Take 5: Opening up the museum – towards personalization


One of our great modern conundrums, and not just in museums is; Are we using technology for the sake of it? And how can we make sure it benefits our overall experience, rather than detracts? How can it open new doors for us, open up our experiences?

In museums we’ve been pushing technology to help us do lots of things, from giving us great media experiences to making information easily available, and yet we’re still struggling with one of the most importance and basic aspects of a visit; finding our way around, both literally in a museum building, but also in the symbolic sense of navigating the experience of being there, how to ‘get’ what we’re looking at, accessing (or creating) its meaning and ultimately shaping a personal experience that will linger in our memory after the visit itself.

These are no small goals, from navigating our way around to experiencing a visit that is responsive to our needs, our interests – which of course can change and be influenced.

Having the conversation

We had a chance to explore some of these challenges in conversation with Ingrid Fish at the recent Museum Next conference and again this week at Mai-Tagung (Museums and the Internet). Ms Fish, who is the Head of the Department of Learning at the LWL Museum in Münster, Germany, has worked with us to develop a new kind of experience at their museum. The LWL Museum is more than 100 hundred years old housing more than 500,000 exhibits of Western art from Medieval times to the modern day. They, like so many institutions, have been looking for ways to help visitors tailor their own experience in a museum so big that they might spend more time with their noses in a map than looking at the collection.


Finding the Way Technology

Ah, technology. Let’s start with what might be the most obvious solution –GPS- our constant invisible companions on our smartphones. This would work for an outdoor location but as many of us know when trying to launch google maps inside, it is not currently suited to multi-layered experiences, especially in historic buildings. So we needed a software system that would provide us with information about where we are all the time, everywhere in the building, independent of the hardware or communication technology that we would decide to use, wifi or Bluetooth (beacons).

The search was on for an innovative solution. And there with a pressing need - in 2014 the Museum opened with a new Building, designed by Staab Architects Berlin with one aim: to be ‘Open!’ to all. Passers by are encouraged to come into the space, the collections are curated so as to entice some visitors to sample the museum’s full range of art forms, but others to focus on one area, perhaps mediaeval art or contemporary art only. So we needed to find a way to make that navigation through this sprawling museum space as effortless as possible, and the technology invisible.


Rethinking ‘pushed’ content

It’s not often you get a great chance to rethink your assumptions and push the boundaries. This was one of those times. In addition to finding our way around, we wanted to know, what happens next? Is it enough to have triggered or ‘pushed’ content – as fun and convenient as that can be? Would that feel ‘personal’ in the museum context or any different from punching in a set of numbers on a device? Most push notifications are quickly turned off on our personal devices, so what would make this more appealing? We decided we needed to widen our criteria, and combine location-awareness with personalized content. Where we ended up was designing for an experience where you can select from several areas of interest, so that when you move through the museum you are alerted to the kinds of stories or themes you want. But you can also still see what else is available and might peak your curiosity. Personal but also open, you might say we wanted the best of both worlds.



Solutions, solutions….

First the solution, and then we’ll tell you how we got there. We went with a new location positioning software called Awiloc®, developed in cooperation with Fraunhofer Institute (creators of the MP3 format). The software enables mobile devices to determine their position in indoor and urban environments based on received signal strength indication (RSSI measurements).There are a number of software solutions out there like this. What sets Awiloc® apart is that it is able to use a variety of existing wireless and communication networks like wireless LAN, GSM, UMTS or Bluetooth. Awiloc® maps the signal strengths for certain coordinates (could be a location or an object) to give us the overall location positioning. So, the software helps locate the whereabouts (accurate to within a few meters), of the museum visitor, and then of course the next level – they can access information on what’s right there surrounding them.


Making it personal

Getting what you need, before you know you need it is part of our modern-day expectation from technology. But for most of us we want museums to live side-by-side with our lives, not necessarily to mirror it’s constant buzz and interruptions. So it’s back to the question of what’s will the triggering, the location awareness bring you? What should I do next? We decided to experiment a variety of personalized themes from historical to modern with maps and routes, easy to get into – and out of – so that you can also ‘just go’ whenever you like. And in the Kids Detective Mystery experience the Awiloc® solution really comes into it’s own, with the location awareness triggering a series of clues and sound effects to uncover the mysteries to be solved, with multiple trails to follow and come back for. It’s a playful way to use the technology, creating a responsive, digital storybook full of characters and story – stories that feel like they are unfolding in real time, together with you.


So, our 5 takeaways?

  1. Location aware technologies are great for navigation in more than one sense – literally as well as philosophically getting to grips with the experience.
  2. Triggering content is a ripe vehicle for storytelling with fun, responsive and real-time narratives.
  3. Shaping an experience of the museum can mean providing options – some want personal ‘ways in’ and others prefer to ‘just go’ and find their own stories.
  4. Rethinking the question has helped us come up with better solutions – we were excited by awiloc® as a software solution to help us ‘find me’ in the space, and then trigger content (and all the other essentials), but it become much more about ways to tell stories, to find ways in.
  5. Ultimately ‘opening up’ museums doesn’t just mean helping with wayfinding, giving access to information or creating create, fun content, but using the technology and stories to instill a sense of place and of real-time experiences that we can make our own.

See the full Museum Next presentation here.

More on the blog about indoor location technologies here.

Münster project conceived and directed by Eva Wesemann and presented at Museum Next by Marielle van Tilburg. Edited for the blog by Sofie Andersen.

- author