Heritage sites and exhibitions have the potential to capture the public’s imagination and provide valuable connection to who we are and the significance of place. Cultural organisations engage with a diverse range of audiences, publics and stakeholders who will benefit from new ways of engaging with the past. As such, continual technological innovation and need for adoption is as keenly felt in museums and heritage site interpretation as it is in commercial industries.
It can expensive and time-consuming to research, assess and ultimately invest in the latest technologies that might enhance the audience experience.
Our expert, Dr Stephen Dobson, University of Leeds, takes you through the process of deciding the suitability of new technologies for your heritage organisation. The guide aims to support and guide your decision making when exploring new technology investment. It also includes a checklist to help you structure your considerations.
Below are some of the most popular technological applications in heritage sites and museums.
Some organisations have created bespoke apps the public can download and use on their mobile devices. However, many others have used apps already created on pre-existing platforms and successfully used by heritage organisations across the world. In 2021, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park launched its new guide app providing walking routes through the park along with content to enable users to discover the art works from the artists themselves. The app also contains a family area with ideas to help parents generate imaginative and creative conversations with their children to think and talk about sculpture in a landscape setting.
3D printing and artefacts
For some time, museums and heritage sites have offered 3D photographic representations of artefacts to increase access and provide virtual handling of important pieces. Typically this involved multiple photographs being stitched together in a 360-degree panoramic form to create an engaging virtual 3D version of an original artefact.
This is still an important technique for enhancing website access and experience. However, with the addition of volumetric data these can be turned into 3D-printed replicas to provide a greater level of visitor access within the museum – satisfying the urge to touch and handle objects which are otherwise too delicate.
Projection may be used to animate spaces and really bring the visitor experience to life. This technology is being used in a number of original ways. Sometimes scenes or artefacts are projected in-situ to illustrate interpretive reconstructions of the past; perhaps the architecture itself may be projection mapped to increase audience understanding. These can be powerful and engaging ways to present cultural heritage.
In 2015, TeamLab developed the ‘Universe of Water Particles’ projection on the exterior of the Grand Palais in Paris. Here, a waterfall was artistically simulated by calculating the way that water would fall over a 3D modelled version of the Palais simulated onto the Grand Palais in Paris. This created a visually impactful experience.
Another example of projection mapping is the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, an exhibition which has been touring since 2017. Van Gogh’s paintings are projected on the walls of a room so visitors can feel that they are inside the artworks.
Virtual Reality (VR)
In addition to 3D printing and the use of 3D models to support projection mapping, 3D content may also be rendered into an immersive and completely virtual experience using VR headsets. There are many companies offering VR technologies, but the most common VR headset providers on the market currently are:
- Oculus VR – market leaders with a range of high-end headsets with its own library of games and experiences. Oculus was recently purchased by Facebook Meta.
- Google Cardboard – a very cheap and simple method of emulating a VR experience using a headset and smartphone.
- HTC Vive – a very popular high-end VR headset that uses the PC games library Steam.
Assessing the suitability and appropriateness of any new investment involves five key stages.
Planning can take time in a technology procurement process, but this stage is really important to really define why you need this solution and how it will support your strategic goals. After developing your digital strategy, the need for the investment should be very clear. Think about what your goals and priorities are for the next few years. If you have an in-house IT specialist or team, then involve them at this early stage. Explore the opportunities and challenges associated with your planned investment. The clearer you are at this stage about why you need to invest, the more precise you can be when discussing your needs with potential suppliers.
2. Identifying suppliers
In this stage, it is worth reaching out to other heritage organisations to help you develop a list of potential suppliers. If they have trialled and implemented similar technologies, then ask them about their experiences. Compare your needs with the products and services of available suppliers so you can draw up a shortlist.
3. Request for proposals
Once you have identified some key suppliers, you may request proposals and associated costs based on your needs. This is where work done in the planning stage really pays off. Any discussions with other organisations and their experiences will help you establish not only what you need, but also what to avoid. After gathering proposals from several suppliers, you can begin to make comparisons. You could rate the supplier’s proposal against each of your established needs on a score of 1-10 to help with comparison.
Once you have selected a potential supplier you should start to negotiate. You might try to reduce the overall cost of the service, but it may also be worth exploring the timing of delivery or negotiating additional customisation. Make sure at this stage that you have buy-in from your trustees and IT staff. It is a good idea to build into the contract a period of technical support and training for your organisation. This will ensure that you can resolve any issues which might arise during implementation such as technical glitches, staff training or a mismatch between final implementation and the contract.
As you begin to implement the new technology, keep a close eye on actual against predicted costs through each phase. Ensuring that the negotiation process includes the costing of each aspect of implementation will make this tracking easier. The implementation stage may take a few days or indeed weeks, depending on the complexity of your setup, the number of suppliers involved and the technological components that have to work together.
Now that you have a sense of what the overall procurement process looks like, download this procurement checklist (PDF file, 346kb) to help you think through the process.
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Please attribute as: "Exploring some popular digital applications that can enhance the audience experience (2022) by Dr Stephen Dobson supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0