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museums

I noticed that I have not written here for a very long time. Maybe this short post will spring the blog back to life.

On a visit to the Science Museum in London yesterday and walked into a fabulous small room devoted to Ada Lovelace. It provides information about Lovelace and shows letters she wrote to Charles Babbage, the creator of the Analytical Engine and Difference Engine. Parts of these early computers are displayed in neat show-cases. Otherwise, the exhibition is low-tech which is great.

first published in “Museum & Heritage Magazine” (Winter Issue, 2013)

Dirk vom Lehn (King’s College London)

Hannah Lewi & Wally Smith (University of Melbourne)

Museums and Heritage Sites increasingly offer mobile guides and Apps to encourage people to use their smartphones and tablet computers for the exploration of exhibitions, outdoor spaces and buildings. These Mobile Apps provide information in multimedia formats, text, pictures and video-clips. They sometimes also allow people to play games and send emails. In this short article we discuss two examples to highlight some of the opportunities and challenges offered by Mobile Apps.

The information delivered by these apps can draw people’s attention to particular exhibit features, make visible aspects of objects and artifacts that are invisible, hidden or have disappeared over time. Pictures and text shown by mobile guides, such as the ‘Formative Histories Walking App‘, designed by academics at the University of Melbourne, allow people to compare the architectural reality in front of them with information on the device. This juxtaposition of material reality and virtual reality aims to stimulate interest in the architecture and urban history of Melbourne, and provides the basis for people’s sustained engagement with buildings that they might walk past without noticing or appreciating.

The ‘Formative Histories Walking App’ has been designed as part of a project at the University of Melbourne, carried out by the authors, to explore novel ways to engage students with architectural history. In this case, the Mobile App was used as a teaching and learning tool that presented rich visual and oral information on an iPod Touch. Like a human guide, the App takes students on a two-hour walk along Collins Street, a prominent central city axis in Melbourne; the walk involves twenty stops at significant buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Using a map and menu on the iPod Touch users explore the street and find and examine architectural features in light of the information displayed by the Mobile App. This information is comprised of short text and audio summaries at each stop and a limited number of images that elaborate on aspects such as key buildings set in their historical context, comparative architectural examples from international architects or details of buildings that are not readily visible for the students. In this sense, the information delivered by the app replicates a slideshow similar to those architecture students experience in the classroom; pictures of objects nearby are juxtaposed with objects from different periods or by other architects and designers.

A second exploration of the potentials of the mobile digital guide for heritage, museum and architecture sites has been the design of a prototype iPod guide that provides visitors with information about the Shrine of Remembrance, a significant site and war memorial in Melbourne built in 1934. With this prototype the team aimed to allow people to see the Shrine in relationship to a wealth of currently unseen archival material. The mobile guide encourages visitors to juxtapose images, films and audio-recordings with the reality in front of them. By drawing less on conventional text, and more on visual information presented in innovative formats such as timelines, collages and close-up details the designers were interested in testing how user’s might share the screen with others and discuss the content and their experience of the site. encourage people to share the screen with others and discuss the content. Mobile guides and Apps like the examples briefly described here have great potential to create innovative media in the interpretation of museums and heritage sites that engage people in new ways with exhibits and exhibitions, architecture, gardens etc. They principally replicate two models of guiding visitors through a site that the researchers have found in many new Apps in the cultural and tourism genre :

  • the human guide model: these guide direct people’s exploration of a site with an identifiable guiding voice or presence on a predefined route. A number of stops are planned into the route where visitors are given information about an exhibit, building, plant, etc.
  • the interactive exhibition model: these guides offer a wealth of content in various forms that visitors can use to interpret and features of a site. The route does not have to be preplanned and can be changed, shortened or extended at any point in time.

These models of guiding visitors – which are sometimes mixed together – are often used with a variety of formats of content: chronologies and timelines, spatially-organised information; slideshows offering both highly curated narratives and freedom of choice; archival film; and oral histories.

Our own research in Melbourne and elsewhere suggests that apps designed with the human guide model in mind can be successful in situations with a well-defined visitor route. Elsewhere an interactive exhibition model that offers people the opportunity to self-select what objects and artifacts to examine can be more engaging. In either model, reception is influenced by the way information is structured and presented in the guide, and how this mirrors the physical reality. Text is not very popular with visitors while images, film and oral histories are. Chronologically listed information, for example, does not hold people’s attention when confronted with a rich spatial panorama. A powerful approach is to juxtapose archival images and films with views of the present-day reality; a technique used successfully by the ‘Streetmuseum’ app created by the Museum of London.

For a long time, research in the social sciences has argued that people’s experience and learning in museums and heritage sites can be enhanced when they talk, discuss and interact with each other. Therefore an unresolved problem for designers is to develop mobile guides that facilitate and encourage social interaction and discussion between visitors. Our experiments with different kinds of app show that people tend to treat the use of the device as a private activity and experience talk with others as disruptive. Future experiments, maybe using larger displays, will show how devices such as tablet computers might be more conducive to social interaction and conversation.

Authors

Dirk vom Lehn teaches Marketing, Interaction & Technology and is member of the Work, Interaction & Technology Research Centre (King’s College London). His research focuses on the interweaving of technology with social interaction in museums and galleries, optometric consultation and street-markets. Email: dirk.vom_lehn@kcl.ac.uk (http://www.vom-lehn.net)

Hannah Lewi teaches architecture history, theory and design. Her research areas include modern Australian architecture, new media for history and heritage applications, and theoretical inquiry into heritage and conservation. She is the current Chair of Docomomo Australia, and recent publications include Hannah Lewi and David Nichols (eds) Community: Building Modern Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press), 2010. Email: hlewi@unimelb.edu.au (http://www.findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/display/person25951#tab-publications)

Wally Smith teaches and researches in the fields of human-computer interaction and knowledge management. Recent publications explore the role of commercial demonstrations of information technology, and the connections between stage magic and the history of informational artefacts. Email: wsmith@unimelb.edu.au (http://www.findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/display/person18782#tab-publications)

There is a renewed interest in museum visiting and the practices of doing so. Only this weekend (October 9th, 2014), Stephanie Rosenbloom published an article in the New York Times that explores “The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum“. Rosenbloom refers to Daniel Fujiwara’s (now Director at SImetrica) study of the impact of museum visiting on people’s enjoyment of life as well as on James O. Pawelski’s work in the area of positive psychology. All these studies are of great interest and very helpful in highlighting the impact of the arts on people’s lives. It would be great if such research that is primarily interested in measuring impact and focuses on individuals as experiencing subjects, would include also the influence of the presence of other visitors in museums, both companions and others. It would seem that in order to follow the arguments and suggestions on how to organise a museum visit would require prior negotiation with those we are with in a museum. Statistics of museum visiting clearly show that people not only primarily come with others to museums but also that one main reason for the visit is socialising and interacting with others, whereby works of art (and other exhibits) providing hubs for concerted activities.

Considering that Pawelski, Fujiwara and others show that spending more time with a work of art increases feelings of happiness and satisfaction and that people enjoy interacting with others in museums, exploring how we can facilitate sustained social activities around works of art and other exhibits in museums seems to be an obvious avenue to pursue.

 

Relevant Literature

Heath, vom Lehn. (2004) Configuring Reception. Theory, Culture and Society Vol21(6): 43-65

Heath, Luff, vom Lehn, Hindmarsh, Cleverly. (2002) Crafting Participation. Visual Communication. Vol1(1): 1-33

Hindmarsh, Heath, vom Lehn, Cleverly. (2002) Creating Assemblies in Public Environment. CSCW Journal Vol.14(1): 1-41

Leinhardt, Crowley, Knutson 2002. Learning Conversations in Museums. Routledge

vom Lehn, Heath 2005. Accounting for Technology in Museums. International Journal of Arts Management Vol7(3): 11-21

vom Lehn, Heath, Hindmarsh 2001. Exhibiting Interaction: conduct and collaboration in museums. Symbolic Interaction. Vol.24(2): 189-216

I have just come back from a workshop at a museum where we discussed the use of labels and mobile systems, PDAs, Audioguides, or mobile phones to support or even enhance people’s experience of exhibits and exhibitions. As in other museums, the managers and curators still largely think of abele and electronic systems as information sources for individual visitors. Hence, information is written or recorded for an individual visitor to retrieve. This is somewhat surprising for a number of reasons, including the observation of the same managers and curators that devices and systems like movie phones, touch-screen systems, PDAs and Audioguides encourage people to spend more time with the systems than with with exhibits. When managers and curators report their observations in exhibitions they talk about visitors reading labels and looking at the screens of digital systems for considerable time whilst spending considerably less, sometimes no, time with the works of art hung along the gallery wall.

Research conducted over the past 20 or 30 years confirms the observations by these managers and curators about the distracting impact of information sources in museums. Together with recent research in the learning and cognitive science also suggests that if one wishes to enhance people’s experience of and learning in exhibition that there is not a need for more or more complex information sources and system but for information delivered in a way that encourages social interaction and discussion between people. Quasi-experimental studies and naturalistic, video-based studies of visitors’ interaction in museums suggests that it is not only the design of systems, i.e. the small screens and interfaces that undermine social interaction but also the content and the structure of the content delivered by labels and electronic systems. What would be required are naturalistic experiments with label content and the content of audio-guides that through questions, references to exhibit features and maybe game-like activities that involve more than one visitor in concerted and collaborative forms of looking, examination and experience.

If anybody has seen examples like this, please let me know.

Relevant Literature

Heath, vom Lehn. (2004) Configuring Reception. Theory, Culture and Society Vol21(6): 43-65

Heath, Luff, vom Lehn, Hindmarsh, Cleverly. (2002) Crafting Participation. Visual Communication. Vol1(1): 1-33

Hindmarsh, Heath, vom Lehn, Cleverly. (2002) Creating Assemblies in Public Environment. CSCW Journal Vol.14(1): 1-41

Leinhardt, Crowley, Knutson 2002. Learning Conversations in Museums. Routledge

vom Lehn, Heath 2005. Accounting for Technology in Museums. International Journal of Arts Management Vol7(3): 11-21

Art Museum Teaching

Submitted by Alex Freeman, Director of Special Projects, New Media Consortium

The New Media Consortium’s upcoming Future of Museums Symposium will bring together a collaborative global conversation around issues of technology, museums, and the future. This free, online Virtual Symposium will be held on Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014, and will feature keynote speakers and crowdsourced presentations by your peers.

unnamedAs its name suggests, the Symposium looks toward the future: what might the museum world look like in five years? Ten? Further out? Technologies and practices that are just beginning to show promise in an educational or social context may well be commonplace in that time frame. In this day-long event, we are bringing the research and work behind the NMC Horizon Report 2013 Museum Edition to the greater museum community. The Horizon Report’s advisory board participates in thoughtful discussions about an array of museum technology topics, trends, and challenges in the museum wiki that…

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The Next Bison: Social Computing and Culture

Are online reviews fair? Consider these reviews of a small printer, the Canon Pixma MG6320 on the Consumer Reports website. At the time I am writing, there are three reviews, and all three writers gave it one star out of a possible five—the worst possible rating. The review titles are:

  • “Piece of junk”
  • “Unreliable and unbelievably expensive”
  • “The worst printer ever.”

 On the other hand, on Amazon.com the same printer currently has 464 reviews, and it gets an average of four out of five stars. Sample review titles include:

  • “Amazing printer”
  • “Made a great gift”
  • “A very good buy”

There are also negative reviews of course (“I wish I could give it minus stars”), but the consensus is four-star positive.

What is going on here? You could speculate that it’s just a matter of randomness and numbers—the three reviews are too small of a sample to matter, and…

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This week Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum in London, made a strong case for the use of technology to enhance visitors’ experience of museums. In his article published in London’s Evening Standard Highfield writes

“When used wisely, computers and interactives have a role in showing our visitors that science is more than just a collection of cold, hard facts, arcane theorems and grey metal boxes. With a little digital magic, all these facets can now all sparkle. This is important for all museums, for London and for the nation’s high-tech industry. We never seem to have enough scientists, mathematicians and engineers. The same goes for designers and the creative industry and, yes, classicists too. Museums need to use all the tools at their disposal to inspire the next generation.”

I could not agree more. Luckily, these days there are plenty of excellent examples of technology in museums that intrigues visitors, allows them to see science, art and design in novel ways, and maybe not at last, attracts people to look at museum objects who without technology would find them boring, uninteresting and maybe also inaccessible. In these cases, technology is an invaluable tool that facilitates and enhances access. Moreover, as Highfield points out in his article technology can make visible aspects of science, art and design that otherwise could not be shown. Examples for such phenomena are miniscule molecular processes processes or the ways in which old objects like the famous washstand by William Burges in the Victoria & Albert Museum would have been used by its owners.

The effectiveness of these technologies in museums has variously been shown. A Special Issue of  Curator: the Museum Journal (2004) elaborated some of the opportunities offered by technology and interactivity in museums, highlighting that technology can facilitate new forms of engagement and learning occurring in museums. Robert West however also pointed at the potential costs of interactivity in museums. Aside from momentary costs West also points to the danger that technology when broken or difficult to use can spoil the museum experience for visitors and that some people for various reasons are intimidated by technology in exhibitions.

This latter point is echoed in a recent research paper by Susie Scott and colleagues that has recently been published in the journal Symbolic Interaction. In their paper “Goffman in the Gallery” the authors elaborate on the emergence of situational shyness at interactive exhibits and explicate ways in which visitors cope with their uncertainty of using an exhibit or hesitation to approach it because they fear they might find themselves in an embarrassing situation unable to use the technology. Amongst other points that Scott and colleagues’ paper makes it suggests that one solution that people find to overcome “situational shyness” is to learn from others. People observe others and use their actions as “replacement scripts”.

The importance of mutual observability in museums for people’s exploration and sense making in museums has been a topic since the inception of the modern museum. Tony Bennett in his well-known “The Birth of the Museum” as well as Norman Trondsen in a paper from the 1970s “Social Control in the Art Museum” have highlighted how the design and layout of museums facilitates mutual observation that allows people to learn @proper conduct@ from observing others, and in turn people behave ‘properly’ because they are aware that they might be observed in their actions in museums.

Robin Meisner has taken this argument one step further by explicating how visitors embellish their actions at exhibits. Their interaction with exhibits becomes a performance that invites others to become an audience. The result are shared experiences at exhibits, that on occasion surprise even those who have designed the exhibits. Meisner’s research has a range of other papers that have been published over the past decade or so highlight the importance of social interaction in museums. People enjoy museums as places for sociality and sociability. They visit them with friends and family and meet other people who are there at the same time.

When social interaction is so important for museum visiting it is rather surprising that we still find so much technology in museums that encourages individuals’ engagement whilst not supporting and sometimes undermining social interaction. Examples for studies highlighting the difficulties that visitors find in interweaving the interaction with technology and the interaction with other people. The trouble is as we have shown in our research that design of misconceives interactivity as facilitating interaction. Examples for technologies that often create interactional difficulties between visitors of museums are conventional touch-screen exhibits and interactive guides like PDAs and mobile phones that prioritise the interaction of an individual with the technology over the collaboration between visitors.

Highfield suggests in his article to use technology “wisely” when deploying systems and devices in museums. So far we know relatively little about what “wise” technology design for museums looks like. However, it is clear that it needs to take into account that museum visiting is a social occasion. Designers of systems and novel exhibitions therefore might need to rethink interactivity and develop assemblies and configurations of objects and artefacts that allow people to embed (some of their) their features within their social interaction. Collaborations between museum experts and technology companies, like the one that led to the recent exhibition of Chromeweblab at the Science Museum, have proven quite successful.

It however might be worthwhile thinking about the inclusion of social scientists in such developments who might help to focus on social and interactional configurations emerging at and around technology on the exhibition floor. Moreover, natural laboratories on the exhibition floor, similar to those the Exploratorium in San Francisco uses, might be a worthwhile investment for museums to enable experiments with new configurations of technology and people in exhibitions.