The Shape of Things to Come: a summary

The last event in the iSay series took place on 30-31 January 2014. With the title “The Shape of Things to Come” this workshop focused on what the next generation of VGC research and practice should look like. We used the Future Technology Workshop (FTW) method to facilitate discussions around barriers, concerns and anxieties, as well as enablers, expectations and aspirations over VGC. Below is a summary of activities and discussions. If you were there, do add / correct; if you missed it do share your thoughts and experiences here.

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We started with ‘Imagineering, the first FTW session which prompted us to think space age and brainstorm ideas for activities related to creating, contributing and sharing objects, ideas, feelings, opinions, knowledge, etc., on culture and heritage. Ranging from eyes as camera lenses and brain as camera memory, to the ‘physicalisation’ (vs. digitisation) of objects, and on to the inter-galactic visitor experience, the group were not short of ideas!

The following two sessions, ‘Modelling’ and ‘Role play’ got participants to work in two groups. Each group had to select a couple of the Imagineering ideas and create a model that demonstrates how the activities might be carried out (what props, tools etc. are needed); then swap models and create and act out a more detailed scenario of use. Conveniently, the two modelling groups spontaneously varied their models, with one group delivering a model with an object-centric tint while the other delivering a model with a visitor-centric tint. The model swap during role-play meant that both ideas balanced out on the object-visitor scale.

In these first sessions of the workshop participants distilled the essence of VGC as the opportunity for people to attach their affective and sensorial experiences of authentic objects to the objects themselves, imagining a hybrid object-story as core content for the museum. This ‘attaching’ is seamless, and the attached stories are experienced seamlessly; and while not altering the object itself, the stories become an integral part of experiencing the object, at least for those visitors who wish this to happen.

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Multi-universal, simultaneous museum experience

One model presented us with a ‘multi-universal, simultaneous museum experience’. The museum occupied a physic-o-digital space. With the mantra ‘replication devalues’, in this model authentic objects are kept in the museum and, existing in parallel realities, can be accessed by anyone in different ways and different locations. Access to objects is possible through a ‘home museum’ system (sounded to me equivalent to the ‘home cinema’ concept) or through a local library (a public museum portal concept). Recognising that the journey to the object can be as important as the experience of the object itself, access to the museum can be instant or through (simulated) exploratory journey. Also recognising that not all visitors value a social experience, personal seclusion ‘bubbles’ are available for visitors.

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The love spoon

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Floating objects in the museum space

The second model – aptly named ‘the spoon’ – focused more on the visitor experience of objects and the importance of getting a feel of the emotions of the maker and/or the past users of objects. A love spoon shared by Bob and Luelen while he proposed was one example of such object: the spoon complete with the proposal story floats in the museum space for visitors to grab and experience the object (physically) and its story (telepathically). Multiple stories can be attached to each object, and visitors select which story to experience by the way they use the object. The danger for conflicting experiences and empathy fatigue is there, but visitors can always switch off the stories and enjoy the spoon for its ‘spooness’ only. The need for remote access is present in this model too, with real visitors seamlessly mixing with visitor avatars in the museum space; while the invisible visitor represents those who value a private more than a social visit. An ‘emotional experience acquisition policy’ implemented by the museum’s ‘emotion curator’ was also deemed essential.

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Subsequent FTW sessions brought participants back to VGC as we know and do it now. Compared with the idea(l)s explored earlier, and drawing on their experiences, participants identified a series of problems (listed below as I noted them down during the session):

  • Logging on – losing people there?
  • Trust that institution knows best – authoritative vs. authoritarian?
  • ‘prescribed’ experience devalues VGC
  • Permissions / limits unclear
  • ‘Keeping up’ with audiences – participation now maybe different to 15 years down the line
  • Lack of strategic planning for VGC  not sustainable
  • VGC (should be) embedded rather than add on
  • Funding
  • VGC management skill set
  • Conclusive evidence for VGC value
  • Ownership of VGC component
  • Mutually beneficial vs. responsive to expectations (visitors do it anyway!)
  • Size matters? Global reach vs. meaningful community group work
  • VGC project objectives / type dictates reach, value, etc.
  • Not all content generated for integration within museum

We then explored ways to take forward the VGC agenda and agreed on two main things. First, that it is not new technology and tools that are mainly missing (though there is space for these too, particularly in exploring novel modalities for VGC). Instead, the emphasis needs to be on fitting VGC in with institutional strategy and mission and basing any VGC initiatives on deep knowledge and understanding of the visitors and their needs. Research to elicit visitor needs and requirements re VGC on one hand and to understand the potential, limits and discourses of VGC on the other, followed by implementation and evaluation need to be repeated continuously to capture ‘changing times’. Such research-implementation-evaluation iterations also need to regularly feed into (re)drafts of institutional strategies / missions.

Finally, we agreed that prescribed VGC experiences need to be replaced by organic VGC models: allowing things to happen, enabling appropriation and permitting serendipity, offering multiple pathways in and out of VGC, providing different levels of engagement as the relationship between the institution and the visitor evolves.

This is my experience of The Shape of Things to Come. Feel free to appropriate, enhance, amend, or discard it 🙂


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