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 !