It has finally occurred. Under the title “Engaging digital audiences in museums”, organised by Museums Computers Group and Digital Learning Network, professionals of the museums throughout the UK have gathered with one aim: to discuss and share experiences about putting two different worlds together. Museums and technology.
“None of us is smart as all of us”. With this quotation Nick Winterbothan– Group for Education in Museums- presented the first requirement of the challenge. The need of communicate. As in a “Nail Puzzle” challenge, the way to face the dilemma begins from sharing experience, digital learning and observation. Only in this way can we put the pieces together and achieve results.
We have two important challenges knocking at our door: Arriving at a change in society- with different ways to communicate and get engaged- and to beat the recession, by demonstrating the importance of Museums and knowledge. “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”.
This speech highlighted the importance of people as the real source of heritage. Museums are not for things, museums are for people. And to reach people it is necessary more than ever to engage with them through new paths. To be connected.
But, what is the better way to reach these audiences? How should we use the museum sources to achieve this?
Matthew Cook– head of the web of the British Museum – has told us about it. Through experience with mobile apps, he has reflected about the approaches of audiences and these devices. For instance, the way mobile technology has changed its patron and gone “from fun to fundamental”. Only understanding the visitors needs can we create a suitable app for them. And not all the visitors have the same needs to be fulfilled, they can be social needs, or intellectual, emotional, spiritual… It is eventually a matter of common sense, about having a deep knowledge about out galleries and our different targets of public, and to wonder about how they can be connected.
It has to do with the transformation of the economy, about how the consumer is increasingly interacting with the branch- and a museum it is as well a cultural branch– and only by listening to them can we achieve engagement.
Until this point we have talked about the ideas. About the spirit and the philosophy that lead the connection between these two not-so-separate worlds; museums and technology. But… What about the cases? What about the real practice?
Lucinda Blasser– Digital Projects Manager, Royal Museums Greenwich- told us about her experience with the project “Discovery sessions-new ways of learning”. Through a label-based device – in 2009 – children were encouraged to create their own historical enquiries, and try to learn more about what interested them. This is a case were technology is applied in order to control their own-learning. Children behaved especially well in this scenario, showing more engagement with the galleries, being more collaborative with each other and focusing more on the activity. Teachers were also included in the activity, by controlling children activities via mobile and sending messages to them. The project was, thus, a total success.
John Coburn-Project Coordinator ICT, Tyne &Wear Archives &Museums, Newcastle- experimented with a different approach. In their project-,”Hidden Newcastle- failed inventors and body dredgers”- they put the focus on the people of Newcastle’s stories. The object provides raw source material for the story. In this way, they made a journey through 13 people’s stories. 13 common people, not famous, not commemorated, whose lives occurred mostly in the town-centre of Newcastle. The criteria used to select these stories are related with failure, macabre, eccentricity… They are not looking with this app to teach a deep knowledge of Newcastle history. They are, instead, looking for the sensation of wonderment. The combination of the app with the stories and the physical site where they happened creates a bond of affectivity and empathy, which is the motor that stirs public imagination, encouraging them to explore, and engage themselves.
Isabel Benavides– Programme Manager (Family Outreach), Museum of London – tackled one of the big concerns about the relationship between technologies and audiences: the impact. As she told us, they are trying to go beyond the traditional methods of enquiries, beyond the survey. By experimenting with technologies and a bit of imagination, they are focused on achieving something more valuable: subjective opinions. For instance, collecting communication between parents and children through devices as audioclips, easy speak microphones or cameras, in which the visitors can record their experiences [and] thoughts. Or through tools like those developed by “talkingmats”: http://www.talkingmats.com/, where you can express the things you have enjoyed or not enjoyed about your visit.
Martha Henson-Multimedia Producer, Wellcome Trust – told us about their on-line game “High Tea”. Through this game set in the Opium Wars, which had a high success on the web, they collected useful information about what the consumers were concerned about in this historical period. Rather than a technique for attracting people to their collections, the aim of launching this game was to achieve an adequate perspective about how to focus their activity regarding the interests of the public. It was as well a funny and amusing way to spread knowledge about this phenomenon in history, raising empathy and comprehension about it.
There was time as well to talk about the doubts and concerns that a step as important as this raises. Probably, one of the most repeated words during the workshops and the conference was sustainability. “How shinny are you?” – in terms on how many overwhelming technological devices you use- seems to be the wrong question, which only leads to wastage of resources. It is necessary to resist being technology driven. Other than that, other alternatives appear more sensible. One of the most applauded was experimentation: not thinking of things that are expensive and huge, but trying them first in little activities, and then coming back with the results and deciding whether to move on or not. Sharing best practices, and consulting visitors about their needs or work in partnership are other options that can lead your project to success, overcoming the bias between the shiny new project and what is actually working.
As a final reflection, I would pick up one of the sentences used to describe the state of the situation and the aim of the conference: an intricate explosion. Something with a lot of pieces and layers mixed together, which have to work together, combining slowly and without leaving anything behind, to finally explode. To finally blossom