These are my notes from the presentation 'New Media Interpretation in the National Waterfront Museum' by Steph Mastoris at the MCG Spring Conference. There's some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any comments in [square brackets] are mine.
I've put up lots of photos and some video from lunchtime tour of the interactives at the NWM.
Some background about the National Waterfront Museum (NWM):
The aim of the museum is to talk about the industrialisation of Wales. Its precursors were the Welsh Industrial Maritime Museum and the Swansea Maritime and Industrial Museum – in some ways these were unsuccessful museums.
The focus is on the human experience of industrialisation rather than the technology; it's a celebration of the impact rather than the technology itself.
Interpretation was intended to be delivered through new media right from the start. Objects are jumping off points for interpretation.
Displays are in zones; but using open-ended concepts rather than themes or chronological order. They are kaleidoscopic rather than comprehensive. Both a criticism and a strength of approach is that you end up with a fragmented view of a subject, though you can pick it up throughout the gallery. It's not for specialists, but for population who've never given industrialisation a second thought. It's audience-led, and not afraid to be populist.
Types of new media in the National Waterfront Museum:
The new media ranges from traditional looping films with personal testimony or oral history to audience-initiated stuff. Way-finders have visitor-activated mapping and constantly changing displays, and there are completely visitor-centred (activated?) displays. The 'People' interactive displays move from a map to a digital reconstruction of town, to a digital reconstruction of a house, then to embedded images of artefacts (also visible in the cases) then optionally onto detail that contextualises the artefacts. Visitors can manipulate stuff on screen, initiate oral histories and move onto items that are in collections but not on display.
Visitor reactions, 30 months into the project:
The response has been 'amazingly good'; they've exceeded their targets for visitor numbers in both the first and second years (and avoided the second year slump). The museum was designed around free access, with three entrances that encourage people to pop in and out. He suspects they are getting lots of short-term visitation as well as a lot of the 'classic one-and-a half hour' visits. It helps that they have an extremely active and community focused events program – their aim is to 'turn the main hall into the village hall of Swansea'.
Their visitors mirror the Welsh population in terms of age; not as much on social grade but they're doing better than other Welsh museums. They're fulfilling their populist agenda as best as they can.
The digital divide by age starts to become apparent when you look at 'enjoyment'. Older groups are having difficulties with something; the interactive computer parts are least popular for 55+ group. they like the traditional galleries more. They're addressing this with proactive gallery staff and by adding value to other aspects. Other museums thinking about interactives have to address this as the sector moves towards a new media approach.
The delights and problems of being a new media museum:
Buildings: you will need to pay attention to the critical path of power, plant and equipment (all it takes is one thing to go wrong in the chain – e.g. something ('some plastic bags, fifteen condoms and a dead dog') blocking the water supply that cools the building); physical access for servicing IT components (e.g. changing bulbs in projectors); the effect of the building design on new media display performance (e.g. sunlight on screens or projections).
Costs: energy costs, consumables (e.g. projector bulbs are a huge cost per year), support contracts, product renewal. They spend nearly £30,000 a year on projector bulbs!
People: technical team (restructure the organisation around a dynamic highly-skilled technical team); contractors; gallery authors (act as interpretative consultants and mediate between curators and designers and audiences).
Attitudes: display down-time (5% of displays are down at any one time; it's a moving target, just one of those things. Technology is fragile – it's a big change from when museums only had static cases); staff flexibility and the creativity to deal with these new challenges; corporate perceptions of wealth (lots of money coming in but it's all being spent), managing expectations (people think IT can do anything easily).
Display renewals [slide]:
Inter-relationship between collections and display, conservation. 'sacrificial artefacts' – not accessioned.
You can have a small impact from large expenditure.
Inter-referenced displays – what if a way finder points visitors to something that isn't currently on display?
How do you maintain technical cutting edge when things designed in 2002/03 are still on display; new technologies are fragile, become more robust in later versions. But as more common also more boring.
What is the next big thing? They're planning time to look at what's upcoming.