MuseumNext 2012: a short report from the Barcelona conference (but longer than 140 characters)

MuseumNext 2012: a short report from the Barcelona conference (but longer than 140 characters)

It may have been the cold Estrella beer or the vibe and shining sun of Barcelona, but in every session you could breathe an atmosphere of excitement and true sharing that was one of the most pleasant marks of the whole conference. Born only three years ago, MuseumNext is quickly setting itself as “the” european conference for museums and technology, like Museums and the Web in the US, being capable of attracting big and small names from the UK, Northern and Eastern Europe and  Spain, as well as some of the biggest American players (like New York MOMA and Smithsonian). As usual, Italian museums were nowhere to be seen, apart from one museum in Florence, but that’s another story, and not a happy one.

Trending topics
Browsing through the sessions, we could identify four big trends in museum discussions on today’s digital technology:

  1. Web 2.0: social networks are still high in the museums’ discussing agenda, especially since they offer museums a whole new range of opportunity to interact with their visitors both online and in the galleries.
  2. Analytics: finally, museums are realizing that log data are not only for nerds or Excel-obsessed, but can offer an invaluable help in defining policies and evaluating success of online operations
  3. Mobile: with every big museum launching apps over apps, which is the best model for creating a really valuable mobile experience?
  4. Augmented Reality: from good old Layar browser to futuristic Google Glasses with their Terminator-style layers of data, museums are at the same time fascinated and skeptical about Augmented Reality, clearly struggling to find a way to add real cultural value to what is still mainly a technological toy in its infancy.

Small is innovative 

An interesting thing we noticed is that some of the most interesting and innovative realizations this year came not from the big guys, but from smaller entities, both independent or small departments of bigger museums.

Here are some examples which inspired us, in random order:

  1. The Tate educational department (the institution is big, but the department is small, and its budgets even smaller)  developed an interesting webcam-based interactive game for kids, Airbrush, which is definitely worth checking.
  2. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is about to launch Snap Happy, an Augmented Reality app which allows visitors to take photographs of themselves in front of a 3D reconstruction of the Shakespeare house, which no longer exists. Simple, fun and effective.
  3. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is involving artists in creating digital artworks using social media to interpret museum artifacts, leading to some creative and brilliant results with virtually no budget.
  4. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona is producing artist podcasts and a web radio with the voluntary help of artists, thus creating a valuable online archive of artistic audio materials

Happy ending

The conference ended in the best way, with two great sessions, unfortunately parallel, so you couldn’t follow both of them at the same time.

  1. One about the museum of the future, by Bridget mc Kenzie of Flow Associates, which brought us on an extraordinary high-level, reminding us that museums are part of a bigger planet and are interconnected with ecological, social and economic problems which are at the same time a challenge and a renewed opportunity for museums to play a really significant role in the world’s future
  2. The other one from Ben Templeton of ThoughtDen, a small creative studio in Bristol which created an amazing mobile app called Magic Tate Ball, which brings you a different artwork selected from the tate collection based on your location, present weather, date, time-of-day and ambient noise-level. A playful approach to art which is at the same time funny and clever – in one word, brilliant!

The parallel conference

Finally, we’d like to share our impression about the parallel conference: the Tweeted one. MuseumNext team took an enthusiastic approach towards Twitter. Every participant to the conference had her/his Twitter username printed on the badge, for everyone else to interact with, and we were continuously encouraged to participate in the discussions being held under the #Museumnext hash-tag. We enthusiastically tweeted our impressions and thoughts, together with many other participants (notably the BAM crew from Bologna was making a great tweeting coverage), and we had some fun moments, for example when discovering that we were tweeting with someone who was sitting just next to us.

Anyway, sharing your attention between the human conference and the tweeted one was a somewhat disturbing experience, because it brought us inevitably to a more fragmented level of attention to the speaker’s discourse. Tweeting and listening at the same time make you privilege short concepts over trying to get the general meaning of the presentation. This is of course in line with our 2.0 society: fragments of data being received and shared at the same time, instead of longer linear reasoning. We could define it the “bulleted list” Powerpoint mentality over the “long and thick paragraphs” old style of communication. But here comes the challenge: how can we cultural operators elaborate, digest and communicate long and complex concepts in 140 characters bursts?