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Digital engagement in museums

January 3, 2013

Digital technology in museums – as an interpretation tool and not as an object in itself – has often promised revolutionary possibilities, only later for the revolution to stumble and become evolutionary improvements.  The reasons for this are as complex as they are numerous.  The technological interface is often to blame, it’s rarely as intuitive or as powerful as we’d like, the output usually supports an exhibit and is not centre stage (and is often underwhelming as a result), while museum budgets simply can’t match those of their private sector gaming counterparts in creating wholly immersive universes, nor are they intended to deliver such an experience.  But museums themselves are also to blame, many are conservative institutions who see themselves as guardians of knowledge and their understanding of themselves as learning institutions is limited to the dispensation of this knowledge, although any understanding of learning theory would give you so much more work with.  At the same time, interpretation companies delivering technology outputs are more likely to be designers rather than educators, but it should be noted they are also responding to a brief from the museum itself.  There are also other factors that need to be taken into account, footfall and space issues for example.

Jake Barton of Local Projects works on some exciting and challenging projects that use technology in museums, most notably the 9/11 memorial which is about as complex and emotive as they come, but also many others.  He talked recently at Wired 2012 about his work in and out of museums.  Here’s his talk and it’s well worth watching as it shows how more enlightened institutions are pushing the use of technology toward participatory experience.

There are truly some really great innovations here along with some which are more akin to the old fashioned model of using technology to deliver specialist information – a glorified audio guide perhaps.  But I do think it’s interesting to note that in the first two projects presented (and despite the huge investment to create an immersive experience through technology) Barton places no attention on the desired impact or learning outcomes for visitors.  Even with a project as significant as the 9/11 memorial the focus is on design and telling stories from those who experienced that fateful day, but I’d also be interested to know what the 9/11 memorial team itself want their visitors to take from the experience (other than raw emotion), a truly complex and engaging subject in its own right.  It’s interesting to note that in Barton’s final two examples, when the technology itself is taken out of the museum there are significant impacts that improve the quality of life for the local community which can be easily articulated.  What an amazing achievement.  But if NYC can use technology to give communities increased opportunities to communicate and control what they want, why can’t museums?

What does this tell us about the role of technology in museums? And about museums in general?  Should we surmise that technology in museums is merely for engagement’s sake, that museums aren’t really interested in a deeper and transformative impact for individuals or their community, or they just won’t give up curatorial power?  It would be foolish to answer those questions based on only one talk given at a technology conference, but it does raise the question as to whether museums need to do a much better job of using technology to deliver transformative learning experiences, or at least find ways to articulate the impact of their investment on individual visitors or their communities.

One of the enduring images I have of museum engagement is of visitors prodding at touch screens, enthusiastically at first, then frustratingly as they realise the experience is a one-way dissemination of information that has little connection to their lives, then giving up entirely and ignoring any other touch screens in the rest of the exhibition for the same reason.  I can’t wait to see what a good museum can do with one of these, they cost only $70 (£50), and so maybe they will help facilitate a deeper engagement, outcomes and impact for museum visitors, if only we can step out of currently existing interpretation models.


Storytelling, Empathy and Impact

December 20, 2012

In this video edited by Kirby Ferguson ‘The Future of Storytelling’, neurochemist Paul Zak talks about his research into how empathetic responses are produced (and essentially how they might be manipulated), and how such responses can impact on our actions. Stories that have a traditional narrative arc are more likely to illicit such responses, and make us more likely say, to donate money. Really interesting and, naturally, moving.

But this gets me thinking again about how the science maps onto the museum experience, and the environments we create, both online and offline, for such interactions. What is it that we want to make people do or take away from an empathetic engagement?  What are the frames within which people might understand that call to empathy? Or indeed reject it?

Richard III

December 19, 2012

Given that this is Richard III’s biggest year since he lost a certain battle in 1485 it would be remiss for the much maligned monarch to get a mention on this blog.

Earlier this year, archaeologists went in search of Richard’s final resting place and quite amazingly, may well have found it in the Greyfriars site where his body was alleged to have been interred, now located beneath a council car park.  After several weeks of digging an adult male skeleton was found which had an arrow head embedded in the spine as well as damage to the skull, matching contemporary reports describing his death.  The skeleton is also believed to show evidence of scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, a physical characteristic that has come to define the king in the intervening centuries.  You can read more about the dig and subsequent tests on the body here and here. There’s also a BBC Radio 4 In Our Time episode about the Battle of Bosworth in which Richard met his fate here.

Richard’s reputation is the subject of fierce debate.  His association with the Tower is strong, most notably through his alleged role in the disappearance and murder of his nephews – the princes in the Tower.  We’ll probably never know who was responsible for their fate, though that hasn’t stopped us from speculating over the centuries.  In 1984 a mock trial of Richard was held at the Old Bailey and some of the nation’s finest minds got to grips with the topic, though obviously without witnesses who had passed away some 500 years previously of course.   Here’s the introduction rather blandly presented by a minor royal who seems to have been drafted in because, like Richard III, he is the Duke of Gloucester. 

Undoubtedly, Shakespeare’s own play of Richard III has had a significant influence on our perception of Richard.  The play recounts the many failures of the king, no doubt to the great amusement and satisfaction of the Tudors whom Shakespeare was flattering.  Here’s a BBC animated tale of Richard III.

But we should not be so eager to pass judgement and condemn Richard for his evil deeds.  The Richard III Society offer an alternative to the assumed narrative and they are quick to point out that Richard was a dutiful servant and brother to Edward IV, as well as being a capable leader and lawmaker who did much to alleviate the plight of the common man.

History is rarely straightforward, it’s part of what makes it such an engaging subject, but one would hope that with the attention surrounding Richard III this year (which will come to a head with DNA results early in 2013), that we can look a little more objectively at this much maligned king of England.


December 16, 2012

One of the more fascinating books I have read is Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude by Dick Pountain and David Robins which attempts to trace the development of ‘cool’ from its inception from Africa to present day global consumerism.  Not an easy task one, but the authors have done a fine job of pinning down the phenomenon long enough to allow us to develop some understanding of this ever-changing and ever-growing aspect of contemporary culture.

Cool was originally developed as an attitude developed in the face of threat, it’s neither fight or flight, more a coping mechanism adopted by minorities with an outward appearance of rebellious detachment, which was imported to America via the slave trade.  The phenomenon’s development was accelerated by the African-American community in its music, through Blues and Jazz which specifically rejected the positive spiritual overtones of gospel music and focused on the harsh experience of daily life, and is perhaps still best personified by the idea of Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at the crossroads and selling his soul for the ability to play guitar.

At the same time that Johnson was selling his soul, that similar attitude was being fused with the energy and distractions of the city and evolved into jazz, and it’s Billie Holiday’s distinctive voice, no doubt shaped by personal experience, as well as her appetite for drink, drugs and abusive relationships, that we remember in the classic jazz age, which this BBC documentary certainly indulges.

In the post-war period jazz became mainstream, both through the success of African-American artists, but also through the likes of the late Dave Brubeck, who brought his own approach to the medium.  At the same time, James Dean, though he made only three movies, came to represent teenage disillusionment, detachment and rebellion for generations.  Cool was mainstream.

But Cool’s moment would come later in the counter-culture of the 1960s.  Hippies, drugs, The Beatles and the Stones, anti-Vietnam marches, Woodstock, all that sort of stuff that came to define the age.  But by the end of the decade Cool was never the same again, corporations increasingly recognised its value in selling stuff, products are more desirable if they go against the mainstream because they say they’re you’re different from the masses.  After that, Cool went global and it’s been a mainstay of marketing campaigns ever since.  Even the hippies of the 60s had to grow up.

Remember this?  It was directed by Ridley Scott.

How times have changed. Here’s the Apple ad for the new iPad mini, it’s basically a glorified list of technical achievements and compared to the 1984 ad it’s almost apologetic.  When you have the largest market share in tablets you can’t really sell stuff on the back of the idea that you’re different to everyone else any more, and having a really bad cover version of New Order’s Age of Consent, who of course are one of the coolest, most detached bands that have ever existed, doesn’t really make up for it.  But this doesn’t seem to matter as Apple are still the coolest brand in the world ever.

So where does that leave Cool?  As an aesthetic, not an attitude that informs an aesthetic.  I think that might mean style over content.


December 13, 2012


There’s a great article by SJ Culver on the Guernica website that uses the tourist gaze at the infamous Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay to make some valid arguments about contemporary American attitudes to human rights in relation to imprisonment.  As well as the usual criticisms about dark tourism (titillation and entertainment over a broad educational remit), Culver also makes some serious points about the prison population in America:

“Approximately one in three black men is estimated to spend time in prison over the course of his life. Proportionally, there are more than five times as many black men incarcerated in the United States as in South Africa under Apartheid. As Michelle Alexander writes, “mass incarceration in the United States, [has], in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control.””

It’s not too late…

December 12, 2012

The closing date for the call for papers for the Silence Memory Empathy conference is 14th December. We’re looking for a wide range of contributors from numerous perspectives so click ‘Conference’ above to find out more.

3D printing, museum objects and Noah’s Ark

December 12, 2012

The Apple fanboys over at Wired online have managed to put aside their tedious Apple is better than Samsung argument for long enough to focus on something else entirely – those clever boffins at Harvard who have used 3d scanning and printing technology to recreate a ceramic lion that was shattered some 3,000 years ago when Assyrians attacked the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nuzi, now in modern-day Iraq. You can read about it here.

And while I wouldn’t expect this to threaten the nature of museum collections, it does beg the question to what extent would the widespread use of this sort of technology start to alter our understanding of history, which is, of course, based hugely on an analysis of that which still exists.  Would our perception of the Tudors be different if Nonsuch Palace still existed?  And on a slightly less serious note, will this full-size model of Noah’s Ark give us any real insight into how Noah managed to fit all those animals in such a small space?