Democratisation and collaboration, opportunity and challenge: Technology’s role in the museum of tomorrow
How can digital technology be used to open up and foster collaboration within museum projects?
That’s the question Museums+Tech 2018’s speakers sought to answer at this event, hosted by the Museum Computer Group at London’s National Gallery.
The intersection of technology, heritage, collaboration and democratisation is where we spend a lot of our time at Calvium, in our work with the likes of the National Trust, Historic Royal Palaces and King’s College London.
What insight can we offer about the opportunities for app technology to help museum teams boost exhibit quality, widen access and collaborate with experts?
Technology for content
Tech-powered ‘content’ for museums and heritage can be roughly split into two main parts: the creative and the logistical. On the creative front, curators have long understood the potential for digital technology to offer immersive exhibits.
Matt Collishaw’s ‘Thresholds’ exhibition uses VR headsets to recreate the world’s first photography gallery for visitors. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, visitors play games around the artworks on display, using projection and body-mapping technology.
Our own portfolio is packed with examples of smartphone-led heritage trails in Florence, London and Cambridge that use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). With these apps, visitors experience an extra level of sensory delight via location-specific audio or video content that tells the story of the site. These stories can be told by multiple narrators, enriching the educational quality of the content further. The immersive visitor experience ‘The Lost Palace’ for Historic Royal Palaces, for example, included imagined narratives from the likes of William Shakespeare and Elizabeth I.
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Digital technologies like these add depth to exhibits and to heritage sites. Curators can provide visitors with detailed information on specific artefacts via an app. Content can be offered in different versions for visitors of different ages – as was the case with our Tower Bridge app.
But technology’s creative potential is not its only point of value and interest for curators. It can be functional, too.
For example, apps are also a simple and effective means of extending a visitor’s experience before and after their time at a site. A museum app might provide valuable site information for visitors with young children or disabilities. After the visit, the app might use push notifications to encourage the user to revisit the museum.
Finally, digital technology offers digital data with which curators can improve exhibit content. This is nothing new – museum teams have been building narratives around digital data for decades. But data can also be useful at the thematic level: that is, data can be the topic for an exhibition. The V&A recently acquired a version of Chinese app WeChat for display – an object of interest for the way it has influenced users’ physical interaction with smartphones.
Technology for engagement
Digital technology of this kind is a powerful tool for democratising information and experiences. Using digital technology to increase exhibit quality in this way can therefore be a powerful means of boosting visitor engagement. For museums and heritage organisations, this means broadening access to visitor groups who are otherwise unlikely to engage with exhibits.
How and why can digital do this? Simple. Digital technology is ubiquitous and inescapable in our daily lives. It’s increasingly how we experience our world. We expect it – and it’s up to service providers of all types to offer these experiences, or miss out in our digitised attention economy.
That’s no bad thing: museums and heritage organisations can also use our familiarity with digital technology to encourage visitors to actively engage with exhibits, where this engagement would once have been passive.
Cooper Hewitt’s ‘pen’ device, for example, enables visitors to the New York museum to interact with and collect artefacts and display items, which they can save to access at home. MoMA’s MoMAR app enables visitors to ‘remix’ artworks with artist-designed, AR-powered interactivity.
Engagement can even extend to creating exhibits in the minds of visitors that don’t exist in the real world. Our award-winning Lost Palace app took visitors on a walking tour around Whitehall, London, helping them explore a royal palace that was razed to the ground 300 years ago. Visitors were equipped with bespoke handheld devices which used audio and tactile feedback to deliver a rich explanatory narrative about the area, as they walked through it.
Using technology in this way can fundamentally change our definition of museum ‘space’, moving it from ‘physical’ to ‘digital’ to ‘hybrid’. We’ve written about this shift at length in our work on digital placemaking. In this way, any public or private space can become a museum.
Digital technology means that audiences don’t even have to visit a site to explore it – thereby broadening access and building communities of learning, virtually. The Museum of London’s popular Fatberg exhibit is a case in point. Here, visitors can view a decomposing fatberg dredged up from the sewers of Whitechapel physically or online, via live stream – a perfect pairing of digital exhibit data and digital technology that allows visitors to build long-lasting engagement with an exhibit. Other organisations – like Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery – choose to livestream special events for those that cannot attend. Others, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, digitise their collections for online access.
The effect is democratisation via digital technology – breaking down barriers to learning for a diverse range of audiences.
Technology for collaboration
To create compelling digital experiences, museum teams must collaborate closely with skilled digital creatives. Both parties must learn from the insight offered by the other – a process we bake into every step of our work with clients.
Every digital project poses design challenges. Teams must choose the right platform for their project, which often isn’t an app. They must understand how to measure the success of their project, which doesn’t always equate to ROI. Their digital deliverable – whether an app, website or otherwise – should be engaging, valuable and easy to use.
Our portfolio of heritage-focused projects captures the rich, diverse range of opportunities that digital technology, done properly, offers museums and heritage organisations. Hidden Florence takes visitors on a walking tour of the city – guided by a fifteenth-century woolworker. Safe Haven tells the story of war hospital Seale-Hayne, in the words of the soldiers who lived there. Our app for the Battersea Power Station Redevelopment Company enables users to peer into the art deco interior of the landmark through closed doors.
Each app we create is different – mirroring the particular audience and requirements of the exhibit or site. In each case our goal is the same, however: to offer a higher quality visitor experience that widens access and deepens engagement.
Other museum technologies pose different opportunities and challenges. But what’s peculiarly powerful about app tech is its ability to put museum experiences in the hands of visitors – sometimes even in visitors’ control. What could this mean for your organisation?
Explore the opportunities and challenges associated with heritage app experiences in our The Lost Palace whitepaper – focusing on optimising cross-disciplinary collaboration on digital innovation projects within the heritage sector.