Adventures in cross-sector collaboration: learning so far from the Museums Hack Day at Southampton Solent University on 16 June 2017

What a busy day we had on Friday! We had a fantastic turnout at our Museums Hack Day at Solent University. Representatives from over 20 digital businesses and all four of Hampshire’s universities took up the challenge: to come up with innovative, financially sustainable solutions to intriguing real-world challenges brought along by our six selected museums:

The event had been long in the making – in development since last year, as creating an experience that works for three very different communities (commercial businesses, non-profit, often mainly volunteer-run museums and universities) is not easy! First, we created a cross-sector working group of three: me from South East Museum Development Programme; Postdoctoral Researcher Dr Alex Reynolds from Southampton Solent University’s Research and Innovation team and technology innovator Chris Cooper, then Chair of Digital South. My collaborators were introduced to me by Charles Freeman, facilitator of Creative Network South, when I approached him for ideas about how to connect museums with the creative industries in a meaningful way that could create real added value for both. Creative Network South also put in a sum of money to add to our Arts Council England investment and Southampton Solent University generously provided venue facilities at its gorgeous new conference centre ’The Spark’ as an in-kind contribution.

The first meeting between me, Alex and Chris, back in Summer 2016, immediately flagged up that the ‘ideal’ event might look very different depending on whether you were a museum curator, a technology entrepreneur or an academic researcher. So we ran a stakeholder workshop last November with representatives of all three constituencies, to find out more about their distinctive needs – and where the common ground was. At the stakeholder workshop we shared key points from a key source of inspiration, the Culture Hack Toolkit and set out our initial ‘straw person’ design for an event where teams would develop develop technical and creative ideas and compete for a seed funding pot plus plus business planning support package.

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Stakeholder consultation event November 2016

We then ran some group discussions to get feedback and ideas from our stakeholders. Key things that we learned, and that influenced the plan for the main event:

  1. Businesses wanted a high quality museum problems to work on, and choice about which ones they addressed.
  2. Most of the interest from digital and creative stakeholders was in addressing audience-related challenges, rather than internally-focused ones purely about business management within the museum or collections management per se.
  3. We needed to use different language, marketing tools and delegate recruitment processes for each. This meant basically tripling the effort compared to a typical South East Museum Development Programme event targeted at museum people! It also meant that we needed a long run up to the main event, so we decided on a 6-month lead time. It was worth it to have such a great variety of players in the room.
  4. Several businesses also wanted the chance to present or pitch their ideas to the museums, and there was a tension between this and the collaborative idea development approach that some others favoured.
  5. Business stakeholders would be much more likely to engage if there was a financial incentive to take part. Many voiced experience of having been expected to ‘work for free’ by good causes and they emphasised that even with the best intentions, they can only do so much of this. A small business has to get some money in at some point to survive.
  6. From all three sectors there was an interest in using technology in the process somewhere.
  7. There was a very variable level of knowledge about what approaches have already been tried and tested, so that there was a real risk of duplication of effort, or reinventing the wheel. So we needed to create space within the event for people to share what they new about existing technologies and approaches, and to do further research.
  8. If there was a competitive element, they would want this to be judged by people with credible, relevant expertise.
  9. There were concerns about how effectively people would work together during the event, given the different working approaches and levels of experience in digital innovation.

All of these valuable learnings fed into the way we planned the main event on Friday:

  1. Before promoting the event to digital and creative businesses and academics, I ran a competitive ‘Expression of Interest’ call, inviting museums to apply for a place at the Museums Hack Day. We promoted this through our established South East Museum Development Programme communication channels. This call was heavily over subscribed and gave the working group plenty of scope to present the digital and creative businesses with six high quality museum problems to choose from. At the event, we gave the digital practitioners and academics a chance to decide which museum to team up with, using colour coded badges to make sure that every museum had a mixed team including at least one digital technologist, one creative, one business and one academic.
  2. The call specifically asked museum suggesting an audience-related (Museum Accreditation section 2) challenge that they would bring to the table.
  3. We then had some pro bono help from Ed Gould of creative agency Carswell Gould to write a ‘business-friendly’ promotional text, Barrie Robinson from Future Basics developed an appealing graphic to go with it and these formed the basis of our Eventbrite booking page. Meanwhile Alex drafted an email communication targeted towards to academics.
  4. Chris created a YouTube playlist for the event so that businesses signing up could upload a 1-minute showreel or promotional video. The link to this was shared via social media and the playlist also ran on a loop on a big screen throughout the event.
  5. We finalised the investment pot for the winning team at up to £2,000 (equivalent to the maximum annual allowance to a museum from out Development Grants) and also I researched other potential grant and investment opportunities, links to these were included in the delegates’ pack.
  6. As much as possible, the event management and promotion made use of digital: from the online booking portal, to the video playlist, the promotion of an event hashtag #DigiMus, the use of blogs and social media to promote the event and the Twitter list that I created to make it easy for attendees to network before, during and after the event.
  7. The day included an overview highlighting some latest good practice from Alex, technology entrepreneur Nikolaos Maniatis, founder of Museotechniki, contributed a case study of one of his projects and explained how the approach generated revenue for both museums and the business. Digital attendees were encouraged to bring wifi-enabled laptops or tablets, so that they could undertake research during the event
  8. We secured the involvement of a great panel. Initially this comprised: Stephen Brown, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship & Strategy at Southampton Solent University; Anra Kennedy, Content and Partnerships Director at Culture24; and Nikolaos Maniatis. As the event unfolded, it was also joined by Catherine Lee, Solent University’s Director of Reseach and Innovation and Ed Gould.
  9. Alex and I developed a ‘top tips’ guide for the teams, including a suggestion of steps to go through when working together; and Ed kicked off the group work with an energising call to action including an important reminder that when there are so many experts working together, listening to one another is key.

Sadly, Chris had to withdraw from the working group a few weeks before the event, and just as we were getting to the point where we were ready to recruit digital businesses. Alex and I got busy and pulled in all our networks. I spent a couple of busy evenings on Twitter, locating and approaching digital networks and this was very productive – for example, several members of the Eastleigh Tech hub responded, booking places and helping to spread the word to their contacts. Alex made great use of her Higher Education contacts to connect with faculty and postgraduate students across a range of digital and creative disciplines from Solent, Winchester, Southampton and Portsmouth Universities. Chris brought Ed and Nikolaos to the team and they both used social media, blogs and personal contacts to promote the event. Ed had been a key player in the Venturefest South event a few months ago and so had made connections with dozens of businesses with highly relevant capability.

With our combined efforts, we recruited an amazing diversity of digital and creative practitioners, including systems developers, 3D modellers, engineers, filmmakers, web designers, augmented reality specialists, games designers and digital artists. The range and depth of expertise in the academic attendees was amazing too, with researchers, lecturers and even professors in a plethora of digital, cultural and business disciplines.

It was a jam packed day of intensive activity, with our working groups spreading out and about in the breakout spaces of The Spark’s futuristic atrium and using a range of techniques to organise their group work and develop their ideas. Then after a working lunch, all reconvened in our main space, where the series of ‘3-minute pitches’ to the judging panel was scheduled to start.

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Museums Hack Day June 2017: group work and pitching (photography by Ian Williamson of Focus Business Communications)

At this point, one of the museums let us know that their dialogue with the digital practitioners had produced an unexpected result. They had been asked a series of challenging questions, as the businesses worked to develop a clear brief. This prompted reflection by the museum, and its representatives had a powerful moment of insight, realising that they needed to get some organisational and strategic thing in place to be properly ready to implement the kind of digital innovation that they had been thinking about. So they withdrew from the competition at this point, which was both sad and sensible.

So we had five pitches, each different and interesting. After each pitch, the judges asked questions, all thought-provoking and some of them were really quite challenging. The judges were clearly taking their responsibilities very seriously and were very thorough in testing each of the proposals against the success factors which have driven the project from the outset, to look for the idea that would best:

  • Showcase local digital and creative talent
  • Raise the profile of the South’s cultural offer
  • Address the key challenge expressed by museums
  • Advance best practice in the museums sector
  • Enable collaboration, sharing and economies of scale
  • Draw sustainable financial investment into the cultural sector

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Museums Hack Day June 2017: the panel hard at work (photography by Ian Williamson of Focus Business Communications)

After the pitches, the judges were sent away for 45 minutes of deliberation, cogitation and decision. We used this time to help the digital practitioners and academics to network more widely, outside their working groups, with a specially adapted version of good old ‘People Bingo.’

When we reconvened, Culture24’s Anra Kennedy was an impressive chair and spokesperson on behalf of the judging Panel. Each team in turn was provided with clear and constructive feedback on their pitch – what the judges had been impressed by and what they felt were its key areas for improvement.

And then Anra announced the judges’ decision. The Lightbox team was announced the winner and a very well-deserved win it was. IBM Design Intern Chloe Poulter, Professor Graeme Earl of University of Southampton, commercial artist Sam Allen and Dave Slater, Managing Director of touchscreen specilists InfoAktiv worked as a highly effective team alongside The Lightbox’s Lauren Jones, Beth Hopper and Amy Plewis to propose a project titled #ThinkOutsideThe Lightbox. They created a persona – this is a valuable technique to take a customer-centred approach to developing a service, which coincidentally we are currently using in a review of our programme communications. Using the persona they pictured a young woman in the Lightbox’s target demographic, and explored her lifestyle, needs and motivations. This helped them to develop the concept of using an interactive multimedia booth in a high-footfall location in the town centre to reach out to the target audience and engage non-visitors. View the presentation from the winning team’s pitch

After congratulating the winning team, and confirming arrangemetns for them to access the support package and seed funding pot, we provided some suggestions of where the other teams could access support to take their ideas forward, too.

We closed the event with an invitation to everybody to use a ‘Good because…’ ‘Even better if..’ wall and sticky notes to give us some immediate feedback – we will be doing a more detailed feedback survey in a few weeks. Alex has taken all the sticky notes and I look forward to reading them when we meet shortly for a review meeting. We’ll be doing further evaluation down the line, including following the progress of The Lightbox’s project, so there may be more blogs to come. But in the meantime, what are my immediate reflections on the event?

  • With such a diverse group of attendees, some of the groups really soared in terms of their team work – but others definitely struggled. Our speakers, judges and Hampshire Solent MDO Jaane Rowehl, acted as roving experts during the group work, chipping in with support and challenge. If doing something similar again, I would probably deploy one or two ‘home team’ members as team facilitators, to help struggling teams to put a process in place.
  • When doing something new, especially when working in partnership, it’s worth putting the extra time and effort in. This event took many times more preparation than an equivalent-scaled South East Museum Development Programme Event and had a much higher level of planning documentation, but there were several times during the day when I was really grateful for the planning we had put in and the clarity that this provided.
  • Disproportionately, late cancellations and no-shows to events are from people who specify special dietary requirements. We’ve observed this phenomenon consistently over years of running events and Friday was no exception. Around 5% of attendees notified us of a special dietary need when registering, but 30% of the half a dozen no-shows were from this group. No idea why this happens, there’s a PhD in there somewhere, when I have the time.

We’d suggested that attendees who wanted to carry on networking should head up to Mettricks in Guildhall Square. After clearing up, I’m afraid the ‘home team’ was too exhausted to join them! But I understand that a good number did go, and spent an enjoyable evening, including playing Quirk! “a ridiculously silly game for awesomely fun people” a current Kickstarter project developed by one of the brilliant creatives who made our day so special, Emma May of Emmerse Studios. What a great way to end the day, so sorry I missed out.

‘Museum Hack’ is registered as a trademark in the US by Museum Hack, LLC, a company based in NYC that provides museum tours. This event was not affiliated with nor endorsed by Museum Hack, LLC.

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