23 February 2017 - Max article 02: sharing? - towards an extended digital public engagement
The Museums Association Conference later this year, among other questions will be asking... How can museums involve audiences in interpreting collections and sharing knowledge about them? and How can digital technology help increase engagement with collections?
Well... this presents an opportunity to revisit an idea that I first propounded in 2014. It’s not necessarily new thinking, excessively innovative or even thought provoking, it just appears to be overlooked. Either way, my hope is that before November, someone may take up the concept and perhaps give it a trial run. Personally, I suggest museums should consider opening more doors by sanctioning pre-arranged public access to repositories and stores. Yes, that place where a significant percentage of narrative-rich material festers in cobwebs, awaiting the curatorial call which may never come. I conjecture that any initiative which connects the public to seldom viewed items should be investigated. In 2017, museums should really be offering a deeper digital engagement with their audience, certainly one that extends beyond the plethora of static content. Actually, our ‘public’ is peppered with digital museophiles holding extensive software skills. This fraternity includes a relatively untapped group which can potentially bring inspirational enrichment and education to the sector, for free. I’m talking here about 3D creativity and its use as a mechanism to expand public awareness of collections. Not random ‘walkthroughs’ of simulated environments, but specific focus on objects themselves.
Encouraging voluntary, but contractually subscribed visitors with varying degrees of 3D and VFX digital skills, would build audience connectivity and fundamentally benefit institutions. There’s little risk factor here, I submit that the process would be controlled and content owned, by each institution. In a sector renowned for bureaucracy, this relationship model could effect mutually beneficial outcomes. Accredited digital visitors would be permitted to take video and photographs of collection items (copyrighted to the institution) and generate material to promote lesser-viewed objects, thus opening out more of the collection to public view and interest. Content could be real or simulated and developed using the originator’s own software. Either way, there is minimal effort (other than legal) required by the relevant institution. The kudos of being an accredited digital contributor would be great for the provider and the institution would propagate a significant standardised visual database of its collection, with potential roll-out for in-house searches or online accessibility. This is not pie in the sky. Public access to portable digital devices is prevalent. There is reasonable aptitude to capture quality footage and output with general proficiency. Students of 3D and VFX are always looking for project source material to sharpen their skills and once generated, showcasing simulations requires minimal strain on museum resources, equipment and finance. Speculative approaches to schools, colleges and universities to probe potential interaction is long overdue. Institutions could further assist by giving these creative voluntary teams authority to shoot high-definition footage of areas in the museum which could be used as potential sites for simulation (a prerequisite for developers) and then share the resource with others. The benefit of simulation is that the 3D objects may then be rendered with a multitude of educational content and easily manipulated to drive other data-led options - this is something of which I myself am keen to explore. Quality video footage clearly produces a far richer digital asset than one-perspective photographs in online collections. Programs like SketchFab are already putting a degree of control back into the hands of the audience and its good to see a few museum professionals like @DEJPett at the British Museum, making good use of 3D scanning facilities. However, there is a degree of financial flux and uncertainty, so this might just be a good time to test the waters of mutual trust with the wider public, without excessive economic burden. Enticing curious and active museophiles of all ages to examine fresh, penetrable channels of study could prove an attractive option to trigger a new, sincere public engagement. Surely a win-win situation in a sector continually wrestling with elitist overtones, often stunted by internal regulation and curbed vision of entrenched personnel.
Who knows, down the line such projects delivering data-contextual meaning may even spawn innovative physical assets for learning departments. A sustainable educational legacy emerging from digital eye-candy, now there’s a thing!