University of Salford Manchester

Bringing new voices to the interpretation of museum collections

Dr Gaynor Bagnall, Professor Ben Light Dr Garry Crawford and Dr Victoria Gosling have developed research focused on developing new systems to enable the interpretation, discussion, collection and sharing of cultural experiences with, and between, museum visitors:

  • Understanding the factors which engage more diverse audiences with museums and galleries by;
  • Supporting mechanisms for visitors to develop personal and cultural memories and biographies, and to practice forms of reminiscence through using social media technologies

Enhancing the capacity of museums to facilitate social interpretation, increasing audience engagement and reach, and developing models for re-balancing the audience/authority relationship.

Engaging more people with museum collections

One way of engaging more diverse groups with museums and galleries is to bring the arts into people’s everyday lives, public spaces, local communities, and find new ways to develop a greater sense of public ownership of the arts; to make the arts more relevant to their lives. This case study is based on research which was funded as part of the pilot for the Digital R & D fund for arts and culture. One of 8 funded projects from 493 applications this project addresses the need to engage more people in arts attendance, particularly where social status may militate against this by;

  • Producing data about engagement by diverse audiences with museums and galleries of value to other arts and cultural organisations in diversifying attendance, and;
  • Developing innovative and ground-breaking R & D partnerships between arts and cultural organisations, technology providers and researchers around widening participation.

By drawing on social media models that encourage participation, the IWM’s aim was to engage diverse audiences and to extend its reach into their everyday lives. The intention was to make collections more relevant, accessible and democratic, helping more diverse groups feel more engaged and offering a greater sense of ownership, connection and participation.

  • The research was undertaken at both IWM London and IWM North, before and after the installation of the SI technology. Gaynor and colleagues employed a range of research methods, including interviews, focus groups, a visitor survey, in gallery observation, and textual and interface analysis. Quantitative and qualitative data was collected and analysed at both sites. Using a mixed method approach enabled visitors’ stated views and preferences to be captured, but also allowed the opportunity to observe and gain insight into actual audience behaviour.
  • There were a total of 20,130 visitor contributions to or social interactions with the chosen objects. Of these 12313 were in IWM London (April-November 2012) and 7817 in IWM North (July-November). A further 373 comments were made on the website, supporting the IWM in developing a new system to enable the interpretation, discussion, collection and sharing of cultural experiences with, and between, museum visitors. 
  • Analysis indicated that the technology was encouraging users to feel more connected with the museum motivated by a desire to share one’s personal experiences or knowledge with other visitors. Social interpretation formed a significant proportion of this interaction (43 per cent), complementing rather than replacing the other types of social interaction taking place around the exhibits. The SI kiosks facilitated sharing and interpretation, and augmented museum experiences, for many of those who used them.
  • Working with technology, cultural and artistic organisations was beneficial as it enabled the testing and application of ideas and theories, as well as providing new inspiration and direction for further research and collaborations. Through such collaborations, research propositions and models were tested in real world, ‘living lab’, scenarios, which have enabled the development of new ideas; built on real world practice and needs, in the form of ‘grounded theory’. In particular, limitations of many previous studies are their specific focus either on, audiences or technology; rarely linking or understanding both. This project facilitated a multidisciplinary approach, which understands technology, technological and cultural providers, and users in a way that was beneficial to industry.
  • Insights from the research both in terms of findings, and in relation to the practices and process of this innovative collaborative research project fed into, shaped, and led to the scaled up fund of £7million which Nesta, the Arts Council England, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council have made available for projects from  2012-2014/5. Bagnall (PI) & Crawford secured further funding in June 2013 from this call to work on The Culture Experiences Project in partnership with CultureLabel.com, Cambridge Judge Business School, Fusion Research + Analytics, Design Museum, Barbican Centre, ENO, Whitechapel Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery. The project will identify then leverage common, untapped cultural assets across the group of partner organisations, such as exhibitions, curatorial expertise, education programmes and events, which will be developed to engage new consumer segments including gift, corporate and tourist markets.
  • Learning from the project was also used in the development of The Digital Research and Development Fund for Arts and Culture, Scotland, a partnership between Creative Scotland, Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Nesta, (2012/13) and The Digital Research and Development Fund for the Arts in Wales a partnership between the Arts Council of Wales, Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Nesta (2013/14)