How to ride the digital wave
LARS ULRICH TARP HANSEN, HEAD OF COMMUNICATION, KUNSTEN MUSEUM OF MODERN ART AALBORG
Cultural heritage institutions worldwide want to ride the digital wave, but keeping up with the rapid technological development can be daunting. A range of museums from the northern part of Denmark have joined forces to develop apps for smartphones, based on shared technical solutions and platforms. This collaboration has resulted in agile, low-cost production flows and a flexible, sustainable infrastructure.
Digital communication at KUNSTEN
In the early 2000s, KUNSTEN developed a range of education materials called “The Digital Image School” (Den digitale billedskole) which to this day remains among the most comprehensive material on basic image analysis available in Denmark. Part of the material consists of brief introductory texts about works in the museum’s collection; these texts can be used in a range of different digital products. The image school can be used without visiting the museum, and indeed it is used by teachers and students throughout Denmark. Having created this extensive material, our strategy was to then bring it into the exhibition space – without, however, cluttering up the space with a myriad of signs.
We did so in 2009 by placing touch screens within the physical museum setting. However, it turned out that our visitors’ interaction with these screens had a different focus from what we had intended. For in fact, most of the visitors found the actual act of clicking on the screens more interesting than using the screens to learn more about the art in the collections. This meant that the technology was not, as we had intended, a transparent layer that served to convey the deeper insights available underneath – rather, the users experienced the technology in itself. We believe that the reason for this behaviour resides in the fact that during museum visits, the vast majority of visitors need information about the artworks at the very moment they are actually standing in front of them. The touch screens were located at the peripheries of the exhibitions, meaning that the information they contained was available only after visitors had left behind the physical work of art – or before they had seen it. Visits to the MoMA in New York and other museums that offer audio guides and digital information stations confirm this pattern. Many visitors use the museum’s audio guides, but no-one sits down to immerse themselves in the information provided by the computers located along the edges of the exhibition areas.
Fundamentally, then, we wanted an audio guide, but at that point, the technology available would be too expensive for us, both in terms of the initial investment and day-to-day operation – and it would not allow us to facilitate personalised routes through the collections. The arrival and widespread popularity of the iPhone in Denmark brought new opportunities in its wake: Now, museums could, with little expenditure of time and money, develop small, simple web applications that could be used directly in front of the exhibits. Chris Alexander from the San Jose Museum of Art had made the code for his museum’s web app available to all – for free. This meant that KUNSTEN could create its own web app without having to hire someone with extensive technical expertise. However, adding new content was still very time-consuming, and the fact that only one person at the museum possessed the skills required to carry out the updates made the entire process rather exposed to bottleneck issues.
The lessons learned from the projects described above were that our visitors took a very positive view of the web app – and our front-end staff, too, were pleased to finally be able to supply what our visitors so often requested. However, the users would like to see more content. We produced audio clips using our own in-house equipment and were fortunate enough to receive highly positive responses from the curators and artists asked to record such clips. We saw that audience members were much more likely to access and use this information when standing in front of the artworks rather than via the touch screens. However, the technical solution underpinning all of this was not viable in the long term. Content on the website, on the information screens, and in the web app had to be updated manually – and separately for each of the three platforms. What is more, the cost of operating the website and information screens had risen to the point where we spent approximately 20% of our marketing budget on licenses and updates – and this figure does not include the time spent on maintaining the platforms.
Towards a viable structure
We wanted to utilise more of the potential inherent in smartphones and to develop an app that offered a better user experience. This move would also represent a break away from the museum’s existing digital infrastructure, which had become a drain on our resources in many ways. We wanted to be able to update all content in just one place from which all digital products drew their information, and the platform should also be based on open source technology in order to ensure flexibility in future development work.
However, we were not the only ones who wanted to develop such an app and such a system. KUNSTEN is part of the organisation KulturarvNord (“Cultural Heritage North”), which serves as a setting for strategic collaboration between 10 museums of art, history, and culture in the Northern region of Denmark. One of the objectives of our work is to develop and carry out joint communication, education, presentation, and networking projects. This makes KulturarvNord an obvious choice of forum for the work we had in mind, and the members duly proceeded to set up a pilot group comprising Vendsyssel Historical Museum & Archive, the Coastal Museum of Northern Jutland, Skagens Museum, and KUNSTEN. The four members represent different types of museums with different needs in terms of communication and information work. These ranged from conveying information in the physical museum setting to presenting links between exhibitions in the museum building and the local landscape, and conveying information while out in the open landscape. In this sense, the pilot group members represented the full spectrum of communication needs among all KulturarvNord members. The project organisation was deliberately kept small in order to ensure that the group could work swiftly and decisively without getting mired in red tape and chains of command.
CHAOS:\_ as platform
KulturarvNord got in touch with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, DR, which had developed the media handling system CHAOS:\_ based on open source technology.*1 The system is, among other things, used for DR’s digital archives of radio and television broadcasts, meaning that it can handle a range of different media formats. With its flexible structure, this system met our needs completely. And not only did DR have the technical platform we required; our dialogue with DR project manager Tobias Golodnoff and his staff revealed that we fundamentally agreed on essential values pertaining to the sharing of content and the sharing of technical systems. DR also had a specific incentive for taking part in the project: to explore how new products might be applied on top of CHAOS:\_ to activate archived materials. To act as KulturarvNord’s technical partner, DR hired the media company Redia to develop the applications, and DR adapted CHAOS:\_ to match the needs of KulturarvNord. This took care of the technical aspects of the project.
Efficient content production
When creating audio guides, the standard procedure is to first write scripts for each of the selected artworks or exhibits. These scripts are recorded by experienced speakers in a professional studio, and after some editing, the audio clips are ready for use. The entire process is time-consuming, but more importantly, it also entails a risk of alienating users; having a carefully written script read by a professional speaker may establish an unnecessary gap or sense of distance between audience and museum. What we wanted to do was to simulate a guided tour where you can feel the speaker’s professional passion for their subject. To achieve this we established a firm rule. The curators speaking were not allowed to write scripts; they had to speak on their subjects without reading out something that had been written beforehand. This dogmatic approach may seem radical, but essentially, it is no different from what happens on a conventional guided tour. We attached a radio journalist and a video journalist to the project. They took care of all production aspects and helped the curators convey their stories and messages in a precise and easy-to-understand fashion. The audio tracks and film footage were shot on location right by the artwork in question.
This greatly simplified the production process, paring it back so that only the curator’s professional insights, passion, and ability to communicate were left. The simple production methods had the added benefit of allowing us to generate a lot of content in little time. KUNSTEN produced around 70 audio guides in two months, including the editing process. The history museums produced video footage, for example in order to demonstrate the use of specific tools, and this required a little more time. Nevertheless, Vendsyssel Historical Museum, for example, managed to produce 40 video guides. This material was added to the museum’s existing materials, which had been made compatible with the app, to form the total content.
At the time of writing, the project is not yet finalised, but it has already yielded substantial results and benefits.
DR’s CHAOS:\_ system serves as the technical platform for the applications and other future products. CHAOS:\_ can access information from the Danish national registration system Regin, which means that it is only necessary to update master data in one place. A module for the Drupal CMS system has been developed, allowing content to be used on information screens and websites.
All members of KulturarvNord will have an app made for them for free. Members can choose from a range of different modules, including a timeline, a map function, the option of creating guided tours and themes, showing works on the list, playing audio and video content, etc. The various modules for the apps are made available as open source code, allowing other museums or developers to use them or continue work on them – on the strict understanding that whatever they develop will in turn be made available to everyone else. A joint app linking to the various members’ apps will help market the project.
A journalist has been put at disposal for all museums. In addition to helping with production work, the journalist will also help customise each museum app in co-operation with Redia.
The budget for the entire project, including the 11 apps and the journalist salaries, came to DKK 1.5 million (EUR 200,000). The funds were provided by the Danish Agency for Culture, the Regional Culture Agreement, Region Northern Jutland, and the EU.
How do you ride the digital wave?
Museums should not be vying with each other for the honour of being the best IT development company, creating the most spectacular digital projects. Rather, we should compete for the honour of being best at creating content for large audiences and sharing that content.
Build a sustainable infrastructure
Do not make new, separate platforms for individual products. Aim instead to create a platform from which all digital platforms can draw data. Digital content can be used in many places and will have a longer lifespan than individual apps and other digital products.
Analyse audience needs
Our audiences wanted an audio guide – so we gave them an audio guide which at the same time enables them to watch images, videos, and to find other relevant information. Furthermore, our audiences wanted extensive content. We gave them that, and such content may help prompt greater interest in the museum’s collections. The opportunity to present in-depth content has also allowed us to communicate our passion for our fields of study.
Set up a fast-working, competent and empowered project organisation
“Think big, start small, move fast” – that is the recommendation offered by Michael Edson, who is in charge of web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian. A small project organisation will get more done in less time. The organisation members must be well versed in subjects such as communication, usability, audiences, and new media. All this has made KulturarvNord and KUNSTEN well prepared for future digital endeavours and collaborations.
*1 Read more in Golodnoff & Lerkenfeld’s article p. 161 ff.