Post-web technology: what comes next for museums?

From virtual reality to wearables, museums are trying to bridge the gap between digital and physical – without breaking the bank

Danny Birchall and Mia Ridge. Guardian Professional. 3/10/2014

For those working with technology in museums today, the catch-all “digital” has largely replaced “online” and even “web” as a description of what we do. From wearables to virtual reality, a plethora of new technology is emerging that challenges the primacy of the screen at the heart of digital experiences. At this year’s annual Museums Computer Group conference, Museums Beyond the Web, we’re asking: what comes after the web for museums?

Museums are scattered with the remnants of past technologies. Audiences may be unaware of the ethernet ports lurking behind a kiosk, but display screens that don’t respond to their touch often baffle younger visitors. These legacies remind us of the inescapable fact that technologies and audience expectations move fast while museums move slow. While the people walking through the galleries can update their phones on a whim, museums have to live with their decisions for a long time.

Many of us cut our teeth on the web, tentatively carving out a new discipline, with a shorter pedigree than marketing or press but a seemingly infinite potential. Along the way we learned useful lessons: the value of finding out more about our audiences and the perils of locking-in. Working on the web showed us the power of open access data and open source software, user-centred design and conversations over social media. How can we hang on to some of those great principles while staying open to all the possibilities that post-web technology offers? How should we work with our peers outside the sector to help our organisations see past buzzwords and spot lasting changes in audience expectations?

Most museums have taken the plunge into mobile provision, implementing responsive design and developing customised mobile apps. But apps are expensive to develop, increasingly expensive to market and often begin and end at the museum’s front door.

Buxton Museum has sidestepped apps with a series of lightweight low-budget mobile tours that use WordPress and GPS technology to deliver rich experiences on a limited budget. Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum faced a different problem: its mobile-based Moor Stories picked up the challenge of taking the museum’s collection onto Dartmoor, where a mobile signal is frequently weak or non-existent.

Beyond mobile lies the rapidly evolving territory of wearable technology. Museums might have their reservations about the social and privacy implications of Google Glass, but the reality is that the coming generations of museum-goers are going to bring with them some kind of intimate personal technology. Should we be making use of these to provide personalised layers of interpretation about objects, or is the way open to create entirely new kinds of museum experience? Either way, user-focused research, of the kind currently happening at the MIT Museum and elsewhere, will help us discover and create new ways of exploring the museum.

As augmented reality brings more data to gallery-goers, next generation virtual reality (VR) headsets, such as Oculus Rift, offer the opportunity to bring virtual galleries into the home, or to recreate archaeological landscapes for exploration in new and unexpected ways.

If layers of virtual reality start to feel like they’re making the museum visit less tangible, then the EU-funded meSch project is putting physical interaction back at the heart of cultural heritage experiences. By embedding digital content in smart objects, curators, artists and designers can create new experiences in museums that bridge the gap between abundant digital information and fragile physical objects.

How can small institutions hope to deliver on the promise of these new developments without breaking the bank? Not by betting a year’s digital budget on a single high-profile project but by experimenting and co-opting users into the design process. The Collaborative Arts Triple Helix (CATH) project, for example, brings together academics, technology firms and small cultural organisations to fund the creation of innovative digital prototypes to tackle a variety of issues, from visitor flow to 3D printing replicas of archaeological objects.

Through projects like these, what we used to think of as a “digital” mindset is starting to become widespread in some cultural heritage organisations. The ethos of user-centred design and rapid iteration associated with digital projects is crossing from the digital realm into the physical environment.

We might end up asking not whether we’ve moved beyond the web, but whether the web has moved us all on.

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