Could this be … the first decent museum app?


Last week my wife and I went to San Francisco. Our second full day there was mostly spent within SF MOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And for the first time ever, I used a museum/heritage app that actually enhanced my visit.

Part of what made it so successful was the infrastructure that made it easy to download and use. I didn’t have to plan in advance and download it before my visit. I wasn’t even aware of it before I went, but if I had been, I would have been unlikely to download it, because our hotel’s free wifi only allowed one of us to use our device each four hour lease period.

We’d started our visit walking through the museum to the opposite entrance to contemplate the Richard Serra sculpture. It was early in the day, the museum was just opening, and there was a team-brief on the tiered seating that surround the piece. But they moved on and we sat for a moment to contemplate the enormous steel structure (I can’t deny the meditative quality of Serra’s work, or the calming impact it seems on have on the psyche when encountered, but really I sometimes feel “seen one, seen them all”) and to plan our day.

My wife noted a label on the wall directing people who wanted to know more about the art to SFMOMA’s app, and helpfully pointing out that you could log into the museum’s free wifi to download it. I think it said that it was iOS only, but if you didn’t have a suitable device, you could borrow one.

The first pleasure was logging onto the wifi. This was possibly the most hassle-free process I’ve ever encountered on public wifi. The signal was strong (everywhere), reliable and speedy too. The app downloaded quickly, and upon opening gave me three screens introducing what it offered, such as the one below:

It wanted access to my location services (of course), camera and, unusually, to my activity (the “healthy living” function of more recent versions of iOS), but having been so pleasantly surprised and satisfied by the process so far, I was very happy to allow both. All this had taken very little time, but enough time for my wife to have wandered away towards the elevators to begin our exploration of the museum, so I hurried after her, scanning what was on offer from the app as I went.

There’s a highlights function, which includes “Our picks for forty must-see artworks that are currently on view”, a timeline function that enables you to record and share your visit, and section on other “things to do”, and of course the ability to buy tickets, membership etc. At the core of the app are “Immersive Walks”: a range of fifteen to 45 minute audio tours of the galleries.

On no! I’d left my earphones back at the hotel.

But that wasn’t a problem, because as I caught my wife up by the elevators, I saw a stand stacked high with cases of SFMOMA-orange ear-buds. These were given away free and of a somewhat disposable quality, but good enough to last the day (and to pass on to my son when we got back from the holiday) with in-line volume controls for ease of use. The thought and effort that SFMOMA put into the infrastructure around the app deserves to be commended.

But lets get to the meat of the app’s functionality. The key thing here is indoor positioning. I’m guessing it’s achieved through wifi mobile location analytics, but I haven’t confirmed that. I can confirm that its pretty accurate, though with a little bit of lag, so it takes a while after walking into a gallery, and then standing still for a moment, before your device can deliver to you the buttons for the content relevant to the artworks on the gallery. Some, but not all, of the artworks are accompanied by a specific bit of media (mostly audio) to offer more in-depth insight into the work. This can include commentary, reviews or snippets of interviews with the artist.

I also took an immersive walk. I chose German to Me, a personal exploration of post-war German artists from radio journalist Luisa Beck, in which she shares her reaction on some of the works in the collection and interviews for mother, grandmother and cousin to uncover more about her own German-American identity. As the tour progresses you are guided, not just by Luisa’s spoken directions, but also by the app’s indoor positioning, as shown below.

I have to say, I would have given these galleries the most cursory of glances, had I not been captured by Luisa’s tour. As it was, her (wholly un-sensational) story, and her commentary upon the art engaged me emotionally to a degree I wasn’t expecting. It enhanced my visit like no other app has achieved.

The phone also recorded my “timeline”, my journey through the museum, on-line so that I can share with others the photos I took, the artworks that caught my attention enough to seek more information from the app, and the tours I went you. As you can see, I spent three and a half hours with the app, walking 3,369 steps (or 1.7 miles). This timeline is the only slightly disappointing aspect of the app – I would have like to have clicked through this on-line version to listen to some of the media again, now that I am back home, maybe even to be reminded (though the apps abilities to determine location) who made some of things that I took photos of.

You’ll know that I’m not a massive fan of looking at things through my phone, but this app did well enough to almost convince me otherwise.

The museum had other digital interventions of interest. You might have spotted in my timelime that one of the first things we looked at was a surveillance culture-inspired artwork by Julia Scher that turned the museum in to Responsive Environment, changing according to visitors actions.


There was also a fun activity in one of the cafe’s that allowed you to create your own digital artwork, printing it out on thermal paper instantly, but also linking to a hi-res online version, which I used for the illustration at the top of this post (you will note that those free earbuds are the stars of that piece).

SFMOMA, with their technology partners Detour on the app, and the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, are doing good things in the digital sphere. If you’re there, you should check them out.

Shine On: part two

In the afternoon Graham Festenstein, lighting consultant, kicked off a discussion about using lighting as a tool for interpretation. New technology, he said,  especially LED, presents new opportunities, “new revolution” in lighting. It’s smaller, with better optics, and control. And also more affordable! He used cave paintings as an example. Lighting designers could take one of three approaches to lighting such a subject:  they might try and recreate the historical lighting which, for a cave painting, would have been primitive indeed,  a tallow bowl light, revealing small parts of the painting at time and with an orange light; it’s more likely, given the needs of the visitor, that they might go for more wide angle lighting, revealing the whole of the painting at once; or, they might light for close up inspection of the work, to show the mark making techniques. Traditionally, a lighting designer would have had to chose just one of these approaches. But with the flexibility and versatile control of modern lighting technology, we can do all three things – caveman lighting, wide angle panorama, and close up technical lighting.

Graham’s presentation was not the strongest. heexplained that he was sceptical about LED lights at first pilot as a sceptic. He recalls a visit to a pilot project at the National Portrait Gallery. His first impressions were disappointing, but then he realised that what heith missed about the tungsten lighting to the way it it the gilded frames, and the the LED lighting was better serving the pictures. Then he went on to talk about colour, how the warm lights of the Tower of London’s torture expedition undermined the theme, but the presentation overall was somewhat woolly.

Zerlina Hughes, of  studio ZNA, came next, with a very visual presentation which I found myself watching rather than taking notes.It explained her “toolkit” of interpretive lighting techniques, but I didn’t manage to list all the tools. A copy of the presentation is coming my way though, so I might return with more detail on that toolkit in a later post. One of her most recent jobs looks great however, and I’m keen to go. Say You Want a Revolution, at the V&A follows on from the Bowie show a year or so ago, but with (she promises) less clunky audio technology. I want to go.

Jonathan Howard, of  DHA design, explained that like Zerlina, “most of us started as Theatre designers.” I (foolishly, I think, in retrospect) passed up an invitation to do theatre design at Central St Martins, and I think I would have been fascinated by lighting design, if I had gone, so I might have ended up at the same event, if on the other side of the podium. Museums audiences today are expecting more drama in museums, having experienced theatrical presentations like Les Miserables, and theme parks etc. I was interested to learn that in theatre, cooler colours throw objects into the background, and warmer colours push them into the foreground. This is apparently because we find the blue end of the spectrum more difficult to to focus on. In a museum space, he says, you can light the walls blue so that the edges of the gallery fall away completely. But he did have a caveat about using new lighting technology. Before rushing in to replace your lighting with LEDs and and the modern bells and whistles, ask youself:

Why are we using new tech?
Who will benefit?
Who will maintain it?
Who will support it?

Kevan Shaw, offered the most interesting insight into the State of the Art. He pointed out that lighting on the ceiling has line of sight to most things, because light travels in straight lines (mostly), and we tend to point it at things. So, he said, your ligthting letwork could make a useful communications network too. He wasn’t the first presenter to include and image of a yellow centered squat cylinder in their slide deck. And they spoke as though we all knew what it was. I had to ask, after the presentation, and they explained that it was one of these. These LED modules slip into many exisiting lamps or lumieres. They are not just a light source, but also a platform for sensors and a communications device. Lighting, Kevan argues could be the beachhead of the Internet of Things in museums.

He briefly discussed two competing architectures for smart lighting, Bluetooth, which we all know, and Zigbee, which you may be aware of through the Philip’s Hue range (which I was considering for the the Chawton experiment). He also mentioned Casambi and eyenut, I’m not sure why he thinks these are not part of the two horse race. He argues that we need interoperability. So I guess he’s saying that eventually the competing systems will eventually see a business case in adopting either Bluetooth or Zigbee as an industry standard.

With our lightbulbs communicating with each other, we can get rid of some of our wires, he argues, but it needs to be robust, reliable. And the secret to reliability is a mesh networking, robust networks for local areas. Lighting is a great place for that network to be. That capability already exits in Zigbee (so I think zigbee is what I should be using for Chawton), but its coming soon in Bluetooth. And I think Kevan believes that when it does, Bluetooth will become the VHS of the lighting system wars, and relegate Zigbee to the role of Betamax.

But the really exciting thing is Visible Light Communication, by which the building can communicate with any user with a mobile device that has a front facing camera (and the relevant software installed. He showed us a short video of the technology in Carrefour (mmm the own-brand soft goat cheese is delicious).

The opportunities for museums are obvious but, he warns, to be effectively used, museums will need resource to manage and get insight from all the data these lighting units could produce in resource. Though he says optimisticly to his fellow lighting consultants, “that need could be an opportunity for us!”

Finally we heard from Pavlina Akritas, of Arup, who took the workshop in the direction of civil engineering. Using LA’s Broad Museum as an example, she explained how in this new build, Arup engineered clever (North facing) light-wells which illuminated the museum with daylight, while ensuring that no direct Los Angeles sun fell directly onto any surface within the galleries. The light-wells included blackout blinds to limit overall light hours and photocells to measure the amountof light coming in and if neccessary, automatically supplement the light with LEDs. She also talked briefly about a project to simulate skylight for the Gagosian gallery, Grosvenor Hill.

All in all, it was a fascinating day.

This post is one of two, the first is here.

Shine On: New Perspectives on Museum Lighting

Yesterday I attended a workshop organised by the museums association and hosted by Stephen Cannon-Brookes, of UCL Bartlett School of Architecture and lighting consultant. I was there for work, but found it useful for my studies too.

To be honest, it wasn’t all about “New Perspectives” as such, it covered a lot of the the established ground too. But for a non expert like me, that was incredibly useful. It was also an opportunity to showcase the Society for Light and Lighting (SLL)’s Lighting Guide 8: Lighting for Museums and Art Galleries, though at £80 (£72 for the PDF) I won’t be rushing out to buy it. More of an institutional purchase I think. The first speaker, Paul Ruffles, talked us through that guide.

Beautiful objects in beautiful buildings deserve beautiful lighting.

It covers lighting principles, and stuff like visual adaptation, contrast ratio, colour appearance, colour rendering, glare, lighting the interior or display area, day light, electric lighting, access and security and emergency lighting (he explained that one unnamed city museum experienced a spike in consumption they couldn’t explain until they worked out  a security guard afraid of the dark was turning all the lights on at night). The book its just for white box galleries, it also talks about historic interiors; temporary galleries; events and corporate entertaining; the shop and of course the cafe.

He explained that since the pulication of the previous version, LED lighting has become a useful tool in historic interiors, citing an example of Chatsworth’s great stair. Historic interiors need some obvious light sources, standing lamps and the like, but hidden ones -tiny LED spots in to the historic lighting can bring out fascinating details.  However, he warned that when lighting historic places, the LED unit might only cost £28, but the wiring costs hundreds.

His talk was littered with useful tips and anecdotes. Things like keeping track of the spare parts your supplier gives you – I can well believe that when they are needed, no one can remember who put them where. He points out that when you are planning what goes on the floor in your exhibition, you want to think not just about access for wheelchairs, but also access fro whatever cherry-picker or quickup tower you need to replace the lightbulb. Lightbulb replacement is getting less of a need as LED takes over from tungsten, but LED lights can still occasionally fail. And, if you need a five tonne cherry picker to get to the lights, make sure the floor can take five tonnes (and remember it’s turning circle).
Manchester City museum, wall of paintings all lit individually between 50 lux to 150 lux.
material degradation,

Next up was David Saunders of the  International Institute for Conservation talking about The Balancing Act: Light, Conservation, and Access. He started off asking how much light to visitors need to see objects, there is evidently a rule of thumb that the minimum is 50 Lux. But he showed us a  a Durer woodcut and a Turner Watercolour. The Durer needs just a few lux, it’s black and white, and high contrast. Reduced contrast such as in the Turner, increases light needs by factors of 10.

Gary Thomspon’s The Museum Environment was a very influential book, but most of the research that informed it was experiments done in university’s , with populations of students with (being generally younger) better eyesight than the average museum visitor. So a sixty five year ol needs 300 lux for the same performance as a 25 year old at 10 lux. Similarly Colour matching ability peaks in 20s. The ability degrades as you get older. The colour differentiation you can discern as a 20 year old at 10 lux, requires 1000 lux in 75 year old. There are other factors too, which may be less relevant in museum environments, like visual task difficulty (it takes less time to see things in brighter environments).So he points out that a object that we might think needs just 50 lux to see properly might actually need three times as much for older views. Another three times if it’s a low contrast item, which means as much as 500 lux. Ifs it’s a darker object, or a difficult visual task it might need even more.

He went to to explore the history of the research that has led to those squares of blue wool you might have seen dotted around museums and National Trust places. The “blue wool” number has now become an international standard, where 1 fades quickest, and 8 shows the least discernible fading in the same period of time. It turns out that the same amount of damage occurs if you expose something to twice the light for half the time, so, we can think in terms of exposure doses, or lux/hours. The key learning from all this research is to limit the overall exposure to light. He swings by considering the differing levels of damaged caused by different wavelengths of light, mentioning the red/green skylights installed in the roof of the V&A’s Raphael gallery, before concluding that the key learning is to exclude UV radiation.

Then he addresses an interesting question. How long should an object remain unchanged In fact, there’s remarkably little research in this area, and it doesn’t seem that wide-ranging. I drifted off into thinking about an exhibition that explains these issues, and then gives some options asks the visitor how long a selection of items should last “unchanged” (of course what that really means is little or no visible change). What work has been done, David says, broadly concludes a desired lifetime before change of something like 100-150 years.

All this, he concluded, means that when thinking about this, there are very few variables that we have control over. The amount of “acceptable” damage from light is set by the objects desired lifetime, the light dose is set by the object’s sensitivity, and the level of light is set by human need – therefore length (time) of exposure is the only variable we have that’s really under out control as heritage professionals

Then Jo Padfield, conservation scientist at National Gallery, gave us a great talk on all the research work going on there. He started off questioning our arbitrary decisions on lifetime by showing us Paolo Veronese’s The Dream of St Helena, wherein she looks out on a sky that, in his words resembles:

a dull grey afternoon in Glasgow

But closer examination shows it was painted with Smalt, which was Mediterranean blue, and padfield showed us what that might look like. similary, the grey/blue bedsheet of the Rokeby Venus was once royal purple.

he talked a little bit about the change from tungsten bulbs (adjustable in increments of 60, then 30 lux to LEDs to have more control, dimming in 10 lux increments, as well as energy/CO2 reduction. There was an issue with colour quality and consistency of the new LED lamps, so they created an internal website to monitor and research the change to LED lighting. This website is now open to everyone, and some of the audience explained how useful it is.

He also mentioned the Making Colour exhibition in 2014. At the end, he said “we experimented on visitors. Human perception experiments are normally done in the lab with a sample of about 6 people. Our sample was 20,000.” He showed us how unter different bulbs, people saw the same painting differently, in one still life the same fruit could be orange or  yellow,

Jo Beggs, Head of Development for Manchester Museums Partnership, finished the morning with an explaination of where they got funding for improved lighting for the recent, £15 million redevelopment of of the Whitworth museum, especially when the lighting costs went 25% over budget.

There was lots more to talk about after lunch, but that will have to be another post tomorrow.

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.

And now for something completely different

After a number of posts related to either Opposites Attract or Chawton, its time to write about something else. On Tuesday, for work I took a number of Visitor Experience managers to the South Bank Centre to explore The Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl. No photos were allowed so I can’t share any, you will have to visit the website. Well, you will have to visit, because the website can’t do it justice.

It’s an experience designed for families and children aged seven to twelve, so our guide did well to deal with seven heritage professionals and two other adults. We promised to be on our best behavior, to do as we were told, to stay close and not to run off, and then the red velvet curtain was drawn back and we were invited into Roald Dahl’s world. As we loved from space to space we were drawn into immersive environments, from a room filled with boxed memories of Great Missenden, into a boarding school classroom, the North African desert, deep dark woods, and progressively more surreal spaces.

As we went we were accompanied by an enthusiastic guide, and the mysterious, ominous and occasionally very silly disembodied Narrator. Between them they gave us a potted biography of Dahl, illustrated by just enough reproductions and original objects from the collection of The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. It was a masterclass in storytelling, not cluttering the visitors’ perception with too much stuff, but drawing attention to key moments, and creating a mythic significance on how these turned a gangly boy into an extraordinary writer.

I said we weren’t allowed to take photos, but I remember that in fact they did say we were allowed to take them in the last room, a space where visitors could get creative. But when we got there we were having too much fun – personally I spent all my time with the wall of self-inflating whoopie cushions. Then a short trip in a (not) Great, (not) Glass elevator brought us back to the real world.

It runs until the 3rd of July. Its definitely worth a visit if you have kids who’ve read the books, or even National Trust staff to take on a development day!

Walking around looking at stuff

Image from Aalto University, Media Lab Helsinki

A few weeks ago, I was presenting my work to a group of my supervisor’s Masters students. I joined in on the preceding seminar session, during which they talked about a number of experiments in digital interpretation in museums.

One thing that struck me about many of the experiments was that they each required the museum visitor to use a new interface. Some were simpler interfaces that others. One involved shining a torch, another was planned to involve gestures to navigate a reconstruction of a sunken ship. This second interface, a Vrouw Maria exhibit at a Finnish maritime museum, challenged users who “would not understand what they were expected to do or, when they could start the navigation, problems that were accentuated by the tracking system, which was not completely reliable at that point. […] The navigation itself was not error free either: people had difficulty stopping the motion and steering up or down. In addition, it was hard to hit the info spots without running past or through them. Again, tweaking the parameters of the gestural interface was needed. Pointing around for 10 minutes or more with the arm extended started to get tiring—something that cannot be completely solved if the input is so heavily based on pointing.” (REUNANEN et al, 2015). The discussion made me think about, not just these experimental interfaces, but pretty much every museum interactive kiosk or app created since digital technology arrived on the scene.

To a lesser or greater extent all these technologies involve museum visitors having to learn a new interface to access data. Some may prove easier than others to learn, but all of them are different, all of them need to be learned. Which makes accessing the data just one step more difficult. On the other hand there is a generic interface which museum, gallery and heritage site visitors learn (it seems, for most individual) in early childhood. The default museum interface is:

Walking around and looking at stuff

… as I said to a colleague yesterday. (Well actually I said “walking around and looking at shit,” but I meant shit in the most inoffensive way. And though I’d dearly have loved to headline a blog post with this more colloquial version, I’m mindful of my curatorial  and conservation colleagues, and I don’t want them to feel I’m demeaning our collections.)

What prompted me to write about it today was the news yesterday that Dear Esther is to be re-released for  the Playstation 4 and X-Box One. Dear Esther is “credited” with kicking off a genre of games known as “walking simulators” or “first person strollers”, and criticised by many gamers as not being a game because (among other things) there is no challenge (unless you count interpreting the enigmatic story that your simulated walk reveals).

I’m reminded of Gallagher’s (2012) observation (in the brilliantly titled No Sex Please, We Are Finite State Machines) that “Video games are unique in the field of consumer software in that they intentionally resist their users, establishing barriers between the operator and their goal.” This contrasts somewhat with what Nick Pelling (who coined the term Gamification as I discussed last week) said about game interfaces “making hard things easy, expressive, near-effortless to use.” So which is it? Are game interfaces easy or difficult? Juul and Norton give a pretty conclusive answer: its both.

“Games differ from productivity software in that games are free to make easy or difficult the different elements of a game. While much may be learned from usability methods about the design of game interfaces, and while many video games certainly have badly-designed interfaces, it is crucial to remember that games are both efficient and inefficient, both easy and difficult, and that the easiest interface is not necessarily the most entertaining.”

The team behind that Vrouw Maria experiment had considered making users mime swimming for the gestural interface, but they rules it out because it was “engaging but at the same time socially awkward in front of an audience.” What they ended up with was an interface that was neither efficient, nor entertaining. While it may indeed have been socially awkward for many, the swimming gesture control would have been very entertaining. Their final decision indicates that they considered the transmission of data the more important purpose of the exhibit.

Last week I discussed how gamification is most often used as a way of motivating behaviour: drive more efficiently, take more exercise. “Explore more” is something many museums and heritage sites wish for their visitors. An interface that is challenging but entertaining may well motivate more exploration. But there is an alternative.

Dear Esther is arguably not a game, because its interface (basically Walking Around Looking a Shit Stuff) is too easy. Yet it’s designers would argue that it is a game, just that uses story as a motivator rather than challenge. For museums and heritage sites, where Walking Around Looking at Stuff has long been the default interface Dear Esther might offer a model for digital storytelling that motivates more exploration.

This is what I’m trying to achieve with my responsive environment: Digital content., compelling stories, that are accessed by Walking Around and Looking at Stuff.

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.


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!


Heritage: The Terror Management Industry?

Shiva as Nataraja – image from the Glasgow Life website, click to visit the page of St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art

A couple of weeks ago, Mark O’Neill, late of Glasgow Museums (and now of Glasgow Life, the charity which runs the city’s cultural and sporting facilities) can to give a keynote speech to me, and a few hundred other National Trust colleagues. He made a throw-away joke about the heritage sector being “in the Terror Management industry.” How we laughed. But it wasn’t quite as throwaway as we had thought. The idea lingered with me, and so this week I’ve been googling Mark’s name and those words. I discovered this very thought-provoking paper.

It turns out Terror Management Theory is an actual thing. According to Mark’s paper, the theory developed from the ideas of US anthropologist Ernst Becker, and according to Becker’s work, Terror Management (though he didn’t call it that) is responsible the the development of culture: “Becker defines culture as ‘humanly constructed beliefs about the nature of reality that are shared by people in groups in order to minimize the anxiety engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death.’ For Becker, culture reduces anxiety with respect to death in two ways, which he refers to as ‘lending meaning’ and ‘conferring significance.'”

Which is cool. I can go to my job refreshed, knowing that the work I do is the only thing keeping society from breaking down in abject fear of mortality. Its handy too, because today I also read this blog post, from Sarah May’s entertainingly written and challenging blog, Heritage for Transformation, which calls what I do for a living (and by association at least, the charity I work for) into question, because of what we are preserving: “For me, these buildings are dark heritage […] where we keep them we should use them to expose and explore the power that they represent.”

However, I must admit there is a darker side, even if Becker’s ideas about all of culture being our tiny anguished cry into eternity are true. As the Terror Management Theory developed and was tested, both with new experiments, and with re-readings of old research, it became apparent that the corollary of seeking comfort in one’s own culture is prejudice and hostility towards the cultures of others. In one experiment that O’Neill describes as an example “They found robust evidence for the existence of an unconscious influence of mortality awareness on attitudes to divergent worldviews, including increased stereotyping and hostility.”

As O’Neill says “Whether expressing civic pride, or national or imperial identities, museums [and yes, in deference to May, let me also include country houses] usually presented a clear and often explicit hierarchy of cultures, races, and genders, and a narrative of progress, with white British and northern European males at the top. […] These views are no longer socially or intellectually acceptable in a public institution so that museums have changed their story. Showing objects from worldwide cultures is now said to promote mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance.” But does it? O’Neill argues “If museums, at some level, are about mortality and trigger ‘death awareness,’ the [Terror Management] theory would suggest that because they present representations of other worldviews, they are more likely to foster intolerance than tolerance.”

He does offer hope though. Experiments have apparently shown a difference between awareness of death (or “mortality salience”) and “death reflection” (considering how you might die).  Subjects made merely aware of their own mortality show signs of increased selfishness and greed, but those reflecting upon their inevitable demise showed benevolent, generous behaviors. Just as many who have had a near death experience often reject worldly possessions as empty and meaningless. So, he argues, museums can promote mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance, but only if they help visitors reflect upon death rather than simply make people aware of their own mortality.

Museums can only be effective ideological agents if they do the primary cultural work of creating meaning in the face of human mortality.

He concludes “Perhaps most importantly the lessons of TMT are that these issues do not have to be the debated in the abstract based on guesswork, speculation, and opinion, but can be subject to empirical experiment.”

So, my fellow heritage professionals and academics, get out there and start experimenting!

@HeritageJam 2015 diary 2 – MLA

Hmmmm, looks like I might have found myself on two online teams for Heritage Jam 2015. The first looks like being more story based, the second more technological. Were I more stupid I’d try and get the two teams working together, but the scope of the second team’s project seems perfect for the time available, and layering story on top would kick it into the realm of impossibility. Also though I know I have one conspirator on the story project, another who expressed an interest has since been silent, so it may not be a team as much as a duo!

I have a teleconference with the second team this afternoon, so beforehand I’m pulling together a few links I’ve seen recently about the challenge we have set ourselves: Mobile Location Analytics.

All the rage in the world of retail, this is technology that tracks mobile devices around shops and malls (shopping centres), to learn about how the people those devices are attached to, move around the space. A bit creepy, eh? The key thing is that this information is anonymised. The point is not to learn about the behavior of particular individuals, but rather to understand how the spaces work – how long do shoppers have to wait at the tills for example.

(It’s worth pointing out that there are creepier applications. One company, for example, offers to tell brands whether individuals go into their shops after being served an advert for the brand, which implies somewhat less anonymity.)

The (mostly American) companies that provide the anonymised analytics services have grouped together as the Future of Privacy Forum, to agree and promote ethical guidelines for the technology and run a customer facing website that allows users to opt out of tracking.

Most of the systems rely on extant wi-fi networks to do the job, as this white paper from Cisco explains. But of course many museums don’t currently have wi-fi throughout their galleries, so the opportunity to use established services, even the free Euclid Express, is limited.

So we’ve got an idea about using Heritage Jam as an opportunity to hack a cheap, open source solution for museums, without extant Wi-Fi, wanting to track their visitors around their collections. We’ve got a location that wants to try this out, too. One of the challenges (and luckily the one which I think, being a noninexpert-technologist, I’ll be most useful on) will be working out how we make visitors aware of, and (hopefully) comfortable with, the study and/or give them the opportunity to opt out.

If it works, it might even form the basis for a more responsive museum environment, as I described when I was last at York. But we’ll leave that idea until Heritage Jam 2016!