Social Innovation meets Museums

By Jessica Suess, Digital Partnership Manager, Oxford University Museums

As a lucky recipient of a MCN scholarship, I was able to attend this year’s Museums Computer Network conference in Minneapolis. It was a great opportunity to get new ideas and inspiration, both for my organization, and to share through my role on the Museums Computer Group UK committee. You can read a detailed post on my conference thoughts here – and I wanted to share a few overall thoughts on the MCN blog.

Two sessions really established the main themes of the conference for me, and these came up again and again in all the sessions. Liz Ogbu, an urbanist and social innovator, gave an amazing keynote that left me with two main messages:

  • Take a holistic approach to identifying ‘the problem’ by looking at the broader context
  • Examine the user’s perspective – consult them as experts in their own lives and behaviour.

The session on Implementing Digital Strategy, featuring Jane Alexander from Cleveland Museum of Art and Douglas Hegley from Minneapolis Institute of Art among others, also framed the conference.

For me I took away:

  • The importance of investing in underlying infrastructure and processes
  • The need to transform where we see digital in our organizations – it is core activity! jessica-suess-1

These messages reverberated in all the sessions I attended. For example, there was a focus on digital asset management throughout the conference, and I particularly enjoyed a talk by Nik Honeysett from Bilboa Park Online Cooperative who described DAMS as ‘mission critical’ for rich media organizations like museums. In another session Nik focused on shared services to reduce expenditure as a business model in a time of financial constraint. That same panel also saw Kaywin Feldmen from the Minneapolis Institute of Art considering the changing demographics of our audiences and the difficulties of balancing the priorities of traditional museum visitors and the emerging American demographic – this is a ‘wicked problem’ that could benefit from Liz’s holistic approach.

Liz’s other key message about approaching problems from the perspective of the user was brought out for me by Laura Mann from Frankly Green + Webb talking about designing multimedia guides for the Van Gough Museum. They had to move the project away from one of a list of guide ‘features’ and refocus on user needs. The problem from the user’s perspective was not that they were unhappy with the content – and recent research shows that more sophisticated technology does not improve visitor experience – the problem was how long it took for them to purchase and understand the guide. In the end it was a service delivery project


Overall I found the conference hugely inspirational and I am so grateful to MCN for the scholarship that enabled me to attend, but also a bit worried, as I think I may now be an addict and will need to come back next year.