Saturday 23 November 2013

Overview of innovation in the heritage sector

Decades of Technology, image by vanhookc,2011

As part of my University industry placement at the Parramatta Heritage and Visitor Information Centre I was tasked with investigating the innovative use of technology and the internet in the heritage sector. 

This overview looks at what is currently being done in museums and at some of the technologies that may be of use to museums and the heritage sector in the future. It is not comprehensive but is meant to provide a starting point for others using technology and online packages in innovative ways to benefit their community. 

This document includes a list of links to information can be used build knowledge in the areas technology and innovation for museums, heritage centers, local history and family history libraries.

A list of links to online resources for family history have been included at the bottom of this document.

Tracey McDonald, Intern, Parramatta Heritage Centre, 2013
Overview of innovation in the heritage sector

The digital shift has provided libraries, museums and archives with the opportunity to reshape the avenues of communication with the wider community. The core activity of information provision needs to be considered in light of the new digital paradigm.

Social Media and Social Networking

Will continue to be an important way to reach an increasingly digital audience. Social networks provide and opportunity for an organisation to spread information on their missions and could be used as a supplementary acquisition channel. Social networking can provide a cost effective way to deliver updates and announcements. People engage with those recommended by friends and others they trust. The Grant Museum 45 suggest using social media in a variety of ways including:

  1. Twitter for transitory, irreverent or topical information
  2. Facebook More in depth version of twitter
  3. Blogs to provide more information including publication of research
  4. Flickr, YouTube and others for hosting tool and informal communication of images and multimedia

They recommend knowing your users and provide content with which they will want to engage.

Collection of tweets and social media

The Museum of London undertook a project to collect the stories of different sections of the community during the London Olympics of (27 July – 12 August) 2012 through tweets, moments and images using social networking. This is to provide an alternative Olympic story than those traditionally heard which focused on the experience of the athletes, participants, employees and tourists.

The Museum used the tweets and images in addition to physical objects depicting the Olympics in London as part of its exhibition.This collection of tweets and images add to the social context of the City of London and personalises history for people. The tweets collected have been add to the museum collection for future use. The #Citizencurators 47 blog outlines the project and provides information on tools used to harvest the  tweets and associated metadata.

Mobile computing

The growth in handheld internet enabled devices has changed how users expect to interact with information and information providers.On current trends it is forecasted that by 2016 in Australia  79% of mobile users will be using an smartphone 1. The market dominate operating systems for these devices is  Android 55% and Mac iOS 33% with similar trends of tablet devices. The majority of these handheld devices are equipped with WiFi connectivity or an internal 3G or 4G-enabled modem. The cost of mobile data is significantly higher than that for fixed data services so users prefer to use free Wifi hotspots were available.

In a 2012 Victoria and Albert Museum 41 visitor survey found that 60% of the visitors surveyed use their mobile computing device to enhance their museum visit.

Increasingly these devices are being used not only to consume content but also to create content. A 2013 Pew report 3 showed that 54% of internet users were posting originally created pictures and video and 47% had shared videos or images they had found online.

This suggest that any information offerings need to be adaptable to a range of screen sizes and operating systems. A mobile version of the websites should be developed and optimised for the small screen (mobile phones) and audiences on the go.

Where possible free Wifi should be provided in the building for those who choose to bring their own device. The information provided needs to freely accessable with the rights for use and reuse clear in order for users to interact with and create new information.

Applications for mobile computing

Application for mobile computing devices can enhance the visitor experience, raise profile of the institution and attract new visitors. Apps are now commonplace with many museums, libraries and archive have developed apps for either specific exhibits or a general app or catalog-like experiences. Apps can be very basic though to a interactive with multimedia content and can be developed to be used either on site or off site. Apps can also be developed for on site loan devices such as tablets or media players for audio visual tours.

The technological  innovation drives app innovations many apps now include: facial recognition, augmented reality and geolocation.   

A new development for apps is the use of Indoor positioning system (IPS) to enhance user experience by relating content to location. IPS is a  technology like Global positioning system (GPS), only it works indoors where GPS fails. It uses radio, ultrasound or infrared signals to more precisely track location of devices.

The State Library of NSW 42,43 has used IPS as part of its Curio app. The Curo app provides users with a list of nearby objects and provides interesting facts, stories and multimedia content directly to their device as they roam the libraries galleries and Mitchell building. It also enables users to share their experience straight away through links to facebook and twitter. The app also links back to a State Library website which hosts archived copies of old exhibitions. This site also provides the function you visitors to save the own tours so they can relive their experiences.
For an information or cultural heritage app to be successful it must provide quality content and meet users expectations. Apps need to have a clear explanation of what they are about.  Dana Allen-Greil 44 comments that some of the most successful museum apps do a few things well:

  • meet a real need or desire in their users
  • give people something meaningful or exciting to do
  • take the museum’s mission and content outside of its walls
  • are a result of an interesting collaboration

Apps need to provide good content in an interesting format but exciting apps and truly innovative apps do something new, different and take advantage of the medium they are in as well as the technology that available.

Technological advances on the horizon:

Uers will increasingly expect to find or have information provided in new and interesting ways. Human computer interaction will provide a range of new opportunities to enhance information access and interaction including:  Interactive exhibits, 3D representation of pictures or maps, virtual - exhibitions and Geolocational tagging.

Near Field Communication (FNC) enables mobile and other devices to securely exchange radio communications with each other, either when they are touched together or brought in close proximity 4.  NFC could provide opportunities for  information services to provide additional information to those with a NFC enabled device. The Museum of London 5 use NFC in a variety of ways including: follow, like and check-in at the Museum on social Media, visitor information, additional exhibit information.

Google Goggles lets you search the web for additional information using photos that you've taken on your mobile phone. The Getty museum 6 of visual arts use as a tool to provide additional information about works of art, commentary from artists, curators, conservators.

Augmented Reality (AR) is a view of a real-world where the elements of the real-world are augmented by computer-generated sensory inputs such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. The Powerhouse Museum7 is using a third party software app (Layer 8) up to enable users to see Sydney as it was 100 years ago, by linking images and information about Sydney from its collection. An article on QR Code Press 8 by Stephen Vagus notes that it is expected worldwide by 2018 that there will be more than 200 million unique users of AR.

Shelley Mannion 9 provides an overview of AR and its uses for museums commenting that AR has the potential for creating engaging and meaningful experiences for visitors.

Touch tables,walls and floors

The Australian Museum 21 comments that “Multitouch is becoming big business for museums. Technology that enables users to navigate and/or add content on a giant table is a trend that won't go away. Couple that with gesture-based computing and anything is possible.”

The company Vision2Watch 23 say that there interactive products enable users to control the content they consume providing a richer experience for users.Touch tables or touch walls could be use in conjunction with maps to build layers of information about a place. Alternatively an interactive floor 22 could provide active engagement with users.

Wearable technology is an extension of AR. User were a technologically enable device that provides them with information in real time about surroundings displayed in front of them this could include: the names of friends who are in close proximity, or nearby places of interest. They could be use to manipulate objects without the need for physical touching the objects.

In a information organisation these kinds of devices could be used for wayfinding and translation, creating visual aspects to audio tours.

Google Glasses are example of Wearable technology. While this device is currently in the real world testing phase they show great potential for enhancing user engagement with heritage displays, walking tours etc. Neil Stimler 10 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been trialing the Google Glass and discusses his experiences with them and their potential in his online article “Seeing the Met through glasses” he comments that the glass could provide new ways to experience culture.

Online, Virtual visitors
Increasingly users are expecting access to information and  museums to be provided digitally and on demand 24/7. Providing a virtual visitor experience be an answer to this demand. It also provides the opportunity to engage with people who may not otherwise uses your services. INDICATE 11 (International Network for a Digital Cultural Heritage e-Infrastructure) have produced a handbook for developing virtual exhibitions and virtual performances.

Virtual excursions provide a way for financially challenged schools to provide enhanced learning experiences in a cost effective manner. It is a way of providing equal access to remote or regional students and the disabled. The Sydney Living Museums (SLM)12 provides a Virtual Excursion on Convicts aimed at primary school students. They say the the Virtual Excursion provides an educational history video conference that allows your students to interact live with our convict presenter. A national initiative is provided by Virtual Excursions Australia (VEA)13 who formed a collaborative network of video conferencing providers to provide Virtual Excursions for learners across Australia. The state government of NSW has an initiative called Connections 55 that  provides and coordinates video conferencing excursions for schools and TAFEs in NSW.

The National Museum of Australia 14 has extended the idea of virtual excursions and has partnered with the CSIRO to develop a telepresence robot. The robot enable remote students to visit the museum using the robot as a proxy. It enables students to interact with a museum educator through a robot equipped with a panoramic camera allowing students to control their own view of the Museum.

Mashups 15 are web-based application that takes one or more open datasets and combines them either with each other or with publicly accessible web services to create something new. It can also include the creation of enhanced data through the addition of new structure to unstructured data, or the addition of useful metadata. A notable example of a mashup is the web site “In Their Honour”16 which links data from service records to burial location and google maps.

As mentioned Mashups can be used to link data sets providing new and engaging ways to view information. The use of maps can contextualise the information for the user. The National Museum have created a google map for their Landmarks: People and Places across Australia exhibit 71,18 that shows a picture of the item displays its location of origin and provides information about item. Users can click on a link in the popup dialogue box for additional information. This kind of mashup is very useful in the local history and heritage sector as it  provides a way to place an item or photograph in its geographical context.

Data visualisation or Infographics provide a way to represent complex information using pictures. By providing complex information visually the message the information is trying to convey can be done quickly and clearly. Anne Clobet 19 has produced a simple infographic that explains infographics as Data that is sorted, arranged, presented visually. David McCandless 20 provides an example of this with twitter statistics.

Community involvement in resource heavy projects, such as identifying content of photographs, correction of digitised newspapers (Trove) provide organisation with the ability to do more with less. They provide community engagement and cooperation. Crowdsourcing 24 is distributed problem solving. By distributing tasks to a large group of people, you are able to mine collective intelligence, assess quality and process work in parallel.

Crowdsourcing has been used in a variety of ways including: transcription/correction, contextualisation, complementing collections, classification (social tagging), Curation/co-curation and funding. The article Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing: An Exploration 25, provides an overview of crowdsourcing and provides examples of crowdsourced project.

User-Generated Content (UGC)
In her article User-Generated Content on Museum Websites Gail Durbin 37 discusses the variety and benefits of UGC. she note that “visitor contributions on a museum’s website give a strong message about that museum. They suggest an organisation that is an open place, one that encourages participation and is willing to engage with a variety of opinion and ideas to create richness. It suggests the museum is a creative hub that visitors can join with in making something new and exciting.” She also provides some examples of effective UGC and outlines how to get started including UGC.

Technology has open up communications enabling communities to share their stories. There are a number of initiatives designed for individuals to contribute their stories on the internet. Museum Victorian provides the facility for the community members to research, create and share family and community stories through their Making History 26 project. The Australian government has launched a website (Australia’s Community Heritage 27) that aims to engage people with Australian heritage. It provides registered users (individuals or community groups) a place to share information, stories and anecdotes about people, places and events that have contributed to Australia’s heritage.

History Pin 48,49  may provide another avenue to encourage community involvement. History Pin  this has the added advantage that Parramatta Heritage already has a presence on this site, it has international reach, caters for Apple and Android OS.

Digital publishing is now seen as a viable alternative to traditional paper based publishing there is a range of tools available the accommodate all skill levels.

David Carnoy 28 of Cnet have written a guide to ebook publishing that provides advice for those wishing to publish ebooks quickly and easily. He comments that ebook publishing is an ever evolving field and that he is only commenting on the best options at present. The writers digest 29 (blog) also provides useful overview of the basics of ebook publishing.   

In the area of web publishing Pachyderm 30  and Omeka 31 are open source software that provide easy to use tool for non-IT specialists to enable them to publish quality pages providing information on their collection or its research and produce online exhibitions.
Sarah Hromacka and Rachel Craft have written an article called From the Ground Up (or the Inside Out): New Approaches in Digital Publishing 54 which considers the “practical and theoretical implications of developing online publishing projects through disparate approaches while making an argument for institutionally-generated publications as a valuable means of engaging wider audiences”.

3D printing in libraries and museums is rapidly becoming a reality as the cost of these devices continues to fall. One use in the museum setting would be to enable visitors to reproduce artifacts to take home eg Holey Dollar. In May (2013) Museum Victoria 38 hosted an event demonstrate 3D printing technology they scanned and printed items from the museums invertebrate collection. They have provided the file of the Ammonite - Pleuroceras sp 39 for users to produce their own at home. The Smithsonian 40 is undertaking a 3D scanning of its collection in order to make it more accessible. It also intend to release some of the files of its scanned objects to the public. 3D printing it can take just minutes to create a plastic (or  fiberglass, stone powder, ceramics, metal, rubber) replica of an object by reproducing the digital model layer by layer from a file.

Software as a Service (SaaS)
Software as a Service is designed so that the IT infrastructure is outsourced. This means that the software and data are installed on a server hosted by the software provider.

Interesting web tools

There are a variety of web curation tools that are currently being used by museums the ones listed below provide an overview of what's available.

Storify lets you curate social networks to build social stories and bring together media from across the Web to a form coherent story.

Bundlr provides real-time updates of items add to their bundle, has collaboration features and provides the ability to embed pages.

STQRY tool for visitor engagement that enables you to communicate stories to your visitors through their smartphones (QR codes). With STQRY, visitors can explore, save and share your stories no matter which language they speak, through an free app for iPhone and Android.

Popup Museums or Museum in a box area way of providing services and the tactile museum experience to those who may not be able to visit the museum. The Australian museum 32,33 and Museum of the Riverina 34 both provide this service. The Museum of the Riverina 35 also provides a reminiscence box containing items of significance to the lives of elderly people. They are used to stimulate memory and conversation, and improve confidence and self-esteem by encourage reminiscence through touch, sight, sound and smell. Salford Museum and Art Gallery 36 (in the UK) also provide this service and provide an informative page related to their remembrance boxes.

More traditional museum library and archive offerings should not be overlooked. They provide a link between the organisation and different segments of the community. The development of active partnerships with the judicus use of technology will enable growth and engagement.

Curriculum based resources will encourage visits either virtual or physically. The web site Bound for South Australia 50, 51 provides an example of how this can be achieved in the online environment. The online material could then be linked to physical items from the collection that could be view on a visit to the heritage center.

Consideration should be given to updating existing Wikipedia pages relating to Parramatta's Heritage as Wikipedia is often the first port of call for many.  A 2007 Pew Research Center 52 study found that 36% American adults (who were online) consult Wikipedia and that its particularly popular with the well-educated and current college-age students. They use Wikipedia to provide background information on a topic and as jumping of point to further information research.This is a trend that is set to continue as subsequent generations expect information easily available online. An example of a Wikipedia article that could benefit from expert attention is the one on the Experiment Farm Cottage 53.  

Connections to the wider community and to communities with a special connections to or
an interest in the collection will enable a valuable exchange of information. This could include: local organisations, schools and Higher education institutions and other cultural organisations. An added benefit of these connections would be the raise in profile of the organisation and its work.



Additional information

Information that is interesting was used to build knowledge in the areas of museums and technology.

Interesting blogs

Demographics, research and information sources

Australian Government data sets

Trends and reports

Cloud Computing

Stephen Fry explains the history of cloud computing, going all the way back to the Sumerians in 2700 BC.

Useful Information sources for local studies and family history library
Full Text Databases(Australian content)

Gale newsVault (British papers)


Australian Cemeteries index

Find my past



Recommended local history links

State Library of NSW Pinterest stream on family history resources

Irish family history

South Australian records

The Australian Chronicles: An Index to Sources of Australian Biography

Choice article on online family history (good for beginner)

New Zealand Birth Death and Marriages

Australian War Memorial family history resources

Australian Government suggested links for family history

Other online resources

Interesting technology for the future

DNA testing to find family

A suggestion for an information session for library users

Digital afterlife - help people understand the need to plan for their digital presence continuing after their death in order to help family historians of the future.

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