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Creating digital interactive labels at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Felicia Ingram and Kevin Kane offer an insight into the world of digital touch labelling and how it can be used to enhance visitor engagement with heritage objects.

In 2020, the North Carolina Museum of Art received a Mellon Foundation grant to reinstall its entire collection. This presented the curatorial team with an opportunity to think about how the collection might be reimagined and where innovation might elevate the visitor experience.

The first step in this process was to hang and install the art in a number of different ways. A number of approaches were utilised across the various galleries of the museum, including a Kunstkamer-style display and a salon-style hanging of portraiture among others.

As the museum’s Manager of Interpretation, Accessibility and Diversity, Felicia Ingram, explains, “These new and different display formats for the museum made it difficult to use traditional labels and, in many cases, the curators were keen to avoid the use of labels that might restrict the layout of the displays. Instead, this presented us with an opportunity to explore an alternative approach through digital labelling.

“We knew that adopting a digital display approach also enabled us to share more content with visitors. We have an educational website called NCMA Learn, which is full of videos and digital content aligned to our accessibility goals – mainly aimed at people who can’t physically visit us. The adoption of digital labels made it possible for us to take some of this content and apply it to our on-site exhibits.”

So, what functionality has digital labelling brought to the on-site experience? Kevin Kane, Software Developer at the museum, says, “Beyond the standard artwork information you’d find on a traditional, static label, the feature we’re now using most in our digital labels is the magnification tool. Essentially, it allows you to pinch the screen and zoom in on a high resolution photograph of the artwork with excellent picture quality. This means visitors can get closer to the details of a piece than would be possible when viewing a portrait at a distance or through a protective glass screen.

“We can also put video content on the digital labels, including interviews with artists and curators to provide context or interpretive narrative. We’ve also added in a ‘related artwork’ feature, helping to signpost other works by the same artist or in a similar style elsewhere in the gallery.

“Finally, we’re just beginning to incorporate features that provide information on the conservation history of artworks – addressing the provenance of pieces and how they’ve been cared for over time.”

Kevin also notes that the digital labels – which were initially installed in 2022 – are currently being upgraded with analytics tools. This innovation offers valuable insight, giving the team a greater understanding of how the labels are being used, which features are most popular and how long people are spending on an artwork’s content in each visit. He adds,

“This will help us understand which collection objects and styles of interpretive content are resonating with visitors, and what we could perhaps do differently as we roll these digital labels out to other areas of the gallery.”

Felicia notes that the digital labels have been well received by visitors of all ages, providing something different for everybody:

“For children, the ability to pinch and zoom to look at the finer details of an artwork is interactive and engaging. During school field trips we’ve seen teachers using the pinch zoom feature as a close looking exercise, which has brought a new dimension to their learning.

“For adults, it provides additional layers of information and differing perspectives that have been well received.”

Cultivating buy-in and building for the future

The core team involved in the installation of digital touch labels were the curatorial team, exhibition design team, and the interpretation and education team. But Felicia is quick to point out that bringing the digital interactive labels to life required much broader involvement and buy-in from across the museum’s departments. She says, “We, of course, also needed a significant contribution from our editorial team, from tech professionals like Kevin, from registration, art movement and IT. As we move forward, we’ll also work closely with marketing and our online team.”

According to Kevin, a conscious decision was made early on to start the digital labelling project conservatively. Bringing together so many different departments and placing demands on the resources of already stretched teams would have reduced the chances of a positive outcome.

He suggests that by developing a format with huge potential but modest beginnings has been important to proving the value of the initiative. While just a few exhibits currently feature the full functionality available through the digital screens, it’s the proof of concept that will now drive future iterations: “We have the capacity to add in lots of bells and whistles on labels across our galleries. But for the majority of objects we’ve kept to the basics. Doing more than this would have been too labour intensive for too many members of staff in a short period of time.

“I would also add that the kiosks for the digital screens are intentionally low profile and relatively small. That’s important for gaining buy-in because we’ve worked to retain the focus on the original works of art – the labels are meant to complement the pieces, not block them or distract from them.”

Another key factor in ensuring the success of the project involved looking to other institutions that were already doing labelling well and taking the best bits for use at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Felicia says, “Kevin and I actually embarked on a bit of a digital labelling field trip. In total, we visited six other museums that were using similar technologies and applying varying levels of functionality. None of them were art museums but they gave us a good grounding in what was possible and what might work well for us.

“Showcasing how other institutions were successfully using digital touch labels was also useful for us in getting that internal buy-in here at our museum.”

Interactivity to attract new audiences

Felicia speaks candidly about the importance of innovation in driving audience engagement and sharing art with visitors. In a world where the younger generation are overwhelmed by a huge range of media and entertainment sources, she believes that museums like the North Carolina Museum of Art have a responsibility to work harder than ever to create memorable experiences – not just showcase art:

“There is no doubt that museums can be boring. I love art so much but I know that we traditionally rely on visitors simply looking and reading. That’s not for everyone. So, to make museums more fun we have to be willing to adopt technologies that can offer additional benefits or new perspectives.

“That’s not to say that technology is the answer to everything, at all. But it can definitely offer tools to help solve problems.”

This sentiment has been borne out in the observational research the museum has carried out on the back of the digital touch labelling project. Already, they know that visitor screen engagement times ranges from 10 seconds to 10 minutes, with an average of over 2 minutes. As Felicia notes, that initial data compares favourably with traditional labels, which have been clocked at an average view time of 30 seconds.

With the new analytics functionality in place, Kevin and Felicia hope to gather a much broader data set to inform future developments in digital labelling throughout the museum.

Final thoughts

Asked what learnings he would share with other museum professionals, Kevin says,

“Having a central content management system is really key from a technical perspective. You can start small and relatively simple but in order to be able to scale the digital labels over time, I think that the CMS has to be the foundation for the project.

“Our staff can manage the CMS from anywhere and it isn’t restricted to just the digital team. I think that level of flexibility is really important.”

Felicia adds, “For me, it’s ensuring that we always start with the learning objectives that structure the content. The potential for digital labels is massive but they are only as good as the content that goes on there. I think labels need to be as carefully curated as every other installation in our galleries; not just thrown together in an unstructured way.

“In this project we took the time to strategically plan what we wanted to share and what we thought would resonate with our audience. It was never just about using tech for tech’s sake.”

Felicia and Kevin would like to thank NCMA exhibit designers Mary Wolff, Cesar Zapata, and Kathryn Briggs for their custom reader rail design that supports the digital system, AK Metal Fabricators, Inc. for fabrication and installation, Karen Kelly for editorial support, Sean Thomas for UI designs, and Amber Smith, Eugene Young, and Jackie Shaffer for supporting the technology infrastructure.

 

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