A fine way to start – a review of the first ME : CA symposium

Thursday 21st March, 2013 – The British Museum

After months of talks and rants and deliberations, early morning skype calls and meetings in cafes, it was finally time for us to put our money (and cake) where our mouths were and run our first ME:CA event. We’ve already said a little about the ideas and aims  but basically our objective is to take a fresh look at mobile projects in the cultural sector and how we can put experiences and audiences at the heart of what we do and how we do it.

This first event, held at the Samsung Discovery Centre in the British Museum, was intended to kick start the conversation, and see where it might go from here. We brought together people in digital, visitor services and interpretation roles at a variety of organisations (see below) for a day of discussion and workshops, thinking about the role of mobile and the processes that can be used to create really great mobile experiences. We’ll be posting in more detail about the outcomes of the various sessions and themes that came out of the day. In the meantime here is a short roundup of the day itself along with some recipes for the homemade cakes we served that seemed to be very popular!

Fiona Romeo and how mobile can help reposition digital within cultural organisations.

After coffee and an introduction to the day, we had a rousing and thought-provoking talk from Fiona Romeo, Head of Design and Digital Media at the National Maritime Museum. Fiona had just announced that she would be leaving her role, and indeed the UK, in just a couple of weeks, so the talk was partly a farewell, partly a reflection on her experiences in the role and a big call to action.

We’ll leave Fiona to explain more in her own words in a future post, but in essence her talk argued that digital projects can be great catalysts for organisational change. This is true of mobile projects in particular because they involve so many different departments by necessity. Such changes might be modest, opening up the photography policy or getting decent wifi installed, or more fundamental, repositioning the digital team into a more integrated and central role within the organisation and bringing about, what she called ‘Digital Thinking’. This certainly resonated with us; mobile has always involved multiple departments in delivery – from curatorial to front of house – and as more digital teams go beyond the static web to take on mobile we are seeing more and more conversations about organisational and project team structures and processes.

Tijana Tasich of the Tate has already blogged some of her thoughts about the talk

Brainstorming mobile

The next session looked at the opportunities and challenges inherent in working with mobile within cultural organisations. The idea was to build a shared understanding that can inform future events and activity through a kind of purging – getting all those gripes about why mobile projects don’t always work out on the table as well reminding ourselves of why they have so much potential.

We worked initially in small teams of 4 or 5 people. You can see some of the responses in the pictures below. It was interesting to see that whilst some of the responses were what we might have predicted, there were many others that we hadn’t thought of. We hope this will prove useful, as we begin to develop a manifesto or set of principles around creating and using mobile (or perhaps digital) in cultural orgnisations. But we’ll leave that for a future post too!

Challenges of using mobile Opportunities and aspirations of mobile

Context is everything.

What difference does it make if your audience, user or visitor has young kids? If they are using a device in low light? If they are checking your app or site from the cafe, in gallery, or out and about? The context for mobile experiences is, we would argue, a vitally important consideration. Unlike the desktop experience, which is usually stable, the mobile experience is hugely unstable, and frequently less than optimal.

And yet, many mobile experiences are conceived of whilst sitting comfortably around a meeting room table or at a desk. The context is often thought about too late. We see this as deeply problematic – narrowing the type of audience needs we address and experiences we create and reducing the success of what we do.

Inspired by haptimap, we developed a set of ‘context cards’ – design tools that can be used to prompt us to think about the context when developing or testing mobile projects. We tested the cards themselves in the next session.

Each group was tasked to look at a specific audience and institution and develop a series of experience ideas using the cards to prompt and provoke their thinking. We think it’s fair to say that this led to a real shift in focus and some really interesting – and somewhat unexpected – concepts, including the dubious sounding (but not about sex, honest) Museum Grindr, amongst others. Again, we will go into more detail about this session soon, and are also developing the context cards further with a view to making them available to buy as a physical copy or as a free download.

(As an aside, others have been talking about this recently too, see this post from Thoughtden about their CultureGeek presentation)

Designing Powerful Experiences with Coney.

After lunch, it was time for us to relax (a bit) and join in with the activities as Tassos Stevens and John Gottschalk of Coney took over.

Coney are an unusual agency who, in their own words, make “adventures and all kinds of things for people to play, following a set of principles: loveliness, adventure and curiosity”. Sometimes this is immersive theatre, sometimes work with schools, sometimes digital projects and always in some way playful. We’d been impressed with both their work and, perhaps, more importantly in this context, their thinking and design processes that have the audience firmly at the centre.

We had hoped that they could share some insights about these process but in a way that was itself playful. We weren’t disappointed!

After a warm up with a game called something like Who Is The Person With The Teabag, (which is both more than, and exactly, what it sounds like), we were sent out into the gallery on ‘reconnaissance’ to observe visitor behaviour (and try not to get caught out doing so). It was a reminder of just how important it is to do this, with so many visitors doing something unexpected, or unintended. We noticed a particularly high number of teenagers sat together ignoring exhibits, and lots people taking lots of photos (a theme explored in recent research from the V&A and Frankly Green + Webb, and separate research from the IWM, National Gallery and Tate, V&A blog post for more details ).

Back in the room, and after some cake, groups shared their findings, and then went on to use the evidence they had gathered to think about how mobile might support and/or intervene in these behaviours. This exercise wasn’t about the functionality of the phones, but rather the behaviours they can engender. E.g. a phone can make you smile (when you receive a nice text from a friend), a phone can distract you (when it rings during a conversation) and so on. Finally, groups picked an audience and an institution to work up an idea for a mobile project that would itself ‘hijack’ these behaviours to support the organisaional mission whilst delivering a delightful visitor experience.

Finally we wrapped up with a brief discussion of what people might take back to their organisations from the day that would help to make change happen. This included the reminder that observation was important, spending more time in gallery with visitors, and using the cards as prompts. And then, after a rather intense day, we all went to the pub.


Since our afternoon homemade cake break seemed to go down so well, we thought we’d share the recipes here. Apparently we’ve promised to have homemade cakes at all our events and have started trying out recipes already!

Orange and Honey Polenta cake
Malteser Cake – from Nigella Lawson’s Feast 
Cherry Bakewell Cake 
Coffee and Walnut Cake

Thanks to Shelley Mannion for her invaluable help in organising the event and providing a venue, to Fiona Romeo for a great talk, to Tassos and John at Coney for a fantastic workshop, and to our helpers on the Day, Fiona Cairns, Hailey Baxter and Laura Mann.

And finally, a big thank you to all those attended from:
British Library
British Museum
English Heritage
Heritage Lottery Fund
Imperial War Museum
Institute of Education, UCL
Kew Gardens
National Archives
National Portrait Gallery
National Gallery, London
National Galleries of Scotland
Royal Academy
Science Museum, London
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
Wellcome Collection
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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  1. […] yet more mobile news, ME : CA have written up some notes from their recent symposium – another event looking at mobiles and cultural […]

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April 8, 2013 Uncategorized