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!

If there’s one thing you do in September…

…  visit Lightscape at Houghton Hall (Norfolk)

Why? Houghton Hall is a place like many of those the National Trust looks after, but still family-owned and managed. David, the current Marquess of Cholmondeley, is, like generations before him, a patron of the arts. Houghton Hall gives us a glimpse of some National Trust places might look like, if patronage and collecting had continued up to the present day. The gardens are a place of surprise and delight, with contemporary sculptures including a Richard Long (above) and, from Jeppe Hein, Waterflame, a burning fountain. But of special interest this year is a retrospective of works by James Turrell, including two permanent commissions for the Houghton Hall landscape. Turrell’s deceptively simple works are incredibly powerful, and you’ll likely never again have a chance to see so many together in the same place.

But it’s not just the art, the service is exemplary. And for the late night openings on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s a pop-up café, in keeping with spirit of place, that we can all learn from.

Yes it’s a little bit out of the way for those of us who don’t live in Norfolk, but make a weekend of it, it is worth it.  


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…