Tag Archives: mobile

Traditional museum technologies

As it turned out, American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) did actually (also) use some pretty old school exhibition technology: the diorama. Which was absolutely brilliant. I admit that there is an element of nostalgia here, as I was reminded of how much I used to love visiting Zoologisk Museum in Copenhagen as a child and do sticker assignments where you had to find and place animals in their biotope. Now that Zoologisk Museum is about to become part of the yet-to-be-built Statens Naturhistoriske Museum it doesn’t look like the dioramas will be part of the future exhibitions. Regretably, perhaps, as apart from being spectacular and delightfully quaint, dioramas also work really well as pedagogical tools. Tellingly, the AMNH has just spent fortunes restoring theirs.

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Upper Nile Region, Akeley Hall of African Mammals, AMNH

Most importantly, dioramas shows context, rather than just telling about it. They also give you a valuable sense of scale and allows you to study animals ‘in the wild’ up close and in your own time in a way that neither wildlife films nor zoo’s can (they do something else instead). And because of their visual appeal and intricacy, they capture the interest and make you want to study them more closely, where you might pick up interesting details about botany, cohabitation of species, characteristics of fur or plumage, social life in herds etc. The accompanying wall texts then provides you with the information needed to anchor your observations. Admittedly, in a collection as vast as that of ANMH, you will probably only study the details of a few, and simply enjoy the spectacle of the rest.

In many ways they are similar to the period rooms of museums like the Metropolitan, Brooklyn Museum and also the Danish National Museum, where the assembly of an full interior provides a different understanding and feel of a stylistic period than the display of individual pieces of furniture could. You might say that this presentation style caters as much to an experience paradigm as it does to an educational one, but then drawing the audience in and giving them something that might stick in the mind is not a bad outcome, or maybe it simply allows for a different kind of learning.

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

The Haverhill Room, Metropolitan Museum

What it all boils down to, however, is what the museum wants us to see, or how they want us to see, as argued by Svetlana Alpers. She reminds us that ‘the museum – as a way of seeing – itself keeps changing and that installation has a major effect on what one sees. a constant, however, is the issue of seeing. And the question to ask is, why an with what visual interest in view do we devise this or that display for particular objects?’  (1991: 31, ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’ in Karp & Lavine (eds.) Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington & London). Using the example of a crab displayed out of context, as a visual object, she recounts how precisely that form of display allowed her to really see and contemplate the crab (ibid:25).

Still, back at the AMNH, the best bit of museum education came from Stephen C. – as always, the personal presentation wins hands down. Standing in the hall of saurischian dinosaurs sporting a big red ‘Fossil Explainer’ badge, he enthusiastically shared his knowledge of both the dinosaur fossils and the institution, answering our questions and elaborating with very interesting stories ( explaining, for instance, how the apatosaurus was on its third head, as new discoveries had shown previous versions to be incorrect). A retired stock broker, volunteering in the museum was a return to his childhood passion for dinosaurs, and his excitement about this subject together with the thorough training (including exam) he had gone through to become a museum docent made him a a brilliant educator.

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-REx tooth at the AMNH

Fossil explainer Stephen C. showing off a T-Rex tooth at the AMNH

Mobile tools and challenges

The AMNH also offers a host of free mobile apps, for use in and outside the museum. The Dinosaur app, for instance, let’s you browse through hundreds of images and look up information, while the Explorer app serves as an in-museum guide. Stupidly, I didn’t think to connect to the museum’s wifi (and nowhere was it announced that this was indeed possible), and as I had no service from my mobile provider inside the humongous museum, we often found ourselves lost and unable to find the exhibits we wanted to see. In other words, this app would have provided a useful service.

AMNH dinosaur app

AMNH app


The Metropolitan Museum, by contrast, relies primarily on traditional audio guides, to rent in the museum, and printed guide material including activities for children and families. Only a couple of exhibitions have a free, downloadable app. One of them is the ‘Beyond Battle’ app, which uses a quiz format to inspire young visitor’s exploration of the arms and armour galleries. Re-visiting the museum with my sons, aged 6 and 8, this worked a treat, and although they were already excited by the displays themselves, they were also keen to find the next item in the randomised quiz and try to guess the weight of a battle sword, the precision of a bow and arrow and so on.

But maybe the scavenger hunt had a tendency to take over, as they were driven on to the next stop, rushing between galleries, rather than exploring and contemplating the displays that most appealed to them in their own time. Then again, as we had already spent ample time marveling at the vast Egyptian collection and visiting the American wing, perhaps this made for a welcome change of dynamic.

For our visit to the Rockefeller observation deck (not a museum, I know, but there is a point) I had downloaded the ‘Top of the Rock’ app, which most notably featured a virtual viewfinder allowing you to scan the skyline for information about landmark buildings. However, despite the view being pretty predictable the app was not able to calibrate my camera image of the Empire State building with the recognitions software, and so in order to get information I had to switch to ‘Pano’ mode. In this case, this didn’t matter much (I guess, as I never actually got to experience the ‘Live’ mode), as I still got the names of the buildings I was looking at with additional information available. However, this demonstrated that object recognition software still has some way to go before reality can seamlessly become augmented with layers of information.

Top of the Rock app

ditto, pano view

(Speaking of augmented reality, I actually met someone in the West Village testing Google Glass a few weeks ago. Not at all comfortable with the prospects of this type of technology and it’s Big Brother potentiality, but that is another story. The feature in the Lego store that allowed you to see the set being built and ‘come to life’ when holding the box up to a screen was pretty cool, though.)

Visiting the Guggenheim, I found their mobile app most useful. The classic audio tour of the building  was interesting and available in transcript form too, the only problem being that as my phone was set to automatic lock after one minute, the longer tracks were cut of and had to be resumed ( I didn’t work out that this was related to my own settings, and therefore correctable, before encountering the same problem at MoMA). The Guggenheim app also allowed for in demand information by number codes, which also worked well in combination with the floor map. At MoMA, visual interpretation and audio tracks for children was also available for selected artworks, however, the information structure of the app did not make these features available in one interface for the artwork which seemed odd.


ditto, map & artwork info


Visiting & visitors

Visiting so many and so different institutions and exhibitions, alone and with my family, over the last few weeks has also been a fine reminder of the situated identities of museum visitors and their very different motivations, as decribed by John Falk.

Visiting fashion (related) exhibitions at the Met, the Museum at FIT and Museum of the City of New York, I have come as the ‘enthusiast’, i.e. with a special interest and some pre-exisiting knowledge in the field, interested in details and able to do my own contextualization of the exhibitions. Taking my family to the AMNH and the Met, by contrast, I have assumed the role of the ‘facilitator’, focusing mainly on the communal experience and my children’s learning. And my visits to institutions such as MoMA and Guggenheim have been prompted as much by their international renown as by their current exhibitions, making me an ‘experience seeker’, notching off the must-see destinations. Finally, I have come to all of them as an ‘explorer’, partly looking for things to capture my imagination in general, partly with a special interest in their different ways of being museums and mediating their subject matters.

What I haven’t done, although I hold this to be one of the very valuable aspects of what museums can be, is to experience these museums as a spiritual refuge, the last of Falk’s motivations. To the contrary, the rather overwhelming popularity of some of the very famous museums in this city has made me doubt if it even makes sense to think of the museum as a space for quiet contemplation. The crowded halls I have seen here bore little resemblance to the heterotopia described by Foucault, and begged the question if museums could be drowning in their own popularity? Then again, it is heartening to see that museums are such well sought destinations.

Crowd, AMNH

Crowd, MoMAEvidently, experience seekers do not only come for the institutions as a whole, but also ‘check in’ on particular famous artworks. With one of Edward Munch’s ‘The Scream’ pastels currently on loan to MoMA, it was hard to actually get a glimpse of the artwork itself for the crowds needing to get a snapshot of it, often also putting themselves in the frame as when doing tourist shots at a famous landmark. I suspect that the mobile cum social media revolution has made this behaviour even more common.

Collections, display and cultural objects 

A final observation has been of the function or prevalence of the collection and the museal display as cultural reference points in the arts. As mentioned in a previous post, mark Dion used display cages in his installation to allude to the makings of (an alternative) natural history. In a similar fashion, a much earlier work by Joseph Beuys shown at MoMA consisted of a series of vitrines each holding a collection of sculptures, whilst at the Guggenheim, the recent installation IMUUR2 by Danh Vo displayed a selection of the private collection of objects by artist Martin Wong.

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Danh Vo, IMUUR2 (detail)

Now, I am not sure yet what to make of this, if anything, still something makes me want to make a note of it. Something to do with the cultural role of museums, with our relationship to things and how they help us think, which relates to the question of what makes a museum object / a cultural object that I have been pondering lately.

Presenting these thoughts and my project to the BGC community last week gave me some wonderful feedback and sparked an interesting discussion, not only about this, but also about the excluding aspects of both museums and smart phones, about the use of mobiles in the museum and the sometimes limited usefulness of the museum app etc. I am truly grateful that the scholars here were willing to engage with my project, and also got the impression that these are also the kinds of questions that form part of the ongoing debate in this institution. On the back of the presentation I have also been invited to participate in a course session focused on how to leverage digital media for a upcoming focus gallery exhibition of Chuspas. I am also very much looking forward to discussing fashion curation over lunch with assistant professor and fashion historian Michele Majer, and to the list of presentations and events also taking place here and at other institutions during the final two weeks of my stay.

(I apologize for the lack of captions for the images of apps, but after battling with wordpress for an hour now trying to get them to display right, I give up. Captions should read:

first row: AMNH dinoaur app, AMNH mammal app, Metropolitan Beyond Battle app
second row: Top of the Rock app, left live view, right pano view
third row: left and middle Guggenheim app, right MoMA app

pictures of crowds: left AMNH, right MoMA)

Over the last few weeks, I have attended a handful of interesting events which deserve summing up for future reference, and because they presented insights worth sharing. Also they serve as a lesson in getting it down while it’s still fresh in your mind, as I realize that some of the (surely brilliant) thoughts I had after some of the earlier events I now can’t recall, like how inspired I was by Else Skjold’s research or the details of working with Cecilia’s probe. Which explains why the entries get shorter and shorter…

Loic Tallon open lecture at CIID: Adapting to mobile: a museum perspective (26/2)

Last week, Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design hosted an open lecture by Loic Tallon. Tallon is director of Pocket-Proof, a digital consultancy specialized in helping museums develop strategies for mobile media with some pretty cool projects under their belt; chair of the Museums and Mobile online conference; and producer of the annual Museums and Mobile Survey. He also co-edited Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience: Handheld Guides and Other Media with Kevin Walker and co-wrote the paper ‘Going Mobile?‘ with Isabel Froes for MW2011, amongst other things. So, in short, he’s cool, and has a solid knowledge of and experience with this field, and I’m thrilled that he agreed to do an interview when I get to New York. So more on that later.

Aimed primarily at designers, the presentation centered on six tips how to think about designing mobile projects for museums, reminding newcomers to the museum field that while smart phones may be the latest craze, mobile interpretation tools in museums go back a long way. Listed in the photo below, I’ve added my own notes on the six tips beneath.

Loic Tallon's top tips for museum mobile design

Loic Tallon’s top tips for museum mobile design

Be specific about what mobile is (and is not)
– Smart phones, tablets, audioguides etc. are not one and the same – explore the specific affordances
– Why do it on mobile (e.g. smart phone)?
– Central characteristics of smart phones: digital, personal, portable, connected

Forget about the technology
Get past default ‘we need an app’ thinking or simply replacing audioguide # with QR codes
– Think about what experience you want to create, what content or what stories you want to share
– Mobile technology can now do far more than museums ask for (there was a really nice graph for this, but I didn’t get my camera out in time, and I haven’t been able to find the slides online) – but what is it we need it to do?

Mobile projects are not new for museums
As demonstrated in videos and audioclips from past museum tours, with some lovely examples like Stedelijks groundbreaking 1952 broadcast technology and a dramatic Tuttenkhamun tour narrated by Orson Welles.

Define who it’s for and what it does
– with reference to Falks situated identities: visitors motivations are key
– clearly defined objectives (the experience) for a clearly defined audience.

Support the museum’s challenge
#1 challenge: getting people to use them ( see museums & mobile surveys) (now, I think this is the wrong way to think about this issue, as it suggests that the goal is to boost uptake stats; rather, this kind of knowledge should not only make you wonder how to get people to use them more, but should also make you think about whether they are actually valuable for the visitor or if they are quite fine without them, thank you)
– so think about the experience from the visitor’ perspective – what do they need, what is the added value: forget about distribution of your products, think instead of supporting visitor needs, what kind of experience they want (which is kind of the point I was making above, except the assumed sollution in this context may be better experience design, whereas non-use, the non-scaffolded, unequipped skinnydip museum visit is at least not addressed as an option. Further to this rant here and here).

Bring capacity building, not just a product (or pilot)
-Work with museums, let their needs, ideas, perspectives decide the development

This advice should go out to museums as much as to designers. Sadly, I think one big problem is that because most museums do not have in-house development, they don’t build up much experience or understanding, and so are quite easily manipulated by flashy suggestions from design bureaus who, at the end of the day, are trying to flog a product.

Further on that note, I couldn’t help noting how many people were there; the small venue was totally crowded. This field is scarily popular. Were these people all museum-mobile-designer wannabes? And if so: are mobile museum experiences more a designer’s wet dream than a visitor need? Or a result of the museum folks’ desire to rub shoulders with the creatives? I’m not pointing any fingers here; this was exactly how I got to be interested in this field. Just speculating.

Either way, Tallon’s sound advice should come in handy.

MMCN network seminar: Methodologies of mobile communication and media research (22/2)

The Mobile Media and Communications Network is a newly founded network of Scandinavian researchers sharing findings, work-in-progress conundrums, publication possibilities and more around their research into mobile communication and media. Starting from last year’s ‘Researching Mobile and Locative Media’ workshop and PhD course at Århus University, the group met once in the autumn to establish the network and this time for a seminar focusing on methodology. The plan is to continue with biannual meetings as well as instigating mobile media sessions at relevant conferences. There’s also a website in the making, and an open invitation for other reserachers in this field to take part.

Even if I can feel like an outsider, even a bit of a leech, given that I probably will not be contributing to this field but only learning from it, it is still very interesting for me to take part in this network and learn from some of the leading researchers and shooting stars in this field. A mix of presentations and discussion, the atmosphere is nicely informal, meaning that rather than showing off people share uncertainties, allowing for a constructive dialogue. As we discussed that this could also be a forum for PhD students to get feedback on their work (rather than pushing for another PhD course this year), I should seize that opportunity at some point.

Both Bechmann, Ess & Waade ‘s project about Tripadvisor and the communicative functions of travel apps (as yet unpublished, but the abstract presents some very interesting points about key functions and significant tendencies in locative mobile apps, such as their visuality and connectedness), and Gunnar Liestøl’s presentation about establishing a methodology for design development of ‘Situated Simulations’, a kind of indirect augmented reality, were very interesting and relevant for my project. I was particularly intruiged by Liestøl’s notions on the value of negativity, of negation, pointing to what is not there, as essential to the design process, which counters the insistance of possitivity in design thinking ass advocated by Ided, Aalto a.o. Also here, a paper is under way, which I will look forward to reading.

I also picked up on the fact that Liestøl also used the term ‘mediation’ – but when asked, also confessed to some uncertainty as to the appropriacy of this translation. It seems that all Scandinavians share the frustration that there is no truly appropriate English translation for such a central term in museology as ‘formidling’ (German Vermittlung), only a host of related terms that convey some aspects, but not the complexity of meanings in the original term. And while mediation may be the correct term etymologically, and in accordance with ICOMs key concepts of museology, it is still not used by the anglophone museum community, as the common usage of the word has very different connotations. So, I too will have to keep circling around this issue, before tackling it head on in my thesis.

#SMWSMK: Social Media Week at Statens Museum for Kunst (21/2)

Social Media Week in Copenhagen inlcuded a string of events at Statens Museum for Kunst:
The art museum on social media – presentation by three different museums on Livestream

Allegra Burnette, creative director for Digital Media at MOMA, presented their social media strategy and a catalogue of initiatives across YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and traditional blogs, all used in differerent ways to document, distribute or engage the public in ongoing exhibitions.

Jesse Righam, Digital Communications manager at TATE similarly laid out their social media strategies, which seemed to have a strong focus on the marketing potential of social media. An interesting aspect for me here was how fashion culture, via bloggers (e.g. Stylebubble), designers (e.g. Westwood) and collaboration with the industry (e.g. Topshop), was used to gain access to a wider public, quote RIngham: ‘it taps into that audience that we need, the visitors of tomorrow’. Perhaps this has been the inspiration for the newly founded Louisiana Channel‘s decision to feature Danish designers Henrik Vibskov, Peter Jensen and Anne Sofie Madsen as commentators on art (in relation to fashion, but still).

Finally, Sarah Grøn from SMK generously shared the ups and downs in the process towards ‘becoming social’, making the point that staff’s personal experience with and command of social media platforms is a prerequisite for using them succesfully as an institution.

After a panel discussion, which mainly revolved around sure-fire communication on Facebook (apparently, updates about artist’s birthdays and the weather never fail – the key is to give something the puiblic can personally relate to), the day concluded with presentations by Merete Sanderhoff and Unges Laboratorier for Kunst on ongoing projects at SMK. Not entirely convinced by ULK’s Tales App (perhaps I’m just not getting it, or perhaps it is one of interesting, but somewhat artyfarty concepts that work best as concepts only)  but I would recommend trying Hintme, the scanner/twitterbased concept which I have written about earlier, which is now open to the public in a beta version. So go check out the website, make sure your QR scanner is up to date and go try it out in on of the participating museums! Better still, let me know how you liked it.

Modesalon: Fashion, music & identity at Designmuseum Danmark (30/1)

During fashion week, and in conjunction with the current exhibition of vinyl album covers, Designmuseum Denmark hosted two fashion salons about the relationship between fashion and music. Sadly, I missed out on the second one, a conversation between designers Mads Nørgaard and Henrik Vibskov, but found the first, featuring music scholar Morten Michelsen and fashion researcher Else Skjold, very inspiring.

Following themes such as emancipation, experimental expressions of gender and marginalisation, they spoke of fashion and music as bodily media for cultural expressions, and of the problematics of the ‘subculture’ discourse, which has now gone out of fashion, to be replaced with concepts of scenes, tribes and genre as social phenomenon.

Skjold is currently finishing up her PhD research on men’s fashion, a very interesting project exploring the potential and developing the methodology of wardrobe studies for cultural studies into fashion as well for market oriented developments in the fashion industry. I had a brief chat with her after the session about our shared interest in how fashion is not just products on a catwalk, but a complex mix of utility, identity, style and culture when used in real life. I expect that her thesis will provide some useful insights into these aspects as well as into considerations on design methodology in cultural studies, and might try to hook up with her at a later stage.

Responding to someone else’s probe

Thanks to Cecilia, a master student from the IT University of Copenhagen, I have been getting a chance to ‘taste my own medicine’. For her master thesis just finished, she explored how to design for sensory experiences in digital media, focusing on the potential for the fashion industry; a very interesting project and field, and highly relevant to my own research. During her process we’ve had some inspiring conversations and I am curious to learn of her findings. What’s more, she used cultural probes in her empirical research, and I had to fortune to one of her informants.


Her beautiful probe package consisted of seven activities exploring various sensory expressions – I was asked to produce sensual forms in clay; to create a colourscheme, to articulate my thoughts on sensual expereinces on a series of postcards etc.

Apart from inspiring my own thinking around the importance – and complexity – of sensory and aesthetic experiences, and how to translate that into digital designs, it was interesting to be an informant and experience the very subjective interaction between designer and informant when performing her probe activities. Like the blurred boundary between what was her research interest and what was mine, and between my personal and academic understanding of the sensory, brought on in part by an overlap in project foci, and in part by engaging myself in her probe. Or the time issue, as in how much you can ask of your informants. For my part, I enjoyed working with the probe and also had a sense of obligation, meaning that I completed all tasks, but even so I can see how the demand on the informant’s time must be taken into consideration in the probe design, and may also account for some of the lacking responses in my own research.

Just tucked into a new book; Creativity and Technology – Social Media, Mobiles and Museums (Katz et al, eds., MuseumsEtc., 2011), heading straight for Nancy Proctor’s chapter on mobile social media in the museum as distributed network.

Proctor opens the chapter with the statement that it’s not about the technology – its about the content. Old school audio guides were (are!) not herding the audience to follow a certain pattern and look at certain artworks for a prescribes length og time because of broadcast technology, but because the content instructed them to do so. “But imagine, for a moment, that the content asked visitors to spend a couple of minutes looking around the gallery, then to choose a favorite artwork and describe it to a companion” Proctor suggests, “Using the same, archaic broadcast tour technology, we would have seen a very different experience played out in the museum.” (Proctor ibid, 24). Hold that thought!

Proctor later describes a method for ‘question-mapping’, i.e. noting down the questions that occur to you and where in the gallery, as you move through your exhibition in order to decide what kinds of information the audience might be interested in when they come. The point is that “by starting with the visitor’s questions rather than the curator’s key messages, we enter into a conversation with our audiences, rather than a lecture.” (ibid 29)

Although I find this thinking sympathetic – if also bringing to mind the potential discrepancy between curatorial and mediation perspectives and aims – I couldn’t help wandering what would happen if we could actually have all our questions answered as they occur to os. (I’m not claiming that this would be Proctor’s intention; this is just the question that occured to me as i was reading her article).

Imagine a futuristic mediation device, say a pair of spectacles, that not only noticed where you looked by deducted from your brainwaves what you were thinking and promptly offered you the relevant information. (Coming to a museum near you, best get a patent on that ASAP). Or even walking the gallery with the curator, ready to answer your questions as they came.

Although we would certainly become more knowledgable, and in light of this added knowledge, inspired to go deeper in our explorations, we would also have had our original train of thought disturbed. And perhaps the best part of that original question was not the answer to the question itself. Perhaps concrete questions, when unanswered, become the gateway to more abstract ponderings and reflections, reflections that make for a much more enlightening experience at the end of the day, that are, perhaps, the whole point of cultural experiences.

But maybe we just feel lost, or perhaps that lost train of thought just ends up sending us looking for the café, because that’s something nice and concrete that we know what to do with. It could go either way. So sometimes we need the answers, and making the relevant information available at the relevant place and time can only be a good thing. But perhaps this explains in part why we don’t go for the self-guided tours: That reflection takes time and cannot always be guided – we simply need time and mental space to absorb the experience as we experience it, and peace of mind to let it stew, to allow for that reflection to happen.


Proctor goes on to describe the quirks and qualities of soundtrack and soundbites, including video content, and lays out the possibilities, strengths and weaknesses of a variety of mobile platforms.

This leads to an argument for dropping the concept of the multi-platform museum as the ideal for making content available on a multitude of devices. Multi-platform, Proctor argues, implies publishing to many platforms from a single sontent source, which, at a glance, looks like great economy of scale. However, content developed for one platform rarely translates well to another – think pamphlet text used on websites or even recorded and turned into a podcast. Neither does one size fits all when it comes to audience needs and interests. Instead, what is needed is a more flexible apporach to content and experience development.

The rhizomic museum, or the Museum as Distributed Network, is Proctors proposal for a new way of thinking about mediation in the museum, which integrates social media to support experiences which are engaging, conversational and generative of now content rather than didactic and finite. Furthermore, the experience is not confined to the museum, but is distributed into the public space and our hangouts on the www: “In the Museum as Distributed Network, every platform is a community, not just a point for content publication and distribution. By combining established social media platform like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter with mobile social media, analog content, and publications built by or for the museum, we can create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” (ibid 54)

This thinking is based on the principle that the best way to learn is to teach. Which is probably right. But there’s still something about this voxpop ideal that I think becomes problematic when it comes to realisation. Because who wants to be taught? I mean, it may make a lot of sense in both engagement and learning terms for me to share my views, knowledge and experience of culture – but will it also enrich the cultural experience and outcome for the next visitor, be it onsite or online? Again, there can be conflict between educational and curatorial aims, and I’m not quite sure which site I’m on as a visitor. Still, exploring the potential and downfalls of this kind of approach to museum mediation is excactly what my project is about, so in this research context, problematic translates as interesting.

In an epilogue to her article, Proctor provides a list of top tips for building a long tail mobile social media program, which benefits both visitors and the museum, and includes references to good examples and useful how-to articles. Like this presentation by Titus Bicknell on how to build your own mobile tour in WordPress in only an hour on – great ressource!

Yesterday, I took my family to visit the brand new Europe meets the World exhibition at the National Museum. Actually, we’d hoped to join the childrens workshop, and was all set for a virtual trip to Italy, Germany or another exciting destination, when we realised that this was only possible on Sundays, so we’ll have to come back for that. Finding that the exhibition, although beautifully excecuted with a combination of objects and video projections, was a bit too abstract for our 4 and 7 year old’s, we ended up opting for the excellent children’s section of the museum instead (a family favourite and perfect weekend hangout in the winter months, inspiring hours of play and perfect in combination with visits to the museum collections).

As a consequence, I couldn’t give the exhibition the time and attention that it deserved, and will also have to come back for a proper visit to that (sans kids). Still, the use of QR codes was too much of a temptation for my geeky curiosity, and I couldn’t resist getting my scanner out. Unfortunately, this turned out to be an illustration of the challenges of utilizing this type of technology in an exhibition.

Now, motivations and obstacles for using your mobile in the museum for streaming/downloading museum content or sharing your opinions, and how this fits into and affects the museum experience overall is a (million dollar) question in its own right, which I won’t go into at this point (but which I will definitely explore in my project). Suffice to say that as many museum visits are social in nature, one person’s desire to explore in depth may not be compatible with the shared objective of the visit, as in our case.

Lights, camera…
But let’s just focus on technology for now. A lot has happened since I first wrote a post on QR codes back in 2009. I believe that a large part of today’s audience will now recognise and understand the use of the 2D barcodes as well as having the smartphone complete with scanner app ready for using the codes when desired, and still the novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet. In other words, time is ripe for putting this technology to good use in the museums – it’s cheap and simple to add a sticker to the exhibition display and doesn’t take a lot of technical savvy to set up the backend mobile friendly websites, allowing the museums to focus in stead on producing top quality content to augment the experience, supplementing the objects with audio, video or text, inviting participation in polls etc.

Still, in the case of this exhibition, the decision to offer content via QR codes clashes with the general design and ambience of the displays, created with subdued lighting and animated projections. As Seb Chan of the Australian Powerhouse Museum points out (or is ‘pointed’ more correct, given that the post I’m referencing (again) is also from 2009) in a brilliant post on the problems with, and solutions to, using QR codes in an exhibition, the shadows you cast when leaning in to use your scanner can steal the light needed for your camera to work.

This was the case at the National Museum, and it took dedication and some interesting body shapes to get some of the codes to work. Similarly, other visitors who noticed my attempts commented that they had found reflections problematic in other parts of the exhibition. And whereas I managed to succesfully connect to some of the educational material, I had no luck trying to take part in the polls asking my opinion on democracy or religion in Europe. Even if I managed to capture these images with my phone camera, the images where too dark for the scanner (Scanlife on an iPhone 3GS):

Early days
Visiting on the first day of the exhibition, one of course has to allow for adjustments to come, especially when the display includes new technologies that still take a bit of getting used to. Indeed, the reception staff welcomed my comments on the light and lack of open wifi (the wifi was meant to be open access in this part of the museum, but I was continously asked for a guest login, which you can get at reception on request, I later found out). Also, as I was clearly rushing along as well as being distracted by trying to keep track of my family, my exploration of the exhibition was in no way exhaustive, I may well have missed helpful pointers or even missed the point – my objective here is not to critizise or review the exhibition as such but only to discuss the challenges of using new technologies for mediation purposes, and if this comes across as some sour remark, I deeply apologize! I only hope that next time I visit, the museum has come up with a solution for securing sufficient lighting for the codes without spoiling the ambience of the exhibition. Looking forward to exploring the themes undisturbed!

It will be interesting to learn about the uptake of these QR codes once the exhibition is evaluated.

A couple of additional notes:
All QR labels offered a short explanation of what material you could find when scanning the code, including information on the format, i.e. video or audio. Written content, howeveer, was labeled ‘Undervisning’. In English, you would call this ‘Education’, hence previous discussions on the term mediation, but the Danish term ‘Undervisning’ has a strong classroom connotation. So much so that I was unsure if this was indeed part of some educational programme aimed at visiting school classes and not really targeted at visitors like me. If I was meant to be included in the target group, I’m not sure if the term appealed to me. I may want to learn, but am I interested in being taught?

Back home, and trying to find an explanation for why these labels offered content in Danish only, I’ve come to the conclusion, that this was probably part of an educational programme. But that doesn’t change that whilst at the exhibition I believed and wished the labels to be aimed at me too. Why has ‘my target group’ not been considered as potentially attracted to these labels, and subsequently baffled or left with a feeling of being excluded?

Finally, checking out the teaser video for the exhibition hosted on YouTube, it turned out to be an example of the challenges of entering into social media, as the only comment on the video was a stupid racist blurb. Wisely, the museum has simply chosen to ignore it, rather than enter into an impossible dialogue. Despite all the effort going into making the users engage and amplifying the vox pop, sometimes you wish they’d just shut up!

Charlotte S.H. Jensen, webeditor at the National Museum, front runner in the Danish museum world when it comes to digitization of cultural heritage and exploring the potential of new media for museum mediation, and generously sharing her insights on her blog, is always a great source of inspiration (and surely deserves a trackback!). Like this post Digital kulturarv – hvad sker der i 2012, in which she points to possible upcoming trends for digital cultural mediation.

Her point about how cultural institutions should or will shift their focus from simply having a visible presence as institutions on social media platforms to engaging in interactions around themes and topics of interest where they occur resonates very well with my own outset. Perhaps my project could even nudge this development along?

Similaly, I agree that it would be great to see a ‘native’ mobile network for sharing and collaborating around cultural heritage. Which again reminded me to start using some of the tools that are already around; I’m now awaiting an invitation to the online pinboard Pinterest, which I’d been checking out before. Charlotte also shares links to Oink (couldn’t get my head around how that works), Miso (but it would seem that only makes sence if you have a telly, which I don’t)and Path (which presents itself maily as a tool forn sharing everyday life with your social network, but perhaps I’m just not seeing the potential for museums?), but I’ll focus on Pinterest at this point.

Charlotte goes on to cover objectification, cultural heritage in public spaces, crowdsourcing and Second Life (not sure about that, I have to say, but maybe it’s just because I had to leave my avatar stranded in a pool years ago when I couldn’t work out how to fly…) amongst other things – well worth a read!