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In Conversation with Rob Cawston

29 December 2017

We’re delighted that Rob Cawston, Head Of Digital Media at ‎National Museums Scotland will be joining us for Culture Geek London. We caught up with him to talk about his work at NMS and the subject of his presentation, games.

National Museums Scotland is a huge organisation, how big is the digital team? What kind of work do you do?

We are a relatively small Digital Media team, made up of 5 full time staff. This number increases during busy periods including large-scale capital projects when there is greater demand for online and in-gallery content.

Our team is split into two core functions: i) Content and Comms, and ii) Products and Platforms. A Content Manager and two Digital Producers look after all communications across online platforms – from information and updates on the website, to planning in schedules of social media content. This includes rich media across all channels: commissioning film content, creating long-form stories for the Award-winning “Explore” section of the website, working with curators, conservators and volunteers on regular blog posts or coordinating a schedule of Facebook Live broadcasts.

On the other side, a Product Manager and Head of Department (me) oversee updates to the main website and range of digital platform including the online shop and blog. This increasingly includes digital products for use in the museum space itself whether a series of touchscreens in new galleries, digital signage throughout the venue or a range of bespoke interactives, including games.

There is also a larger Marketing & Communications team here. We sit separately from them but there is a huge crossover in our work, especially around promotional campaigns for exhibitions and new gallery launches. The team also runs focussed training sessions across the museum to upskill staff in digital communications, for example writing for the web, updating the website or managing social media.   

You’re talking at Culture Geek about games, how do they play a role in your work?

Games and “digital interactives” are playing a larger role in our team’s work as part of new gallery developments or as online features. As much as we can we try to take a multi-platform approach to game development.

So, when something is created for use in a gallery space we’ve tried to create a version (most often in HTML5) to work on the website (see this). Some of the games featured in “Explore” are flash-based and won’t work on mobile but they continue to drive a lot of traffic. We’re hoping to replace these when we can and the forthcoming launch of new Egypt and East Asia galleries at the National Museum of Scotland will include at least 5 new interactives.

Occasionally we have the opportunity and funding to do something a little different and more ambitious, like the Gen game we created in partnership with Wellcome and Aardman.

How much of that is done in-house and when do you bring in outside experts?

Pretty much all of the design and development work for bespoke products like games is done through external agencies and producers. Our role is to bring together a range of people across the museum to feed into the design process including exhibition designers, ICT and, perhaps, most importantly, curators.

We try to involve people from the start and have run creative sessions with curators to get them thinking differently about their expert topics and identify key “hooks” that would create engaging games.  We’ve also run a series of “game jams” over the last year, actively involving young people in the creation of simple games, including the very addictive Dolly and the Atom Smasher!  

What piece of advice would you have for anyone looking to develop games in a museum?

Keep things simple and set expectations. The best games in a museum setting do one thing, and do it really well. There’s often pressure to cram in a lot of information or “learning” but more-often-than it detracts from the gameplay. Keeping things simple is harder than it sounds though…

Rob Cawston will be speaking at Culture Geek London in May 2018. To find out who else is speaking and to book your ticket, click here.