Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why VR?: Enhancing IRL (In Real Life) Experiences for visitors to the British Museum


2016 is clearly a break-out year for Virtual Reality (VR) technologies, with numerous companies releasing relatively affordable, consumer-ready devices. Still, when I was writing TrendsWatch 2016 last fall, I found relatively few museums that had already adopted the newest entries into the VR market. The British Museum was one, and in today’s guest post Juno Rae and Lizzie Edwards, Education Managers of the British Museum’s Samsung Digital Learning Programme talk about their work with Samsung Gear VR, and share some tips for other museums planning to develop content for the virtual realm.


In August 2015 the British Museum’s Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC) held a Virtual Reality Weekend in the Museum’s Great Court, offering over 1200 family visitors the opportunity to engage with Bronze Age objects from the collection in a virtual reality roundhouse settlement via Samsung Gear VR headsets, Samsung Galaxy tablets and an immersive dome.

This post shares the tips and tricks from the project, which are useful for other organisations interested in developing similar experiences. Our paper for the Museum and the Web conference 2016 details the background of developing this VR experience.

For us, as people passionate about creating new access to and engaging audiences with museum objects, the Virtual Reality Weekend demonstrated that the virtual presentation of objects does not detract from or replace real life experiences of them. Rather, our virtual reality environment enhanced our audiences’ interest and excitement about Bronze Age objects.
After viewing the Bronze Age roundhouse on a tablet, Samsung Gear VR headset or in an immersive full-dome, visitors were excited to see more. For example, many gathered around another Sussex loop and ceremonial dirk in the Museum’s Bronze Age gallery, which are objects similar to the ones shown in the virtual Bronze Age roundhouse. During that period in August of 2015, the Wollaston Gold – also featured in the roundhouse - was also on display in the Museum while it was undergoing the Treasure process with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and could be viewed complete with the soil it had been excavated with still present. We offered special tours of the Bronze Age gallery over the weekend that were enthusiastically taken up by visitors who would normally be more inclined to see the collection of Egyptian mummies.
Visitors valued the added context that the VR tour provided—further  enhancing the real life experiences of these objects. They told us: it made me feel as if I was actually there and gave me a sense of how things actually were in the Bronze Age.” Others shared, that it was a “Fantastic, interactive way to learn…it really helps visualize the height and depth of a Bronze Age village”. The VR experience allowed us to address popular misconceptions of this historic period, demonstrating for example that people lived in community groups and round houses.
Integrating virtual reality into the core Samsung Digital Discovery Centre programmes

Since the Virtual Reality weekend event in August 2015, we have continued to host various VR trials  within the SDDC’s core programme through a series of new sessions for family members,  teen visitors, and Continual Professional Development (CPD) workshops for teachers we launched the following:
  • The SDDC’s ‘Teens 3D scanning skills workshop’ in November 2015 offered teen participants (ages 15-19) an opportunity to learn how:
  • 3D scans are being utilised in museums
  • Try out the Samsung Gear VR headsets
  • Learn some basic 3D scanning skills
  • Make their own 3D scans of museum collection objects using basic scanning applications via mobile phones.
In October 2015, we hosted a family session - ‘every drawing tells a story’ - inviting family visitors to develop their digital drawing skills using a range of creative software on tablets and phones. They used handling objects -including Bronze Age replica objects for inspiration. The Virtual Reality content helped families to explore their Bronze Age objects, learn more about their materials, and draw more objects. In December 2015, we hosted another family session - ‘Animate Celtic Craft’ - introducing visitors to the idea that the Celts were famous for creating complicated woven patterns and encouraged participants to work together to make an animation showing their complexity. Our Bronze Age roundhouse settlement experience via tablets and a Gear VR headset (for participants aged 13+ to use) provided visitors with background information on the lives of the Celts.

In January 2016, as part of a CPD event to provide support and ideas for UK Primary School teachers (ages 7-11 years) we facilitated a workshop to help school teachers incorporate digital tools into their prehistory curriculum. This session highlighted 3D scanned object repositories including Sketchfab and MicroPasts. The teachers also used the Gear VR headset as a tool to support students to visualise historical contexts.

Feedback from visitors on the inclusion of virtual reality into the Museum’s digital learning programmes has been extremely positive – we’re really excited to explore how best to continue to integrate the technology across the SDDC programme.

Tips for developing your own VR experience

We learned a lot from developing and delivering our virtual reality experience to our audience.
Our top tips for creating a VR experience are to:
  • Put your audience first
  • Collaborate with curators
  • Make the most of available assets.
Putting our audience first drove our decision to present our VR world on three platforms (tablet, headset and dome), making it accessible to the widest range of visitors. It also drove our decision to create an open-ended user journey. Visitors explored the world at their own pace and followed their own interests. Neil Wilkin – curator of the Museum’s Bronze Age Collections– ensured that our historic context was as accurate as possible, and that it didn’t introduce new myths about how people in the Bronze Age lived. Finally, we used objects from the British Museum’s collections that had been scanned by the project, and provided as open source data, making use of pre-existing work and cutting down on development time
As an early adopter of VR headset technology, we also honed our methods of facilitating this experience for museum visitors. During the Virtual Reality Weekend we ran a model of 1-1 facilitation for the headsets, with five headsets available for visitors to use. Each facilitator found out the name of the visitor before they put the headset on. This proved important, as some attendees were so immersed in the experience that using their name was the only way to bring them from the Bronze Age back to the present day. One-to-one facilitation allowed us to be dynamic in our facilitation and able to accommodate the questions of visitors.
About the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre
The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre was created in 2009 to provide a state-of-the-art technological hub for children and young people to learn about and interact with the Museum’s collection. Offering the most ambitious and extensive on-site digital learning programme of any UK museum, the SDDC runs thirteen different school programmes throughout the school year, and has family programmes operating fifty two weekends a year. All activities are free and over 60,000 children and families have been welcomed to the Centre since it opened. Through its work with Samsung the British Museum remains at the forefront of digital learning. Recent innovations within this exciting partnership include the use of augmented reality and virtual reality technologies to engage a new generation with the British Museum’s Collections.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wordless Wednesday: Dancing About Museums

#MuseumDanceOff @museumvictoria @museum_life
Have you voted yet?

Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

My Recap from a Workplace Inclusion Forum

Today's guest post is by the Alliance's president & CEO, Laura Lott.She's been on the hunt for resources to help AAM become a more inclusive workplace, and that search took her to Minneapolis for what turned out to be a primo conference on the topic. I encouraged her to share that experience with you here on the Blog. Perhaps next year we will have a whole museum contingent at the Workplace Inclusion Forum...

Last month, at the advice of Chris Taylor - the diversity officer at Minnesota Historical Society, I attended the 2016 Workplace Inclusion Forum in Minneapolis. It was a really incredible, stretching experience - mental gymnastics, as one presenter described it. After hearing some of my immediate observations, Chris recommended I talk about my experience publicly - to encourage more CEOs and directors in the museum field to take steps to learn about diversity and inclusion. Chris has been a mentor to me in this area since we were introduced late last year. And I know he is working so hard to bring true inclusion practices to MNHS and to the museum field. I owe it to Chris to do as he advises. So, here goes...

I consider myself pretty worldly and, having grown up in a middle class family outside of New York City in the 1980s, totally accepting of diverse people and cultures. I was an exchange student in Tokyo for a year in high school, living with a Japanese family and attending a Japanese school. I chose American University, in part, because of its tremendous School of International Service, diverse student body and the global focus of its academic programs as well as its location in the global city of Washington DC. My family is a wonderfully messy mix of religious traditions, and we love to travel around the world.

Early in my career, I helped oversee and report on a Fortune 500 company's first diversity initiative as part of the corporate social responsibility department, learning about EEOC and supplier diversity best practices. I entered the male-dominated financial services industry as a young woman and, last year, was the first woman (and I think probably the first person under 40) to be named president and CEO of AAM. 

Point being, I felt pretty confident that I had some relevant experience in different aspects of diversity. Though, I’m always curious - and I hunger to learn more. With diversity, equity, access and inclusion a priority in AAM's next strategic plan, I specifically wanted to learn more about the D&I field. And AAM itself has a lot of work to do - to be a more diverse and inclusive workplace, and to some extent, I feel like I have to start this work "at home." A workplace inclusion conference seemed right.

I was a little nervous walking into an unfamiliar conference dominated by people who have made their careers as chief diversity officers...many in very big companies with lots of resources. I assumed, as a white person, I would be in the minority - something I don't experience frequently and which I don't have particularly fond memories of from my time in Japan. I was a little afraid of conversations about "white privilege" and #blacklivesmatter, especially as the Hennepin County attorney was announcing officers would not be prosecuted in yet another case of a young black man being shot by the police.

The conference's opening session was an enlightening speech by Anand Giridharadas, a New York Times columnist and author.  Anand talked about the decentralization of the world - where the US is not at the center and white Christian is no longer the "default setting." It was important - and lofty enough to feel more inspiring than threatening.

Then, I went to the #RaceMatters session. It was uncomfortable at times. I thought, optimistically, "I must be doing something right!" Everyone - and leaders especially - have to make themselves vulnerable to make real progress.

It got tougher.

Throughout the next two days I learned about the "Intercultural Development Continuum" (Shoot, I thought my "color-blindness" was a good thing.); talked about "coded language" (and realized I have said some of those things...recently.); and faced conversations about whether all women (white and black) are in this effort for equality together. I felt, at various times, guilty, embarrassed, disappointed with myself, and even ashamed.

Some conversations were downright exhausting and overwhelming...is there really any way to succeed in this work?

I took solace when even experienced diversity officers admitted they often feel overwhelmed and unequipped to deal with the emotions and challenges this work entails. We spoke about it as a journey, about having to meet people where they are and the importance of perseverance. I realized inclusion, like anything else, is a skill. I have to study, practice and apply it over and over again, continuing to perfect my practice - just like yoga, public speaking or any other skill.

The truth is I'm terrified...of making a mistake, of inadvertently saying something insensitive - looking naive or stupid (perhaps in this very post!) or, worst of all, compounding the hurt many feel from years of insensitivity, discrimination and racism with my well-intentioned words and actions. I'm afraid of critical and angry voices who think I should do more or different things. And I'm afraid of pouring myself into this - and still not having a big enough, tangible impact.

The fear can be - and too often is - paralyzing.

I won't be paralyzed. There’s no time to wait. There are tools to help. And I believe people will help...if I'm sincere.

There was a conversation at the end of the conference about boldness. And on the prestigious panel of diversity officers from Starbucks and Major League Baseball and others, some said it's not bold to simply do the right thing. Maybe it's not bold. But it does take courage to willingly step into discomfort.

It reminds me of learning to fly an airplane. Actually, the flying part was fine. But I had such a hard time landing! Practice flight after practice flight, I'd bounce that poor little single-engine Cessna down the runway. I was so embarrassed I nearly quit. I had never before failed quite so awesomely – and publicly. Thankfully, due to a supportive flight instructor (with a strong stomach), I kept with it - and enjoyed the thrill of flying - and landing - solo, ultimately earning my pilot license and a lifelong hobby that brings me remarkable joy.

In this much more important and complex area of diversity and inclusion, I still have a lot of work to do. But I'm not staying paralyzed, and I'm certainly not quitting. I'm taking steps - educating myself, investing time and money in training myself and practicing my new knowledge. I'm putting this naked admission out there, in hopes that museum directors/CEOs will join me at next year's forum.

Diversity & inclusion isn't about "fixing" or "solving" or "being done." Instead it's about "transforming" and "improving" and "developing." It's a journey of discovery. Isn't that what museums are all about?



Thursday, April 21, 2016

MOOC: Behind the Museum

Having started my museum career in a very, very small museum (that no longer exists), I am hypersensitive to the needs of people working in organizations with miniscule resources. Professional development is particularly problematic: even if you can pay for the travel, housing and registration associated with a workshop or short course, who’s going to run the museum while you are gone? Today Elizabeth P. Stewart (director of the Renton History Museum--a very small city history museum outside Seattle, Washington--and vice president of the Washington Museums Association) shares one way to navigate this sticky wicket—via one of the many excellent courses available online. The MOOC she took offered by way of a fringe benefit, an opportunity to contrast museum practice in the US and the UK, where the course originated.

 MOOC is a terrible name for training, but Massive Open Online Course is a mouthful. No matter the unwieldy term, in practice online courses can be a useful way for those of us who have trouble getting away from our museums (or, worse yet, our desks) to think about the future. I recently participated in the Behind the Scenes at the 21st-Century Museum MOOC offered by the School of Museum Studies at University of Leicester and National Museums Liverpool, through FutureLearn.com. The course consisted of six weeks of self-paced learning through case studies, video tours, interviews, reading, and interacting with other auditors. Each week consisted of 15 – 20 units that allowed me to digest the course in small chunks (although I spent several Sunday afternoons binging). This MOOC provided a multilayered opportunity to learn new strategies and new ways of thinking, and connect with fellow museum professionals around the world.

The differences and similarities among 21st-century British and American museums were particularly instructive. Among the insights I gleaned:

The UK has tons of research about their museums, and I am envious. I was amazed that the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport compiles detailed statistics about museum visitors. This data fueled a fascinating conversation about tackling barriers to access. 42.3% of Black and minority respondents had visited a museum in the previous year, the lowest percentage of those surveyed, which I found stunning. (I can only dream of the day museum attendance in my community looks like this.)

The Brits are as worried about funding as we are, if not more. The British government has been scaling back cultural support for some years now. Absent the well-developed foundation environment in the U.S. and the American tradition of corporate and individual giving, museum professionals in the UK are very concerned about their institutions’ survival. Consequently, museum people are putting their energy into areas of government concern—see health and wellbeing below—and making the case for museums’ vital role.

British museum professionals have given much thought to the socially engaged museum (but sometimes small museums aren’t buying in). The MOOC’s instructors were ready to push museums into new areas, confronting darker subjects of British history like hate crimes or the domestic use of torture, and their examples were thought-provoking, such as the University of Leicester’s student-led exhibition 100 Stories of Migration. Meanwhile, volunteers from small museums wondered aloud how to tackle such weighty topics when their institutions were still figuring out who would unlock the door on Saturday.

The British are looking for new roles museums can play, in the health and wellbeing of their communities, for example. We spent two weeks on “Museums and Our Emotions” and “Museums and Health and Wellbeing.” Discussions around health were based in the New Economics Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing:

  •  Connect
  • Take Notice
  • Give
  • Keep Learning
  • Be Active

The Happy Museum Project proposes a similar set of principles. Again, the course provided helpful examples of museums reaching out to seniors, cognitively impaired people, the disabled, and others who might benefit from access to the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual stimulation that only museums can provide.

Everyone’s struggling with the twin tensions of access and preservation. A unit on engaging new audiences used the example of a London Evening Standard article about children climbing on a Donald Judd sculpture at the Tate Modern. MOOC participants hashed out the extent to which we as curators of important objects are willing to share what we care about. Do kids belong in art museums? The Kids in Museums Manifesto says, “yes, if we want museums to have a viable future.”

Internationally, museum professionals are starting to prepare for the postdigital museum.  Ross Parry, Senior Lecturer in Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, is pioneering explorations of how digital technology has already become the norm in museums—certainly in large well-funded ones, but even in small ones like my own, where we rely almost solely on social media for marketing our programs. What does a postdigital future hold for museums, the core mission of which is storytelling with material objects?

The British are very polite online. They are endlessly patient with people who disagree with them, which makes for a very productive online learning experience.

Museum people are delightful all around the world. MOOC Participants lived in Malaysia, Macedonia, Greece, South Africa, France, and many other places. We struck up friendships with one another, promised to visit the museums of other participants, and lauded the good work of peers online. And, we are all doing fascinating work indeed.


Screenshot of Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum





Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wordless Wednesday: Magic Leaping

@MagicLeap #AugmentedReality


Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why Create & Use Open Source Software? Reflections from an imaging nonprofit

Doubtless your news-feed, like mine, is flooded with stories about the "open" economy: the rise of open data, open software, open government. (For an introduction to the trend, revisit the related chapter in TrendsWatch 2015.) Many museums are releasing digital images of their collections under open licensing--encouraging users to download, adapt and reuse the content.Today, Carla Schroer, founder and director at Cultural Heritage Imaging tackles another aspect of "open"--open source software. Why would a company (even a nonprofit) choose to freely share all the code underlying their hard work? Carla explains why her nonprofit has adopted this approach, and makes a persuasive case for why museums, as collaborators and consumers, should care about the "openness" of software as well. You can follow CHI's work on Twitter at @chimaging.

My organization, Cultural Heritage Imaging (CHI), has been involved in the development of open source software for over a decade. We also use open source software developed by others, as well as commercial software. 

What drove us to make our work open for other people to use and adapt?

We are a small, independent nonprofit with a mission to advance the state of the art of digital capture and documentation of the world’s cultural, historic, and artistic treasures. Development of technology is only one piece of our work--we are involved in many aspects of scientific imaging, including developing methodology, training museum and heritage professionals, and engaging in imaging projects and research. Because we are small, and because the best ideas and most interesting breakthroughs can happen anywhere, we collaborate with others who share our interests and who have expertise in using digital cameras to collect empirical data about the real world.

Our choice to use an open source license with the technology that is produced in this kind of collaboration serves both the organizations involved in its development and the adopters of the software. By agreeing to an open source license, the people and institutions that contribute to the software development are assured that the software will be available and that they and others can use it and modify it now and in the future.  It also keeps things fair among the collaborators, ensuring that no one group exploits the joint work. 

How does open source benefit its users? 

It’s beneficial not just because the software is free. There is a lot of free software that is distributed only in the “executable” version without making the source code available to others to use and modify. One advantage to users who care about the longevity of their data − and, in our case, images and the results of image processing − is that the processes being applied to the images are transparent. People can figure out what is being done by looking at the source code. Also, making the source code available increases the likelihood that software to do the same kind of processing will be available in the future. It isn’t a guarantee, but it increases the chances for long-term reuse. Finally, open source benefits the community of people all working in a particular area, because other researchers, students, and community members can add features, fix errors, and customize for special uses. With a “copyleft” license, like the Gnu General Public License that we use, all modifications and additions to the software have to be released under this same license. This ensures that when others build on the software, their modifications and additions will be "open" as well, so that the whole community benefits. (This is a generalization of the terms; read more if you want to understand the details of a particular license).


Open source is a licensing model for software, nothing more. The fact that it is "open" tells you nothing about the quality of the software, whether it will meet your needs, whether anyone is still working on it, how difficult or easy to learn and use it is, and many other questions you should think about when choosing technology. The initial cost of software is only one consideration in adopting a technology strategy. For example, what will it cost to switch to another solution, if this one no longer does what you need? Will you be left with a lot of files in a proprietary format that other software can’t open or use?

That leads me to remark on a related issue-- open file formats. Whether you choose to use commercial software or open source software, you should think about how your data and resulting files will be stored and used. Almost always, you should choose open formats (like JPEG, PDF, and TIFF) because that means that any software or application is allowed to read and write to the format, which protects the reuse of the data in the long term. Proprietary formats (like camera RAW files and Adobe PSD files) may not be usable in the future. The Library of Congress Sustainability of Digital Formats web site has great information about this topic.

At Cultural Heritage Imaging, we use an open source model for development of imaging software because it helps foster collaboration. It also provides transparency as well as a higher likelihood that the technology and resulting files will be usable in the future. If you want to learn more about our approach to the longevity and reuse of imaging data, read about the Digital Lab Notebook.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Monday Musing: Combating Bias by Redesigning the Interview Process

This week's musing isn't even going to take me the usual 15 minutes. 

Here, read this: How to Take the Bias Out of Interviews.

I've written about challenge-based hiring and blind auditions as techniques to reduce hiring bias, but I've still been angsting about last steps in the process. At some point, in the museum or association realm, you are going to come face-to-real-world-face with your finalists. (Though I did read one interesting article lately about interviewing candidates who present themselves as VR avatars, enabling them to mask their personal characteristics.) How to you, as a manager/decision maker, avoid falling prey to unconscious bias? As the article I link to reiterates, we all have a tendency to hire people "like us," which both limits diversity and reinforces the gender segregation of many professions.

This article offers some excellent advice for structuring face-to-face interviews, if you are going to use them at all. The author recommends:

  • Using standardized, structured interviews
  • Posing the same questions, in the same order, to each candidate
  • Compare the candidates' answers horizontally--that is, Q1 to Q1, Q2 to Q2, etc
  • Abandon panel interviews and have each interviewer talk to each candidate individually
  • Have evaluators submit their assessments before a meeting where candidates are discussed

The article notes "While it’s exceedingly difficult to remove bias from an individual, it’s possible to design organizations in ways that make it harder for biased minds to skew judgment." So let's get with it folks. It may be impossible to eliminate unconscious bias from our organizations, but we can re-engineer our hiring practices to rob those biases of their power.