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CAKE Mix: Hack the Museum

CAKE 31 brought the Creative Fuse community to Middlesbrough on 20th June, in the town’s central gallery, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA). The theme of the event was ‘Hack the Museum’ and speakers brought a diverse range of perspectives on the technologies and practices that are transforming the work and experience of museums and galleries. We were lucky enough to be hosted on a Thursday, MIMA’s busiest day of the week – also known as ‘Community Day’ – which includes groups for gardening, sewing, parents and toddlers, and English language learners, all centred around ‘Community Lunch’.

Sharon Paterson (Associate Director of Culture and Engagement at MIMA and Teesside University) opened the event and introduced our main speakers: Laura Sillars (Director of MIMA and Dean of MIMA School of Art), Chris Michaels (Director of Digital, Communications and Technology at the National Gallery) and Luke Stephenson and Andy Surtees (founders of Teesside-based business Vlogbase). All three speakers gave their unique perspective on digital innovation in museums, from experience-enhancing apps, to the use of ‘found spaces’, the role of communities, and the use of artificial intelligence in curation.

First to present was Laura Sillars, Director of MIMA since July 2018. Continuing to make the gallery a ‘useful’ museum, Laura has overseen exciting developments, including the museum’s transition into MIMA School of Art. Questioning the possibility of museums being a place where ‘good art goes to die’, Laura emphasised MIMA’s focus on people rather than objects. Laura posited the question: can museums truly represent a diversity of perspectives? And where does digital fit into the mix?

At MIMA, placing people at the heart of the museum allows the focus of the art to be on people rather than objects. As a result, artwork is not sent to its ‘funeral home’ but instead is manifest in such activity as MIMA’s Community Lunch, becoming ‘civic art in action’. And how could Laura host us in MIMA without taking us right into the gallery? Everybody left their seats in the auditorium and congregated in Gallery 5, which holds the Middlesbrough Collection. Laura instructed us to download the smartphone app Smartifya platform utilised by MIMA’s Communications Manager Sally Pearson to make the collection and its interpretation freely accessible to visitors who use the app. We immediately began engaging with the artworks, using the app to scan artworks in the collection and instantly access their contexts and interpretation.

The brief visit to the gallery also included a quickfire talk from Gallery Assistant Kingsley and insight into the community’s interaction with the art at MIMA through a projected video developed by the gallery’s Learning Team with various constituents. These digital additions perfectly mapped onto the theme of CAKE 31 and encouraged us all to consider the strategies being utilised at the gallery and elsewhere to tell stories digitally and in different ways. Laura later reflected that at MIMA, the team are ultimately embracing digital because they are passionate about art and people, and these tools are helping them serve their communities.

Our second speaker, Chris Michaels, gave us insight into his role and work at the National Gallery, London. Having previously worked in the tech industry, Chris brings new insight into the museum sector, having changed career five years ago. Taking us back to the beginnings of museum culture in Britain, through the founding of the National Gallery in 1753, Chris argued that galleries like MIMA exist precisely because of the original donations left by a collector to the nation with the instructions that they be made available for free – for everyone – forever. The case for public access to collections still rests on a similar premise to this 18th Century thinking: ‘send us your citizens and we’ll send them back better’. In contemporary society, the core meaning behind the museum’s purpose is still largely true but, as Chris argued, more difficult to hold onto. As a result, museums and galleries must re-centre their purpose, as MIMA does with activities like Community Lunch.

In the emerging digital economy, the new ‘usefulness’ of museums can be found in Research & Development, and being an active environment for innovation. Chris posited that museums can play a new and important role in R&D, addressing not just questions of functional use, but larger simultaneous questions about social, cultural and economic purpose. Museums offer a unique opportunity to take products and test and learn from real humans. At the National Gallery, for example, a Bronze Age hut presented through augmented reality technology. The gallery is also embarking on an exciting new innovation programme developed in response to the UK government’s new cultural and digital policy (see also, ‘Culture is Digital‘) which will host numerous collaborative projects.

The final speakers of the day were Luke Stephenson and Andy Surtees from Vlogbase, who gave a demo of their innovative software (which they say they created almost by accident!). With both founders having an interest in tech, their studies at Teesside University brought them together to work for a shared client. This client’s requests for 100s of hours of footage to be made into short edited videos at the drop of a hat made them look to find a way to speed up the process. Failing to find the kind of software that would do the job, and noting the rising use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Andy and Luke set about creating their own solution. The result was Vlogbase – innovative online software which makes audio and video clips searchable.

The software has proven invaluable for oral history and heritage projects, which allows hundreds of videos and audio files to be searched in a matter of seconds, saving huge amounts of time and work. Museums and heritage organisations are recognising its potential, resulting in Luke and Andy’s collaboration on ‘Steel Stories’ at Kirkleatham Museum and with Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum (the collection of which is going to be made available for public use and research). The use of video and audio in museums, as such immediate media forms, allows audiences to put themselves in a particular place in the past. Andy made the point that a lot of new and emerging technologies often lose focus on how they better society. In contrast, while Andy and Luke are indeed ‘tech enthusiasts’, they do not see themselves as ‘technically-minded’ and so approached the building of the software in terms of how they would want to use it. The result is a user-friendly programme which mirrors a common search engine. Looking towards the future of Vlogbase, the team are looking at opportunities to work with artists on a piece for Middlesbrough Art Weekender, whilst at the same time looking to develop the AI so that it can automatically generate content. A finalised version of the software is expected very soon.

Following the presentations, the Q&A panel brought together fascinating discussions from the audience, summarised below:

Are there opportunities for people to teach technology rather than the other way around?

Yes! In any of the examples from the presentations, Vlogbase included, artificial intelligence has to learn from a data set created by humans. There are humans at both ends – AI essentially does the ‘donkey work’. However, while some software, like Vlogbase, can analyse sentiment, there will always exist the issues of interpretation, particularly around factors like gender, ethnicity and geography, for instance. More work around improving this is vital.

Can you search by more than one word in Vlogbase?

Not quite yet – if two words are inputted, the search will take each word separately rather than as a phrase. Luke and Andy are working on this to allow for more complex searches in future.

What does the emerging digital economy offer small independent museums?

The emerging digital economy is a key for the survival of small museums in the world of austerity, but it all depends on how quickly digital innovation can get out into the wider sector from the larger institutions. This should become an imperative for those larger museums and for funding bodies like Arts Council England. At the same time, the digital world allows smaller museums to find a network of supporters and audiences that share the same specific interest or enthusiasm – Laura gave the example of the Christopher Dresser Society in Teesside. Digital techniques also have to be harnessed and used to instruct operationalised business models, which in turn depend on just how much scale smaller museums are wanting to achieve.

The digital sector often receives criticism for its assumptions that everybody interacts with tech in the same way. What lessons can technologists learn from museums?

Museums often understand their audiences only in principle rather than in practice, which, for Chris, was very strange having moved from the world of app development. Technologists can learn from the human interactions in museums that reveal points of ‘dis-communication’, or instances where technology is being used on a macro level that they weren’t actually designed for. Through this, quirky problems that are actually more generalisable can be found and solved at the intersection of museums and tech.

How do we help break down barriers between the technology and different users of it, for example, older audiences?

Not everyone has to behave or interact with technology in the same way – it is an enhancer but it won’t change the fact of sitting in a room together, which is what museums should do at a basic level. At MIMA, as well as there being a group for those with dementia and their carers, the institution as a whole is trained to be ‘dementia-friendly’. It’s all about learning how to be in a room with people of different needs. This has to also be done in a very robust manner and by getting lots of feedback, rather than being authoritarian. MIMA offer a ‘menu’ of opportunities and tailor to what people need.

Rather than curating digital collections for public consumption, would museums be better to just put all of their content out there?

In a way, Vlogbase are already facilitating this, by introducing creative tools with their software which will allow anyone to remix or negotiate museums’ audio and video content in their own way – much like the ‘remixed culture’ that the internet is based on. Some museums will want that and some won’t – ultimately, it is always down to the museum when it comes to how they are handling their data. At the same time, digitising everything risks producing an overabundance of data that, realistically, nobody wants to look at! Therefore, there needs to be an act of choice about what is useful, although how well this is done is arguable. Value shouldn’t just be based on the possibility that somebody somewhere might use it. Digitising also does not necessarily mean longevity – think of people who might still have lots of data ‘saved’ on floppy disks! Similarly, Chris relayed an anecdote that there is more ‘physical (non-digital) evidence’ of Leonardo Da Vinci than Steve Jobs!

Shouldn’t there be a formal standard for digitisation to ensure its quality?

It’s almost impossible to create a standard that will stand the test of time, as technology rapidly changes and becomes obsolete. Returning again to the question of longevity, is the sobering question of environmental crisis. The idea of digitising for posterity is cancelled out by the current condition of climate decline. MIMA’s new exhibition Fragile Earth tries to address this theme. The biggest thing for museums to do is not to focus overtly on digitisation, but to make a space where we can meet people who are not like us.


Our huge thanks to our speakers Laura, Chris, Luke and Andy, and of course to everyone who came along and made CAKE 31 such a fascinating afternoon! A digital stream of the event can be found here, courtesy of Vlogbase.

The next CAKE event will be happening on Tuesday 23rd July – more details will be announced shortly so make sure you keep an eye on Twitter, Facebook and the CAKE webpage for further updates.

Fragile Earth opens at MIMA on 29th June. Details of the exhibition launch can be found here.