Centre for Media Research

Does New York show the way to the digital future for local museums?

Encouraging visitor engagement through digital innovation needn’t cost local museums the earth, and it’s crucial to their future, argues Oonagh Murphy.


Earlier this year I was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, which provided me with the opportunity to spend 5 weeks researching digital practice in New York at some of the best museums in the world. I met with senior staff from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), Guggenheim, MoMA, Cooper-Hewitt, MAD Museum and The Whitney, and I got to attend some incredible events, such as The Met’s 3D Hackathon, co-hosted by Makerbot.

Met 3D Hackathon. Image credit: Makerbot on Flickr

The 3D Hackathon brought together artists and curators to test out the possibilities that 3D printing offers both the museum and artists. Not long ago 3D printers were the stuff of science fiction, but in recent years the technology has developed rapidly and you can now buy a desktop 3D printer for around £1200, while the software required to scan objects or develop 3D designs is open source (free).

What’s really exciting is that the very technology used by The Met to host this much talked about event is available right here on our doorsteps in Northern Ireland. Two new Fab Labs have opened in Derry and Belfast, and are crammed full of exciting new technologies such as 3D printers and both have the technicians that can teach anyone how to use them.

Fab Lab, is the shorter, cooler name for Fabrication Labs, a concept developed by MIT’s New Media Lab.

Fab Labs democratise rapid prototyping and allow anyone to turn an idea into reality. As 3D printing becomes more accessible, and more people get to access it, the uses of this technology will develop. Who knows what museums will be doing with 3D printers next year, let alone in 5 or 10 years time?

In this spirit, Newark Museum has gone one step further than The Met and set up their own MakerSpace, a fabrication lab of sorts, which was set up with a £10-£15,000 budget, in a small, unremarkable classroom.

Newark Museum’s first Makerspace programme saw underachieving kids from a local school visit the museum once a week for 14 weeks, during which they developed their own computer game, 3D printed their own controllers and using Arduino technology programmed buttons on these controllers to allow them to play the game they had created.

The next iteration of this programme will see the museum collection used as a departure point for game narratives; an approach in-line with the museum’s broader mission to bring art and science closer together. As the museum’s founder John Cotton Dana puts it:

“A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning—and thus promotes learning.”

I am often told by staff from museums in Northern Ireland that they simply don’t have the time, resources or budgets to carry out digital research & development. On the other hand, digital R&D takes place in most of the big international museums in New York. This may not be a fair comparison. Admittedly museums in New York are for the most part bigger than museums in Northern Ireland. They have bigger collections. They have bigger gallery spaces. They have more staff and more money.  However during my trip it was encouraging to find that some of the most ground breaking, cutting edge digital research and development is being done on a shoe string budget, with technologies that even the smallest museums in Northern Ireland can access.

We live in an interactive, participatory web 2.0 world, in which visitors no longer want to simply read exhibition labels. They want to make, investigate, question and have fun, and the challenge for museums is how to respond to this contemporary culture whilst maintaining the academic integrity of their staff and collections. What’s going on at the Met and the Newark demonstrates that museums in Northern Ireland do not need vast resources to develop innovative approaches to digital engagement. What they need is vision; access to skills; and a management culture that fosters research and development. If museums in Northern Ireland can learn one thing from museums in New York then it has to be that they need to recognise the value of the journey not just the destination.

Museums have traditionally had an authorial and definitive voice in the presentation of art, science and the past. This move towards iterative and open development represents a massive cultural change for museums. There is no doubt that these are disruptive technologies, but perhaps museums need to recognise that if they want to maintain their cultural relevance and hold on to their funding, then they need face the harsh reality – disrupt or die.

For further case studies and analysis see my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Report


Oonagh Murphy is a PhD student in the Centre for Media Research, and the Arts and Humanities Research Institute at the University of Ulster. She has spent the last two years researching digital practice in museums and developing a series of projects, including a Hack Day at the Ulster Museum; The Foursquare Mayor Chair, in collaboration with her supervisor Alan Hook. She also organised #ArtsNI, a series of digital events for those working within or with the cultural sector and is on the committee of the Museums Computer Group.

Oonagh is particularly interested in identifying management approaches and organisational cultures which facilitate digital innovation.

Tweet: @OonaghTweets                         Blog: oonaghmurphy.com



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