Online Platforms

The Collections in the Landscape project has been all about getting the museum’s collection online, accessible and available in the landscape. The main platform for this is www.buxtonmuseumapps.com but we have also been using other digital platforms to showcase the collections and the work we are doing. I have been busy collating all this information for our Stage 2 application and thought it would be interesting to share some of our discoveries.

Since the beginning of the project, the Collections in the Landscape blog has been the main portal for all of the project content and news. It has also pulled together all of the museum’s social media feeds, which is great because only Facebook features on the main museum website. It has a small but loyal audience, that is growing slowly but steadily, and is actually a great way to disseminate project news to other members of staff.

Twitter

A good way to communicate quickly with other museum professionals

 

The museum joined Twitter in October. We have grown to love twitter but we have all found out that it takes a lot of work to make it a success (and there are five of us!). We began by expanding our audience with #FossilFridays and other hashtags, and we also publicise events and exhibitions on there. To our surprise, the main audience for the Twitter feed is other museums and museum professionals. This means it is a great resource for professional enquiries, publicising our work and seeing what others museums are up to. The downside of this is that posted links do not get as much attention as on sites like Facebook. Nevertheless, Twitter is a really useful platform and having that immediate connection to other museums is a great way to boost our profile and showcase our work, even if it isn’t in the way we originally expected.

Great for displaying good quality images, but how visitors use it is a mystery

Great for displaying good quality images, but how visitors use it is a mystery

 

Flickr is one of the online dinosaurs. Unlike other platforms, you do not have access to your visitor figures, so we have no idea if anyone actually looks at it or not! It is, however, very useful for our purpose and a lot of museums still use it. It offers us a platform to showcase the museum’s collections with high-quality images and any member of staff can easily update and change it. The main issue with Flickr is copyright. Using the site has made us consider the importance of the museum’s digital assets, as well the physical collections, which hadn’t previously been given much thought. If you have visited our Flickr site we would be interested to know what you thought.

It’s purple and popular

It’s purple and popular

 

The main museum website still takes the bulk of the online visitor figures and is the site we know the most about. The figures show trends that we wouldn’t have thought about; for instance, we get huge spikes in traffic during school holidays. It is also interesting to see how people are reaching the site. Many people search for us directly, or already know where they are going, but one of the biggest referral sites is daysoutwiththekids.co.uk, which we didn’t know about. This shows the importance of having a good hub website where other online projects link to (at the moment there is only a link to Facebook). We are really keen on developing the museum’s website further and, in partnership with the council’s IT team, are in the process of getting some of the collection records online. We are also thinking about making more Collections pages, to really show off what makes the museum special.

Digital Interpretation

The use of digital interpretation is a hot topic for museums at the moment, but it’s a difficult thing to get right. As part of Stage 2 in the Collections in the Landscape project we are hoping to redevelop the Wonders of the Peak gallery, and we see digital interpretation as a key part of that. One of the best ways to understand what works and what doesn’t is to go and visit other museums, so that’s what we did! I have to admit that I was a bit of a digi-skeptic when it comes to museums, I visit to see objects not screens, but even I was won over.

Gold Coin of Trajan - This level of detail would be hard to see in normal gallery conditions.

Gold Coin of Trajan – This level of detail would be hard to see in normal gallery conditions.

 

A good reason to use digital is to bring small or hard to view items to life, and make them easier to see. It is hard to see the real detail in a roman coin, especially when there is 20cm of case between you and the object. To get around this visitors often move closer to the case in order to see the object properly, which causes problems for other visitors. I experienced this first-hand when visiting the British Museum’s current exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend. The objects themselves were incredible but because of their size, and the busyness of the exhibition, it was a struggle to see them sometimes (and I am relatively tall!). The problem was partly the amount of people, which is unlikely to cause the same issues for us, but it was mostly the scale of the objects that made it difficult.

Vikings: Life and Legend. No problem viewing Roskilde 6, but the cases at the back look a little busy.

Vikings: Life and Legend. No problem viewing Roskilde 6 but the cases at the back look a little busy.

 

One of the ways to get around this is by digital interpretation. There was no digital included as standard in the Viking exhibition, however, there were guides on iPhones available to rent. The additional charge put many visitors off, myself included, and only around 3% of people in the gallery were using them. The visitors with guides did seem to be using the space differently and were spending less time at the objects themselves; perhaps they were seeing things the rest of us weren’t. We have thought about designing an app or specific guide for Buxton Museum but the uptake in audio guides is so small that it isn’t practical for a museum of our size. We are also quite interested in touch tables. Although not a fan of digital in galleries, I would have loved a massive touch table in the Vikings exhibition featuring the Vale of York hoard. Not only could it have been used to view the objects in detail but an extra layer of information could have been added, making the objects far more accessible. This could be a useful interpretation tool for the recently acquired Kirk Ireton coin hoard and is already successfully being used for the Staffordshire Hoard.

Ed, Anna and Jess all using the digital interpretation on offer at Archives+

Ed, Anna and Jess putting the digital interpretation at Archives+ through its paces.

 

Archives+, in the Central library in Manchester, have embraced new digital approaches in their redevelopment. They have recently re-opened after a complete redevelopment of the building, funded by Manchester City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. We were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the new space and got to test out their digital offer. As a digi-skeptic and lover of archives I didn’t know what to expect. Archives+ face a different set of challenges to us; archives are hard to work with and difficult to engage people with. Paper is one of the most delicate materials to display, and, for conservation purposes, items can only be exhibited for a limited time. Audio and film archives can be intrusive and annoying in open gallery spaces. Archives+ avoid these problems by having a carefully designed space. Audio and film archives are available in separate booths to the side with directional speakers or headphones, and cases can be changed by a single member of staff.

The Oculus - situated in the centre of the building, it acts as a focal point.

The Oculus – situated in the centre of the building, it acts as a focal point. Audio booths can be seen behind.

 

There is very little original material on display in Archives+; instead they let the digital do the work. You can scroll through maps of Manchester from 1640, or look through the photographic archives of immigrant families. This is an approach that works well with delicate collections. The interactive that impressed us most was the Oculus in the middle of the gallery. It consists of three touch screen terminals that allow visitors to navigate a map of Manchester. The map contains around 50 points of interest and various different topics are covered by these points. The best thing is that everyone can see what and where the users of these terminals are looking at via the central map. We found this really drew people together and made you want to use it as a group. It was a positive visit and we all left feeling motivated about the digital options that are available. Digital seems to work well as a focal point, but is also a good way of making difficult items more accessible. While it should never replace original objects, it can be used to complement and support exhibitions to great effect.

Photographs in the Landscape part two

In my last blog, I wrote about the challenges of taking high-quality photographs of museum objects. Glazed paintings are particularly problematic as they reflect, especially when using a flash. I was keen to see what solution professional photographer Nick Lockett would come up with. The answer was a giant pair of black curtains! With a dash of Photoshop, of course. Note that the handsome chap behind the camera in this picture is me, along with Nick’s assistant and brother Steve; a bit cheeky considering I was just the monkey, not the organ-grinder.

IMG_9673

Photographing the art collection was easier as I was not required to open any of the cases in The Wonders of the Peak, unlike last time. Some of those old displays were not designed for quick and easy access which is good news for museum security but bad news for photo projects. Fortunately, due to the efforts of the Derbyshire Museums Manager, Ros Westwood, the paintings live in a modern high-tech storage facility.

work over 08

Most of BMAG’s art collection will be available for you to view online before much longer; improved public access is one of the main aims of the project. More of our oil paintings are already on the Public Foundation Catalogue website http://www.thepcf.org.uk/ . I particularly like this one by David Russell because it depicts the exterior of the museum with an assortment of local characters.

DERSB 2006.33

Talking of unusual pictures, Ros found this photo recently in a box from the Randolph Douglas collection. It is entitled In Search of Thermal Springs, Matlock Bath. Ros said it made her think of me. I have decided to take this as a compliment.

In search of thermal springs, Matlock Bath

More impressive is this action shot of climbing pioneer and cave explorer, Jim Puttrell (1869 -1939). It is thanks to Puttrell that Buxton Museum has a fantastic collection of minerals.

Puttrell

As if these discoveries were not exciting enough, Douglas had also kept some postcards of Dicky’s Skull. What is Dicky’s Skull I hear you ask? Find out in my next blog; if you dare!

Dicky's skull 02

Photographs in the Landscape

One of the challenges we face with a project like Collections in the Landscape is to provide the public with high-quality images of the objects from Buxton Museum’s collection. Although I have grown accustomed to taking the occasional snap over the years, photographing hundreds of artefacts for people to view online is a daunting task. Luckily, we have hired the services of professional photographer Nick Lockett to get the ball rolling. The plan is for Nick to shoot key objects for the early stages of the project and for the team to absorb some of his expertise and continue his legacy. However, as you will be able to see over the next few months, Nick’s pictures are fantastic. If I can take shots half as well, I’ll be happy.

Nick in action

On Monday 5th, August, Nick came in to photograph a selection of objects from BMAG’s Wonders of the Peak gallery. The safety and security of the artefacts was paramount so we took time to remove and replace the objects. The Wonders of the Peak was built in the 1980s and the display cases have rarely been opened since. Myself and my Collections in the Landscape colleagues, Anna and Joe, were faced with a series of puzzles as we tried to find our way into the displays. For a moment, it was reminiscent of 90s game show The Crystal Maze. Amongst the selection were two Bronze Age skulls and we enlisted the handling skills of assistant manager and resident archaeologist Martha Lawrence to ferry them to the photographer’s temporary studio in gallery one.

Martha in action

The art gallery soon became animated with clicks and flashes from Nick’s busy camera. Nick and his brother, Steve, were great about letting me shadow them. I worried about getting in the way and asking too many annoying questions but the Lockett brothers were very accommodating. In between shots, Nick gave me some of his trade secrets on lighting and composition. He told me that the most important aspect of photographing museum objects is to make it clear to the viewer what exactly they are looking at. Photographing the top of a skull might look great, for instance, but will people be able to tell that it’s a skull?

Nick and Steve

For the time being, I am content with seeing what Nick can do with the museum’s collection. As far my own photographs are concerned, I think that setting up a similar studio environment would be beneficial, it’s all in the preparation. Although our equipment is not as good as Nick’s, getting the best out of what we have got is the key. BMAG has a large archive of photographs, most of which can be seen on website Picture the Past . Recently, I found this lantern slide linked to one of the pilot locations for Collections in the Landscape, Arbor Low. It is entitled “A group dressed as Druids” and dates from 1927; a curious scene as I’m sure you will agree.

A Group Dressed as Druids Arbor Low 1927

Getting an image from a piece of glass is not easy. In the end, I had to scan the negative but left the scanner’s lid up so the light would shine through it. If you ever try the same technique, take care to shield your eyes from the glare! Another challenge we face in coming weeks is to shoot a selection of paintings from the museum’s art collection and many of these are glazed. Again, I will be seeking tips from Nick. Watch this space to see how we get on.

Ben in action