Interactivity in Cultural Heritage Institutions

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Based on 2013 student-led seminar Interactivity in Museums



Why Interactivity in museums?

  • The visitors are getting an opportunity to contribute and interact with the collection/exhibition (we could call that the museum experience).
  • Interactivity also gives museums a new image, people aren’t just looking at things, they are participating in it’s creation or development so they can be put in the skin of the artists of the devices.
  • Visitors also get the chance to learn how the collection is relevant to them.

Topics for Discussion

Interacting with the museum online

  • how the visitor’s experience of the museum has changed with the arrival of museum websites and the possibility to visit the collections/exhibitions online. The pre and post physical-visit examined.

Museums Online

As Museums have developed an interactive part of themselves in the form of their website, we come to wonder how is the visitors experience of museums and it’s collection/exhibition changed with the arrival of museum websites?

Two types of people looking at/for museums online were indentified:

  • People who look at the website to get information for a future visit, refered to as the pre-visit users,
  • People that come and look at the website after a visit, refered to as the post-visit users.


Museum websites seem to have developed an orientation on the pre-visit view. Which mean that the new visitor get easy access to :

  • plan his visit,
  • maps of the museum,
  • the way of to the place,
  • tour organistions,
  • activities, events and exhibitions available on the day of your visit,
  • look at a collection and see where you can find a certain piece of art in the museum,
  • Virtual tours which enables you to pre-discover the museum and learn about the pieces of art it contains by having photos with explanations or an interactive plan.

The way museums have a lot of information and help for the futur visitors is very important as it will contribute in the visitors having a good museum experience.


It gives the visitors a voice of what they thought of their visits. Different possibility for the visitors to give online feedback to the museums:

  • a donation online, the way of showing that you appreciated your visit and the work which is done in the museum,
  • send a message at the museum email which you will find on the website under Contact Us, enables you to say what you thought of your visit in the museum but no one from the outside can see what you said,
  • Social Media: Museum Facebook page, gives the visitors the opportunity to leave a comment on the updates, post their own pictures from their visit(s) and leave a recommendation on the museum.

Also websites outside the museum settings have started to give the visitors the opportunity to leave a comment and the place and rate it. Tripadvisor could be the perfect example, as the visitors can leave a comment and a rating but also photos if they desire.

Therefore we see that the post-visit is also approach by museums but in a different way than the pre-visit. In both ways the visitor do have the choice to create it's own museum experience.

After seen how much online museums have change the visitor's experience we could wonder if a further development of it could enable people to see the museum and what it exposes without physically going there.

Visitor Engagement with the Museum via Technology in the Museum

  • current trends in interactive visitor engagement within the museum through the use of apps, games, and demonstrate what the research tells us about those interventions, why and how they are being adopted, and what can be gained.

Broadly speaking, museums today, be they modern art museums or museums of antiquities have the dual challenge of education and/or entertainment.

As digital media becomes more a part of life, museums are finding new ways to meet the challenge of connecting with their audiences. Yet the new technologies and potential interactions offer many opportunities too.

According to online sources [1], the first audio handheld guide was created in 1952. So, interactivity in museums is nothing new. What is interesting about today is that interactivity is not only faciltating the way people communicate with museums but it's changing how museums see their role too.

Up to a few years ago, museums feared that putting their collections online would stop people coming to the museum. That fear has been disproved with visitors engaging with online collections in new ways.

The original idea of the handheld audio was using technology to replace a person standing in front of it. This still has relevance, if you want to connect with people in 32 languages and can't afford up to 32 full time guides. However, a real conversation has opened up as visitors try to learn how a collection is relevant to them. The challenge of museum curators is to contextualise the works and them communicate this context.

(See below for the report "Museums and Digital Engagement: A New York Perspective by Oonagh Murphy to see key trends from a recent research trip to New York.)

To summarise some points we hoped to get across in our seminar:

  • Interactivity can be anything you want it to be, either facilitated by digital means or be a digital project. That is the mode of digital engagement in museums is up to the Museum. No one tool is better than another, it's the circumstances that will determine the tools needed.
  • Involving users can even create or change the context. Here is an interesting talk from Alice Greenwald from the 9 11 museum. I think this demonstrate the power of collaborative tools to enhance visitor experience in unforeseen ways.]
  • Collaborative learning. What interactive tools can do is re-contextualise the information but also the role of the museum, or allow for new methods of placing, shaping and re-evaluating context. Allowing users to create their own take on the works, and then share those choices is one way to see how people view the collections. As demonstrated by the Tate Kids website for example.
  • Skill sharing and reflective practice, innovative workshops, informal research, museum hackdays, all allow the notion of the visitor to be changed.
  • Interactivity is not necessarily positive, you need to be critical of hat you are making and how it relates to the visitor's experience of the work. What point are you blocking the art work and creating a digital wall?

Interactive Installations in Cultural Heritage Institutions

  • types of installations, investigating what makes an exhibition engaging and successful. Short overview of visitor types and how the viewer distributed their attention and how they would explore the installation.

Installations untimately invite the visitor goer to become more actively involved in the creative process. The audience member becomes much more than a spectator but an active participant. There is a growing interest in museums and galleries to use new technologies such as computer exhibits, information kiosks and PDAs in their exhibitons. Museum managers and designers hope these technologies can help to facilitate new forms of participation and interactivity and hopefully enhance peoples experience and overall understanding of an exhibition. Some of the earliest Interactive Installations date back to the 1920's an example of this would be Marcel Dauchamps "Spinning Plates." The viewer had to turn on the machine and stand back one meter to view the optical illusion. Most Digital Installations didn't make thier offical entry into Museums until the 1990's. Since then there has been growing interest in Museums to have Interactive Installations as part of their productions.

Todd Winkler, Director at Brown University explains that there a certain factors that make the Installation engaging and what have an impact on the audiences perception. This are factors that the designer most consider and problems the will encounter:

  • Digital Factor: This can refer to that resides on a computer; digitized video, sound and other stored material, sensory software for mapping movement ect,
  • Physical Factor: This involves the installation space and set, including items used to create the space and interface with a computer such as sensors props, video screens, constructions, printed images and furniture. This also considers how people move around the space and the activity required to interact with digital material. The feeling of venue, what were looking a in particular the museum will contribute to audiences reation to the work.
  • Social Factor: This examines the relationships between people before, during, and after the installation experience. The artist/ designer may consider designing situations where social interactions are likely to occur where a number of visitors can participate in an installation, and the role and the location of the spectators. An installation can have a multitude of players or just one. Several Studies have shown that the most popular museum installationsencourage social interactions among a multiple players. Humans are social animals and part of the reason we go to an exhibition is to spend times with family, friend.
  • Personal Factor: This is an area that is difficult for the artist to influence. Beyond the control of the installation artist are issues such as a persons mood, musical taste, interest in technology, or whether they have have the knowledge the skills required to participate and understand the installation. Some people might be intimidated and unwilling to participate or don’t have time. Howevr by knowing the audience, some potential problems may be solved in the design and layout of the installation.


Examples of recent successful and engaging installations, that were presented and discussed in the seminar:

Interactive Installations are often presented as environments open for exploration promoting curiosity and play. They fully embrace digital culture and technology, software commonly used by artists and designers are:

The audience has the power to manipulate and create artwork, this can help the visitor gain a better understanding of what is on exhibition. We are not simply limited to just looking at what is on display but touch, smell, move around and immerse ourselves in an entirely new world.

Artefacts you noticed in the Hunt Museum


Presentation Slides

The slideshow of Hilary, Eva and Leslie for the presentation [2].





Tate Gallery has a range of interesting applications. You can browse their page, many have virals to explain them. Interestingly, some are paid and some are free. Many are created for just one platform (eg IOS). [3]

They even have a dedicated Kids Website. [4] Interactive Installation App


"Beestenbende is a game for families visiting the cabinet of curiosities at University Museum Utrecht. Players are invited to look at the objects on display through the eyes of scientists. In the game, a number of animals in the cabinet are confused about the animal group they belong to. For example, a flying squirrel thinks it is a bird, because it can fly. Players divide into two teams and collect evidence by taking photos of animal features, such as paws, feathers and so on. They label and subsequently show the evidence to the animal, in the hopes of convincing it of its true nature. The team with the best evidence wins." You can read a blogpost from the company that co-created it here [5]


Apart from attending these conferences, they also have papers that you can read or even the titles of some talks are inspiring!

  • Museums and the Web

European museums and the Web Conference

Considerations For the Designer

  • The tools are just tools. the reasoning behind using any tool in a particular context for a particular time are important.
  • Evaluation is important. otherwise, a deluge of applications for example, can be dumped onto the marketplace or thrown at visitors further muddling the mountains of information that they have to contend with.
  • What is the conversation that the curator is trying to have with the visitor(s)? What is the context in which the work is presented? How is that context communicated to the visitors? Are you changing, reflecting, adding to that context?
  • What are the tools available, am I keeping with a system that I know? Can I use new Open Source Tools to create interactivity(for example)?
  • Money is not always a consideration, smaller organisations have a lot to learn from larger organisations in terms of connection and conversation.
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