Farewell to the Trust

I just came back from my last meeting with my line manager to hand over my equipment and staff ID. From this afternoon I am on leave until my official leaving day in a couple of weeks. And so ends eighteen years working for the National Trust.

Yesterday, determined that I should not slip off silently, I had an amazing Zoom call, with cake, cocktails and colleagues from across the country, including one I met on my very first day working for the Trust, almost 18 years ago. It’s a lot longer than I intended to stay. My plan had been to spend a couple of years working in the Trust, then move on into the local authority museums sector. But the Trust was at the same time too welcoming and too exciting – always offering new projects requiring different philosophies, different ways of problem solving, in a collegiate atmosphere where, though we were under-resourced, we all wanted to make things work. We ended up trading anecdotes over that Zoom call, with me being the most forthcoming raconteur – it was my leaving do after all.

So, in no particular order, I thought I would share some of the happy memories I have of the National Trust. There are many things of which I am proud. Very few, if any, are things that I did alone. I celebrate here all the wonderful people I worked with to make these things happen even if, in my enthusiasm, I might sound like they were all my own work. Take for example Speckled Wood , the house in Haslemere that I built 🙂. Honestly, I can’t even say I had a hand in its building as I don’t think I made even one shingle on its roof.

Copyright: National Trust/Dave Elliot

This was ranger Dave Elliot’s vision – long term volunteer accommodation that would heat the neighbouring bunkhouse with green energy and in doing so, manage the surrounding coppiced woodlands in the traditional manner, preserving their rich biodiversity. I like to think I helped Dave get the project approved against some stiff internal opposition, and then recruit dozens of volunteers via our working holidays programme. My central colleagues were not entirely convinced the project would be a popular holiday, but they sold out very quickly.

One of the first projects I was involved in was the acquisition and opening of the Homewood, a modernist house in Esher. We predicted two difficulties – most of it was on the first floor and only accessible via a spiral staircase, and we expected far more interest, especially from the architectural professional community, than the building could accommodate in its first year. So I commissioned a virtual tour of the place, working with the lovely people from Corvidae, who were selected in competitive tender. It was not the first virtual tour the Trust – the tender process had shown me that – but the quality across the organisation was very variable. So working with the then head of access and a project manager from our IT department we went out to tender for a national single supplier for virtual tours. Corvidae won that bid too, and together we created a solution that was award winning. I remember we were genuinely surprised by that win – we had sat ourselves right in the middle of the auditorium and had a devil of the time getting to the stage to receive the presentation.

The wonderful virtual tour team, with Heather Smith, plus Steve, Annabel, James and me Copyright National Trust

That wasn’t the only award I have had a hand in. I was heavily involved in Lifting the Lid, a huge conservation project at The Vyne, near Basingstoke, which required a complete re-presentation of the place while the work was on-going. We took the opportunity to tell some its hidden stories, in particular its role in Tudor royal politics. We submitted it for the Interpret Britain awards, and won, not just for our category, but the overall Award for Excellence in Interpretation. The judges called it “an exemplar of how we would like to see interpretation develop in the future, and for other organisations to take inspiration from.” That feels good. My wife, Sue, reminded me yesterday that I won a more personal recognition in my early years too – a Regional Director’s discretionary award. No certificate or anything but and extra £150 on my payslip. I remember I spent it taking my team out for a meal and by buying a croquet mallet and balls so I could use the croquet lawns at Polesen Lacey (where the old regional office was) at lunchtimes.

Sometimes the recognition not an award, is a smile of acknowledgment that means more than any prize. One example that sticks in my mind is the opening of the house at Scotney Castle. I was involved in that in a number of ways, from what we now call Experience Design though learning planning to recruiting volunteers. When I (with the help of a central colleague called Earle, and the house team) created a plan to recruit 140 new volunteers in six weeks, I remember the manager of a neighbouring property saying we would not succeed. But we did. Her smile and nod was all the reward I needed.

Copyright: National Trust/Matthew Tyler-Jones

Down the road from Scotney is Batemans, Rudyard Kipling’s home. Working there, especially on a project “to bring Kipling’s voice back into his home” was its own reward. We had all sorts of aural offerings, a rare recording of an actual speech Kipling gave, to readings of the Jungle Book and from his letters. But one of my favourite memories was picking up folk singer of the year (multiple years) John Boden at the local station and driving him to Batemans to record a rendition of Kipling’s poem The Land, which was about Batemans, on to wax (!) to play on a cylinder-player in Kipling’s parlour. This after discovering that Kipling readings were popular recordings on wax cylinder even when we lived. So John Boden’s efforts sat alongside other, contemporary recordings that we had reproduced onto less fragile cylinders.

So many other memories come rushing as I try to draw this post to a close, all hoping to get included. The “One Ring” Exhibition at the Vyne, which was my idea and hit the news all over the world (this Maev Kennedy piece got us in hot water with the Tolkien Estate). Getting Box Hill ready for the Olympics and commissioning a Richard Long piece. Tasting wine when I sat of the Regional Management Team and were were planning that to serve at the annual members conference dinner that (back in those days) used to be hosted by reach region in turn. Standing on the roof of Petworth House, the only time I have every suffered from vertigo. Standing high in the scaffolding on the ruins at Nymans, or within Cobham Mausoleum, looking closely at things visitor would only see from far away. Walking the clifftops of the White Cliffs with the old property manager there, and learning first hand what “dogging” was (I was so innocent). Creating introductory films about places as diverse as Knole (about twice as long as I wanted it but entertaining none-the-less), Uppark and Bodiam castle. Writing a guidebook for Reigate Fort. Walking in so many parks and gardens, in so much countryside, in so many beautiful places and having to remind myself “I am getting paid to do this!”

To the people I leave behind at the Trust I leave this thought. Yes, you have lost a lot of good colleagues (not least me!) with this on-going covid-created restructure. But a lot of the amazing things we did, we did with tiny overstretched teams, maybe its a good thing – to be under resourced, maybe it will force people to cooperate even more and be even more creative. You will do even better things and have even more precious memories of what you did when I have gone. But… here is a priority list of things you need to do, some of the things I failed to do:

  • Restore the bridge at the Vyne, and the original visitor approach to the house
  • Create Dan Dare themed interpretation for the New Battery (Britain’s 1950’s rocket testing station)on the Isle of Wight
  • Turn the icehouse fire station at Petworth into an ice cream parlour that sells chilli flavoured ice cream
  • And please, please, please fix in the visitor infrastructure at Hinton Ampner!

Over, and out.

Stochastic visits

Let’s define it straight away: “‘stochastic’ being a fancy way to say ‘random’ and ‘unpredictable.'” That definition comes from Falk, J.H.. 2016. Identity And The Museum Visitor Experince. Oxford: Routledge, which is the very last bit of reading recommended by my external assessor that that I am writing about in this series of blog posts. I note its often cited in her own articles so I think its a heritage experience ‘bible’ she keeps close at hand. And its a good work, published after my literature review (it did include other Falk works), but one that addresses many of the gaps that I felt the review was missing revelations about visit motives that we knew within the National Trust through market research, but which were not expressed so clearly in the literature.

What Falk tries to do with this book is create a model for looking at the museum experience, which her says “is not something tangible and immutable; it is an ephemeral and constructed relationship that uniquely occurs each time a visitor interacts with a museum.” He starts though, with the visitor at the moment, before ether set foot on site, that they decide to make a visit. Their motivation is says is related to their identity (and we can have a number of identities. I, for example am a Cultural Heritage professional and a father. My reasons for deciding to visit a place will be different depending on which ‘me’ is making the decision. Falk says that identity related motives generally fall into one of five categories:

  • Explorer – “The typical Explorer visitor perceives that learning is fun!”
  • Facilitator – Facilitating parents and facilitating socialisers, both meeting the needs of others in their group
  • Experience seeker – motivated to visit primarily in order to “collect” an experience, “been there, done that”
  • Professional/Hobbyist – a tiny proportion of visitors but often much more influential
  • Recharger – not a large proportion of visitors, but may be more regular visitors, as we discussed before

So where does ‘stochastic’ fit in? Well, Falk describes how each identity motivation has a trajectory to their visit.”Rechargers and Professional/Hobbyists probably have the “straightest” trajectories. These visitors typically enter with a fairly specific goal in mind, a relatively sophisticated understanding of the physical layout and design of the museum, and a fairly clear sense of how to accomplish their goals […] the trajectories of Explorers and Facilitators are much more generalized and less laser-like. The Explorer is seeking ‘interesting things’ while the Facilitator is seeking ‘interesting things for others.'”

Rechargers and Professional/Hobbyists “can and occasionally do get side-tracked by experiences outside of their initial intentions, but for these two groups, this is the exception rather than the rule. More often than not these visitors make a beeline to the exhibits or spaces they are interested in, spend whatever time it takes to accomplish their goal(s), and then depart. Although they may “graze” upon exiting, this is primarily to take
stock of things for their next visit.” But the Explorer is guided by “their own inner compass which is ‘magnetized’ by the visitor’s unique prior knowledge, experience, and interests. They can’t tell you what will pique their curiosity before they get there, but once inside the museum, they will know immediately what interests them!”

Facilitators “are primarily attuned to the social aspects of the visit; they are focused on what their significant other finds interesting and enjoyable. Facilitators […] tend to sublimate their own interests and curiosities unless they feel that by sharing these, they might be helpful in satisfying the needs and interests of others”

Experience Seekers come somewhere between the Explorer and Facilitator “but rather than satisfying their personal curiosity or the specific intellectual needs of their companions (though both of these are very likely to be strong secondary motivations), the Experience seeking visitor is in search of what is most famous and important in the museum. They have come to see the Hope Diamond or the Mona Lisa, or whatever the museum is most famous for.”

It’s important to note that whatever initial motivation a visitor has for going to a museum, they may well change to another one while they are there, depending on all sorts of factors – who they are with, something there see, all sorts of things. But Falk’s point I think is that Rechargers and Professional/Hobbyists are less likely to be distracted from their original motivation, and while experience seekers are somewhat more likely, they are on a tight timescale with other places to tick off their top ten list, so the groups most likely to make a stochastic visits are then Facilitators and Explorers. I think my Chawton experiment is deigned to respond to a guide stochastic visitors, so arguably more tied to these two visit motivations.

Finally, I love this quote about satisfaction surveys – its definitely something we noted at the National Trust:

Currently, the overwhelming majority of museum visitors find their museum visit experiences very satisfying. This is in part because the public has a fairly accurate “take” on museums and thus possesses relatively accurate expectations. It is also in part due to human nature; we have a propensity to want our expectations to be met and work hard, often unconsciously, to fulfill them, even if it means modifying our observations of reality to match our expectations.

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Situatedness

The last academic paper on my list of recommended reading for the “modest” corrections on my PhD thesis is; Schaper, Marie-Monique, Santos, Maria, Malinverni, Laura, Zerbini Berro, Juan & Pares, Narcis. 2018. Learning about the past through situatedness, embodied exploration and digital augmentation of cultural heritage sites. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 114: 36-50. doi: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2018.01.003. Its a title that intrigues – I am particularly interested in what “Situatedness” means. It’s of course one of those somewhat invented words that academia lives on, and as I type is underlined as a possible typo. But often when you read about these things, you can see why the word chosen is the only one that will do in this context. Let’s see if that’s true this time.

First a quick note to self: this paper is a bout the education value of a digital experience, and given that I have already been warned that I overuse learning as a motive for visiting, I should be wary of quoting too much from this paper. It starts by explaining the digital technologies have a place in archeological other heritage sites for reasons as diverse as “these sites are often empty of objects which are probably housed in museum buildings” and “weather can become an important barrier for having fixed information displays and even more so for audiovisual or interactive material.” It goes on to discuss two paradigms for Augmented Reality: “Window on the World” and “World as Support” Window on the World, is the most commonly experienced overlays the real world with the digital data. World as Support “recognizes the surrounding physical world dynamically (i.e. topography, objects, users, gesture and motion) and projects the context-aware digital information directly onto it.” They argue that this second paradigm is better for heritage sites as it does not distract the user from the physical, but rather enhances it and draws attention to it. Having experienced both (though not perhaps the second quite as the authors intend) I am not convinced that the difference is massive, if using, say Microsoft’s HUD, though I will agree that it is better than using an AR function on a mobile device, where your window is only six inches across.

This though is what the word situatedness relates to. – with World as Support methods, the authors argue “Situatedness triggers different emotions and helps to foster certain aspects of the learning content.” Interestingly though, at one point they say “Other interpretations were evoked by the children’s physical presence (situatedness) in the shelter.” So situatedness is implied to be equivalent to what other people call presence. Now, the word “presence” does have an interesting history academically, which I have written about. And yes, often it refers more to being immersed in a virtual world, but I argue (and indeed I make my case in the link post) it is a better word to use when talking about the real world as well. But I do recall my external examiner taking issue with the word. I think I will stick to my guns, but maybe cite this paper as the source of an alternative word which I can, as they have done, parenthesise.

What digital technology can bring to historic houses

Two papers today, because one of them doesn’t have much of interest, I think, to my corrections – it does have one great word however, which I will come to later. The first paper is another look at the project at the Bishops’s House in Sheffield that featured in previous papers and posts. This third paper, CLAISSE, C., PETRELLI, D., DULAKE, N., MARSHALL, M. & CIOLFI, L.. 2019. Multisensory interactive storytelling to augment the visit of a historical house museum. IEEE comes with lots of quotable quotes about the sort of environment I work in (until next month at least): “Unlike traditional museums, artefacts in house museums are displayed in domestic settings, out of their protective cases and with limited written interpretation. Due to this unique layout, they need to be understood from an experiential perspective: ‘stepping back in time’ or ‘standing in someone else’s shoes […] Digital technology is conspicuously absent, apart from occasional interventions relying on mobile phones. While using mobile phones does not affect the aesthetics of the historical heritage, any other digital technology intervention needs sensitive design, careful integration and planning.” which a pretty sweeping but generally true generalisation. One thing I am less certain of though is the authors’ assertion that historic houses “are looked after according to special practice identified as house museology.” For a start, museology is the study of museums, not a conservation (looking after) practice. I have worked in and around historic house museums since, well … since 1985* if you count my volunteering, and I have never heard the term “house museology’ with reference to looking after such place. Looking at the source for that assertion, I feel the authors are misreading what “museology” actually is.

However the next thing they say is abundantly true. “Spatial and aesthetic constraints mean curators have to choose which part of the story of the house is presented to the public. Thus house museums tend to concentrate on a single period in their history where both the building and its interiors are restored or reconstructed to match a particular era or episode in time. Such exhibition practice was recently criticized for limiting interpretation strategy to one linear narrative, often focused on a leading character.” And the finish off this introduction to the challenge of historic house interpretation with “Digital ntechnology offers new opportunities to bring these places to life. However, experiments have been limited to individual installations or temporary exhibitions”

I won’t go into too much depth on what they did – my previous posts Gove more detail. But it is worth saying that actually what they did was create five “individual installations.” These were great, and I don’t want to dismiss them for their aesthetic qualities, or content, nor the process that went into creating them, but they are only a step on the way to a responsive environment. And of course they had to be activated by a tangible object with NFC tags, which I think adds an extra layer of complication to the interface which is not necessary. Having read about a number of these NFC-based tangible interactions now, and having been involved it one at Bodiam then only one where I think the object really added to the interpretation is the Votive Lantern offerings to the gods at Chesters. But these projects are indeed steps on the way to an ideal, and the ideal is described in the conclusion pot this paper: “the web of content is not embedded in a device, but distributed all around the house as objects and rooms, characters with their portraits, and the story they tell. It is the visitors moving around the House triggering content, observing and discussing that make this an interactive storytelling in place […] it gives opportunities for volunteers [people, would be a better word I think, including staff, visitors etc] to take ownership of the place and sustain participation over a longer period of time by generating new content and uploading new stories.”

There were fewer quotable quotes in the second paper: Ardito, Carmelo, Buono, Paolo, Desolda, Giuseppe & Matera, Maristella. 2018. From smart objects to smart experiences: An end-user development approach. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 114: 51-68. doi: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2017.12.002. Which talked about tools for non technical staff to create interactive narratives. Its useful stuff but in my corrections I think a reference to the paper will be enough. There is one useful phrase though which I feel I might need to insert – which I think is second nature to HCI people but not to Cultural Heritage staff, though I think its easily understood and that is “Event-Condition-Action (ECA) rules”

Oh and I also like to this quote introducing MeSch, which I have already written about in my thesis but light add in “Very few contributions in the literature address the possibility of enabling CH experts to shape up smart visit experiences. One prominent approach is the one proposed by the meSch project, which aims to enable CH professionals to create tangible smart exhibits enriched by digital content. The peculiarity of
the meSch approach is that it does not require IoT-related technical knowledge: the platform offers an authoring tool where physical/digital narratives can be easily created by composing digital content and physical artefact behaviors.”

*Ouch, that feels like a very long time.

Digital CHPs?

Excuse the the dreadful pun. CHP stands for Cultural Heritage Professionals, and the paper I am reading today is Maye, Laura A., Bouchard, Dominique, Avram, Gabriela & Ciolfi, Luigina. 2017. Supporting Cultural Heritage Professionals Adopting and Shaping Interactive Technologies in Museums, which starts off with the sentence “The role that cultural heritage professionals, including curators, museum directors, and education officers, are playing in creating interactive technologies in museums is evolving.”

I think it will be useful in slightly reframing my academic work as that of a Cultural Heritage Professional exploring in what ways interactive technologies can support my profession’s “goals through active experimentation in context and in depth.”

The paper looks at a partnership between the Interaction Design Centre at The University of Limerick and The Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland. The aper describes in more detail an I will go into here projects involving the Loupe, one of the tangible interaction ideas discussed here. Now I think I have already shared my feelings that this is a museum interface that only adds extra complication to a visit (and one that is after all only a phone disguised as a magnifying glass and so not a thing that pulls the visitors’ eyes away from a screen to the object. So I won’t spend much time on that – rather I will look at what they learned about CHPs creating content for interactive technologies.

“From the beginning of the project, it was clear that CHPs needed to know how different interactive technologies could support their intended visitor experience.”

page 9

The paper betrays a certain frustration with CHPs rushing to a conclusions about what they want Digital interventions to do “here the CHPs chose to focus on a particular kind of narrative experience: a guided tour rather than exploring what they might be capable of. ” While CHPs collectively agree that technology should serve a meaningful purpose, the findings from this project suggest that understanding the implications of adopting those tools in context requires further, hands-on experimentation and experience.” Well I am pleased to say this is what my PhD has all been about – I am a “CHP,” and I have been doing hands on experimentation. And indeed my experimentation encounter the issue that the authors move on to – having to find workarounds to bend the low cost tools I was using to the my needs. “However, these workarounds could require CHPs to build additional skills (as seen in this case) or make compromises between the narrative they intend to portray and the available behaviours provided by the functionalities of the interactive technology.”

Now what’s interesting about the case they mention is that the workaround that they mention “as seen in this case” is very much a product of the unintuitive interface enforced by the Loupe. The CHP involved explains: “Intern Deirdre: We printed it [the content] off because it’s easy to forget the screens that come and go. So the ones that say like ‘tilt right to continue’ it’s easy to forget that was there. But when you have it on the paper, you have to pretend to do that! Turn it over or something like that!” This is touted as good, lo-fi interactive experimentation, and so it might be – but the conclusion seems to be that CHPs should spend more time learning to use the technologies that they have available. Keep in mind that that heritage organisations generally spread their CHPs thin, covering a lot a projects at the same time. Indeed the paper does, eventually, admit that “due to financial costs, it may not be feasible for CHPs to experiment with the actual technologies” and talks of “bodystorming” which is a lovely word and kind of what I was doing at Chawton. Its also good that my “Untours” were one of the things that these researchers were hoping for when they say “other types of experiences: for example, games or free exploration visits.

The Internet of Things

Has the internet of things had its moment already? It seemed to be the thing everyone talked about a couple of years ago, but lately the enthusiasm seems to have died down. Personally I think its more of an infrastructure thing than a ‘killer app.’ It seems to me though that when there are winners in the IoT standards war, and the technology is cheap, and can be affixed without conservation issues IoT will be big for museums. But leaving that aside, today’s paper has lots of quotable quotes, so its the subject of this post. “Today’s paper” is PETRELLI, D. , DULAKE, N., MARSHALL, M., ROBERTS, A., MCINTOSH, F. & SAVAGE, J.. 2018. Exploring the potential of the internet of things at a heritage site through co-design practice. San Francisco: IEEE.

The authors of this paper hope that “By embedding digital technology into objects and spaces we can bring the attention of the visitors back to the heritage, as opposed to the digital devices, and create experiences that go beyond the delivery of information and engage visitors at an emotional level.” This is of course a very commendable intention because recently “museums have been keen to use digital technology to deliver large amount[s] of information (all the information that did not fit on the panels) despite the fact that only a minority of visitors consume just a fraction of what is available.”

What excites the authors is the idea of tangible interpretation, that responds to what the visitor does with it “this new technology holds much potential for heritage as it allows embedding sensing and computation into smart objects and spaces and seamlessly create experiences that cross the boundaries between the material and the digital.” They give some early project examples, some of which (their own) we have read about in previous papers, but there are some new ones too: “The Magic Cauldron (part of a touring exhibition on magic) engaged children in casting spells while throwing objects into the interactive cauldron that reacted with different sounds (e.g. burps) and lights depending on the object thrown in.”

The project in the paper however was for and English Heritage property, Chesters Roman Fort and The Clayton Museum “created in 1896 to host John Clayton’s collection of Roman objects, mostly from Hadrian’s Wall and its surroundings.” Like many 19th century museums that retain their Victorian display philosophy, the collection can look daunting to modern visitors, “most of them enter, spend only a few minutes looking around and leave missing the opportunity to appreciate the richness and relevance of the pieces on display.” The nineteenth century museum posed a number of other challenges to the project team – the opportunities fro physical interventions was limited; there was not enough power for suggested pico-projectors; there was no wifi and a poor mobile phone signal.

In the end, they came up with an idea that I really like. Indeed, the best of all the tangible interfaces I have read about so far: “in the vestibule the visitor would collect the votive lamp from the shrine; they would have a small number of offerings to take to the altars (marked by stands in the museum); visitors would then have to choose, among the many, which ones they wanted to give their offering to; on returning to the shrine, on their way out, with the now empty offering vessel the visitors would receive their personal “oracle”, a personalised reading of one’s character and needs based upon the choices of gods.” There were 13 gods from which the visitors could choose three to bring their votive lanterns to, so 289 possible combinations.

There were issues of coursewith the project, many caused by the remoteness of the location. Its hard to have a internet of things when the internet does to reach the museum. There were issues recognisable to everyone working in heritage, where the designers felt approvals took too long and heritage professionals wanted to dedicate more time to the early development of the project. But the authors concluded that if the internet can be enabled even in remote locations “pervasive computing then becomes an addition to the exhibition designers toolbox: it offers new ways of engaging visitors with digital content through tangible means.”

Restorative Environments

One of the challenges of my viva was that I had presented cultural heritage as only a learning environment. Which was definitely not my intention. the places I have worked with especially, historic houses and palaces with gardens and parks, and countryside estate have long been recognised as places of spiritual recharging. I argued the case (obviously adequately as I passed) that I had not focussed only on learning, but perhaps some references to papers like this one will restore any intended imbalance.

“This one” is Packer, J. & Bond, N.. 2010. Museums as Restorative Environments. Curator 54: 421 – 436.and it starts of with a doozy of a quote that might be all I need: “Mental fatigue, caused by the stresses and strains of everyday life, is a common complaint in today’s society, and the need to escape from the personal and interpersonal demands of life is one of the major reasons that people have for engaging in tourism and leisure experiences”

The paper goes on to explain that al lot of the theory of restorative environments is based on the work of Kaplan and his Attention Restoration Theory. “The capacity to continually focus attention on a particular activity can be reduced or lost through mental exhaustion.” Recovery from just mental exhaustion requires that your “attention is engaged involuntarily or effortlessly,” which (I think) Kaplan calls “fascination.” Fascination allows your directed attention be rested.

Well, I think cultural heritage is fascinating, and this theory echos the theory of Flow, which I write about in my thesis, so it seems we are on to a winner with this paper. But there are three other components of restorative environments: being away (from routine); extent (the environment need to have enough content to keep you occupied a while) and compatibility (of interest – being bored is not fascinating). These sorts of things point to the infinite horizons of a walk in the countryside as being restorative (if the countryside is compatible with your interests) but analysis of responses to museums, art museums, gardens and zoos shows that the countryside is not the only place you can recharge.

So this paper looks to see if there are factors that make one museum a better restorative environment than another. To do so they use a “satisfying experiences framework” which focuses on:

  • “object experiences, which focus on something outside the visitor, such as seeing rare, valuable, or beautiful objects;
  • cognitive experiences, which focus on the interpretive or intellectual aspects of the experience, such as gaining information or understanding;
  • introspective experiences, which focus on private feelings and experiences, such as imagining, reflecting, reminiscing, and connecting; and
  • social experiences, which focus on interactions with friends, family, other visitors, or museum staff.”

They measured this and four different sites in Australia: a museum; an aquarium; a garden; and, an art gallery. Immediately they spotted that visitors to each find different experiences the most satisfying. The object experience of the fish in the aquarium was by far the most satisfying experience in any place, the cognitive experience of the museum was the most satisfying part of that visit (hmmmm). The social experience most satisfying in the gardens and, tough the art gallery was the most balanced between the four experiences, the social experience mattered to only 10.7% of visitors and the introspective experience mattered most to 29%. But it “was found that local visitors placed more importance on social and introspective experiences, and tourists placed more importance on cognitive and object experiences.” Tourists of course “are more likely to be looking for a learning and discovery experience—they want to discover new things and often try to ‘‘see as much as they can.’’ These experiences may be incompatible with a restorative experience.”

The study concludes “Not only were national parks and beaches considered more restorative than urban environments, but among the research sites, those that were focused on natural heritage (especially the botanic garden) were considered more restorative, both in attributes and benefits, than those focused on cultural heritage (the museum and art gallery).” But for frequent visitors (rather than first time visitors) museums can “offer an alternative to natural settings as a restorative experience.”

And more importantly, if “greater attention were given to visitors’ comfort, first-time and infrequent visitors, who are less familiar with the site, may be more able to experience restorative benefits as a result of their visit.” The authors also suggest that museums should “explore ways in which introspective experiences
might be encouraged and supported” and this I feel supports what I concluded at Chawton – while we insist on authenticity in our storytelling, we are privileging cognitive experiences over introspective ones.

Iterative development

Today I am looking at a paper about a Augmented Reality (AR) project at the Svevo Museum in Italy. TH AR part of the project interests me less than their methodology. As the the authors themselves conclude, AR is a young technology and at the moment the tools for developing the AR experience are mostly in the hands of technologists “could prevent the successful development of experiences focused on content rather than on technology which are capable of attracting diverse categories of users.”

The paper is: Fenu, Cristina & Pittarello, Fabio. 2018. Svevo tour: The design and the experimentation of an augmented reality application for engaging visitors of a literary museum. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 114: 20-35. doi: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2018.01.009.

The Svevo Museum is dedicated to the works and life of writer Italo Svevo, and being a literary museum is has many aesthetic challenges similar to the Chawton library where I did my experiment. Bu aesthetic challenges I mean that the appreciation of literature is not the same as the appreciation of the visual arts. Essentially literature is immaterial, even ephemeral – books, even old books essentially being containers for the work, not the work itself. Even if they are “only” containers, they are valuable, and more fragile than many museum collections and providing the access totem that visitors might expect can be an issue. This may have influenced their idea to use AR as part fo the experience, though they point out that “The Svevo Tour is, to our knowledge, one of the first AR projects conceived for a literary museum (AR-literary-museum-issue) and one of the challenges was to use these techniques for engaging its visitors.” That challenge made more acute by the nature of most of their visitors – adults and seniors who are often educators.

There’s not much that’s particularly quotable in this paper (remember I am doing all this reading for the required “modest” corrections on my thesis, but given the nature of the site, and the iterative approach to development. I might well reference this paper as an example of the sort of rapid prototyping that museum professionals can repurposing “off the shelf” software – Wikitude in the case of this project, Scalar for mine.

One thing I do like is that they so call Microsoft Hololens “AR”, not Mixed Reality. see my rant about that here.

Four Heritage Discourses

Following on from Thursday’s post on working with volunteers at Bishops House Sheffield, a second paper on the project has lots of very quotable stuff in its preamble. For those following along at home, this paper is: Claisse, Caroline, Petrelli, Daniela, Ciolfi, Luigina, Dulake, Nick, Marshall, Mark T. & Durrant, Abigail C.. 2020. Crafting Critical Heritage Discourses into Interactive Exhibition Design.

It starts off with a lovely quote about how the nature of museums changed as they became less about privately owned collections and more about public institutions: “Traditionally, museums are concerned with material cultures as their chief role is collecting and preserving artifacts for future generations, and to communicate what is known about those objects. The early museums were places where touching, holding and smelling were an integral part of the visit, a courtesy paid by the curator or the collection owner to their visitors or guests. By the mid 19th century, however, the personal, physical relation with the objects was gone, mostly because of the widening of the audience and therefore the changing mission of museums as public institutions”

But they go on to talk sing the praises of “house museums” which “offer interesting settings to explore the value of materiality in a context where a visually-driven ‘cabinets and labels’ approach exhibition design is not deemed appropriate.” They continue “Exhibition design in house museums goes beyond the curation and display of artifacts: the whole house is a historic object, meaning that content and container are one” which is a truism, but a very concise and apposite one. I do have to take issue with one thing they say however. They are wrong, or at least, conflating two things when they state “This type of house museums is described as ‘living history museums.'” The term “living history museums” often describes places that use costumed interpreters which, I would argue, the vast majority of house museums don’t – at least not on a day-to-day basis. The term is also used for the open air museums of buildings/folk/vernacular history such at The Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen, and the Singleton Open Air Museum. Indeed it came be said that live costumed interpretation in museums started in places like those (though the Singleton museum resisted it for decades).

Another bit, with which I do agree, is their summary of Heritage as an aesthetic experience “Far from being perceived as boring and tiring, museums are, for many visitors, ‘restorative environments’ that, with their unique aesthetics, capture imagination and facilitate recovery from mental fatigue [26] [35]. Such aesthetic experiences are chiefly about being there. The aesthetic experience is not the experience of beauty – for it can be pleasant or unpleasant; it is characterised by intense attention, extended cognitive engagement, and affective responses.”

Of course one of the challenges to historic house storytelling is the existence of an implicit “‘authorized heritage discourse’ approach – a long-established orientation to heritage as understood and interpreted via the expert’s perspective, and tending to privilege the prestigious, universal and grand narratives” which is of course what I discovered which my Chawton experiment. What I noticed though, was not only that such a discourse is hard-wired into interpretive thinking, but that it might also be an outcome of visitor choices. It does not have to be so, but I would challenge their assertion that “The concept of heritage as a process that is actively constructed and recombined over time is particularly significant in the context of house museums where animators often dress up and enact characters to visitors: ‘It is this sensory experience of an embodied performance of a lifestyle that constitutes the process, through which heritage is both encountered and constructed.’” While excellent live interpreters can indeed challenge the “authorised heritage discourse approach” many more simply reinforce it, however in discussing that issue the authors a have a lovely turn of phrase which I am going to steal … I mean cite: “Exhibition design in a house museum can find inspiration from such an embodied storytelling that weaves the narratives with physical objects and social history, a game of performance and fiction within a specific physical space.” And again they elegantly put into words another truism that is not often expressed: “Staff and volunteers play an important role here, as they weave
stories and place by sharing with visitors a mixture of facts, speculation and anecdotes about the lives of previous residents. The meaning of the surrounding heritage emerges from the visitor-docent interaction process: visitors are expected to take part in the dialogue, to question and deepen their interests. In comparison, digital technology is easily seen as dry, a distraction from the actual place and curators of house museums are reluctant to introduce it.”

The evaluation of the project expressed in the conclusion identified four arguments “from heritage discourses that we found relevant for designing and reflecting on digitally-augmented exhibitions. We discussed the value of materiality, visiting as an aesthetic experience, challenging the authorized voice and heritage as a process.” The first two I have no problem at all with – I like especially their use of triggered scents to enhance the multisensory nature of the interpretation. I do challenge whether they really challenged the authorized voice, as I think the power of the dominant ideology and the expectations of the visitor for authenticity will have combined to confound the challenge but in one point I will say they did well – they used the power of fiction to create the narrative, they were not bound by fact. I will also argue that the visitor perception of heritage as a process might not be as great as they suggest it is – but again I will concede on point, they got visitors visiting spaces more than once to uncover the story. which is an impressive feat.

Design synthesis: working with volunteers

In a way, my project at Chawton was an example of Research though Design (RtD), so among the papers I have been pointed to for my corrections is another example, which is interesting for the historic house museums that I have spent a good part of my life working with. The paper is: CLAISSE, C. , DULAKE, N. & PETRELLI, D.. 2019. Research Through Design. Digital Heritage International Congress. Research Through Design.

This paper explores to co-creation process that fed into an Interactive Tablaux project at Bishops House museum in Sheffield. The research was multiphase and involved volunteers at every stage. First of all, by the designer becoming a volunteer and working alongside them. Then but then gifting of a Creative Package to ten volunteers. The package featured six activities or “Design Probes” to encourage the volunteers’ input. The probes started of straightforward but got more creative in sequence. “For example, Best wishes (probe 1)
invited them to write about their experience at the House by sending us back a postcard; My dream exhibition (probe 3) featured a map and personalised sketchbook to share their favourite stories and museum
objects; Seed wish (probe 5) used the metaphor of growth to prompt their imagination about future scenarios for the museum.”

Although the output of the design was inspiring the researcher found it challenging to move to “the phase of ideation.” However the response to the first design probe moved the work on somewhat – the researcher synthesised a visual volunteer manifesto (which took the form of a sort of wordcloud) from the the volunteers responses. This shed light on the personal, emotional and social dimensions of volunteering, and proved to be a catalyst for discussion. The outputs of probe three became a three dimensional model, mapping the volunteers favourite spot and things in three dimensions. Such models are often made far later in the creative process, when a proposal for a final exhibition is being visualised.

The Creative Package was followed by a series of workshop with volunteers – the first one speculating on what a day in the life of previous inhabitants might have looked like – which produced as an output a number of imagined portmanteaux characters. Conversations were recorded, but not transcribed. Instead the researcher draw in response to the recoded conversation. “drawing made more sense than producing a written transcription as the sketches captured the complexity and non-linear aspects of participants’ conversation. Their unfinished quality presented the characters in a state of becoming, revealing the negotiations and compromises participants made during the co- creation workshop.”

From these drawings the researcher produced a storyboard consisting of three to five illustrated scenes for each character, which were used in the subsequent workshop, with a smaller group fo volunteers to refine the stories and check accuracy. This gave substance to the characters and defined their personality. Finally the personas were shared with the curator of social history to select appropriate objects from the collection to pair with each character.

Each stage of co-creation had a virtual output, the Design Synthesis which both recorded the output of the preceding stage and prompted the development of the subsequent one. The authors of the paper reflect on design synthesis as a tool for making sense of co-creation, bringing the richness together and nurturing collective creativity. They quote the volunteer organiser saying “What I found really interesting is how volunteers’ ideas were determining the format and outcome of the project. They [the volunteers] could really see the contributions they have made in the end result.” One of the volunteers said “It’s lovely the way you [the designer] have involved the volunteers, used our ideas and made us part of it.”