Dialogue

I thought I was done with Staiff, but he keeps dragging me back in! These are my final thoughts, I promise. The final chapter however is a doozy, and contains at least a couple of quotes I’ll want to squeeze into my dissertation. To be honest I thought Staiff had lost me with his celebration of “Gabriel’s” mash up in my previous post. He seemed to be saying heritage interpretation as a business should pull back and let the objects speak for themselves – which is often very good advice, I have seen places and things being over-interpreted, their spirit killed by too much didacticism. But his championing of the visitor making their own meaning, and sharing it with other visitors, presumed too much upon every visitor devoting time and energy to their visit. It’s a noble aim, don’t get me wrong, but not everybody has the time to play, to make meaning, and I worry it is elitism by the back door: only those with the time and experience to bring or make meaning should be alllowed to engage with the objects. I recall somebody telling a colleague “Knole doesn’t need “interpretation”, all you need to do is read The Edwardians.”

However, Staiff reassured me by taking us (sadly in words, not real life) to a museum I have wanted to visit since first hearing about it (but given it’s about as far from me as its possible to get on this globe, I might never see it), the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Some of my best museum visits have been when I was a little tipsy, and one that is build around a cocktail bar, and as Staiff says, invites visitors to ‘get inebriated’ to properly appreciate the living, constantly changing mix of “old and new art”, themed mostly around sex and death must be, should be, a Mecca of every curator. This is a place that embraces counter-tourism. (Note to self, write a post about the O-system. Another note to self , why haven’t you done it aleady, idiot?!) That Staiff says the MONA “is a material and embodied expression of how I imagine heritage interpretation” is a relief.

So finally to those quote that I’ll be working into my thesis. The first is another reassurance that he and I are not as far apart, philosphocally, as I had feared:

This is not an abdication on my part from the role of of heritage interpretation but a call to re-think it as a platform for negotiated meaning making; for non-linear and non-determined experiences; for facilitating choice and for being able to deal with the unauthorized, the non-conforming, the unpredicted, the subversive, the playful, for imagination, creativity and newly performed responses; for experiences where the power of the somatic, the emotional and serendipitous are acknowledged as possible ends in themselves; for co-authored experiences and meaning making; for experiences that are not necessarily born of the information imperative.

And one more, in fact his very last sentences, having described all (though I guess he’s not being encyclopedic in this effort, do perhaps I should say, a lot of) the things we do as visitors to special places:

All of these interactions focus on the visitor, and all of them, therefore, are infused with social and cultural characteristics. In its broadest sense, visitors at heritage places can be regarded as being in dialogue with places, objects and landscapes; as having a dialogic relationship with parts of our planet marked out as being special (for whatever reason) and with something from the past/present that needs to be kept (for whatever reason, official or unofficial) for the future.

Are we all cyborgs? Digital media and social networking

Continuing with my reading of Staiff’s Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation, I come to his chapter on digital media and social networking. He wastes little time on those who “persist wit the idea that podcast audio-tours and GIS-activated commentries care just extentions of ‘old’ ways on interpreting material culture, but simply using digital techniques,” rather (writing in 2014, remember) Staiff is a champion of “Web 2.0 as all it emblematically stands for”:

Web  2.0 and the generation of of users who inhabit this experience […] are not interested in pre-packaged information that is passively received; rather they want open access to databases so that they as visitors can share the content and be co-authors of  the interpretation. The digital-savvy wants to be a creator of meaning as well as a consumer of meaning.

I shared a similar optimism when he was writing, but I am less convinced now. Yes, visitors to cultural heritage do share their experiences on social media, but they are not yet demanding access to databases to share that content and their own interpretation. Or at least not many are, despite the prevalence of smartphones, and our seeming inability to let go of them. The majority of visitors that I (and others) observe do not use their devices on site. It’s worth mentioning that back in 2014, he also saw 3G wireless as more of a  gamechanging technology than it turned out to be. Even 4G speeds haven’t enabled mass use of the internet on-site in heritage. Recently a colleague spoke hopefully that fifth generation wireless technology might finally get people using mobile devices more on site. We shall see, but I remain unconvinced.

But digital interpretation does not need to take place on-site. Staiff writes enthusiastically of a student’s response to a digital heritage interpretation assignment he regularly hands out. He describes how “Gabriel” chose his/her ancestral home town, Sienna, and started off creating an inventory of all the information s/he could find on the web about it, including Wikipedia and Youtube, official civic sites and personal blogs by both tourists and residents. Then, says Staiff “Gabriel” built an interactive website that allowed visitors to mash up the content he had sourced, and add to it. “Gabriel” built the code, but didn’t control the content “what emerged was a ceaseless interaction between fellow classmates, his/her family, and friends. It is impossible to describe in words the way this digital creation worked out or what it included because what stood out changed, at any point in time, as did the conversations and contributions.”

Staiff lists some of the things that caught his eye, representative of the dynamic and user generated nature of the site, and that list includes, for example:

  • A grandmother’s reflection about growing up in the contrade
  • a recipe for panforte
  • a poem about a beloved aunt who lived in Sienna
  • a friend’s university essay on Ducio’s Maesta; and,
  • a link to a video game Assassin’s Creed

… among many other things. Apparently the site “is a special place/space in Gabriel’s family with contributions both the Sienese side of the family and and Sydney side of the family.”

Which all sounds wonderful, in the new media mode of Manovich, something more than the sum of its parts, created by its users. Here, heritage is not simply an object or place that you look at, but (Staiff cites Laurajane Smith’s Uses of Heritage) something you do, a verb rather than a noun. Garbriel’s website is a utopian interpretation of the city.

Utopian in its truest sense, because it doesn’t exist.

Gabriel is in fact, a “hypothetical student” and the website Staiff describes “is the work of a number of students over several years […] merged together to form a composite example”, which is a pity because it sounds fun. Now, any one of Staiff’s students may have produced a site as dynamic, as comprehensive and as well supported by its users, but somehow I think not. I have written before about the critical mass of users that heritage specific social media sites need to be dynamic. I have also written about the luxury of time available to digital creators/curators, that very many people simply don’t have. The students that constituted “Gabriel” were given an assignment, given time to create their work. The majority of social media users are necessarily more passive. These are concerns that I think Staiff shares:

“In the digital world, who is participating, who gets to speak, are all speaking positions valid in relation to cultural places, objects and practices, who is listening/viewing, who is responding and why, what are the power relations involved here, do marginal voices continue to be sidelined, what about offensive and politically unpalatable commentary?”

But it can not be denied that there is truth at the heart of Staiff’s argument. Much more is being researched, written, drawn, filmed and in other ways created about the heritage than can possibly be curated by the traditional gatekeepers – museums, trust’s, agencies and their staff. Staiff acknowledges “the anxiety about who controls the authoritative knowledge associated with heritage places” but counters that “What is needed is a complete rethink and conceptualization of the role of heritage places in the digital age and to see the technological devices used by visitors, not as ‘things’ separate from the carrier, but as ‘organic’ and constitutive parts of the embodied spatial, social and aesthetic experience.”

 

Russell Staiff: Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation

When I had just started my research, in 2014 this book was published, literally down the road from where I live. So why I only discovered it a few weeks ago is a mystery. despite being published in my home town, I had to arrange an inter-library loan to get it from Leeds University Library. So, now I have to whizz through it, pulling out his thesis, and some choice quotes to illustrate it, before I have to send it back.

First, its worth point out that he come from a point of view that is (was?) skeptical about the profession of interpretation as espoused by Freeman Tilden. His preface recounts his puzzled reaction when a national park manager used the term. “Isn’t everything about interpretation? What else is there?” he, an art historian, asked himself. Indeed an early chapter is a dissection (or demolition?) of Tilden’s foundation text for the heritage industry.

On Tilden

His key point is that everybody interprets everything, all the time. Using the Michelangelo’s David as an example, he argues that while the erotic and comedic use of the David’s penis or buttocks displace the “authorized” narrative of David as the slayer of Goliath, sculpted by an artistic genius, “the two stories are not mutually exclusive for many viewers despite them being somewhat incompatible. […] Heritage interpretation cannot manage this level of of complexity without radical editing of the content or unsatisfactory and ethically suspect reductionism. What heritage interpretation can attempt is a facilitation of multiple meaning-making and meaning -making as a dynamic process within systems or representation.” He obviously thinks Tilden’s work tend more towards the reductionist angle.

For example, Staiff takes issue with Tilden’s use of the term “revelation”, on one had because it implies a hidden truth worthy of conspiracy theorists and thriller writers like Dan Brown, and on the other because “it maintains a hierarchical power relationship between the ‘expert’ and the non-expert, between those with ‘the knowledge’ and those ‘without the knowledge.'” He does acknowledge that later in the book, Tilden (in his discussion of aesthetics and beauty) “opens up the possibility of (1) the power of feelings and the role of sensorial experience of heritage and (2) visitor empowerment and (3) interpretation as a social construction.” But, Staiff claims, Tilden quickly closes that door because it “potentially unravels many of his principles of interpretation.”

Overall he considers Tilden’s work dated, and so it is. Perhaps he his correct that it is past time to move beyond Tilden’s principles.

On narrative

I very much enjoy how Staiff writes about narrative, “stories do something to us that descriptions do not; we seem to enter into what I want to call ‘fictive space.'” But, “As Roland Barthes and others have cheekily but pointedly written, texts ‘read’ the reader, the reader does not read the text. Stories, thefore do not guarantee a connection to the topographical and physical setting of the narrative. This is a crucial insight often lost in heritage interpretation.” Generally a fan of the power storytelling to give form and structure to what people are looking at, he is aware that “this is an imposed or even artificial structuring of heritage places. […] Is the way a narrative organises time and events (into causal relationships) the most appropriate way to communicate with visitors about a particular site?” On that last point, I would counter that cause and effect chronologies are just one of many narrative structures.

By way of example he imagines (creates) a segment of audio-guide for an excavation in Greece, but then critiques it. There are other ways of understanding places, he says. What of the science behind the engineering of any building? What of the context for the story his segment told? In his extract he mentions Homer’s epics. Do they need any explanation? Stories need to be peopled, but who are the people in the listeners minds? can heritage interpreters offer as well “rounded” a depiction of a historical personality as a biography, or even a novel?

He worries to that the desire for narrative might assign cause and effect to even descriptive interpretation, where no narrative is intended “In heritage interpretation the desire for explanation of often paramount in both those creating narratives and those listening, reading or seeing them.”

He concludes his musing on narrative and interpetation with four “implications”. The first is that “narrative is not the only way heritage places are represented but narrative is a very potent form of giving material things meaning and making material things the touchstone of our deepest desires, feelings, imaginations and emotions. […] The role of narrative in heritage interpretation reinforces the fact that what’s often at stake is not things but, objects and landscapes, but us.” (page 113)

Secondly he points out that there are many stories associated with any place, but they fall into two categories: sanctioned narratives – “those stories that have the imprimatur of institutions […] the narratives of scholarship (or historians, archaeologists, art historians, architectural historians, ecologists and so forth) and the narratives of custodians of heritage spaces (those who work for conservation agencies, heritage agencies or are traditional owners of a site) and usually a combination of the two”; and unofficial narratives “those created by everyone else.”

“Thirdly, narrative sutures heritage places into a particular form of representation; it absorbs the physical entity into chronological time, and it provides action, character, causation, closure and narrator. Heritage interpretation that employs narrative furthers this structuring but mostly uncritically.” I take issue with this, not with his concern that narrative might indeed structure the place uncritically, but rather I take exception with the idea that heritage interpretation “provides action, character, causation and closure.” Its often really hard to get action, character or closure out of a places history, in a way that makes an engaging narrative. Although, “Causation” there is plenty of, and I agree, probably too much. I agree with his assertion that “Chronology is particularly pernicious in the way that it organizes cultural heritage into a linear sequence.”

Finally he recognizes that “stories are a powerful and seductive way of connecting people to places,” buts asks “Is there an ethics of stoytelling at heritage places?” and here he challenges Tilden’s core aim, that interpretation should change attitudes and behaviours by instilling a conservation awareness.

In my next post, I’ll get into the meaty chapter, about digital storytelling.

Smart conservation

Lascaux2

Yesterday, to Oxford, to meet with the brilliant Niki Trigoni, who among many other things founded Navenio, a company that provides infrastucture free mobile location analytics.

It occurred to me, during our conversation, that there is a case for MLA in heritage sites that may be stronger than the story delivery that I’ve seen concentrating on. Organisations that look after heritage sites are normally incorporated with a mission something along the lines of “preserving (the site) for public benefit.” The “benefit” in that phrase is most commonly understood as access. Sometimes however, allowing access to the site so risks the preservation of the site that it has to be closed, for example at Lascaux.

So heritage sites must balance their duty of public benefit against their duty of preservation. A balance that its complicated by the fact that the visiting public support the preservation, with admission fees at the very least,or being so inspired by the preserved site that they go to contribute by subscription, donation, volunteered time etc. There is thus, generally, a conservation imperative to increase visits, to better finance preservation.

To help get that balance right, heritage sites monitor the impacts of visitor upon the place, and one tool they use is mapping the way visitor behaviours change, over time as visiting habits change, or in responses to changes within the site itself. The National Trust, for example, uses a methodology called Conservation for Access, or C4A.

But C4A is relatively resource heavy – it requires the (generously given) support of a small army of volunteers, and the analysis of the data takes time. So it is done only occasionally, every few years, and provides only a snapshot of  visitor behaviors from the period when the data collection took place. It is thus a relatively blunt tool. It is used to help the organisation budget for conservation, including staffing levels, and sometimes to inform changes to the visitor route, to protect fragile environments. But the effect of those changes might not be measured until the next time resources are dedicated to a C4A data collection and analysis.

Could we use MLA to crowdsource similar data? Could we persuade our visitors to share their movements around the place every day, building up a more accurate, always up-to-date and year round (the C4A toolkit was originally developed when most National Trust buildings only opend between March and October) picture of how the place is used? Would we find out that visitor behaviours change as, for example, ambient light levels change with the seasons?

A first iteration could offer us more accurate data for conservation monitoring and forward planning, but if it also demonstrated dynamic changes to visitor behaviors triggered by changes in the environment, then it might help make the case for real time analytics. Imagine being able to change the offer subtly to reduce the conservation pressure on one part of the site. Imagine the site being able to do that automatically, for example playing an audio presentation in an adjacent room, not triggered by visitors entering that room, but to attract visitors into that room, when the heritage assets next door are under too much visitor pressure.

Is it possible? I’m sure it is. Is it cost effective yet? That I don’t know, but a suitable experiment, over a few years across and number of sites might help us find out.

 

Heritage Jam 2017 #THJ2017

Winner - In-Person Team
I don’t like to brag, but … who am I kidding, I LOVE to brag! Here’s my winners’ certificate from 2015. It’s not too late, you could have one too

I’m in Crete for this year’s Heritage Jam, which is a shame, because I had such fun in 2015. I thoroughly recommend participating:

The Heritage Jam (http://www.heritagejam.org/) is back for another year of creative and innovative heritage work, and we would love everyone – from anywhere in the world – to get involved!

The Jam is a free creative event centred around making new and different interpretations of the past for audiences of your choice on a specific theme. You can create these interpretations individually or in teams – in person or remotely.

The Jam will be hosted by Leeds Museums and Galleries at Leeds City Museum, on the 27th and 28th of October 2017. There is also an online Jam for those unable to travel, which runs from the 18th of September to the 26th of October.

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN – read more: http://www.heritagejam.org/home2

This year’s theme is ‘The Bones of our Past’, inspired by the ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ an exhibition currently hosted by Leeds Museums and Galleries at Leeds City Museum in partnership with the Wellcome Collection and the Museum of London (http://www.heritagejam.org/blog/2017/9/18/and-the-theme-is).

Do you need to be an archaeologist or heritage professional to participate? NO! The Jam is open to all, including anyone with a passion for history!

Is there a fee? NO! The Jam has no participation charge, so there’s no reason not to join!

To sign up all you have to do is follow the link on our website – http://www.heritagejam.org/signup – and fill in a registration sheet.

All of our policies, including codes of conduct for the Jam, can also be found on our website: http://www.heritagejam.org/policies/.

We hope you can join us for this one of a kind event in October!

Sara & the #THJ2017 team

Designing another survey

I’ve been mulling it for weeks, but I’ve decided that I need to get some more data. So I’m preparing another survey, to be promulgated via the internet. It’s going to be asking cultural heritage visitors about their use of mobile devices around heritage sites. I got a pretty good sample size last time, so I hope I’ll get a similar response this time.

Though I feel that my social networks might be more likely to fill this one in, I’m curious to see how it compares to the one that was overtly about gaming. I don’t want to wonder whether there are more gamers than museum visitors in the world… 🙂

Actually though, I am going to include a couple of questions about mobile gaming. I want to see if certain attitudes have changed in the three years(!) since that survey. I expect to see more people (even museum visitors) aware of location based gaming after the Pokemon Go phenomenon. So I’ll have two questions based upon (but updated) a couple from that survey.

The main purpose of the survey though is to identify barriers to mobile device use around heritage sites. There’s a lot of conjecture it seems, in the literature but very little data. I think that’s partly because most of the audience research is based on questions asking “what would encourage you to use mobile devices” rather than “why wouldn’t you use them”.

A new, easy to read guide

In a pleasant surprise today, a new book dropped through my letterbox. Interpretation in a Digital Age, by Paul Palmer and Neil Rathbone, is a concise, easy to read introduction and guide for Heritage professionals starting digital projects in their places. It promises "objective and practical guidance", and lives up to that promise.

It's an easy read, and neatly sums up the history of handheld guides in heritage sites as it walks the reader through concepts like: Bring Your Own Device; native, web and hybrid apps; media creation; webcams; and locational and proximity triggering. Palmer and Rathbone conclude a useful chapter on accessibility and inclusiveness with with a section on Mindfulness, wherein they argue we "need to develop more skill in the psychology of storytelling using digital media rather than blame the media". A sentiment with which, given the subject of my study, I can only agree.

There are chapters on using technology outdoors, understanding wifi, compliance and intellectual property, and project management. An optimistic chapter near the end explores some of the possibilities that "the digital toolbox" might enable, and the book ends with a jargon busting glossary that reveals the intended audience museum and cultural heritage professionals who not digital experts but are thinking of commissioning something and don't want to be fast-talked by potential suppliers.

It's not an academic work, it doesn't have references to other texts. Rather it is based on the practical experience to the two authors. So it's very good, if not technically detailed, on the how, and also offers practical advice on project management that will last longer than some of the technologies that are now current, but it lacks the why. It's not their intention (I think) to sell the concept of digital technology to heritage sites, rather it's a response to heritage sites looking to see what what is possible. Indeed in the introduction the authors refer to the "Gartner hype cycle", the tendency to over-estimate the potential of technology, and peter to be disappointed by its limitations. Given that more and more evidence I'm seeing suggests only a maximum of five percent of heritage visitors use apps or other mobile technologies, and that I heard recently that mention of an app is currently likely to kill an HLF bid stone dead, I'm still questioning whether it's possible to build a business case for the creation of digital content, let alone the purchase of hardware etc.

CultureGeek 2017 and Digital Customer Experiences


Better late than never, its a month since I went to two events in one week, and I’ve been so busy since then that I haven’t had time to write them up. Those of you who were following my Twitter stream live may ave some idea what excited me at the time, but for anyone else who might be interested, and more importantly for my own reflection, let me ram my thoughts together into this one post on both events.

We’ll start with Culture Geek in Kensington, which follows on from the M&H show, which I didn’t attend this year. This was the expensive one, with speakers flown in from other countries. I was pleasantly surprised to meet my colleague Alex there, so we were able to reflect a little between sessions, and there’s one thing especially we came away wanting to do, but more on that later. The conference touched on everything digital, including in-visit technology, but of course also plenty of on-line stuff. The first speaker was from that side of the field, Kimberly Drew, social media manager from New York’s Met museum. She drew on her experience as a person of colour doing a history of art degree, and how her life has changed during an internship at Harlem’s Studio Museum when a whole side of black art was revealed to her which had not been covered in her white-centric education.

Keen to share her epiphany, she and a friend started a Tumblr blog on Black Contemporary Art. Now that blog has over 200,000 followers, and she has unintentionally become “a poster child for diversity.” The Met weren’t looking for a “diversity champion” when they advertised the role of Social Media Manager (I asked her afterwards), but you can see why they snapped up such a dynamic, self-motivated blogger, with experience of, and reputation for, reaching out and expanding audiences.

Her work for the Met isn’t all about black art either. She sees the social media as the Met’s fourth space, alongside the 5th Avenue building,  The Cloisters and the Breuer. Her role there is to share 5000 years of art; connect users with the collection; highlight the ways the museum serves art and art history, and to “humanise” the museum and create invitations to participate. This last is the objective that benefits, in theory, from her previous experience, but of course they all do. Reflecting on her talk what comes across most is authenticity. Its a challenge for cultural heritage organisations, to match that authenticity of enthusiasm for both the medium and the message, someone who lives and breathes social media and the cause.

Kimberly is a young woman who inspires, and shows us how to do it, and the organisation she works for is a springboard, not a water-slides forcing her in a corporate direction. She’s one to watch.


The most interesting presentation for my research was given by Joe McFadden of the Royal Opera House. they are trying a number of digital experiments as they redevelop one of their spaces, known as the Piazza, with the intention of increasing the number of daytime visitors. Currently only the tens of thousands annually, which for a central London space, is very few. Their work is in three broad areas: Transactional – things like ordering your interval drinks online, and paying with Applepay; Experiential  – things like AR with hololens and VR (check out the work of the VOID) and post-show video on demand: and, Informational – things like personalised wayfinding (which made my ears prick up, but sadly when I quizzed Joe afterwards, he said they were struggling with the contending needs of different visitors at the same decision point, so It might not happen). We also talked about their current testing of an Alexa skill, so that Amazon Echo users could quiz their “household assistant” about whats on and even, possibly, buy tickets.

Which tied in with a fascinating presentation I saw later in the week at the Academy of Marketing’s Digital Customer Experiences event. There Prof. Merlin Stone of St Mary’s University talked about work he is doing on Baby Boomers and the heath service. These are “the largest generation of older people the world has seen”, but also the healthiest and longest living, the richest, most educated, etc etc. though its early days in the voice first market – he sees signs that they are also likely to be enthusiastic users of Alexa and other home voice assistants, and may well expect services (he was talking about health, but it applies equally well to Opera and Heritage, where baby-boomers are currently core market) to be provided by voice-first platforms.

Back to CultureGeek, Tim Wood of the Ballet Rambert showed us some simple online stuff that had proven surprisingly popular – live streaming of rehearsals. Not fancy dress-rehearsals, but studio work, the repetitive practice of moves and blocking. This is what set Alex and me off on a reverie about making a “slow TV” livestream event of a voyage down the length of the river Wey. One day….
Apart from those presentations at CultureGeek, there was interest as well in Patricia Buffa’s discussion of e-Marketing the Fondation Louis Vitton to Chinese tourists. The Chinese market isn’t a big one for my market yet, they are mostly urban tourists, and ticking off the iconic sites. But if (when?) it becomes spreads into the countryside and independent travelling there’s stuff we can learn here: the importance of Weibo/WeChat; finding Chinese celebrity advocates; doing exhibitions in Chinese partner locations; and, interestingly, the ubiquity of the QR code – “in China your QR code is your business card”.

We also got insight from the Science Museum’s use of Kickstarter to fund the rebuilding of Eric, Britain’s very first robot. We were shown a really interesting content management system created by MIT, and heard about building digital systems for a City of Culture in Hull. There were also some lovely experiments in mixed reality from the National Theatre, including a VR Alice in wonderland that the viewer experienced sitting on a toilet, and Draw Me Close, a VR opera that puts the audience in the naively drawn world of five year old Jordan. I’m not sure how sustainable the business model of this experience might be, the cast outnumbers the audience (of one) so that as the virtual Mum hugs you, or tucks you up in bed, a physical cast member also does it to you, to make an fully sensory experience. Its the closest we’ve come yet to the Ractors of The Diamond Age.

The Digital Customer experiences event was more commercial (after all, it was hosted by the Academy of Marketing at the Direct Marketing Institute). I had been invited to give a presentation, the abstract for which I posted a few weeks back. Apart from Professor Stone, whom I spoke about above, Dr Julia Wolney introduced the day with an overview of all the points in the customer “life cycle” where AI has growing potential.

Ana Canhoto gave a very interesting presentation about the conflicting attitudes to tracking and personalisation. As one respondent told her, its:

… creepy. But, then, it is just also very useful.

Dr Wolny returned to talk about her research into wearables, and the quantification of the self. As a recent wearer of an Apple watch, which I am using to incentivise my own movement, I was very interested in what she had to say. However based on her findings I’m not sure I’m typical. Women are more likely than men to track their fitness, but men are more likely to share their latest achievements. (I am not.)

But perhaps the most intriguing presentation was from Dr Fatema Kawaf – she presented a research technique I had not heard of before, but one I think may be valuable to evaluating heritage experiences. Its called The Repertory Grid, and as the linked article shows it comes out of psychology, a technique as a method to help the individual unveil his or her constructs. As Kawaf demonstrated though, it enables participants to use their own words to construct their understanding of experiences too. Kawaf was thinking about the retail experience, but I wonder if its ever been applied to heritage?

Building a story in Star Wars Indentities

A Stormtrooper marching band? The exhibition attempts to illustrate different values with illustrations like this.

It was Fathers’ day last weekend, as a treat, my family took me to the Star Wars Identities exhibition at the O2 in Greenwich. I was interested for a number of reasons, not the least of which was, being ten in 1977, I was (am) a massive fan of Star Wars. But one of the other reasons was the idea that visitors build their Star Wars identity as they go around the exhibition. This seemed to me to be a large scale, upfront attempt to personalize a cultural heritage visit. (And yes, Star Wars is cultural heritage now, I’m sure I saw other movies when I was ten, but I can’t recall what they were.)

The RFID tag that visitors use for the interactives

The mechanics of this personalization were wristbands, or if you were latex intolerant, “credit” cards, with RFID (I’m guessing) chips, and nine (not ten as advertised) stations around the exhibit where you could make choices that defined your Star Wars identity. The content of the show were props, models, costumes, concept sketches and some original art, mostly from the first six movies (though BB8 and a couple of props were squeezed in to represent the latest phase of production), with two streams of interpretation. One stream interprets the design of characters in the movies, and the second is a sort of “science of Star Wars” strand, with basic interpretation of things like genetics. Some of all this is delivered with traditional text panels, and some is aural, delivered by an IR activated headset. You are given a “medallion” style unit to hang around your neck and hook an earpiece over one ear. Then, stand in the right place in front of a panel or AV, and the relevant sound is beamed to your unit in a choice of languages. All you need to do, is control the volume… and make sure you don’t turn away from the beam, or cross your arms over the receptor, or let anybody tall stand in front of you, cutting of the beam – all of which will cut out the sound.

It’s worth  pointing out that the text comes in English and French. And that may betray the exhibition’s 2012 origins at the Montreal Science Centre. That of course explains where the science interpretation strand comes from, and why objects and stories from The Force Awakens feel shoe-horned in. One can’t argue with most of the interpretation – seeing how the characters like Yoda developed over time was interesting, the science was a bit basic, and its connections with the Star Wars story questionable (the exhibition suggests Force sensitivity is a genetic trait). The stuff on personality felt just one of many different models of personality types that, despite five post-Doc academics advising on it, reads like its been cribbed from a dodgy self-help book. Interestingly, it was the personality test that was the only interactive station that wasn’t a simple choice – visitors had to answer a number of questions before it revealed their personality profile.

When I started the experience, I was looking forward to discovering what my Star Wars identity would be, but three or four interactives in, when I realized that most of the stations were offering choices rather than revelations, I decided to rush back to the start and remake those choices – because I’ve known since I was ten what my Star Wars identity actually was: the son of Grand Moff Tarkin! Given that the character described in the link was mostly made of my direct choices, I am of course very pleased with the result. I was curious to see what my personality test said about me (or rather, about my Star Wars identity). Click on each of the buttons below the biography on the page I linked to, and it highlights the bit text in the biography that was chosen by your answers. So to reveal the personality results, all I need to do is click that button. The highlighted text says:

People often tell me I’m a generally adventurous and curious person, I also tend to be energetic and social.

… which suggests I was really getting into character when I was answering those questions, because that doesn’t sound like me at all 🙂

Actually the interactive I enjoyed most was Events. Touch your RFID bracelet to the receptor and a random life event spins into view, with a choice of how you react to it. I won a city in a “game of chance”, and had to decide (if I recall correctly) whether I governed sensibly, gave up the job, or “reveled in the prestige and borrowed liberally from the city coffers” which is the option I went for (of course). But my boy was disappointed that the random events on offer were not in some way defined by choices you’d already made – he too got the city, and I might easily have been “freed from slavery” by an event. The son of a Grand Moff in slavery? I don’t think so. 🙂

Despite its limitations (which one is prepared to forgive more when one realizes the technology is five years old), the opportunity to create a story like this was very much enjoyed by my family. I wonder if the exhibition had a deeper emotional impact on me because of it?

Apps not worth it, hard numbers

I’ve got to point people’s attention to this excellent blog post from Colleen Dilenschneider. Colleen works for a US market research firm called Impacts. They have a couple of hundred visitor facing clients, including for example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and they combine their data from all the research to produce the National Awareness, Attitude & Usage Study, which is informed by on-site interviews, randomly selected telephone interviews and an on-line component. So though its commercial market research, and not academically peer reviewed, the approach seems to be pretty robust. I’ve been looking for some hard numbers about the benefit (or otherwise) of mobile device interpretation, not just for my research (and my talk next week), but also for work. It was a work colleague who pointed me to post, but I’ll happy include some of the data in next week’s presentation.

I’ll let you read it for yourself. Some if it is not so surprising, when it offers some numbers to support what has already been reported anecdotally. For example, that people are more likely to use the place’s website, social media and review sites to plan a visit, than an institution’s app, or that people are more likely to use social media than an app when they are on-site (old readers will be familiar with my usual rant on this subject, now available in print 🙂 ).

But there’s one chart I want to draw out, which makes two key points (both important enough for Dilenschneider to use bold text):

People who use mobile applications onsite do not report significantly higher satisfaction rates than those who do not.

and

People who use social media or mobile web while they visit a cultural organization have a more satisfying overall experience than people who don’t use social media or mobile web during their visit.

She illustrates both points with the same graph.

Image (c) Impacts, copied from: http://colleendilen.com/2017/04/05/are-mobile-apps-worth-it-for-cultural-organizations-data/

All of which adds weight to the argument that institutions like the one I work for should prioritize  installation of free, easy to log on to, pervasive wifi over the commissioning of expensive, unused apps, and direct content development efforts towards the mobile web, in the knowledge that even then, users may prefer to publish out from a place, rather than read the content that you’ve created.

Some places get it.