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Geographic Museum Forums: Organising Tayside's Treasures with 16 Museums

In this blog Matthew Jarron, Curator for Museum Services at the University of Dundee and secretary of Tayside Museums Forum, talks through the process of organising Tayside’s Treasures, where 16 museums came together for a successful online event showcasing a diverse range of objects found in Tayside’s museums.

When it became clear that the nationwide lockdown was going to last longer than we initially hoped, Museums Galleries Scotland kindly offered to pay for professional Zoom subscriptions for the regional museum forums, enabling us to stay connected online. For many members of the Tayside Museums Forum, these meetings were an invaluable way of staying connected and staying positive during challenging times.

Having access to a Zoom account was also helpful in allowing individual members of the forum to stage live online events. While some members quickly embraced this new medium, others were less confident. We therefore decided to put on a joint event to showcase museums across Tayside, featuring as many members of the Forum as possible. After some discussion, we agreed that each participant would choose one object to talk about, but with no restrictions on what kind of object or on how that would be interpreted. To make it as easy as possible for each contributor, we agreed a length of just five minutes per talk. A quick Doodle poll determined the date, and we ended up with 16 museums participating – very nearly a full house!

Once we knew who was speaking and what each of their objects were, we could start promoting. I quicky cobbled together a montage image from the various photos the participants had sent me of their objects, and then drafted up a running order, aiming to create as much contrast as possible between one object and the next, as well as trying to balance out the geographical spread of the museums involved. We advertised it as a two-hour event with a break in the middle. The programme was listed on Eventbrite and each member was encouraged to send it to their mailing lists and promote it on social media. With only 100 spaces available on a standard Zoom account and with 16 speakers, we knew that a maximum of 84 attendees could join us. However every free online event I’ve been involved with has had a turnout rate of 50-60% so I ended up making 150 tickets available, all of which were quickly snapped up.

To help those speakers who weren’t so familiar with Zoom presentations, we put on a practice session two days before the event, making sure that everyone knew how to share their screen, change their virtual background and answer questions in the Chat. On the day itself, we encouraged speakers to join early for last minute checks. The audience were kept in the virtual waiting room until the advertised start time, and we found we had the full 100 participants (and thankfully no one complaining afterwards that they had tried to connect but couldn’t get on). I chaired the first half of the programme while Mel Ruth Oakley from Dundee Heritage Trust chaired the second. Of course there were the usual minor technical glitches but thankfully only one serious problem, when a particularly bad internet connection led us to abandon one presentation altogether.

The event was a great success and we received lots of positive feedback both in the Chat and in emails from participants afterwards. The event was recorded and I then spent a weekend editing that for uploading to YouTube. Two members who had connection problems were able to re-record their presentations to be added in, and a bit of editing trickery fixed most of the other technical problems (eg people’s PowerPoints not appearing properly). The editing was certainly the most time-consuming part of the process, actually taking longer than organising the live event. Once complete, each member was asked to provide subtitling of their section to ensure accessibility. This is easier than it might seem as YouTube provides remarkably good automated subtitles and many members had scripted their talks in advance. We hope to have these completed soon. Within a day of the recording going online it had already been watched by more people than attended the live event, and hopefully the audience will continue to grow. Watch Tayside’s Treasures – A Cornucopia of Objects from across Tayside’s Museums.

The project has had many positive outcomes. It has given many members more confidence about doing online events, it provided participants with a strong sense of collective achievement, and it had inspired the audience to seek out museums that they had not previously encountered. One audience member described it as “a great way to whet our appetite and get us to start visiting such fascinating collections.” Many members have suggested that we make this an annual event, so look out for more to come!