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Rethinking Museums for the Digital Age

Jim Richardson MuseumNext

The following presentation was made at the Gulf Arts and Cultural Leaders Summit in Qatar in November 2011 by MuseumNext Founder Jim Richardson.

Today I want to talk about a vision for the museum for the digital age that we now find ourselves to be living in. You are building the next generation of great museums here in the Gulf, and I think you have an incredible opportunity to move beyond your European and American counterparts by using technology to create a better museum.

I have been told that historically there is not a museum going culture in the Gulf and that this means that to a certain extent your local audiences lack an understanding of what a museum does and why they should visit.

Personally, I feel that this presents an incredible opportunity to move beyond traditional museum models and give audiences exceptional experiences.

In truth, the museum has always evolved. From its origins in Ancient Greece, through the private collections of European Aristocracy and wealthy merchants to the public galleries of the 18th and 19th centuries with their focus on educating the masses.

Today the museum must continue to change. This is in part both enabled and in response to technology in the world around us, and the changing expectations that our audiences have because of this technology.

Consumer technology has put incredibly powerful tools in to the hands of the masses. A cell phone can guide it’s owner around a city, a computer game can be controlled by the movements of a player and Google have put the knowledge of the world at everyone’s fingertips.

One of the biggest changes in technology has been the evolution of the internet from a place to find information into a forum for collaboration, a place to create, curate and share online and I think this could be a metaphor for a museum of the digital age.

Through this more social web, our audiences have found there voice, and I think that exciting possibilities exist in encouraging them to see the museum as another space in which to express themselves.

I am not suggesting that a member of the public can be more knowledgeable about a collection then a curator, nor are they a replacement for this expert. However, everyone can have a valid opinion on art, and even the most unexpected person can add important information to a collection. So perhaps it is naïve to think that the best expertise always exists within a museum.

Beyond the value of this kind of interaction to the institution, I feel that a more participatory experience based on personal observation better facilitates outcomes which are of value to the individual.

Lets look at three examples of digital engage from Brooklyn Museum, TATE and a group of smaller institutions from across Yorkshire in England.

Click! was a crowdsourced and crowd curated exhibition which took it’s inspiration from the critically acclaimed book The Wisdom of Crowds, which asserts that a diverse crowd is often wiser at making decisions than expert individuals.

Members of the public were asked to submit photographs on the theme “Changing Faces of Brooklyn,” along with an artist statement.

These pictures were uploaded through the museum’s website, where an online community scored the images.

The top ranked 20% of the images submitted were then displayed in the gallery according to their relative ranking from the juried process.

What is perhaps most interesting is that when a panel of experts ranked the images, there were a lot of similarities between their selection and those picked by the crowd.

I think this is a great example of a museum using technology to get audiences to participate in culture. This made people step beyond browsing an exhibition, and offered them perhaps a richer experience by asking them to think about what makes a good photograph, what makes one image more successful than another and whether they represent the “Changing faces of Brooklyn”.

TATE Modern in London also looked to engage audiences with ‘one-to-one with the artist’ a digital project which accompanied the Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds installation which ran from late 2010 till May 2011.

This invited members of the public to record videos in which they ask the artist questions about his art, his work and his life. Just under 23,000 questions were recorded, and Weiwei took the time to answer some of these with his own video responses.

Another example of dialogue around art comes from Yorkshires Favourite Painting, a project which asked members of the public to pick their favourite artwork from over 30 participating museums and galleries and say why you liked it and where they would like to hang a replica, the prize which was offered to those who took part.

Over 600 people participated, taking the time to think about what art meant to them and gave very personal responses to art. So one painting could feature in stories of mythology, marriage, beauty, childhood, home and even prompt someone to respond with a poem.

While these musings on art are far from a curatorial point of view, they give a different perspective on the paintings, and perhaps one which the public will find easier as a starting point from which to explore the collection.

I few this kind of participatory experience as the next step in the evolution of museums, which have in the past century transformed from being primarily focused on their own scholarly pursuits such as collecting and researching to becoming defined more by how it serves its audiences and how they can facilitate the experiences these people have in their institutions be they educational, social, emotional or even entertainment.

While these projects have on the whole proved successful, I think that this is just the start of a revolution that will create a museum with the buzz of the constantly changing social web, a place of exchange where people come together to be inspired, to be creative and learn from each other.

The idea of this museum for a digital age won’t appeal to everyone, and I think that highlights another exciting opportunity that technology provides. Today a museum creates one experience for all it’s audiences, but in our reimagined institution, every visitor could have an experience tailored for them.

Today I am going to look at three experiences of audiences interacting with a fictional museum of the future, our guides on this journey will be Akram, a 12 year old boy who is visiting with his family, Mohammad a student who is studying in a nearby city and Nina, an American academic with an interest in the museum’s collection.

Lets start our journey with Mohammad.

He is introduced to the museum through a smart phone application which he reads about in a newspaper. This app takes archive photographs from the museum and overlays these on the location where they were taken through augmented reality.

This takes the museum collection beyond it’s walls and makes it accessible to the public in a way which makes these old pictures seem more relevant to contemporary audiences. It generates conversations about local history and is perhaps the best kind of marketing, something which spreads virally and gets people talking about the museum.

This smart phone application also invites contributions from the public, so Mohammad can add information to a photograph about a shop in which his grandfather once worked.

This could be just a short note, or perhaps he would use his smart-phone to record a film of his grandfather speaking about working in this place and life during the period when the picture was taken and share this with the museum.

The app encourages Mohammad to visit an exhibition of these photographs at the museum, where he is able to appreciate the images both as large prints and through large interactive touch screens which allow him to zoom into archival photography on an interactive map.

During his visit, he learns that the museum wants to contrast these archival images with contemporary images, which they are asking members of the public to contribute through a competition. As a keen photographer, Mohammad is pleased to have the opportunity to have his images displayed within the museum.

Both the chance to contribute information about the historic images and to participate in capturing contemporary photography of the city give Mohammad the opportunity to feel part of the museum, this is an institution that values his opinion and contribution and therefore, he feels a sense of ownership.

I think this sense of ownership is key to building a community around an art institution.

A contemporary photography competition lets the museum reach out to a large niche audience, those interested in taking pictures. Museums around the world have used this kind of model to attract those interested in video, design, craft and art through similar calls for participation.

While Mohammad is experiencing the museums collections in person, at the other side of the world American academic Nina is browsing the collection online, having discovered it collection through a Google search.

Like most museums it’s website contains information about their collection, displaying a picture and description of each item, but this goes one step further by learning from how the visitor interacts with the data.

For example, as Nina browses the collection the website might learn that she is interested in modern Islamic art, and therefore, tailor the content she sees to suggest other items from the collection, upcoming exhibitions or events that might interest her.

This increases the time that she spends on the site and encourages her to come back.

This kind of feature was made popular by Amazon, and it’s ‘customers who bought this also bought’ feature. Why should a museum website not work in a similar way if it gives her a better experience and makes the museum seem more relevant to her?

The website also lets Nina bookmark items or build collections of items that interest her and invite others to view this and to comment on the items she has selected.

One of the collections that Nina has created has been shared with a group of her students, and she can log-in and join in with the conversation about the items.

This kind of dialogue is encouraged by the museum, and curators and other interested individuals have also engaged with the students, answering questions or discussing the merits of the items that Nina has selected.

The museum might give website visitors the chance to take this experience further, inviting someone like Nina not only to print out a picture of an item, but to print a photopolmer resin replica through a 3D printer.

This technology was recently used by an exhibition in the United States to print a replica of King Tuts mummy for an exhibition on ancient Egypt.

This would allow Nina and her class to look at items from the collection in detail, without ever stepping foot in the museum, it presents a new frontier in the concept of sharing a museum collection.

Meanwhile, back at the museum Akram and his family are arriving for their visit.

When they walk through the doors Akram, and his brothers are given handheld computer tablets which give them access to digital experiences to accompany their visit to the museum.

In the lobby of the museum projections update with the latest activity and comments from around the museum. Two visitors are discussing an object from the collection, one is standing in the gallery space with the object while the other is thousands of miles away in America, viewing the collection online.

Other activity includes visitors collecting objects for their virtual collections, adding addition information to the museum’s collection database and sharing objects with friends.

This shows visitors that the museum is alive and as constantly changing as the internet. This sets the museum very much in the present, rather than being an institution focused on the past.

As his brothers race in to the first gallery, Akram logs into his tablet computer using his log in from the Facebook social networking website, this allows the device to personalise the content for him. Another user can be looking at the same object, and be fed totally different information based on their age, interests and experience that they want from the museum.

Someone looking for a cognitive experience might get a video in which an artist speaks about their work, while someone is more interested in an emotional experience might get questions about how an artwork makes them feel.

For Akram, it has scanned his interests as recorded in his Facebook profile and it suggests a game which will let him compete against other visitors his age by finding facts about the objects in the gallery. He must collect objects and answer questions to unlock hidden information about the collection, giving him an incentive to go beyond the usual six seconds a visitor spends with an item.

Increasingly the way in which children learn is being influenced by computer games, and including games as part of the museums learning experience will appeal to those who enjoy learning in this way.

As Akram walks around the gallery the way he uses the tablet is tracked by the museums computer system, it feeds him content relevant to each object he looks at and learns from every interaction measuring how long each he spends with each item and which digital information is most popular.

This informs not only which information should be displayed to Akram, but also the design of future exhibitions based on how people are moving around the gallery spaces.

In addition to tracking through his tablet computer, some museums are starting to look to the world of retailing to build up data about how people are using their spaces. They run data from close circuit cameras through computer programmes to measure which areas have the most footfall and linger times.

In retail this measures which are the most valuable spaces within stores, and in museums it can do the same. This would allow curators to locate blockbuster items in the spaces where they can be most appreciated.

I was listening to a piece on the radio last week in the UK about a loyalty programme which the countries biggest supermarket chain runs. The person who developed this scheme which awards points which can be redeemed against future purchases for every product bought said that the value in the scheme was the knowledge it gave them about their customers. This knowledge gave them the power to stay relevant to their customers and I think museums could learn from this.

As Akram enters the second gallery, he notices the digital projections on one of the walls changing. This has been triggered by him entering the room and some of the objects this displays now reflect items he has ‘liked’ when browsing the museum’s website.

In other spaces in the museum, these digital projections might show items that will surprise him, challenge him, or intrigue him.

As Akram browses the collection the handheld tablet shows relevant information about each object, but also prompts him with questions, giving him the option to move his experience beyond a passive one, and leave his thoughts and opinions.

But do the opinions of a twelve year old really merit sharing, do they deserve a place within a museum? I believe that they do, because allowing Akram to have a say and validating this by sharing it in the museums digital space is going to encourage him to engage with the museum and strengthen his interest in their collections.

But this digital channel is not only the preserve of the visitors, it is also used extensively by museum staff. If Akram asks a question about an item in the collection, he will receive a video answer from an expert on the subject. This takes visitors virtually behind the scenes and gives the passionate experts working within the museum a voice in this digital space.

As Akram enters the next gallery, the handheld tablet tells him that a Facebook friend has bookmarked an item in this room. This displays the item and the comment that his friend left. This kind of personal recommendation allows visitors to turn the museum experience into a social one, even if they are visiting alone.

Akrams interaction with the museum reaches beyond it’s walls, broadcasting his thoughts and the relevant items to his friends on social networking websites.

When he returns home, perhaps Akram would receive something from the museum to reward his interaction with the collection. An example I like of this comes from the National Maritime Museum in London, where a visitor who uses their compass card to learn about and collect objects receives a personalised ebook, which references the items that they have interacted with on their visit.

In Conclusion

So in conclusion, I want to leave you with five points that I hope you will take away from this stroll through the museum of the digital age.

1. Technology: The scenarios that I’ve spoken about today aren’t science fiction. This technology is all very real and museums are making use of it, but nobody is yet using it to it’s full potential.

2. Expectations: People have access to incredible technology in their homes and I believe that this is changing their expectations of the world around them. If museums don’t do digital, then they risk seeming irrelevant in a digital world.

3. Participation: I believe that offering museum visitors participatory experiences is offering them better experiences. We should want our visitors the opportunity to step beyond passive visits and create new ways to encourage them to think about our collections and their individual place in the world.

4. Personalisation: We need to recognise that different people want different experiences from the museum, and create personalised experiences to appeal to the different motivations.

5. Future: By creating a more participatory culture in our museums, we can learn from our audiences. Giving us the knowledge to stay relevant in a constantly changing world.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with museum for more than 20 years and now splits his time between tech and innovation consultancy for museums and running MuseumNext.

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