Tackling Ross Parry’s ‘post-digital normativity’ on a daily basis with visitors

(More old-ish drafts being pushed out the door)

We talk a lot in the office about the sort of digital experience we want in our new galleries. But without revealing what we are actually doing, here’s some of the conundrums that we’ve been processing over the last year – that are widely applicable across institutions.

In many ways, what we have been really talking about is Ross Parry’s notion of a ‘post digital normativity‘ (see also his paywalled journal article with a look at organisation structures and digital teams in UK national museums as PDF) – a new normal that doesn’t separate a digital experience into something different from the overall museum experience. Other people mistakenly describe this as ‘the elegant invisibility of technology’ whereas in fact it is about coming to a collective agreement that everyday life is inseparable from a technologically-mediated existence.

We’ve all observed visitors taking the #museumselfie, and a smaller cohort of visitors taking photos of object labels, and we’ve all seen families struggle with the anti-social nature of audioguides. We’ve tried to service the informational desires of visitors by deploying QR codes (ugh), NFC/RFID (see London’s Natural History Museum and their NaturePlus cards way back in 2009), and even short URLs to galleries only to find that they are rarely used, or if they are, audience research reveals that the resultant ‘extra information’ lacked the depth and specificities wanted by the curious visitor. (Perhaps an object phone direct to the relevant subject expert curator’s desk would be more effective!)

As museum staffers, too, we’ve also been frustrated at the difficulty of ‘getting visitors back’ as repeat visitors. Dallas Museum of Art’s DMA Friends is obviously one to watch on this. “Technology” was supposed to make that easier – as if its magic touch could transform a ‘nice family day out’ into something called ‘edutainment’ and transform single visit desires into ‘lifelong learning relationships’.

Of course every museum worth their salt is thinking about how to sort out the value of digital experiences in their galleries – be it through large scale interventions or mobile apps – and providing at least the opportunity for visitors to recall their visit later. The latter was probably best demonstrated in 2011 by Tasmania’s MONA, and can also be seen in MOMA’s 2013 media-rich ‘audio guide replacement‘. The former ‘s torch is being currently borne by the Cleveland Museum of Art’s impressive Gallery One. Across the field this threatens to become a race to out-screen and out-size the next institution with little consideration – especially by funders – of the ongoing costs and underlying content challenges.

Even the best don’t get near 100% take up rates – not even MONA which gets closest – where without the supplied device you are set a drift without any labels to guide or inform you of what you are looking at and also beneath the ground without mobile reception to distract you.

Thinking about this from the visitor’s own perspective is revealing because they have little conception of, or tolerance for, the museum’s own inability to meet their expectations. “Why do I need something to make my visit better?” “You’ve run out of devices – that’s bad planning”. The device doesn’t work the way they intuit that it should – “that’s bad design”. The content is little more than an extended label text – “I may as well have just used your website on my phone”.

And you still want to deploy that great technological intervention?

All of these interventions require services and systems to be built that touch on almost every aspect of the museum as well as cross-departmentally. And this is why it has been so difficult for institutions to firstly get it done, and, for those that do, to then get it right.

The front-of-house team has to be engaged enough with the motive and purpose of technologies deployed in the galleries to want to troubleshoot and provide the conduit for feature requests and bug reports between the visitors and the museum. The content production workflows need to be cogniscent of the time constraints for curators and educators so as to not overload them with yet another content production task on top of object labels, exhibition research and educational programming. The reality is inevitably that you will need more staff, not fewer – and not just in technical areas but across the institution as a whole. There will be some ability to restructure and redeploy existing staff to new roles – Lynda Kelly’s oft-heard mantra of “20% smarter not 20% harder” – but the reality may be that you also need 20% more staff!

Some questions worth answering –

– Does the technology make the visit appreciably better? How is this going to be measured?
– What proportion of visitors are going to use it? If it isn’t at least 50% then is it still worth the ongoing investment?
– Can and will there be investment in enough staff to meet the changed demands of visitors should they begin to expect more? What if they want what things that the museum was never setup to provide?

Every single day we poke at these questions. Its not getting any easier, nor is it likely to improve.

3 replies on “Tackling Ross Parry’s ‘post-digital normativity’ on a daily basis with visitors”

Great honest questions and from a user perspective. I always like to amuse myself my comparing presentations of new experiences to the actual experiences and they can wildly differ in reality. We are testing out bring your own device gallery intepretation next year and these questions are spot on. It’s hard and the only way to address it is to think like users. We will move into responsive mobile, not apps, as these are much more adaptable and sustainable, but ask us in 18 months!

By chance, i’ve just come back from a workshop woth Ross Parry, Jane Alexenader and others looking at mobile and the in-gallery experience. Some brief notes are here:

The problem I see is that most of these technological interventions are individual in nature.

The major reason people go to a museum is to reconnect with family and friends in an enriching environment where they hope to learn something. For most, the choice between the type of museum is the equivalent of the choice between where to go out for dinner, burgers, ethic, or gourmet cuisine. (and in these times there will be people who want the mash-up novelty of the ethic gourmet burger!). IE the content is a necessary, but secondary, part of the experience.

To go out in this way is primarily a social experience- and frankly the main problem of these interventions are that they are anti-social. They are exactly against the experience that the visitor is there for. It is as far from User Centered Design as one could possibly imagine.

The problem is most visitors take these devices because they are offered, out of obedience to the museums authority. Out of a belief that technology should make things better- not out the experience that it actually did. I think it is interesting that Zoos increase in popularity with most not using this technology. And it is not the sort of technology one generally finds in Science Centers.

It doesn’t have to be this way and there are notable few exceptions.The REX Regensburg game that existed for awhile may have done that. The interactive flashlights at the ironworks in Avesta Sweden is another. The interactive games at Disney probably also have something to learn from. All of these seem to work well to scaffold interaction within a group. The exact sort of experiences that visitor has come for.

Technology can have a place in social environments. Many an interactive experience uses them. It is not the technology that is the problem- it is the belief in the personalized nature of it. It shuts down the experience that most people want.

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