XVIII.5 September + October 2011
Page: 15
Digital Citation

When the museum goes native

Rachel Smith, Ole Iversen

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The goal of museums is to transform our experience of living in the world: to heighten our sensitivities, to transform our vision, and to unveil new perspectives. Embedded in this mission is the fundamental challenge of bringing together, blending, and exploring what arises in the intersection of audiences' everyday lives and what we value as heritage. As interaction designers, we address this challenge by creating concrete exhibition projects that link heritage matters to the daily lives of particular audiences.

These connections are neither given nor stable; rather, they emerge through dialogue and interaction in the museum. We believe that common social media platforms for user-generated content and dialogue between peers can contribute to reconnecting audiences' everyday lives to heritage matters in new ways, reinforcing the museum as a place to reflect on the past, understand the present, and envision a shared future. In this article we present experiences from a current research project, the Digital Natives exhibition, of which social media was designed to be an integral part—a means of connecting the museum to the audience's day-to-day life experiences. The experiences from the Digital Natives project provide insight into the dialogical qualities of social media for heritage practice in museum spaces.

back to top  Creating Hybrid Connections Between Museums and Daily Life

As Manuel Castells has pointed out, museums can act as important cultural connectors in the information era [1]. They have the capacity for generating novel and hybrid forms of cultural communication by making use of new forms of digital technology. But how do we use information and communication technologies to revitalize and renew the role and importance of a museum and its heritage in relation to people's everyday lives and experiences?

Museums have traditionally been designed as formal places for heritage preservation and the display of objects that connect us to history. Exhibitions educate us and provide us with knowledge, acting as staged spaces for reflection on the past. We view museums also as places where ordinary people can engage in dialogue about the cultural aspects of their past, present, and future. From this perspective, the connections and intersections between the museum and audiences no longer rely on linear, authoritative models of communication about the past, but rather on dialogue and social participation in the present. Exhibitions become vehicles for creating connections between physical spaces and matters of heritage, as well as between the exhibition and the daily lives of contemporary audiences.

This is not a radically new perspective; good museum curators have already made such experiences accessible in various ways. We focus on social media in the belief it can play an essential role in transforming the museum into a place of dialogue in new ways. By social media, we mean digital technologies that support ongoing social dialogue. These media are by definition participatory and dialogical forms of communication that create social interaction and co-created cultural meanings in intersections between virtual and real environments.

As Giaccardi points out, social media is having a profound impact on heritage matters and communication in terms of social practice, public formation, and sense of place [2]. Moreover, Castells's view on the information era and networked society asserts social media (as a form of hyper-communication) already exists in people's everyday lives and practices and thus can be used as models for communication and interaction that emphasize engagement and dialogue. In this way, social media can forge connections between museums and audiences that break down the formal dichotomies between institutional heritage and living heritage. Our goal is to bring the sense of connectedness we experience through social media in our everyday lives into the museum. This transformation not only affects museums and their ways of creating and designing exhibitions but also demands that audiences adopt and engage with new practices in the museum space.

Here we describe the Digital Natives project and how we used social media as a means of connecting audiences and heritage matters in the museum.

back to top  The Digital Natives Exhibition

Digital Natives was a research and exhibition experiment exploring the intersections of cultural heritage, participatory design, and new interactive technologies. The project experimented with possible new forms of cultural heritage communication and involved creative collaboration between a group of young people (ages 16 to 18), anthropologists, and interaction designers through a period of nine months. The project focused on the contemporary generation of young people: those raised in the digital era, surrounded by new digital technologies, and whose lives depart from that of previous generations—men-tally, socially, and culturally [3, 4]. The exhibition explored digital natives' day-to-day cultures, identities, and communication practices, and experimented with new ways of representing these cultures in a museum exhibition. As such, the aim of Digital Natives was to create an exhibition in collaboration with a group of young people that explored the lives and cultures of the digital natives' generation in a specific local setting.

The project was explorative in nature, actively interweaving boundaries between cultural heritage and contemporary digital cultures. It focused on issues of participation and interaction and aimed to create new modes of communication and engagement that would, in turn, create dialogical spaces and novel connections between museum spaces, exhibitions, and audiences. Digital Natives was held at the Aarhus Center for Contemporary Art in December 2010. Five interactive installations were created for the exhibition; they focused on the everyday lives and practices of seven young digital natives. The digital natives provided content to the exhibition by sharing their SMS messages, Facebook updates, and photo galleries, and they engaged in the participatory design process of the entire exhibition. All installations had a strong focus on social media and interaction design, blurring the boundaries between art, culture, and technology. In this article we focus specifically on two installations, Google My Head and DJ Station, to illustrate how we used social media to create new experiences and dialogic connections through the exhibition.

back to top  Google My Head

Google My Head is an interactive tabletop installation running on a PC connected to a 72-inch Evoluce One LCD multi-touch display. In the Google My Head installation, audiences were encouraged to browse through a repository of digital natives' online and mobile (Facebook, SMS) updates, pictures, and videos continuously posted on the multi-touchscreen and stored in a database. At the installation, visitors were confronted with the task of completing the sentence "Digital Natives are..." While browsing through the digital traces from various social media, they could choose up to four utterances, pictures, or videos that caught their interest and supported their completion of the sentence. The chosen samples were stored in a dock placed at each narrow end of the table. When a user clicked on a small keyboard icon on the dock, an onscreen keyboard would appear, allowing them to complete the sentence with statements such as "Digital Natives are CREATIVE," Digital Natives are "EGOCENTRIC AND SPOILED," or Digital Natives are "NO DIFFERENT FROM OTHERS."

The statements produced by audience members were displayed as a part of the Digital Natives exhibition on two 22-inch touchscreens located close to the installation. Here, visitors could see what they and other visitors had written and explore the digital material that had been used to support the statements. Moreover, visitors could respond to the utterances by pushing a "like" or "dislike" button on the touchscreens, adding their score to the total number of likes and dislikes for each statement.

Google My Head illustrates and represents the vast amounts of fragmented information and communication that exist in the lives of digital natives. The curation process of selecting materials from their own digital repositories was completed by the young natives themselves, as were the tags that combined the digital materials in the installation and made it possible for audiences to navigate through them (for example, "Martin_concert_friends_photo," "Metha_Japan_manga_leisure"). As such, using the form and language of social and online media, the audience was invited both to explore aspects of digital natives' everyday cultures and to contribute to their overall representation.

back to top  DJ Station

DJ Station is an interactive and audiovisual installation based on a tangible user interface with fiducial tracking (unique tags that enable the system to recognize specific music loops) inspired by the ReacTable [5]. The DJ Station allowed the audience to interact with the musical universe of the seven digital natives involved in the project while getting first-hand experience with the remix and mashup cultures that are hallmarks of the digital natives' generation. Each young person was represented in the installation by a cube (with visible fiduciary markers), which played musical loops when placed on the tabletop. Each cube represented one person's musical taste, and each side of the cube contained a unique loop. The loops were co-produced during the design process by the digital natives and the designers in an attempt to create an auditory image of each digital native. The loops were all the same tempo/BPM, enabling an infinite repertoire of combinations. Flipping the cube to a new side played a new loop, while rotating the cube controlled the volume of the loop. The colored cubes contained unique audio effects that could be applied to the musical loops. The closer an effect cube was placed to a loop cube, the more that effect (such as reverb) would be applied to that loop.

By placing more musical cubes (each representing a different digital native's musical identity) on the table and applying effects to them dynamically, the user could combine and alter loops to create complex mashups. In addition, visual images representing each of the digital natives gathered around the respective musical cubes on the table surface and interacted with images from the other cubes. The tracks created by the audience were streamed live on the exhibition's website.

DJ Station created an audiovisual universe for exploring and interacting with digital natives through their musical landscape. The language built into the installation was based directly on the remix and mashup cultures associated with social and digital media, while focusing on the profound importance of music for these young generations. Simultaneously, the installation invited the audience to take part in this ongoing cultural production and reproduction by actively engaging with the cubes, mixing and remixing unique tracks from the existing loops and materials. Each visitor became a DJ, creating music both singlehanded and socially, while engaging with other visitors.

back to top  (Re)connecting to Everyday Experiences

Both Google My Head and DJ Station invited audiences to explore and interact through both individual experiences and social engagement. In Google My Head, people browsed large amounts of user-generated content by playing with a multi-touch table and became acquainted with the opportunities for interaction offered by the interface. Visitors selected materials according to their own interests and gradually became more focused in their search when prompted with the statement "Digital Natives are..." The selection process forged a kind of in situ curation, in which audiences created their own micro-stories around the theme of the exhibition. Once personal statements were displayed on the two screens, they were visible to other people, who could respond and comment. In this manner, the communication and dialogue were instantaneous and collective, creating social engagement between the participants at the installation. The concern was no longer the museum's curated story to the audience, but rather the visitors' own stories, contributions, and reflections (to others) around the theme of the exhibition.

Through a series of actions, selections, reflections, and communicative acts, the audience related the specific content and issues of the exhibited materials to themselves and their lives, and then contributed these reflections to the exhibition. In this way, Google My Head created modes of engagement that encouraged dialogue and participation between individual visitors and potentially much larger and unknown online audiences. Using and mimicking the language of social media, the installation created hybrid connections between the exhibition and the audiences' daily lives.

Through both Google My Head and DJ Station, the audiences connected with the cultural heritage of a specific group of people by means of their own physical, social, and emotive resources. The language of social media was the key to creating the connections and dialogical spaces between the museum space and the everyday lives of the audience. This room for co-creation clearly allowed the audience to gain an important role in the exhibition through physical gestures, individual choices, and social engagement. Formal or authoritative knowledge about the theme of the exhibition was never the goal of exhibition design. Rather, fragments, possible connections, and arbitrary meanings were ingrained in the actual installations and the materials presented. Each installation thus demanded the involvement and reflections of the audience to create meaningful experiences—experiences created precisely in the encounters between matters of cultural heritage, the language and design of the installation, and the active engagement of the audience.

Google My Head and DJ Station illustrate two ends of a continuum between reflection and playful engagement, in which the use of social media transformed the communication between the museum and its audiences. Rather than merely opening space for participation, the audience itself played a vital role in the explorative and dialogic aim of the Digital Natives exhibition. Simply stated, the exhibition was unfinished without visitors' active contributions and their engagement in connecting cultural heritage issues to their own everyday practices and points of view.

back to top  An Experience-Centered Approach to Social Media in the Museum

The many transformations brought about by the digital era challenge museums as cultural institutions to find ways of communicating that reconnect them to the everyday practices of their audiences. Social media can act as a strong means of transforming museum communication from formal and linear knowledge production to living intersections between museums and audiences' everyday lives. Social media fosters both individual experiences and collective social action in the ongoing (re)production of cultural-heritage meaning. It can incorporate and distribute both heritage "content" and ongoing interpretations from the audience, inside and beyond the museum space. Using social media in the design of exhibitions can thus create more inclusive, non-hierarchical spaces for experiences and expressions of cultural communication that dissolve the boundaries between institutional heritage and living heritage, reconnecting museums and heritage to audiences' lives in new ways.

back to top  Acknowledgements

This research has been funded by Center for Digital Urban Living (the Danish Council for Strategic Research, grant number 2128-07-0011). We acknowledge the collaborating partners of the Digital Natives project: Center for Advanced Visualization and Interaction (CAVI), the Alexandra Institute, Moesgaard Museum, Innovation Lab, and the young "Digital Natives" involved in the realization of the project.

back to top  References

1. Castells, M. Museums in the information era: cultural connectors of time and space. In Museums in a Digital Age. R. parry, ed. Routledge, London & New York, 2010.

2. Giaccardi, E. Things we value. interactions 18, 1 (2011).

3. Ito, M. Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. MIT press, cambridge, MA, 2009.

4. prensky, M. Digital natives, digital immigrants On the Horizon 9, 5 (2001).

5. Jordà, S., Kaltenbrunner, M., Geiger, G., and bencina, R. The reacTable. Proc. International Computer Music Conference. International computer Music Assoc., San Francisco, CA, 2005.

back to top  Authors

Rachel Charlotte Smith is a Ph.D. student in social anthropology and interaction design at Aarhus University. She is studying how digital technology can provide new ways of engaging audiences in cultural heritage.

Ole Sejer Iversen is an associate professor of interaction design at Aarhus University. His research focuses on theory and practices of designing engaging interactive technologies for children, with children.

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