Digitally-enabled encounters between people and cultural places

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12 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Arts & Culture

Digital Insights

digital photo installation in a museum - the images are hanging from the ceiling in staggered formation. visitors are waking around them

Source: Julio Nery (pexels.com)

The cultural sector plays a vital part in town and city economies, worldwide. Why do people choose to visit or work in a particular place? Culture is oft-cited as a key driver. Where people gather, associated services flow and places flourish. Nowadays, digital technologies perform a key role in the ways that all sorts of creative and cultural organisations enable people to engage with them. In the future, as our town and city centres open up and start to recover from the pandemic, the demand for digitally-enabled participation with the cultural aspects of places – both in situ and at a distance – will certainly persist.

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Source: Kadir Celep (unsplash.com)

Museums, heritage sites and visitor attractions have been forced to shape-shift at extraordinary speed as a result of the pandemic. Recurring lockdowns and a pervading sense of uncertainty have led cultural institutions to find new ways to reach the public; many of them using digital technologies to expand engagement with the museum beyond its physical borders. As a result, we are seeing a wealth of inspiring new public engagement activities and events that are digitally-enabled, but not driven by technology. Rather, it’s the ingenuity, passion and dedication of the cultural heritage community that’s spearheading the innovation and digital transformation happening in the sector.

At the annual MCG (Museums Computer Group) Museums+Tech 2020 Conference in December, I was privileged to share a stage with museum professionals from some of the most esteemed institutions in the sector, to discuss what role digital technologies can play for museums at a time of crisis. Before highlighting some interesting projects from the programme, I’ll start by sharing some points from the presentation that I created with Rose O’Reilly of We The Curious. 

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Image: Visualisation of Project What If at We The Curious, by Kossmann.dejong

User research at a time of uncertainty

Undertaking user research with existing and future visitors is one activity that was massively impacted by the closing of venues. The majority of visitor research usually takes place at an institution for all sorts of reasons e.g. practicalities of recruiting participants and the nature of the research, but when the doors of that institution are closed and the potential research participants are behind their own, then it’s digital platforms that provide the opportunity for connection.

When we started working with Bristol’s much-loved science centre, We The Curious (WTC) in September 2019, the world was a very different place. We had been commissioned to create the digital aspects of their huge forthcoming exhibition, Project What If, and we couldn’t have been more excited to help We The Curious achieve their ambitious vision.

With 25 unique digital exhibits to deliver, both front and back end, we would be busy across 2020. The people of Bristol were at the heart of the whole project – it was their questions that provided Project What If’s framework – and their insights would be integral to the design and development of the interactive digital exhibits. Hence, it was a priority to create a research design with the WTC team that informed the content and usability of each digital exhibit. The user research was intended to be on location at the science centre and facilitated by WTC – standard practice.

We The Curious Curious Cube with clifton suspension bridge in the background

User research and testing with the key audience groups quickly got underway and the team’s excitement and motivation were sky high. Then, suddenly, we were in lockdown and everything was uncertain – except for the fact that Project What If was still set to launch in November 2020, meaning our deadlines were fixed.

With user research and testing underpinning the digital aspects of the exhibition, the team had to think quickly and move fast. We The Curious and Calvium worked closely together to make sure that we could provide meaningful online user research sessions as quickly and seamlessly as possible. 

The digital interactive exhibits were made available to users through a browser and participants were able to interact with the interface and feedback to the research team. We The Curious’s content team coordinated and interviewed a diverse range of participants online to test the usability of the digital interfaces and the comprehension of the exhibit’s content. This feedback was instrumental to informing any changes to the interface design and content development.

The lessons learned during this project have had a transformative impact on the way I approach research of this type. For example, it demonstrated how quickly – at a push – one can redraw a research framework from in-venue to online. My conversations with Rose led to the conclusion that, counterintuitively, there are some types of research that are better undertaken online than in-person. For example, participants were inclined to discuss and explore sensitive subjects, such as those about health or the soul, in greater depth and openness through Zoom software than when they were in the venue. Having found ways to undertake robust research in a digital setting, we have established that future research can be more inclusive as we can hear the voices of people who may not be able to visit an institution in person – or want to.

Having had time to reflect on this extraordinary period, I have since created a new practical ‘Hybrid Framework’ for planning, conducting and reflecting upon user research for new digital exhibits at a time of uncertainty. One which acknowledges the relationships between each of the framework’s parts: researcher; participant; place; content and interface. While this resource was developed as a response to a global crisis, my goal is for it to help the museum community undertake user research in any situation. I will definitely look to employ this hybrid framework with clients in future.

Digitally-enabled models of public engagement

The conference heard from a host of brilliant speakers representing national institutions such as Westminster Abbey, V&A, British Museum, Jewish Museum London and Imperial War Museums, and international organisations including the Library of Congress. There is so much to be learned from how they have been adapting and transforming their organisations during this time.

By the People

By the People, a volunteer engagement and collection enhancement program at the Library of Congress that invites the public to transcribe documents on its website, experienced an unprecedented uptake in volunteer engagement during the Covid-19 crisis.

Carlyn Osborn and Lauren Algee of By The People said this boost in user participation shows just how vital digital programming is to cultural organisations in situations of crisis. The proof is in the numbers: By The People has seen a 100% increase in completed transcriptions during the pandemic, while its user base has grown by a third.

The Climate Museum

The Climate Museum in the UK, meanwhile, spoke about how it is reimagining museums for an age of crisis and how digital collections might power activism to tackle the big social challenges of social and environmental justice.

Positioning itself as a ‘new mobile and digital museum,’ the Climate Museum has been enquiring into the possibilities of non-extractive digital collecting. As part of that, it is exploring extractivism and taking an environmental approach to the challenge of decolonising museums. It is also thinking about the possibilities for museums to collaborate in creating an accessible UK-wide digital collection that offers a climate and ecology lens to cultural artefacts. Digital transformation in spades.

The Climate Museum has a fascinating and energising model as it is not based in a single physical building, instead, it holds pop-events in others’ venues and resides on a range of digital platforms. Akin to the National Theatre of Wales.

Bristol Culture

Bristol Culture, which represents the city’s free museums and historical houses, has also reorganised itself to create a digital museum offer in response to Covid-19. Staff quickly learnt new digital skills so the museum could experiment with different activities on various digital platforms such as live dances on Facebook and 360 degree virtual tours. Its website has also been adapted to highlight museum stories, exhibitions and collections.

Mark Pajak of Bristol Culture said he hoped to follow a hybrid approach for both on-site and digital activity when the sites eventually reopen. He is already thinking about how to overcome the challenges of converting all touchscreen kiosks to mobile web apps triggered by QR codes.

“Physical location is no longer the defining factor when we refer to users of our service. In order to effectively use our spaces and reach the widest audience digital needs to be at the very core to the Bristol Culture team. We need to offer digital services that will enable us to help deliver our mission.”  By Zak Mensah, prior to joining Birmingham Museums Trust as joint-CEO

3 people are standing in a corridor that is lit up in vivid blue. they are walking thriugh a doorway that leads to an orange lit room.
Source: Werner du Plessis (pexels.com)

When thinking about how to implement digital technologies as part of the visitor experience of any organisation, I recommend taking a flexible and adaptable approach – let yourself be in a mindset of constant creative experimentation.

It is important to analyse your audience and what you are doing so that you can respond quickly to what is working and what is not. Be inventive and test digital activities out. Develop new forms of interactive content and provide ways for audiences to engage with you and share their ideas, so that you can adopt their feedback when devising new content. Connect your content in ways that you haven’t done before in the physical space and think about how to reshape your storytelling through digital means. Ensure that the digital services you provide are accessible so that as many people can interact with your organisation as possible. Use your social media channels and be playful, engaging and persistent. And so much more!

Which brings me on to my next point…

Physical spaces to digital places

The power of mobile technologies to connect people with places in quick and meaningful ways cannot be underestimated and evidence shows that the heritage sector is increasingly looking to digital placemaking as a means to reshape their storytelling through mobile. This is because digital placemaking offers a range of powerful opportunities to add value to public spaces in ways that contribute to economic growth and cultural prosperity, which, as noted above, become even more important to this sector as the world recovers from the pandemic.

The Place Experience Platform is a new digital placemaking tool used by a growing number of towns and cities to reveal the histories of their public spaces, and much more. It’s a great tool for digital public history.

Carnaby Echoes reveals the hidden stories behind 10 decades of music history of the Carnaby Street area. As you walk around, the Carnaby Echoes app connects the sounds, stories and characters from locations around Carnaby Street in London’s West End, with a series of embedded commemorative plaques – which then link to film and audio interviews that are connected to individual buildings.

Hidden Cities, created by Calvium with the University of Exeter, uses digital placemaking to help people navigate the streets of five European cities – Valencia, Exeter, Hamburg, Deventer and Trento – through geo-located historic and modern maps, while fictional characters tell the stories of the city’s forgotten heritage. The Hidden Cities team is working closely with local museums and cultural institutions, including the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, to explore how the stories of the museum collections can be present outside of the institution itself.

I’ll be presenting the Hidden Cities project in April 2021, at the international conference MuseWeb 21, alongside the lead academic partner, Professor Fabrizio Nevola. 

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Hidden Cities App

Hidden Florence 3D: San Pier Maggiore, meanwhile – a collaboration between Calvium and the University of Exeter, University of Cambridge and the National Gallery – utilises augmented reality and GPS to place the user inside a reconstructed virtual model of the church at San Pier Maggiore in Florence, which was destroyed in the 18th century. As well as creating the church in its native setting, the app recreated the building around the multi-panelled altarpiece by Jacopo di Cione and Niccolo di Pietro Gerini, which is situated in the National Gallery.

Carnaby Echoes, Hidden Cities and Hidden Florence are three fantastic examples of how culture and history can be brought to life through beautifully crafted digital means. These are only a few examples of how digital placemaking is already revolutionising the museum and heritage site experience. Technology is moving at lightning speed and the possibilities in this field are endless. 

Reasons to be optimistic

In spite of the unprecedented challenges that cultural institutions have faced over the past year, the pandemic has been a catalyst for new digitally-enabled encounters between people and cultural heritage. We have seen museums and heritage sites all over the world adapt at speed.

The MCG Conference shows that even in the bleakest of times, there is much reason to feel optimistic. Museums are developing new models of public engagement. They are reimagining their collections and making them more accessible to the public. They are looking at new technologies that will enhance both on-site and online digital activity. Each institution is seeking to expand beyond their physical walls to ensure they can always engage with the public they serve.

Finally, once Project What If opens in Bristol’s We The Curious science centre, I hope to see you there – or, alternatively, online at the prestigious MuseWeb 21 conference!


If you are interested in how digital placemaking can power your institution’s visitor experience, online or in venue, then please give the Calvium team a call: 0117 226 2000 or email: hello@calvium.com

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