Hybrid museums: enhancing visitor experiences


10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Arts & Culture

Digital Insights

A time stop photo shows different people stopping to look at the same painting. The image is here to represent the hybrid museum - people experiencing the same attraction in the museum or from home

Image by Sergei Akulich unsplash.com

Museums, galleries and visitor attractions have adapted to many unforeseen challenges over the past year. As I write this article, the UK’s cultural institutions have recently reopened their physical venues. However, that’s not to say that throughout the various regional lockdowns and building closures people haven’t been visiting and experiencing artefacts, collections, performances and more. Visitors have been present, they have interacted, due to a raft of digital innovations created by passionate museum professionals working in concert with digital experts.

Consider the museum setting… expanded.

Consider the museum space… hybrid.

For, while digital technologies were already playing a growing part in the visitor experience prior to Covid-19, the pandemic has rapidly advanced the ways that visitors expect to connect with museums and galleries. So, there’s no going back, the genie is out of the bottle, and all sorts of other sayings… In any case, why would one want to?

It is imperative that we reframe the museum setting and the visitor experience.

From 2021, the digital realm must be understood as a key aspect of the museum, gallery and visitor attraction environments. No longer can digital products be seen as anything but integral to the fabric of the museum and the experience of the museum.

Expanded visitor experience

An illustration that shows the different technologies being used by museums today:
Digital Technologies being embraced by museums and visitors

In April, I took part in the prestigious MuseWeb conference. It featured exemplary examples of digital practice for cultural, natural and scientific heritage. MuseWeb is the world’s largest museum innovation and technology conference and I was privileged to share the virtual stage with many inspiring researchers and practitioners.

Drawing on key themes and projects from the conference, I will take this opportunity to demonstrate how a museum’s digital environment is now an integral part of its visitor experience.

Digital practice for cultural, natural and scientific heritage

MuseWeb draws in around 800 professionals from more than 40 countries every year. Normally held in major cities around the world, for the second year running the conference took place online. My expectation is that future conferences will harness the strengths and opportunities that both physical and digital spaces provide, thus from now on the Museweb audience experience will likely be hybrid. 

I was delighted to participate in the conference as a speaker at the Audience Engagement panel and as a chairperson for the Demonstration session. As with the entire programme, projects featured in these sessions showcased an array of new ways that people are choosing to interact with museum and gallery collections through digital means. When combined, these projects present a powerful case for museum environments to be conceived as having physical and digital properties. 

Let me illustrate my point by showing you how international practitioners from all sorts of museums are creating engaging visitor experiences using bits and atoms…

Expanded visitor experiences in the hybrid museum

Interaction: Synthaisthesia: digital sensory tools

A standout innovation from the Smithsonian Institute is a new piece of software, Synthaisthesia, that uses augmented reality to allow visitors with sight loss to experience the visuals within museums using a new type of image file that embeds audio within regions of an image. 

Smithsonian Creative Technologist, Ian McDermott, demonstrated how visitors can navigate and explore an image using their hands and ears rather than their eyes. In this way, a painting’s composition becomes like a two-dimensional song, with instruments, sounds and descriptions fading in and out based on the user’s input. This allows users to have a self-guided, spatial understanding of works of art, and pinpoint key elements that might be lost in a general description. By experiencing museum objects in an entirely new way, museums can open new discussions and fuel greater empathy between its visitors.

What an inspiring example of digital innovation and inclusive design enabling people to interact with collections in ways unimaginable without digital technologies. This is also a great example of digital placemaking, where the augmentation of digital and physical makes more meaningful places for all.

At this point allow me to point you to a fantastic book that was launched at the MuseWeb 2020 conference: Inclusive Digital Interactives: Best Practices and Research. All about the inclusive design of digital interactives for visitors and staff, it was published by Smithsonian, MuseWeb and the Institute for Human Centred Design. My chapter, entitled ‘Mobile Digital Wayfinding Tools: Enabling and Enhancing the Experience of Visitors with Different Access Needs’ draws upon two of Calvium’s projects that support people to be in and move around venues independently. It is a call to expand the way that human-centered design is commonly framed, discussed and practiced in the museum context.

Participation: Cratylus: crowd sourced data

A very different sort of innovation, David Francis described how Bowdoin College Museum of Art in the USA has developed and gamified a crowd-sourced tagging system to make their collections more searchable and accessible.

Named after Plato’s famous dialogue on the correctness of names, Cratylus allows users to explore the museum collections and apply thematic groups of keywords from a set of controlled vocabularies derived from the Getty Research Institute.

Here we can see how visitors become engaged supporters of the museum through their interaction with its collections when tagging objects. The digital turn has allowed institutions to engage communities in order to harness participatory knowledge, aka crowdsource.

Engagement: Getty Museum: virtual galleries

As a result of the opportunities that digital technologies afford, the J. Paul Getty Museum in the US has been publishing content on its own channels for years. However, thanks to Google’s not-for-profit Arts & Culture platform (which allows cultural organisations to publish and display digital representations of their physical collections online) the museum has created 22 new online exhibits in only nine months.

Still from Betsy Werner's lightning talk at MuseWeb 2021
Still from Betsy Werner’s Lightning Talk at MuseWeb 2021

Betsy Werner Brand, the Getty’s Digital Media Producer, described the huge rise in online engagement with the museum’s collections across 2020 as a result of its work with Google. She noted how Getty benefited from its presence on the Arts and Culture platform, achieving significantly higher cyber footfall than on their own website. This suggests that not all digital spaces are equally enticing and institutions need to develop strategies that pay significant attention to the digital real estate they choose to inhabit and in which they invest their time, money and imagination.

This project allows audiences ‘to get up-close-and-personal with objects in ways the average visitor can’t in-gallery’ said Betsy. Yet another example of the expanded engagement that digital technologies afford visitors. Furthermore, through projects of this type, museum and gallery experiences no longer need to be confined to their physical walls, nor do they need to end as soon as security switches off the last light and locks the door. With the right technology in place, people can enjoy these experiences at the click of a button, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, worldwide. What a potential audience reach and opportunity to turn visitors into valued supporters.

Ethical perspective: More Valuable Than Gold

In a world where we are increasingly glued to our phones, what could be more valuable to museums than gold? People’s attention, of course, and this was the subject of this lightning talk from Michael Neault of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Still from Michael Neault's lightning talk
Still from Michael Neault’s Lightning Talk at MuseWeb 2021

While the conversation has, until recently, largely revolved around the methods that museums can adopt to attract visitors through digital technologies, Michael’s talk focused on respecting visitors through design and deliberately eschewing the click-bait advertising model. He asserted that museum’s should be all about responsible design that cultivates trust for a museum’s brand and for the cultural sector at large, not ‘monetising traffic’. 

Beyond museum walls

First slide from Jo Morrison and Fabrizio Nevola's MuseWeb 2021 presentation: Beyond Museum Walls: Locative media providing encounters with European history

Engagement: Hidden Cities: Location-based storytelling

Public historians and academic researchers are increasingly using mobile technology to drive place-based historical storytelling, moving from the museum to the street.

Professor Fabrizio Nevola and I were invited to talk about the Hidden Cities research project as an example of how locative storytelling can expand the spatial characteristics and setting of a museum.

Born from six years of collaboration between Calvium and the University of Exeter, Hidden Cities combines augmented reality, expert storytelling and multi-language support in a smartphone. The mobile apps help people to traverse the streets of Valencia, Exeter, Hamburg, Diventer and Trento, while fictional characters lead them through the forgotten histories of these European cities.

HiddenCities CaseStudyImagery 03
Historic map wayfinding interfaces

Calvium designed and developed the technology upon which the Hidden Cities mobile apps are built; the Place Experience Platform. Research historians from five universities created content about the cities for visitors to experience. 

Place Experience Platform: driving place-based historical storytelling with mobile technology

As Fabrizio noted during the talk, a central innovation in the Hidden Cities product is the ability to connect the stories of the material culture of public space – from street signs and cheap posters to clothing and processional banners – to the locations where they were originally placed. Nowadays, these material artefacts are held in the cabinets of a museum venue, away from their original context.

Hidden Cities and the other digital projects above demonstrate the real opportunity for museums to use tech to create museums without walls; to connect people, collections and hybrid places in new, exciting and meaningful ways.

A white man, with grey hair, wearing a grey coat and has headphones in, is holding his phone as he man enjoys a historical tour on the Hidden Cities app - showing how he is enjoying a museum/cultural experience without the boundaries of walls
The Hidden Cities suite of apps give users the opportunity to explore history without the boundaries of museum walls

Also at the MuseWeb conference, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County talked about some of the amazing work it is doing with augmented reality and place-based learning. The museum has been exploring the potential of augmented reality as a means to connect visitors to places, times or types of content that are otherwise inaccessible. 

The early results have been promising, with one implementation of this technology showing that using augmented reality increased visitor interest in the park and positive emotions around science content, as well as decreasing science misconceptions among participants.

What a wonderful way to use technology to not only bring extinct creatures (ice age mammoths) back from the dead, but also boost the public’s understanding of, engagement with, and trust in science.


I left the MuseWeb conference (shut down my computer) feeling so excited and inspired by all the innovation going on in the sector, and even more certain that a museum’s digital environment is a critical part of its location.

Augmented reality is being used to allow visually impaired people to navigate images differently. Locative smartphone apps are bringing history to life in urban spaces. Crowd-sourced tagging catalogues are allowing people to discover what they are looking for much quicker. Whole works and collections of some of the world’s most renowned artists are being hosted on digital platforms for all the world to see. 

All of these innovations are only serving to make the museum experience more accessible, engaging and future-facing. If you have the capability to do this, or to at least partner with somebody who does, why wouldn’t you?

At Calvium, we are committed to using our skills and expertise to develop technological solutions that are all of those things: accessible, engaging and that enhance people’s experience of history and culture.

If you feel inspired by what you have read here, then please contact us to discuss the ways in which we can collaborate to enhance your museum’s experience through creative digital technologies.

If you are interested in themes discussed in this article, take a look at the We The Curious: Project What If case study.

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