homes.

Liz tapering the stem of her poker. Like a pro.
I think I saw this scene in Skyrim. Quick: put a pot on her head and steal all of her iron bars!

Would I ever be a blacksmith by choice? Outside of an apocalypse, no: having heard the war stories (and seen the injuries) of our blacksmith tutor, I’d rather stick to safer activities, like skydiving. But if you’ve got the inclination to try your hand at blacksmithing, I’d thoroughly recommend that you give it a go, and the smith at Avoncroft is totally worthy of your attention: go make something!

My finished fire poker.
The finished piece. There’s a wonky twist towards the pointy end, but I’m reasonably proud with the rest of it.

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