This past week I was invited to lead a seminar/workshop on digital media and the impact on museum culture at the Marinmuseum (Naval Museum). The seminar was for museum staff from three of the Swedish National Maritime Museums, the Marinmuseum here in Karlskrona, and the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum) and Sjöhistoriska Museet (Maritime Museum), both in Stockholm. They were holding annual staff meetings and the seminar was one among many to discuss relevant issues in the field over the course of two days. My seminar, and the following workshop, was particularly intended to address issues of interactivity and communication with museum visitors via digital channels. I had been invited to lecture, in part, because of my continued relationship with local curators, historians and exhibition designers at the Marinmuseum whom I have met while collaborating on student research projects. Within our program study of changing cultural institutions and material practices, we have often discussed how museums are particularly influenced by digital culture and technology “revolutions,” and thus we have staged some experimental projects over the last few years. We made hand-held history narratives for tourists prototyped for digital phones, and staged social media interventions and performances to explore how history could be redistributed in new ways, for example. This last one we called the re-history: archive yourself project and it was an interesting semester long-project for students, culminating in a socially mediated, live-stream performance and seminar at the museum in spring 2010–lots of fun and a great commitment by students.
Through such interactions, I have discussed with my students, the ways that museums, like libraries, have been directly impacted by new digital methods and tools that change the way users engage both them and their contents. From microfiche to metadata, from combing the stacks to data mining and data visualization, our relationship to information, to reading, and to (re-) searching history, culture, and the attendant artifacts are deeply transformed w/in digital culture. Digital Humanities work, although expanding its frontiers, still focuses largely on the ways that digital tools can change concepts of archiving and preservation, but also, of course, exhibition techniques, material use, and representational practices. All such revisions are largely about changing conversations with users, conversations with/about/ through differently mediated cultural expressions embedded in new contexts. Digital media allows a number of ways to augment and to enhance user experiences—through online archives, interactive websites, and follow-up experiences for the visitors. The Marinmuseum has recently opened its archives online in a digital database, and the Blekinge Museum, with whom I also work, has created a wonderful open archive experience for visitors. It is entirely non-digital, for now, but nonetheless, it is a reflection of the ways the walls and the boundaries for the museum are being transgressed and trespassed. No longer imposing institutional monuments, more fluid (media) exchanges challenge traditional museum spaces that have served as historical fortifications, and they now help drop the barricades.
On-site digital media can also engage users in more hands-on experiences and allow for more personalized contact with history and its objects (QR codes, interactive media kiosks, video and audio interventions, for example). Actual augmented reality tools in fact are currently among the most used and discussed technologies within museums, along with hand-held devices. Combining the two (hand-held + AR) is a design opportunity for truly deep material change. Mobile AR uses are for me some of the most compelling, but only when used strategically. Too often, it seems, we just want information to “pop-up” for us, for information tags to float before our eyes when our phones are held up before an artifact. Or, we want to see a superimposed image of what was “once there” over what is “now there.” But I think these experience need to go much deeper, become more embodied, more influenced by affective interface experience. If we only use our phones as screens through which we view information, then we miss the greater tactile power we have when we touch information, make it, hold it, really stroke, and then feel its response.
(Sensual expression is not an accidental outcome when we stroke our devices, let them respond to our fingers, hold them to our mouths, to our ears, and let them speak to us. What an intimate experience it can be to put those ear buds inside our ears and let the information come so close and speak so directly, privately, only to us.)
It was interesting actually to reflect on a way to discuss these ideas with a large number of people outside my discipline and outside an academic context. I was speaking to technical people, designers, curators, and others who held positions in the museum, but who were not necessarily familiar with digital media trends and most certainly not with theoretical positions on digital media. Many held very traditional views of museums as places to preserve history and as sites where expert, not amateur, expertise should dominate. One of the critiques of interactivity in cultural spaces, esp. where user-generated digital content is explored, is fear of the great unwashed and uninformed masses messing up the space, facts, and artifacts through their barbaric Wikipedia (un-)principled actions. Anyone can annotate an artifact, right? Who needs an historian when an 8 year-old with a digital recorder and pod-casting technology can tell us instead what the 19th century diving bell is for: “It’s for talking to magic dolphins, looking for mermaids and chasing sea turtles. Also, I can put my little brother in it when he is bad.” It’s just uncivilized.
So I called my talk “Communicating Museum Culture: digital media, performance, and interActivities,” but I also gave the alternate title “The Simple Power of Pong.” Influenced by the opening examples in Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, a text I used to use a few years ago in a game theory course, I recalled their discussion of Pong. I had always found it an evocative example for illustrating effective design. In short they said Pong worked because of the simplicity of its design, its unique game-play possibilities (many outcomes, same context) and its fun and cool factors (engaging the user at visceral and emotional levels). I opened then with Pong and shared these factors as a framing reference for my discussion of designing affective user experiences. I also pointed out
that one of its best original features was that Pong was an arcade game, and therefore the possibilities for shared experience and embodied user-performance was key. Watching people play was also a part of the Pong experience. Real bodies together in a space, actively enjoying the game illustrates how effective (and affective) design goes beyond the circle of what we might consider a more narrow game-play experience, that of turning the paddle-control and trying not to miss the ball.
I won’t share the whole talk here, but I did reiterate, to myself at least, (and I’m a good listener, to myself) while preparing the seminar, that performance is once again of central interest to me when considering the ways emerging digital media can engage affective user experiences. It’s so important to displace users from the perspective of viewer and to probe what interactivity really means in the body. So, I chose to express and explain “interaction” as “performative interActvites,” to highlight the need to be both precise and diverse when considering embodied user-centered experiences. I referenced Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum often, as I find it such a smart and readable review of participatory practices. Her Museum 2.0 blog is also very clever and informative, and I wish I could have spent more time on that. Ultimately, I offered the three A’s for designing performative interActivities, as I have outlined them in my own research:
Performative InterActivites: the 3 A’s, ftw
- Access (increased opportunities for sharing with and produsing materials—not merely viewing them)
- Augmentation (increased opportunities for enhancing virtual experiences within physical spaces, extending experiences)
- Affect (increased opportunities for engaging emotional connections or embodied responses)
Exploring these principles with examples from museums and with discussion of strategies for considering media options was quite interesting. Ultimately I found it quite satisfying to note that in the brief workshop that followed my lecture (which was, in truth, due to time constraints, more of an extended group discussion) that my strongest messages seemed to be received about 1) creating sustainable practices through media and 2) considering the value of affective feedback loops. The ways in which a physical space can be repurposed by changing the media and context, rather than the exhibition itself, was the basis for some good conversations. Also, my focus on audience-centered design where the visitor is performatively recast as an active agent/actor within an exhibition was a trigger for some interesting discussion. I look forward to follow up meetings. I have been invited, along with my students, to consult with them about their new submarine-focused extension, currently under construction. They seem eager to discuss digital media’s potential place and role within their new space, and I’m eager to entice them.