Technologies for Interpretation in the Arts & Culture Sector – Workshop Reflections

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Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Arts & Culture

Earlier in the year experts from some of the UK’s leading arts and cultural heritage organisations gathered in London for the IT4Arts workshop that focused on ‘Technologies for Interpretation in the Arts and Culture Sector’. The event focused on the different ways in which digital technologies can expand and enhance people’s engagement with collections, performances and ideas.

Hosted and programmed by the Worshipful Company of IT, this stellar workshop featured presentations from the Science Museum, the Royal Opera House, Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), Royal Observatory Greenwich, the BBC, and of course, Calvium. Part of my presentation described digital placemaking for the arts and culture sector and highlighted some key projects we’ve undertaken.

Whilst the speakers came from different fields and had vastly different areas of work, the common thread was certainly a commitment to using digital technologies creatively and judiciously to enhance visitor experiences. 

Digital Technology, Interpretation and History

Aileen Pierce, Head of Interpretation for the Historic Royal Palaces, gave a good account of interpretation when she said, “Interpretation provides our palaces with a coherent narrative in which stories can unfold” and went on to say that interpretation creates the experience which enables audiences to connect with stories – both intellectually and emotionally – and to unlock meaning. At its best, interpretation can bring the past to life.

Aileen Pierce at IT4Arts Workshop 'Technologies for Interpretation in the Arts & Culture sector.
Aileen Pierce, Head of Interpretation for Historic Royal Palaces, presenting at IT4Arts Workshop

She described projects that, despite the 21century digital delivery, provide visitors with an authentic experience of the six historic palace sites (authenticity being valued highly by visitors, according to HRP audience research). The technologies used are mostly hidden so as to preserve this sense of authenticity. Thus, technologies like projection mapping, directional sound on visitor routes and audio guides have been adopted, and not digital screens. All of the technologies are used in ways that enable visitors to experience the site-specific history of a place and not just be told the stories.

A perfect case study that demonstrates the HRP team’s strategy regarding digital technologies and interpretation is the multi-award winning digital placemaking experience ‘The Lost Palace’. This project is a site-specific augmented reality theatrical adventure that enables visitors to experience a historic palace in London, that no longer physically exists. The Lost Palace takes participants on a mile-long physical journey around Whitehall to witness history in the making – exactly where it happened. In particular, this project makes use of three core technologies: mobile, aural augmented reality and haptic (applying the sensation of touch to user interactions).

User experience of The Lost Palace
The Lost Palace

“The result is a triumph and shows the benefits of both collaboration and investing in R&D. What could have been another unremarkable museum app is instead something truly memorable and immersive.”

Tim Powell, Digital Producer, Historic Royal Palaces.

The Lost Palace was a creative collaboration between HRP, Calvium, Uninvited Guests, and Chomko & Rosier. With the use of bespoke handheld devices, haptic technology, and binaural 3D, visitors were able to go on an immersive adventure, as they touched, heard, and felt what the palace once looked like while walking through modern-day Whitehall. It was an ambitious project to map and recreate Whitehall within a year, but together we successfully pulled it off, with positive feedback pouring from all who experienced it. 

“We asked whether the experience brought the history of this time and place to life, to which 92% strongly agreed or agreed. Finally, the results were 90% for those asked if the experience made them feel more connected to the past and the history.”

Tim Powell, Digital Producer, Historic Royal Palaces.

The Value of Research

Aileen Pierce spoke briefly about the importance of research and how a mix of curatorial research and audience research provides the brief for the HRP interpretation and storytelling, and that informs the decision-making process regarding the use of technology. From the Science Museum Group, Senior Audience Researcher Bethan Ross concentrated on user experience research as part of prototype creation and the delivery of interactive exhibits. 

For the past two decades, the Science Museum Group (SMG – composed of five museums across the UK) has been creating digital exhibits, and Bethan shared with us the lessons they have learned about how visitors engaged with digital installations. It was a particularly interesting talk for me as Calvium is currently working with Bristol’s science centre ‘We The Curious’ to design and develop the digital interactive components of their forthcoming exhibition.

Bethan explained that the audience research department studies how audiences engage with the collection and also helps to enable the delivery of engaging, memorable and inspiring learning experiences by advocating for the audience experience. She looks after the research around digital interpretation and activity.

Image of person outside London's Science Museum on their phone. 'Technologies for interpretation' in the arts and culture sector.

The SMG research process for projects starts with seeking to understand the audience’s preconceived understanding and concept testing, then they test prototype exhibits in an iterative way before, in time, going on to test the final exhibit. 

Usability, motivation and comprehension are the three main areas upon which the SMG research rests. Recently, they undertook a review of many past project reports from a wealth of science museums and cultural heritage galleries to understand better how people are engaging with museum exhibits.

“Seemingly trivial design changes can have far-reaching and unanticipated impacts upon the quality of the visitor experience”  

They found that in 20 years much has changed with the capabilities of technologies but seemingly many behaviours of visitors are constant. For instance, whilst we have better quality touch screen interfaces, AR and VR it’s still about 50:50 whether people choose to interact with the digital element or the physical object first. Interactive games continue to provide the richest opportunity for learning at the Science Museum and “if they possibly can visitors will ignore instructions and opt for trial and error.”

Bethan reminded the workshop that museums are a specific type of environment and this context influences people’s patterns of behaviour. To interact with an exhibit is often a social experience in situ and online, it’s a public experience and whilst kids have no inhibitions, adults tend to be tentative about engagement in these venues. There are often many distractions with children running around the galleries and there are also lots of other exhibits vying for attention. Added to this, visitors also have expectations about what exhibits are going to communicate when situated in a museum, for instance. 

  • Medical exhibits: visitors expect to be given health advice e.g. don’t smoke
  • Camera exhibits: assume it’s about surveillance, when it could be about big data

She warned the workshop not to make assumptions about what visitors will think and do when faced with an exhibit, especially if we are basing those assumptions on how people think and act in other settings, instead carry out rigorous research.

Image shows blur of people moving through an exhibition - in reference to technologies for interpretation in the arts and culture sector

Time and time again myths around digital technologies raise their head and Bethan mentioned a recent and persistent claim in the museums sector – ‘visitors no longer want digital interactive exhibits’. She addressed the claim by refuting it and citing a body of evidence from a wealth of institutions including the V&A and the British Museum, all of whom say that the digital component of exhibitions are as popular as ever. Their studies show a strong demand from adults and children which has been consistent across the last 20 years. There’s been no drop-off in demand regarding the visitor expectation of there being digital exhibits at a museum, the desire for them or the use of them in situ. 

Research underpins much of Calvium’s work and was centre stage for both the NavSta and UCAN GO projects that I presented at the workshop. I was making a case for inclusive research and design to inform not just digital exhibits and interpretation but technology enabled access at the institutions themselves. I based my presentation upon the essay that I wrote recently for the online publication by the Smithsonian Institution, Institute for Human-Centred Design and MuseWeb: Inclusive Digital Interactives: Best Practices + Research.

At the crux of the essay is a call to expand the way that human-centred design is commonly framed, discussed and practiced in the museum context. By adopting a more inclusive and holistic design approach the cultural heritage sector will be better able to serve all its visitors and remove, or limit, current obstacles. As Professor Sir Christopher Frayling states, “The need has never been greater for products, services and environments to be developed in such a way that they do not exclude, but instead reflect more accurately the diverse demands of today’s users…” (Clarkson, Coleman, & Keates, 2003).

Object-Based Storytelling

BBC R&D was also at the workshop with Senior R&D Engineer Mike Armstrong talking about the success of one of their projects that uses object-based storytelling. Mike and I are ‘Key Partners’ of the Bristol+Bath Creative R+D Digital Placemaking programme, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, so it was great to see him and find out about his latest work.

According to the BBC, object-based media is used “to describe the representation of media content by a set of individual assets together with metadata describing their relationships and associations.” These objects can then be “assembled to create an overall user experience” that is “flexible and responsive to user, environmental and platform specific factors”. This will, in turn, benefit the end users by creating an experience for them that caters to their preferences.

One of the BBC’s successful applications of object-based media is the creation of a personalised, interactive episode for Click built using BBC R&D’s StoryKit, an object-based media toolkit. According to StoryKit project lead Matthew Brooks, this approach to factual content can help production teams turn complex subjects into a format that the audience can easily engage with and explore. 

Still from a presentation at the IT4Arts event Technologies for interpretation in the arts and culture sector

I mentioned B+B Creative R+D earlier and at this point it’s worth noting one of the projects awarded funding – PopMap is a time-sensitive mapping application surfacing the cultural narrative of the city. The project is an experimental prototype application that reveals the cultural narrative of Bristol. It responds to your location and preferences, revealing activity relevant to you in a time sensitive way. New and existing data sources will be combined to reveal the quirky, hidden and surprising sides of city life – making the invisible, visible. Using new and intuitive forms of interaction, these cultural events will be presented spatially on detailed mapping, unique to Bristol. So, alongside the formal museums and cultural venues of the city will be small pop-up installations and performances,, a perfect example of how digital technologies are enhancing and enabling new ways to access and engage with arts and culture.

Writing this article has proven cathartic for me at a time of flux. If you’ve got to the end, and I hope that you have, thank you – and I hope that the work, knowledge and commitment demonstrated by the presenters has been interesting at least, and inspires you at best!

Thanks for inviting me Fred. Until next time…