Tag Archives: museums

UK Museums on the Web 2013

The Museums Computer Group has a long history for a digital group. Set up in 1984, it has brought together and supported anyone with an interest in using digital media or approaches within the museums sector. In more recent times, it has run the excellent UK Museums on the Web conference – less famous internationally than the major US conference of a similar name, but just as inspiring and full of energy.

Curate-a-fact artefact card showing roman lamp

A curate-a-fact artefact card

This year’s, expertly chaired by Mia Ridge, was at the Tate gallery – and in addition to the excellent presentations and conversations (more of that later) I was particularly interested this time in the game we’d planned to get the participants talking and working together from the moment they arrived.

I’d slightly adapted the Curate-a-fact card game I developed for the MCG Play event earlier this year, to work with the expected 150 attendees. Everyone got an artefact card at registration, with the simple game instructions on the back. Over coffee, and the first refreshment break, everyone could be seen comparing cards and working out how they might fit together to form a collection: there was a real buzz in the room, which was great to see. Even better, the players took to Twitter to find/trade teams – a nice co-created twist to the initial design.

A team working hard in the coffee break

Ably assisted by Oonagh Murphy, we supplied the small teams who formed with large sheets to stick their artefacts to, and then write brief names and descriptions of their newly-curated collections. These were gathered up and laid out in the main hall, and everyone given a sticker to vote with.

We had some fabulous, creative entries (selection below) and ended up with two clear winners in the public vote: the Warmongerers, with Don’t Mess With Us (an ‘ultimate’ collection of violence-linked artefacts) and the slightly risqué Pocket Rockets with Or Are You Just Pleased to See Me? (pocket-sized devices through the ages). They shared their prize of a big tin of chocolates around the hall, magnanimously.

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We all agreed that the game was a great success – it was an instant ‘introduction’ tool – getting people talking together right from the start; was simple to grasp, yet led to some detailed and creative ideas generation; and everyone had a great time playing it (in fact we had trouble getting them back into the lecture theatre for the second session). Plus they gave us a new Twitter gameplay twist. Mission accomplished.

The conference itself was equally engaging and well-planned. The theme was ‘Power to the People: working together’ and most of the sessions dealt with harnessing the energy and creative outputs possible from large groups of multi-skilled people. Hannah Freeman talked us through The Guardian Witness scheme, which positively invites and rewards (in both writing credit and hard cash) input to stories from the general public; Tristan Ferne from the BBC’s R&D dept explained how a combination of automated transcription with crowd-sourced editing is producing rich metadata for the massive BBC radio archives. Two other projects dealt particularly with finding the ‘personal’ within the ‘crowd’: Sandra Brauer from English Heritage describing how the Britain from Above project mixes live meetings with online activity ; and Nicole Cama from the Australian National Maritime Museum who shared a fabulous story of linked memories over space and time around material objects (photographs on Flickr Commons).

Other highlights included tales of the remarkable feats achieved by the  public in the Snapshot Serengeti project (by Zooniverse) – pictures posted by hundreds of automated webcams were identified so quickly that the project regularly runs out of data to process! The Imperial War Museum described a novel approach to staff development and embedding digital into museum practice by launching a computer club for staff, in which they played and created with digital media.

But perhaps my favourite example was a smaller-scale crowdsourcing project: Brighton University’s Ten Most Wanted artefact labelling take on the FBI’s similarly named scheme. The idea to crowdsource unknown artefact data is not a new one, but the way that the team put up regular curator posts on the game’s Facebook page (explaining specifically which people, and which data, helped to solve each clue) created a strong yet efficient link with their audience. Conversations on Twitter also liked the idea to limit to ten objects: giving people an achievable target, rather than the usual thousands or tens of thousands of objects.

All in all, there was a buzz of energy throughout the day, a creative and collegiate spirit, and humour (including numerous digs at QR codes). Highly recommended. And while you’re waiting for next year, why not join the MCG – it’s free.


A slightly overdue mention of a great resource and group in London who are focussed around educational game development and use. Set up by Kirsten Campbell-Hughes in 2011, with Martha Henson joining her in 2012 after working on some of the fabulous games in the Wellcome Collection (amongst other great things), edugameshub is an informal blog collecting together some great posts from designers, developers and teachers around educational games. They also run  #LEGup gatherings in London for educational game developers and designers, for those in or visiting the area.

I was invited to write a blog post for the hub last month around the use of games in adult (/higher) education, which can be seen here:

..but the rest of the site (and the meetups) are well worth checking out while you’re there.

Engaging Visitors Through Play

Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast

The Museums Computer Group (MCG) is an excellent voluntary group serving museums in the UK (and wider) with support for those involved in creating digital experiences for visitors, and digital and information systems behind the scenes. As well as their annual conference (UK Museums on the Web) and lively discussion forum, they also organise a range of innovative meetings, symposiums and gatherings around topical issues.

I was delighted to be invited to speak at one such event, Engaging Visitors Through Play, hosted by Alan Hook and Oonagh Murphy at the University of Ulster in central Belfast. Based around the theme of play and games within museum contexts, the event pulled together ‘experts’ from around the UK alongside museums and creative companies from Northern Ireland, to create what looked like a fabulous line-up. As well as speaking about low cost game developments for learning, I was to join in a panel involving Sharna Jackson (Tate Kids) and Danny Birchall (Wellcome Collection), both of whom I’ve been wanting to meet and hear from for some time: so I was looking forward to the day hugely as it arrived.

The room was packed comfortably with a museum and creative audience, and Mia Ridge (Chair of MCG) outlined the work of the Group for those not familiar, and described some of the areas museums are currently interested in (or struggling with). Nico Fell from AV Browne, a creative agency in Belfast, hosted the first group of speakers. Lyndsey Jackson kicked off by telling us fascinating stories about her playful local immersive theatre company, Kabosh (my favourite being Belfast Bred, a culinary tour – with tasting – through 1912 Belfast); Oonagh and Alan then presented their own work on hack days and rapid development, and the MyNI photo challenge game in conjunction with the NI Tourist Board which gathered over 1800 players. A discussion around the markers of ‘success’ for games/play-based projects ensued: in this case the NI Tourist Board happy with the estimated £50,000 worth of royalty-free photographs they obtained; whereas museums might be happier with increased visitor numbers or widening visitor groups.

Wellcome Collection's High Tea

Wellcome Collection’s High Tea

The visiting speakers panel was next, chaired playfully by Matt Johnson from the Digital Circle in Belfast. Sharna Jackson gave us an entertaining insight into her game commissioning role for Tate’s younger visitors. Although bigger than most small museum budgets, her budget in relation to the Tate’s presence – and the implied requirement for cutting-edge art games – is tight, and she discussed the relative merits of small, low-cost games with much larger experiences created by top games developers and artists. She also made the important point that although Tate Kids aims to educate children, the games must be games in themselves and not the familiar ‘chocolate covered broccoli’ of many edu-games.  Danny Birchall made reference to the chocolate-covered vegetable too, and presented Wellcome’s beautiful collection of games – all commissioned from different designers for different purposes, and most interestingly: aimed firmly at an adult audience, not children (music to my ears). Budget is clearly not an issue here, and so each of the games could be designed with their aim and gameplay as core requirements, rather than limited by budget or resource. Danny’s most interesting example was the High Tea game based around Opium trading – he described how the game introduction, location, tools and methods were as historically accurate as possible, yet within that frame, players were free to do what ever they liked (which may or may not change the course of history). This process of setting up a strong context, but then letting players play freely, uninhibited by historic decisions, provides the essence of why games are good – a feeling felt around the room. I was up next, and used a little disruptive trick to demonstrate the concept of Alternate Reality Games to the audience – which seemed to go down well judging by the stream of tweets; following up with key ARG features which can transfer to a learning context, and my simple development process for low-cost contextual games. For the latter I took the group through the development of a simple card game especially for this symposium – which we were to play later in the afternoon.

After a very civilised (and tasty) tea and scones, there were four fascinating ‘lightning talks’ from local creatives: of these, the highlight for the audience was the two brothers of Design Zoo taking us through all the potential new technologies museums could make use of (a slingshot which catapults tweets to a talking wall being the best), some of their clever immersive games (using a giant public screen to show passers-by surrounded by giant bees) and all-too-brief details of their ARG Black Helix. My personal highlight though was Lance Wilson‘s warts-and-all development process for his own mini ARG around Belfast: battling rain-washed chalk clues, and vandalised phone boxes, he nevertheless managed to stage a successful ARG almost single-handed, proving its worth as a low-cost alternative to high-end digital.

How to curate a successful exhibition

How to curate a successful exhibition

It was then time to play the specially-developed card game for this symposium: Curate-a-fact. I’ll describe the design process and the game itself in a separate post soon – but essentially each member of the symposium was given an artefact. They then had to find 3-4 other artefacts to form a coherent collection (avoiding certain colour clashes), and pitch that collection to the rest of the room in a rapid-fire round at the end. The game lasted for 10 minutes, and saw the room bustling with trades, wild ideas, and slowly forming groups – everyone fully immersed in the game. After some excellent pitches, a team who curated ‘historic iPhone apps’ won by a narrow margin, and were awarded some very generous prizes from Rory’s Story Cubes who had kindly donated them (and who I had a fascinating chat with later in the pub). A great finish to the day, and it left everyone chattering away happily as they made their way to the pub.

Our work still wasn’t over then – this being the latest in a series of #drinkingaboutmuseums gatherings – but who can call it work when discussing game development in museums with some of the best creative minds around. A meal followed, and then some prearranged museum visits the following day (to the excellent recently revamped Ulster Museum and the very cleverly designed and hugely impressive Titanic Belfast experience).

Great city, great people, great event, great thinking.

Museums at Play

A shiny and rather playful new book dropped on my doormat this morning: Museums at Play, the latest in MuseumsEtc.’s quick-to-press up to date publications for the museum sector.

I contributed a chapter on the use of pervasive or alternate reality games (ARGs)  in museums, drawing on a very interesting interview with Georgina Goodlander about her work at the LUCE foundation on the two ARGs Pheon and Ghosts of a Chance; and the work Juliette Culver did with Bletchley Park on our charity ARG for Cancer Research UK, Operation:Sleeper Cell. I strongly feel that ARGs provide a compelling approach to museum education, due to their low-tech and cheap budget (yet highly engaging) nature. Hopefully my chapter will encourage other museums to try this out.

The rest of the (mammoth, and expertly woven together by editor Katy Beale) book has an incredible variety of theoretical and practical approaches, case studies, and thought pieces. They cover game approaches from simple card games and treasure hunts, to multiple actor staged events and high-end digital installations; with many involving the museum audience in co-creation or collaborative outputs.

It’ll take a while to read through them all, but I challenge any museum education officer not to be inspired by at least one approach.

A Puzzler’s Tour of the South-West

I’ve just returned from two weeks’ holiday in the south-west of mainland Britain (Devon, Cornwall and the Forest of Dean area), and as well as being a good chance to clear brain and reflect on the last year, the monsoon-like rain we’ve been having was a good excuse to find indoor entertainment for adults and young kids (7 and 2) alike.

As we variously scampered or trudged around various exhibits, I found myself thinking about games, interaction, and good old engagement. So here are a few musings and observations on a handful of attractions and their approaches to entertaining young and old alike:

When the lights went out: paleolithic lighting

When the lights went out: neolithic lighting

Kent’s Cavern, Torquay, Devon: http://www.kents-cavern.co.uk/
The guide’s informative and lighthearted banter, developing narrative, and use of simple effects like killing the lights; using a lighter to light moss-filled neolithic shell lamps (sight, smell, atmosphere); simple props (skulls, bones), all contributed to a fascinating and constantly thrilling experience for young and old. The keys here: narrative, surprise, variety, atmosphere.

Eden Project, St. Austell, Cornwall: http://www.edenproject.com/
Visually and ethically very impressive, this is actually very linear and non-interactive: I got interest from the numerous exotic plants and some of the information boards, but  much of the info is too long/dull, and the occasional dioramas are static. The kids there basically got enjoyment from running around, and parents spent time chasing and telling them off. There are kids’ activity books, but they are too wordy for reading as you go around, and although there are stations where the book can be stamped which my 7 year old liked, they follow the linear path and provide long wordy information sheets which the kids ignore.

A marble run at the House of Marbles

A marble run at the House of Marbles

The House of Marbles, Bovey Tracey, Devon: http://www.houseofmarbles.com/
Consists of very small traditional museum with interesting (to me) behind-glass displays of board and tabletop games through the ages; four marble runs which extend interest for young and old alike with multiple outcomes each time; but best of all was an outdoor courtyard area, with a number of large traditional games (skittles, chess) and some marble-specific ones: adults and kids alike had great fun with these. In summary, it works due to a good mix of static/variable and interactive elements.

Living Coast, Torquay, Devon: http://www.livingcoasts.org.uk/
Similar in many ways to the Sea Life Centres; but differs in that the penguins waddle amongst you, most of the wildlife is very close if not open to you, and the indoor activity area is superb – giant sand pit, climbing wall (a sea cliff) for kids and adults, some very well designed penguin-themed touch-screen games, an excellent floor-projection game which involved running around jumping on objects, and team games across light tables. Superb and very educational.

On the hunt for fauna in Cardiff Castle

On the hunt for fauna in Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle, Cardiff, South Wales: http://www.cardiffcastle.com/
This is an impressive complex. Various stages of use and occupation on the site give a slice through history (Roman walls, Norman keep, Victorian neo-classical tower and stately home). Much is run-of-the-mill modern museum fayre (an ‘audio-visual’ film; a audio-visual commentary to carry around which has long, adult-oriented and rather dull descriptions) but two things excited the kids: climbing the Norman keep and looking out of the arrow slits (always good!), and the worksheets for the Victorian house: one intended for younger children asked them to find animals in each room: some were in carvings in the doorways, some in tapestries, some in the architecture: all adding up to a great treasure hunt which we all took part in. A sheet for older kids, full of long descriptions and little in the way of ‘activity’, was not so good.

TechniQuest: engagement in black and white

TechniQuest: engagement in black and white

TechiQuest, Cardiff, South Wales: http://www.techniquest.org/
A science park, with two floors packed to the brim with hands-on experiments. This was incredible. The activities appealed to all ages – plenty for parents to get involved in too – very few were out of action, and all induced learning through play in a completely invisible way. Highlights: things to take away (eg spirograph pictures), music to compose (including a giant floor piano for the 2-year old), water fun (racing boats, spraying targets), communal interaction (sound waves across the room, comparing yourself to other visitors on that day etc.). 100% engagement; but then of course this is a self-created attraction, not applying visitor interaction to an existing site.

Puzzlewood: Tolkein's inspiration for Mirkwood?

Puzzlewood: Tolkein's inspiration for Mirkwood?

PuzzleWood, Forest of Dean: http://www.puzzlewood.net/
This small, family run site consists of two excellent elements: one almost entirely natural – the puzzle wood (spooky natural mossy woodland augmented with the remains of Roman open mining, and wooden bridges and lookout points) – and the other man-made: an indoor maze with secret doors, tunnels, bridges and a hunt for seven animal symbols. All of us – 2 to 36 – loved both, and yes, I did get hopelessly lost…

And that concludes my little holiday report, with an eye to engagement and visitor interaction. There are quite a few things I’ll be bearing in mind in my own work, and many which reinforce the already-known benefits of keeping things varied, in context, and interesting on many levels.