Category Archives: Exhibition

Second life

Online social media are where it’s at. Brands know this, corporations know this and of course, so do many museums.

Bundled under the rather opaque term “web 2.0″, a host of online sites and services – coupled with wider access to faster internet connections – has profoundly influenced the way that many people communicate.
Previously unrelated individuals can speak to one another, while larger numbers of people come together to form “web communities”.

At its best, this activity spawns new networks of knowledge – sharing, thinking and inspiration; at worst, it serves up a white noise of banalities. And like all organisations that deal with the public, museums have to navigate a way through this terrain, harnessing its strengths and watching for its pitfalls.

With each new social media phenomenon there is a bubble of hype: first it was Facebook and now it is Twitter. Among the hype it is not always easy to ascertain whether these things are genuinely useful; in the case of Twitter in particular, first appearances are generally discouraging, although further exploration yields riches.

The benefits of such services to museums, and how they might approach using them, are even less clear and a lot of head-scratching and question-posing is currently underway.

This Working Knowledge discusses some of the opportunities and challenges presented by online social media, looking at projects from leading institutions around the world. But before heading into the thick of it, it is worth trying to pin down what web 2.0 actually means.

Really, it is a catch-all term relating to a “generation” of online services that are built around interaction, social networking, sharing and interoperability.

Another, simpler way of looking at it is offered by consultants Lord Cultural Resources, which describes social media sites – such as Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – as an extension of “the sharing of experiences once the sole purview of word-of-mouth communication”.

SPREAD THE WORD, VIRTUALLY

As a virtual word of mouth, it is the sharing of ideas, knowledge and experience that underpins web 2.0 services and user behaviour. This behaviour is typically predicated on relaxed openness, dialogue and a collegiate style of collaboration.

While many museum workers may share these attributes, very often the institutions themselves operate more like corporations, as Bridget McKenzie, director of cultural consultancy Flow Associates, explains.

“In the UK, we’ve followed the US model of shifting to museums as corporations and we’ve learned the rules of PR from the business world,” she says.

“I think this PR mode sits uncomfortably with the collegiate style of critical and independent thinking that characterises most cultural sector workers and increasingly grates against the conversational and open modes of social media.”

As a rule, the US is leading the way in working through these questions, with the Brooklyn Museum and Indianapolis Museum of Art both notably advanced. On the whole, museums and galleries that have really embraced web 2.0 are still few and far between, yet many say they want in.

“Over the last six months, one of the biggest things I’ve found is that people say they want to do web 2.0, but when it comes to matching the digital output that’s necessary with the shape of the museum institution inside, there is a mismatch,” says UK-based consultant Jon Pratty.

And we are right at the peak of the hype, says Mike Ellis, former head of web for the National Museum of Science and Industry and now a solutions architect at IT group Eduserv.

“Once upon a time the development of social tools had our fellow institutions looking on with horror. After a while it became entirely de rigueur. Round about now, it has become unfashionable to launch anything without some kind of social element. [This] is more about doing technology for the hell of it rather than looking at how users might really want to interact with our content.”

With this as a word of warning, the following articles discuss the practical, as well as strategic, challenges thrown down by museums’ use of social media. The apparent simplicity of many services and projects is appealing, but it masks a number of complex issues within.

The structure and culture of most museums, for example, is rarely prepared to handle a multiplicity of voices, both incoming and outgoing. Managing web 2.0 content throws up many implications for branding, content generation and authorship, tone of voice, timeliness, marketing, interpretation and more.

The Brooklyn Museum, considered by many to be exemplary in its online community work, is still something of an exception, says Pratty (see link below).

“Everyone wants to be like the Brooklyn Museum, but most UK museums aren’t like that. They don’t allow open voices or allow people to speak and author [content]. We have a hierarchical structure and the exemplars [in web 2.0] are not shaped like this, so museums have to change. This is a big thing to be tackled and it is less to do with technology and more to do with who and what the organisation is.”

MULTIPLE VOICES

One key aspect is the erosion of a centralised, single voice of authority, as traditionally presented and policed by a museum’s press and marketing department. Museums need to adjust to the idea of having multiple voices, says Mia Ridge, head of web development for the Science Museum, London.

“The monolithic museum voice is challenged by social media. It has always been the way that a museum has many voices: curators would do seminars, education teams would do something in school, and marketing people would be sending messages out to lots of different places,” Ridge says.

“But technology makes it much more obvious because you can just search through it all on the web. So if I’m semi-officially writing about work at the Science Museum on my own blog, what does that mean? My [technical] writing doesn’t really clash with the museum [voice], but what if explainers or curators are blogging? That might clash with the official lines. We’re exploring this at the moment.”

In fact, even the most progressive institutions are still exploring these issues, so hard-and-fast answers are scarce. But there are already some great examples of innovative projects out there, including the use of Flickr in competition events, both on- and off-site; blogs that offer staff the chance to share their experiences and knowledge; and exhibitions and online collections that are “co-curated” by the public.

As ever, different museums will need different responses to these challenges, based on their own particular objectives. “[Practical responses] have to be crafted for each situation, using the right channels and communities of interest,” says Bridget McKenzie.

“With social media, I think those generic rules you see everywhere are problematic. Organisations need to accept they need to invest in advice and training staff in these new PR skills.”

Jon Pratty echoes this: “Museums are seeking or searching for digital publishing skills, and they really need to. Publishing and content skills are absolutely needed.”

Or, as US-based museum and web 2.0 consultant Nina Simon puts it: “Do we have to be on Facebook and Twitter and every other damn social site? No – you have to determine what fits your goals and resources. And then just do that.”

This Working Knowledge is loosely organised around the types of activity that museums already do before the emergence of web 2.0 communications.

Some argue that the distinction between departmental functions is eroded by these new communications channels and that a full structural and cultural reappraisal is needed to embrace changes in visitor relationships, curatorship and interpretation.

This may be the case, but in the end much outward activity will fall into familiar categories: projecting what the museum does; building audiences; developing and marketing exhibitions and events; and researching and interpreting the history of objects.

The web can now play a role in all of these areas, even if it is just one channel among many. Web 2.0, for want of a better term, is more than a fad – and it is here to stay.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

New voices

Blogging and podcasting are two relatively easy ways to embrace web 2.0. But museums need to be prepared to allow for different views and voices

Web 2.0 technologies enable people to contribute all sorts of ideas and material to museums’ online activities, yet it is the museum’s own content and expertise that remain the main appeal and focus of an institution.

So before considering how actual visitors, and potential ones, might contribute their own material, it is worth asking how the museum’s activities might be usefully translated, or perhaps expanded, into the online world.

What content do you have that is already suited to the web? How might new content be developed that would bring in new audiences, both online and to the museum itself? And how might your processes have to change to manage these new channels?

Perhaps a more apposite question is why publish online at all. When asked whether blogs, podcasts, videos and so on are produced for marketing, interpretation, education or a form of exhibiting, most museums say it is a combination of the lot.

“It is for all of these in a sense,” says Mark Hook, a web content manager at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), in London. “They are communicating the creative work that goes on in the museum to inform and enlighten the site’s users.”

RAISE YOUR PROFILE

In the first instance, a blog or podcast may function primarily to raise the museum’s profile and allow it to communicate farther and wider to interested parties. It is also a way of forming a record of activities for people inside, as well as outside, the museum, and it can allow staff who may not otherwise write about their roles to do so – itself an empowering opportunity.

Once established, a blog might instigate a dialogue with readers, much as the Tate Modern’s Great Tate Mod Blog was used to garner ideas for the interior design of its proposed extension.

A blog may be written for the general visitor, or, as in the case of some of the V&A’s blogs, it might offer a more specialist and focused view than would be appropriate for the main website.

Glenn Adamson and Tristan Webber’s V&A blog, From Sketch to Product, for example, is a detailed examination of the processes of creation in craft and design. Ultimately, blogs will be more successful if they are more about interpretation than marketing.

If you are considering starting a blog, an internal “evangelist” will help convince other, possibly sceptical, members of staff of the benefits. Fiona Romeo, the head of digital media at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), London, says that blogging is still seen by some people as an exercise in the banal.

“It takes a while for some people to realise that [it] is not about what you had for breakfast, but something where you can talk about serious museum things. The blog of Jonathan Betts [the senior specialist in horology at NMM] offers a very personal account of fixing the Harrison H1 clock, for example,” she says.

MAKE IT PERSONAL

The “personal” is at the heart of the idea of blogging and sometimes this can clash with a museum’s traditional authoritative voice.

Museums embracing web 2.0 channels need to make a cultural change in how they approach communications. Distributive content with a more individually authored tone is to be encouraged, even if this does mean relinquishing some “control”.

Viewing content creation and publishing in this way also necessitates certain practical and operational changes. Staff who previously did not produce any written material may need to be briefed on the suitability of different kinds of content.

Guidelines may be useful, but remember that blogs are individually authored: even if the press office did have time to sign everything off, it would run counter to the ethos of blogging.

“We’re looking at more blogs for the [Science Museum’s] centenary celebrations, but how can we bring them into the institution without making them un-blog-like? Previously, some early blogs had ridiculous sign-off processes,” says Mia Ridge, the head of web development at the Science Museum in London.

On the other hand, there will be instances when press and marketing need control of communication over and above a staff member who is publishing a blog, as Fiona Romeo says: “Once, someone made a blog post before the press office had issued information on what was a fairly formal and slightly sensitive issue.

But to issue a press release or draft a formal letter can take days, so which is the better way? People have different views on this, but we have realised there’s a need to build better planning and coordination into our processes, especially with press and marketing.”

Such cultural and operational adjustments are probably more challenging than any practical obstacles when it comes to publishing blogs. According to Mark Hook, the V&A’s blogs seldom need editing and the web team receives them and uploads them in a short time – most of the onus is on the writers.

Mia Ridge at the Science Museum estimates that it takes about an hour to write a post, if the author has thought about the topic in advance.

Another way of disseminating museum content is through a podcast. This may seem technologically daunting, but can be simple and effective. The NMM’s On The Line podcast is an example of how to harness the participatory nature of the web, while creating a museum-authored production.

As well as featuring museum staff talking about their activities and telling various maritime and astronomical stories, the programme also answers the public’s questions.

“We were keen to have real voices asking these questions so that it was authentic,” says Natasha Waterson, the digital project manager at NMM. To achieve this, people call an On The Line answering machine, which records their questions as MP3 files. A presenter then scripts and records the answers on a handheld device and the two are edited together.

“The voicemail system costs about £2 a month, and we send the file for transcription to Castingwords.com, so the whole thing is really cheap. The transcription helps with search engine optimisation and provides better accessibility to the [online] content. All in, it takes about half a day to do,” says Waterson.

Blogs and podcasts extend museum content beyond a physical visit and in a manner that can be more detailed than is appropriate for an exhibition or conventional website. They can also can be instructive and entertaining while at the same time performing a marketing function, albeit not a conventional one.

Just be prepared to rethink the way the museum authors and publishes its “voice”.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

Fan mail

Online communities offer many opportunities to market a museum, event or exhibition. But their interactive nature means you must tread carefully

MARKETING

The temptation to use the internet’s many channels and communities for marketing is great. Thousands of people can be reached at once, often in well-targeted groups.

And if a museum starts a Facebook group or Twitter feed, its “fans” and “followers” are just waiting for marketing messages to tell them what’s going on at the museum – right? Well, not quite, because marketing, in the conventional sense, sits rather uncomfortably in the world of social media.

In many ways, social media are a great way of spreading the word about what a museum is up to, especially if people are involved in those activities. The problem is, the net answers back. Or rather, individuals do – and that is where it gets tricky, at least from a branding and marketing perspective.

A recent scuffle centred on the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York illustrates this. In May, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz used Facebook to comment on the galleries at Moma, which he felt significantly under-represented the work of female artists.

The museum’s chief communications officer, Kim Mitchell, responded to the Facebook group, but in a press release-style statement, using a regal-sounding “we” that irked many online readers who seemingly felt shut off from a proper dialogue by Moma’s corporate communications department.

Without scrutinising the precise language, it is sufficient to say that the museum thought it was engaging with people through social media, while others found Mitchell’s tone to be impersonal and inappropriate for a web 2.0 community that expects discourse.

Saltz was also criticised for using Facebook rather than a more open forum to air his opinions, as only Facebook “friends” could respond directly.

NEW MEDIA, NEW RULES

This episode demonstrates how marketing, public relations and branding do not work in the same way online as they do in traditional advertising, posters, leaflets or direct marketing.

Commenting on Moma’s response to the growing online conversation instigated by Saltz, ArtsJournal.com editor Douglas McLennan wrote, “Traditional PR notices are not only ineffective in this new era of many-to-many communication, but can make things worse. And what might have been a real opportunity to meaningfully engage this community has been lost.”

This is a sticky subject that, for most institutions, is still in formation and flux. If you are thinking of reaching out online for marketing purposes, first think carefully about how you will respond to conversations – favourable or critical – when they develop.

Where does the museum’s voice reside? Is it with the press office, the marketing team, curatorial staff, the director, or all of these? How do you want your brand to be projected and how closely do you want to police it? Do you care about negative comments and will you engage their authors?

Almost certainly, the view on these types of question – and the structures and processes that support it – will have to change as you engage online, as Fiona Romeo, head of digital media at the National Maritime Museum, London, explains.

“Typically [at NMM], every piece of communication would be controlled with style guidelines, editing and so on. Interviews would be run through the press office and everything was centrally controlled. But over the past couple of years we’ve been moving towards more distributive content.”

The web will serve up a multitude of views about a museum and given that these cannot be controlled, it is better to learn how to respond. Traditionally, bad press is often ignored in the hope that the story will soon blow over. But online comments usually hang around indefinitely, and they are searchable.

Nina Simon, a consultant on museums and web 2.0, advises organisations taking their first steps towards social media to start by searching review sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor or Qype to see what people are saying about the institution.

“If reviews include incorrect information, add your own comment giving helpful information. If there are negative comments you want to address, commiserate, be friendly, and help them know that you care,” she says.

You can do the same for blogs, again commenting where appropriate. This is a good and simple starting point to familiarise yourself with the web 2.0 environment and is also a type of “soft” marketing.

TWITTER YE NOT?

The biggest social networking story of the day, Twitter, is perhaps the hardest to pin down from a marketing point of view. Some museums are using Twitter to post regular updates on exhibitions and events, as well as converse with the public. Its 140-character “tweet” limit is ideal for quick updates and short question-and-answer conversations.

However, it is informal by nature and the “voice” of a museum’s Twitter contact is typically individual, not corporate. This is a good thing perhaps, but it does have brand and public relations implications.

“Twitter could be the hardest social media platform to take your brand into because it is a person-to-person platform,” says Jim Richardson, managing director of branding consultancy Sumo.

“You need to have an individual [twittering for your organisation] who understands what your organisation is about and understands the medium. They need to be perceived as ‘that cool person who Twitters from the museum’, rather than the institution itself.

“But the content that this individual tweets can be based on your brand. If I’m tweeting for an art gallery wishing to inspire people to engage with art, this forms the basis of all my activity on the site, not just about my own exhibitions, but about other inspiring things.”

Richardson does not recommend Twitter as a public relations vehicle per se, but rather as a way to engage audiences “with interesting conversations”.

Having said that, Twitter is a great mechanism for quick updates, along the lines of “still seats left for tonight’s screening” or “6-9pm tonight, free bar (while stocks last)”, which were recent tweets by the Museum of Childhood in London to promote its First Thursdays events: direct marketing in anybody’s book.

Facebook is perhaps easier to approach in a straightforward marketing sense because it has a section for event details – and, unlike Twitter information, it is not limited to 140-character updates.

Facebook users can become “fans” of their favourite institutions and they do – in droves. The Design Museum, London, boasts of its 46,000 fans, the Tate has almost 12,000, and the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London, more than 10,000.

MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS

So what does everyone get from this “relationship”? “We keep them updated with news, information about exhibitions and events, and we run competitions and special offers,” says Mark Hook, the web content manager at the V&A.

“The benefit to the online audience is that they always know what is going on at the museum and they are able to enter discussions with us about areas of particular interest. The benefit to the museum is that it is a chance to get feedback from people who are engaged with what we do and it is also an opportunity to reach new audiences,” he says.

Social media are great at getting the message out and reaching new audiences but the feedback is trickier to handle. So marketing in web 2.0 is marketing, but not quite as we know it.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

Shared aims

Sites and services such as YouTube, Flickr, iTunes and WordPress can provide useful platforms for sharing your work and events

THIRD-PARTY SITES

One of the most significant aspects of the move to web 2.0 technologies and social media is just how much online content is now delivered to the reader not directly from the source, but through third-party websites or software.

Photos are viewed on Flickr, videos on YouTube, blogs on hosting sites such as WordPress and Blogger. Designed to get people using their systems, these services are simple, largely free and robustly developed.

As well as hosting content, these services are specifically designed so users can share and comment on this material. In many ways, they are an ideal option for museums, few of which can afford to build complex and media-rich websites to host and manage their own content.

When used cleverly, such services can support museum activities extremely effectively. Used poorly, they could become a dumping ground for largely irrelevant media. There are other issues to consider too: media on a third-party site sits within that site’s branding, not your own. And if the site becomes unpopular – or worse, goes bust – it may be difficult to migrate your content to a different system.

These are two main reasons why, given sufficient resources, it may be worth developing a proprietary content management and publishing system for multimedia content to use alongside third party sites.

Of course, the appeal of third-party systems is that all this expensive and time-consuming back-end development is already taken care of; all you really need is good content and a reason to publish it – the rest is easy.

POST HASTE

Posting images to Flickr should take less than an hour if you are already generating photographic content.

“You can post images from museum events on Flickr or upload event videos to YouTube easily,” says Nina Simon, a web 2.0 consultant.

“The time required is highly correlated to whether you are currently generating this kind of content. But if you are already snapping shots, putting them up on the web – with a handy link back to the museum website – is a cinch, and it’s totally acceptable to do it sporadically.”

It is debatable just how interesting pictures of people mingling at an event are to the wider public, but it is an easy way to kick off an online presence. National Museums Liverpool is using this snapshot approach through Flickr to chronicle construction of the new Museum of Liverpool on the city’s waterfront, for example.

The Tate, London Transport Museum and National Maritime Museum (NMM) have all used Flickr to run competitions, with user-contributed photos feeding into content for accompanying exhibitions and books.

In July 2008 the London Transport Museum’s Flickr Scavenger Hunt sent five teams of visitors on a trail of “cryptic clues” to locate and photograph nearby transport-related features in the Covent Garden area, in central London. All the photos were uploaded to Flickr – and ultimately to social networking site Webjam – where the winners were chosen by public vote.

“You need to be well organised to run a Flickr scavenger hunt and think creatively to come up with clues, but events are fairly low-cost and the more you do the easier it becomes,” says Jane Findlay, a community curator at the London Transport Museum.

“Running a public vote is also a great way of prolonging the life of the event. As well as the competition on the day we had a week-long vote for the best photograph.

“It’s been a good way of developing a new web 2.0 community audience and building a media relationship with bloggers. It’s also changed museum interpretation practices by inspiring the use of user-generated content in all future exhibitions.”

The Tate joined forces with Flickr and book-publishing site Blurb as part of its Street & Studio photography exhibition, to add a public element to the show, which was held in 2008. Participants could add two of their own street- or studio-based photographic portraits to a Flickr site, for example (see link below).

“We use Flickr to run audience-participation projects,” says John Stack, the head of Tate Online. “Our approach has always been to ask people to contribute but then to offer something back: displays in the gallery, or a book of selected photographs [for example].”

USING YOUTUBE AND ITUNES

Flickr is the easiest and most used of the third-party media-hosting sites, but some museums are also making use of YouTube and iTunes. If you are already producing video and audio material in-house, these services are especially useful for broadcasting that content.

Tate publishes its video podcast series TateShots on YouTube, and iTunes and is now producing a small amount of content specifically for YouTube. Audio and film recordings of Tate public events are available through iTunes, as are some exhibition audio and multimedia tours, which can be downloaded to iPhones or iPods prior to a visit to the gallery.

Even if you are already producing multimedia material in-house, deploying it to third-party sites will take some additional resources, especially when you plan to update it at least once a month, as the Tate does.

“Mostly we are reusing content from elsewhere or redeploying it,” says Jane Burton, the head of content and creative director of Tate Media.

“Generally it needs to be recontextualised for the medium, and that’s time-consuming. There is a change in what people do as part of their jobs and inevitably working with social media is additional, rather than replacing existing channels, such as email communications, press releases and Tate Online. There is some staff time involved in uploading and maintaining play lists and responding to comments, for example.”

Given the extra time needed to “populate” third-party sites with content, it is reasonable to assess what the benefits might be. According to Burton, Tate measures the number of referrals from these sites back to the main Tate Online website and has found the results encouraging enough to adopt this approach in all of the gallery’s activities.

“In general, we have found that reaching out to communities on other sites is very successful and we are working on a cross-departmental strategy to embed this within the organisation including Tate Online, marketing, press and communications, visitor services, director’s office, membership, and beyond,” she says.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

Crowd as curator

Web 2.0 services, such as social networking sites, allow museums to become truly collaborative and democratic

PUBLIC INTERACTION

Web 2.0 is all about interconnections. It can develop the connections between museums and their users, as well as those between the users themselves, but there are also connections between objects – and not necessarily objects held in the same museum.

And it is this last set of connections that can really be harnessed by the interoperability of web 2.0 services and collaboration with the public.

The digitisation of objects and information to create online collections is not new, even though for many institutions it is a slow and ongoing process. But the way that people, including other organisations, might make use of these collections is now changing.

Web 2.0 services such as Flickr and Facebook allow content to be added and manipulated from other pieces of software through what is known as an application programming interface (API).

It is here that some of the most interesting developments will take place, says Mike Ellis, the former head of web for the National Museum of Science and Industry and now a solutions architect at IT group Eduserv.

“[While we focus] heavily on the social aspects of web 2.0 from a user perspective, it is the stuff going on under the hood which really pushes the social web into new and exciting territory. It is the data sharing, the mashing, the APIs and the feeds which are at the heart of this new generation of web tools,” he says.

OPEN SOURCE

A number of museums are building APIs to allow access to their online collections: the Brooklyn Museum in the US and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, are two leading examples. But what does it mean to have an API?

Shelley Bernstein, the chief of technology at Brooklyn Museum, describes it like this: “It’s basically a way outside programmers can query our collections data and create their own applications using it.” In other words, the data in the digital collections becomes open and can be mined and presented in new ways by other web-based applications.

This means that museums can effectively share their digital collections and the public can potentially “collect” information on objects they are interested in, irrespective of which museum holds the real items.

This prompted Beth Harris, the director of digital learning at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York to ask: “Why would a person want a ‘personal collection’ at seven museum websites? Can we really think about our users instead of ourselves?”

This is exactly what the Powerhouse Museum has done with the creation of “D*Hub”, a resource that uses APIs to search a number of design collections held in institutions around the world.

Developing APIs for digital collections obviously requires a dedicated web team, with time to do the coding, even assuming that at least some of the collection has been digitised. But once created, it could lead to a new form of open access that ultimately saves time.

Shelley Bernstein says: “People [in museums] have been working to create various pan-institution collection databases. By releasing our API, Brooklyn Museum data can now be included in these endeavours without requiring more staff time from us – something that would have been impossible prior to the API.”

As well as staff time, there are other considerations, such as material copyright and terms of use, both of which have to be considered under the ethos of sharing and collaboration that such web services promote.

But as museum collections become more readily accessible in different places and formats, opportunities for the public to contribute to the collection increase. One way they can do this is through “tagging”, where brief descriptions are attached to objects online, allowing people to assign their own attributes or knowledge to an item.

Often, the vocabulary of tagging is neither academic nor curatorial, but instead brings a “lay” interpretation to a collection. But increasingly there are instances where the online availability of collections has brought a direct research benefit.

PHOTO LIBRARY

In January 2008, the US Library of Congress launched Flickr Commons as a way to post photographs held in various public collections online. More than a dozen museums, public libraries and other cultural heritage institutions from around the world have now joined, releasing over 12,000 images to be “perused, tagged and researched by the public”.

In many instances, public users of Flickr have provided, or sometimes corrected, information relating to the images in the Commons collection. The Library of Congress itself has already updated almost 200 of its own records based on information provided in this way.

Similarly, unknown scenes in historic photographs posted by the Swedish National Heritage Board were identified by Flickr users within a day.

Both tagging and Flickr Commons lead to the idea of “the crowd as curator”, where members of the public contribute to museum collections and exhibitions alongside curators and historians.

The Brooklyn Museum’s Tag! You’re It game encourages members of its online “posse”community to tag items for the collection, with the aim that their contributions will make the collection easier for others to search.

The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) put the crowd-as-curator idea into practice two years ago, before social media had really hit the big time. In the build up to Minnesota’s 150 Years of Statehood celebrations in 2008, the historical society invited public submissions of the key people, places or things that have shaped the state’s history (see link below).

This public engagement was partly conducted online, but the bulk of submissions came from community outreach. “This online technique brought us about 300 responses,” says Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer at MHS.

“We were pleased with the response, but did feel that we were preaching to the converted, since we reached mostly MHS members. Of course, were we to do this process today, we could take advantage of Facebook, Twitter and so on and have a huge reach.”

The MHS programme has been successful partly because of the collaborative development process, says Roberts. “Had we not used this technique, I feel quite sure that the rich blend of stories and objects presented by real people passionate about their nominations could not have been matched.”

Should the public contribute more and more to the process? “We learned many years ago that our visitors understand there is no single way to interpret the past, and they appreciate exhibits and programmes that invite speculation and debate. Public contribution supports this preference in a real and meaningful way.”

So is this the way museum exhibitions are going? Most definitely,” says Roberts. She is not alone in her views.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

On message

Social networking sites present great opportunities for dialogue with visitors. But you have to accept that along with praise will come criticism

BUILDING DIALOGUE

Social media are about interaction. When it works well, this interaction can lead to proper dialogue and the formation of a “relationship” between those involved.

It is this simple underlying appeal that accounts for the huge success of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the many interconnections of the “blogosphere”. But this apparent simplicity belies a thorny complexity when it comes to museums and heritage organisations interacting online.

Most museums say they want to interact with visitors to build relationships and encourage dialogue, but are they really prepared for the web 2.0 world? Too often they don’t really know why they want to have these conversations or how to handle them when they arise.

“[Museums] don’t have the resources or policies to support real dialogue with the public, even if they are present in social media-land. They may be in Rome, but they’re not ready to do like the locals,” says Nina Simon, a museums and web 2.0 consultant.

EMBRACE THE FUTURE

A handful of museums around the world seem to have changed their culture and philosophy to embrace online social media. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, the Tate and the National Maritime Museum in the UK, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Brooklyn Museum in the US are all pretty advanced in this area.

If you are thinking of using social media sites or museum blogs to interact with the public, a good starting point is to look closely at what these organisations are doing.

At Brooklyn Museum, Shelley Bernstein, the chief of technology, claims that dialogue and interaction are now intrinsic to their work. But have they had to change to achieve this? “The easiest way for me to answer this question is to say we live with technology and these tools differently now,” says Bernstein.

“It’s more about ambient awareness – it’s a fifth of what my job entails here, but it’s always on in the background: nights, weekends and even on vacation. That’s not a bad thing; I encourage institutions to find the people in their organisation who live these platforms much like our audience do. They are going to be the most natural at managing the presence in a way that is very fluid.”

Much of the challenge lies in how a single institution with limited staff and time can effectively communicate with many individuals, some of whom are not complimentary.

Take an example on the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) Facebook page made after a recent event held at the museum. A visitor wrote: “I was so disappointed. What an over-priced, uninspiring exhibition and such half-hearted late-night ‘events’. Do not pay £11 to see the Baroque exhibition, it’s a total rip-off!”

This may be an isolated opinion, but you really have to respond, which the V&A did, albeit in a fairly cursory fashion, by saying it welcomes feedback. Spurred by this, the visitor then offered more specific criticism of the design of the Baroque exhibition, which the museum then failed to respond to, at least publicly.

The V&A has almost 10,000 “fans” on Facebook, so these interactions are significant. As Simon notes, a Facebook group is one of the most time-consuming of the “cheap” options for developing web 2.0 activity, but it can reach a lot of people in a targeted manner.

“If you have staff members who are already using these social networks, you can quickly broadcast out to a large group of people at infrequent points and provide a place for that group to meet and interact with each other,” she says.

Another option for starting interaction and discussion is to host a message board on the museum’s site. The site of the UK Science Museum’s Dana Centre, for example, features a Discuss area where people can talk about science, technology and the environment by setting up their own topic threads. In this sense it is simple and easily maintained.

But according to Maya Mendiratta, programmes developer at the Dana Centre, without regular plugging and content changes on the site’s homepage, participation is pretty low.

“We have discussed ways to increase participation, but they all require web editing and we are really lucky if we get one hour of the [Science Museum] web team’s time a week. So I would advise that if you are setting up a forum, you get as much web-editing experience as possible and set it up so you can do it yourself.”

FAN BASE

One of the most developed programmes of social networking is the Brooklyn Museum’s 1stfans (see link below). As an internet-enabled version of a traditional member scheme, 1stfans links an online community directly to museum events.

Information about exclusive member events is delivered via Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to encourage people to visit and mix in person with museum staff, artists and other 1stfans members.

In fact, the Brooklyn Museum has a Community section on its website, dedicated to all its online interactions. Here, users can leave comments about their visit, join a “posse” and contribute to the museum’s online collection, as well as read blogs and watch videos. By all accounts, the Brooklyn Museum presents one of the most holistic approaches to web 2.0 interaction in the museum sector.

“Brooklyn has a community-driven mission, so for us, reaching out in these types of forums is very natural and makes sense overall,” says Shelley Bernstein.

“It’s less about PR and more about community and outreach, and our participation online in this way is very similar to what our visitor services staff do when people come inside the building or what our community manager does when she reaches out to the local communities.”

Whatever your reasons for engaging in social media, remember that some form of dialogue will follow, and the way this is handled will affect a visitor’s relationship with the museum.

Perhaps the most important thing is to have an awareness of potential stumbling blocks before heading online “socially”. Be clear at the outset what kind of dialogue or relationships you want and focus on that dynamic, not the technologies or platforms.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Autumn 2009.

Participatory design for museums

A young woman is strolling down the street in a medium-sized British town. Rounding a corner she is confronted with an altercation between a white man and an Asian store-owner. It is not clear what has caused the confrontation, but the aggression has a palpable racial element. As the shouting and gesticulating heightens, the observer takes out her phone and grabs a couple of photographs, as well as a short, ten-second video, all the while making sure she is out of sight.

Later, as she comes into the city centre, the woman decides to pop in to the local museum to see what’s on and to pass half an hour before a meeting. As it turns out, the museum has just opened a temporary exhibition looking at the history of race relations in the city, offering oral histories, photographs and cultural objects imported to the town by its Asian immigrants. She notices that one section of the exhibition is soliciting visitor input, encouraging people to share their own stories, experiences and images. These contributions will be collected on a special microsite, built to accompany the exhibition, elements of which form part of a constantly updated digital display inside the museum.

Recalling the incident she witnessed in the street, the woman decides to upload the pictures to the museum’s Flickr group, set up especially for the exhibition, where she is able to geotag the exact location of the event using Google maps, as well as the time and date it took place. One of the pictures – a decisive photographic moment – captured the white man’s grimacing face, his first finger rigidly poking towards the anxious looking Asian shopkeeper. Shorn of context, the image could of course have any number of meanings; but the photographer is able to provide a firsthand account of the racist abuse she overheard and which she duly records in the image’s caption.

With this contribution the exhibition has become live and dynamic. The museum has taken a difficult subject, with historical and social dimensions, examined it and opened it to the public for further and ongoing discussion and interpretation. Although focused around the physical exhibition itself, much of this public participation is made possible using online services which are constructed along the social media principles of interconnection, sharing and collaboration – an approach to web-based services encapsulated in the term web 2.0.

But more than this, in planning for the exhibition the museum staff decided to engage people outside the organisation to work through the design process itself. This participatory design sought input from a small number of community groups, local businesses and residents. One of the outcomes of this ‘outside’ contribution was the decision that the microsite, while hosted and branded by the museum, would be maintained and moderated by two volunteers. One of these volunteers works for a community outreach programme which organises events promoting integration and positive interaction between different sections of the community. The experiences and learning derived from these events continues to be fed into the microsite in the form of a blog.

And so on. This fictional scenario, presenting a museum operating on the tricky frontiers of social debate, begins to illustrate some of the possibilities of incorporating participation – by design – into the processes of creating exhibitions, as well as the way those exhibitions engage the public. Of course, engagement and collaboration may well form the backbone of many existing museum programmes without the term participatory design (or indeed design for participation) ever being mentioned. But a conscious decision to build participation into the design process itself and/or into the way users will interact with exhibitions once they are installed is an approach which may yield benefits for the institution and visitors alike.

Nina Simon of US consultancy Museum 2.0 explains: ‘Participatory design can help museums deliver on the oft-repeated but rarely demonstrated desire for museums to become essential civic spaces, social environments that encourage the democratic process.’

Participation can be as complicated or as simple as deemed necessary, depending on resources, experience and objectives. Engaging and organising people (the public, experts from areas outside the museum, community groups and so on) to take part in a truly collaborative design process is certainly an undertaking, as is inviting visitor contributions and dialogue with the exhibitions themselves. But at its simplest level, participation might be encouraged by asking visitors to caption or comment on objects by sticking Post-It notes around exhibition displays. An example cited by Simon is The Post-It Project, conducted at Sweden’s Västernorrlands Läns Museum a few years ago, ‘in which visitors were solicited to write down comments – about anything in the museum – and post them wherever they wanted.’ As she suggests, the value and goal here are perhaps too vague to be genuinely useful, but the ‘open-endedness also makes this kind of project a great starting point for a museum to explore the inclusion of visitor content. Start-up costs and development time are minimal, and the project can be aborted at any time.’

But for many museums, the catalyst for building visitor contributions into their activities has been the proliferation and mass uptake of online social media services – sites such as Flickr, Facebook and, more recently, Twitter. Flickr in particular is well known, easy to use and allows museums to garner relevant photographic material from the public, not just locally, but anywhere in the world. An event-based extension of this might be to organise a scavenger hunt, as the London Transport Museum has done, sending teams of people into the city to locate and photograph various London Transport related objects. All the pictures were uploaded to Flickr, allowing a vote for the best image to be thrown open to the public and in turn utilising Flickr’s social network aspects to build awareness of the museum’s brand amongst online ‘communities’.

Similarly, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s World Beach Project, devised by artist Sue Lawty, asks people worldwide to create sculptures and images on beaches using gathered stones, recording the process and finished art in up to three photographs. Rather than using Flickr, the images are uploaded to the museum’s dedicated web page and embedded Google world map. Again, the project is conceived specifically to create participation, engaging visitors and non-visitors alike in content generation, while marketing the V&A online at the same time.

These last two examples are competition and art project respectively, so arguably outside a museum’s core public-facing activities, which are delivered via exhibitions, collections and interpretation. But participation can seed exhibitions too. The Minnesota History Society’s MN150 exhibition and book invited public submissions of the key people, places or things that have shaped the state’s history. This engagement was partly conducted online, but the bulk of submissions came from community outreach, demonstrating that participatory design need not be technology-led – it is mostly about approach and intent. The result was an exhibition populated with content gathered directly through public input, albeit curated by the museum.

A nice example of design for participation is the National Maritime Museum’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, set up this year so that entries are submitted via Flickr, where they are held in the public domain, while a partnership with Astrometry.net allows each image is ‘astrotagged’ so that they can all be combined and compared in a growing photographic chart of the night sky. The collaborative nature of this project – along with the content created by the public – is its strength. And again, it builds awareness of the museum’s activities farther and wider than could have been achieved otherwise. It is competition, exhibition, research and marketing all in one, but would not be possible without public input, professional collaboration and web-based services.

Yet another example is Brooklyn Museum’s Click! exhibition, an investigation of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ in which artists’ photographic responses to the theme of the ‘changing faces of Brooklyn’ were assessed by the public online. At the final exhibition, held in the museum last summer, the artworks were installed according to their relative ranking from this public jury process.

Participatory design, then, can take many flavours. Naturally, not everything will be appropriate for every institution, exhibition or subject theme.

Traditionally, museums have delivered knowledge and learning in one direction: from institution to the public. Although it adds another dimension, participation need not supplant this model. Of course, it is valid to ask whether participation – and by extension participatory design – is actually necessary or beneficial at all. Perhaps one way to answer that is to consider changing expectations. As cultural sector consultant and Flow Associates director Bridget McKenzie notes, a recent flurry of events centred on participatory culture seem to indicate that ‘the public expects to participate’.

This article was written for the MuseumNext conference, taking place 22-23 October 2009.

Upwardly mobile

Mobile phones are ubiquitous. In any busy public place, a large proportion of people is either talking on or fiddling with a phone handset.

And if they are not, there is a high chance they are wearing headphones connected to an iPod or other music player. For many of us, the portable communications-cum-media device is now as familiar as a wristwatch.

It is no surprise, then, that museums and galleries have seen an opportunity to harness our connection with our mobiles and iPods to deliver multimedia content, cheaply and efficiently, to visitors.

The appeal is obvious: practically every visitor carries a mobile phone, most of which can play multimedia files. All the museum has to do is deliver the content; no hardware acquisition and maintenance costs, no staff needed to hire out and recharge guide devices.

Unsurprisingly, mobile phones have been viewed as an “Eldorado” by museums, removing lots of the problems of hiring out equipment such as PDAs (personal digital assistants).

One of those problems is, of course, cost. Setting up and running a PDA-based multimedia guide can prove prohibitively expensive for smaller institutions. Even large museums find the cost too high for exhibitions not intended as blockbusters. Purchasing PDAs, lanyards, charging racks, security tags, cases and so on can run into tens of thousands of pounds pretty quickly.

“It seems that many museums long for a time when they could forego the cost of maintaining their own devices in a constantly evolving hardware environment,” says Peter Samis, who develops interactive educational technologies at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoma).

If visitors used their own mobile phones, on the other hand, they could get museum-generated content at no cost to visitors and relatively cheaply for the museums. In certain set-ups, this promise is achievable.

Inevitably, there is a “but”. The “Eldorado” of visitor-provided hardware has not really emerged in any big way. This is partly to do with technical obstacles and partly due to behavioural resistance from visitors.

Dial up and download

At SFMoma two recent exhibitions included mobile phone-delivered audio tours as part of their interpretation. For 246 & Counting, an exhibition about building a museum collection, an audioguide was available through a dial-up number.

Visitors were given a card showing the audio items available and how they related to the exhibition. To access these clips, the visitors dialled a main number followed by the corresponding item code.

A similar mobile phone guide was set up for The Art of Participation, an exhibition looking at the history of audience interaction in art. This had the additional option of a podcast, with higher-quality audio files that could be downloaded to the phone or music player via the museum’s website at any time before (or after) the visit.

Both systems gave the visitors autonomy to choose what they would like to listen to and both were relatively simple and inexpensive for the museum to deliver. On the downside, dial-up guides require some call payment which, especially for foreign visitors making international calls, could turn out to be more expensive than hiring a traditional audio tour.

And the podcast, while convenient and offering much higher quality audio than the dial-up guide, requires preplanning on the part of the visitor if they want to play the guide during the visit.

Despite these issues, SFMoma expected the guides to appeal to visitors. In reality, they were barely used. Calls to the dial-up guides, in particular, scarcely broke an average of 20 per day – a negligible proportion of the visitors to the exhibition.

Use of the mp3 podcast for The Art of Participation was nine times higher, but that still amounted to relatively few of the exhibition’s visitors.

So why was take-up so poor? The answer, according to the museum’s visitor research, might actually be a general lack of interest in using mobile phones for museum tours.

SFMoma’s experiences show that the convenience and low cost of mobile-delivered content may not yet be enough to engage visitors. “People ask: ‘Do I really want to use a mobile phone in a museum? I’m on it all day’,” says Lindsey Green, head of key accounts at multimedia guide company Antenna Audio. Uncertainty about costs is also an issue.

“In the UK there’s currently no way of making free calls on a mobile and people don’t necessarily understand SMS (short message service) billing or how many free minutes they might have. Across Europe, where many visitors come from other countries, international roaming charges could make something that’s supposed to be cheaper much more expensive. So take-up is low.”

Samis’ assessment of SFMoma’s trials is even more damning: “The majority of visitors solidly prefer a museum-provided device. And who can blame them? Cellphone reception varies, the audio can be poor, and foreign visitors must pay outrageous international roaming charges.

“Barring the aid of a headset, users are asked to hold a device to their ear for extended periods – a physically taxing experience for some. Podcasts, while offering superior sound quality, require pre-visit planning. Finally, wi-fi networks are temperamental, especially in crowded situations.”

The iPod option

When Tate Liverpool organised Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design & Modern Life in Vienna 1900 in 2008, the museum created the UK’s first multimedia guide designed specifically for the iPod Touch and the iPhone. Developed by Tate Media, the guides offer something of a middle ground between asking visitors to use their own phones and hiring equipment.

Visitors to Tate Liverpool could hire a preloaded iPod Touch for £3 or connect to the gallery’s Klimt wi-fi network and view the guide on a wireless device’s web browser. In addition, a podcast of the guide could be downloaded at any time from the Tate’s website. The only snag with this was that the podcast used mp4 files that failed to play correctly on all hardware.

So how did visitors respond? According to Doug McFarlane, the digital production coordinator at Tate Media, iPod loans exceeded 10,000 – about ten per cent of visitors, which is pretty high for a multimedia guide, and the wireless site received 11,000 hits.

“People loved it and we got great feedback. The iPod is light, the screens are great and they are really easy to use, even for an older demographic,” says McFarlane.

As part of SFMoma’s study into visitors’ use of different interpretation systems, Antenna Audio developed a PDA-based multimedia guide for the museum’s exhibition Frida Kahlo in 2008. This allowed users to “tap” on the PDA screen to reveal audio information about a particular area of a painting.

Unlike the mobile phone content, this “touch-and-listen” feature proved a resounding success, where tapping the screen effectively became equivalent to pointing at the work and asking a question.

“One of the ways a multimedia tour can improve on traditional audio tours is to be less long-winded and more specific, responding to the visitor’s increments of curiosity,” says Samis.

It is these “increments of curiosity” that are being harnessed by UK company Hypertag in its guide system, which uses visitors’ mobile phones. With Hypertag’s Mentor product, users download a special Java-based application directly to their phone, for free, through a Bluetooth point in the museum. This enables the phone to receive content via Bluetooth from small devices located next to objects in the exhibition.

The tags have a range of around two to four metres and are wired to a power source (although they can run on batteries for a short time). If the building has a wireless network, content on the tags can be updated remotely and the museum can also gather information about visitor usage.

The usual barrier to this type of system is the huge variation in the capabilities of different phone handsets, according to Jonathan Morgan, the managing director of Hypertag. The company overcomes this through a database of handset models, and content that is tailored to each model.

A visitor who is interested in the object they are viewing can use their Bluetooth-enabled phone to download the content from the tag to watch or listen there and then, or save it for after the visit. There are no phone calls involved, no wi-fi networks and there is no need to prepare for the visit in advance.

Using devices outside

So far the historic houses and museums that have worked with Hypertag, such as Down House, Charles Darwin’s home in Kent, and the Royal Institution in London, have opted for lending PDAs to visitors, however.

The Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve, Lathkill Dale, is pioneering the first Bluetooth wildlife guide in the UK, with tags placed outdoors. Visitors can download information about species of flowers and butterflies and a historic quarry.

But what of the assertion that people already spend enough time on their mobiles? Is it possible to create a guide where the user is not always looking at the screen? “It’s about getting the implementation right,” says Morgan. “The experience is accretive – when people see something they are interested in, they want to find out more about what they are seeing.”

One of the benefits of mobile phones that arguably remains relatively untapped by museums is that they allow users to record their own interpretation. In an era of audience participation and a lessening of top-down didacticism, this self-generated interpretation might well appeal to democratic-minded museum educators and curators. And it is this aspect of the hardware that has been put to use by Ookl, a mobile-based learning system developed by design consultancy The Sea.

The National Maritime Museum (NMM) in London installed Ookl in its Atlantic Worlds gallery last September for use with school groups studying transatlantic slavery. Pairs of pupils are given a phone and objects in the gallery are marked with a code which, when entered into the phone, “collects” that object and offers additional information or raises a related question.

The pupils then have to answer this either by further examination of the object or investigation of the rest of the gallery. In other words, the phone causes them to look up as well as down.

“We were worried that kids would spend the whole 45-minute slot looking at their phones, but that hasn’t happened,” says Charlie Keitch, a formal learning officer at NMM.

As well as delivering information and asking questions, the phones let the students take photographs, write notes and make films, just like any other mobile phone. The difference is that all this material, along with the “collected” objects, is automatically uploaded to a personalised web page, for post-visit use back at the school.

“It’s a data-gathering device to help you answer questions, but it also tells you which other people have collected the same object. This hugely increases conversations about the objects, which was one of the things we wanted to do,” says Natasha Waterson, the digital project manager at NMM.

An Ookl licence gives museums standard Nokia phones preloaded with proprietary software and a 3G phone contract, allowing the phones to connect to the company’s website. Calling functions are disabled, but your museum or site will need a good signal to the phone network, or wireless internet access.

A licence for 32 handsets costs just over £10,000 per year. “This allows you to pilot with minimal risk, as you haven’t got to make your own hardware investment and the back-end development has already been done,” Waterson says.

Clearly, school groups have different requirements to the average family. Nonetheless, the NMM system shows how standard mobile phone functions can stimulate investigation and interpretation. And both Ookl and Hypertag compile information to use post-visit as you go – something that traditional guides do not.

While it is this combination of content and experience that is more important than the hardware, the mobile phone, however ubiquitous and smart, brings with it drawbacks as well as advantages.

If loaned equipment loaded with bespoke software continues to provide the richest, most compelling way of viewing information, visitors may favour that over using their own phone, even if it means spending a little more money all round.

This article was written for Museum Practice, Summer 2009.

Making magic

Some would say that electronic media is at its most powerful in a museum gallery when you cannot see the technology – when immersion is everything and the clunky realities of hardware and software evaporate into a seamless, fluent experience. As any designer will tell you, equipment limitations should never be allowed to hinder or obstruct the function of a product, space or installation.

Ideally, all traces of a system’s innards – its wires, projectors, power sources, sensors and computers – would be hidden from view, while their visible effects combine powerfully to wow and educate visitors in equal measure.

This is much easier said than done: hardware can be expensive and hard to conceal, software prone to ugly crashes. Not only that, but high-end technology pervades our everyday life. Familiarity with the button-less iPhone and the wireless Nintendo Wii desensitises us to just how clever they are, posing some tricky questions for museums looking to make an impression as well as educate.

Nonetheless, some relatively simple technologies still have the capacity to create exhibition magic when they are built on a great creative idea.

Coupled with specially-written computer software, things like sensors, cameras and triggers can help to make a museum space or historic interior come alive in ways we still tend not to encounter elsewhere.

While touch-sensitive surfaces are becoming more commonplace, such things as motion-triggered light patterns, sounds or projections are still the domain of the museum and installations created by new media artists.

These types of “invisible” technology can be used in a variety of ways, to different ends. Your intention may simply be to stimulate the senses and entertain; it may be to encourage physical interaction with an exhibit, or perhaps to entice people to investigate an environment in a non-linear way.

INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH

In Verket, an historic ironworks in the Swedish town of Avesta, a sensory exploration of smelting works and blast furnaces is delivered using hand-held flashlights.

Visitors investigate the dark space, shining torches on glowing targets to trigger media or cause dormant machinery to lurch into motion. An invisible coded beam travels from the flashlight to the target hotspot telling computers in the background what type of event to trigger.

Verket is a complex and large-scale installation demonstrating how sensors and triggers can encourage investigation of an historic site where the building itself is one of the principal exhibits.

But the beam transmitters and receivers are basic technologies: the complexity comes in what is triggered, via software, when the two meet. And this could be something as simple as illuminating different areas of a darkened model, or triggering video footage.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

Another “invisible” technology is radio frequency identification (RFID), which can be used to tie together a visitor’s experience of an exhibition, tracking their progress as they go.

For the Science of Survival touring exhibition, created by Science Of (a consortium of the Science Museum, London, and Fleming Media), computer exhibit specialist Joe Cutting provided technical consultancy on a system that uses radio tags to follow each visitor’s choices on a number of its interactive installations.

Users carry a unique RFID tag that is read by a card reader on the front of the installations. In the interactives themselves users make various lifestyle choices and at the end of the exhibition a concluding Future City projection automatically compiles these choices to show their environmental impact on a community in 2050.

“Science Of were interested in using a tracking system and considered barcodes, fingerprint scanners and email addresses, as well as RFID, but radio was the simplest,” says Cutting. “The cards are pretty cheap – around 30p each at the time – if you buy [them] in the thousands. An RFID supplier will offer a range of readers and tags, operating at different ranges. We used some of the simplest short-range ones.”

In The Science of Survival, the radio tags are tracked by software written by Ico Design Consultancy, the exhibition’s lead design group. From a curatorial point of view, the system links the content of the different installations, ranging from eating and drinking to transport and building, so that each forms part of the concluding section, giving an experiential mirror of the narrative thread already present in the subject.

For visitors, the invisible nature of radio communication means that this linking feels seamless and effortless. “We wanted something interactive that would be personal, putting visitors at the centre by showing them something they’ve made at the end,” explains Malinda Campbell, the creative director of Science Of.

The tracking system also gives Science Of access to anonymous information about how many people are using each exhibit, as well as content generated by their choices.

“Although it was driven by the narrative we wanted – that is, to show people, without preaching, how their decisions could impact the climate – there is also lots of information you can gather from this kind of tracking,” says Campbell.

“For anybody looking into such technology, I recommend thinking hard at the beginning about what you will want to know later. And testing is vital: you want to make sure the concept and software work before you order all the kit, but you tend to order all the equipment late on in bulk, so it can get very last-minute. Prototype and test with real people as much as you can.”

Software is likely to be a key component in any installation that uses sensors, cameras or triggers, because it is the software that determines how the information gathered from these input devices is translated into “content” or output.

If you are thinking of commissioning something that tracks or detects visitors in some way, you may end up working with software programmers who are subcontracted to the lead exhibition designers.

For example, an installation at the Curve, a new Rafael Viñoly-designed theatre in Leicester, uses cameras to track people’s movements, translating them into a mimicking “silhouette” played out in LED lights. Jason Bruges Studio designed the system, using software programming and motion capture by Chris O’Shea, an interactive designer and artist.

A wide-angle camera tracks the shapes of people passing through the Curve’s glass foyer and relays this information to a computer. The software then translates these shapes into instructions for a light controller that manipulates banks of LED lights on the inside of the vestibule. As each LED spot can be controlled individually, certain spots are switched off in real time to recreate the visitor’s “shadow” on the walls of the cube, copying their movement.

Tim Greatrex, a designer at Jason Bruges Studio, says the Curve installation was designed to reference physical performances in the theatre, not to perform any didactic function. But it does demonstrate how technologies as simple as a camera and LED lights could be employed – with the right software – to respond in all manner of ways and animate spaces.

OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Another example of physical participation is Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Frequency and Volume installation, which was installed in the Barbican Centre in London in 2008. This uses cameras to detect shadows cast by visitors on a white wall and translates the position and size of these shadows into a radio frequency and volume respectively.

In this way, the radio spectrum is rendered visually, and participants can tune the installation’s numerous amplified radio receivers into different radio stations by walking around and altering the size and location of their shadow.

Again, Lozano-Hemmer’s work is not specifically educational (although it was originally conceived to get people thinking about the ownership and allocation of radio spectrum in Mexico), but it is another example of how sensors can help generate dynamic spaces that respond to visitors and so seem alive.

The basis of most of these technologies is pretty simple, but their application can become complex. So, as with any digital installation, it is paramount that at the outset you have a clear curatorial aim in mind and that the chosen system is the best way of meeting this objective.

This could be encouraging exploration of a space, linking and personalising installations, or perhaps unravelling a complex or abstract idea.

When approaching designers to create this kind of electronic media display or installation, look for those with interaction skills and remember that you will need reliable computers to make everything happen and to keep it all running.

Maintenance for other hardware may be provided under a contract with the hardware manufacturer or installation company, but it is worth checking this, particularly if a whole exhibit is dependent on the technology.

On the plus side, LEDs, printed circuit boards, RFID tags and camera technology are all getting cheaper and more flexible. So, armed with a strong creative idea, good designers and a skilled software programmer, a little invisible magic may not be out of reach.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Spring 2009.

Press to start

While it is true to say that the whole of an exhibition or gallery should be engaging, there are some techniques that are specifically designed to pull visitors into a subject, most often using some form of interaction.

Electronic media is offering ever more ingenious and enticing possibilities – from following the clash of arms on the battlefield of Culloden in 1746 on the Battle Table at the new visitor centre there, to discovering what Winston Churchill did, almost to the day, during his life via the 15-metre-long Lifeline at the Churchill Museum, London.

Where visitors have actively engaged with something they are more likely to remember that experience, personalise it and take something from it. As Peter Higgins, the creative director of museum designers Land Design Studio, says, it is about emotional connections. “All interactions are based on input, output and feedback. The more you’ve been emotionally engaged, the more you remember it.”

Electronic technology is playing a big role in making interaction possible, largely because it is the “intelligence” of computers that provides the feedback in the model. A more typical installation than oversized tables is the standalone touchscreen kiosk, loaded with software to respond to various input decisions from users.

While kiosks have their place, the downside is that they offer a rather pedestrian form of interaction, which is often detached from the physical presence of the exhibition and its objects.

At their best, interactive installations can deliver engagement in a more fluid, instinctive and social way than a straight computer screen, especially when groups can use them simultaneously.

Encouraging people to explore is crucial. The Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, is built almost entirely on digital installations, all predicated on the idea of visitors exploring the Center in their own way. Using an array of sensors, digital media and computer-controlled lighting, many of the installations respond to people’s physical presence (see link 1 below).

This is a thoroughly high-tech solution for an unusual museum: it contains just one object, a Peace Prize medal. But it shows that there is a range of interactive techniques that can be used to engage audiences through exploration.

At the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, a panoramic photograph of the view from nearby Kilvey Hill is projected across a 300-degree screen. Overlaid on this screen are three coloured locator bars controlled by tracker balls set into three consoles in front of the projection.

As users pan their bar across the view with the tracker ball, a “telescopic” magnification of the area selected is shown on the console screen. Embedded in the vista are a number of hotspots, typically places of cultural or historical interest, which emerge as the bar moves over them. Selecting these reveals greater layers of detail on the touchscreen below, using text, images and video footage.

“We wanted to recreate this great view of Swansea and looked at ways to achieve that,” says Damien Smith, director of ISO, the design group that created the display with lead designers Land Design Studio.

The high-resolution image was obtained by fixing a special rotating camera on a purpose-built scaffold at the site and photographing each “slice” of the view, three pixels at a time. Because the resulting photograph is so large, no more images were needed to get the “telescopic” magnification on the consoles.

But aside from the specialist camera needed to capture a picture with enough detail for the huge projection and zoom, the rest of the installation was created using relatively standard equipment: three high-definition projectors, synched across the 300-degree screen, standard tracker balls, touchscreen technology and PCs running bespoke software.

“It’s also quite a striking ambient piece, with little touches, such as the sky gradually darkening,” says Smith. “And the visitors get some information about the content through pop-ups that appear over the hotspots on the main projection. What we’re often trying to create in these kind of installations is something attractive, ambient and large scale, while also offering rich detail at the personal level.”

REALITY CHECK

The Swansea panorama is a step towards another kind of interactive interpretation, dubbed “augmented reality”. Museums are only just beginning to explore its possibilities.

One early adopter is the Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History) in Berlin, where the designers Art + Com created five “media telescopes”, or “Jurascopes”, in the World of Dinosaurs gallery.

When pointed at the actual fossil remains, these viewers offer a computer-generated image of the fossilised bones that “grow” muscles and skin, before taking a walk in a Jurassic landscape. A computer reads where in the gallery the Jurascope is pointing and presents the corresponding view and animation on a screen embedded behind the eyepieces.

What is interesting about this installation is not so much the individual technologies, but the intuitive simplicity of its presentation: everyone knows how seaside-style telescopes work, so they look, pan and discover.

A similar system by the same company called Timescope is installed on a street in Berlin. It offers views of Tauentzienstrasse and the surrounding area taken at various points in history, as well as an on-board web camera feed of the live scene. Users can literally turn back (or fast forward) time using archive material and set artwork in the real vista before them, watching buildings come and go.

Although these media telescopes require some specialist hardware and software, the concept is simple and flexible and their appeal is as enduring as that of the old Mutoscope, or “what-the-butler-saw” machines of the 1900s. The key really lies in the programming of the software that delivers the content to the final “view”.

If you are thinking of commissioning something similar, look for designers with skills in programming and interface design, as this is where it will succeed or fail. Naturally, if the viewer is destined for the open air, you would need to consider robustness of product design too. It must be weather- and vandal-proof.

MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT

There are more straightforward methods of promoting engagement with the objects on display in an exhibition. In the Music Gallery at the Horniman Museum in south London, a simple projection system allows visitors to explore and interact with the array of musical instruments displayed in showcases opposite. The layout of the cabinets is recreated on the projection table (the projector is placed vertically overhead).

Users can scroll through animated images of the instruments using large navigation buttons. Both projector and buttons are linked to software on a PC. A musical instrument can then be selected to reveal more written information and, crucially, a performance recording taken from the museum’s sound archive, which plays on speakers or headphones.

Designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates with Rom and Son, this direct exploration of the collection does not even require touchscreen technology, just a projector, PC, navigation buttons set into the table, some speakers and sound-absorbing material above the tables (all times three, as there are three tables in total).

Margaret Birley, the keeper of musical instruments at the Horniman, says the installation has been popular and robust. It has been working since the end of 2002.

“We wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the instruments in the showcase, as well as add to the information on the object labels with things like instrument decoration, who made it and who might have played it. It also allows us to showcase recordings made through our fieldwork,” says Birley. The content has been updated to include, for example, the recently discovered composer of a previously anonymous piece.

The Horniman Museum’s musical tables show how fairly simple interactive technology can provide a direct link with the objects in the space to encourage exploration. In a more high-tech way, the National Waterfront Museum’s panorama and the Museum of Natural History in Berlin’s media telescopes also link digitally-delivered information with the real and physical.

And this is where technology should really excel: it should not promote playing with gadgets just for the sake of it, but allow visitors to connect more deeply with objects and subjects on show in ways that are intuitive, educational and perhaps even rather enchanting

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Spring 2009.