Education and digital practices at the museum

What we learnt at Communicating the Museum this year

Last week, Wezitcamp attended the Communicating the Museum (CTM) conference in Paris. This edition focused on the power of education and was filled with thought-provoking and inspiring talks. It would be impossible to dissect them all so we chose to focus on what CTM taught us about digital practices for education within museums.

Communicating the Museum
David Sander at Communicating the Museum

Design experiences with emotions

In his opening speech to the conference – The Emotional Brain and Learning David Sander highlighted the influence of our emotions on our learning processes. He explained that our emotions affect all the cognition skills related to learning: perception, attention, memory, and decision-making. He illustrated this argument by a simple question: what were you doing on September 11th?

Although we have no trouble remembering what we were doing on this specific emotionally-charged day, it is much harder – if not impossible – to state with precision how we spent the previous or the following day. What does this have to do with digital practices? When designing digital experiences with an educational component, museums (and digital agencies) should consider if and how they can elicit an emotion within their audience. This implies making all the possible efforts to really know our audience, which brings us to our second point.

Be relevant …and appealing

“Know your people” was the first key learning Sharna Jackson shared during her workshop Doing it for the kids – digital content. To elicit emotions, we must know what our audience’s motivations are, where they come from, what they do, what they watch, how they express themselves and so on. To create compelling experiences, we must research their everyday practices. Still in his opening talk, Sander explained that to appear interesting to us, an object – a painting at the museum for instance – should be novel and complex but understandable at the same time. This echoes with Jackson’s advice to her workshop participants: “always design an age above”. She explained that kids don’t like to engage in activities that position them as “kids”. If on the contrary they are invited to take part in an activity just above their level, they feel like they are being included by older kids, or even by grown-ups.


Communicating the Museum
Materials from Sharna Jackson’s workshop


Achieving balance between relevance and appeal is a tough exercise. In his talk, Taking art out of the frame and into our lives, Erlend Hoyersten alluded to this as he claimed that “many university museums are under a lot of stress because they are not appealing although they have integrity.” When coming up with new digital experiences, it seems that mixing an appealing and familiar design interface with relevant content that rings true to your museum’s mission is the key. To this point, Pascal Hufschmid (Diplomacy and art matter) claimed that “museums are not places, they are points of view”; so make sure your point of view is reflected into all the layers of your digital tools.

Make museums fun

“If all schools should be art schools, museums should be like a playground” claimed Will Gompertz during his talk. There are certainly ways in which digital tools can help museums achieve this goal. Having fun sparks off emotions which, as we have seen, is a good first point when it comes to learning; but having fun also often involves moving around, which is another excellent thing for our brains. As several researchers have found, kids and adults tend to retain information better if they are allowed to move around. With this in mind, and with a will to develop experiences for “active participants, not passive receiver,” the ARoS museum (Erlend Hoyersten) partnered with Local Projects (Elvira Barriga) to develop a “mental fitness” center within the museum. In this space, visitors hop from one interactive installation to the next, making use of their whole body to play around works of the museum’s collection.


No need to reinvent the wheel

Yes, creating educational digital experiences and fun games is expensive. And no, you don’t need to build everything from scratch. As a matter of fact, you probably shouldn’t. That’s another invaluable tip from Sharna Jackson. For instance, when designing experiences for younger crowds, it is essential to form partnerships with existing structures that can give you a hand. Similarly, don’t create your own communities or platforms, go into existing ones such as Pop Jam, Pinterest or Youtube Kids. For games, Jackson also advised participants to resort to game-making platforms such as Minecraft and Roblox. On this point, you may want to read about Barry Joseph’s experiments with Minecraft for the museum.

The rise of a post-digital era

“Our partnership with Local project is not solely digital. We are in a post-digital society where people want to start learning with their hands again,” said Elend Hoyersten. The idea of a post-digital era is already establishing itself in various domains, including the cultural sector. This does not mean that all tour apps and tactile screens are bound to disappear, it just means that we should consider integrating a mix of digital and “real-life” activities when designing educational experiences. In her talk about the Wall Drawings exhibition at MacLyon, Muriel Jaby explained how her team took the usual Instagram behind-the-scenes campaign to a real-life public program. Inviting people to visit the exhibition as it was being mounted, the museum allowed them to see the street artists at work and to discover all the preparation and expertise that goes into creating an exhibition.

Think beyond the walls of your museum

In their talk Mobile Educational Gaming, Roei Amit and Sophie Radix from the Grand Palais pointed out that people didn’t need to be at the museum to access and play the games on the museum’s app. This is a crucial move towards transmedia experiences but also something that museums wishing to reach out beyond the confines of their own institutions should consider. To achieve its missions, does the museum necessarily need its visitors to walk through its doors? Amit and Radix also mentioned the creation of several free MOOCS in art history. The last one was followed by over 21,000 people. The Van Gogh Museum also created educational material for schools that can be accessed outside the museum via their “Van Gogh at primary schools” platform. Last but not least, Fekla Tolstoy presented the Anna Karenina marathon that was launched by the Tolstoy museum. This non-stop 36 hours online broadcast was livestreamed from 30 sites around the world, and involved 726 readers. It reached over 40% of the population in Russia and proved that even non-art museums have the potential to create compelling educational experiences using new technologies. Thinking beyond the walls of the museum is an urgent move to be made and it happens to be Communicating the Museum’s focus for their next conference taking place in LA this November. See you then !

Could pairing VR and storytelling help us keep collective memories alive?

How new technologies make us engaged witnesses of past and present conflicts

As a powerful tool for accurately recreating places and environments, virtual reality appears as a weapon of choice for historical exploration. In his talk at the last Museums and the Web conference, Michael Haley Goldman (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) showed how such new technologies could help retain and disseminate personal stories that are crucial to what is often termed “duty of remembrance” in Europe. In this article, we look at a few projects that successfully blended VR and storytelling to address narratives of past and present conflicts.


Stories from the past

“It really is about space, presence and first person narrative,” Michael Haley Goldman declared during the Museums and the Web conference as he reflected on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum use of VR technology. He mentions the “explosion” of VR experience on concentration camps. For instance, at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Germany, scientists from the  Synthetic Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems (SPECS) group at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona developed an augmented reality app recreating the fully-destroyed camp.

Although these new technologies prove extremely useful in capturing the attention of younger audiences, it seems that personal testimonies are much more powerful when it comes to transmitting knowledge and awareness regarding those conflicts. But what happens when all the people who have lived through those direful events are gone? In his talk, Goldman mentions the extensive efforts made to capture the testimonies of the last holocaust survivors. Several projects around the world have used hologram-like technologies to create immersive and interactive educational experiences based on survivors’ testimonies. For the Forever Project in the UK, ten of them were interviewed.

They answered over a thousand questions while being recorded with a 3D laser image technology. Those recordings were then projected within the museum. Visitors could ask questions to the image and thanks to an ingenious algorithm, the machine selected the most appropriate answer among the 1400 recorded, thus creating a dialogue-like interaction between visitors and survivors. The Forever Project followed shortly after the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie’s “New Dimensions in Testimony”. In this project,  a hologram-like representation of survivor Pinchas Gutter answered students’ questions within the setting of their classroom.

Those examples show that the use of VR technologies can be an excellent way to keep collective memory alive. It does come with a few challenges though. As Goldman pointed out during his presentation, such experiences raise a few questions in terms of user interface: how do you speak to a hologram? And then, in a few decades when these technologies will have become obsolete, how will we be able to preserve those testimonies?


Stories from the present

War and conflicts are not solely contained in the past. The numerous conflicts and population displacements happening today also call for documentation, conversation and representation. In his talk, Goldman cited a recent installation by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which allowed visitors to have a live conversation with Syrian refugees as part of the “Genocide: The Threat Continues” exhibition. Conversation is also at the root of the interactive VR experience “The Enemy” on show at the Institut du Monde Arabe until June 7th.

This multi-users VR installation takes participants into a 300-square meter virtual perimeter where they meet six different soldiers from three different conflicts: gang wars in Salvador, the Israeli-Palestinian and the DR Congo conflicts. There is no live interaction here, but the filmed sequences change according to the visitors’ information, and to their physical reaction during the experience. Last but not least, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – which we mentioned in our previous article – realized a VR storytelling experience for the Empowering Women exhibition in August 2016. The experience called Weaving a Better Future VR, collected stories from Maya women of Guatemala. They shared their experiences as victims of human rights violation, activists fighting for social justice, mothers and weavers.

Empathy helps us understand and retain information, but as Goldman pointed out during his talk, using empathy to teach traumatic subjects can be problematic. On the matter, he cites the work of Liora Gubkin and invites us to move from “empathetic understanding” to “engaged witnessing”. In an immersive experience, the way we tell stories and the amount of visual information we offer to the viewer are crucial. An experiment around the VR documentary Taro’s World, showed that “when the audience has limited visual information they will work twice as hard to make meaning out of every detail they see”. When dealing with themes of war, conflict and traumatic events, how much should we show? There is a risk of creating sensational or even voyeuristic experiences that move away from the educational and social goals of our cultural institutions. Once again, when it comes to VR experiences at the museum it seems that technology must not be an end in itself, but another tool to help institutions achieve their mission.