Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 2011 Update

Membership Renewal
If you have not yet sent in your Passage renewal contract & payment, it must be done asap.  As mentioned in the renewal letter, we will only migrate your data to the new system if we have a valid contract and payment.  If you have not sent in your renewal, please contact me immediately so we can discuss this.

Database Renewal Project
Beta-testing has taken longer than expected, but datasets are now being migrated and museums are finally able to move ahead with their database work.  To date, three museums are actively using the system, and another 12 have been cleaned and are ready to be migrated.  The duration of the migration process is slightly different for each site; textual records can be migrated fairly quickly, but processing the images takes much longer.  This means that the larger the database, the longer it takes us to move it to CollectiveAccess.

Phase II of this project is to develop and launch a public website for Nova Scotia collections.   We have just gotten the first mock-up of this website, which means that IMAC will be addressing this at our upcoming meeting.  We want to make sure the design is clean and intuitive, and that it has all the features and functionality that we require. 

Documentation continues to be developed for the new system.  A user manual has been written that will look fairly similar to the old Passage database manual, with lots of screen shots and easy-to-understand language.  We have also created a number of instructional videos which are available on ANSM's YouTube channel.  Initial feedback from beta-testers suggests that the videos are preferred to the textual manual, so we will be adding more of these as time and resources allow. 

Museums Studies Certificate
The Education & Training Task force met on March 22nd to discuss the development of the core curriculum and upcoming annual conference.  We recently found out that our application to CCI was successful and we have been awarded the regional workshop - a new one that addresses artifacts in aboriginal cultural centres

I've been dividing my time between database renewal work and workshop development.  The first workshop in our new core curriculum is called Museums 101 and will be taking place on May 26th in the Halifax area.  While I could review the old FNSH curriculum, it requires a lot of updating.  This means a lot of researching to find good background readings for participants and develop a workshop that will give a great overview of the museum field.  Later this year we'll be offering two more workshops as part of our new certificate program; Museums & Community and Museum Management & Governance.

Brochures about the certificate program will be available at the spring conference.

QR Code Usage Statistics
As promised, here are the latest qr code usage stats.  As I alluded in an earlier post, the numbers aren't very impressive yet but they are growing and we are hoping to see them skyrocket over the summer months.  To date, we've had 581 views.  Keep in mind that this is only from 4 sites and the codes have been launched very recently. 

ANSM Online
I also want to remind everyone about how you can connect with ANSM online.  Our Facebook page is increasing in popularity - on March 30th we reached 100 fans.  This is a professional development resource where ideas, tips, resources, and other knowledge is shared. 
As previously mentioned, we now have a YouTube channel as well.  This is where a lot of the qr code content is hosted, and where our database tutorial videos can be found. 

Goodbye Alexandra
Alexandra finished up her contract with us on March 16th.  We went out for lunch at a local Thai & Vietnamese restaurant to say thank you to Ala for all her hard work, but I'd like to say another thank you here.  Alexandra was instrumental in the success of our qr code project, as well as our ongoing database renewal project.  She did some very thorough beta-testing of the new system, wrote the user manual and created the tutorial videos.  She has helped us move miles ahead over the past six months and will be greatly missed.  We wish her all the best in her summer Montreal adventure, and look forward to connecting again when she begins grad school at Dalhousie University in the fall.  

Monday, March 28, 2011

QR Codes in Nova Scotia Museums - Part 4

I was reminded last week that the museum community is just that - a community.  We're small, and we all seem to know each other.  Whether we went through the same museum studies program, met at a workshop or conference, or were connected through the world wide web, we're a talkative bunch.  We help each other out  and share information so that no one has to reinvent the wheel and the general public gains a better appreciation of heritage. 
So this post goes out to the Western Development Museum in Saskatchewan where my former dig buddy and fellow Fleming alum Mark Anderson is the Conservation Technician.  They'll be using qr codes during their Pion-Era threshing festival in July.  So if you happen to be in Saskatoon in July and have never been to a threshing festival, or the WDM, it is definitely worth checking it out.

As with any pilot project, you learn a lot along the way.  So here are some of our challenges and lessons learned throughout the process.  I hope they're of some help to other museums during their qr code adventures.


1. Content. 
When working in groups it can sometimes be difficult for people to agree on content.  This was especially true with entirely volunteer-run museums with loose operational structures since no one was really in charge of making the final decision.

We also found that some people didn't realize the full potential of the qr codes until fairly late in the process.  With such a new technology and steep learning curve, it took awhile for some people to figure out how the codes would best serve their museum.

Telus 3G & Digital PCS coverage map

2. Technical Issues.
With a number of cell phone & internet providers, it is difficult to guarantee that every visitor will be able to use the qr codes.  The cell phone coverage offered by one company is very different from that offered by another.  Sticking to cell phone service also means your visitors could get surprised with a big phone bill, especially if they are tourists.  To resolve this issue we focused on using wireless internet so that accessing the codes is free.  This meant a lot of extra work configuring connections and dealing with security settings.  And in some rural areas, we still had reception issues due to the nature of the site - lots of trees and buildings that interfere with the signal, if the signal even reaches that far.

3. Reaching the intended audience. 
We did a certain amount of marketing for our pilot project, but we definitely could/should have done more.  Local newspapers & media seem more interested than province-wide media.  We also found that social media and other information sharing sites  caught and shared articles and mentions of the project. 

4. Troubleshooting on-site. 
We have found that some older models of blackberries and random other smartphones don't always want to launch the codes right away.  Since most museum staff/volunteers aren't cell phone or technical experts this can lead to a frustrated visitor and bad press.  We have a troubleshooting tip sheet for participating sites, but it is impossible to foresee every scenario for why the codes don't work.

Lessons Learned
1. Let the stories guide you. 
Rather than selecting artifacts first and trying to figure out what information to embed in a qr code, focus on what you already know.  This will give you time to dig deeper in other areas, and may spark interest in the public to share more information with you.

2. Be prepared. 
Make sure you have extra batteries and memory cards, and that your batteries are fully charged and your cards empty before you start to shoot video (or take photos).  Nothing is worse than a camera going dead right in the middle of something exciting.

3. Put yourself in the visitor's shoes. 
Don't take for granted that your visitors will be intrigued by the same thing that fascinates you.  Monitor the audience response (not just whether or not the qr codes are being used) regularly to make sure your content remains relevant and compelling.

4. Partner with other museums and organizations. 
Two heads are better than one, and 20 qr codes are better than 10.  If visitors know that a group of museums or sites are offering this "service", they will take longer exploring the museum, which can mean more of an economic spin-off for the community.

5. Back up all your files. 
Whether it's the raw video footage, unedited images, or the qr codes themselves, save everything.  You never know when a file will corrupt or be lost. 

This is the last post for the qr code series.  I hope people learned a little something from my ramblings.  As I mentioned previously, I'll be including usage stats in my monthly updates, so stay tuned to find out how museum visitors respond to this new offering over the coming months.

Friday, March 25, 2011

QR Codes in Nova Scotia Museums - Part 3

So now that we've created the content and qr codes, how do we know if it's working?  We used the service to shorten urls and track usage.  I have a nice little spreadsheet with all the codes listed, and so monitoring the stats is as easy as clicking on the hyperlink.
Not only do we need to track usage for the participating museums, but we also need to report on this to our funder (CHIN).  With a number of the museums being closed for the season, we know that these statistics won't be very reliable for interpretation until the summer tourist season.  Until then, we'll be depending on year-round museums for our information. 

The first codes were launched on February 4th, and since that time five other museums have posted the codes.  Only four of these sites are really open to the public, with the other two being open by appointment.  Five of the other six participating museums are also seasonal, so we aren't expecting to see big results until May/June.  To date, 85% of the views have been from the Museum of Natural History.  They were the first to launch and are always a busy site.  The second busiest site is the Admiral Digby Museum, which launched their codes on March 17th. Our numbers aren't huge by any stretch of the imagination, but as qr codes become more common in Nova Scotia and summer traveling begins, we're hoping to see a major increase.

Here's what we've learned so far...

Interpreting the Stats:

1. Advertising is important.  This is still a new technology for Canada, and a lot of Nova Scotians have no idea what these funny-looking things are.  We used simple posters to inform the public about what they are and how they work, and have troubleshooting handouts available at each site.

2. Placement of the qr codes is important.  Make sure they are in a well-lit area and very visible - either on/with the exhibit label or text panel, or on the wall next to the display.  We can tell from the stats that when these rules aren't followed, the codes don't get viewed as frequently.  Remember that nothing about the code itself will attract the visitor since they all look the same from a distance. 

3. We forgot about iPods!  It's not necessarily the end of the world if your visitors don't have a smartphone.  If they've got an iPod touch, they can download a qr reader and enjoy the content along with phone users.

4. There is an urban/rural divide.  So far, the codes are being used far more in Halifax than in rural areas.

5. Weekends are busiest.  The stats graph shows clear spikes on Fridays and Saturdays.  It will be interesting to see how summer holidays affect this trend.

6. Kids think this is magic.  The Curator of the Admiral Digby Museum was recently doing a school group tour for a grade 2 class and showed them a few codes with her Blackberry.  One student exclaimed, " mean he is in THERE?" as she watched an oral history video.

I'll be including usage statistics with my monthly updates for the next six months, so check back to see how things progress over the summer.  And if you happen to be visiting one of our participating sites, don't forget to scan some codes with your smartphone or iPod touch.

Last post in the QR Code series will be on challenges and lessons learned - stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

QR Codes in Nova Scotia Museums - Part 2

Creating the QR codes is a simple process - what takes the most thought is what kind of content to use.  The more we talked to participating museums, the more options we heard.  Your imagination is really the limit.

Part of the allure of testing out QR codes was the fact mentioned in Part 1; we've been conducting a lot of artifact research over the past few years and few museums have brought this new information into their exhibits.  This information is available online through Artefacts Canada and the Virtual Museum of Canada, so linking to it would be easy enough.  We also knew that a number of museums had conducted oral history projects and had video and audio files sitting on shelves.  How better to bring history to life than by letting it speak for itself?


1. Readings From Books
Reading short sections of relevant published works can be an easy way to make engaging content.  It's easier to record high-quality audio than video, and if you're selling the book in the museum gift shop it can make a great advertisement.  These audio segments can be matched with photos, or even just the museum's logo and uploaded to YouTube.

2. Oral Histories
Community elders have great stories to share, which can be edited into short videos.  They can be placed near artifacts which they reference either thematically or directly.  Imagine having a description of housework in the 1930s placed in the kitchen of a historic house museum, or someone talking about their family's tradition of cabinetmaking with the QR code next to one of the cabinets.  Since many institutions have oral histories as part of their collection, this is an easy way to share that information.

3. Photo Slideshows
Another way to re-purpose existing content is to create simple slide shows using archival or other photographs.  These can be combined with either of the two audio types suggested above, paired with music, or simply kept silent.

4. Single Photographs
Even a single photo can make for effective content.  Memory Lane Heritage Village used QR Codes to link to advertisements from the 1930s and 1940s for objects they had on display.  This method is simple, but very effective.

5. Database Records
If some of your artifact records for objects on display have been placed online, a link to that content is a great way to share knowledge about that artifact without requiring a large text panel.  Records for items which are not or cannot be displayed can also be linked to, providing visitors with a peek into what's hiding in storage.  Our new CollectiveAccess database system will have the ability to produce codes for each object record, simplifying the process even more.

6. Audio Tours
QR codes can also be used to create narrated audio tours, providing introductions to rooms and further information on artifacts from curators and staff.

These are just a few methods that we tried out over the course of our project.  As I mentioned before, your imagination really is the limit.  So don't be afraid to try out some different kinds of content to see what your visitors prefer.  You could even take requests.

I'd love to hear from museum people about how you're using QR codes and what kinds of content you think works best.   Feel free to share :)

Stay tuned for part 3 - tracking usage.

Monday, March 21, 2011

QR Codes in Nova Scotia Museums - Part 1

On Friday we finally finished up our pilot project of using QR Codes to enhance interpretation in museums.  Looking back it has been a long journey - over a year since we first started talking about how such a project would work.  It occurred to me that I had never really delved into this project, so here's some background and a basic comments on the project. 

Over the past four years, community museums in Nova Scotia have participated in artifact research projects in order to enhance their knowledge of their collections.  Digital images of artifacts were taken, and the “enriched” records were uploaded to Artefacts Canada.  In addition to the research conducted on each specific item, a broader approach was taken in the compilation of a Nova Scotia Manufacturer’s Database.  Holding over 7300 entries related to artisans and manufacturing companies in the province, this information is not currently available to the general public, and is not being used by museums.  It is now time to incorporate this enriched information into the museums’ on-site interpretation.

At the Association of Nova Scotia Museum’s (ANSM) 2010 Spring Conference members requested assistance with interpretation, especially in looking at ways to make things more interactive through the use of technology.  This was identified as one of their top three priorities for ANSM.  To deliver on this request, ANSM embarked on a project to build on the CHIN-funded research work conducted over the past four years, and enhance the current interpretive offerings at participating museums.

ANSM worked with 12 museums from across the province to re-purpose existing content and develop new content to be posted online and shared on-site with QR codes.  These sites are spread out around the province, located in both rural and urban areas.  They represent the diverse nature of Nova Scotia’s heritage, including a specialized military museum, a sports hall of fame, an Acadian cultural centre, and Canada’s newest national museum.  Operating structures range from various community museum models to the provincial and federal governments.  By working with such a diverse group of sites, it was hoped that all museums, regardless of site or resource constraints, would be able to see how such a project could be implemented in their own organization.

One of the first tasks for Alexandra and Josh was to identify other museums that had used QR codes or other mobile technologies.  We wanted to know what worked, what didn't, and what they would change if they could do it all over again.  We may not have found any Canadian examples but we learned a lot from these sites, including the Cleveland Art Museum (Cleveland, Ohio), the Louisiana State Museum (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), the MIT Museum (Cambridge, Massachusetts), the Mattress Factory (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), and especially the Powerhouse Museum (Sydney, Australia).  Throughout the course of the project, we began to see qr codes everywhere...we couldn't escape them.  They were in magazines and newspapers, tv ads, random junk mail, the list goes on and on.  Since Canada has been so much slower to adopt their use than other countries, we are taking this as a good sign

Many of our biggest hurdles were caused by the structure of the project rather than any difficulties arising from QR codes and web content. Many of the sites we worked with were located many hours away from our office in Halifax, and the amount of time we were able to spend on-site was very limited. This meant that getting content from sites was often challenging. The distance was also sometimes an issue with communications, making discussions about content types and possibilities difficult. In a situation where content for QR codes were being developed in-house, this would not be an issue.

Here it should again be stressed that the key to the success of a project such as this is the content. The novelty of QR codes can only go so far, and if what they link to does not enhance a visitor’s museum experience they will not be viable over the long-term.

Another issue we faced was the lack of standards for mobile content. There is a dizzying range of phones which can access QR technology, each with different display abilities; some, such as iPhones, display Internet content almost the same as a regular web browser, while others are very limited in their abilities. We received a large amount of conflicting advice and much time was lost trying to find the best way to deliver content, before ultimately deciding to rely on larger sites, like YouTube, which have already done the leg work of making content mobile-friendly.

That's all for now, but over the course of the week I'll post other info related to content, usage stats, etc.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Provenance and the Role of the Public Museum

Last week, Dr. David Pantalony (Curator of Physical Sciences and Medicine at the Canada Science and Technology Museum and Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa) came to town.  A group of university and museum people got together to discuss the current artifact holdings of the local universities and how these can be used by the students (especially those in U King's History of Science & Tech program) to enhance their learning experience.  We also discussed the holdings of museums and how there is partnership potential for students to study the mysterious, old scientific instruments that are sitting in so many of our museums.

On Tuesday evening, Dr. Pantalony gave a talk at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on "Provenance and the Role of the Public Museum: How the Life Stories of Artifacts Challenge the Traditional Accounts of Science and History."
Traditionally, science museums have focused their interpretive efforts on how an object worked and where it fit into the evolution of science and technology.  Provenance research has been left to art galleries and social history museums - those institutions interested in sharing the personal history of an object as well as how it fits into the greater scheme of things.

Dr. Pantalony shared some prime examples from the Science & Tech collection that demonstrate how rich a story can become once the history is pieced together.  First was the Herzberg spectrograph, which for years had been sitting in a basement at the University of Saskatchewan.  While it was previously viewed as a prime example of a 1930s scientific instrument, by researching its individual history it has become a symbol of scientists' exodus from Nazi Germany.  Is that story not as important to tell? - Theratron Junior
CSTM 1966.0043
Next up was the Theratron Junior, a Canadian invention from the 1950s that became instrumental in treating cancer.  It was not only an innovation of medical science, but a representation of the fact that Canada chose a peaceful use of nuclear energy.  Its colour is the iconic 1940-1960s sea-foam green, so recognizable in hospitals and medicine in general.  The manufacturer (Atomic Energy of Canada) recruited master machinists to ensure that the best possible product would be created, something that was functional as well as artistic.  By conducting interviews with former machinists and service technicians, the Museum discovered just how much work went into the aesthetics of the machine - it had to be sleek and streamlined, with so many coats of paint that it garnered an enameled look.  The Theratron Junior was prominently featured at the 1962 World Fair in Seattle, where Canada was presented as modern, scientific and fresh.  We were at the forefront of peaceful, scientific progress.  This was the presentation of the ideal.  Further research revealed that the nurses who used these machines were concerned about radiation exposure and were unable to verbally communicate with patients when they were undergoing the brief treatments.  One nurse even remembered bribing a 5 year old boy with match cars in order to get him to stay still.

The question was asked why science museums have ignored this aspect of research when it is obviously so important.  It was suggested that the scientific community may have a fear of mundane or uncomfortable results.  By sticking to the broader picture of how something worked and during what time period it was used, there are no risks of discovering that the minerals used in constructing the machine were mined in Brazil under terrible conditions, or that something touted as the first of its kind was actually 12 years too old to be the first.  Thankfully, we are now seeing a shift from this traditional approach to one that is taking each artifact's individual history more seriously.  What we want the object to be and what it actually is will not match, but we must follow the object where it leads.

Rebuttals were given by Robert Bean of NSCAD and Ted Cavanagh of Dalhousie University.  One of my favourite observations was that conducting such research gives a voice to the artifact; it is essentially coaching speech and making technology articulate.  This fits so well with our collections enrichment and QR code projects - we are making artifacts come to life.

Last year we developed a donor questionnaire to help museum staff and volunteers get the necessary background information about an artifact from the donor.  If you aren't already using such a document, I encourage you to check it out.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review - Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence

Book review number two.  As I prepare for the upcoming core curriculum workshop Museums 101, I've been delving into the history of museums.  The book Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence by Edward P. Alexander has been an interesting and helpful resource.

First published in 1983, Edward Alexander's book is still considered to be a definitive work on the history of museums.  In his words, "museums are learning centers with a long and vital tradition of cultural contributions.  A study of the masters may well reveal to present-day professionals a stronger and better-defined profession that may be adapted and developed, to help shape better museums - and museum professionals."   

The table of contents reads like a who's who of the museum world:
  1. Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum
  2. Charles Willson Peale, Philadelphia Museum
  3. Dominique Vivant Denon, the Louvre
  4. William Jackson Hooker, Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew
  5. Henry Cole, Victoria & Albert Museum
  6. Ann Pamela Cunningham, George Washington's Mount Vernon
  7. Wilhelm Bode, Berlin's Museum Island
  8. Artur Hazelius, Skansen
  9. George Brown Goode, the Smithsonian
  10. Carl Hagenbeck, Tierpark Hagenbeck
  11. Oskar von Miller, Deutsches Museum
  12. John Cotton Dana, Newark Museum
Alexander investigates the motivations of the people who were instrumental in establishing these organizations and moving museology from "cabinets of curiousity" that were only available to the social elite, to institutions accessible to the entire public.  As public institutions, these museums were not only concerned about study and education, but about enjoyment and social responsibility.  They wanted the visitor experience to be active and engaging - memorable for more than just seeing a funny-looking antique behind a glass exhibit case.

What struck me about this book is the forward thinking of the "masters".  Not only were they ahead of their time 100-200 years ago, but in some museum cases they are still ahead of their time.  They recognized that putting a bunch of stuff on permanent display doesn't make for a good museum, and were always troubleshooting in creative ways to keep the doors open and the visitors visiting.

While some of their practices fall far short of our current ethical and other standards of practice, we can all learn a few lessons from these 12 innovators:
1. Community buy-in is key.
2. Children are interested in history.
3. Exhibits need to change on a regular basis.
4. Thinking outside the box is an absolute must.
5. Improving our museum practices should be a perpetual pursuit.