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6 Ways to Support Small & Specialist Museums

Blog post   •   Jul 27, 2012 16:39 BST

Nick Sherrard, London.  It is now a full year since imagineear launched the In2Handheld service, our programme specifically helping small and specialist museums get into handheld interpretation. What have we learnt?

The central idea was this – in the past smaller institutions were shut out from audio and multimedia guides. The barriers, whether in the cost or the technical knowledge needed to use the technology, were simply too high.

What In2Handheld does is to train staff and volunteers to do more for themselves – whether recording audio, or making changes to the production – meaning we can remove both the cost barrier and open up the tools to any of the museum’s staff and volunteers.

It has been an incredible year. Just a couple of example:  we’ve seen tours produced to historic houses like Bolton Castle (www.boltoncastle.co.uk), and University Museums like MUSA (http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/musa/).  We’ve seen young people use the technology to interpret collections on their own terms at Devon Museums (www.younginterpretation.com), and the guides once even became the artwork at the Ben Uri Gallery (http://www.benuri.org.uk/public/). 

Now we are preparing to add apps to the list of services we supply through In2Handheld. So it is an interesting time to reflect on what we have learned in 12 months. What are the things to remember if you want to really support small and specialist museums?

Our learning would be these key ideas;

  1. Trust in their Creativity: the evidence of the last year shows us that small and specialist museums have some incredibly imaginative staff. Given the tools, small museums can turn out really innovative and interesting projects.
  2. Enable them to get it Wrong: experimentation is crucial. You not only need to make sure museums are trained to create a multimedia tour to their collection. They also need to know how they can tweak and change it over time – and do that without incurring extra cost.
  3. Keep it Flexible: people working in a specialist museum spend a lot of time reacting to things – new opportunities come up, occasionally new barriers arise too. Sometimes you get some unexpected funding, sometimes the roof springs a leak. Small museums need to keep all arrangements with suppliers and partners flexible.
  4. Keep it Straightforward: it might be that members of staff at a specialist museum are the most knowledgeable people on the planet about their collection – but they also open the door in the morning, clean up after the visitors and count the cash in the till at the end of the day. That means they don’t have the time to learn new jargon, or new computer programmes. If you want to support small and specialist museums you need to make sure the technology you suggest can be used by non-technical people and that you take care to be jargon free!
  5. Stay Friends: people care about their museum and they need to pick up the phone to people who get that. So don’t give people tracking numbers and customer references – give them a named contact to be the person they turn to for advice.
  6. Let Go:  what is exciting about the first In2 projects is their variety. Organisations like imagineear need to get used to launching an enabling tool for small museums and watching it take off in new and unpredictable ways.

So that is what we think we have learned in year one. Is there anything you think we have missed?

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