Au revoir, Science Museum…

September 23, 2007

The 14th September 2007 marked the end of an era, for me anyway. I’ve been at NMSI, the National Museum of Science and Industry, for just over 7 years, and that was my last day.

I move on, as anyone does from a job they’ve lived and loved for that length of time, with a huge range of emotions. I’m terribly sad to no longer be attached to an institution with such vast public kudos. I’ll miss the people hugely – I’ve never worked with such an interesting, creative and open-minded bunch before. I’ll probably never work on such a huge range and variety of projects. But it’s time to go, and I’m delighted and excited about the future I’ve got coming up in Bath.

As part of this post, I thought I’d jot down three or four of the key developments in the history of NMSI online since August 2000 – mainly this is indulgence, but I thought it might also cast some light on how and why things changed over the years. Personally, I’ve learnt hugely important things about the web, people, the complex set of politics which exist in any institution of this size and scope, not to mention museums online and the vast range of technologies available to us.

This is, by the way, an entirely non-exhaustive history. One day I’ll get round to charting everything out, but today is not that day ;-)

I first started at the Science Museum back in August 2000. I’d left Waterstone’s online at that point in any job when you start twitching: It was hugely hard work, but I wasn’t learning anything new. At the time, I was massively excited by the opportunity of working at the best museum in London (sorry, but it’s true..), but also arrogant enough – the dotcom boom providing 2 or 3 job offers each week – to negotiate quite hard with the museum prior to an offer. I told them I wasn’t going to come along unless they increased the pittance of operational budget which was then allocated to web, and also find some additional people to help make it happen. They agreed.

The first few months were terrifying, but exhilarating. There was a lot of blagging on my part: at the time I knew nothing whatsoever about how to put together an agenda or chair a meeting. I’d never managed a budget (having just negotiated a bigger one, this was particularly daunting…). I had a server to look after (and knew nothing about server-side technology). I couldn’t code. I had a vision, but no people who could help me do it. The museum had just reached an impasse with an agency who will remain nameless who had built them an interestingly exotic(!) “CMS”. The site had just been re-designed but loads of snagging issues remained from the old site (wait for images to load for full effect!).

I muddled through. I bought books on ASP. I junked the CMS system the agency had built and installed my own homebuilt version (not particularly popular, that move, given what had been spent…). I patched up the server as it memory-leaked and limped its way from day to day. I did frightening things like find and replace the file extensions on the entire site to convert it to .asp…(and yes, I backed up first…)

Shortly after that, I persuaded Daniel Evans to come to the museum from Waterstone’s Online. He proved an incredible asset. Just after that, the dotcom boom crashed into the world of online bookselling and the 60-strong staff at W/O was “consolidated” into 3 or 4. We felt good having escaped.

Rolling out the CPS, or Content Publishing System – a simple VBScript application which let users around the museum edit their own content – was the first major milestone for us. It marked the point at which we seriously began handing ownership of the content to the organisation. At last, people started to appreciate why they should own and change their stuff. At the same time the system largely side-stepped the “resource bottleneck” which so often exists in web teams, but also left publishing control with the web team. We tried hard not to edit too much, and it also gave us a chance to prevent Comic Sans showing its horrible face on our site…

At around this time, I started working with Ann Borda (now at JISC) to develop a concept for what would later become Ingenious. It started life as “Science & Culture”. It’s interesting to note, given the vast remit (the first cross-NMSI project) and the huge timescale (over 3 years), that the very first sketches we presented were pretty much what we finally delivered in June 2004. This was the first lesson for me, and the first real resistance I developed to that all-pervasive museum treacle: projects are better done over short bursts, with small groups of stakeholders who are capable of moving fast and deciding quickly. It took huge energy (which to everyone’s credit, they retained over 3 long years) and quantities of strong coffee to make the site happen. Although it has very obvious shortfallings (second lesson: less really is more…), I’m still proud of what we achieved.

Making the Modern World Online followed soon afterwards. For the most part, this project ran outside the web team, but we had input on accessibility and design, and helped steer it (mostly) in a strategic direction which roughly followed what we wanted to achieve for the museum online. During this time, we worked hard on developing web policies and strategies to support us in everything we did. The key lesson we learnt here (it looks obvious now, but it was a revelation at the time..) was to align – 100% – all our strategic thinking with the goals of the organisation, literally drawing lines between what the wider business wanted to achieve and what web could do to support those goals. We coupled this with incredibly close work with the Visitor Research team. Third lesson: end users are the best friends you can possibly have, and will provide you with endless ammunitation to throw at the internal politics..

Next up was continued development of Sciencemuseumstore and then the launch of the Dana Centre. The original website for this was put together out of a small budget and little time, and this time we pushed forwards with more efficiency – although a small project we did it quickly with just a sidewards glance at the politics. The site was later re-built and relaunched by Frankie Roberto, the museums second Web Developer, and by gum it looks and works a whole lot better than it did the first time around…

Meanwhile, Daniel and Joe Cutting had started working on a vision for Antenna, our rapidly changing science news section. Initially, I have to be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure what exactly they were banging on about: XML and XSLT were new and mysterious things to me, and I couldn’t really see how they would help (cue sheepish grin..). Luckily they just got on with it rather than trying to explain it to me, and ended up writing a content system which revolutionised the way that the Antenna team edit and publish content. In brief, the system allows creation of a single XML-based content source which is then re-purposed to both web and gallery kiosks. Dan did some tests at some point and found that entire gallery stories could be built and published in around 12 minutes, a huge resource saving to the 2-3 days it was taking prior to that. The system is still in place today, and was really the pre-cursor to our understanding of how a good CMS system should capitalise on XML to deliver content to multiple channels. A similar approach was used by the agency who developed the fabulous Energy website, and continues to be the end-goal for Content Management at NMSI today: one “pot” of content delivering to gallery, web, mobile and anywhere else we choose…

Meanwhile, we were working hard on the Science Museum website, consolidating content, tidying up bad code, trying to CSS the whole thing. Behind the scenes, I was rallying for budget to re-develop it. Note “re-develop” rather than “re-design”: we knew we wanted to do something radical with the entire thing rather than just re-skin it: this is what we’d done in 2000 and apart from making it look better, it had still remained badly broken under the hood.

Eventually we got budget. The entire re-development project probably took about 3 years – again, far too long – but we remained incredibly enthusiastic with the vision we put together and the agencies we took on to do the work. The energy remained pretty high, which is always the most important thing. The new site went live on 26th March 2007. Beautiful, isn’t it?

At the same time (and looking back I can really see that we took on far too much in one go..) I was also working on putting together a vision for Content Management at NMSI. After a long procurement process we bought Sitecore, a fabulously powerful, standards-compliant .NET system. The ultimate, organisation-wide vision of building in Enterprise Content Management to everything content-related is still in its infancy at NMSI, but Web CM is the first, very visible starting point on that journey.

Of course we also continued to build in user generated content and new technologies wherever we could. Our web strategy took the organisational direction and applied UGC, drawing parallels between what our stakeholders wanted and what the web can usefully deliver. This ranged from SMS messaging during risqué Dana debates, encouraging visitors to bring in toys, a range of RSS feeds, allowing users to Ask Glenn – to mention but a few…

Next?

I have no doubts at all that web will continue to grow in importance and stature at NMSI. The vision, the environment, the beginnings I’ve had the privilege to be involved in – all point to an incredibly interesting future. I’ll be watching (with only occasional twinges of regret..) and undoubtedly blogging about it too.

The next huge thing on the immediate radar is the launch of Launchpad, the flagship hands-on gallery at the museum which is due to re-open – much bigger and improved – later in the year. I’ll be posting very, very soon about the online element of this. I’ve had the privilege of helping develop the concept for this and have watched it grow into something absolutely outstanding. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen for some time. But you’ll have to wait a little while before you too get to see it…

3 comments
Mike
Mike

Sure, I know of course of Joe's involvement (and have edited accordingly..!). The interesting thing from my perspective is the dual-purposing of the core pot of content. And yes, you're right, I should have mentioned the CMS as being ultimately where the content will live...!

davepatten
davepatten

Mike, I think the Antenna history is a little confussed. The original work was done by Joe Cutting. It was he who proposed and devloped the CIP system for on gallery kiosks, based on external XML files it allowed non technical staff to quickly build on gllery interactives. Joe then worked with Dan to refine the XML so that Dan could build a web version of the CIP using the same XML files. The system is still not ideal but hopefully the next iteration (coming soon) will mean that all of the files sit on the CMS and we really can have a system that will allow us to publish to both kiosk and web automatically.

Jeremy Ottevanger
Jeremy Ottevanger

Hey, Mike, thanks for this history, it deals with a large part of what I wanted to ask you about for my research (and hopefully still will, one day, in a bit more depth). You've done a fantastic job at NMSI, something we can all look up to, and you've done so much to inspire debate and fresh ideas in the sector, not to mention being great company, you'll be much missed. A part of me regrets turning down the job offer you made me 6 years back - that's no reflection on where I am, and it was also the sensible thing to do (with a new baby, a permanent job closer to home was a good idea), but I know that in some ways I missed out. And now, new baby and all, you trot off to no permanent job, but somehow I know you're going to do just fine. I just hope that the museum world hasn't seen the last of you. Take care, mate, and enjoy it all.

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