Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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More on mobile tech impacts in museums (extended Mashable remix)

September 15th, 2011 by Seb Chan

There’s a nice introductory piece today that features some of the recent Powerhouse Museum work in Mashable. It is a broad overview piece of how the Smithsonian, the NY Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Powerhouse have been utilising mobile technologies in galleries and exhibitions.

Reading some of the comments and picking up on some of the chatter on Twitter I thought it might be valuable to include two of the Q&A from the journalist that didn’t make the cut in the final story. They add a little more context and introduce more complexity into the issue – probably less interesting for non-museum people but useful to those deeply engaged in the field.

Q – How are you measuring the effectiveness of the technology you’ve deployed? Downloads? Data capture? Usage stats? I noticed you are going to put in moveME wifi triangulation system. What will the data from this tell you – you had mentioned in a post dwell time and loves but how will you put those findings to use? (Why are you doing this?)

We’re really interested in changing the physical design of our galleries so that they are able to deliver better experiences and tell more effective stories to and with our visitors. Once a visitor carries a fully searchable encyclopedia in their pocket (not too mention access to all our collection including the objects not on display), the whole idea of a ‘museum’ and how it could and should be designed, changes.

The ‘effectiveness’ of technologies has a number of different facets -

1. We look at raw usage data – downloads, views, interactions in order to redesign and iterate new versions of the technology itself.

2. Then we look at how visitors are using it both individually as as groups through observation and also data collection. This helps us to think about the social impact of our technologies in the galleries. For example, are our mobile apps meaning that families visiting together are talking to each other less than before? (a possibly negative outcome!)

3. We also look at the aggregate usage data to help us think about what content is being accessed (and what is being ignored) and then follow up with qualitative research to understand why. This, over time, helps us better understand which objects, for example, visitors are interested in finding out more about, and which, perhaps need a little more prompting.

4. Finally, and holistically, we aim to bring all this data together to better inform the spatial layout of galleries, and also the ancillary services such as education kits for teachers or curator-guided tours, that might further enhance a visit.

As we move from 1 to 4 the impact and time taken gets longer and longer obviously – and impacts much more broadly on the museum and its various operations.

Q – Where do you think things are going in terms of digital tech in your museum and in museums in general?

At the Powerhouse we are certainly getting far more strategic in our deployments rather than being seduced by novelty. This has been largely possibly because of the way digital has evolved at the museum with significant internal capacity and on-staff developers, digital producers, and strategy.

Broadly in the museum world we are seeing much higher volumes of technologies deployed – Google Goggles at the Getty, NFC at the Museum of London, AR at the Stedelijk, touch-tables everywhere – and I expect that over the next decade we will see the very idea of a ‘digital team’ or ‘digital unit’ or even ‘CTO’ at a museum as quaint. Simply because the very definition of a museum will be, itself, ‘digital’ and cross-platform.

Tags: 5 Comments

  • Lynda Kelly

    Nice post Seb. As we have identified the tech is changing the ways we relate to audiences, yet I don’t see very much conversation about how it will also change the fundamental nature of our jobs across the sector. We need to be come more agile, visitor-focussed and tech0-savvy ourselves and I still see resistance from museum folk who are tied to the old exhibitions-led models of working and creating product for a physical site.
    The examples in Mashable are great tho, altho I wonder how embedded these ways of working are across the institutions – I know we all struggle with this!

    • http://twitter.com/sebchan sebchan

      There’s definitely discussions about structural change going on – ‘Future of Museums’ type stuff, not to mention public sector and gov2.0 and all the other ‘Future of . . . ‘. There’s no shortage of conversations. Perhaps where there is a shortage is actual implementations – and ones that have transferrable learnings.

      In my view these are long term tectonic shifts and the libraries sector has had a 20+ year start on that journey in the move from ‘collections to services’. Museums can learn from that in some ways but not in others.

      Like any future-gazing, these shifts are not ones that come with clearly visible outcomes or even a sense of predictability. There is a wide gap between the techno-utopianism that underpins the Californian tech startup culture and political pragmatism – not to mention public acceptance.

      I think not is important that we don’t just see tech as impacting on museums and culture.  Political climate, economic climate, work/life balance, recreation time, community ideas about ‘good education’, media and entertainment – all these and more have at least as much effect on the future of museums as technology.

  • http://twitter.com/exhibitly exhibit.ly

    Great addition to the Mashable piece!

  • http://twitter.com/JimminyjamF jamief

    Are there any stats on how many museum visitors own devices that allow for these tech facilitated experiences?

    • Anonymous

      Any stats would only be really meaningful in the context of each individual institution. Different institutions attract different audiences – and even the same visitor who feels comfortable pulling out their smartphone in a science museum with their children may not feel the same way when visiting an art museum with an elderly friend.

      That said, spend an hour in the galleries looking at visitors and you’ll see how prevalent smartphones are amongst your visitors. Likewise a quikck look at the $ of mobile device traffic to your website from visitors from your city will hint at the growth rate.