MuseumNext chats to Jussi Ängeslevä about the shortcomings of existing hybrid and remote tours and how a recent research project conducted in partnership with the Natural History Museum Berlin has explored ways to elevate experiences in the future.
Professor Jussi Ängeslevä is a designer, an artist and an educator working in the ever-expanding field of new media. He is also Creative Director of ART+COM Studios, where his work in public art commissions, exhibitions and installations are consistently yielding international recognition.
As Jussi explains, his career has always intentionally nestled in between fields: combining understanding of visual, physical and interaction design with algorithmic, electronic and mechatronic knowledge to create innovative and elegant experiences. He says, “I’m very interested in the embodied interactions between the digital and space. Content doesn’t end at the boundary of the digital device – at the edge of the black rectangle.”
One particular area of interest for Jussi and his team at ART+COM lies in the area of hybrid museum experiences. And, in particular, the idea that museums should be looking to provide museum visitors – both physical and online – with much more than a passive experience that fails to engage in any meaningful way.
“In recent years, different experiments have tried to explore how a remote or hybrid museum visit might look and feel like. This has been expanded through Covid times when museums were forced to close and develop their online presence. While the quality of video streams and digital experiences have increased significantly, a core value of the museum experience has fallen by the wayside: visitor agency.”
As part of a research project, funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Jussi and the ART+COM team partnered with the Natural History Museum Berlin to address this problem. He says,
“The grant was secured during the Covid-19 pandemic to find out if we could develop ideas between ourselves and the museum to enhance accessibility without simply putting pictures of artefacts on a website. Or presenting live streamed footage from galleries on a mobile phone.”
Jussi’s team set about exploring the ways that technological solutions might bring about a stronger sense of participation within guided tours – participation that could encompass a sense of agency, community and also the ability to communicate during the tour experience.
What’s wrong with current remote experiences?
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that many of the remote museum experiences offered by museums today were developed in haste over the course of the last three years. In light of the Covid pandemic, cultural organisations often implemented virtual tours and online experiences with the confines of limited resource, limited time and the restrictions imposed by lockdowns.
With that in mind, this funding enabled Jussi and his team to look at what might and should be possible in advancing remote and hybrid experiences in the future. Jussi explains, “I guess the basic pitfall is to replicate something that works in one space as closely as possible in another. Going forward, I think museums and creative teams can instead start by considering the qualities of the medium first, before tackling the application of the case in hand.
“The thing that really came out of our conversations with the Natural History Museum Berlin was the need to understand the type of space we were dealing with – either physical space, social space or personal relevance. From there you can plan out the best way to create an experience.”
Jussi explains that what is often missed in conversations about digital experiences is the acknowledgement that traditional on-site visitors both have the ability to make decisions about the way they tour a space and also play an active role in contributing to the physical environment: “Agency plays out in the context of immersion. Generally, we have control of our actions and have freedom to decide on how they act or where they go in a physical space. In a digital context, the ways that you understand what is possible and what has meaningful effect has to be considered in a different way.
“In many instances remote, virtual tours feel very prescribed. This means that as an experience you never get the sense that you are discovering something for yourself in the way that you can when visiting in person. What we want to explore is how you can play an active role as part of a social group rather than as a passive consumer of content.”
Testing new experiences
In order to generate a sense of agency and autonomy in a museum experience, ART+COM and the Natural History Museum created two prototypes for a simultaneous online/onsite event within their research project. These prototypes were designed to offer new ways to deliver connectivity – bringing qualities of the physical into the guided digital visit.
Among the prototypes developed was an interactive 360° video livestream that connects multiple people remotely with a physically present guide and participants using the combination of cameras and tablet devices.
Another prototype developed between ART+COM and the museum offered an evolving live-3D-scan of the museum space, which makes it possible for remote visitors to explore museum spaces autonomously. Using LIDAR scanning technology streamed in real time, it is possible to offer what Jussi refers to as an “ad hoc space”. Visitors are free to move around in the space, be aware of other digital users navigating the space and even interact with other remote users.
This approach was found to be particularly useful because it enables guides to dynamically adapt and tailor their narrative to meet the requirements of a group. Jussi comments, “We want to show how these hybrid solutions can create a new form of museum experience that is both guided and curated, whilst giving visitors a great amount of agency and autonomy. The prototypes we have created demonstrate how the different aspects of agency can help museums to establish communication formats that enable digital participation, reach out to new audiences and present innovative forms of enjoyment in the museum context.
“After all, museums are the ideal places for storytelling. Stories are designed to unfold in these cultural spaces, using the physical artefacts and the wider environment as hooks and references to tell a story.”
According to Jussi, a hybrid museum should not only aim to multiply the museum’s presence onto different digital platforms. Instead of thinking about them as parallel realities, it should rethink its digital and physical presence in a more connected and intertwined way.
Through the prototyping phase at the Natural History Museum, this even included the introduction of robots into the real-life museum environment – partly controlled by the remote user.
“In our testing, a physical visitor could move a digital magnifying glass over a cabinet full of artefacts. But online visitors could also move the device due to the remote-controlled mechanism in the magnifying glass. This means that it becomes a shared space where the two users can sense each other’s presence and even communicate with each other as part of a social interaction.”
Asked about where next for museums on this journey towards more connected and immersive hybrid experiences, Jussi says, “My hope is that museum professionals will begin to rethink the hybrid museum experiences as enabling a unique way of exploring museum spaces. At ART+COM we also want to facilitate a discussion about how we can create a sense of togetherness in remote group experiences.
“I think these kinds of technological solutions could be transformative in providing access, so that the digital remote access is not a back-up plan or substandard version of the real-life visit.”
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