This panel examined the use of digital technologies to add new layers of interpretation and visitor interaction to physical spaces within exhibitions, galleries, and public spaces. The panel considered how technology can change curatorial practices, the visitor’s engagement with collections, and enliven spaces whose purpose and contents have been altered. The importance of ‘visitor agency’ was explored in the use and development of such technologies, as will the importance of cross-disciplinary partnerships. 

Jenny Bunn, University College London, and Alexandra Eveleigh, University of Westminster

This paper will report on work to examine the role of interpretation in building engagement with archive and museum collections, contrasting online collections browsing with the physical experience of the guided behind-the-scenes tour. Drawing on work being carried out with the British Postal Museum and Archive in London (funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Skills Development grant as part of the CLASH programme) and recent doctoral research into online participation in cultural heritage contexts, our paper will examine how online and onsite experiences might be better integrated to enhance engagement with collections, and what techniques might be used to prompt movement along a continuum from casual browsing to more purposeful interaction. What aspects do visitors appreciate the most from the behind-the-scenes tour which could be re-purposed for the creation of digital spaces which bring collections to life and stimulate contributions towards a collaborative narrative of interpretation?

Through our observational research and an analysis of visitor feedback questionnaires, we also aim to offer insights into the way in which community participants might conceive of differences between museum and archive collections and how these conceptions are shifting in the digital environment. If, as many assume, online collection browsers can already be said to function as a vital site of dissemination and delivery for cultural heritage collections, can they ever supplant the physical as the primary space for discourse and interpretation,  and if so, how?

Adrian Davies, Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, and Roma Patel, University of Nottingham

One of the major challenges for museums now is how to make content more engaging. Like many heritage sites, the exhibition ‘history offer’ at Nottingham Castle was passive, text-based and difficult to relate to the physical site. A new engaging and instinctive approach was needed. This paper presents our investigation into Augmented Reality (AR) storytelling focusing on the relationship between digital and non-digital interpretation and heritage site and exhibition design.

Riot 1831@ Nottingham Castle is a permanent AR exhibition and application, born out of a multidisciplinary collaboration with the museum, local universities and a technology company. The project reformulated a set of first hand eyewitness accounts and museum objects from the 1831 Reform Bill riot to shift the historical perspective, by incorporating multi-perspectives. The project took an agile, practice-based approach which enabled the team to experiment with the AR and incorporate feedback from museum staff and the focus group from an early stage. We also studied the visitor through video ethnography, surveys and eye tracking.

The results indicate that the AR interpretation and the storytelling approach were successful in creating a more engaging exhibition that added to the visitor experience rather than distracting from the museum objects. A survey of 200 respondents revealed that 77% of visitors agreed the use of AR was engaging. 70% felt the app helped them to understand the historical relevance of the objects and 79% felt the stories were very clear and helped them understand history, 85% agreed that they vividly remembered some part of the experience.

The employment of AR is challenging, however, it offers unique opportunities as an interpretive medium. It is particularly suitable to museums and organisations with people-centred stories linked to their sites. It can increase dwell time as the content goes beyond the novelty and offers meaning and value to the visitors’ experience.

Luigina Ciolfi, Daniela Petrelli, Mark Marshall and Nick Dulake, Sheffield Hallam University

meSch (Material EncounterS with digital Cultural Heritage) has the goal of designing, developing and deploying tools for the creation of tangible interactive experiences that connect the physical experience of museums and exhibitions with relevant digital information in novel ways. A wealth of digital heritage content is currently available in repositories and archives, it is, however, accessed only in a limited way and utilised through rather static modes of delivery. meSch bridges the gap between visitors’ cultural heritage experience onsite and online by providing a platform for the creation of tangible smart exhibits, that enables heritage professionals to compose and realise physical artifacts enriched by digital content without the need for specialised technical knowledge.

The platform includes a toolkit for the composition of physical/digital narratives to be mapped to interactive artefacts, and an embedded multi-sensor platform for the construction of physical smart exhibits. The meSch envisioning and realisation approach is grounded on principles of co-design, the broad participation of designers, developers and stakeholders into the process, and on a do-it-yourself philosophy to making and experimentation: hands-on design and making workshops are being employed throughout the project to inform and shape development.

Three large-scale case studies in different museums across Europe are providing test beds for the real-world evaluation of meSch technology with the public and cultural heritage stakeholders. The ultimate goal of the project is to support the creation of an open community of cultural heritage institutions driving and sharing a new generation of physical/digital museum interactives. This talk will discuss current work on the meSch do-it-yourself platform collaboratively designed by cultural heritage professionals, designers, developers and social scientists, and will present examples of how it has supported the creation of interactive experiences at a variety of heritage sites, including archaeology and art museums, hands-on exploration centres and outdoor historical sites.