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24 May 2011

Bringing history back to life

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I ntegrating and developing technology within any institution can be a challenge, but what happens when the building you’re working with is 250 years old and holds more than seven million objects? CXO found out when it spoke to Jane Clift, head of IS at the British Museum.

The British Museum is a fascinating place. A national institution boasting one of the largest collections of artefacts in the world, this free-entry museum is housed in a 250 year-old building and is a treasure trove of Egyptian and Greek antiquities; a collection that is amongst the largest and best known in the world.

Jane Clift is the head of information systems (IS) at the British Museum (BM), a job role that carries a fair weight of responsibility. Museums, by their very nature, compel the visitor to consider the past, to wallow in history and look back in time. Hence, very few of us would have ever visited a museum and wondered how modern technology plays its part in making the experience more enjoyable and user-friendly.

Clift understands the challenges she faces in her role, and explains that despite the smooth interfaces enjoyed by the public, there is a lot of work, planning and forethought that goes on behind the scenes. "We have a very specialist piece of software called Merlin, which is our collections database. It was originally purchased from a company but has been heavily tailored to meet our requirements," says Clift.

The Merlin package was installed to the BM in 2000. Keeping this development going and evolving poses further technical challenges, as the applications have to be specific to the museum's requirements and the huge volume of its diverse contents.

" This collections database is now very complex and sophisticated," says Clift. "We have a collections information scientist specifically dedicated to it. There is a very wide range of users of our systems as well; our science and conservation department is probably one of the largest in the UK and they, as with the users, have specialist needs." As well as collections departments, there are exhibitions departments who produce permanent and temporary exhibitions and functions, from educational to corporate. Clift understands the need for a tailor-made approach to technology for such events. "Making sure that everyone's getting most of what they need can be quite challenging."

The Collection Online (COL) was first in use at the BM in 2007. The project was to make available on the British Museum website the collection database of over 1,800,000 records. The records are presented directly from the collection database (Merlin) with no re-writing, making them accessible for a general audience. With the exception of price and valuation, all fields are displayed for users, including storage locations in general, private addresses and internal administrative fields. The project has spun over three years in an effort to add as many high-quality images to records by scanning existing stock of transparencies and by using new digital photography; also to add catalogue text by means of Optical Character Reader (OCR).

There are several types of search available: Basic (default), Advanced, Museum number and provenance and Publication reference. COL is updated weekly from the Merlin database, and the public are invited to comment on records by e-mail. The site has been a success, with latest figures showing 13.6 percent of visitors to the BM site using COL (2,419,956 visits to the BM site, 328,507 of these used COL, in May 2009).

Ideas like this are changing all the time and, as Clift explains, it will be an ongoing process. "We have millions and millions of objects that reside here at the British Museum and some go out on loan, so we also have a lot of images of objects. It's a really big challenge how we manage those images and also that each year the amount expands. Video is becoming important as well, so there are more obstacles to overcome."

Infrastructural impositions

The building in which the BM is located poses a multitude of difficulties in terms of technology integration and development. The majority of the building was built in 1852, designed by architect Sir Robert Smirke, and its age calls for a more sensitive approach to technology, rather than bombarding it with wires, cameras and cables.

Clift explains the path taken to reach a harmonised goal. "The building is listed and obviously very large. Nevertheless, we have an extensive data network in place. We do have to be sensitive to the listed status of the building and obviously some wires are not allowed. We work closely with the museum's architects to obtain permission and discuss the best way to install any IT equipment in listed areas of the building. I would say that there are more hoops to jump through than there would be in a modern building, but we have overcome many of the issues."

Clift understands that for a large institution with so many visitors, there is an expectation of quality and modern services, such as wireless Internet. "Our wireless network is quite small at the moment, whereas I think there is a high expectation for wireless to be widely available in public spaces. What I think is most important is to - given the age of the building - make sure technology fits in with the aesthetics. The key here is to enhance the experience, not to distract from it," says Clift.

Although a challenging part of behind the scenes work at the British Museum, the juxtaposition of old and new is one of the things that helps augment the visitor experience. "I think our Great Court is an example of where our technologies work very well," says Clift. "In that room there are two very attractive screens, immediately to your right and left as you go in. The screens are from a sponsorship deal with Samsung and are very modern, but I think they sit well and really add to the experience of going into the Great Court." These large screens are part of the Samsung Discovery Centre that provides a technology hub for children and young people, presenting an opportunity for them to learn and interact with the museum's vast collection.

In 2009 the museum took another step towards engaging with worldwide visitors by launching its multimedia guide. The guide is available in ten languages (English, Korean, Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish) and is one of the most comprehensive of any museum multimedia guide. Additionally, the museum has also launched a children's guide for 5-11 year-olds, an audio guide and a British sign language guide, integrated with video elements.

The museum online

With the rise of Internet usage, many museums have become increasingly aware of their 'online visitors'. The BM have recognised this with their COL and extensive website. New images on COL are being made available at the rate of 2000 per week. The museum is also making use of online facilities for their six million annual 'physical' visitors, with streamlined ticketing services and facilities to help them plan their visit. For many of the entrants the trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity and, as Clift explains, the museum takes this into consideration when implementing technology.

"We try to use technology to make the experience as enjoyable as possible," she says. "The information screens are another example of how we're trying to help people, so when they come into the museum, they can quickly orientate themselves to what's on that day and so on."

The online collections database opens up new opportunities for integration with other museums. Clift is positive about this development. "I think that is a huge step forward. At the moment that information is available as a webpage but we have another project that's in the early stages involving Symantec Web Technologies. We're testing it out at the moment but we're basically trying to take all our collections' data and make it available in a machine-readable form online. This would mean that if there's another organisation out there, another museum, gallery, or university that's interested in our data they could, with our permission, intersect with that data. For example, if they [a museum] had a collection of mummies and they wanted to compare it with our collection, this would allow them to do so more easily. Whereas at the moment, this is done in a fairly manual-intensive way."

This ease of access would improve relations and make way for collaboration between institutions. If research goes well, the British Museum would effectively have a museum on the web, available worldwide. Clift believes that this is something perhaps a lot of museums are beginning to look at, but: "the BM has got there a little bit earlier than some."

This idea of shared services is already in practice at the museum, with heads of IS at many of the national museums and galleries meeting on a regular basis. The meetings open up a forum for discussion of what shared services they can operate between each other. In the last meeting, Clift says, the issue of shared services featured high on the agenda. "We have identified the services we currently do share, areas that are of interest to us in the short-to-medium term and then areas which will be of interest in the long term."

Areas such as cloud computing, for example, which, Clift explains, would help "reduce costs, improve services and speed of delivery of service." Some joint ventures the BM has already participated in include training, workshops and visits. These, according to Clift, have been pretty successful. "The added benefit is that colleagues from different museums get to network with each other," she says. "Many of the museums have hosted site visits or workshops of various technical aspects where they have particular expertise."

The BM hosted a workshop on DCI as they were 'further ahead' than other museums, and is also hoping to host a workshop of process and modelling. "We hope to do that in the near future. We are also briefing each other on our procurements so we can do joint procurement in the future to bring down costs," says Clift.

Working with other museums provides an insight into how fellow institutions are organised, but Clift explains she's not so influenced by them. "Each museum is quite different; our collection is a particular type of collection, so what we use has to be different to say, the Maritime Museum or the Science Museum. I think it's really important that the technology supports the interpretation of the collection. I am actually quite influenced by the travel and leisure industry as a lot of what we do is about how you give information to people and also how you create ease of access." To enhance this ease, the BM has implemented a 'fast-track' scheme for members of the museum using enhanced technology, making it easier for them to get tickets for the museum exhibitions.

Planning for the future

Despite the technological expansion and development at the BM, the economic climate has not passed museums and art galleries by. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced cuts of 15 percent for all national museums, after having its budget cut from £1.4 billion to £1.1 billion over the next four years. The Arts Council's budget was cut by almost 30 percent. The 26.6 percent cut will reduce the current grant of £449 million to £349 million by 2014. National Museums will take a cut of 15 percent but will remain free for visitors, and the government will allow them to access their reserves to a total of £143 million over the next four years.

Neil MacGregor, the director at the British Museum said at the time: "We are pleased that Jeremy Hunt [the secretary of state for culture] and Ed Vaizey [shadow minister for culture] have recognised the unique role museums play in the world today and reaffirmed their support of free admission. We are also particularly encouraged that they have reconfirmed the government's support of the British Museum's planned new World Conservation and Exhibition Centre, a crucial investment in the British Museum's future ability to work across the UK and the world."

This has been a focus for the technology teams at BM, as Clift explains. "We've already identified and delivered a lot of operational efficiencies in the realm of our IS department. We've clamped down on Blackberrys and are looking at telephone call charges. We've done some consolidation Telco infrastructure and we're doing printed consolidation at the moment. These are fairly obvious operational initiatives and our IS staff are very analytical and process-orientated, so they tend to be good at spotting operational efficiencies. When I asked for some suggestions I got a very long list, of which I'm working my way through and turning into a more formal action plan."

"One area that we think is very promising is process modelling. A member of the department brought it in and pioneered the production of it, so we see that having huge potential." Clift explains that the BM team try to deport commercial activities of the museum to increase revenue generation. "We've done a lot of work to integrate the membership and the ticketing systems, and also fundraising is very important now so we're trying to provide support to our development function if they have proposals where there is an IT element."

The museum recently received a grant from the Melon Foundation to enable the first stage of investment into the publishing of the collection using Symantec Web Technology. Clift says that saving costs is not something they take lightly. "We've diversified quite a lot; we're certainly not complacent at all about the current economic situation."

With an expanding collection of millions of fascinating artefacts, housed in a British institution, enhancing technology while saving money could seem a daunting task. Jane Clift reveals that often, it is the innovative ideas of the staff that provide sources for helping towards reducing the national deficit. The changes have, and will be, planned and strategic while the museum continues to build and develop its income generation through philanthropy and commercial enterprise. Clift concludes by  emphasising the need for IT departments to take an intuitive approach to become more commercially viable. "I think what's important to remember is not to just focus on technology, but to focus on what technology can do for your business. You must always do what is helpful or enabling in some way, rather than because it is interesting to you."

For more information on the British Museum, visit www.britishmuseum.org

Partnership UK

The British Museum describes its Partnership UK as 'The largest network of any national museum that comprises of 17 major partner museums in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the nine governmental regions of England, including London. Collaborative activities, programmes and loans are undertaken with many more museums and organisations around the UK, in addition to the major partners. Over the last two years the British Museum has lent nearly 5000 objects to 300 UK venues - the Museum is, literally, a lending library for the whole of the UK and beyond.'

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