Saturday 1 December 2012

UK Museums on the Web 2012

Having spent a fantastic day at the Museums Computer Group's UK Museums on the Web 2012 yesterday, I wanted to post a summary of the things that I think were the key lessons from the day.

One of the overwhelming themes of the day certainly seemed to be the importance of mobile in any digital application; apps and web sites. The repeated message of the massive surge in digital use on mobile (some quoted it as up 40% on last year, others even more) was given extra weight by the very interesting fact that if your website doesn't render well on mobile, Google won't rank your page in their site results. For these reasons, the V&A now won't consider any digital project unless it will work on a mobile phone.

Some of the most interesting thoughts came not out of the presentations but out of the short question and answer sessions afterwards. My favourite of these was the reminder of the importance of listening to your statistics and evaluations and acting accordingly; don't imagine what your audience wants - find out and do it, even if it seems counter intuitive to what you think they want. You are not your audience, after all!

Evaluation was another key topic, especially the importance of continuous evaluation rather than a final end of project document which is sent to funders and then ignored. We should see the launch of a project as a beginning, not an end, and expect every project to need continuous improvement and evolution throughout its life. This is, obviously, rather at odds with the nature of most project funding which tends to see a launch as the goal to which we all aim, and it was suggested that we probably should be looking at ways to change this results-driven culture of funding. Not that anyone was sure how, exactly, and neither am I; answers on a postcard if you have any ideas!

Impact was also a key topic, from Simon Tanner in particular, though various speakers touched on the idea. Doing something nice, he said, isn't impact; it's marketing. True impact is about changing lives, and he was quick to remind us that we should consider all our impacts, the bad and the good, and not view our projects and indeed daily activity with rose-tinted glasses. Impact can be measurable, such as financial gain, and it can be idealistic, such as the perceived value our institutions have for the people of a place simply by existing. He also reminded us that our projects don't just have impacts on our stakeholders; they can impact us, too, and that should be considered when planning and evaluating projects. And finally on this topic; just because a resource is viewed doesn't mean it is having an impact. Looking at something can be passive - just think how many TV adverts you watch, compared to how many you pay attention to!

Tom Grinstead from the Guardian talked about segmenting mobile audiences not by the device they use, but by their motivations and actions. In particular, he was talking about the different times of day that people access the news, and that they have different reasons for wanting to know what's going on in the world, depending on the time of day. More generally, I think this is an important lesson for all of us. If we think not about the type of person that is visiting us (in terms of their socio-economic background or ethnicity or age) but instead about what their motivations are, then perhaps we can start to think about how we can develop new 'products' which fulfill those needs, rather than getting stuck on what we think they might want - it comes back again to the importance of using your evaluations and statistics rather than just assuming you know what they want.

In all, it was a fantastic day with some brilliant speakers and some insightful questions from the audience. It was particularly good to follow along with the conversation that was happening on twitter at the #ukmw12 hashtag and join in, of course! I look forward to next year.

Thursday 22 November 2012

So your school visits are down?

It's not an isolated problem; not a day goes by without hearing someone else quoting education figures down. It's easy to blame budget cuts and increased red tape as barriers that stop schools from going to museums, but is that really the root cause? I suspect that there is more at work here than teachers avoiding admission fees and parental consent letters, and I think it is dangerous to the sector if we just continue blaming factors beyond our own reach and hoping the problem will go away.

Last spring and summer are, I believe classic examples. The country enjoyed a banner year, with once-in-a-lifetime events like the Golden Jubilee and the London Olympics filling our minds and television screens. They also filled our nation's schools; many taking on these interesting topics as the focus of their learning for the term.

Which brings me to why I believe that education visit figures were down in many places last year.

With the move to new ways of teaching the primary curriculum, from 'mantle of the expert' to creative curriculums and topic based learning, the emphasis across the board seems to be on giving learning context and placing the traditional subjects within a framework of a theme that the children can relate to. Gone are the disparate lessons for maths, science and history. Instead, children are encouraged to draw together skills and facts they learn about the rainforests, or the Second World War... or the Olympics, or the jubilee.

Now stop and think about your own education programmes for a minute. Do you offer taught sessions or guided visits themed around the Olympics? Did the Golden Jubilee fit into your set of worksheets or outreach sessions or loan boxes?

I'm guessing not.

But if this is the problem, if primary schools are not visiting because we're not relevant to their topics and themes, then what is the solution? To sit and wait for them to get back around to studying the Tudors and the Egyptians again?

I propose a better solution. It's not that hard to start to think about what may be driving primary school topics in the next few years; your events department think at least a year ahead all the time. What significant events, anniversarys and so on will be interesting schools in your area next year, or the year after? Here's an easy one to start; 2014 is the centenary of the start of World War One. Start thinking now about how you can offer something to schools that will enhance their learning of that topic; what is in your collection? What can you adapt from sessions you already know are popular? Can you start building partnerships now that will result in interesting offers?

And therein, really, lies my point. The way children learn is changing; we need to change the way we offer learning too, if we want to stay an important part of supporting school based learners. Don't be complacent, don't think in the past. Be innovative, be fresh, think ahead. Try something new. Because if we don't, the tide is unlikely to turn back in our

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Planning a Halloween Event

It's almost the end of the summer, and that's exactly the time of year I usually start planning my events for the half term holidays (well, after a week off to recover first, of course).

So, I thought as Halloween events were in my head at the moment I'd share some of the things I've learnt over the years that I think about in my planning, so that they can hopefully be of use to other people too.

Some of this advice is specific to trail-type events, such as a ghost walk, but various bits of it can apply no matter what type of Halloween event you're running.

Sell the scare
If you make something sound spooky people will be much more likely turn up for it at Halloween than if you make it sound educational; the challenge from a museum point of view is to then wrap up some real meaning into the event when they’re there. Ghost stories and costumed people are always a win, so that’s a great starting point.

Repetition is key
Halloween events usually take a lot of planning. If you can run the same with many groups during the day or night with timed tickets, you'll get the best out of your planning efforts.

Insist people pre-book
It's always helpful to know how many people you’ve got coming. Also, get people to pay their admission/fee when they book, as they’re much more likely to remember to turn up if they’ve already paid for it.

Timing is Everything
If you're running an event with multiple start times, staggered entry or even just 'turn up whenever' then you'll need to think about timing. Especially at Halloween, when guests are often being told a spooky story, overlapping can really ruin the atmosphere. Timed tickets are by far the easiest to managed. Guess how long your visitors will be at each ‘stop’ on the tour, then add five minutes (or maybe ten if you expect your guides to talk more than they’re told to); that’s your minimum interval between tours. And remember, you’re better off leaving too much time than too little. Also be aware of bottleneck points; where people might unexpectedly stop or take longer than you’d expected (toilet stops, an interesting artefact they’ll stop and look at, a volunteer who likes to engage visitors in conversation, etc.) and try and plan to avoid them or to find a way of moving people on quickly.

Fun for all the family
Halloween events are usually by their nature scary, so expect parents to ask if the event is suitable for their children. You'll need to decide what the minimum appropriate age is for children, based on the event content... then expect people to bring younger children anyway and prepare your performers to warn parents with young children if something is likely to be unsuitable for them. Maybe even plan an alternate route to avoid the scariest parts.

Use your captive audience
Expect people to turn up early for their tour and have something to do with them whilst they’re waiting; children are happy with colouring sheets, parents might be happy with the tearoom and shop to occupy them! A storyteller could set a good appropriate atmosphere. Don't let people get bored before they even start! Use waiting guests as a captive audience and use the opportunity to make their experience even better.

Like giving candy to a baby
If you’re planning an event at which children are welcome then sweets are a great investment; people associate Halloween with trick or treat and it’s amazing what scares or problems children will overlook if you give them a lollipop.

Too popular for your own good
Have a plan to deal with oversubscription; it's a good idea to prepare your performers to expect a late finish. If you don't need the extra time then everyone will be pleased with the early night, and no-one gets grumpy because they're out later than they expected to be. This also gives you some leeway for running over because guests enjoyed themselves so much they lingered to make their night last longer.

Scope out your spaces
Practice in the spaces to see how many people comfortably fit in the areas you’re using and use this to set your group limits. If possible, do this at night because spaces feel different sizes in the dark.

Atmosphere is everything
Try and maintain a sense of atmosphere; you need enough light to appease your risk assessment but if you can keep lights off in adjoining corridors and rooms or paths it’ll make the place feel spooky without you having to spend a fortune on set dressing or expensive effects. Use waiting to your best effect too; during the tour, if you can keep people waiting for a few seconds before your actors appear you’ll build a sense of apprehension and tension. It’s a fine balance though – don’t keep people waiting so long they get bored! There are other ways to creep out your audience also; you’ll know your spaces better than anyone else, but if you can lock doors behind people or create footsteps, bangs and odd noises in the next room, they’ll all help with your atmosphere.

Give the crowd what they want
Parents are looking for Halloween experiences which they can take their kids to which are safe and don’t encourage them to be knocking on stranger’s doors asking for sweets, so if you can schedule something on the 31st which appeals to that then do, it’s likely to be a winner.

Quality is better than quantity
Adults expect a great deal more in terms of quality of special effects than children do, so if you’re running events for adults (or even older children) then try and keep your effects more to the psychological than the physical if you don’t have a large budget. Flickering candles and the shadows cast from pumpkins are some of the best set dressing you can get, and they’re really cheap. If you’re worried about fire, I can recommend the battery powered tealights and candles; they look just as good as the real thing but they last much longer, have no fire risk and no risk of injury to the public either. Equally, the quickest way to make an event look amateurish is with cheap 'gory' effects; if you can't do it well, don't do it all.

Hopefully that's been a useful set of thoughts on Halloween events! If you've got questions, please ask, and feel free to suggest other hints and tips if you have them. :)

Saturday 25 February 2012

Mother's Day Ideas

You've all probably planned your Mother's Day events by now (if not, why not?) but just in case you haven't, or if you've still got room to add and change your programme then I figured I'd throw out a few ideas.

As an event which celebrates part of the family unit, Mother's Day is a fantastic opportunity for encouraging families to work for each other and with each other.

Some fun ideas that I've had over the years;

- an event that encourages kids to bring their Dad to make something for Mum as a present. This works particularly well when they're doing an activity that Dad will probably feel plays to his strength, such as making a picture frame (Dad's are responsible for supervising the gluing of the wood together for the frame, the kids can take the lead on the painting-and-sticking decoration).

- making bath salts in glass jars as a gift for Mum. This is so easy even very small children can do it, as essentially they're just mixing in colours and scents in a giant mixing bowl and then decanting it into glass jars. Make sure you buy cosmetic grade epsom salts, colours and scents so that they're bath safe. Personalise the activity more by having the children decorate the jar with labels, ribbons and so on.

- making Mother's Day cards. A tip; don't run this activity on Mother's Day itself, as most people have already given their cards by then! If you're going to make cards, do it in the week or weekend before. This sort of activity would work very well with groups of children. There are lots of types of cards you can make, but I find the pop-up flower cards are excellent for Mother's Day, as are the paper tissue flowers with pipe cleaner stems.

- encourage Mum and children to share memories and play together with a special trail. Ask children and their mum to tell each other what their favourite object in a room is, or get them to pick an object and explain it to one another. Play i-spy, twenty questions or other games, using the museum as the starting point. Some of these work well even with older children.

- make Mum medals. Rosettes, made with paper or ribbon, are a lot of fun and fairly easy to make though they can be time consuming. Rosettes can be made to say 'Happy Mother's Day', 'Best Mum', 'I Love You' or anything else at all.

There's just a few suggestions there but hopefully its given you some ideas.

If you'd like step by step instructions for any of the crafts I've mentioned please just ask, and I've sometimes got trail or worksheet templates as well so shout if you'd like them.

If you've got a topic you'd like me to cover in a how-to post, just drop me a line on twitter @Sarah_Fellows or here on the blog and I'll see what I can do!

Hints, tips and 'how-to's

Hi everyone. I haven't updated my blog in far too long, and I do apologise for that! I'll blame the extended Christmas/Winter period somehow, if I can.

I'm planning a new series of blog posts on the lines of hints, tips and how-to articles all to do with the sorts of things I specialise in; family learning, online engagement and interpretation. I don't believe there can ever be enough free advice out there, so I thought I'd throw some of my own our into the wide world in the hopes that it helps someone.

If you've got a topic you'd like me to cover, get in touch either via comments here on the blog or on twitter @sarah_fellows. It could be anything from ideas for a pirate event (that post is definitely happening at some point) to what craft you could make with empty juice cartons to suggestions for growing a twitter following. Ask away; if I can't help I'll just say so.

Hopefully this will open the door for many comments (though I'd settle for one or two, if you're offering).

Thanks all! And I hope this proves useful for everyone.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Should museums be family-friendly?

I imagine that if you've ever read my blog or follow me on twitter then you've probably already decided the sort of article that this is going to be. I make it very clear, I think, that some of my chief concerns in museums are families; family education, especially.

So I think all museums should be family friendly, right?

Well, not exactly. Yes, and no. I'll explain a little better.

Firstly, there are some museums that by their content alone should never be encouraging children into them. I'm not going to go into details, but let's just say that if a museum's collection is primarily of material you'd expect to only see on television after the watershed then I don't think it's really ever going to be a good candidate for a family fun day out.

Having said that, I do think there is a case for museums to try and be accessible for families. But definitely with certain provisos.

My second biggest irritation (I'll get to the first in a minute) with people who immediately start shaking their heads when you mention family friendly museums is that so often they're equating "family friendly museum" with "museum for children" in their head. And that's annoying, because they're really not the same thing at all. Eureka, in Halifax, is a children's museum. It's designed for kids, with them in mind as the exclusive audience. And it's fantastic, in my opinion, anyway. I'm pretty sure someone who likes visiting the Courtauld Gallery to look at paintings once a week probably wouldn't think it was for them, but that's not the point. It's a children's museum. Somewhere like the Herbert, in Coventry, however, is not a children's museum. Its exhibits can appeal to anyone, and it is the interpretation created by the museum staff that make an object more appealing to a particular type of visitor, whether that's an adult or a child.

Just because a museum is 'family friendly' doesn't mean that it suddenly doesn't want visitors that don't come bringing childen with them. I'd hate to see that, just as much as I hate to see a museum excluding people who do bringing children with them. I firmly believe that museums are an excellent place to encourage inquiry in young minds and I hope they will always continue to be. I also hope they'll continue to welcome inquiring minds no matter what age they are.

My biggest gripe (told you I'd get to it in a minute) is that whenever you bring up the issue of family friendly-ness in museums, you inevitably get someone who'll say something along the lines of "don't let museums be over-run with noisy children", "museums are the last quiet space I have to think, it's terrible that you're trying to destroy them" and so on.

This bugs me a lot, and for quite a few reasons, not least the somewhat hypocritical attitude of "museums can't be the way someone else wants them, because they must be the way I want them". It also bothers me that there are people who seem to want to ban all children from museums because they perceive them to be a personal nemesis of some kind, a sort of anti-peace-and-quiet. I've known some wonderfully calm and polite children; should they suffer a museum exile because not all of their peers can behave in such a socially acceptable manner in a museum? And lastly, it bothers me because if someone were advocating against people of a race, or religion, or gender being allowed into a museum we'd be up in arms about it - so why is it less of a problem when people are discriminating against potential visitors because of their age?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and maybe somewhere in there they have a point. Perhaps we should be trying to hold events that are aimed specifically at the people who want to come and sit in the peace and quiet, to use our spaces to think or get away from the hustle and bustle. Their wish for that use of a museum is just as important as any other user-group, and we should think about providing for it if we don't already. Just not to the point of exclusion of others.

So that's where I stand on the issue, really. But before I sign off, I'd like to leave you with some really good reasons to consider as to why I think all museums should think about being family friendly, even if you're not actually wanting to attract hoardes of children to annoy the naysayers out there.

Think about the height of your displays
Because children aren't the only people who are short. What about people in wheelchairs?

Think about the language you use in interpretation
Because not everyone is an expert in your subject, or has the benefit of an excellent education.

Think about making things engaging and fun
Because everyone likes to enjoy themselves. People engage more with content if they're emotionally invested in it, no matter how old they are.

Explain things in simple ways
Because not everyone shares the same life experiences. The more simple your references, the more of your audience that will be able to identify with them.

Don't make your interpretation panels too long
Because most people don't have the patience to read lots of text at once. Give people information in bite-sized bits so that they can decide whether to just read the highlights or to go in depth.

Provide pictures and hands-on activities
Because not all visitors learn by reading. Lots of people are kinesthetic learners who will understand and remember something much better by trying it out than by just reading it.

And if you start to think about all of these things, I daresay you'll find your museum is well on the way to being family friendly... and a better, more inclusive experience for everyone else, too.

Monday 7 November 2011

Short on money, not on ideas

I had an email yesterday which was inviting me to buy a ticket for a fantastic looking conference. It was to do with digital publishing, it had some amazing speakers and it was in England, as opposed to all of the conferences I get excited about that turn out to be on the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, I was all set up to go and buy a ticket until I saw the price; £350 for a day ticket.

Three hundred and fifty pounds? It might as well have been three hundred and fifty thousand.

It's not the first time I've gotten excited about a conference right up until the moment that I saw the price tag associated with being a part of it. Gaming conferences, museum conferences, digital conferences. You name one of my interests and I've probably found at least three conferences or training courses I'd love to attend but can't afford to.

I understand that hiring venues is expensive, not to mention paying top-class speakers. I'm sure the food is top-notch too. I just wish that having a high amount of disposable income, or a large training budget, wasn't such a pre-requisite for being able to hear the ideas of the best in the business, and being able to share your own ideas with them.

In a time of recession, I'm sure even more museum professionals are feeling as I do, and wishing it wasn't so. Is there anything that we can do about it? It feels like such a waste to think of all the students, the staff from small museums and those just unable to commit half their training budget to one conference who aren't able to contribute their thoughts and ideas to the sector.

In the meantime, if you know of any good conferences or meet-ups, networks or anything else that brings good people together, do let me know. I'm particularly interested in gaming, museum education and digital and new media, but love to hear about anything new and exciting.