The following paper presents the results of the QRator research project which aims to understand how digital technologies, such as interactive labels and smart phones, create new ways for users to engage with museum objects; investigate the value and constraints of digital sources and methods involving cultural content; and demonstrate how crowdsourced digital interpretation may be utilised as a research source.
Museum exhibitions have been transformed by the addition of digital technology to enhance the visitor experience. Ubiquitous mobile technologies offer museum professionals new ways of personally engaging visitors with content, creating new relationships between museums and their users. Museums and other cultural institutions have made significant investments in developing and disseminating digital content in the physical museum space to reach and engage users, marking a shift in how museums communicate publicly their role as custodians of cultural content and their attitude towards cultural authority. Despite recent technical advances in collections access and interpretation, a number of key issues still remain. Does the rapidly changing technological environment provide a more engaging and participatory visitor experience?
The QRator project explores how mobile devices and interactive digital labels can create new models for public engagement, visitor meaning-making and the construction of multiple interpretations inside museum spaces. This project is located within the emerging technological and cultural phenomenon known as ‘The Internet of Things’; the technical and social shift that is anticipated as society moves to a ubiquitous form of computing in which every device is ‘on’, and connected to the Internet. QRator is based on ‘Tales of things’ (http://www.talesofthings.com) which has developed a ‘method for cataloguing physical objects online which could make museums and galleries a more interactive experience’ (Giles 2010). QRator takes the technology a step further, allowing users to take part in content creation on digital interactive labels- static iPads and their own mobile phones: a sustainable model for two-way public interaction in museum spaces. The QRator project uses iPads installed in the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology to provide a fully interactive experience where visitors respond to questions posed by the curators, contribute to discussions, and leave comments about individual exhibits. Visitors’ comments are synchronised with the QRator website (http://www.qrator.org) to allow them to contribute to the continuing discussion away from a museum setting. The application provides each exhibit with a QR code, a matrix barcode that embeds information such as text or an URL within a graphic that users can read using mobile devices, which links the physical exhibit with the associated conversations. When scanned these codes allow users to discover information about an object and join the conversation from their own mobile device. The unpredictable, multiple forms of interpretation produced by the use of mobile devices and interactive labels make us to reconsider ways in which museums provide information about objects and collections and should also allow museums to become more engaging for visitors.
Data from the ten QRator iPads was collected by archiving contributions from March to July 2011; each individual visitor contribution is simultaneously uploaded to the master database on the Tales of Things website, followed by the QRator website pulling the data about each case label (current question) from the master database and integrates these comments within QRator online. These comments are then aggregated together based on the current questions originally asked by the museum. This resulted in a corpus of 1463 visitor contributions, totalling 13,308 words and 2,708 unique tokens, providing a rich dataset for the analysis of visitor experience.
Visitor contributions were categorized qualitatively using open coded content analysis where each comment was read and categorized. Contributions were divided into three basic categories; about the current question or topic, about the museum, or noise. Despite the apparently simplistic categorisation it is possible to discover patterns of use and begin to understand how visitors are relating to and interpreting the exhibitions, and making meaning from their experience.
For the purpose of this study, various quantitative measures were used such as analysing the frequency of comments according to date and time, comparing comment rate between the ten iPad’s and suitable text analysis tools were used to interrogate the corpus. One of these purpose built tools emulates the popular Wordle1 visualisation where the frequency of words within the whole corpus is sized in relation to the words font size. This tool provided more stylistic control over the visualisation than other web-based services like Wordle. In addition, the corpus was analysed using a Sentiment analysis tool, SentiStrength2 developed by Thelwall et al, (forthcoming), in order to automatically measure emotion in the visitor comments, which provides an indication of a positive or negative museum experience.
The largest proportion of the comments in the corpus fell into the category of topic (42%), triggered predominately by the QRator interface and questions posed by the museum curators, suggesting that visitors are inspired to share their own experiences, thus co-constructing a public multiple interpretation of museum objects. This is very pleasing, since this was exactly what the museum professionals had hoped might happen.
The lack of spam and inappropriate commenting is surprising (22%). Many museums have been hesitant to open up communication to greater participation by visitors. There is an ingrained fear in the museum profession that visitors will leave inappropriate comments when there is no moderation or intervention by the museum (Russo et al. 2008) despite research showing that museum visitors want to engage with complex, controversial topics by making comments or talking to staff and other visitors (Kelly 2006). The QRator project and the Grant Museum have, however, adopted the concept of ‘radical trust’ in the visitor community:
‘Radical trust is about trusting the community. We know that abuse can happen, but we trust (radically) that the community and participation will work. In the real world, we know that vandalism happens but we still put art and sculpture up in our parks. As an online community we come up with safeguards or mechanisms that help keep open contribution and participation working’ (Fichter 2006).
Inherent in the term is the suggestion of a previous lack of trust shown by museums towards visitors, but also the admission that such trust is regarded as new and perhaps dangerous. Nevertheless, the QRator data suggests that ‘radical trust’ in visitors does indeed work: spamming and inappropriate commenting does not appear to have happened to a significant extent in the Grant Museum.
Interestingly, many of the visitor comments focused on opinions of the museum as a whole (36%). This raises the question of whether a digital technology used in this way promotes of an opportunity for visitors to make meaning from their whole experience, rather than engage with the exhibit specific content and interpret the exhibitions themselves.
The length of comment may also be used as an indicator of engagement- if we assume that those who are interested in an issue or topic may wish to write at greater length. Indeed the average length of comment increased significantly between categories. The noise category had an average of 4.071429 words, comments on the museum had 7.431599 words and visitor contributions on topic had an average of 15.36672 words. This is pleasing, since it suggests that visitors were inspired by the questions to engage with topics in a relatively complex fashion. Additionally when compared to the SentiStrength results, which classifies for positive and negative sentiment on a scale of 1 (no sentiment) to 5 (very strong positive/negative sentiment), highlights that the comments on the museum were in average more positive in sentiment (2.04 positive) whereas the comments on topic had an equal positive to negative response (1.52 positive; 1.55 negative). Suggesting more engaged texts often contain a mix of positive and negative sentiment, in contrast to less engagement which is more likely to produce a single sentiment result.
Digital technologies are becoming more embedded, ubiquitous and networked, with enhanced capabilities for rich social interactions, context awareness and connectivity. This has led to unprecedented changes in the provision of digital museum resources, which are beginning to transform the experience of visiting museums. The QRator project represents a shift in how cultural organisations act as trusted and authoritarian institutions; communicate knowledge to the community; and integrate their role as keepers of cultural content with their responsibility to facilitate access to content. It also suggests that users are willing to take part in a dialogue, and express their views about their visit and individual object via digital technologies. It further suggests that in most cases they can be trusted to do so in a thoughtful, serious fashion. The challenges that digital technology and participatory media bring to museums demonstrate a change from a one to many transmission to a many to many interaction, in which museums use their own voice and authority to encourage participatory communication and content creation with visitors. The growing emphasis on the interactional and informal nature of learning in museums provides the perfect opportunity to showcase digital interactive technologies as important resources for engaging visitors in exhibits and more generally in museums as a whole (Thomas & Mintz 1998; Marty & Burton Jones 2007; Heath & vom Lehm 2010).
The authors of this paper would like to acknowledge the other members of the QRator team: Jack Ashby and March Carnall (UCL Grant Museum of Zoology), Sally MacDonald (UCL Museums and Public Engagement), Sussanah Chan (UCL) and Emma-Louise Nicholls (UCL Grant Museum of Zoology). QRator was funded through Beacons for Public Engagement Innovation Seed funding and we would like to thank Hilary Jackson (UCL Public Engagement) for her support and advice throughout the project.
Fichter, D. (2006). Web 2.0, library 2.0 and radical trust: A first take. April 2. Accessed 27th October 2011 at http://library2.usask.ca/~fichter/blog_on_the_side/2006/04/web-2.html.
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