At the Frontier

At the Frontier 2011 marks the first time the industry bodies Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia have combined forces to host a conference. Perth was a fitting venue for a conference about frontiers and there was a healthy representation of locals, mixed in with the usual suspects from the east coast.

The conference had a broad remit and ran a full 5 days. I could only make the final two days and was pleasantly surprised by energy and attendance on the final few sessions of the last day.

This is my first museums conference in many years and it was good to be back amongst friends.

Following are my (totally biased) highlights of the conference.

1. The lively discussion after Thursday’s Online session

Geoff Barker lead an engaging session with a tour of online tools that museums can use to collate and disseminate their content, including the ones he uses such as wikispaces where you’ll find a lot of resources listed and paper.li his daily museum community paper.

Michael Harvey from the Australian Museum spoke about their approach to social media (6 staff now spend an hour a week on Facebook and Twitter as part of their roles), using Mr Blobby as a squishy case study. Mr Blobby was picked up by the Gruen Transfer and used in their pitch segment. This came out of the blue for the museum, but they grasped the opportunity and quickly created a Facebook page for Mr Blobby which, at one point, had more fans than the official Australia Museum Facebook page.
(Mr Blobby photographer Kerryn Parkinson, © NORFANZ founding parties)

After the session there were a lot of interesting questions to ponder:

  • How can a museum provide a coherent voice when there are 6 people writing? Does it need one?
  • What constitutes success in social media?
  • Why spend spend money on creating content or building systems that already exists online?
  • How much of a collection belongs online and should you put up content that’s messy or incomplete?
  • How do you resource social engagement when we’re all already so busy?
  • How can staff engage with social media if their IT departments block Facebook?

I couldn’t comment on these questions at the time…

…however I will address some of these points in future posts.

2. The celebration of story and content

Thursday morning’s keynote by Susan Cross was a great example of the power of storytelling (or in her works interpretelling) over death by powerpoint (my words) as a way of communicating and making meaning.

Michael Parry’s talk on museums using mobile technology to do work outside the physical institution focused on ACMI’s location-based storytelling project 15 Second Place. I like that this a museum project, but the stories are not be told by the museum (or it’s staff) and it’s not even set in the museum. Interestingly, ACMI chose to pre-seed the site with commissioned stories, something I would’ve liked to hear more about.

Although my session was all about apps for museums, the other speakers and I were at pains to stress that we should not to make apps for apps sake. I believe it’s most important that you understand your content, your audience and the stories you want to tell them… and then decide what technology is most suitable to support that – including no technology at all.

3. The digital and real world conversations alongside the sessions

Twitter was buzzing, especially during the keynotes, with active commentary from @laura_miles @geoffmuse @thornypebble @angecasey @laura_miles @grandeflatwhite @drkeir @museummike @SusanMcD59 @vaguelym @interactivate @clairesavage01 and many more, you can catch up online if you’re so inclinded.

As always with such conferences there were energetic conversations in the halls, pubs, galleries, museums and foyers during the week. Considering all the networking, dealmaking and discussion, I wonder if it would be more productive to have a conference without formal sessions. Hmmm, nope, it would never get funding.