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Interpreting Collections: Telling Stories about Objects

Richard Williams argues that in any discussion of museums and their future development it is worthwhile reminding ourselves at the outset just what museums are and what they are for. Much of any such definition will focus on the acquisition and conservation of a collection. However, what is important for our purposes is how museums research those collections, and then consequently how they display and interpret them for visitors, as both aspects are undeniably interwoven.

Regardless of any future changes in display philosophy, or interpretative methods this remains the fundamental role for museums. While there is general acceptance that ‘placing it on display’ may now include an online version of the object and visiting the collection may be through the web, nonetheless it is the collections which remain at the heart of any museum’s activity or existence. Museums are about objects and the visitor experience is about their opportunity to engage with that object, understand why it is on display and to create their own meanings in response. It follows therefore that any interpretation, or any technology being incorporated within the museum, should facilitate that primary relationship between institution and visitor.

It is this question of how to facilitate that relationship between collection and visitor that should form the core of any discussion of digital technology in museums. The aim for any museum should be to communicate as effectively as possible with their visitors, reflecting their audience profile and taking into consideration their learning styles and approaches. Any methodology for that interpretation should be judged on how effectively it facilitates that communication between visitor and museum and between visitors themselves. Digital technology becomes another weapon in the armoury. However, the initial question should always be; what is the best way to communicate to the audience? In some instances (but not all) digital technology will be the answer. The question should never be; how can museums be more digital or how can technology help? This may seem an obvious point but all too often it seems this has been lost sight of when digital technology or new social web or open web technologies are discussed within the museum world.

The Riverside Museum
The Riverside Museum in Glasgow opened in 2011 in a new purpose-built building designed by Zaha Hadid. It is Scotland’s new museum of transport and travel, replacing the existing and extremely popular Museum of Transport. The collections have been re-housed in improved conservation and environmental conditions, and our visitors enjoy better facilities and improved access to the objects. Perhaps most importantly, the new displays have been an opportunity to develop our methods of interpretation for our collections. In doing so, the Project Team for the Riverside Museum have built upon the successes of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, which reopened to the public in 2006.

In this extremely popular and successful redisplay, Glasgow Museums moved away from the more traditional chronological or taxonomic displays where pre-defined narratives as specified by the curator are already in place and the objects selected to go on display are fitted around that narrative. Instead, Kelvingrove adopted a display philosophy of ‘storytelling’ and it is this approach which has been continued at Riverside. Through the concept of developing ‘stories’, the selection of new displays is based solely on two criteria: the significance and strengths of the collections and audience interest.

Planning the displays started with research of the objects themselves and the stories they can tell, rather than allowing a chronological or taxonomic determinant to dictate how an object will be displayed. This meant that each of the individual displays, both within the museum as a whole and critically, within a traditionally recognised taxonomic collection itself, were developed and were self-contained, focused on the object’s real significance and were relevant to the museum’s target audiences. Once a story had been agreed, a key message was established for the story which defined what a visitor should pick up from the display in order to understand the story. Finally, a target audience was defined for it which helped to formulate how best to develop the interpretation for the story display.

For each story display, an assessment was made as to the most effective method of delivering the key message. This decision was based on the available historical material we had to tell the story, the appropriateness of delivery for the chosen target audience and the story we are seeking to tell. Sometimes this has resulted in a wholly text and graphics approach, while for other stories it means a film, an audio commentary, or a digital interactive. The result is that about 50% of our displays feature digital interpretation as the ‘main’ method for delivering the content.

This is a markedly higher proportion of technology than a museum normally would employ in interpreting its permanent collections. But this does not mean a move away from the primacy of the object within the displays. The decision of how to interpret the objects, whether through a text label or a touchscreen, was taken on how best to deliver the story and to encourage the visitor to look more closely at the objects on display and gain a better understanding of them. This does not mean that all interpretation should be a mere description of the object, but instead it should focus on an object’s significance, or the story behind it. To deliver such narratives, all forms of digital interpretation can be just as effective as the text panels and in some instances far more so.

At Riverside, we believe this is a demonstration of how digital technologies can be incorporated into museums. It is no longer the case that digital galleries are bespoke or specialised areas within the museum itself, a ‘kidspace’ or a hands-on gallery. Equally it should not be thought of technology as an online activity, where discussions about collections can take place removed from those collections. Instead, technology should take its place next to, within and around objects and should be there for the visitors visiting the museum delivering the core information about the displays themselves.

Technology in Interpretation
There are 150 story displays and ‘key attracts’ (which are major displays) in the new Riverside Museum. From this total number of displays, two thirds of them employ digital technology at some level. While there is a wide variety of digital interpretation and interactivity within the museum, ranging from storybooks for the under fives to large scale group games, there are two key styles it is worth discussing here. The first of these are interpretive films and the second are eIntro ‘node points’ for key displays within the museum.

It may seem strange to discuss films within a essay looking at digital technology and interaction within museums. Placing films within exhibitions has a long and undistinguished history. Usually ‘films’ placed on display are a monitor next to the main display, showing looped footage of content likely originally created for broadcast in another medium such as television. This is simply cut to size and shown unedited and largely unfiltered. Alternatively, footage on display may be excerpts from much longer oral history interviews, though consideration is rarely given to the fact that the original interview was not conducted with an exhibition in mind and the content is not edited accordingly. At Riverside we have sought to use film footage, both newly generated and sourced archive footage, as a dynamic medium through which to deliver our interpretation, often using it as the primary story-telling device rather than subordinate to the text panels as is usually the case.

Museums rarely use film as an interpretive medium. This has been a mistake. Film is one of the most effective, expressive and sophisticated means for communication in our modern world, and visitors already have an extensive set of interpretive skills in watching it. At Riverside Museum we have sought to build upon this set of communication tools in developing films through which to deliver our stories and their key messages. We have looked into the language of films, and how they deliver meaning, emotion and empathy. We have investigated documentaries, and sought to identify how they deliver explanations and meaning, often in subjects in which the complexity of the topic is just as entangled as in any museum display. We have seen how archive and created images and footage, oral histories, primary source material such as testimonies and official documents, music and pacing, and the narrative approach to the topic are employed to tell stories through the medium of film. The result in recent years has been a radical and dynamic storytelling style in film and television and it is worth noting that documentaries and history programmes in these media are often very popular with viewers and large ratings winners.

The changing digital world in which we live today has added further advantages to film. Technological developments in digital video cameras and mobile phones have pushed quality of both ends of the quality spectrum of film capture. At the high end, working with our film company for Riverside Museum we have looked at ways to create this high quality look in production as well as storyboard and editing. We have taken advantage of recent developments to shoot all our new filming with a two camera set-up; using as one of the cameras a Canon 7D SLR stills camera and shooting Hi-Def 1080p footage with it, creating a filmic look with a markedly shallow depth of field. This allows a focus to the objects we are interpreting and which are included in the filming, showing them in a context and in a detail not normally seen in museums.

Software such as Adobe Premiere and iMovie has put sophisticated editing tools in the hands of many people. Websites such as YouTube have created a new desire for people to film or rip, edit and publish their own content, and while much of this footage could find a home on a TV show such as ‘You’ve Been Framed!’ the same sites are also home to edited excerpts from classics of cinema and discussions on techniques and merits. It is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine that, following on from a history starting with pop videos and political broadcasts, through a revival in short films and documentaries at Film Festivals, that YouTube’s technical demands that limit each ‘film’ to around 9 minutes will soon see a change in the way films are created. The public are very used to seeing technical concepts expressed in film in short chunks. And this is what museums should be doing.

One further advantage of the digital, connected world is that there are many more sources of footage online. Major archives such as the BBC, Scottish Screen and ITN have digitised their holdings and have effective search engines attached to them providing access to a rich range of historical material for museums. Since the 1950s many people have begun to regularly film their own lives. Television programmes such as The Home Movie Show on BBC1 and Scotland on Film on BBC Scotland showed how people have been documenting their own lives, and this is a rich resource for museums to tap into. Transport enthusiasts have been documenting vehicles working and the environments in which they work. The Riverside Project Team have conducted extensive searches online and in the real world, looking at social sites and private archives, in our quest to express our stories in a visual medium. We expect to show over 5 hours of footage; archive, privately sourced and newly filmed footage and over 2,000 images in Riverside; a direct result of the new digital world in which museums now operate.

Any discussions involving digital technology in museums should include the use of film styles as a key form of delivering interpretation. The films should be sophisticated, expressing ideas and concepts through visual means, short, powerful and effective. They should be driven by good quality production, a good brief and a strong editorial line. There should be a clear sense of the concepts under discussion and an understanding of the target audience and how to speak to them in the most effective way using that medium. In short, to do all of the things museums do when they write the text for a museum display.

The drive to introduce digital technology where it will help to deliver interpretation and increase access for our target audiences in the new Riverside Museum has seen other developments with our core displays. As an integral part of the Museum we have developed the concept of eIntros, and each large object in the Museum, such as trams and locomotives, has an eIntro dedicated to it. These are large-scale 42” LCD touchscreens, and there are 37 of them within the new Museum. Each is placed in a portrait orientation echoing a traditional introductory graphical display panel in a museum.

These eIntros are not story based but instead offer an overview to the museum’s collections. While each of our large objects in the Museum have a number of stories grouped around them, looking at specific elements within the large object’s life, the eIntro is responsible with delivering an overview on the object itself. This context will include all of the technical information and working life details in one reference point, but also providing a wider context to the topics being discussed in the stories. The design and intellectual intent for the eIntros is for them to be separate and set apart from the remainder of the museum’s interpretation. This distinctness is achieved through their physical design and placement and also through their onscreen design which is markedly different than the rest of our onscreen content.

The curatorial intent for the eIntros is for them to act as a node point, focussing on overarching display themes within Riverside’s displays. Each eIntro pulls together a number of threads for each large object. An ‘In Focus’ section looks at the object itself, providing the resource for all technical and historical questions. A ‘Have You Considered?’ section provides an opportunity for the visitors to think about the object in a wider context. Finally, a ‘Find out More’ section highlights links between the object, its wider history and other links, within Riverside, within the wider Glasgow Museums’ collections, and finally out to the wider communities and collections.

The eIntros replace the traditional display panel for those parts of the Museum where they are used. However, the intent for all content within the eIntro is for it to be as visual and as non-text based as possible; Glasgow Museums’ understanding of how visitors on a museum visit conduct themselves and the amount of text they can read and understand within that visit remains as pertinent whether the text is on a traditional panel or on an LCD screen. The visual approach to the content allows us to include images, oral history testimonies and video footage culled from a wide number of sources, while simple animations and short textual descriptions provide further insight. This visual imperative forces us as a curatorial team to consider what we are saying to the visitor and how best to express it and has led us to realise that often far more can be conveyed about the object through visual means than by large amounts of text-based information. The large scale of the eIntros also allows the visitor to look closely at the objects themselves, exploring high resolution images of them with views offered and detail provided they cannot get with a normal view of the object.

But the screens offer us other opportunities beyond the traditional panel. Each eIntro can act as an active node in the network of knowledge about an object. All content within the eIntros can be updated, changed or added to as the appreciation and perception of an object changes over time. The eIntros will provide a physical and virtual thread across the Museum, linking parts of the collection physically placed apart and introducing ideas and conflicting opinions into the usual museum narratives on display. This will allow the Museum to highlight inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary links with the object featured in the eIntro across the rest of Riverside’s displays and across Glasgow Museums as a whole. By placing these eIntros right next to their objects, building the displays around them and allowing them to fulfil the role of introduction to the objects themselves we can ensure that these networked elements have a central role in the experiences of all visitors to the Museum.

A small temporary exhibition created at Glasgow’s Museum of Transport in 2008 allowed us to test some of our ideas about the eIntros. ‘Reel Lives’ was a collaboration with Scottish Screen and allowed digitised archive film content of some of our collections to be combined with the objects themselves and with Glasgow Museums’ image and oral history archives. The result was an exhibition at the Transport Museum, but also an online exhibition to which the public were able to add their thoughts and perspectives on the object; their experiences of it or thoughts on its wider history. This exhibition proved very successful. It was run by the Riverside Project team, and so time to work on it to encourage ongoing links was difficult. Nonetheless, in 4 months from opening 45 new contacts contributed their comments, added images or allowed their own film footage to be digitised and included.

Reel Lives has also confirmed for us the possibilities of creating a repository resource for visitors to add their comments and experiences. Glasgow’s Riverside Museum will cover many subjects in which Glasgow communities have a vested interest and much knowledge to impart, such as their roles and perspectives on the big industries of Glasgow, such as locomotive and shipbuilding, their experiences of travel and technology around Glasgow and the wider world and how these developing technologies have impacted upon their lives and their links to the rest of Scotland and the world. The collections can only be enhanced by their contributions, providing a deeper understanding and wider perspective on our material culture and its history and adding other voices to Glasgow Museums’ curatorial voice. The call for this contribution can be understood by our visitors when they see the role played by other contributors in interpreting our collections and by our physical placement of these contributions seamlessly within our displays. But there are other opportunities too; we have built our eIntros in HTML5, with the intention after Riverside’s opening of creating an online app of its core functions, allowing users to explore the existing content for an object and to provide a portal for capturing new contributors’ filmed perspectives and recollections.

Fundamental to the development of all of our new media provision is that the model Riverside Museum has developed reflects the needs of its core audiences for social and sensory experiences and is local to the collections themselves. We have integrated the technology by ensuring it replaces other, more traditional layers of content rather than adding to them. This means that for some story displays the film or interactive is the primary method for interpretation. Our key messages are the same, as is the level of research and the rigour of the discussions of how to express the content that precedes the creation of the onscreen content. It’s just that as a museum Riverside has moved away from relying so heavily on the written word printed on a display panel where we have found other forms deliver the narrative more effectively.

This level of interactivity also allows us to take advantage of other aspects that digital provision provides. There has been much research in recent years underlining the benefit of game-play as an educational tool, both for individuals and for groups playing together. Given our target audience profile, which is significantly based on families and schools, this provides an opportunity for us to develop interpretation based on other learning styles. The Museum has developed a series of group interactives, where up to four visitors can play against one another and against the computer.

This has allowed us to explore historical events, such as the clipper races with tea from China, in a dynamic and engaging way for the visitor. Our team has collected extensive oral history testimonies from the surviving protagonists themselves, while new ways have been found to utilise old resources such as archive paper sources. These and other resources have been used to populate the game and thus to interpret the physical objects on display in a more coherent and extensive way than would otherwise be possible. This is a significant step forward; often the material culture able to be displayed by a museum is restricted by our conservation requirements or the collecting policies of previous regimes. The Riverside team has found that using such networked digital content in an interactive display has allowed us to mitigate such problems.

With the creation of the new Riverside Museum we believe we have demonstrated a way in which technology and interactivity will help the Museum fulfil its core goals; communicating key message and narrative about our collections, and providing narrative and an engaging way to deliver the broadest context and range of ideas about them. As with any museum, there needs to be an understanding of what digital technologies are good at and ensuring they are employed to do that for the institution. This may seem a simplistic point, but if new media and online resources are being used to deliver text based content then it suggests people view the technology as opportunities to offer more access to the same words for the same audiences. It seems that often this is what the social web is reduced to for museums.

Many argue that the social web and the open web provide models and opportunities for museums in the future. However, the time required from a museum to deliver a good and interactive online service and to maintain it properly is daunting. Reel Lives required an active and continuing role for our curatorial staff, keeping it visible online, raising its profile, managing the comments and generating the interest. The small-scale blog, Facebook and twitter accounts the Project has run to keep people up to date with the developing project are time-consuming but we are at least aware of the specific museum, Glasgow residents and architectural students who will follow us without too much additional work on our part.

A recent survey of online habits among teenagers conducted by the BBC concluded that for C2DE groups, their online experience was through their mobile phones rather than a computer at home such as their more affluent peers enjoyed. For these teens, the web is a very small place; it is where they and their friends gather and they tend to be self-sufficient and to not look outwards to other resources when they are online. I’m sure I’m not alone in struggling to visit more than half a dozen or so websites in a day, making them part of my lifestyle. Museums have a difficult task ahead of them to persuade people to include a digital experience online which does not include a museum visit. It seems to me the old difficulties of attracting new audiences remain as sharply defined as ever and there are no easy digital solutions to them.

The digital resources placed within the Riverside Museum, and the research completed by the Project Team to create them does I believe highlight some of the issues required by a museum’s curatorial team in the future. The role of the curator will need to change. They will need to think more visually and consider more media when considering how to interpret their objects. The sheer extent of archive and visual resources online today and the opportunities to contact and include so many other perspectives on a topic means that research for a curator has already changed and for some they will have to move away from the comfort of words to interpret their collections. Museums in future will have to consider how they collect material to interpret their collections, including oral histories, images, films, and where they look for that material, in shared online networks which record people’s views and ideas in communities focussed on particular issues. Finding this content, reaching people where they are expressing their views and providing a forum and a portal for them within the museum in a way that underscores the importance of our collections is fundamental to creating a dynamic digital resource for the future.

Richard Williams – Digital Technologies Manager, Riverside Project, Glasgow Museums

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