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In conversation with: Nicola Mah, International & Museums Relations Manager, National Heritage Board Singapore

As the project lead on Children’s Season for the Museum Roundtable, Nicola Mah’s role involves looking for new ways to feature the diversity of Singapore museums and bring collections to family audiences.

Of course, the nature of that engagement has had to change significantly in light of a global pandemic. Ahead of her presentation at December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit, she gave us a sneak preview of what she intends to discuss in her talk and touched on some of the learnings from going “fully digital”.

Despite being one of the youngest and, as she suggests, “least experienced” speakers at this month’s Digital Exhibitions Summit, Nicola Mah’s insight into delivering programmes during the pandemic are valuable nonetheless.

Like many other museum professionals, being willing to adapt, be flexible and work in an agile way has been critical to achieving success during a time of real turmoil and uncertainty. This is particularly tricky when collaborating across a number of institutions, as she does as part of the Museum Roundtable.

“Our team’s role at the National Heritage Board Singapore is to create programmes and platforms for all of the museums in our community to participate in equally. That provides us with many opportunities because we aren’t tied to one museum or gallery. But it also presents a lot of challenges in many respects, because we rely on collaboration and have to balance institutions that are operating on different scales and with different priorities.”

For 2020, Nicola was tasked with Children’s Season and the delivery of the Ai Love Museums game. However, what was intended to be a hybrid game that involved both online and in-person elements had to pivot quickly as lockdowns hit museums in Singapore.

“One of the original inspirations for the programme was Pokemon Go. I had a vision of people heading to the museums and being able to login, find a decal or QR code to scan. Part of my initial thinking was that this could also serve as a health campaign because children would  would be encouraged to walk between and within the museums to find these hiding spots.

“But it soon became clear that our aim of delivering an on-site exhibition wasn’t realistic in the short term. Our initial approach was simply to move Children’s Season to the year-end when we thought closures would be finished and life back to normal.”

As the prospect of a swift end to the pandemic became ever more unlikely, Nicola and her team realised that if any programme was going to be delivered in 2020 it would have to take place purely in the digital space.

“There was a possibility that we might still incorporate some element of hybrid in the latter half of 2020. But through the planning stages we decided that there was just too much uncertainty and that committing to a fully online game was the path we should stick to.

“Taking that decision was particularly important because the runway to generating a digital game is at least 6 months. We couldn’t afford to waste time waiting to see if on-site activities would be possible.”

Planning digital engagement for children

Of course, unlike museum initiatives designed to drive adult engagement, the route to the end consumer is quite different when looking to appeal primarily to children. Asked about how to develop a game that adults will want to share with their children, Nicola says,

“A lot of it is about ensuring the parent is clear on what the game is doing. They are facilitators and so they just need to be made confident in introducing the game.

“From that point onwards, you can focus on capturing the attention of the child. One of the challenges we have when creating a game for kids is to make things more concise. Museums are used to sharing a lot of information but we have to trim this down and focus on providing little bits of information in order to keep children engaged.

“Kids aren’t going to sit and read paragraphs but they will learn lots if you can keep them engaged and encourage them to explore more of the rooms in the game.”

Nicola also says that the gamification aspect of the programme was crucial – both in creating a point of difference to other museum initiatives at the time and also to increase dwell time.

“A game setting served to encourage a sense of interaction, movement and exploration that was missing without having the on-site exhibitions. Also, a game allowed us to sneak in little bits of information about artefacts that didn’t feel like education but just felt like fun . . . that was the key to sparking curiosity.”

Interestingly, it wasn’t just domestic users that were attracted to Ai Loves Museums. One of the most surprising revelations to Nicola was the geography and age of web visitors:

“We had people from Turkey, the USA and Europe. It was a relatively small percentage of overall visitors but seeing those visits did make us realise that the game could extend our reach beyond Singapore.

“I was also quite surprised to see how many teenagers engaged based on the feedback that we received – perhaps because of the cuteness of our main character; that some people feel young at heart; or that because the game was accessible from home, teenagers could play without feeling out of place.”

Asked what she wishes to share with the museum community at the Summit, Nicola says:

“What I really hope delegates take away from my presentation at MuseumNext is that sometimes there isn’t a right or wrong way of conducting a project or programme. It’s ok to be surprised by the kind of people who engage, where they come from and how they interact with an exhibition or initiative.

“Deciding to go entirely digital rather than hybrid wasn’t right or wrong. But we made it work by choosing a path and then working hard to deliver what we believed would be interesting and engaging.”

Hear more from Nicola and an exceptional range of other museum professionals at December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit running 6th – 8th December 2021. Find out more about the conference here.

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