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‘Storyteching’ – how museums can use technology to tell their stories

We are living in a technology-driven age, and the right digital medium can help museums stay in the loop.

Museums face a lot of competition for people’s attention nowadays, making the challenge of maintaining and increasing visitor numbers all the more difficult. Technology is everything a museum should be: entertaining, educational, and engaging. It is also a powerful storytelling tool, creating new worlds and showing new perspectives with a single click of a button.

Of course, storytelling is at the heart of the museum experience as well. They showcase the story of civilisations: of art, music, history, literature and science, using thematic organisation, audio guides, videos, and varied cultural perspectives to enrich the experience for visitors. But interactive digital technology often goes much further, being adaptive to the individual and much more interactive. So what can museums do to compete?

Well, as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Increasingly, museums are looking to technology to transform the visitor experience from that of a passive observer to that of an active participant. For one, augmented reality (AR) can make a walk through a museum much more personal and varied, allowing the visitor to interact with museums in a greater number of ways. Some would even argue that such an immersive approach enables appreciation for an exhibition on a deeper level.

How can museums tell stories with technology?

To get a sense of how a struggling art gallery or historical site can transform itself into a digital storytelling museum, it is helpful to look at some recent, successful examples.

The British Museum utilised AR technology to great effect by creating a dedicated tablet gaming app for its child visitors. The game, entitled “A Gift for Athena”, tasked children with finding certain statues based on their outline, rewarding them when they do with more information about the work, before assigning them another task.

By turning the learning experience into a treasure hunt, the museum has been able to engage children who might not otherwise have connected with the artefacts. By making each child the hero in their own story – fighting alongside animated monsters and searching out hidden details on museum statues – learners not only collected information but also associated the museum environment as one of play.

From 2014 to 2016, Melbourne Museum also utilised digital storytelling technology to make complex historical events less abstract and more accessible. Their exhibition, WW1: Love & Sorrow, told the “story of the war … through the personal experiences of eight characters and their families”.

The accompanying digital guide asked visitors to choose one of eight ‘characters’, who were in fact real life individuals whose lives were transformed by the First World War, to follow through the exhibition. Taking advantage of Bluetooth technology in the form of low energy beacons, information about the selected character’s story was made available in stages, based upon the user’s location and behaviour. This created a set narrative for people to follow, helping them to engage with the history more deeply and more personally.

In their review of the exhibit, Elizabeth Gertsakis describes how the use of technology allows viewers to understand “the invisible effects of war far better”. The exhibit “draws together different museum practices, layered in the presentation of material objects, images and multiple narratives, to tell a story.”

This fits with the wider views of experts around the world, such as Jennifer Czajkowski of the Detroit Museum of Art, who describes technology as, “Another vehicle, another tool we can use to help visitors find personal meaning in art.”

The EU funded Chess Project (short for Cultural Heritage Experiences through Socio-personal interactions and Storytelling) takes the technology-museum relationship even further, by altering the visitor experience based on individual preferences and behaviour. Using data gathered from surveys, visitor studies and ethnographic observations, the project matches visitors to pre-determined ‘personas’, which influences the kind of experience the visitor will have.

The system adapts based on the visitor’s behaviour; if they spend more time in front of a particular artefact, the system will take that into account when deciding which exhibit to suggest next. This creates a non-linear, dynamic experience for the visitor, tailored to their interests.

What makes a successful digital storytelling museum?

What makes each of the above examples successful is the fact that, despite their diversity, they adhere to certain critical requirements when employing digital storytelling in their institutions.

Firstly, they have a clear interpretative plan. The audience is clearly defined and the challenges faced by these visitors is overcome through the application of digital technologies. Perhaps one of the most remarkable elements of AR technology is that it can be used to make the human story the focus of the experience. Will children connect crumbling statues to the gods and monsters they’ve heard about in books and seen on screen? Possibly not, so the ‘A Gift for Athena’ game places both them and the statues at the centre of a thrilling mythological adventure.

Secondly, and most importantly, each of the above examples made storytelling their central objective. The technology was used to enhance and deliver the narrative, rather than take centre stage for technology’s sake. Digital media is applied thoughtfully to deepen the visitor experience; showing the museum’s collection in a relatable way.

Lastly, all successful digital storytelling museums know that the digital product is the final product. It therefore needs to adhere to highly professional production standards. Relevant music, footage, faultless performance and polished graphics are all essential if the exhibit is going to grab and maintain the visitor’s attention, and help the museum  to compete with rival forms of digital entertainment.

This means contacting the best people to help craft the product; people who will bring their own ideas and expertise to help our cultural past flourish in the midst of our modern digital renaissance.

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About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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