By Assam Ghulam, 6th Form Student, The Langley Academy
One of the things I like about studying at The Langley Academy is that museum learning is integrated across all areas of the curriculum. For my Year 12 work experience I was delighted when the opportunity arose for me to work as a museum blogger researching digital new media and its implementation within museums. As part of the work experience, I have been tasked with writing a blog to be published by London Museum Group, as well as gaining key skills such as interviewing museum professionals and selecting evidence to construct my argument. So, for the past few weeks I have been welcomed by the museum community and I was fortunate enough to attend Open Culture 2013, whilst researching: How do museums cater digitally for their audiences, both inside & outside of the museum?
My research journey began at the Science Museum looking at digital exhibitions, trying to find something exciting that would draw my attention. Apart from the conventional touchscreens, nothing really caught my eye, until I ventured into the basement. Here I discovered Chrome Web Lab, a live interactive gallery that brings the extraordinary workings of the internet to life. There are 5 Chrome Experiments to choose from. They range from the robotic orchestra to custom-built robots that photograph users and then sketch them in sand. Once you enter the exhibition and select an experiment, you will be faced with a digital touchscreen and various options. With the robotic orchestra for instance, you have the opportunity to select what beat you wish to play on the available drums, and how you want your music to sound. You must first login to the experiment and you can see how many other users are logged in at that time, and from where in the world. Everyone is shown the same interface, meaning you all can collaborate and make real-world music through the robotic instruments. Perhaps what is more impressive is the fact that these Chrome Experiments allow visitors to the museum, and people on the internet, to work in perfect harmony to co-create something magical. I also got the opportunity to speak with Jasmine Spavieri, an assistant content developer at The Science Museum, who spoke about ever changing audiences and how resources must change to cater for this. It is therefore refreshing to see a gallery that makes use of a tool that is now part of everyday life.
Having been to the Science Museum, I wanted to understand how a neighbouring museum with a very different collection uses digital resources to engage their audience. I met Sam Rae an E-Learning programme developer at the Natural History Museum [NHM] and he was kind enough to give me a tour around the museum. I was most impressed by The Cocoon, a state of the art building located in the Darwin Centre. As you walk around you are able to collect things that interest you on the NaturePlus card, available at the beginning of The Cocoon. NaturePlus is an online tool that will show you everything you’ve ‘collected’ when you were at the museum. On the NaturePlus website you’ll find blogs, forums, collections work and research the museum is undertaking. With over six million people using NaturePlus, this is a huge success, and one of the most effective services available in engaging audiences outside of the museum.
As well as visiting various museums, I also attended Open Culture 2013. Here, I had the chance to listen to many informative seminars that related directly to digital new media in museums. One of the more thought-provoking seminars was given by Deron Burba, Chief Information Officer, who spoke about opening up collections at the Smithsonian Institute. He argued creating a digital Smithsonian is ‘a transformation, not just an add on’. Having visited The Science Museum and NHM, I couldn’t help but think, perhaps this is a key difference to how digitalisation is approached in the UK. We need more than the conventional touchscreens, we need a transformation. 3D digitalisation is a key focus for the Smithsonian; with 19 projects in progress, this could define the future of museum digitisation through 3D documentation of objects and environments. As well as redesigning museums from the ground up, making them more space efficient to encourage discussion on collections, the Smithsonian is using the innovative tool of crowdsourcing to understand what collections the public want to see. This is something that has proved extremely successful for Historypin, an online global community that encourages people to share their knowledge on specific projects and ultimately, build up a holistic understanding of the world. Nick Stanhope, CEO, spoke of their collaboration with the Imperial War Museum, and how the use of crowdsourcing allowed the public to share information and add value to photos from World War One.
In addition to key seminars taking place there was also a fantastic trade fair, displaying products, software and information. One of the most versatile products I used was Probas, a sensational 3D interactive system using haptic technology, allowing users to feel an object they can see on a screen. Sounds complicated but actually, it is a very innovative product that could easily be used in museums, schools and perhaps even in hospitals. Artefacts are prepared and created especially for the interface. There is a little yellow ball in the system that you move around until you feel a sensation of the object you’re holding. You will then be able to move around the object, watch movie clips or animations and listen to verbal descriptions. The creator of this product, Christopher Dean, said this is accessible for all ages and settings can be amended for those with impairments. This is a truly versatile product that can give you access to a whole range of artefacts, and hopefully it shouldn’t be long before you see it in a museum near you. Although a system like this would only cater for individuals inside a museum, the product itself acts as symbol for digital transformation. This will hopefully encourage innovation for more products of this nature.
The Magic Formula
So, I’ve seen and heard a lot over the past few weeks, but let’s return to my research question, how do museums cater digitally for their audiences, both inside & outside of the museum? I’ll start with what I really liked and enjoyed, and that was Web Lab. The gallery seamlessly connected visitors inside the museum with the general public outside the museum. This is something I had never seen before, and I was astounded when I saw how brilliantly it worked. Having seen touchscreen activities well past their time, I suppose I was quite surprised when I used Web Lab. The modern feel to everything made it a pleasure to use and the use of the internet shows how galleries are undergoing a digital transformation. This is something that is seen again in The Cocoon at NHM. You can use the interactive monitors at the museum then use the NaturePlus card to continue your exploration at home. This is great example of a museum catering digitally for audiences, both inside & outside of the museum. The ease of use also means that many people will want to go online and try it out for themselves. However, Sam Rae raised an interesting point, he said ‘digital technology is engaging but is not the magic formula, it needs to be done in the right way’. So to show the most important factors when deciding on digital technology and how to obtain the magic formula, I’ve created a list with the top five things to follow:
- Make it fun & interactive! – In my opinion the most important factor is to ensure what you create is something people will have fun using. Something that draws people in, and once using it, brings a huge smile to their face.
- Ease of use – For your digital transformation to be a success, it must be easy to use. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve tried playing a game on a touchscreen in a museum and not had a clue what’s going on. Clear and concise instructions are always a winner; after all, you want people to enjoy what they’re using.
- Applicable for all ages – It needs to be something that will attract adults, teenagers and children alike. Although it is not essential it caters for all age groups, the thought of a whole family being able to interact with a digital platform is worth investing time and effort in to.
- Usefulness – On of the things I liked about Web Lab was the fact that it showed me the power of something I use every day, the internet. To have a real impact on people, the technology or gallery you create must appeal to people on a personal level.
- Public input – To understand what people want to see in museums, it is important you engage with them. This can be done through questionnaires or even social networking – twitter trends for example. This will also increase exposure and ensure it is a success.
With thanks to: Julie Reynolds, The Collections Trust, The London Museums Group, Natural History Museum, The Science Museum, Probas.
Assam Ghulam is a 6th Form Student at The Langley Academy, pioneering the use of museum learning in formal education. He undertook work experience with Julie Reynolds in the summer of 2013.