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Giving the gift of a personal museum experience

7th Jun 2019

We spoke with Nick Tandavanitj, one of the lead artists at Blast Theory about Gift, an experience you can enjoy at Brighton Museum throughout June 2019. Gift is part of a three year research project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. UK partners include University of Nottingham, and Culture24.

Blast Theory was initially invited to participate in the project by colleagues at the University of Nottingham. The project is inspired by the research of Lesley Fosh, a PhD student at the University, who had previously run a project that looked at how people might make use of museum collections to create personalised gifts for family or friends. In this case, she personally guided people around museums asking them questions.

Nick and the team found the stories generated and Lesley’s research really inspiring and intriguing. In the research it was apparent that lots of the objects within museum collections have their own histories which are very personal and are about intimate relationships between people. The team were invited to propose how Lesley’s research could be applied to expanding a museum’s digital offer; to use technology to bring new audiences into the museum, to reflect on the ways people nowadays engage with culture, and most importantly to encourage younger people to come to the museum.

Blast Theory have worked with museums in the past, and explored a number of sites, but settled on developing the project with Brighton Museum. They felt that Brighton Museum was archetypal of a great city museum with its varied collections. They found the collection very appealing and many of the objects and curious artefacts very beautiful. It was also great for the team to build a relationship with a local organisation, to be able to bring Gift to Brighton, and to show a Blast Theory project in their home town once again.

Going into this project the team were really aware of how museums have a really busy programme and exist on a tight budget whilst delivering lots of projects to different audiences. They appreciated that adding another activity into the programme, and a slightly different offer to their other digital projects, would affect the museum’s workload. They worked closely with Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager at Brighton Museum, who was a key advocate. Having learnt from the partnership that the museum had a lot to deliver on little resources, one of the key criteria in making the Gift experience was to make it as easy as possible for a museum to host.

Gift has been trialed over the last couple of years, and last summer diverse groups were invited into the museum to test the experience. Groups invited included exchange students in their late teens/early twenties who were attending Brighton’s language schools, and who found entering a museum intimidating. One of the most interesting elements that came out of trialing Gift has been seeing how an experience that incorporates mobile device acts as an enabler, and gives confidence to young people, who might not otherwise feel comfortable wandering around a museum.

The app has an element of playfulness that encourages the user to own the experience. It demonstrates how museums are there for all of us to find our relationship with history and to use objects as a way to express or to learn about ourselves, not just to be educated. This is where Gift has been positioned and why it appeals to younger people.

One of the nicest surprises that came from the trial was the degree of confidence that one of the interviewees, who was in his 70s, had in taking on a digital experience in a museum, and how much he loved it. The youngest participant was around 5 and with some assistance was able to make a gift for his mother.

The final version of the app will be available to use at Brighton Museum from 1 to 30 June – everyone is welcome to take part. When you arrive at the museum and pick up your ticket from the front desk you will be presented with a postcard that is a gift from the museum. The postcard has a web address you can scan or enter into your phone, which opens the gift that the museum staff have made for you. That then leads you into the experience and through the museum to find some of the gifts that they’ve made for you. You are then invited to make a gift for someone you know.

The app is available for one month only so that Blast Theory and the museum have an opportunity to be able to reflect on the practicalities of hosting it. They aim to make the work available over a longer period of time but need to check first how people interact with the experience and how it affects the museum resources, such as the ticket desk staff having to answer queries. Blast Theory are also looking at deploying Gift in other contexts and museums.

In setting up the suitability of the space they performed tests of the Wi-Fi and mobile phone coverage around the museum, even in the darkest recesses of the Egyptian collection. The experience has also been designed so that it can operate without coverage for large parts to avoid any coverage issues.

Blast Theory stores all of the gifts on their server, and these are never made public. They are looking at the data being captured for the purpose of learning how people are using the app and for the museum to understand what objects people choose. Blast Theory are only using tracking data to see how long people take making gifts and the objects that they choose. In terms of privacy and data they specifically chose not to use geo location as they felt this was not necessary for their research.

Nick’s top tip if you are looking to work with a museum is when pitching your project to be clear on how your project might bring a new audience to the museum and how you can ensure that it will not be an overhead for busy staff – those were the two main questions that Blast Theory had to answer in proposing to potential partners. When Blast Theory approached Brighton Museum in setting up the project, they proved to be the most open to having conversations with artists and have proved to have been amazingly accommodating since.

Image: Experiencing Gift, courtesy Blast Theory.

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