The Head of the Museum of Design in Plastics discusses Ten Most Wanted
WORDS: SAMUEL FRY DATE: WEDNESDAY 04 DECEMBER 2013
Susan Lambert is currently Head of the Museum of Design in Plastics at the Arts University Bournemouth. Having previously been the Keeper of Word & Image at the Victoria and Albert Museum, she has a strong background working with the latest collections, having organised the V&A’s first global 20th Century Gallery. Now Susan is working on creating an innovative new way of engaging the public in museum collections. Samuel Fry asks her about this new project.
Art and Technology Project: Ten Most Wanted
You are currently running a project called Ten Most Wanted. How would you describe this?
Ten Most Wanted uses game play and social media to involve the public in discovering and verifying previously undocumented facts about collection items. Rather than presenting artefacts as removed from people’s lives and explained only by experts, it encourages players to tell the experts what they know about the artefacts. We believe it differs from other crowdsourcing projects in that it asks players to work together actively to do in depth research – go to local record offices, trawl through company archives, interview people etc – rather than to contribute as single users completing simple tasks, for example tagging or correcting Optical Character Recognition errors.
Where did the idea come from?
The idea came from the project’s Technology Partner, Adaptive Technologies Limited. They had built the Museum of Design in Plastics’ website and were shocked that the word ‘unknown’ occurred so often against standard fields in the documentation. In the absence of maker’s marks, packaging or additional information, we are left only with the intrinsic properties of size, colour, material and process. It is not so much that each individual piece of required information is so hard to find but that there are so many objects presenting so many unanswered questions, and there is so little time to address them. Sharing the task with the public makes it doable.
The project involves a number of different organisations. How did you all come together?
A condition of the Digital R&D Digital fund for the Arts, the programme under which this project is funded, is that there are three partners representing the arts, research and technology. The Museum of Design in Plastics, the arts partner, and Adaptive Technologies Ltd, the technology partner, were keen to develop further their fruitful partnership. Adaptive Technologies, which is based in Brighton, had contacts with Brighton University and found that the Interactive Technologies Research Group there was doing work that had synergy with our proposal. In particular they have undertaken a number of projects enabling end users to create and share content with and for emerging technologies. That was just what we needed.
Ten Most Wanted is all about engaging the public. This is probably easier said than done. What have you learnt the most about engaging users?
The Ten Most Wanted website was launched at the UK Museums on the Web conference, Power to the People, held at Tate Modern on 15 November. Thus, it is a little early to give a full answer to this question. That said the site has been operational in parts for some months. People have engaged with it and we have three solved cases. The biggest issue relating to engagement is the choice of facebook as the forum for people’s contributions. An advantage is that each player brings a community of people with them but the disadvantage is that some people interested in participating do not like facebook and are not willing to join 10mostinvolved, our facebook group.
What are your next steps with the project?
Our next steps are to promote the game to attract additional players, develop the website in response to user feedback, monitor how the reward system is received and adapt it in the light of experience, and write up best practice guidelines to help others follow in our footsteps. We will also mount an exhibition about the project. It will introduce the people who have played the game, tell the stories of their research, and celebrate the amazing expertise of the ‘crowd’. Additionally, we are planning a workshop to enable players to meet each other and the objects in reality and to discuss their work with the project team.
How do you see this influencing other museums?
Currently, Ten Most Wanted is a pilot focused on artefacts in the Museum of Design in Plastics but its approach and methodology are equally applicable to other contexts. To this end we have appointed an advisory group representative of a wide range of collection types. Uses we see for the project of value to other museums and heritage organisations include identifying people and places in painted and photographic images, gathering back stories relating to poster campaigns, and the recording of public narratives around historic buildings and monuments. The afore-mentioned workshop will also explore the wider potential of the game.