Vesica Blog - Taking museum and art collections to the cloud

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 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 – https://vesica.ws/forms/sign-up/ (and here’s my only sales pitch to you). See how much you would save by switching – https://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.

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.

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 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.

 

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.

July 23, 2011

Stream your Audio Guides in Vesica

We’re very excited today about launching the audio management and streaming feature in Vesica. It’s an additional step towards making Vesica an all inclusive collection management application for museums and heritage organisations. In the next few weeks, video support will also be added.

After some planning, we decided to implement audio support in Vesica using HTML5. Whilst this has some limitations, in the long run, we believe it will be of great benefit to our customers. Using HTML5 to playback audio means that  you may face some compatibility issues with certain file types in certain browsers but it will allow you to stream audio on Apple iPad and other Google Android and Windows 7 powered PCs. For instance, Mozilla FireFox does not support streaming MP3s, but Chrome, Safari and IE9 do (even mobile versions of Chrome and Safari do). For more details on compatibility with streaming, please see this FAQ. Of course, you can always download your audio files to play them back on your Mac or PC.

Audio files in Vesica can be associated with a particular object or a collection. Just like all other tabs on your piece or collection management screens, you’ll also see an ‘Audio’ tab. Here’s what it will look like:

Audio in Vesica

Audio file formats currently supported are MP3, WAV, WMA and OGG.

Audio files will tie in with the Vesica ecosystem, allowing you to re-use the guides in online exhibitions as needed.

May 20, 2011

Museums and virtual exhibitions – help is on the way

Ever since we started to work on Vesica, our team has always been interested in the workings of virtual exhibitions. I’ve also recently been keeping up with some very interesting articles. In particular, Michael Douma’s articles on the IDEA blog with regards to virtual exhibitions, their potential and how they are affecting the potential breed of online museums visitors have made an interesting read.

Whilst I am of the view that some things can only been seen and appreciated in person, that’s certainly not the case for everyone. I also believe that the correct implementation and application of virtual exhibitions holds great potential for museums, not just in terms of attracting new a genre of visitor or international visitors, but more so in terms of monetizing permanent collections, indefinitely.

As someone who thinks technology is meant to serve us (and not the other way around), I believe that with the right tools and integration, building and managing virtual exhibitions can and should be easy for museums. But that’s not the case, because managing a virtual exhibition can be quite demanding in terms of time, investment and manpower. Once it gets going it may not be too difficult to manage, but curating a virtual exhibition also takes some web expertise and can be quite laborious.

At Vesica, we have a vision. We want virtual exhibitions to be a piece of cake to build, cost effective (with little or no financial investment in addition to what it may take to curate an actual exhibition) and less time consuming. Better, we actually have a plan in place to see that vision come true and our team is in the initial phases to get our virtual exhibitions module (that’s what I’ll call it for now) off the ground and into cyberspace.

So how will this work? In a nutshell, we believe that virtual exhibitions can and should be an extension to a museum’s collection management software. This should be (and with Vesica it is) a repository of everything to do with your collection, including your audio guides, videos, images and other public domain information required for an online exhibit. We will allow the use of this information, perhaps via click and drag functionality, allowing museums to create a virtual exhibition with just a few clicks (and typing in some configuration parameters, of course). It’s going to be easy, should take just a few minutes to configure and will be hosted on a museum branded website. Museums will have the option to charge a fee for these exhibitions to all who want to see it. Furthermore, if museums use the virtual exhibitions function in Vesica, we’ll promote the exhibition to our userbase, depending on the relevance of a particular exhibition. And here is the best part – at this point we don’t anticipate any additional costs on top of the ongoing Vesica price to use the virtual exhibitions module – which is about £0.05 per object.

It really is going to be easy to use – just like the rest of Vesica. If you have suggestions about how you would like to see virtual exhibitions work, please do not hesitate to share.

April 19, 2010

Vesica and Museum Technologies Sign Landmark Deal

Filed under: News — Tags: , , , — admin @ 5:25 pm

Vesica today signed a deal with Museum Technologies to become the official collection and item management software provider to museums who work with Museum Technologies. In addition to providing the software at an enterprise scale for larger Museums and Galleries, this deal opens up huge possibilities for Vesica customers to be able to market their products and opens up avenues and growth channels for Vesica

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