Accessing Natural History Collections: #TBT

ootb 3Last week I spent the day at the University of Canberra talking all things natural history collections at the event Out of the Box, sharing strategies 4 accessing natural history collections. Heard some great speakers and the lightning talks were full of ideas and information.

I spoke about visitors and collections – something I have written on before:

And my thesis, Understanding museum learning from the visitor’s perspective, delved into this topic in more detail.

My talk focussed on how museums often neglect thinking about the audience when displaying natural history (and other!) collections in a physical space. The first slide was based on a blog post about the Children’s Room in the Smithsonian in 1901 and how the then Secretary, Samuel P. Langley, recognised that although young children love animals (alive and dead), he felt that museums fail to cater for their interests both in content delivery and display modes. His views can be found on this blog post – Advocating for our youngest visitors.

The second slide reported on a study undertaken at the Australian Museum for their Treasures of the Collections exhibition, where a number of focus groups were held to unpack visitors views about and responses to the museum’s vast collections, both natural history and anthropological. Participants were given sets of images to view, real objects to touch and explore, then asked for their feedback on how best to exhibit these. The study found the following.

Visitors displayed little interest in:

  • discussions of the scientific significance of specimens
  • specimens stuffed, in bottle or otherwise preserved
  • the ‘everyday’, particularly out of their natural environment
  • things ‘done to death’, especially in anthropology
  • things that the layperson finds largely indistinguishable from one another

The appeal of an object lies in the unique and unexpected objects to be found across all of the collections:

  • things about which we know little or nothing
  • the weird and wonderful
  • quirky species and behaviour
  • the confronting
  • extinct icons
  • the humorous
  • and, anthropologically, unusual customs and belief systems

They also responded very well to the idea of using scientists throughout the exhibition to bring an otherwise ‘dull’ topic to life through their enthusiasm and passion for their subject (and their slightly quirky ways!).

Some examples of objects that resonated (see the above image) showed:

  • The last ever native Eastern quoll to be found in Sydney was accidentally run over by someone in the posh suburbs of Vaucluse – while participants initially through this was amusing, they soon felt extreme sadness that this could happen in suburbia
  • A marsupial mole (type-specimen) that was subject to a theft scandal
  • Stalk eyed flies – three showcases with thousands of these tiny, tiny critters pinned up carefully – visitors’ response “who the **** does that?”
  • Goliath tarantula –big, scary and something they’d never seen before (or will again)

“Tom and Jess”

The final slide showed the following tape-recoded conversation between two visitors in front of a display case, ”Tom” (T) and “Jess” (J), which demonstrated how visitors respond to objects in very individual ways – asking questions, ruminating on why the object is displayed in a particular way, and making connections between objects and their personal lives:

  • J. Don’t you think it’s the stuff that is scary and dangerous and deadly that is more interesting to look at? Like snakes. So, while I don’t like birds I think snakes are really gross, but I like to look at them.
  • T. Um. I don’t mind looking at birds. They’re just weird.
  • J. These are so gross.
  • T. And why do they have them in water as well?
  • J. I don’t think it’s water.
  • T. Well, some kind of liquid.
  • J. [reads text] “Desert Death Adder”
  • T. Remember the snake whisky in Thailand? How they used to have all the snakes in big, like, Chupa-Chup containers?
  • J. [reads text again] “Death adder” … They don’t look as long as I would’ve thought. Is it because they are curled up? Or is it because … they are just a bit … stumpy?
  • T. Well, there’s lots of different types I would say.
  • J. I wish it said where in Australia they found it. Like, it just says “Australia”.
  • Tweets and notes from Day One of the conference (as I skived off from Day 2 …) can be found on this Storify.

    Overall, was great to re-connect with those thinking about natural history collections, and I’ll be keen to hear how these conversations are progressing.

    Getting Digital Done at #MGAconf2017

    GDD imageThis year’s Museums Galleries Australia National Conference again sees Jonny Brownbill (@jonnybrownbill), Michael Parry (@vaguelym) and yours truly (@lyndakelly61) running another Getting Digital Done (GDD) session. Between us we bring over twenty years experience in all aspects of digital production across the cultural and creative sectors.

    This year we have a full 90 minutes to talk about and share digital issues for the GLAM sector generally and for your institutions in particular.

    Our session is Concurrent Session 5, 3:30pm-5:00pm on Monday 15 May in Plaza Room 9. After a short intro by the GDD team, we will get the discussion going. From previous feedback and continual tweaking, this year we are running the session in two parts:

    1. Share and connect: tell us about a project you have been working on; we will hear a few “lightning” talks, then break into groups to dive deeper into topics of interest
    2. Sector support: what is the one thing you think will help us do better digital as a sector? We will re-group, brainstorm and share.

    We would love to know who will be in the room and any burning issues you would like us to address. We have a list already, but we want to be sure ours lines up with yours. To help us get ready, please fill in our GDD participant form – it is only a few quick questions.

    These sessions have been extremely popular at previous conferences as they are designed to be audience-focussed, interactive and a fun learning experience (and they are usually over-subscribed), so sign up now!


    Attended the annual Visitor Research Forum yesterday and was a great day with a plethora of riches, insights, ideas and meeting new people, which is always a good thing. We even trended on Twitter (that is until I had to leave early…).

    To see what went on check out the tweets here.

    Huge thanks to NaomiDale, Jan Packer, and especially Carolyn Meehan and Museums Victoria for hosting us and organising the day.

    Now, onto MuseumNext – watch this space!

    5 reasons why museums need a Chief Digital Officer – by Richella King

    Like many organisations museums have a uneasy relationship with digital, it’s viewed variously as a source of novelty and innovation, a low-cost marketing and publishing tool, a platform for education, a minor revenue stream or  more human extension of the IT department.  These views ignore the transformative power of digital thinking and technology that is revolutionising competitors in the broader leisure sector such as, retail and tourism.   Museums need to adopt the approach of these organisations and appoint a Chief Digital Officer, or CDO, to catalyse their transition to a digital world.  Having a CDO on the Executive team will enable museums’ to:

    1.    Put digital at the heart of their strategy.  Digital should not be a separate strategy. In this digital age it is the key to reaching, engaging and selling the museums’ products and services to potential visitors, donors, sponsors and volunteers.   Digital thinking can transform the way other business units within the museum think about and transact with their customers increasing revenues and reducing costs.  Having a digital mindset helps build a solid technical foundation from which the museum can be proactively reactive – keeping pace with the significant changes in the ever evolving digital landscape.

    2.    Understand the customer experience (of which the visitor experience is a part) to effectively plan and execute the long term strategy around driving customer awareness, engagement, experience and monetisation.  The CDO takes a customer-centric approach collecting and analysing data from customer interactions with multiple on and offline touchpoints across the museum. This can reveal opportunities for product development, experience augmentation and marketing-communications. It can identify gaps in the customer experience that need to be bridged and identify ineffective channels, activities and products that should be culled.

    3.    Harness the power of technology, data and automation to drive digital process innovation around new channels, business models, products and services. The CDO spans the divide between marketing and IT because they understand both technology and customer experience. They can streamline internal business processes and drive external operational efficiencies by developing new digital tools for customers that reduce the burden on internal resources – such as moving membership renewal online and automating it.  They can facilitate entry into new markets, for instance genealogy research, by implementing new systems such as micro-payments.  They can drive customer loyalty by delivering a personalised customer experience based on individuals’ online activities and interactions with the organisation presenting them with relevant products, services or engagement opportunities, like volunteering.

    4.    Adopt an agile approach that delivers actionable results quickly.  The CDO can work with business units across the museum to identify and use third party tools to rapidly develop lightweight prototypes that can be used to test new products, services or business processes. For example, using a third party online booking system, such as Eventbrite, to test the effectiveness of online ticketing is a quick, low risk, low cost way of testing the impact of managing an online bookings system on internal processes and the customer experience.  The insights gained can be taken on board for future projects and if the test is successful used to finesse and rollout a new business innovation.

    5.    Deliver the goods.  The CDO is empowered to build relationships with key internal and external stakeholders across all levels and functions from the Board to the customer service staff at the coalface.  This is really important as those skilled in digital tools often view the world differently from those in more traditional areas of the museum.  They can deliver the goods because they have a 360 degree view of the problem, are data driven and in a position to both influence strategic decisions and advocate for the resources and staff needed to succeed.  The CDO can spot and develop potential in existing staff and attract the talent needed to deliver digital outcomes.  They are adept at managing conflict and working with stakeholders to produce solutions that improve outcomes across for all business units.

    The issues discussed in this post are relevant to many organisations wrestling with the transformative and often disruptive power of digital.  Quite a few organisations already have a nascent CDO buried within their business in roles such as Manager of Online Services, Web Manager or Head of Digital.  In these cases the role just needs elevating to the Executive suite so nascent CDO can be empowered to use digital to deliver efficiency, revenue and customer goals.

    Visitor Research Forum: Just do it #VRF17

    Yes, it’s on again. The annual Visitor Research Forum, this year with the theme JUST DO IT – The Changing Face of Visitor Research, presented by the Centre for Tourism Research, University of Canberra, in collaboration with the University of Queensland Business School, and supported by Museums Victoria. This one-day conference will be held at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, on Tuesday 14 February.

    There are a great range of topics to be covered:

    • Consulting with youth audiences
    • Visitor offerings at military sites
    • Games and gaming (some early work here)
    • Visitor tracking and segmentation
    • Chinese tourism
    • Student engagement
    • Narrative enquiry as an evaluation tool
    • Visitor interest in zoos and aquaria

    The program can be downloaded here: vrf-2017-final-program

    But hurry and book – the event is free but you do need to register online.

    Hope to see you there (and then at MuseumNextAU which starts the next day).

    Follow the tweets: #VRF17 / #museumeval and #MuseumNext

    What an exciting week we have ahead of us!

    Speak out or be silent? Which sounds louder?

    #museumhour is a weekly Twitter chat for people working in the museum and heritage sector. This week organisers had planned to talk about capital projects but the topic was changed at the last minute to discuss how museums respond to political events, neutrality, activism, protests and should we take a stand as a sector?

    Many interesting ideas were shared and you can catch up on them here: How do museums respond to political events – institutionally & individually?

    However you feel about the important world events currently unfolding there is an acknowledgement that they will be significant historically as highlighted in the chat:

    Protest sign reads 'History has its eyes on you': taken at the Edinburgh march against #MuslimBan from the Royal Academy to Scottish Parliament #museumhour 31/01/2017

    Edinburgh march against #MuslimBan from the Royal Academy to Scottish Parliament by @eloquentpeasant

    When history is happening right before our eyes there are current and future considerations Continue reading

    Museums as places for who? And what?


    A visitor’s “museum” mindmap

    For my first (real) post of 2017 I have been keenly following the turn of events across the globe, and while I’m not making any political statements, I wanted to capture some of the discussions around what roles should museums play in this strange new world. Are we activists? Fact providers / checkers? Sites of neutrality? Places for comfort and safety? Welcoming to all, or catering to the well-educated and already well-disposed? Places for debate? Great places for visitors to satisfy their curiosity and engage with content on their own terms? Or all of the above?

    It has long been recognised that museums are political places – the very nature of their collections, their funding models or the audiences they serve all combine to project their values to the world, usually captured within their goals, values and mission statements (and sometimes not – often what’s left unsaid makes the loudest statement…)

    So, having participated just today in a very interesting #museumhour tweet chat (thanks to the UK Museums Association folks for this), tooling around the web (and particularly my Facebook feed) I feel the best contribution I can make is to gather some resources that I think will help us inform discussions and form responses below. If you have any more please feel free to add in the comments.

    Plus a few from the vaults:

    And, a final word from my Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums co-editor Dr Fiona Cameron, which I think resonates today:

    The curator [or museum professional] no longer desires the status of remote, knowledgeable autodidact but increasingly wants to be regarded as an imaginative, ‘cluey’ and approachable communicator: someone who can engage in meaningful and insightful ways with both the historical and contemporary scene. There is also a strong need to delve beneath surfaces, to overturn comfortable mythologies, to supply contextual depth to popular phenomena understood superficially, to decode and trace genealogies of signs to their root, to restore marginalised voices to contemporary debates and with this, to create contemplative environments for the taboo, hot topic or contentious subject, to be inspected at close quarters. (Cameron, 2010, p.22).

    Oh, another final word – the #dayoffacts Twitter event to be held on February 17 is one way those of us working in the sector can participate, even in a small way, and I encourage you to follow along – more on the event is on their website.

    We certainly are living interesting times!

    Welcome to 2017!

    2017Another year, another new set of challenges. This year will be rather different for me. After almost 30 years of working across the cultural sector in various government jobs I’ve now moved to the country (to a property called Abbeydore) and started my own consultancy, LyndaKellyNetworks, specialising in audience research, digital production and learning/education.

    But, that doesn’t mean I’ll be out of sight – I’ll still be actively blogging (along with my co-authors!) and sharing links and other articles that take my fancy, so continue following the blog, or on Twitter where we use the hashtag #musdigi.

    So, a big thanks to all our blog readers (4,700 visitors and 7,900 views for 2016) and our loyal followers (all 120 of you), a very happy New Year and here’s to a great year ahead!

    We’re making movies!

    film-workshopYesterday we had the privilege to have Angela Blake from SmartFone Flick Fest run a workshop for a bunch of keen museum staff who all had stories to tell, but just needed an easy and accessible way to make them. Why? In the words of the Flick Fest folks:

    These days you don’t need expensive cameras and huge budgets to make a great film. You don’t even need big crews, special effects or lots of time. All you need is your smartphone and/or tablet, a great idea and away you go.

    Smartphones and tablets are equipped with high-quality cameras and recording equipment and it’s time we utilise these to create beautiful and professional quality films, and that’s what we here at SF3 are all about.

    Angela was joined by Christopher Stollery, the winner of the S3F festival with his film, No Budget, which was exciting as he brought lots of experience and ideas to the table (and his film is terrific!).

    I have posted before about ways to create visual content in museums and was inspired by work we did at the Australian Museum on a research grant, New Literacies, New Audiences (2005-2008), where staff made a series of short films, called Australian Museum Stories, which were also evaluated with audiences. Back then we used numerous digital cameras, complicated editing systems and lots of batteries to make these films (although they were done in two days!), but now we can do all this with our mobile devices, a few apps and some good ideas, as we discovered at the workshop (and instead of batteries we have numerous charging bits and pieces…).

    Angela and Chris gave us lots of tips and ideas which can be found on Flick Fest’s website, and here are my quick notes and tips:

    • Where is the story being set?
    • Think about the character/s, their goals, and conflicts
    • Show, don’t tell, remember this is a visual medium
    • What engages viewers at the beginning is a question – what is this?? What is this about??
    • Find the hook that will keep people watching
    • When you know the answer to the question that’s the end of the story… (think Twin Peaks!)
    • Engage the audience with questions, then change it up – there needs to be twists and turns in the story
    • When holding the camera use the “pinch and pull” with your elbows tucked in
    • Shoot in landscape – that’s how your film will be viewed (usually)
    • Remember to turn recording on!
    • Use a second phone for sound
    • If doing a voiceover record directly into iMovie
    • Play sound back with headphones, keep checking the sound
    • Have an “atmos track”: record 15-30 seconds of nothing in the area you’re shooting (didn’t quite get this but seemed important…)
    • Don’t use zoom on your device if possible, be the zoom yourself, step in to the subject using the “pinch and pull”
    • If you see it, shoot it. Shoot as much as you can!
    • Remember the rule of thirds: imagine the screen is cut into three, meaning you don’t need to put the subject in middle, put them in first or last third
    • Don’t put people’s eyes in middle of the frame
    • Mix up your shot sizes
    • Visually map out the story or just sketch out a bunch of frames, helps you think about the viewer and what shots you need in order to tell the story – you can use a storyboard app (but I reckon a piece of paper and a bunch of Post-it notes will do just fine!)

    While we didn’t get too far into the thorny topic of copyright, Angela suggested the following resources from the Tropfest Australia website as useful guidelines and tools:

    We are having a screening next week so will upload some of our efforts after that. I know we’ll be continuing along this path, and from the Australian Museum Stories evaluation we also know that audiences like museum movies:

    We really loved the idea of getting behind-the-scenes of the [Australian] museum. Who’d have thought that marine biologists worked there? It’s so interesting to find out how the museum puts an exhibition together. We want more, more, more!

    And, if you want to run a workshop yourself contact Angela – I highly recommend it and you won’t be disappointed!

    Measuring the impact of museums and galleries #TBT



    OK, it’s a late #TBT but I know it’s still Thursday somewhere… In a meeting talking about the work of museums and galleries and the impact they have on (and in) their communities, and was reminded of work that has gone before, for example:

    Museums; their missions; their civic, social responsibilities; and their modes of engagement with communities are in a constant process of transformation in response to social and economic imperatives at local, national and global levels. There is a need for museums to stay relevant and be responsive to pressing social and environmental issues such as population and sustainability, social justice and Indigenous rights. Funding bodies and stakeholders now acknowledge that museums and programs need to demonstrate impact and value within their local communities in order to attract further funding and ongoing support. Several models of impact have been developed in Europe and the United States, and a number of benefits are claimed for participation in museum programs and museum visitation. (Kelly, 2006).

    I’m blogging this mostly so I can keep references together and keep as I come across more. Don’t worry, all will be as clear as mud later…!



    Impact References