What happens at a GLAM Innovation Lab?

In order to facilitate successful digital innovation in our heritage organisations, we need to change the way we think about technology. We may even need to change the way we think about ourselves. On 20 November 2015 meSch, together with Acuity Design and Digital Identities, organised its second GLAM Innovation Lab, a one-day workshop aimed at providing cultural heritage professionals with practical tools to start innovating and use technology in exciting new ways.

(Picture: Alastair Somerville)

(Picture: Alastair Somerville)

 “Do you want to enhance the visitor experience of your museum, library or heritage site? Are you interested in how technology can help?”

 

The Innovation Lab for Galleries Libraries, Archives and Museums aims to equip heritage professionals of various backgrounds with simple skills that can help bring an organisation to the cutting edge of accessibility. With no previous tech-y skills required, it appeals to groups of all ages, professions and skills. However, the triumph of this workshop is not necessarily the new age technology it endorses, rather, the alternative solutions to technology in heritage environments it suggests. On November 20th I attended the Innovation Lab, and was awarded with a whole new perspective on the media of heritage management.

“We need to share what we learn”- Abhay

Multicultural, multidisciplinary, and multi-sensory is the immediate environment created by the Innovation Lab. A team of professionals from a variety of backgrounds lead the course- Merel, Abhay and Alastair.

Abhay (Digiltal Identities) works globally with private and public sector organisations to develop digital engagement programmes and innovation projects. With a background in Biofeedback Gaming (University of York), he is an experienced speaker on digital culture at events such as TEDx and Shift Happens. This combination results in an eloquent and unconventional approach to modernising the heritage sector.

Alastair (Acuity Design) is a specialist in sensory cognition and accessible information. His area of expertise is the future of user experience design. With extensive experience in creating physical and digital interpretations for a variety of UK museum spaces, he provides tangible and realistic solutions to difficulties met by all branches of heritage organisations.

Merel is a PhD Candidate at the University of Amsterdam and the Allard Pierson Museum. Her interests and research focuses on the way digital technology can be used to help visitors engage with museum collections. Her approach is to integrate prototyping into the museum space. She provides museum professionals with hands-on and practical technological skills to apply to their own organisations. Merel’s research is part of the meSch project.

The diverging interests of this interdisciplinary team provides a thought-provoking and nuanced approach to technology in the heritage sector. From the outset they make clear that though their interests vary, optimal user experience is something they definitely agree on, and should be the main aim of any modern day heritage organisation.

 

“We need an app!”

Well no, actually, you probably don’t.

There was an almost audible sigh of relief from the museum professionals in the room when the IL team made it evident that their raison d’etre was not necessarily to bring more technology into the heritage sector. One thing I was not expecting to gain from this experience was a new concept of what the word ‘innovation’ means. The IL team provides a fresh perspective on the types of interactive media that you can integrate into a museum space, without drawing focus from your current collections. Additionally, they provide a crash course in digital literacy, how to collect, exchange and interpret data in a heritage context.

Merel began the day with an introduction to the meSch project and the strides it is making in the museum sector. What I found particularly striking about her ideas was the concept of putting out prototypes before they are finished. Simple, but effective! Is your organisation wasting money on failed ideas, unpopular apps or flashy gimmicks? The modern struggle of heritage management is appealing to the diverse public without compromising the quality of your output. The Innovation Lab offers real, affordable and simple solutions to problems faced everyday by all aspects of this line of work. And the solution here is genius in its simplicity- get feedback.

 

“Touch it so it seems less scary!” Merel gives a crash course in useful technologies for exhibition spaces (Picture: Ailbhe Turley)

“Touch it so it seems less scary!”
Merel gives a crash course in useful technologies for exhibition spaces
(Picture: Ailbhe Turley)

“People, then technology” – Alastair.

 

Sustainable and affordable options are a key goal in this workshop. It is clear the IL team wants to create realistic and long term options to improve the engagement of the public with cultural opportunities, without having to resort to filling the museum space with ‘gadgets’. Alastair’s approach provided the timeless reminder that only users know what works- don’t just ‘send it out, make sure it’s received’. The course does however provide a beginners guide to basic technology that anyone trying to communicate to the 21st century masses should educate themselves in. Chips, wearables, ‘Big Data’ and ‘the Quantified self’ are all concepts that can seem scary to the self-confessed technological novice. But smart objects don’t have to be necessarily tech-heavy. In fact, the IL team make clear that simple technology such as smart objects can often be the easiest option. A simple sensory experience can engage the visitor, rather than bombard them with information.

“Multimodal experiences double engagement time. It’s easy to create confusion”

 

So what can you expect?

These are grand ideas, on a theoretical level. But what does this Innovation Lab actually involve?

Mostly, a relaxed and engaging environment of professionals seeking improvement in their field, with interactive opportunities to do so. The November edition was held in the FabLab of the historic Waag Building, Amsterdam- a stimulating environment for this kind of course. Fostering the spirit of intellectual revolution of the Dutch Golden age, this historic space currently houses an institute for art, science and technology pioneering in the field of digital media, the Waag Society. A platform for artistic research and experimentation, they describe themselves as “a catalyst for events and a breeding ground for cultural and social innovation”. Therefore, it was the perfect environment for the intellectually innovative thinking the IL team encourage. The society not only provided a historic tour and introduction to their research, but also refreshment throughout the day- coffee and snacks to stimulate your brain and alcohol to numb it after the information overload of the day!

But more importantly the content of the course itself. The workshop’s strength lies in it’s hands on and practical approach. My impression was that the IL team don’t simply seek to lecture you on what they consider the best approach, but challenge you to gain your own conclusions with the skills they provide. Debate is encouraged, you are often split up into teams and work as a group to come up with new solutions- for example imagining your museum’s worst nightmare and building an exhibition that will appeal to them.

The team works together to convey a secret message to the blindfolded test subject (Picture: Alastair Somerville)

The team works together to convey a secret message to the blindfolded test subject
(Picture: Alastair Somerville)

 The most memorable aspect of course was Play Time.

This is the aspect of the course you can really bring back with you to your own organisation and apply within your workforce. It is a simple exercise with a powerful message. The group was split in three, with one person from each team taken outside and blindfolded. They were given no information other than that they were in a museum and had to work out a non-spoken message from the rest of their team. Each team was then challenged with building some kind of communication method out of whatever you could find in the room. The result was both hilarious and thought-provoking, with the conclusion unanimous – meaning is often hard to communicate. Challenging, creative and revealing, this exercise revealed the less stuff there was, the clearer the message became. Indeed, the simplest approach often is the most effective.

 “Start building something tangible” – Merel.

 

Finally, the important aspect this experience left me with personally was “MAKE THINGS HAPPEN” – Abhay.

Abhay concluded the afternoon with the recommendation to go out and use the skills they provided immediately. Start prototyping! Try out your ideas! Upcoming events or exhibitions can benefit from immediate experimentation.

I was left with the impression that digital media in heritage is very much a situation of ‘try and fail- don’t fail to try’. If this is the kind of environment you want to foster in your museum and heritage site (and let’s face it- why wouldn’t you?), then the Innovation Lab is the place to start.

 

This is a review of the second heritage Innovation Lab held in the Netherlands and organised by the Allard Pierson Museum, on behalf of meSch, Digital Identities and Acuity Design, which took place on 20 November 2015.

Ailbhe Turley is an Archaeology Master Student at the University of Amsterdam. As a former intern of the Allard Pierson Museum, she contributed to the temporary exhibition Sicily and the Sea. Ailbhe was invited by the organisers of the GLAM Innovation Lab to attend the event.