The Big Why #IdeatoAudience

Yesterday, I went to Digital: From Idea to Audience, a small conference (more of a large workshop actually) put together by Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, with funding from Arts Council England. I might have enjoyed a trip to Brighton, but this actually took place in central London, just across the road from the BBC.

The programme was put together by Kevin (not that Kevin) Bacon, Brighton’s Digital Development head honcho. (By the way – I’m going to quote from this post in my forthcoming presentation at Attingham.) Kevin stated at the outset that the day didn’t have a theme as such, but rather a “Nuts and Bolts” conference, a response to many of the questions he had been asked after making presentations elsewhere. He hadn’t briefed the speakers, only chosen them because he had felt they might have experiences and learning of use to people working on digital projects.

But if a united theme came out of the day, then it was Keep Asking Why?

Kevin kicked off the day talking about his work at Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, a number of sites across the city (including Pavilion istelf, Preston Manor, the Booth museum and both Brighton and Hove museums) that attract around 400,000 visitors a year. They hold three Designated collections (of national importance). He wanted to talk about two digital projects one of which was (broadly) unsuccessful, and the other (broadly) successful.

The first was Story Drop, a smartphone app that took stories from the collection out into the wider city. GPS enabled, it allowed people to take a tour around the city based on an object from the collection. Get to a location and it tells you more about it, and unlocks another object. As an R&D project, it worked. Piloting it, they had very favourable responses. So they decided to go for a public launch in January of 2014. The idea being that lots of local people would have got a new phone for Christmas, and be keen to try out a new app.

The launch turned out to be a damp squid. The weather was partly to blame, January 2014 was one of the wettest on record. But even when the streets dried out, take-up was not massive. Kevin said to me during the break, that maybe only hundreds of people have downloaded the app to date, two years later. He showed a slide detailing some of the reasons why people weren’t using it.

barrierstoapp

These reasons chimed with my own research. It wasn’t an unmitigated failure, people do love it – but only for a very small number of people. So he said, think about why people will use your digital project.

Which is the approach he took for the redevelopment of the Museum’s website, shifting from designing for demographics to designing for behaviours (motivations, needs, audiences). And that was far more successful : 23% increase in page views and 230% increase in social shares.

Then, Gavin Mallory from CogApps took the floor to talk about briefs. He has already put his presentation on Slideshare.  As experienced providers to the cultural heritage industry, they’ve seen a lot of briefs. Some good, some wooly, or overly flowery, too loose, too tight, too re-cycled, or as Giles Andreae would have it “no [briefs] at all!” I must admit, I’ve been guilty of a few of those.

After lunch Graham Davies, Digital Programmes Manager, National Museum of Wales and asked (emphatically) Why? Or rather, why digital? I think the titale of his session should have been “From Digital Beaver, to Digital Diva”, which its something he said, but he didn’t call it that, but it was a really useful set of challenges to make when somebody says “we need an app” or “an iPad to do this.”

 

I’m running out of time so I’ll finish with just one quote from the final speaker. Tijana Tasich, who has worked at Tate and is currently consulting to the South Bank Centre. Talking about usability testing, she said “we used to test just screens and devices, but with iBeacons etc. we are increasingly testing spaces.”

What PhD supervisors are for

I had a great chat with my supervisor on Thursday, after helping out with a Masters seminar. As regular readers may have worked out, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble trying to get a coherent testable design to test out of my half-formed ideas and lofty ideals.

The problem was trying to think of a cheap way to test some of the theory I’ve come up with. I’d got hung up on trying to think of a way to track visitors round a site and test their reactions to that. Until I solved that I was handwaving the issues of breaking the story into natoms, and balancing the conflicting needs of multiple visits in the same space. Those two problems both felt more within my comfort zone. The problem is that I’m not a technologist, that bit is so far out of my comfort zone that I’d need to enlist (or pay for) one. On top of that, the tech itself isn’t that cheap – getting a wifi network into some of the heritage places I know, with their thick stone walls and sheer scale, isn’t about buying just one wifi router.

I’d mentioned the other problems (particularly in the one of negotiating conflicting needs) in the seminar. (The students had been reading about a variety of museum interpretation experiments for their “homework” and we discussed the common issue that many of the experiments focussed on the issue of a visitor in isolation, and hadn’t thought enough about multiple users in the same space). Afterwards I spent twenty minutes with Graeme, my supervisor, in his office. I felt he’d finally got what I’d been trying to say about a “responsive” environment, and his interest was particularly focused on the two issues I’d handwaved. We talked about low-tech ways or exploring both of those, and of course THAT’S what I should be doing, not worrying about the tech. These are both things I can do (I think!) rather than something I can’t .

So by the end of our chat, when Graeme had to return to his students we’d worked out the rudiments of a simple experiment.

  • What I need is a relatively small heritage site, but the possibility of lots of choices about routes, lots of intersections between spaces. What Hiller calls a low depth configuration (that last link is to a fancy new on-line edition of the book, by the way. It’s worth a read).
  • I need to work with the experts/curators of that site to “break” the stories. Break is a script-writing term, but it feels particularly appropriate when thinking about cutting the stories up into the smallest possible narrative atoms. (Although maybe “natomise” is better!)
  • Then I need to set up the site to simulate some of responsiveness that a more complex system might offer. Concealed Bluetooth speakers for example, or  switches like these that can be controlled by Bluetooth.
  • Finally, rather than try and create the digital system that tracks visitors and serves them ephemeral natoms, I can do a limited experiment with two or more humans following visitors around and remotely throwing the switches that might light particular areas of the room, play sounds or what ever other interventions we can come up with. The humans take the place of the server, and when they come together, negotiate which of their visitors gets the priority. Graeme suggested a system of tokens that the human followers could show each other – but the beauty of this concept is that the methods of negotiating could become part of the results of the experiment! The key thing is to explain to the participants that the person following them around isn’t giving them a guided tour, they can ask questions of him/her, but s/he isn’t going to lead their experience.

So, now I have a a thing that it is possible to do, with minimal help and with a minimal budget. And its a thing that I can clearly see has aims that come of the research I’ve done, and results that inform platonic ideal responsive environment I have in my head. If it works, it will hopefully inspire someone else to think about automating it.

That’s what supervisors are for!

 

Information Commissioner’s Office on mobile location analytics

Heritage sites experimenting with MLA take note. The ICO yesterday released a blog post addressing the potential danger to privacy of Mobile Location Analytics and, incidentally, Intelligent Video Analytics. Simon Rice, Group Manager for Technology, who also sits on the International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications, says “Here at the ICO, we’re interested in Wi-Fi location tracking because it could involve the use of personal data. This means it falls under the Data Protection Act and that’s where we come in. […] The use of this type of technology is not just confined to the retail environment – airports, railway stations and even city-wide Wi-Fi networks could use it to monitor individuals. […] Therefore the working group has written a list of recommendations for use of the technology.”

The working paper itself is worth a read, and definitely more balanced than some newspaper coverage (as usual). It makes many references to checking out what you are planning against the local legislation wherever you are working, but also recommends seven safeguards that should be built into your work (and which, I imaging will be built into legislation over time):

  1. Notification to individuals – Organisations must ensure that there is sufficient information, including a range of physical and digital signage, to clearly inform individuals that location technology is in operation. The information must clearly state the purpose for collection and identify the organisation responsible. It is recommended that the industry develop a standard symbol which can be distributed throughout an area to remind individuals that the technology is in operation, similar to the effect from CCTV signage. Specific consideration must be given to staff, employees or other individuals who, if not excluded from the tracking, may be subject to extensive data collection;
  2. Limiting the bounds of data collection – Collection should only take place once the
    individual has been suitably informed and organisations must not seek to collect and
    monitor outside their premises. This can be achieved through careful placement of receivers, limiting data collection through a sampling method and to specified time periods or times of day (e.g., during store opening hours). The frequency of collection
    should also be limited to that which supports the specified purpose. The use of airgaps to create a non-contiguous data collection area and ensuring that collection only takes place in areas which are relevant to the specified purpose should also reduce the risk of privacy intrusion. Organisations should also seek to identify “privacy zones” where no tracking can take place as a result of technical or physical measures. This can be important in areas which have particular sensitivity such as toilets or rooms set aside for first-aid or worship. In jurisdictions where tracking outside of the organisation’s premises can be carried out in compliance with the law, sufficient safeguards should be in place to protect individuals’ privacy;
  3. Anonymise data without delay – Organisations should seek to delete or anonymise
    data as soon as the data is no longer required in its original form;
  4. Appropriate retention of individual level data – In cases where there is a clear legal
    basis for the processing of personal data, organisations should apply methods to
    convert unique identifiers, such as MAC addresses, into a form which reduces the potential for privacy intrusion. For example, if the identification of repeat visits is not envisaged then pseudonymising the identifier would prevent this possibility yet still provide sufficient analytics of daily footfall and routes taken. At the end of the legally
    permissible retention period, the relevant data should be anonymised or securely destroyed. An analysis comparing events over multiple reporting periods (e.g., percentage change in visitors in a given period of time) can be performed by comparing individual period aggregates;
  5. Consent for the combination with other information – Individuals should be fully
    informed when location data is intended to be combined with other information such
    as transaction history. This is especially relevant when location tracking is added as a
    feature to an existing loyalty scheme, for example, adding BLE beacon functionality to
    an existing retailer’s smart phone app. The user’s acceptance of an update via the
    app store is unlikely to be sufficient to qualify as being fully informed. Legislation in
    some jurisdictions may also require explicit consent for certain types of personal
    data;
  6. Consent for the sharing of individually identifiable data with third parties – Organisations should not share data which could be used to identify an individual with
    third parties without the valid informed consent of the individual concerned (this would include sharing data with other clients of a single third-party location analytics provider) unless there is a lawful exception; and
  7. Implement a simple and effective means to control collection – Organisations
    should also establish a system which allows individuals to control the collection of
    such data even in cases where this is not explicitly required by applicable privacy legislation. Organizations should prominently display the existence of choice and control options in the area of data collection. This should include an easily accessible, clearly communicated and effective means to exert control. It is recommended that a single mechanism be supported by all operators of location analytics services such that an individual is only required to express their preference once. If the tracking is based on informed consent then individuals must be enabled to revoke their consent in an easy and persistent manner. Where technically possible, clear audit trails allowing end users to know when and for what purpose data has been collected about their devices and by whom would also be recommended. Users should also be enabled to delete all or part of the previously collected data.

Cultural Agents

I’ve been reading Eric Champion’s Critical Gaming: Interactive history and virtual heritage. Eric asked his publishers to send me a review copy, but none was forthcoming, and I can’t wait for the library to get hold of a copy – I think I was to quote it in a paper I’m proposing –  so I splashed out on the Kindle edition. I think of it as a late birthday present to myself, and I’m not disappointed.

One thing that has struck me so far is a little thing (its a word Champion uses only three times) but it seems so useful I’m surprised it isn’t used more widely, especially in the heritage interpretation context. That word is “multimodality”. As Wikipedia says (today at least) “Multimodality describes communication practices in terms of the textual, aural, linguistic, spatial, and visual resources – or modes – used to compose messages.” But its not just about multimedia, “mode” involves social and cultural making of meaning as well. Champion says:

Multimodality can help to provide multiple narratives and different types of evidence. Narrative fragments can be threaded and buried through an environment, coaxing people to explore, reflect and integrate their personal exploration into what they have uncovered.

Which is surely what all curated cultural heritage spaces are trying to achieve, isn’t it? (Some with more success than others, I’ll admit.) Champion is referring to the multimodality of games and virtual environments, but it strikes me that museums and heritage sites are inherently multi-modal.

It sent me off looking for specific references to multimodality in museums and heritage sites, and indeed, I found a few, this working paper for example, and this blog, but there are not many.

But I digress. I’ve started Eric’s book with Chapter 8 (all the best readers start in the middle) Intelligent Agents, Drama and Cinematic Narrative, in which he examines various pre-digital theories of drama (Aristotle’s Poetics, Propp’s Formalism (with a nod in the direction of Bartle and Yee) and Campbell’s monomyth), before crunching the gears to explore decidedly-digital intelligent agents as dramatic characters. Along the way, he touches upon “storyspaces” – the virtual worlds of games which are by necessity incomplete, yet create an illusion of completeness.

His argument is that there is a need for what he calls “Cultural Agents” representing, recognising, adding to, or transmitting cultural behaviours. Such agents would be programmed to demonstrate the “correct cultural behaviors given specific event or situations” and recognise correct (and incorrect!) cultural behaviours. For example, I’m imagining here characters in an Elizabethan game that greet you or other agents in the game with a bow of the correct depth for each other’s relative ranks, and admonishes you if (in a virtual reality sim) you don’t bow low enough when the Queen walks by.

Which leads on to what he calls the “Cultural Turing Test […] in order to satisfy the NPCs [non-player characters] that the players is a ‘local’, the player has to satisfy questions and perform like the actual local characters (the scripted NPCs). Hence, the player has to observe and mimic these artificial agents for fear of being discovered.” (As he points out, this is in fact a reversal of the Turing test.)

Then he shifts gear again to look at Machinema (the creation of short films using game engines, which I learned about back in Rochester) as a method for users to reflect on their experience in-game, and edit it into an interpretation of the culture the game was designed to explore. Its a worthy suggestion, and could be excellent practice in formal learning, but I fear it undermines the game-play itself, if it becomes a requirement of the player to edit their virtual experiences before comprehending them as a coherent narrative.

Also in all though, I can already see that the book will be an enjoyable and rewarding read.

 

Creating a design document: part 2

More time than I’d like has passed since I started creating my design document. In my last post on the subject, I described how a recital I’d seen could be broken down into “Natoms” or Narrative Atoms. The recital itself was constructed to create a story by putting these natoms into an emotionally engaging order.

Now imagine that we want to use the same research to create an exhibition in a museum, or tell a similar story to people visiting a country house.  Last time I introduced the idea that the natoms could be all sorts of different media: “documents (which could be original or images); portraits (ditto); text (spoken in this case, but it could be printed); sound (live music in this case, but it could be recordings); and even original instruments.” This list can be divided into two types: physical media – objects, and maybe in an historic environment (rather than a museum gallery) the spaces themselves; and, “ephemeral” media – video, audio, text etc, which can be delivered to the access points on demand. I use the word ephemeral because the physical stuff is by definition in a located in a particular place and (generally) doesn’t move around. By the other media can be delivered to visitors wherever the visitors are. A fundamental difference between this concept and traditional interpretation design, is that text panels cease to be permanent objects in the gallery, letting the collection take pride of place. But the ephemeral stuff is not necessarily less important than the physical stuff, as Cohen and Shires pointed out, the only thing that distinguishes kernels from satellites is that the kernals have come in a certain order.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

In the diagram (above) I’ve separated out the physical natoms (spaces and objects) from the ephemeral ones (indicated by the cloud box), but I think I may have been mistaken by making all the kernels ephemeral natoms. There could well be “wow” objects, that curators place at the very start of an exhibition, to make sure that everyone sees it at they enter. This would obviously be  the first Kernel, and maybe a should redo the diagram to show that possibility. Alternatively, curators can put a wow object at the end of an exhibition, for example at the brilliant Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum,  but in fact this is more difficult to do in many free-flow historical environments, so maybe I won’t show that case in the diagram (or maybe I’ll create different diagrams for different curatorial audiences).

What I’m trying to show in the diagram is that there is at least one ephemeral natom for each physical one, for example a catalogue entry, but there may be more – maybe a recording of music being played on an instrument on display, for example. That piece of music may have a specific place in the narrative, making it a kernal. Giving a very simple, broad-brush example, it may in be a minor key, a “sad song” if you will, and works very well in the narrative when we’d like the audience to reflect on the death of protagonist. The object itself may, or may not have a specific place in the narrative. Lets assume it doesn’t.

Now imagine our visitor wonders over to look at the object. The system knows what natoms have been delivered to the visitor at this point, and has a choice: it can let the instrument stand on its own, as a thing of beauty, remember, it is in itself a natom; or it can measure the time the visitor pauses by the object, which indicates a particular interested in it, and deliver (via an e-ink panel say) the catalogue entry; OR it can note that the visitor has recently been told about the death of the protagonist, and so the plays the “sad song”, which, for another visitor who has not yet heard the death story, it holds in reserve until later in the experience.

This isn’t meant to remove all control from the the visitor, who may well have the ability to trigger the music (or another piece) even if the system chooses not to deliver it until later. Indeed, if the visitor goes around triggering every bit of music, a sophisticated version of this system should be able to background the social story, in favour of a more musicological one. Rather, its an acknowledgement that the visitor already takes control of the experience by moving around the spaces, and offers a more flexible way for the curator to tell an emotionally engaging narrative by defining the kernels of the story.

Does that make sense?

Heritage Jam 2015 – sign up soon!

Heritage Jam at York University – registration opens on 20th August

I had a great Skype chat today with Neil and Paul from Info-Point. I’d first met them a couple of years back, and wrote about their product here. In fact, I’d put them in touch with one of my client properties at the time, Saddlescombe Farm, that had a problem which I thought Info-point might be the perfect solution for. It was – and Info-point have now supplied solutions to a number of out-of-the-way (and out of signal) National Trust sites across the country.

Their challenge is that they are technologists, not storytellers, but sometimes places come to them hoping they can supply the content, not just the platform. To this end, they are working hard at building a network of interpretation designers and content providers, who they hope will use their technology when heritage sites come calling.

We were chatting idly about setting up a two-day “hacking” event, to bring together heritage custodians, storytellers and technologists. While we were talking I thought “we could call it something like Heritage Jam!”

Afterwards I thought – “Heritage Jam… that too good an idea to be mine. Where have I heard it before?” and a quick Google later, I knew where. York University will be hosting Heritage Jam towards the end of September. I missed it last year, and made a mental not not to miss it this year. OK, so that mental note came back a bit garbled, but it came back in time for me to get myself on the mailing list. Registration opens and closes on the 20th August. So if you want to go, set a reminder in your diary! If you can’t get to York, there’s and on-line participation month kicking on the 20th of August too, so check that out.

Let’s talk about “affect” – part two

Maurizio Cattelan, HIM, 2001 installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich.
Copyright: Maurizio Cattelan.

Last week, I introduced, from the essay by  Michelle Henning, Legibility and Affect: Museums as New Media in Exhibition Experiments, the concepts of remediation and affect. She quotes Brian Massumi‘s book Parables for the Virtual, which “describes affect as distinct from emotion and expression and in terms of intensity of sensations.” So, in the case of the introduction of spotlighting at the Gesellschafts-und Wirtschaftsmuseum in the 1930s, “it seems that the exhibition lighting increased the intensity of the viewing experience, without necessarily determining the exact emotional content or meaning of the charts and models.”

Now, this seems a little suspect to me. Here, she appears to be suggesting that “affective” lighting works as an amplifier of emotion response, having set it up, in her earlier discussion of theatre lighting, as a trigger of emotional expression. Admittedly she does also say that “other writers on affect see less distinction between affect and emotion.” But, continuing her theme of affect being more about intensity of emotion that the emotion itself, she goes on to talk about affective multimedia, describing the thrilling rides and technologies of the mid-twentieth century worlds fairs, and experiments in interaction at art exhibitions of the 1930s (apparently the use of peepholes at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery was mocked by critics as “a kind of artistic Coney Island”).

Another essay in the same book, Exhibition as Film by Mieke Bal also describes affect as an amplifier of emotion. She compares the 2001 artwork Him (pictured above) by Maurizio Cattelan as a cinematic close-up:

A close up immediately cancels the whole that precedes it, leaving us alone, thrown out of our linear time, alone with a relationship to the image that is pure affect.

In her definition of affect, Mieke Bal at least admits that she is understanding affect “without resorting to psychology”. She describes affective media (mostly images) as those which give us pause: “between a perception that troubles us and an action we hesitate about, affect emerges.”

All of which makes me think of the more prosaic “wow” moments or “anchor experiences” mentioned in my two recent posts on Interpretive Planning. So is that all affect is? A fancy “academic” word for “wow”? Maybe, in cultural theory it is. But, unlike Bal, I want to resort to psychology to see if I can understand it a little better.

I’m on holiday next week, but I’ve found a great book to take with me for a bit of light reading. It’s called The Archaeology of Mind, by Panksepp and Biven. It is, I hasten to add nothing to do with archaeology, but as I study in an archaeology department, I just had to give it a go. Lets see what they think “affect” is, or even if they mention it at all…

 

 

Let’s talk about “affect” – part one

An example of Otto Neurath’s Isotype system

I’ve been reading Exhibition Experiments edited by Sharon MacDonald and Paul Basu. It’s part of my effort to fill the gap in my literature review on modern museum interpretive planning. It hasn’t been brilliantly helpful in that regard. The editors point out “the exhibition experiments described in this volume are not experiments in didacticism. The purpose of their experimentation is not to innovate ever more effective ways of disseminating knowledge,” which is a bit of a slap on the wrist for me because, as one researches storytelling in cultural heritage spaces, one tends towards the didactic and the patronising or “perpetuating illusory securities” as they put it.

So most of the experiments described take place in contemporary art spaces, because as the editors’ introduction continues “exhibitions are generally expensive and this may make some  museum directors, managers and trustees reluctant to allow experimental exhibitions to go ahead.” These exhibitions are therefore temporary in nature, challenging and ideologically sensitive. They discomfort the visitor and expect visitors to “play and active role as navigators, way-finders and meaning makers; drawing their own observations and conclusions without the reassuring presence of an “authority” to defer to.” (p16)

That’s said there are two concepts that leap out of the book and are applicable to all exhibition design. The first is “Remediation“, from Bolter and Grusin’s eponymous book. They are cited by Michelle Henning in her essay Legibility and Affect: Museums as New Media (pp 25-46). She explains that “they outline various ways in which new media remediate other media, from being a supposedly transparent means of accessing other older media forms, through to absorbing older media so that they appear as their technically updated descendants.”

She goes on to describe how museums are remediated, most obviously through “virtual museums,” but also through the introduction of new media and computer technologies “in the form of new media art, information kiosks and touchscreens, and databases.” She also says that remediation might be found in exhibition design:

For instance, I have noted elsewhere now natural history exhibits relating to biodiversity seem to resemble networks, and “branching tree” structures. In their use of diverse exhibitionary techniques, many contemporary displays take on a a multimedia character similar to new media.

Her argument is that museums have been “remediating” since long before the term was coined. “In dioramas, for instance, realism and authenticity are underwritten by the use of the conventions of Romantic painting, combined with representational conventions drawn from photography and film. In other types of display, the authenticity of artefacts in enhanced by supplementing them with video footage or sound recordings.”

But her defining example of remediation is the introduction of spotlighting to the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in the 1930s. “It shed light not on artworks or artifacts in the strict sense, but on posters, charts photographs and models.” In a effort of communicate better with the museum’s intending clientelle, the working class population of Vienna, Otto Neurath, the director of the museum has worked with graphic designers  to create the Isotype system, a visual language for communicating statistical information around the museum. It was these framed black and red posters that were the exhibits of the museum, and the first items to be lit with what we now think of as museum lighting.

Neurath had a practical reason for this – the working classes only had leisure to visit the museum at night. But Henning argues that such lighting “was already understood as an expressive and dramatic medium” since its introduction in theatre fifty years earlier. Shining a spotlight on an actor or an object, bringing them out of the darkness, enhances the emotional content of Wagnerian opera, and even social statistics.

The use of spotlighting is, in other words affective.

In my next post I’ll look in more detail at affect, and whether or not it is distinct from emotion.

Interpretive Planning – Part 2

In my continuing quest to catch up on the latest thinking on interpretive planning, I’ve got hold of the second edition of The Manual of Museum Exhibitions. Published just last year, this must contain the cutting edge of modern museum thinking…

Or not. Maria Piacente’s chapter on Interpretive Planning very reasonably starts off with three essential questions: “What meanings do we wish to communicate? To whom do we intend to communicate these meanings? What are the most appropriate means of communicating these meanings?”

She says proper planning leads to exhibitions that are “Relevant, Meaningful and Relatable: because the majority of visitors are not artists, curators, historians, scientists or members of a special interest group, museum professionals need to find better ways to communicate complex and unfamiliar ideas.” She invokes the grandfather of Heritage Interpretation, Freeman Tilden:

Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information

A good plan will also be visitor centred, and Piacente points out that “Visitors attend as individuals or in groups, as tourists, as part of a school visit, or as a family. Each grouping or type or visitor learns and behaves differently in a museum setting.”

Which leads in to a piece on learning styles contributed by Christina Sjoberg. Now, there has been a lot of discussion about the validity of Learning Style models in recent years, which I’ve touch in previous posts, but what is definitely true is that museum visitors are in a very different learning mode to academics or schoolchildren. As Sjoberg says, “Museum learning is: informal; voluntary; and, affective.”

This last is important, Sjoberg argues that museum learning focusses “on our feelings, attitudes, beliefs and values” rather than being purely cognitive. Later in the chapter, learning styles come up again, when Piacente identies the “means of expression” a designer might use. I like this phrase, because it doesn’t just straight to defining the medium – though of course each means of expression does steer one’s thoughts to specific media. She lists four:

  • “Didactic means of expression include text panels, cases of artifacts and displays of works of art […]
  • Hands-on/minds-on activities are often low-tech interactives that incorporate mechanical devices, comparative exhibits, feedback stations and open-ended questions […]
  • Multimedia […] from videos to touch-screens and from augmented reality systems to simulators or even large-format theatres […]
  • Immersive environments include walkthrough experiences and dioramas that may incorporate sound, video and hands on experiences.”

Piacente expands a little on Spencer’s discussion of the thematic framework, re-introducing the idea of a linear, or “sequential” structure, giving as examples a simple chronology, and spacial sequences – room to room, or traversing a country. Of course she also explores nonlinear structures, which she says “accommodate more complex exhitions that require the presentation of multiple voices and perspectives.” She offers a number of examples of nonlinear structures:

  • “Focal specific structures establish one major topic or theme around which are clustered a number of subthemes that radiate from the core, much like the petals of a flower or or the layers of an onion […]
  • Parallel thematic structures establish a set of themes or subthemes that are used over and over again to explore many topics. Natural history exhibitions often employ this type of interpretation[…]
  • Independent Structures are frameworks in which individual loosely related or unrelated topics are addressed within a single area or gallery. […] such Structures are sometimes employed by science centers”

So far, so good. I’m not seeing anything new here, which on one hand, is good, as it doesn’t appear I’ve been particularly old fashioned in recent years (always a worry when the years as an undergraduate, where you think you’re inventing everything, recede into the distance). But on the other hand, I’m disappointed there apparently hasn’t been much development in thinking over the last ten years.

For example, even though Sjoberg speaks of “our feelings” and mention is made in a later case study of “anchor experience or ‘wow’ in each thematic area,” there’s no discussion of the relative merits the various structures have in manipulating visitors’ emotions. (I’ll tell you for free – linear structures are better at engaging people emotionally, because of the narrative paradox, not withstanding the problem that in real life, away from the exhibitor’s drawing board, visitors skip all over linear exhibitions, doubling back, taking shortcuts and and missing chunks out. )

I’ve got some more books to read, and if I find anything interesting, I’ll report back, but here’s a plea. Does anyone out there know of any papers with some really fresh thinking on interpretive structures and narratives?

Museums and Heritage Show 2015

I spent most of yesterday volunteering at Clandon so, in a middle of catching up on writing my literature review, just a short post today.

The Museums and Heritage show seemed more exciting this year than last, with a healthier buzz among both participants and exhibitors. Last year I left the show after only a couple of hours. This year I stayed all day, and was so engaged in conversations with stall-holders and with old and current colleagues that I’d happened to meet, that I missed out on a couple of seminars that I wanted to attend.

Apart from the free seminars, the show floor itself was alive with master classes run from the stands themselves. Like these two:

 on being a better guide;

 and, on writing for interpretation.

It was refreshing to see that the show wasn’t infested with companies offering “apps” as it had been for the last two years. And I spoke to most if not all those companies that remained and came away feeling confident that most of these “get it” and, to varying degree, are willing to push at the technology to better serve the visitor.