Using generated content

I was invited to be part of a panel at NESTA’s Digital R&D in the Arts Forum event in Manchester this week, talking about the use of social media and user generated content at Royal Museums Greenwich. We (myself and Jane Burton from Tate and John McGrath from National Theatre Wales – esteemed company!) It was a good discussion I think, although each of us were a little unsure of where to position the discussion as each institution had use social tools in such very different ways.

Some of the questions after highlighted some good points, especially by Matt from Blast Theory questioning the term of ‘user generated content’ as it seems to be from a particular period of web development. Digital participation is so much wider, more integrated and accepted now that the term doesn’t seem to do it justice.

I also babbled my bit, so perhaps don’t feel my 5 minutes of presentation got across what I was trying to say, so here it is in text (with thanks to our social media guru Emma for the discussion beforehand):

Our main experiences of using social media for ‘artistic’ content has centred on using Flickr. We’ve had a longstanding relationship with Flickr, both using our own digitized content but also as a competition platform for Astronomy Photographer of the Year, a competition now in its 5th year. It is a group that has grown to over 10,000 members and is a very vocal, loyal and creative community. The competition runs annually and culminates with an exhibition at the Royal Observatory, displaying winners and shortlisted photographs across a number of categories.

We’ve most recently extended our use of Flickr and Twitter (with added Stamen map goodness) as a combined platform to generate users photographic contributions within the Ansel Adams from the Mountains to the Sea temporary exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. We feel it succeeds in three ways – used a promotional messaging, delivering learning outcomes and an integrated gallery design. The community pool from Flickr grew rapidly before and during the show, offering the opportunity for photographers and Ansel Adams enthusiasts to see their work in the same context. The Flickr pool grows as we use machine tags to reflect how visitors to the exhibition are rating the public photographs.

interactive in the Ansel Adams exhibition at the National Maritime Museum

The successes for both of these projects are working with an existing platform that has an already engaged community around the subject matter. The responses and enthusiasm when presented with the opportunity to get work seen in connection with the Museum’s history and objects and artists such as Ansel Adams has been fantastic. The promotion from individuals involved helped generate interest in the projects.

It might seem simple to be using Flickr in this way there perhaps aren’t many examples of this long term creative relationship with a platform.

The problem will always be around using third party web services from a technology point of view, and the steps needed to make sure that the gallery experience remains intact.

Copyright has also been a careful consideration. As both projects become more successful there is a tension between keeping it an open and collaborative public process, and the needs of the museum to use the content in other ways.

Another issue we then start to face is one of ‘quality’ as the pool grows and the experience is opened up to a wider community. This quote from the Ansel Adams group pool:

“Some of the very strong images in this pool are being diluted by some very wishy washy images (pun intended) and that is a great shame when considering the purpose the group in intended for…”

“Just wondering what the criteria is for moderation for an online exhibition alongside Ansel Adams”

What we said to the group:

“It’s important to us that the group is open to everyone, i.e. those of a professional standard or amateurs/beginners – everyone is invited to take part regardless of their photographic skill, as long as they are reflecting the themes of the project. Ultimately we want people to be inspired by Adams’s work and by each others, and to share and exchange their thoughts and ideas.”

For our 2 major science projects we have collaborated with the Zooniverse team on Citizen Science projects – Old Weather and Solar Stormwatch. These have been incredibly successful in helping give the Museum profile with a very large, dedicated and engaged audience, with the users generating the findings from exploring large amounts of data through gaming mechanics.

Finally we have worked with groups on digital participation projects that have lead to 3 exhibitions in a permanent space that opened in July 2011. Called the Compass Lounge the space reflects the breadth of the Museum’s digitised collection. These are smaller, and more focused collaborations with visitors, but has led to artistic expression through co-curation of content specifically digitised for the space or newly created artwork in response to the collection. By far the most popular has been when new work has been created in response to our collections rather than just selection of content, so it is something that will inform the space in the future and how we work planning our public engagement strategy.

Each of these examples are ways that we have steadily brought the public into public spaces and are going through the process of ‘letting the public in’ via digital interaction, responding to one of our four corporate objectives to ‘be conversational’.

Through the Compass Lounge we have opened the museum to the possibility of co-curation but there is still concern around the term, about the kind of outputs it generates and what process works best: small focused groups, using web services or even more open approaches.

A question that always comes up is whether there is an audience outside of those participating. At the moment it always feels very a very controlled creative response and we’re trying to explore ways that could provide a less controlled way of displaying public involvement.

Three new permanent spaces are now in development to open over the next 18 months, all of which have the creative digital participation at the heart of their approaches.