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E-merging technology&museums: an additional perspective on online producing

By: Irene Rubino, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 05 Jun 2012

As cultural institutions become increasingly aware of their need to extend outreach and communication activities in the digital realm, museums require professionals with more composite profiles, combining mediation abilities and technological competence.
Museum professional Irene Rubino offers insights on the topic in an interview with Jennifer Cork, online producer at the Australian Museum.

Web 2U (#5)

Michael Hugill © Australian Museum

Online producers have recently started to cover an ever growing role in museums, since they help project the social and educational mission of these cultural institutions beyond traditional boundaries of access. Given that online producing integrates a wide range of competencies relating to different fields (e.g. communication, technology, knowledge on specific subject matters…), the peculiarities and responsibilities of professionals operating in this area may vary. In order to better explore the multiple characteristics of this new emerging profession, I have thus decided to interview another online producer working at the Australian Museum: Jennifer Cork.

IR: Hi Jen! Could you please introduce yourself and describe your role at the AM?

JC: My name is Jen Cork and I'm an online producer at the AM. My core responsibility is working with the AM website: I produce content in different formats and I assist scientists and Museum staff interpreting their content on the web (videos, blogposts, images, events...). I'm one of the more "techy" members of the team, so I give support to the staff when they need help with more technical issues.

My other role is to build stand-alone websites or micro-sites for upcoming exhibitions when our main website is not the primary point of communication. At the Australian Museum an Online Producer is normally a member of an exhibition team and advises on possible web integration within the physical and virtual exhibitions in production.
In addition, my role has recently evolved and I am now a mobile project manager: I've worked on the development of two AM apps so far, the DangerOz app and the Frogs field guide.

Being in the web industry, it is also part of our role to stay informed and in some situations educated in the emerging technologies being used by other professionals and cultural institutions. 

IR: Let’s start from the website. What is the target audience of the AM website and what kind of online experience would you like to provide through it?

JC: The website has a number of audiences. In my view we have three main groups:

  • Organic visitors: those discovering our site for very specific scientific or cultural information via search engines. An example of this is our page discussing stages of decomposition. This page has high visitation but interesting the audience are not from Sydney, or even Australia. We can make an educated guess that these visitors are after information instead of a physical experience at the museum.
     
  • Our second audience are visitors planning to come to the museum. These are those wanting to know how to get here, what’s on in the space and the cost of entry. Very simple questions but hugely important and we need to be able to answer quickly and effectively to engage our visitors and leave them with a positive user experience.
     
  • Our third audience is the returning visitor to the ‘Australian Museum’, whether that be online or to the physical building. We have a growing presence in social media and our motivation with this audience is to build a community of those interested in the Museums’ core values of nature, culture and science. Our goal isn’t to use this platform as an advertising channel but a place we share what is going on inside the walls of the institution and outside in the world of conservation and science. We want to engage with this audience and build a culture of knowledge sharing, openness and education both from us as well as from the community.

In short, we want to make the online experience as rich as possible: we want to be informative, but at the same time we want that people speak to us, sharing their thoughts, opinions and discoveries.

IR: To what extent should a museum website be open to online visitors' contribution? Does the spirit of sharing represent an opportunity or a threat for museums, which have usually been regarded as trusted institutions?

JC: Online visitor contributions are of tremendous value to museums. Creating a culture of discussion encourages learning. We are a cultural institution as well as a heavily resourced collections museum. It is our responsibility to use these resources to educate and be a real catalases for change. We encourage our audience to share their discoveries, opinions and to engage in conversation with us. They learn from us but we also gain great insights from them.

An amazing example of online visitor contribution to the museum website is the section of the site run by Dr Mark Mcgrouther. Mark has an amazing community around the fish collection he manages. These visitors ask Mark hordes of questions but more importantly they contribute their discoveries from down in the oceans to the websites. Our collections at the museum are huge and these contributions from the online community help give another lay of interpretation to them.

That said the extent of contribution is very dependent on the goal of the particular community. With clear guidelines and a strong direction, online contribution is in no way a threat to museums. The Australian Museum is a place of reference with an authoritative voice. Online communities are yet another vehicle for our voice and influence to be amplified and encourage a deeper understanding and awareness of Australian natural and cultural heritage.

IR. The web is going mobile. As a result, people can access to web content basically from everywhere. How does this way of browsing affect the user experience? How could you optimize this experience?

JC: We are very excited to say we have just recently launched the re-design of the Australian Museum’s website utilising the emerging approach of responsive design.

This new approach means the museums website will respond differently to a large number of devices, customising the appearance of the museum website depending on the screen size of the device. Viewing the home page on a desktop browser will look different to the home page viewed on an iPad and again it will look differently on an iPhone.

We have gone for this approach for a number of reasons. The need for a mobile optimised version of our website has become increasingly apparent as the number of mobile visitors to the website is increasing; user expectations were also a factor.

IR: Apps represent another important aspect of the mobile world. Could you please tell us something about your experience as mobile project manager?

JC: Cooperating with other staff members on the development of the museum mobile apps has made me realize that there was a large amount of misconception as to what ‘mobile’ meant. However, with the progress of the projects, the concept of mobile and the different ‘categories’ are becoming more understood. With this newfound insight my hope is it will bring a firmer direction as to what avenues as an organisation we want to explore and build for our audiences.

Developing the Museum apps was a very large job and a number of really critical decisions needed to be made at the out set of the project. Deciding on an audience was first and the most important as in any project. Followed closely with the decision of which operating system the app experience would be built on.

IR: In short, what are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of designing for the mobile world?

JC: An increasing number of people have smartphones nowadays and this large and growing audience definitely represents a strength. By its very nature mobile and its users are a captive audience, ready and engaged: this presents a great opportunity to any organisation.

Concerning weaknesses, I'm very confident in a few years time we will have new technologies, something completely different; so, in a way, it may be a little disposable developing for it. Basically, we need to move with the advent of new technologies, to evolve with the technology not change our core messages or goals, merely translate the channels in which we engage with our audiences.

Developing mobile apps is an opportunity museums have to provide unique experiences for their audiences. In fact, through mobile apps users can customize their experience: smartphones are personal devices, people use them as they want, which is great. As an educational institution we should be harnessing this and presenting our voice and allow visitors to engage and be enriched by it how they choice.

IR: How would you summarise your thoughts about producing and managing content for the digital world?

JC: If you don't put it online, someone else will!

IR: Thank you, Jen. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.