Vesica Blog Taking museums and art collections to the cloud

April 8, 2014

What’s new in Vesica this month?

Filed under: Museums & Exhibitions,News — Tags: , , , — Nausheen Al Sheikh @ 7:25 pm

Lots of stuff. March and April have seen several new features and additional functionality. Here’s a summary of what you can expect to help you manage your collections:

  1. Multiple dimension records. You can now add multiple dimension records for each piece. Add dimensions, with packaging, with a frame, or however you wish. You’ll just see a + button in the Dimensions section on the Document tab when editing  a piece / object.
  2. In addition to adding historic transactions in the Finance section on the Manage tab, you can now create expense records and valuation records to note down any piece specific expenses and formal valuations.
  3. Re-order you piece interface as needed. If you want to enter artist information first, simply move the artist section to the top. You can reorder your entire interface – then just press the save interface button (which is the left-most of the 3 on your piece editing screen) – and that will update the layout across your account. Remember, this will update the interface for all users on your account. Two screenshots below to show you what you could do:

    This
    before
    becomes
    after

  4. YouTube and Vimeo videos. Instead of uploading video files, on your video upload screen you now just paste a YouTube or Vimeo URL and stream that video inside Vesica.

There’s several other small tweaks which should improve your overall experience, including some compatibility issues with IE11.

September 30, 2013

113 New Currencies Added to Vesica

Filed under: Museums & Exhibitions,News — Asif N @ 1:54 pm

With today’s update, Vesica now supports the creation of financial transactions and records in 113 new currencies in addition to EUR, GBP and USD. The new currencies are another step towards expanding Vesica into a multi-lingual platform for museums and private collectors across the globe and will be followed by versions of Vesica in multiple languages in the near future.

If you see a currency we’ve missed, please get in touch and we’ll add it.

June 18, 2013

6 Survival Tips for Museums

With gloomy news for museums coming out last year (http://bit.ly/LJPoem) and earlier this year (http://bit.ly/133arCC) along with some of our local museums (http://www.churchfarmhousemuseum.co.uk/) shutting down, I figured it’s time to put together a basic survival guide for museums – a how to, if you will, of conserving the funds you already have and perhaps getting the most out of them. Whilst some might say you have to work in a museum to give advice, I would challenge that, primarily because this is mostly common sense.

1. DO Fire your Social Media Manager

That’s right, if you have one (you almost certainly don’t need one), the first thing you should do is let him/her/them go.  Social media adds nothing to a museum or its image and over the years I have seen lots of talk in support of social media but ZERO results. It promises the engagement of a rather unproductive crowd which doesn’t really deliver anything. No one has been able to prove that spending £50,000 a year on a qualified social media marketing professional has generated even  half of that in visitor or store revenue – time to accept that social media is just about bloating our egos, not about running  a museum or a business. I’m waiting for someone to furnish evidence to change my opinion on this – so if you have some concrete numbers, please do share them.

2. DO Adopt the Cloud

Yes, you do not need to pay for client machines, servers, Microsoft office or a collections management system upfront. The world has come a long way, you need to evolve too. Try Google Apps (http://www.google.com/enterprise/apps/business/) or Microsoft Office 365 (http://office365.com) – you’ll be blown away by how much you can save. For Collections Management, try something like Vesica – http://vesica.ws/forms/sign-up/ (and here’s my only sales pitch to you). See how much you would save by switching – http://vesica.ws/savings-calculator/. You’ll probably only spend a 10th of what you pay for traditional software and hardware – seriously – if banks can switch to the cloud, museums have no excuse.

3. DO Accept Free Help

I’ve seen this happen so many times – museums don’t have money or resources, they’re shutting down, but they’ll only accept cash in the form of help? What’s going on here? Beggars can’t be choosers – and money is generally earned (even donations are) – so whether you get free software, scanning equipment, space or volunteers – the goal should be to save the museum’s assets, not to run it the way you think is right, which brings me to my next point.

4. DO Care about the Museum, not Just your Career

Yes, please. When others see that you genuinely care about the museum and precious items it houses, people will give you money and help. All too often I’ve seen that nobody cares about making improvements – so if you could save £100k a year by doing 1 and 2 above – you should do it. Just because the Social Media manager is your friend does not mean you should bankrupt the museum and just because helping the museum save £50k a year by adopting the cloud will mean some planning and thinking more than you’d like to, doesn’t mean you should waste the £50k. Remember that if your vendors see you are dedicated, they will do all they can to help too.  And don’t say that you boosted Facebook fans by 5,000 by building a great Social Media Strategy – it means nothing to a struggling museum.

5. DON’T build an iPhone App

Or an Android or Windows App. Seriously – unless you can accomplish something with the app like increasing visitor footfall, increasing store sales and or just make the world a better place, don’t do it to build your CV with project management skills. Visitors who are interested in visiting the museum don’t want to do it with an iPhone App -an iPhone App can add nothing ground-breaking to a museum experience or do something to help it survive – save your cash and put it where it matters – in conservation or education or whatever your museum’s goal is. Same question as social media – when was the last time a museum built a mobile app that actually could be quantified into something positive for the museum? Never (not yet, anyway) – the iPhone demographic is just wrong for most museums.

6. DO Engage your Audience

Now that you’ve saved a ton of money – send some invitations to your local community and give them a guided tour of your museum. Inspire the community to share, conserve and participate. The power of heritage can be captivating when seen and felt in person, and real human contact does and will ALWAYS offer your visitor the real experience a museum should. This kind of engagement will create real value for your museum that social media or digitization never can. I can only tell you, for instance, that you can see as many detailed photos of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul that you want to, but no picture will ever have that impact that causes you to go ‘wow’ when you stand below that dome in person. That is priceless and people will come back for it.

September 15, 2012

Getting art collection reports the way you want them

One of the updates scheduled for the last quarter of 2012 in Vesica is a report building tool. Unlike other software where you can generate pre-defined reports, this reporting tool will allow you to print whatever you want on a report.

The report builder will benefit immensely from Vesica’s already powerful search and filter functionality. As it stands, you basically filter, search and drill down in your collection to view objects / pieces by a variety of different parameters – and you get to define and choose these parameters. In the current system, though, you are unable to choose what information about the searched and filtered objects you would like to print on a report. This information is pre-defined and, as such, may not be very useful to all departments in a museum.

But that’s what will change. You will be able to choose what information you want to include on a searched report of objects and pieces, just like you can choose what information you would like to print when creating a detailed object report.

So, illustrated with an example, your current search and filter interface might look like this:

Filter Options

Once you press Search, you’ll get the filtered results. On pressing the print icon on the top right, you’ll be presented with a pop-up allowing you to choose the information you would like to print about each object on the report, as shown below:

Report Printing Options

Choose and press print or export to word – that’s pretty much all you will need to do to create any report you require. This feature is currently in development and is scheduled for release in November. If you have any suggestions or anything particular you’d like to see implemented along with the report builder, please don’t hesitate to comment and share your thoughts.

August 10, 2012

Summer @ Vesica

It’s been a busy summer at Vesica – we’re hard at work making some major architectural changes to the application to sustain the ongoing growth – many of our customers (and we’ve surpassed 200 this month!) will start to see the benefits of these changes in the ongoing months in the form of increased speed and faster reponse times when uploading data, images, audio and video files along with rapid development of additional features and functionality.

We have an updated list of new features and functionality that will be posted to the coming soon page (http://vesica.ws/features/coming-soon/) next week, so if you’ve been waiting for bibliography and research features along with some advanced file sharing and management, stay put, because it’s all in the mix.

In the mean time, if you’ve been following the news in the museum industry of budget cuts across the board, now is as good a time as any to tell your local museum about Vesica. It well help them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few years. What more, using a cloud based solution like Vesica can mean that museums can protect the jobs that matter and spend money where it is necessary (i.e., on conservation) as opposed to maintaining IT.

See http://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/01072012-ma-2012-cuts-survey for more details – we’ll have more on these discussions in the coming weeks.

June 21, 2012

The Evolution of Technology & the Structured Human Mind

This article deals with technology, the human mind and business in and around a museum environment. Of course, the discussion is probably true in virtually all other sectors and industries, but Vesica doesn’t deal with those. Nonetheless, the attempt is to make the article structured whilst trying to deal with issues of users (or human beings) adapting back to the organic nature of the human mind.

When computers became mainstream, we had to get used to thinking in terms of using a mouse and a keyboard to interface with them. It’s not how we interface with things or other human beings in general – we touch them, talk to them, feel them and more. In addition to that, as the technology evolved, the human mind had to adapt to concepts like directories and folders in a digital environment. Of course, the very concept of organizing data in files and folders is a structured one, but there wasn’t always a structured approach to physically interface with these files and folders, until the advent of computers. Yes, you could reference them to find them, but that helps you locate and then perhaps interface however you want (as in open the folders and read, or tear them, or fold them, you get my drift). To make the concept clear, it is useful to have structured data, but the evolution of technology should, and generally does, allow us to interface with structured data in an organic, unstructured fashion.

I think, those are, to a great extent, the two levels of evolution at which the technologies we interact with, operate:-

1. Evolution of data structure for better indexing, searching and finding.
2. Evolution of technology to develop organic and unstructured interfaces to access structured data, which, in it’s structured format, can be rigid and unrealistic.

The Lotico London Semantic Web Group (http://www.meetup.com/LondonSWGroup/) had what I imagine was a great meetup on a related subject in March – which I was unable to attend – but the idea of organized vs organic meta data is actually quite similar to this discussion.

Let me provide some more evidence to suggest that this is how technology evolves, and then make the argument, that in an effort to understand and grasp structure, we, as users, fail to utilize the benefits of better, more organic interfaces, and that’s not because we are opposed to them, but because we have had to work so hard to grasp the structured concept, that we have a hard time letting go of it, in many cases, for sentimental reasons.

Let’s look at the example of mobile phones. For several years now, we’ve been able to get email on our phones. If you’ve owned a Blackberry, a Palm One / Treo, or any other QWERTY enabled email phone without a touch screen, you’ve most certainly sat there in frustration waiting for the email to open and then having to continuously click (or scroll, depending on the phone) down until you get to the part of the email you are really interested in? That’s structured data (the email content) that you have to access in a structured manner (top-down by scrolling down 1 click / roll at a time). In the non digital world, if you were reading a letter on a piece of paper, you could simply look at and read directly the part you are interested in – that’s the organic way. It may be unstructured, but it’s the organic way – that’s how we do things as human beings (even though, for arguments sake, you might have to read the whole thing top-down to make sense of it).

That’s why technology evolves, and mobile phones evolved into touchscreen becoming the dominating force. Why? It’s still a structured approach (after all you still have to scroll top-down), but it’s far more organic because you can control how much you scroll and how quickly you scroll (going slightly off topic here, but QWERTY keyboards are far from dead – touchscreen only solves our interfacing to access problem, not interfacing to enter data more efficiently). In a manner of speaking, you can decide how to get to your data, and if this part is done right, how it’s structured becomes completely irrelevant, because if you could always interface with access what you want the way you want it, you wouldn’t care about it. There are many more similar examples of technology evolution, but that’s why you have software architects. That’s also why you have architects for buildings and houses. You just know what you want, how to get it to it is the architect’s problem.

Let’s bring this same set of concepts around to museum collections, software and relational databases. Until very recently, most museum software hasn’t exactly evolved to become more user friendly. The focus has been primarily on structure (and interestingly enough, there’s no agreement on what this should be like, because there really is no right or wrong),  to the extent that a lot of museum collection software even looks like the boring, gray interface of a typical relational database. Users are expected to define their own database structure on one screen, and then use another screen to access this data. So, the typical museum software will allow you to create various record types for object genre, loans, conservation priorities, etc. Once you have these defined, you can then create an object and call this record to associate it with that object. So, effectively, museum collection software technology hasn’t particularly evolved in terms of organic, unstructured or ‘user-friendly’ access or interfaces – it’s only evolved to the point of structured data.

This is a problem, because when museums now come across evolved interfaces built on top of structured data, they tend to think the structured data is missing. Our minds have become programmed to think and access the data in a structured manner, which takes long, requires more organisation and can become quite tedious. On the other hand, think of an unstructured approach, where as you are documenting an object in your collection, you can simply enter the genre, loan information, or conservation priority as you need to, without having to open another window or keep track of any reference numbers. You’ll be able to complete the task at hand, and then later go on to manage the structured data, reuse it against another object, or do with it as you please. In essence, the data itself is still structured, you still create a separate genre or loan record and that gets associated with your object, but you don’t have to create the 2 separately. You can, but you don’t have to, because you shouldn’t have to. Just like you should be able to scroll down to the bottom of an email without clicking on the down button 20 times, you should be able to enter data associated to an object and it should automatically create the other records as part of the process, rather than you having to create those records separately.

The reason why many have a hard time grasping this approach is because it is simply not common in traditional museum software. Interfaces have never evolved, and only recently, with the push of the web and the cloud have software companies been forced to push the limits of user interfaces to access and manage data. So, when you’re using a collections management system, objects in your collection are the primary point of reference, not your loan records, not your conservation priorities, and not your insurance policies. Everything else relates to the collections and objects, and should tie in organically.

The reason for writing this article is because in a recent training session with a museum for Vesica, some trainees actually thought that type or loan records could not be re-used or associated with multiple objects simply because we were not creating them separately. The point is, that you shouldn’t have to, but an interface that forces you to do so has not evolved to become very useful or user friendly.

Think of this in terms of a blog – when you build a tag cloud or tag your posts, do you actually go ahead and define tags separately each time before you start writing a post? No, you actually just type in the tags on the same screen on which you write your blog article – the system and the interface both know what you have already used and allow you to reuse these tags as and where needed. You can go ahead and edit these separately, but creating and managing a list of tags independently of blog articles is, at best, unnecessary.

I am sure there are some interface developers who would like to further stress the importance a good interface, and yet we’ll have others who think that the interface should be just as structured as the data. But the thing to keep in mind is that a good interface deals with the way one would naturally want to access, view and manage data. If you have been programmed to only see things structurally over many years, it is very difficult to imagine a world in which an unstructured interface will work for structured data. Why would you even need such an interface?

Why don’t you use google and find out how useful the ability to access data in this fashion is? For the average user, you just enter text, which google runs against structured, indexed data to retrieve results. It works, and it works better than you having to define 10 parameters in your search query to get the same result.

As human beings and users, we must learn to think and use things freely, without the restriction of structure – that’s how we can maximize knowledge and its impact. As software architects, we must help bridge the gap between the 2. Easy to use does not mean easy to build or unstructured, it generally means well-designed.

June 7, 2012

Multi Lingual Collections Management for Museums

With a user-base that spans over 30 countries, we’re often asked if Vesica supports foreign languages.

The answer is yes.

Vesica uses the UTF-8 character set, so all foreign languages – including Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, etc. are supported. This means you can enter information in virtually any language.

The Vesica interface, however, is currently restricted to English. The application is being internationalized, with our Spanish version due for launch in the next few weeks. In due course, the Vesica interface will also be available in several languages.

If you are museum considering Vesica but the English interface stands in your way, get in touch with us and we can get you an ETA on a localised interface.

May 23, 2012

Some Thoughts on Museum Websites and Open Source CMS

Let me preface this article by saying that I have been working in the web space since 1997. It has been in a variety of different sectors and domains, from universities and education to a variety of businesses, and now, museums, culture and art.

We have recently started work on some museum websites along with Vesica integration. As always, the question of whether or not to use an Open Source CMS was an important one, and whilst the goal of this article is not take you through the process we took our client through – it is to help share some thoughts and perhaps give museums an evaluation framework, if you will, of the pros and cons of going open source, especially given the variety out there.

Over the years, I have worked with a variety of open source Content Management Systems. Today, the popular ones that we would look to work with are WordPress, Joomla or Drupal. There are others in the mix, like Expression Engine, DotNetNuke, etc. – here’s a good place to confuse yourself - http://www.opensourcecms.com/scripts/show.php?catid=1&category=CMS%20/%20Portals - but we’ll keep it simple. There are also licensed CMS options available (like SiteCore) from established companies. Then there is the option to build a bespoke system.

First things first, launching a website on an open source system is not always cheaper than a bespoke one. This can be the case because some companies (like us, for instance), have been building custom portals for years. We have code we can reuse – code that our programmers are very comfortable with, code that our teams can customize and extend much faster than they could Drupal or Joomla, so going that route would probably be cheaper upfront for many.

But this option will tie you down to the company that builds your website and CMS for you. Even if they are willing to give you the source code when and if you decide to take your website to another vendor or bring it in-house, there is very little chance that one developer will ever have good things to say about proprietary code written by another developer – so they will probably advise you to scrap it and start from scratch. Bad advice, in many cases, but common practice.

So, before we go on to evaluate our open source CMS’, let’s rule out bespoke and commercial CMS because that will tie you in to one vendor, unless you are willing to scrap everything, and it may not be cost effective for you, or the dependency on one vendor just does not make you comfortable.

Now to our discussion about Open Source CMS. I tend to think of museums as communities and institutions – so the website should reflect as such. There are a great many technical comparisons out there between the 3 CMS systems mentioned above. From arguments ranging to WordPress is not a CMS to how complex Drupal is getting – they are all subjectively justified. But looking at the out of the box functionality and extend-ability of all of the above – for me – Drupal is the clear winner. It’s extensive eCommerce integration with Ubercart, it’s extremely powerful user / membership management functionality, the templating system, views and blocks, along with the ability to extend it with abundantly available modules (and the ability to build your own) makes it a clear winner to build community and member driven sites.

So, should you choose Drupal as the open source CMS for your website? Here is how to decide:

  • Will you ever bring your website in-house? Is that an option you would like to have? If so, Drupal will make a good fit. WordPress and Joomla will too, actually.
  • Do you want your website to be extendable at a reasonable price? Drupal is your answer. With all the modules available, you or your vendor can get away without writing much php or database level code, deploying new functionality faster. Whilst Drupal development rates may be higher than other CMS systems, it’s generally faster to build and deploy more maintainable code.
  • A website is a relatively open development project – meaning that you might want to do a variety of things with it. Whilst visitor or collections management software focuses on one thing, your website needs to always evolve and engage a wide audience. It needs to be flexible and easily amendable and manageable. There are only so many ways you can do things in Drupal- it is flexible, but it gives the developer a framework to work with, which can make a website less dependent on any 1 developer. WordPress or Joomla, in my view, don’t have the framework elements of Drupal.
  • User / Member management. For me, this, along with Drupal’s permissions management makes it a system very well suited to the museum industry.
  • Ubercart. This is a beast of an eCommerce project – extremely flexible and powerful, it is the best way to approach ecommerce in an online community environment.
  • There is already some momentum behind Drupal for museums. There are some modules available for software products that are specific to the museum industry. Vesica will be on that list soon.
  • Without making this any longer than necessary – rich featureset, powerful functionality, extendibility, and a framework that allows for consistent developers across multiple development teams.

However. Not all is good in the world of Drupal. It’s a mature product, with thousands of lines of abstract code to accommodate the wishes and desires of a wide array of developers, which makes it very flexible, but tedious at the same time. It also needs to be optimised to run as fast as WordPress would, for instance, but then that’s the cost of picking a more powerful engine to drive your site on – it does consume more resources.

Of course, Drupal isn’t right for all websites. It may be too complex where the requirements are as simple as a standalone blog, an online shop or a photo gallery. But when you want the right mix with scalability and flexibility- I believe – Drupal is one the most viable, free, open-source options available.

May 17, 2012

Museums and the Cloud: Common Questions

Here’s a list of common questions (and brief answers) that museums and private collectors with sizable collections tend to ask when considering Vesica. If you have more questions you would like added to the list or require more in-depth answers, please comment or get in touch.

Is the cloud reliable / how often would the application go down?

The cloud is reliable – very reliable. In fact, it is probably almost always going to be more reliable than any software application you deploy in-house. Sure, there are outages, but they are rare. Cloud providers like Vesica backup your data several times in the day too – so even if there are unanticipated circumstances, the application and data can almost always be brought back. Let’s put it into perspective, the cloud is as reliable as Amazon, Google, Microsoft Hotmail / Azure / Office 365 are. If you use any of their services, you are already using the cloud.

Will we really save any money?

Yes, a lot of money. Simply put, if you adopt a cloud solution, especially one like Vesica for Collections management (or any other, for that matter), you don’t have to pay to purchase, maintain and upgrade servers. You don’t have to pay IT staff to setup and maintain these machines or networks. You don’t need to get into or get involved with complicated licensing or long term contracts for desktop software. This applies to virtually ALL cloud applications. Vesica can help museums save 30-60% of their existing cost for collections management systems deployed in-house. It also offers you a lot of added functionality out-of-the-box, like portability via an API, with zero additional costs or modules.

Do we need to backup our data? If so, what are our options?

Do you backup your hotmail or gmail email? If you don’t, you don’t need to back up your cloud applications either.

However, if you’re still getting comfortable with the idea of moving into the cloud, most applications will allow you some kind of an XML or JSON formatted backup which can be exported into other databases or software applications in the same industry.  You can get a JSON formatted backup of your data (or use the API) with Vesica. You can even download all your media separately – we’re considering wrapping it all up together to let you get a compressed backup file, but for clients in excess of 100GB, many don’t have any way to open those files, so it’s best to import the XML / JSON backup into another application.

To put things into perspective, most people using Windows 7 cannot open a file larger than 4GB – compressed or not.

How do cloud providers like Vesica backup their data?

Different providers have different policies, but everyone backs up regularly – it’s part of being a service provider. Incremental backups are and can be deployed across multiple sites along with full data backups at several locations. It’s really quite safe and cost effective and feasible due to the economies of scale involved.

Will the price ever go up?

For most cloud providers, this is unlikely (at least in the near future), unless the way the tech industry works changes drastically or the US Dollar, sterling or dare I say, Euro, collapses.

Can we enter information in foreign languages?

Yes. MOST cloud applications support UTF-8 encoding which has built-in support for foreign languages. That should include everything from Arabic to Hebrew to Mandarin.

Do we need to involve IT?

Typically, no. Because for most cloud applications, all you need is a computer / phone / tablet pc with an internet connection.

How does cloud or web-based software work with our website?

Most cloud applications, by their nature of being delivered as a service, come with Application Programming Interfaces, which effectively allow you to integrate them with other applications, similar to how you would a desktop based database that you had access to (although many of these might require you to purchase additional add-ons to web enable them). Using this Application Programming Interface, you can extract information that sits in your cloud based application and display it any which way you want on your website. It’s not complicated, but it does require the ability to develop websites. Many cloud software providers also have modules available for third party CMS’ which your website may use – that effectively means you’ll be up and running with a few clicks. Vesica, for instance, will have a Drupal module that can seamlessly integrate your collections with your website later this year.

How can we get data in and out of cloud based collections software?

You can generally extract all the data as XML or JSON. Depending on the nature of the application and what you store, it may be feasible for you to get CSV files or download all your media as 1 compressed file.

As a museum, what opportunities does switching to the cloud present us with?

Many. The cloud allows you to save money and focus your efforts on what you do, whether that’s conserving, preserving, educating or engaging your community without having to worry about technical staff, technical problems, upgrades, downtime or any technology driven financial inconsistencies.  It takes a slightly different mindset to adopt the cloud, but for museums that do, it is a liberating experience.

April 26, 2012

When Museums Pay for Free Consulting

The short answer is always. And they pay more than they would have than if they paid upfront.

Following on from my last article “Museum Technology: Adopt and Adapt” which discussed how museums need to use technology to become more efficient in today’s economy, this article will address another simple concept that applies in business, but which many museums seem to overlook, with disastrous results.

First of all – there is no such thing as free consulting – someone is paying for it – if it’s not the museum, it is the person rendering those services. The concept of volunteerism has been stretched to its extremes in this industry, especially in the UK, where people are expected to work in institutions with no or little compensation for years, and it doesn’t do anyone much good. It leads to the type of attitude discussed in this article: “What would you save? Museums or Libraries?“, and when it is taken to its extremes and professional consultants are ask to volunteer their services, in the end, the museum will pay for it, and pay more – much more.

Take, for instance, the case of a museum in London that we recently engaged with. It’s a wonderful museum and has some great medieval treasures, but they are managed rather inefficiently, especially when it comes to spending on technology and infrastructure. A few years ago, when the museum was looking to invest in IT, instead of hiring a professional for advice, they went to someone who volunteered from the local hospital’s IT department. Now, that may have seemed like a great idea at the time – not paying a professional some money to gather the requirements and recommend exactly what the museum needs. Instead, this free consultation led the museum into being tied with a paid contract with the hospital, which now provides IT support to the museum, maintains their website and a custom-built collections management system – when they can. Exciting, no? What’s more, for a small collection, they are paying extravagant sums of money. Let’s put things into context, they could save about £35,000 a year if they used a service like Vesica. What, then, you wonder, could a small museum do with £35,000 a year for 5 more years if only they didn’t go for the free consultation at the beginning. That’s the price you pay for a free consultation.

Then there is the arts centre in Central London. Run by a trust, volunteers and 2 employees, this trust approached a private college in the area for advice on what to procure for setting up a website and email. Again, this was a case of getting free advice, which was a good option as recommended by those working for free (the volunteers and the trustees). The college insisted that the arts centre must buy and manage their own servers. Yes, their own servers for 5 email accounts and 7 page website. After recommending spending £15,000 and helping the arts centre procure the hardware, the college was unable to support them because their IT personnel were busy, and the centre would have to pay for IT staff’s time to get everything set up. This advice was wrong from the outset and it cost the arts centre at least £10,000 in wasted spending, which came from a grant they got to promote and support the arts locally.

These are just 2 examples of the countless ones in and around the UK – the fact is that when someone is giving you free advice, they will advise you to their benefit, which will not be in the benefit of the museum, and will cost more than an initial consultation fee.

In other words, good advice is not free. You can’t get everything volunteered, and you shouldn’t have to.

Aim for professionalism instead of volunteerism every time and all who are involved will benefit.

April 18, 2012

Google Maps and Interactive Cultural Experiences

CS Fine Arts Center Interactive Google Map

The next version of the Vesica Interactive Timeline will feature a fully searchable, interactive timeline built on Google Maps. Whilst work has been ongoing to integrate the Google Maps API with Vesica along with other features, we recently had the opportunity to build a simple integration for the Introducing America exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

For users looking forward to enhancements to the newer timeline feature in Vesica – this is what it will be based on. You’ll be able to select a period and visualize your images in a map, then zoom in to interact with them. You will eventually also be able to further filter the data on this map like you can when you’re searching for pieces / objects in your account. So, in theory, you could ask the map to visualize for you all the objects in your collection between 1820 and 1880, then choose to look at just textiles, and then zoom in to the Far East region and see what you may have in your collections from China on the map.

Once complete, museums will also be able to port the map out to an external website using the API – which can add a new dimension of interactivity to museum websites.

The map for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center can be viewed here.

April 11, 2012

Museum Technology: Adopt and Adapt

Filed under: Museums & Exhibitions,Technology — Tags: , , , , — Asif N @ 12:55 pm

In last month’s post “What would you save? Museums or Libraries?” I said I would talk about basic tips and ideas to help make museums efficient. These will range from a variety of topics, ranging from technology to operational efficiency to marketing. But we’ll start with technology – as it’s really quite a simple one.

As the title of the post says, museums, like most well run businesses, need to adopt and adapt to technologies instead of creating because technology itself is not a core part of their business model. What do I really mean by this? I mean that museums should, for instance, adopt the cloud, adapt to a business model that supports cloud technologies and saves them millions each year instead of investing (or rather expending) a ton of cash on procuring hardware and software that will need to be replaced in a couple of years. If a European bank is comfortable making the move to the cloud, museums can and should rest peacefully about their fears of security. After all, museums do not carry the same level of sensitive data that banks do, despite whatever irrational, unrealistic arguments might exist against that statement. Even if those arguments are to be entertained, most cloud or SaaS providers have gone through PCI compliance at some point, which means the risk is negligible.

Back to the topic at hand, museums are not in the business of technology. They should, therefore, stop spending resources and money on trying to develop technologies and instead work with existing providers and businesses in the marketplace to further technologies useful to them and reduce costs. This is really quite a simple principle and applies to all businesses in general. Take Vesica, for instance. Just because we are a software company that employs developers doesn’t mean we should start building accounting software to manage our financials. Instead, the efficient and business-wise thing to do would be to use accounting software built by another provider specializing in accounting software, preferably cloud / web based, so that, among other things, it is updated automatically with the latest regulation and laws necessary for the accounting function of the business to run smoothly. We could certainly venture into building our own accounting software, but to what end – that’s not our expertise and would be an inefficient use of available development resources.

Similarly, a museum with limited resources should focus on what its goal is and what it is good at – be it delivering an engaging user experience, conservation and preservation of history, education; whatever that goal is – instead of trying to pioneer new technology. If museums, both large and small, stopped consuming resources on trying to pioneer technologies and instead used what is available efficiently and tried to scale it, many of them can save thousands or millions of dollars each year – sadly, though, for many, expending budgets is about satisfying the ego, not bettering the cause of the institution.

Of course, I say this in an environment where research has led to less clarification. More and more organisations and businesses get involved with museums each year, and each of these proposes their own meta data or management standard, rules and methodologies to better run museums and manage collections, or innovative ways to engage with visitors. Whilst discussion and research is necessary to develop viable solutions, much of the discussion is theoretical and generally does not lead to substantial benefits to museums.

At the end of the day, the motto of this post is to say that the museum should focus on buying and using technology that is useful and delivers value for money. Being state-of-the-art, new, cool or wanting to own the latest hardware from Dell and Microsoft is just not reason enough to be wasting money in the 21st century. That’s what the dot-com bubble of the 1990s was for and persistent pursuit of such unwarranted goals will only lead to the shutting down of museums, albeit for no good reason.

 

April 2, 2012

Director / Trustee Recruitment Event – April 26, 2012

Filed under: Museums & Exhibitions,Technology — Asif N @ 10:06 pm

At Vesica, our team is realising some of the most complex technology challenges facing museums of all sizes. From taking collections into the Cloud, automating virtual exhibitions, allowing user engagement with collections via the web, to offering museums a seamless, new way to manage collections software licensing – the work we do is helping shape the future. As we continue to grow, we’re looking to add more experience and leadership talent to our Board of Directors.

In addition to our own Board, we are also looking to recruit Trustees for the Board of the new Global Association for the Advancement of Museum Technologies Initiative. So, if you’ve either got a background in museums / collections management or a strong desire to be involved in this sector along with real commercial acumen, and want to help shape the future of technology for museum, art and heritage collections, now is the chance to get involved.

Want to hear more? Come along to our Meetup / Event to hear more about the GAAMT Initiative and the leading-edge work we’re doing, network with members of our existing Board, see if this is for you and generally have a good time. The event takes place at our office on Underwood Street in London on Thursday, April 26, 2012 @ 6:30pm.

RSVP here.

March 12, 2012

What would you save? Museums or Libraries?

Filed under: Education,Museums & Exhibitions,News — Tags: , , , , , — Asif N @ 12:19 pm

At our last Museum Professionals MeetUp in London, an interesting question not only sparked a great discussion, but it has inspired me to share some thoughts – many of those based on our discussion. The question, in effect was:

“With government funding cuts across the UK, many libraries and museums are already closing their doors. What would you like to save, your local library or museum?”

It’s a very relevant question – but I don’t necessarily think it is the right way to approach the subject. Like small businesses, I think many museums and libraries have a rather bad attitude towards financial aid – just like small business believes it is entitled to public funding and money that the government should set aside for them, museums and libraries have also become increasingly reliant on such free money. Granted, museums and libraries make substantial (if not great) contributions to the intellectual, cultural and dare I say spiritual development of society, so they are actually entitled to social investment from public funds, but a big problem with both museums and libraries is the lack of guidance on how to invest this money effectively rather than just spending it.

The more project managers, curators and consultants I meet from the museum industry, the more I think that museums need guidance on how to maximize the money they spend. Just like big business has learnt to adopt cost efficient technologies and processes, museums must do the same. In addition to aiming for increased spending, museums MUST, in these difficult times, also look for ways to reduce existing expenditure.

The trouble is, neither museums nor libraries do that – the results, at least, are not visible in the UK. I’ve often also felt the same, self-destructive sentiment from museum and library employees:

“We’re already paid so little for what we do, so we don’t feel the need to drive change or change the way we work – we’d rather see the institution shut down.”

Whilst that is a paraphrase of the same sentiment from multiple individuals, it is a disturbing thought. Many of these people claim to have joined museums and libraries because of their love and passion for the arts and literary work, so this sentiment is disturbing at best.

Many museums, both large and small, can save hundreds of thousands of pounds each year by simply streamlining their processes, removing bureaucracy, spending money where it should be spent and utilising technology effectively. Management consulting has a saying: “Expensive is almost always cheaper” – and it is, in the long run. Museum employees have this attitude because of their years of volunteering – museums have this attitude because they don’t know anything other than volunteering!

I believe that we can save both our museums and our libraries. In fact, if the government and libraries put their head together (and maybe spoke to me or one of my colleagues, for instance), I don’t see any reason why libraries can’t compete with Amazon and why museums need to waste more money in times when museum revenues are falling.

Whilst I will discuss measures to help museums and libraries survive over the coming months, I think it’s only important to say that both museums and libraries MUST evolve, not just to engage visitors and readers, but to upgrade, make efficient and streamline their operational models.

February 20, 2012

What makes Vesica a unique Collections Management Database?

Amidst all the buzz and feedback about Vesica this year, one question has come up a couple of times. This question is primarily posed by those who’ve been through the features list but have not yet created a trial account to see how Vesica works. Others, who have used it, have been kind enough to answer this question for us. You guessed it – the question is the title of this post – “What makes Vesica a unique collections management database?”

Rather than give you a breakdown of how Vesica is different (or better – and you’ll find a comparison chart link at the bottom of the article to this effect), I’ll briefly discuss one simple thing that sets Vesica apart from the competition. Aside from the obvious benefits of a SaaS application – which I discussed in a previous article here – and unlike all other databases or collection management applications in the market, Vesica is unique because it was built with a unique approach. Unlike other applications, Vesica is not just an interface added on top of a database – it is engineered to deliver a user experience. We didn’t really want to create just another Collections Management Database – that’s boring (and a white and depressing dull gray colour) – we wanted to make managing collections a fun, beautiful and enjoyable experience. Of course, on the back-end, we deliver this with a robust database in a world-class data centre (solar powered, mind you), but our interface is built from scratch – a beautiful, synchronised medley of user interface gadgets that will make using collections management software a good experience.

Not only is our interface unique and bespoke, we’ve developed a system that allows us to push the boundaries in terms of innovation. Others rely on, in many cases, open source software and applications, which means that they are restricted with features and functionality allowed within the frameworks they work with, or they would lose the support of such frameworks or open source software.

As one of our clients puts it – “Vesica is really pretty, intuitive and easy to use – unlike other collections management databases.” This is true in fact as much as it is in spirit – Vesica is not just a collections management database – it is so much more and it is always evolving to help museums, collectors and heritage organisations better document and manage their collections.

For more information on what makes Vesica unique, see our feature comparison chart.

 

January 27, 2012

Why SaaS is good for Museums?

I’ve been asked this question 4 times this month already – and the simple answer is that museums, like all other organisations, should focus on what they do – not on software maintenance.

Of course, there is always some context to such questions, so here is some perspective. Typically, many museums, when they ask such a question, think about external funding from governmental organisations to start digitising their collections and feel that they may not be able to get funding to rent a SaaS application to document, archive and digitise their collections. Whilst that may be true in some cases, it is 2012 and such funders and funding organisations need to get with the plan. If they want museums to get more mileage for their money, in majority of the cases, SaaS makes perfect sense – financially and technologically. In my experience, it is simply a matter of communicating this to the funding organisation. At the end of the day, funders want museums to get the most from their investment, not to acquire something that they own and which will become redundant in a short period of time and may require expensive maintenance.

By choosing SaaS to document their collections, museums are, in essence, hiring an external company to build, operate and maintain a system for them — letting the provider make the investments in equipment and software, as well as staff needed to operate the software and related hardware. SaaS vendors like Vesica will deploy, maintain, update, and optimise your collection management applications, along with providing the infrastructure required to run them, while you maintain complete control over your applications and data.

Why should a museum choose a SaaS model? To enhance the user experience, gain remote access, attain service guarantees, achieve compliance, and off-load the many IT responsibilities that aren’t core components of their operation. Spreading infrastructure, development, maintenance, and future innovation costs across a broad base of users and museums means that you can access tools available to large museums tools that would otherwise be out of reach. SaaS essentially allows museums to take advantage of the “pay as you go” model, freeing more time, money and resources for productive tasks. Finally, SaaS applications can be be affordable for smaller museums too. Unlike typical software, SaaS applications require little or no investment and do not tie museums in to long term commitments.

Blackbaud, a SaaS provider of fundraising / CRM software for charities and nonprofits, has a wonderful whitepaper on the benefits of SaaS. To sum up the 7 big benefits Blackbaud mentions:

  • Little or no upfront investment
  • Reliable cost forecasting – affordable and fixed subscription fee model
  • No extras needed – no need to purchase new or proprietary software or hardware
  • Up-to-date technology – SaaS vendors keep your applications up-to-date – it’s how they keep your business, year on year
  • Security and reliability – SaaS vendors maintain compliant, secure, sophisticated and high-capacity infrastructure which becomes available to you without any extra cost
  • Remote access – as long as you there is an internet connection, your staff can access the service
  • Scalability – SaaS apps are flexible and and can help you grow quickly, typically with a few clicks or a phone call – without having to buy additional expensive hardware or software

Still have questions? Our team is here to help – so comment away!

December 22, 2011

Export Object Data to Microsoft Word

Documenting your collection just became more flexible – with Vesica, you can now print different parts or all of the information about an object to a Word document. It’s a fully-formatted export, and once all the information is in Microsoft Word, you can edit to your heart’s content. From the ability to do further research work, print and file hard copies, collaborate on objects at meetings, or simply export information about a piece into Word to customize and print out labels for exhibitions – in terms of formatting, editing and presenting your data, this new feature lets you do what you need in a tool so many of us have become accustomed to using.

Printing an object to MS Word is easy – you will do exactly what you’ve been doing to print your object information – except now on the window that allows you to choose which sections to print, in addition to a “Print” button you will also see a “Print to Word” button. Just click on this and you’ll be prompted to download the details of your object as a Word document – simple!

Here is a sample link to an object’s data extracted from Vesica as a Microsoft Word document.

» Download Sample

November 8, 2011

The Vesica Partner Program

The Vesica Partner Program was launched earlier this week and is now accepting applications.

Ideal for professionals and companies who work with the museum, heritage, art or cultural sector, the Vesica Partner Program offers a host of benefits to Partners, including:

  • Additional, on-going revenue

  • PR Opportunities

  • Participation in our Webinars and at Customer Events

  • And much, much more…

Vesica is a pay as you go, cloud-based collection management software application for museums, collectors and heritage organisations. With unlimited storage, CDWA Compliant data feeds, streaming audio and video, charts and other interactive educational and marketing tools, Vesica offers museums and heritage organisations a SaaS option, enabling  them to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in IT and licensing fees in addition to gaining operational efficiency and increasing revenue streams.

To become a partner, apply today at http://vesica.ws/partners/.

October 31, 2011

Are Mobile Apps for Museums Overrated?

Are Mobile Apps for Museums Overrated?

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The last year or so has seen a dramatic increase in all the talk about mobile apps, not just across the museum and heritage industry, but for all major sectors. From banking apps to games to photo management, from useful apps like the TFL Live London Underground Updates to the completely worthless ones like SimStapler, mobile apps are in. But are they really adding any value to someone’s experience on a mobile device, or do many companies invest in building an app simply because someone else (who is possibly competition) is doing it?

As with all things technology, building, buying or investing in something just because another company is doing it is probably the worst way to justify expending your resources. But marketing gurus, who drive much of the social media, interactive and website / mobile website policies in business and non-profit industries, will probably have you believe otherwise. For many of them, having a FaceBook app is vital to ‘staying competitive ‘- a mobile app is not different. But who can blame them – spending and job titles have to be justified if they are to stay in work year after year – but this article is not about the marketing aspect.

So museums can invest in a variety of different mobile apps – and most of the talk that you’ll see on LinkedIn groups, for instance, is all about trying to engage the visitor (without actually defining the visitor interestingly enough). But if we were to work back and look at mobile applications as tools and investments, the following questions need to be answered:

  • Will a mobile app increase visitor footfall, enhance visitor experience or keep visitors engaged with the museum longer (let’s stick measurable results here, not prophesized effects)?
  • Will the mobile app add to museum revenues in any way?
  • Will the mobile app save the museum any money in the long run?
  • Will the mobile app increase the museum’s operational efficiency or boost employee morale?
  • Will the mobile app add anything along adding to the knowledge and education of the public in line with the museum’s aims and goals?

Of course, it’s probably important to decide WHAT the mobile app will do before you go by evaluating these factors – but at the very least, a decision to develop a mobile application must, in my view, be subject to a YES for at least 2 of the above questions.

So, can mobile applications actually accomplish any of the above?

Whilst it may seem very promising from a visitor engagement standpoint, my personal view is that a mobile app will have little or no effect for most museums. For science and technology museums that target and engage a younger audience, by all means, yes – for others, I don’t think so. Most likely (and please quote statistics if they are available otherwise), the typical museum goer is actually irritated with smart phones, and at best, only uses it for email or the GPS (if they can).

That’s not to say that a well built museum app cannot serve an educational purpose – but even then, it really depends on potential visitors to show enough dedication to view the museum’s collection on a small screen – that requires quite a high level of tolerance, even with today’s technology.

I believe the real use of mobile applications lies in helping museums becoming more efficient and helping make the life of museum employees easier. Mobile apps, whether they are for phones and tablets, can assist curatorial staff or art historians in constantly managing and updating collection related data, without having to log into a PC or particular piece of software. This can be especially useful, if combined with the photography and scanning / inventory management related functionality available in today’s smartphones.

At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong here – it’s all just a matter of how each person approaches the subject of  mobile apps for museums. My general view is that customer / visitor facing apps for museums are overrated, and will, in all likelihood, not produce a good return on investment.

But we’d love to hear other views, so please share yours.

August 16, 2011

Preview of this Week’s Update

It’s Tuesday afternoon and we’re happy to announce that the release scheduled for later this week (Friday) will not only add some new features, but will grow the application functionality in terms of compatibility and add something in terms of easier navigation and user experience. The team has been hard at work implementing some of the feature requests from Q2 of 2011 and we’ve been planning a list of features and functionality to add to the platform for later this year. So, let’s get started wth what’s coming:

Streaming Video with HTML5

That’s right, you’ll now be able to upload video files in various formats and stream (or download) them from within your Vesica account. You’ll be able to associate these video files with pieces and collections. To start off with, we’ll initially be supporting a maximum file size upload of 1 GB in the following formats: AVI, MOV, WMV, OGG/OGV and MP4. Over time you’ll see more improvement to the video management platform, including the ability to control quality and embed video elsewhere (with or without the API). The best part about streaming video via HTML5 – we can support all modern desktop browsers and most mobile devices, including the iPad / iPhone and Android based phones and tablet PCs. In terms of browser support, you’ll need IE9, FF4+ or the latest version of Chrome / Safari / Opera to stream the files. You can always download and view the files on your desktop as needed.

Audio Streaming Compatibility

In July we added the ability to stream audio files (for your museum / exhibition guides, etc.). We’ve now made some changes to the audio platform, the result of which is that you can upload any of the formats we supported previously, and they’ll play in all of the modern browsers, irrespective of the format. Previously, you were unable to play OGG files in IE 9 and MP3 files in FireFox – this compatibility issue will be resolved with the update.

Interface Changes

Yes, we’re finally adding some dropdowns for easier access to the many settings / configuration pages, the support ticketing system and the FAQs. In addition to that, we’ll be deploying some icons for the buttons you see on the site (like save, edit, print etc.)  to free up more space for your content.

A Word on Data Standards

The technical team has also been evaluating various data standards that are in use by museums across the world. Whilst there are no formal dates, in addition to allowing you to export your Vesica data using the Vesica API, we are also planning on making feeds of your collections and related details available in some of the other formats, like the Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA) Lite by The Getty (http://getty.edu). Watch this space for more details on the subject if you’re interested in ‘open’ data for museums.

August 7, 2011

V&A’s Jameel Prize 2011 is weak

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) happens to be one of my favoured larger London museums, but that’s not going to save this year’s Jameel prize. Whilst the Jameel Family and the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (ALJCI) have done very well to raise awareness about Islamic Art and Craft (including their substantial donation for the Jameel Gallery at the V&A), the Jameel Prize 2011 is money wasted – something that would be better spent on preserving some of the traditional Islamic craft, or for that matter, helping feed people in the Horn of Africa.

Whilst it is no secret that I don’t really like contemporary or modern art, some of the quality of work shortlisted this year is just bad – and that’s the best thing I can say about it. Such contemporary art, when claimed that it is inspired by the traditions of Islamic craft and design, is simply insulting to those master craftsman who created some of the worlds most stunning textiles, calligraphy and architecture at the height of the Islamic Empire.

Contemporary artists sometimes fail to realize that the very basics of Islamic Art are about beauty, and I’m afraid that some of the works at this exhibition were far from being beautiful. Aisha Khalid’s ‘Name, Class and Subject’ , Hadieh Shafie’s ’22500′ paper scroll works or Soddy Sharifi’s ‘Frolicking Women’ are among the works included in the exhibition, and these suffer from the classic case of deficient contemporary art – don’t focus on making it beautiful, but write a fancy description about it. In fact, if you read the description provided for the works, some of them are plain wrong. Of Hadieh Shafie’s work, for instance, the V&A states that therein ‘the notion of meditative process, repetition and time  as found in Islamic art, craft and architecture is a constant element’. That’s actually quite inaccurate. Nothing about the Hadieh’s pieces in the exhibition represents this as it is done in Islamic Art. The application of the Breath of the Compassionate (or other such pattern) is representative of this meditative process and repetition, paper scrolls of varying sizes are not. Whilst I am not saying that the work is bad, it does not deserve any praise for its reference to a contemporary form of Islamic Art.

The exhibition wasn’t all bad, though. Some of the pieces were good – Aisha Khalid’s Kashmiri Shawl and Bita Ghezelayagh’s ‘Felt Memories’ tunic were some of the pieces that really stood out. Perhaps they were the least abstract of the lot and let their beauty and quality of work do the talking, which is what you would expect from a good work of art.

But don’t take my word for it – the exhibition runs until 25 September 2011. More information is available on http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/j/jameel-prize-2011-shortlist/.

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