Within a short period of time, digital technology has become ubiquitous within society. The Internet has become central to our lives as an information source, and we live in an increasingly mobile and digital world, which is characterised by personalised user experiences and services at our fingertips. Do heritage sites owe it to their visitors to meet them in a digital context, or do they even risk becoming marginalised if they choose not to embrace tech?
Over the past 20 years, changes in technology and society have shaped how museums deliver experiences and how their spaces are designed. The rise of the ‘digital native’ and has left many questioning whether museums are on the wrong side of the digital divide, where they are unable to provide the digital experiences required by a tech-savvy (younger) generation.
Institutions around the world are facing the challenge of maintaining (and increasing) visitor numbers within a competitive attention economy. In times of digital advancement, museums offer a space of stillness and reflection, yet their immersive and contemplative characteristics are frequently posited in contrast to the speed and accessibility of digital experiences.
Many institutions have therefore utilised technology, delivering supplementary information to engage their visitors, using 3D replicas, augmented reality or assistant apps, to name a few. Digital storytelling is an effective way to present the often overwhelming and abstract ideas within museums with coherence and context, as well as offering a way to create experiences which promote visitor engagement.
Digital storytelling is traditionally seen as a practice whereby people use digital media to create short videos, usually offering a snapshot into their lives. Digital storytelling can be used to turn museum collections into sites of meaning, shown by the Culture Shock! project, taking place in the North East of England. The project, which allows everyday people to reflect upon museum objects, aims to make collections more relevant to the lives of those in the area by documenting and sharing their heritage.
Yet the term ‘digital storytelling’ is also used as an umbrella term for a variety of digital narratives, including mobile storytelling. Mobile storytelling is being used to tell site-specific stories, guiding visitors/users to tangible places within the museum space in order to uncover them in real time. For example, Traces Olion is a mobile companion app inspired by the spaces and stories of St Fagans which takes users on a journey around the site. Drawing on the power of time and space, and ultilising the portability of digital devices (such as mobile phones), mobility becomes part of the narrative experience as users interact with the physical space. Focusing on ‘feeling not fact’ is a departure from the museum’s traditional organisational structure, but creates an emotive and immersive experience from the museum’s own narrative.
Storytelling through Augmented Reality (AR) has similarly opened up creative opportunities for museums by transforming them into active, participatory spaces. AR enables a fusion between the real and digital world, by creating a digital dimension over reality. This gives a new meaning to “bringing history to life” by juxtaposing real objects with digital content to create enriching, engaging experiences.
A typical audience for AR in museums is children. In this case, AR is used to present museum objects in a fun, interactive way. At the British Museum, the AR storytelling app, A Gift for Athena, helps children to engage with the museum’s Parthenon gallery by rewarding the user for identifying certain statues and artefacts in the gallery by their shape by advancing the in-game narrative.
These examples show that using digital tech can augment museum collections to create an engaging, personalised experience. Tech can be placed at the heart of the museum space, working in conjunction with existing collections to enhance them. However, the cost of creating these apps can be a significant barrier for many small/mid-sized institutions.
Museums will still maintain and retain their value as visitors are still drawn to heritage sites as places of shared inter-generational experiences. Yet, at the same time, the growth of the digital museum seems like an inevitable step and its potential for outreach and engagement is important.