Monday, February 21, 2011

Audio tours - how participatory do we want our visitors to be?

It would be such a boring world if we all agreed with each other. In museum circles opinions on the level of interaction that we expect between exhibition visitors and with an exhibition itself vary widely. A couple of articles in recent museum magazines highlight this. On the one hand a reviewer in the UK’s Museum Journal commenting on the redeveloped Roman Baths exhibition at Bath notes that “For all the exciting opportunities to connect with audiences through interactive displays and costumed interpretation, audiences are failing to connect with each other… there was a sense of physical isolation and passive participation….at odds with the noisy and lively way in which the baths would have been experienced in Roman times”.

Across the Atlantic the American Museums Association Jan/Feb magazine reviews Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, discussed in my blog last year. The review is somewhat critical of Nina’s goal for museums to “change the dynamic of the visitor from passive consumer to cultural participant, similar to the way YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Wikipedia have transformed our expectations for accessibility, community and interactivity”.

It sounds as the reviewers should have swapped assignments and they would each have been happy! The answer in my view is that it is horses for courses. Some exhibitions are better placed to be participatory than others, just as some visitors choose to be actively involved whilst others not. Check out my blog on the work the Dallas Museum of Arts has been doing on understanding the latter, identifying four types of visitor clusters, namely: Observers, Participants, Independents and Enthusiasts.

However one comment that caught my attention in the Roman Baths article was that passive participation could be attributed to audio guides. Whilst these are providing useful information and increased dwell time, the article says, they are also inhibiting discussion and a shared experience.

This is an issue on which I have had many a robust discussion. Personally I very rarely take audio tours except when I am visiting a museum on my own. I much prefer taking my own time and route and sharing observations and experiences with whoever I am with. Audio tours tend to lock you into your own world and dictate your pace and route (“when the music stops move onto the next exhibit” etc).

That said there is no doubt that audio tours provide a much more meaningful experience to many visitors, and are a highly effective tool to have in the visitor access tool box. What intrigues me is how the next round of audio tour technology evolves. They have developed from clunky cassette players to wands to MP3 players. Surely now they will move into smartphones through dedicated apps, and indeed as I previously blogged, there are signs this is already underway. What I find particularly exciting is the iPad format, as at last we have a way in which exhibit content can be delivered on a big enough screen that it can be shared with others. But this is going to need some logistical readjustment with visitors no longer having to pick up and drop-off an audio tour machine at the entrance, but now download an app onto their own smartphone/iPad either before hand or at the time of arrival. Sorting out the business model around this is going to be interesting, e.g. how is the app charged for, along with coping with current reticence by visitors to use their own equipment.

I see the Museums and the Web 2011 conference program in Philadelphia in six weeks time has a number of papers on this issue, so, as I shall be there, I will report back soon.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Monday, February 14, 2011

Conservation in troubled areas

As a conservator by training, I cannot help but take interest in heritage events where conservators are involved, particularly where our work is part of a bigger story. The following is a recent selection.

I blogged last year about the Cyrus Cylinder, and ruminated at the time that I could understand the hesitancy the British Museum was showing in sending such a treasure to Iran, and that the reasons given (more research required) were probably a spurious front. I now discover from my British Museum friends, and as reported in The Art Newspaper, that the real reason was that a fragment of the cylinder belongs to Yale University and was on long term loan to the BM. It was deemed prudent to remove the Yale fragment before sending it to Tehran.

However the removal by the BM’s conservators and other conservation work resulted in the Cylinder looking different at the ends, resulting in rumours in Iran that the BM had sent a replica. Not a good look and one that had to be strenuously denied by the BM’s trustees. But all’s well that ends well and the relationship with the National Museum of Iran is so good (and the exhibition has been so popular - 200,000 visitors to date) that the loan has been extended from January to April.

Further south in another trouble spot, Egypt, we are holding our breath that the great Egyptian museums do not suffer the same fate as the National Museum in Iraq, looted as the Americans moved in.

There have been a couple of statements made on the threat to Egypt’s invaluable cultural heritage by Blue Shield, UNESCO, and The Hindu in Delhi has picked up on the issue as part of wider story on challenges confronting Indian museums. In their words, ‘ordinary members of the Egyptian community’ have been standing guard at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to prevent protestors from looting the treasures inside.

Not quite sure how successful they have been, as The Art Newspaper reported on 31st January that looters had got into the Egyptian Museum, ransacked the shop and managed to get into the Tutankhamen galleries, where they turned over some vitrines looking for antique jewellery, decapitating a couple of mummies in the process. Luckily the gold mask was in another gallery and was not reached before the army turned up. However, there is news today (14th February) on ABC Radio of further looting including the loss of a gold statue of Tutankhamen.

And finally a bit closer to home, conservators have been doing a great job assisting Queensland get to grips with cleaning up after the disastrous floods, which were followed by Cyclone Yasi. The biggest collection of historic photos, negatives and cameras in Queensland, owned by Sandy Barrie in Ipswich, went under the water and now there's a huge project underway to try to save what can be saved. Conservators are under pressure to work fast to stop mould and fungus getting into the collection on top of the mud and water, and to date over 200 hours of volunteer hours by both public and private conservators has been put in to stabilise it. Although the damage to collections held by the state museums was minimal, sadly the full extent of loss to smaller local and privately owned collections is only now becoming apparent.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Museums and video games?

The stunning success of Nintendo's Wii console has confirmed that the video game industry is big business - growing this year by 12% to a $4bn sector in Australia alone.

So in this context I have been fascinated to come across a Virtual farming simulator on Facebook – Farmville from Zynga. Farmville had 62 million active users in September 2010. Facebook users can invite their friends to be neighbours and watch the progress of their crops, and even spend money to buy virtual goods within the game.

I always wonder where professional people find the time to spend playing such games, but there again I am hooked on the iPhone scrabble app, which could be seen as the thin end of the wedge. Indeed the proponents of such point out that the time we spend immersed in professional magazines could well be better spent in social media if we are really trying to understand how to make our museums more interesting and more relevant places.

Surely it is a small leap to creating some form of museum game, where you can create your own exhibitions, compete for government funds based on visitor numbers and use the acquisition budget to bid in virtual auction markets. When the stats are telling us that America teens now spend on average more than 10 hours a week on social media gaming, we need to be thinking how we take this space forward.

BUT, I hear you cry, are this generation likely to be interested in museums to want to game in this sector? A recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times shows they may be. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago sought applicants to spend a month at the Museum, during which they could roam freely, sleep where they like (e.g. in a submarine) and take $10,000 in exchange for interacting with visitors and blogging and tweeting the world about the experience.

Expecting a couple of hundred applicants at best, over 1,500 applied from all over the world. Given each applicant had to be conversant with social media to apply and submit a 1 minute video about themselves, one can conclude they were largely of the gaming generation. And their excitement was palpable, e.g. 'It would be wonderful to be surrounded by all of those achievements of humankind, the combined knowledge of which is staggering. The thought of getting to live there is so exciting for me that I can hardly sleep whilst the selection process is going on' said one hyperactive applicant.

Is this not an indication that a museum video game might have a ready audience?

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director