I gave my first paper about my work at the Museum of Zoology on Friday, at the University of Newcastle. This one-day workshop bought together university researchers, policy makers and museum, gallery and heritage practitioners to discuss digital cultural engagement in the sector. The event was funded by the AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund and was organised by the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies (ICCHS) at Newcastle University, in collaboration with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.
The event examined how cultural institutions can encourage and sustain significant levels of public engagement via their social media platforms, and offered opportunities for discussion and insights into the value of digital cultural engagement.
Here’s the abstract from my paper:
The AHRC Connecting with Collections project at the University of Cambridge has linked six early career researchers with one of the University museums, allowing them to undertake an individual research project. Lorna Richardson has been working at the Museum of Zoology and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology since February 2013. Her research examines the possibilities and potential of digital technologies for public engagement at both museums. This paper will explore the activities undertaken during the research project to extend the public reach of the Museums, especially through the use of Wikipedia and blogging. It will reflect on the use of these technologies and platforms in public archaeology in the UK, using data gathered during Lorna’s PhD research at the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.
And here’s a Storify of the Tweets from the day itself: https://storify.com/lornarichardson/users-fans-and-followers-univeristy-of-newcastle-7
On Wednesday, the team the the Museum of Zoology launched the new Animal Bytes project, which aims to capture the stories of the Museum and responses to its collections from staff and visitors of all kinds. I played a very small role in this wonderful project, by setting up the website, which you can view here and the front page is below.
The project website was created on the WordPress.com platform, using a free theme. This is a very, very easy way of creating a web presence very quickly, and WordPress is very straightforward to learn and update – and needs no prior knowledge of HTML or CSS. It looks clean and accessible, is simple to navigate, and can be easily adjusted and refreshed. Overall, it took me about 3 hours to set the site up, and takes less than 5 minutes to create and update a post. Having worked with a number of content management systems over the years, that make my head hurt and hair curl, the simplicity of WordPress is a breath of fresh air. Highly recommended as a public engagement platform for multiple users…
My research project is a little different from my other CwC colleagues, in that I am not researching part of a collection, or focused on a specific set of objects. I am researching the use of digital technologies for public engagement in the two museums, Zoology, and Archaeology & Anthropology. So my ‘Who?’ is a little more abstract…
Researching public engagement through digital technologies is fraught with difficulties, mostly as a result of working almost blind in terms of public perception. The effectiveness of your digital project can’t easily be quantified – there has been a lot of reliance on log file data and the use of analytics packages, such as Google Analytics, over the years. There is now a growing trend in the cultural sector is to try to balance this very quantitative approach to evaluating success to one that also considers the effectiveness and impact of discussion, interaction and dialogue between the public and institutions through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and other digital and mobile technologies.
There are subtle and complex reasons why people like to engage with museums and other cultural institutions through social media and other digital and mobile technologies. Exploring the complex societal interest in our work and collections, and the need for nuanced methods of public engagement with this information can’t just be reduced to using technologies – if it is on the Internet, it is ‘public engagement’. We need to acknowledge the fact that the Internet and mobile technologies are used far more often for the creation and maintenance of social relationships, and entertainment, in similar ways as print media, television and radio. How can we best capture the attention of this leisure time, and social recommendation, and encourage people to visit, learn and enjoy our physical sites and digital sites in equal measure? The ‘who’ is as important as the ‘why’…
As a result, I have spent this month looking carefully at the Google Analytics for the Zoology museum, and creating a visitor survey to capture information from visitors to the museum in person, asking what they would find most useful on the museum webpages. As a result of the first examination of the GA data, I realised that the 5th most popular source of traffic to the museum website came from Wikipedia. After a few hours work on the Wiki page, updated with information from the museum website, carefully cited and sourced, a long-term source of information about the museum has been created, with links to lots of other pages throughout Wikipedia. Another option is to improve the TripAdvisor page for the museum. Lots of visitor traffic to the website has arrived from people looking for activities to do whilst visiting Cambridge – and making sure some attractive images of the collections are available, alongside opening hours and ‘highlights’, then more people might be tempted to visit. And this is all very cheap and easy public engagement!
I will update you next time with the results of the visitor survey, and hopefully will have teased out some more ‘best practice’ from other cultural institutions. I am looking at the different university museums with dedicated zoological collections, including museums at Aberdeen, Dundee, Oxford, Reading and UCL, to see what kind of digital experience they offer.
This has been my first week working in the Museum of Zoology, where I will spending the first part of my project. I am working in a discipline completely out of my comfort zone of archaeology, which leaves a lot of space for me to walk round the displays and storage spaces marvelling open-mouthed at the wealth of creatures represented by the collection. This morning I worked next to the skeleton of a crow, a dolphin’s skull and various things in jars… I wanted to be a marine biologist if I couldn’t be an archaeologist as a child, so this is heaven for me.. I will post some pictures next week.
This week, I have spent a lot of time looking at how to best manage the process of creating a digital engagement plan, and improving the museum’s Wikipedia page. Wikipedia is a key point of contact with academic knowledge for all kinds of people from all walks of life, and making sure that organisational Wikipedia pages are accurate, extensive and well-cited will bring a lot of interest to the museum in the long-term. It is a simple, low-cost, high impact method of public outreach. Wikipedia is the 6th most important source of traffic to the museum’s website, and means we have a global audience who want to find out more. Have a look at the improved page here, and see what you think: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambridge_University_Museum_of_Zoology
My Connecting with Collections project will explore the forms and methods by which both the public and fellow museum professionals outside of the University of Cambridge Archaeology and Anthropology Museum and Museum of Zoology are engaged with the Museums through digital technologies, and the potential for future developments in the digital direction for public outreach. My project will assess how these communications could be improved, to benefit both members of the public as users and the museums.
This work will be undertaken though a series of evaluations of activities and collections, in-person interviews with staff, museum visitors and users of the MAA Object Identification Service, and online consultation with museum visitors and other museum professionals, through a series of surveys and email correspondence.
I hope that this research project will address the opportunities for the two museums to widen participation and engage new audiences on a more collaborative platform. This research will provide reliable data that can be used to improve user experience, engagement and participation, and embed usability and sustainability which can be applied across the University museums service.
This project is aligned very nicely with my PhD research which examines the use of Internet technologies in archaeological communities involved in public engagement and outreach work in the UK. I’m looking forward to getting started on the 4th February!