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Last week, I came across this discussion thread on Twitter. To me it’s interesting because it pins down some of the problematic aspects of integrating digital practices (whatever they may be, hence the opening question) into museum communication.

Discussion thread on Twitter, June 16th 2014

Discussion thread on Twitter, June 16th 2014

I cannot help notice the ‘us-and-them’ rhetorics – in this case ‘us’ being the museum technologists (Koven J Smith being a museum consultant and Mia Ridge being a PhD researcher, both coming from a tech background and both key actors in the Twitter and conference based #musetech community) and ‘them’ being the ‘traditional’ museum professionals; i.e. curators, conservators, educators etc. But still I think the hesitance described, the notion that digital interactions are somehow disconnected, colder, and not as valuable as onsite visits, is very right.

The question was posed by Koven Smith presumably in preparation for his MuseumNext 2014 keynote – at least he references the question in this excerpt from that note in the blogpost Defining “digital”Here, he also describes another, seemingly contradictory, tendency:

We love the word “digital” in museums now–we’re happy to say that our latest blog is totally DDD, despite the fact that it only has four readers and took us six years to produce. In the same way that DDD used to mean “automatic awesome” for audiophiles, “digital” for museums means sweet motherlodes of engagement and young people. We’re finally getting digital. Let’s roll out that blog, and wait for carloads of teenagers to arrive on our doorsteps. That’s the way this works, right? But […] digital is a label we’ve used to paper over the fact that we still don’t really understand how this world works. (Koven J. Smith, ‘Defining “digital”‘, blogpost 20.6.2014 http://kovenjsmith.com/archives/1446)

This tendency is one that I have also critically addressed in a soon-to-be-published article. But perhaps they are not so contradictory after all. Perhaps the enthusiasm for finding digital solutions for almost every museum project – whether this enthusiasm is driven by in-house technologists who have seen the light, by external web development companies who have a vested interest in selling a need for digital to the museums, or from museum boards following political directives and funding streams – backfires because it is overwhelming. Another strand of the discussion illustrated this:

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Bruce Wyman’s comment reflects well the discussions that took place in the two workshops I held with professionals from Designmuseum Danmark, in which ‘app’ became shorthand for any kind of mobile tool, ‘semantic web’ was mentioned as the way forward, but nobody (myself included) could quite pin down what it meant, QR codes became ‘QRL’s (in a mash-up with URLs) etc. Here was a group of highly accomplished professionals, masters of their respective fields, but relative newcomers to the digital domain, vast and rapidly evolving as it is. Little wonder that they did not have full command of concepts and lingo. And the feeling of uncertainty, of not quite understanding what the possibilities are and how to select a strategy and move forward, is surely not helped by this constant demand for ‘getting with the program’ while simultaneously being told – or talked about as if – you’re not getting it or not getting it right. Rather, it might breed scepticism or resentment. And anyway, when the tech in-crowd struggles to define digital, its not so strange that everybody else are also a little confused.

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Which reminds me of a really interesting debate that took place at this year’s Sharing is Caring seminar, one that still sticks with me as it kind of touches on a central conundrum in my research. (For the record, I’ve been off with stress for a few weeks, which is why I didn’t get round to blogging about the seminar back in April. Back now, and better although still slightly dizzy, so blogging is a strategy for getting back in the game). After both presenting keynotes, Nick Poole – having spoken about the love of museums as a key driving force for staff and visitors alike – and Simon Tanner – giving a presentation on impact assessment – launched into a discussion about whether institutional development should essentially be guided by evidence or confidence. Obviously, success can be a bit hit and miss. Simon Tanner therefore argued, that in order to ensure that our strategies and efforts really have the intended impact, and adjust accordingly if they don’t, we must gather and analyse data that shows what actually happens, how they are experienced by the public, rather than following gut feelings and hype. While this is a valid and rational point, the problem remains that it takes a lot of time to produce evidence (and still your evidence only answers the questions you set out to explore, but not all the other aspects that may have given you a different result). Nick Poole therefore took the position that as culture and society evolves too quickly for science to keep up, development should not be stalled by the idealistic call for evidence. Furthermore, as evidence can only tell us about the past, but not foresee the future, we have to rely on our beliefs when deciding on how to move forward. To support this view, he cited that the greatest leap of institutional development – in the 19th century – was precisely guided by belief, not evidence (thus ironically using evidence to back his claim, but still a good point, not least as museums are currently attempting to make an equally significant leap into a digitalised, networked and democratic future).

The outcome of the discussion was of course a compromise, an agreement that we have to combine the two, and let investments follow the projects that we believe will have the greatest impact rather than simply stick to what we feel most comfortable with, and subsequently evaluate and learn from our mistakes.

I attended the seminar together with my museology class, which worked as great learning experience. Interestingly, in our follow-up discussion, they picked up on the tendency for presentations to have a touch of the motivational speech: little criticism was raised, and rhetorics were at times a bit to idealistic and flowery (e.g. Nick Poole’s talk about love; it’s all well and good but how do you put that into practice?!) – which had also bugged me when I first attended Sharing is Caring in 2012. This time I was less bothered. Was that because the evangelism had been turned down a notch, because I had adjusted my expectations, or had become wiser or simply lost my critical mojo?

Either way, a lot of interesting issues have been raised in this seminar series, and now the contributions from the 2011 and 2012 editions have been collated in an anthology edited by Merete Sanderhoff. The anthology, which addresses ‘the changes and opportunities brought about by digitisation, digital media, and the internet for the cultural heritage world and – not least – our users’ comprises 18 articles by Danish and international museum professionals, scholars, public sector administrators and others. It presents a wide range of cases and viewpoints, and is not only well worth a read, but also freely available for download from SMK’s website. Now that’s sharing the love.

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David Bowie Is

One of the highlights of the holiday was to be ‘David Bowie Is’ at the V&A; a much hyped sound and vision extravaganza showcasing the style and influence/influences of one of music’s greatest. ‘Honky Dory’ was the first album I ever bought (taking inspiration from my older sister, who by then sported a Ziggy Stardust hairdo) and Bowie’s whole 70’s catalogue provided much of the soundtrack to my adolescence in the 80’s. It was thus both as an admirer of Bowie and as a museological explorer that I had been looking forward to seeing this exhibition, ensuring tickets online months ago and making a detour to London on our way to Iceland to be able to visit. In this age of experience economy, this was a pilgrimage, no less.

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It should have been awesome. Instead, I was disappointed. Overwhelmed by too much stuff, too many stories and displays, too many disjointed soundbites, far too many people and as a result underwhelmed by the total experience. I didn’t gain a deeper insight, I didn’t get a Bowie moment, and if I did glimpse the future of museums I’m not sure if I like it.

Explaining the cultural references and impact of an eclectic icon such as Bowie is a huge and complex task, and although it was great to be able too see some of the fantastic costumes up close and to revel in stylish music videos and cheeky interviews, I came away unsure if the exhibition format really was the best medium for the task. I sort of wished that I could have been served that narrative as a two hour documentary instead, as that might have equipped me for reading the artifacts afterwards (I was never enough of a fan to delve into these details on my own, and so I was a visitor with a keen interest in, but limited prior understanding of the exhibition’s subject matter).

The state of the art audio system, which should have enhanced the experience also turned out to be a frustrating affair. The idea was good; supplying all visitors with a location sensitive headset which picked up the audio for the exhibit you were looking at. In this way, a video became audible as you came closer, and other exhibits were augmented with music tracks or commentary. Probably the experience would have been great for the invite only press shows, where one was able to move around freely. But even though the flow of ordinary visitors was somewhat controlled by the strict timings of entry on pre-booked tickets (the exhibition sold out almost before opening), there were simply too many people crammed into the space. As a result, you were lucky to get close to the exhibits you wanted to see, and the audio seemed to get intercepted so that you weren’t quite sure if what you heard and what you saw were intended to go together. Several exhibits you had to pass over to get to less crowded space, meaning that you ended up trying to navigate the collective flow rather than following the flow of your own interest and understanding.

Speaking to my fellow visitors afterwards, they had experienced similar frustrations (although my sister did get her Bowie moment). Still she complained that the exhibition was too heavily front loaded, packing too much information and too many objects into the first part. My husband suggested that an exhibtion of this scale should have been allocated a larger space, which perhaps could have solved some of the audio problems.

Exit was of course through the giftshop, packed with bowieographies and special made trinkets – V&A Enterprise has taken ‘the museum shop’ to a whole new level. And yes, I too brought back relished relics, as well as some memory morsels from the exhibition itself, I will say. But overall, ‘David Bowie Is’ did not live up to expectations.

Ebbs and flows
On entry to the ‘Club to Catwalk’ exhibition on 80’s fashion, also at V&A this summer, I noticed this sign, forbidding not only photography but also sketching in the special exhibtion. This struck me as odd, given that sketching is considered a valuable tool for learning, not least for London’s many budding designers who surely will be a key audience for such an exhibition. Asking the custodian, I was informed that sketching was prohibited to ensure a better flow of visitors in the exhibition (when we visited, we had the exhibition more or less to ourselves, so flow was no problem here). An example of how experiences of the entertainment variety + economy is becoming museums’ primary concern, over and above learning and contemplation, it would seem.

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The Danish National Museum has also introduced online booking for timed entries to their current special exhibition ‘Viking‘, produced in collaboration with the British Museum and Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Berlin. The result of this collaboration is a beautiful spectacle, cleverly designed using dark wood and scenographic lighting to evoke a sense of drama and featuring an abundance of glorious artifacts. It’s well worth a visit. Opting for a 50 minute guided tour, we learned a lot of interesting things about the vikings as seafaring warriors and traders, and about the idea of a ‘viking age’ as a construct of the nationalistic romantics of the 19th century. However, the decision by the museum to amplify the tour with headsets, thus allowing for up to 30 participants on each tour was problematic. Half the time you were not able to see the treasures that were being talked about, as other members of the group were crowding around the exhibit, and with only 10 minutes left of our allocated hour after the tour, there wasn’t really the time to go back and explore the whole thing once again. As a result, again the connection between the narrative and the artifacts were lost; and thus the museum’s ability to tell stories with authentic things as put by Bruno Ingemann (2000:47) diminished.

Replacing traditional object labels with touch screens next to each case in the Vking exhibition allowed for easier reading in the dimly lit space, but also meant that only one person could control the reading at any point. For our young boys, the familiar and interactive screen also easily stole the attention away from the ancient treasures on display. Similarly, whilst they were enthusiastically enganging in the interactive computer game The first raid (we’d also booked tickets for readmission to the exhibition in order to be able to do this – a little awkward that you have to prepare so well in advance these days), the focus on testing their viking potential meant that they raced through the exhibition to get to the next game station, again the artefacts were upstaged by the technology (ofcourse, this was our second time round the exhibition). The game itself was good fun (although I, alas, ended my days in a fatal attempted raid on Byzantium), but the game mechanics were obscure and the learning potential very limited.

Chrome Web Lab
By contrast, the interaction of the Chrome Web Lab at the Science Museum in London was much more interesting. Experiment 1, the Universal Orchestra, especially, was a mesmerising experience. Using a digital interface you could play a group of analogue percussion instruments, whose sounds blended with music made by other visitors and online participants to create a soothing soundscape that gave the whole exhibit a tranquil, slightly otherworldly ambience. Using your Google login in a Chrome browser, you can launch the experiments and take part in the orchestra at home.

This was a great example of successful scaffolding. Controlling the rhythm digitally meant that you could experiment creatively and be sure to generate pleasant music with no prior skills. The limitations in the tactile experience of the instruments were weighed up by the auditive clarity, allowing you to single out and learn the sound of the individual instruments and play around with rhythmical sequences. The digital interactives were easily as engaging as the physical interactives of the museum’s Launchpad lab (actually, the online counterpart of that exhibit, the Launchball game is also both fun and educational).

Place and presence
Having a presence in the public sphere is one of the ways that museums work to gain relevance in the public mind, for example by way of landmark architecture, augmented reality apps or city walks.

IMG_1802The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavik 871±2 in central Reykjavik did this beautifully and effectively.The whole museum is built underground around the archeological excavation of one of the earliest settlements in Iceland. Although augmented with a variety of well chosen digital tools, it is the remnants of the longhouse and the experience of being in situ that remain in focus and make the exhibition so special. A final brilliant touch was this lightbox, allowing bypassers a peak into the museum and linking the past and present of this very spot.

Much less spectacular was Post & Tele Museum in Copenhagen’s pop-up pavillion, where tourist and city shoppers were invited to sit down and write a free postcard or design a stamp. Still this simple idea worked brilliantly, creating public interest in the museum and its subject matter, as well as providing a service and a welcome distraction.

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Pamuk revisited
Visiting the V&A Museum of Childhood I was again reminded of Pamuk’s museum manifesto when looking at a series of displays of mundane knick knacks from three presentday families.

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Individually, and contrary to Pamuk’s claim, these personal objects and stories were not of much interest to me, although perhaps this could be due to my fading attention at this point. However, in the juxtaposition of various family constellations and what objects make of the everyday of different ethnic groups, the overarching narrative became interesting, and allowed you to project your own family and your own stories and objects into this exhibit. As my own kids were still absorbed in cracking morse code and hunting for insignia in the excellent War Games exhibition, I did not test the family exhibit’s qualities as a conversation starter.

Also, contrasting an exhibit such as this to ‘David Bowie Is’ or the experience of seeing the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, which to me looked like this

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I get Pamuk’s point about the value of the intimate museum as an antidote to the grand national institutions. On the one hand it is wonderful that museums are more popular than ever and make up a substantial part of the tourism industry. But on the other, these institutions are also drowning in their own success, turning what might have been a profound experience of culture into a somewhat tacky hustle and bustle affair.

Still not quite ready to write my own manifesto, though, not sure what to make of it all. But also still not convinced that mobile media can do much more than add to the noise.