Mulholland on Museum Narratives

Working on the narratives for the Chawton Project, I’m taking a break and catching up on reading. Paul Mulholland (with Annika Wolff, Eoin Kilfeather, Mark Maguire and Danielle o’Donovan) recently contributed a relevant first chapter to Artificial Intelligence for Cultural Heritage (ed Bordoni, Mele and Sorgente).

Mulholland et al’s chapter is titled Modelling Museum Narratives to Support Visitor Interpretation. It kicks off with the structuralist distinction between story and narrative,  and points to a work I’ve not read and should dig out (Polkinghorne, D. 1988 Narrative Knowing and the human sciences) as particularly relevant to interpreting the past. From this, the authors draw the “narrative inquiry” process which “comprises four main stages. First, relevant events are identified from the historical period of interest and organised into chronological order. This is termed a chronicle. Second, the chronicle is divided into separate strands of interest. These strands could be concerned with particular themes, characters, or types of event. Third, plot relations are imposed between the events. These express inferred causal relations between the events of the chronicle. Finally, a narrative is produced communicating a viewpoint on that period of history. Narrative inquiry is therefore not just a factual telling of events, but also makes commitments in terms of how the events are organised and related to each other.” Which is as good and concise a summary of the process of curatorial writing as I am likely to find.

There’s another useful summary paragraph later in the document. “When experiencing a museum exhibition, the visitor draws relationships between the exhibits, reconstructing for themselves the exhibition story (Peponis 2003), whether those relationships are, for example, thematic or chronological. The physical structure of the museum can affect how
visitors perceive the exhibition narrative. Tzortzi (2011) argues that the physical structure of the museum can serve to either present (i.e. give access to the exhibition in a way that is independent from its underlying logic) or re-present (i.e. have a physical structure that reinforces the conceptual structure of the exhibition).” Tzortzi there is another reference I’ve not yet discovered and may check out.

What the paper does not do however, is make any reference to emotion in storytelling. the authors seem to leave any emotional context the the visitors’ own meaning making. The chapter include a survey of current uses of technology in museums, and academic experiments including virtual tour guides and opportunities to add the own interpretations and reminiscences, as well as web-based timelines etc.

But, digital technology gives us the opportunity (or need) to break down cultural heritage narratives even more, and an earlier (2012) paper by (mostly) the same authors, Curate and Storyspace: An Ontology and Web-Based Environment for Describing Curatorial Narratives describes a system for deeper analysis. (Storyspace turns out to be a crowded name in the world of writing tools and hypertext, so eventually the ontology and Storyspace API became Storyscope). The first thing that the ontology brings to the table is that

a curatorial narrative should have the generic properties found in other types of narrative such as a novel or a film

So the authors add another structuralist tool, plot, to the story/narrative mix. “The plot imposes a network of relationships on the events of the story signifying their roles and importance in the overall story and how they are interrelated (e.g. a causal relationship between two events). The plot therefore turns a chronology of events into a subjective interpretation of those events.” But using the narrative inquiry process “the plot can be thought of as essentially a hypothesis that is tested against the story, being the data of the experiment.”

I like this idea. But its worth distinguishing between the two uses of the word “interpretation” in cultural heritage. The first use, familiar to my archaeologist colleagues, describes the process of building an understanding of of aspect of the past from the available evidence. The second, more familiar to my museum and heritage site colleagues describes the process of explaining the evidence to non-professional visitors. At its very best, the museum/heritage site form of interpretation will resemble and guide visitors though the process of inquiry that builds an understanding of the evidence on display. But most of the time the second form of interpretation more closely resembles storytelling. That’s not a fault or failure of my museum/heritage site colleagues, most visitors are time poor in story rich environments. But digital technology has the potential to allow museum and heritage site interpretation to more closely resemble the first use of the word.

What digital technology offers, is the opportunity for brave curators to offer alternative plots, or theses, and test them in a public arena, rather than just through a peer review process. Or even to create plots procedurally by following the visitors’ path of attention between objects, maybe discovering plots the curator had not imagined.

The two experiments that the authors describe go someway towards this, by their dry ontology misses an emotional component. The event ontology could surely include an authorial opinion on whether the narrative element suggests a simple emotional reponse (even as simple as hope or fear) but instead “If the tag represents an artist, then events are used to represent, for example, artworks they have created, exhibitions of their work, where they have lived, and their education history.” Dry, dry facts… There is the tiniest nod towards, if not emotion per se, the some sort of value in their brief discussion of theme:

Theme is also related to the moral point of the story. This could be a more abstract concept, such as good winning through in the end, which serves to bind together all events of the story.

Given that they say “Narratives are employed by museums for a number of purposes,
including entertainment” they haven’t given much time to what makes narratives engaging. There is hope however. In their conclusion, they do say “Other narrative
features such as characterisation and authorial intent could potentially be
foregrounded in tools to support interpretation.”


Pokemon Go: Why is it such an extraordinary success?

A Ratatta in a glass, Jerry mouse he ain’t. Photo: Tom Tyler-Jones

I was talking with my son about Pokemon Go today, and I thought it might be useful to run the game though my model of affect and affordances. Would it reveal why this game is so spectacularly popular, given the barriers to engagement that locatative games have had in the past?

My son pointed out that one thing the game has, especially over its Niantic stablemate, Ingress, is the Pokemon brand, which two or three generations have grown up with since the mid-nineties. Speaking as someone who didn’t grow up with Pokemon however I could not believe this was the only reason for its success.

A huge difference from Ingress is ease of entry. As my survey a couple of years ago may have indicated (though I could not disprove the null hypothesis) here-to-fore locatative games have only held any interest for Hard Fun (otherwise Hardcore) gamers. Pokemon seems to be the first truly casual locatative game (though some might give that honour to Foursquare, I don’t think it was much of a game).

So lets run it though the model:

Game Affects stripped

Leaderboards – Although Pokemon Go doesn’t have a leaderboard as such, it does have Gyms. Just today with my 11 year old son’s advice I managed to (very temporarily) take over a local gym from some quite high powered Pokemon of an opposing team.  So a few minutes after that, I was indeed at the top of a very local leaderboard.

Badges – There are a huge variety of medals you can win for achievements like, for example, collecting ten Pokemon of a particular type.

Rewards – Pokemon Go has LOADS of rewards. For a start, visit a Pokestop, and spin the dial and you will acquire a randomly generated reward of Pokeballs, Eggs, and Potions etc, all of which will be useful in the game. Take over a Gym (as I did this afternoon) and you can claim a reward of 10 Pokecoins every day that you keep the Gym under your control.  Capture a Pokemon, and not only can you add it to your collection, but you are also rewarded with Stardust and Evolution Candy. Every time you go up a level you also earn rewards such as new equipment.

Points and Levels – To level up, you need to earn experience points, which you get for pretty much everything you do, collecting Pokemon, especially new types, spinning Pokestops, hatching eggs, earning badges, evolving Pokemon, battling in gyms, etc.

Story/theme – There isn’t much of a story inherent within the Pokemon Go game, but players who have been brought up on the other computer games and TV series, will know of quite a complex backstory. However, not knowing this story does not seem to be a disadvantage to players. Story knowledge isn’t essential to play, and the lack of story within the game seems to attract (or at least not be a barrier to) players of all generations, many too old to have been captured by the original Pokemon game. My son also points out that as you play you do procedurally generate a story of your own trainer avatar, even if that is only in your head, as Sylvester describes.

Progress – As you go up in level, you do get better equipment, and are more like to catch Pokemon with higher combat power, and you are more likely to encounter rarer Pokemon.

Feedback – The game is casual enough that you don’t need to be looking at the screen all the time, but because the game does not allow you to put your device into sleep mode, you end up holding it, waiting for the tell-tale buzz of nearby Pokemon.

Spectacle and Environment – The graphics and Augmented reality are not very sophisticated, but they are fun. Two things make it so. One is that creatures that only exist in fiction now appear in our real life world. The other is that they can (with some luck and an little movement of the screen) appear in amusing places (on your knee, in your dinner or drink, on your friend’s head), and if they do, you can take and keep a photo.

Challenge – There isn’t much skill based challenge in the gameplay. Capturing rare Pokemon, is more of a feat of luck than skill. There is a real-world challenge of sorts though, and that is to walk around, which is the only way to hatch eggs. Some eggs only require two kilometer walks, but other more rewarding eggs require ten kilometres.

The game lacks (or doesn’t make the most of) a number of emotional triggers:

Music – My son likes the music, but I turned it off early in my play. The music isn’t a very sophisticated feedback generator. One track plays pretty much continuously, and the only changes are for evolution cut-scenes (my boy likes this track best) and Pokemon encounters.

Insight – There  is very little learning through play. My son teaches me most of what I need to learn, and he has leaned most of that through YouTube.

There is no Threat or Sex (even when you capture Male and Female Nidoran), and no real character arc.

So, given the affordancies listed above, we can predict which emotions players will be feeling: playful Amusement (from humorously placed AR Pokemon); the social emotions Fiero and Naches (because though the gameplay isn’t inherently social there are enough players currently on the streets for conversation; advice and insight; and even a degree of cooperation; to take place); the seeking emotions, Excitement and Curiosity (especially when find new types of Pokemon); Frustration, a rage affect (when Pokemon randomly break out of your Pokemon); and some degree of Care (from nicknaming, nuturing and powering up your stable of Pokemon).

And let us not forget the Panic/grief, when nothing makes your phone buzz -you are out of mobile reception or have a weak signal, and especially when your phone battery is running low!

P.O.R.T.U.S is go!

A week or two back, I had an interesting conversation with my supervisor, which I didn’t think I should mention on-line until, today, he invoked the “inverse fight club rule”. So I can now reveal that P.O.R.T.U.S stands for Portus Open Research Technologies User Study – yes, I know, as Graeme said “recursive-acronym-me-up baby.” This isn’t the Portus Project, but but it does ride on the back of that work, and (we hope) it will also work to the Portus Project’s benefit.

P.O.R.T.U.S is a small pilot project to explore better signposting to open research, so (for example) people interested in the BBC Documentary Rome’s Lost Empire, (which coincidentally is repeated TONIGHT folks, hence my urgency in getting this post out) might find their way to the Portus Project website, the FutureLearn MOOC,  the plethora of academics papers available free through ePrints (this one for example) or even raw data.

Though the pilot project will use the Portus Project itself as a test bed, we’re keen to apply the learning to Cultural Heritage of all types. To which end I’m looking to organise a workshop bringing together cultural heritage organisations, the commercial companies that build interpretation and learning for them, and open source data providers like universities.

The research questions include:

  • What are the creative digital business (particularly but not exclusively in cultural heritage context) opportunities provided by aligning diverse open scholarship information?
  • What are the challenges?
  • Does the pilot implementation of this for the Portus Project offer anything to creative digital businesses?

The budget for this pilot project is small, and that means the workshop will have limited places, but if you are working with digital engagement, at or for cultural heritage sites and museums,. and would like to attend, drop me a note in the comments.