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Do (Not) Try This at the Museum: Lessons from Digital Museum Lab

Together with Waag Society, the DEN Foundation and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the Allard Pierson Museum is initiator of Digital Museum Lab. Digital Museum Lab is a project exploring the potential of technology and digital tools in creating innovative ways of storytelling around museum collections. It initiates and facilitates experiments and discussions, while attaching great value to collaboration, co-creation and evaluation. In this essay we approach the project itself as an experiment and evaluate: what lessons did we learn? Should museums have labs? And if so, what are the do’s and don’ts?

Authors: Dorien Theuns (Allard Pierson Museum), Caroline Verweij (Allard Pierson Museum), Bernadette Schrandt (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences), Robin van Westen (Waag Society), Wietske van den Heuvel (DEN Foundation).

First things first: why start a Digital Museum Lab in the first place? One of the main reasons to start the project, was an observation of what was happening around us. On the one hand, technologies and digital innovation are developing at high speed and, encouraged by funding opportunities for innovative projects, cultural institutes eagerly follow the latest trends. On the other hand, these technologies often leave the institutes with the same speed: once a project is over, there is no knowledge on how to reuse them. Without experiments and evaluation, their potential stays unexplored and no expertise is built up. What if you would create a place, to do the exact opposite: to take time and play? To carry out experiments, discuss results and create durable solutions? Hosting meetups around digital innovation in museums for some time already, the Allard Pierson Museum decided to approach a combination of partners with complementary expertise, and take it to the next level.

So how to get started? To facilitate tests with applications, try out installations with real museum objects and evaluate setups with visitors, we started by opening a permanent physical lab space in the museum. A flexible and open lab space was needed for social reasons as well: to make the museum staff aware of the project, host pilot projects of colleague museum professionals and invite guests into the lab during events. Aiming at a highly participatory project, collaborating in experiments, initiating discussions and sharing results with the field, we added a structure of regular public events inside and outside the lab. Themes include smart objects, augmented reality, beacons, sensor technology, and 3D models and environments. The growing cultural network is regularly invited to attend presentations with relevant speakers, hands-on workshops, or meet-ups to try out new technologies and digital tools. Meetups also include field-visits to external exhibitions and events, to discuss the relevance and potential of used technologies. In this way the lab stimulates creativity and experiment, as well as a critical perspective.

In the next sections we will evaluate the project itself by critically reviewing some of our methods and case studies, and conclude with a list of lab do’s and lab don’ts.

As mentioned in the introduction: museums are eager to create innovative exhibitions with engaging, interactive visitor experiences. Yet they often lack the expertise to create these themselves. In recent years many Dutch museums and science centres have closed their in-house workshops, favouring external exhibition designers and workers. This also solves the ‘fear of technology’ among many curators. Offering expertise in creative and technical design, and in the construction of (partly digital) exhibitions, these external parties often take over a large part of the concept development of public presentations. While usually paying substantial amounts for their services, museum professionals become more dependent on these agencies and lack the flexibility to change or update presentations themselves. Another problem occurs when museums look for ways to reinvent their permanent exhibition, which is more difficult to fund when they are dependent on commercial companies. In short: outsourcing concept development, digital strategizing and creating audience engagement (also known as: making an exhibition) does not only derive from less and less in-house technical and creative expertise; it reinforces this process too.

The good thing is however, that simultaneously a reverse process is taking place. Technologies that can be used to enhance audience engagement, such as digital fabrication, robotics and basic electronics, have become more readily available and affordable, and ‘maker spaces’ are making their way into museums. Do-It-Yourself (DIY) technologies enable non-experts to create interactives, ranging from simple prototypes to complex interactive exhibitions. Museum professionals thus have a chance to, once again, become makers themselves. A chance that we, as Digital Museum Lab, welcome and actively promote among museum professionals: becoming a maker is to take command.

So what is a maker? And what skills are needed? First of all, technical maker skills do not only involve skills around digital technologies, they involve practical skills in non-digital technologies too. Furthermore, to be in command as a maker demands know-how beyond technical maker skills: it means training in design thinking and concept development as well. To support the development of these different types of skills among museum professionals, Digital Museum Lab has piloted several structures. In our meetups and workshops we introduced different technologies, sometimes focused on getting hands on experience with how a technology works, sometimes with more focus design thinking, concept development or storytelling. The combination of the two appeared to be the most fruitful. In several pressure cooker events, participants were challenged to collaborate and use technology to create interactive storytelling experiences around museum objects. They were eager to try out new technologies and think of new conceptual approaches in a very short time. Experiencing how technological skills, creative ways of thinking, and collaboration brought them to new solutions in presenting and storytelling, made them see the purpose behind these skills. Technology became a means to an end: a tool to experiment and prototype creative ideas on visitor engagement, rather than figuring out the technical work for no direct purpose.

In the next section we will take our most challenging event, MuseumCamp, as a case study to reflect in more detail on how the maker approach worked out in practice. But before we do, there is one important lesson that we would like finish this section with: to be a maker is not about completely mastering a wide spectrum of technological skills and certainly not about using the newest technology. Some basic experience with both is enough to take command and communicate your ideas with technological experts. What makes a maker, is the maker-attitude: a feeling of confidence that you can use simple technological and digital tools to start a creative process, create simple prototypes, and work towards innovative solutions for your museum challenge.

So what happens when you put the maker approach into practice? As Digital Museum Lab advocates learning by doing, we should look at our most challenging event when talking about our lessons learned. This was without doubt MuseumCamp, which took place in the summer of 2016 and turned the entire museum into a lab.

Originally a concept from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, we decided to organise the first MuseumCamp in the Netherlands. In just a weekend, an international group of some 80 participants were challenged to create an entire exhibition, fully interactive. Participants had various cultural and professional backgrounds, which generated an exciting mix of perspectives and experience. Curators from the Allard Pierson Museum and Special Collections (UvA) selected eighteen objects from their collections. They were eager to tell stories about these objects, but had a hard time thinking of an engaging way to do so. Participants were divided in groups of five, according to their complementary expertise. Each group selected one object as their main focus and kept their case study in mind during several rounds of workshops around storytelling and technologies. A mobile FabLab offered (help with) a wide range of technologies, a MeSch team offered several of their interactive technology toolkits and there were many other ready-to-use maker kits like Makey Makey. Floor managers were running up and down the hallways to fetch materials for the participants, who were not only using digital tools, but also drilled, hammered, sewed and painted. Workshops and presentations, combined with the ability to experiment with technology and maker tools, enabled participants to experience the potential of doing, instead of (over)thinking. Guided by professionals, they collaborated to find innovative solutions for presenting their case studies. They were thrilled to experiment in an actual museum, with real objects and actual showcases, and were all proud to present their working prototypes in a real exhibition after just three days.

“MuseumCamp is intense, every curator should at least once in their career participate! The good vibe and the pressure cooker model made the participants forget about food or breaks altogether, remembering only when they were literally taken away from their work by the coaches. Three days of a can-do mind-set instead of dreadful meetings and sluggish bureaucracy was a relief! No nagging about visitor numbers, but innovation. Creative solutions like these only arise when passionate people get some space for experiment. It was a wonderful experience.” – Bart Grob, curator Museum Boerhaave

As this quote reveals, we definitely succeeded in creating a maker-attitude among the participants. The weekend was an explosion of energy, enthusiasm, creativity and innovation. But as successful as it was for the museum professionals who participated, it was as confusing and disrupting for those who didn’t – and happened to work in the Allard Pierson Museum. Returning to the museum after the weekend, they had expected to find a new exhibition. One of the kind that they were used to. Instead, they felt as if they walked into the workspace of an artist. Part of the participants’ interactive installations wasn’t working anymore, as their laptops or other technical devices had been integrated. Tables and other furnishings of the museum were integrated too, and hadn’t returned to their regular job in the museum yet. The museum was used in a very un-museum like way and while this move away from tradition was exactly what the participants had appreciated, the staff that hadn’t been part of the event, were less enthusiastic.

The biggest lesson learnt for us, was that the event wasn’t actually just a two-day event. It was something which had started way before the actual event and continues up until now: a shift in the professional culture of the museum. But while the shift – the enthusiasm for the maker approach and the logic behind it – had taken time to grow in the minds of the organising staff members, it was simply forced upon others when they returned from their weekend. We learned that an event like this can only successfully take place when the entire museum is involved. And when they know what to expect. The latter is something that should be paid attention to regarding the participants as well – let alone the visitors, who sometimes looked like they were lost in Alice’s Wonderland. Museum staff, participants and visitors: they should all be informed that the Camp is about the process of creating, not about the final result. However, for every challenge is a MuseumCamp solution and in this case, it took shape in the form of guided tours by participants. And through these guided tours, other museums in Holland got interested in the MuseumCamp concept as well.

Having your entire museum turned into a lab might not be the state you prefer your museum to be in permanently, but a small permanent lab space in the Allard Pierson Museum did prove to be very practical. It allowed us to experiment with evaluative design methods. In our view evaluation is not an end point, but an essential activity during the development process. Evaluation methods can be used to capture a first glimpse of the visitors’ reactions, but also to connect to your visitors and let them be a part of the experience you are developing for them. It allows you to test the mechanics of your exhibition design and see if it actually works the way you want it to. What types of experiments work best for a small museum lab and what type of feedback are visitors willing to share? Two examples are summarized below.

1. Responsive Showcase
We tested a new installation called ‘The Responsive Showcase’. This was an explorative showcase that offered visitors a choice of content through a tangible interface. The aim of our pilot was to design an intuitive user interface and the goal of this installation was twofold. Firstly, it was meant as a useful tool for visitors to easily navigate through the different stories that belonged to an object, and secondly, it was also designed as a working tool for the museum staff, so that they could alter the content throughout the year and update the stories during, for example, relevant holidays or news.
For more information, see:

2. Digital Timeline
For another upcoming exhibit, we were looking for ways to clearly explain the concept of how archaeological objects from different time periods are connected to one another. Together with a design agency, we developed a ‘Digital Timeline’ installation, where visitors could serve this digital timeline via an iPad. As this was quite a complex topic, we decided it was best to include visitor’s feedback over a longer period of time to better understand their needs when developing this installation. Again, we used the lab to learn more about our visitors’ behaviour. For more information, see:

During our tests, we found that visitors initially did not feel comfortable testing the prototypes: they weren’t sure if they were allowed to touch the installations or felt unsure about what was expected of them. The best way to include visitors was to actually ask for their participation and explore the installation together. We felt that including visitors in this process empowered them: they had a say in what or how objects would be presented later on. One lesson learned is therefore to design more inclusive spaces so that visitors feel comfortable testing the prototypes without the presence of the museum staff. Another lesson was that although new technological interfaces let visitors explore museum objects in more depth, these do not necessarily lead to meaningful interaction. Hoping for a more in-depth experience, visitors were often distracted by the technology itself. A research project by one of the Digital Museum Lab partners, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, looked into visitors’ experiences of digital media in various Dutch museums. It adds that, although visitors are generally intrigued by technology, meaningful interaction mainly takes place when visitors are invited to reflect upon their experience. Of equal importance, it concluded, are a clear explanation or starting point, simple interactions, accessible context, exciting stories, and contact with other visitors. Our lab visitors confirmed especially the first three elements.

Setting up a lab to evaluate new concepts and technologies while designing (elements of) an exhibition has proven to be very useful for the museum. And, in line with the participatory approach of Digital Museum Lab, it sets a first step towards turning visitors into co-curators.

As mentioned, a very important aspect of Digital Museum Lab is its participatory and collaborative approach. While MuseumCamp was all about co-creation between museum professionals, the lab evaluations set a first step towards co-curation with visitors. The very combination of partners in the project is in fact essential to the collaborative aspect, as the potential of the lab started with their complementary fields of expertise (the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in research, the Waag Society in the creative industry, the DEN foundation with their bird’s-eye view and heritage network and the Allard Pierson Museum as a heritage institute). Important as it is to the Digital Museum Lab project, the collaborative aspect is worth evaluating as well.

Co-Lab 1: (Interdisciplinary) Field-visits with Meetup participants
Meetups are the Digital Museum Lab’s most common events, digitally organised through the well-known online Meetup platform (look for ‘Digital Museum Network’). Meeting up with museum professionals can not be considered ‘collaboration’, but it certainly stimulates both valuable discussions and future collaboration opportunities. Among various meetup activities were field-visits to see and discuss how technology and digital tools were implemented in other institutes. One such technology was VR. As the first VR cinema in Holland had just opened, we grabbed the opportunity to explore the technology there. Experiencing a VR film of the National Ballet (Night Fall) and learning about the technique from several experts, the visit provided us with an important insight: VR is not just a virtual version of the analogue world. You really need to rethink your exhibition design to create a meaningful experience for the visitor. This made us all the more curious about how the technique could be used in museum context and we decided to organise a follow-up meetup to experience VR in the Waterlinie Museum. This visit triggered different discussions: does it matter where the VR experience is placed in the exhibition (i.e. in relation to other interactives)? How do you handle large groups and crowds? How can you balance the visitor’s attention for the story and the content, with their excitement over the technique? The VR cinema was valuable as we learnt from pioneers (especially how not to make the same mistakes) and as it got us in touch with possible partners for future projects. The Museum visit was relevant in different ways. Exploring a technique through a combination of an interdisciplinary field-visit with a museum visit thus proved to much more valuable than sticking to one experience.

Co-Lab 2: Students and PhD candidates
Besides working with future technologies, we also collaborated with future professionals: students with a background in (technical) design, (history of) arts, museum studies, etc. Students created innovative prototypes around objects in the Allard Pierson Museum, performed tests in the lab, and presented their projects during meetups. Several PhD candidates performed more extensive tests and pilots, adapting their research according to the intermediate results and evaluation. The value of this collaboration was very much twofold. On the one hand it gave the students and PhD candidates the opportunity to actually conduct research and experiments inside a museum – with real objects and visitor’s responses – and to connect with and learn from experienced museum professionals. On the other hand it gave these museum professionals a chance to get new insights from the students, who provide a fresh perspective on existing museum practices. It happened more than once, so much so that the museum staff were amazed and greatly impressed by the perspective and work of students. This very much helped in creating enthusiasm for new approaches, and building up trust among museum colleagues in new techniques worth being explored.

Co-Lab 3: Testing and sharing with the field
Finally, we performed some pilots in the lab in collaboration with heritage and museum colleagues. One of these was a pilot with the MeSch toolkit, a set of simple technological tools designed to enable museum professionals to create interactive exhibitions. It includes tools like NFC-tags and readers, proximity sensors, an io-box and small beamers. On the software side it provides an accessible interface to create interactive set-ups, easy to adjust in form and content, and reusable by colleagues through an open online platform. In a three-day pilot we conducted tests in the lab and prepared a hands-on workshop for colleagues from within and outside the Allard Pierson Museum. As the software and tools are accessible in use, participants were convinced that using the kit would be very useful in two ways. First, to bring the maker-attitude to their museum and prototype ideas for interactive presentations. Second, to get hands-on experience with different technologies and be able to have informed discussions when collaborating with external designers. Their enthusiasm resulted in the wish to collaborate in using and spreading the MeSch technology. This continuation of the use of the technology was part of the aim of the pilot: the MeSch kit was the result of an earlier research project and it would be another waste of technological development, not to aim for a durable integration into museum practice.

So, what’s the verdict? Should museums and other cultural institutes have labs? We say yes, they definitely should. A lab is the starting point of a professional museum culture that is based on innovation through experiment and creative thinking. A physical lab facilitates collaboration and co-creation, and represents your museum culture to the museum staff and visitors.

Advocating learning by doing, failing and trying again, we’ve learnt quite a few lessons from our ‘lab experiment’ so far. Having taken a critical look at our methods and case studies, we would like to finish this essay with a list of lab-do’s and lab-don’ts.

1. Don’t: focus on your target group only, when organising an event. Do: involve everyone from the start: the museum staff, the participants and the visitors. Communicate clearly about the ambition with the larger organisation.
2. Don’t: seek inspiration and collaboration in your own network and discipline only. Do: enter unknown terrain, create interdisciplinary collaborations and find (lab) partners from complementary fields of expertise. Work as a team with shared goals and ambitions.
3. Don’t: think that professionals can be senior people only. Do: collaborate with students and PhD candidates.
4. Don’t: regard evaluation as something for afterwards. Do: experiment and integrate evaluation in your design process.
5. Don’t: see innovation as something that comes from the newest technology or the fanciest design studios. Do: see it as something that comes from your staff and a change in the professional culture of your institute. Give your staff the opportunity to experiment with technology, to explore how they want to tell their stories and to be in command when collaborating with external agencies.
6. Don’t: think that experiments (in making) should be quick and without guiding. Do: take time and ask for support. You need people who can help you when you are stuck and you also need enough time to fail, get stuck, figure out a solution and continue.
7. Don’t: expect visitors to understand if, how, and when they are invited to respond to your test case. Do: invite them explicitly, be clear about what they can expect, how they can respond to your setup and what you will use their feedback for.
8. Don’t: think that sharing results or technologies is giving away resources and knowledge. Do: share and learn from each other. This makes the whole professional community stronger.
9. Don’t: focus on the end product of an experiment. Do: focus on the process and guide the process: trying out a first idea – prototyping – testing your prototype with an audience – designing improvements. This way, expertise about creating museum experiences makes a valuable connection to new knowledge about technologies. O and do: finish a prototype that works and perhaps even looks pretty.
10. Don’t: think that opening a lab means to simply find a space, acquire the necessary technologies and allow it to be used for experiment. Do: think of the lab as an experiment itself and prepare it well. Define a clear goal on where you want your Lab to lead to: more expertise, improved internal skills, a more innovative image, learning with and from your peers.

Forget fear, learn by doing, find innovation in your own creativity and collaborate. We have learnt a lot and will certainly continue to experiment and keep learning!

Dorien Theuns (Allard Pierson Museum), Caroline Verweij (Allard Pierson Museum), Bernadette Schrandt (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences), Robin van Westen (Waag Society), Wietske van den Heuvel (DEN Foundation).

Published: 03 January 2018

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