Skip to main content

Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Bridging the Physical and Virtual Experiences: Two Approaches by the Museum of Inuit Art

Alysa Procida and Rob Mausser, Museum of Inuit Art, Canada

http://www.miamuseum.ca

Abstract

The Museum of Inuit Art has been experimenting over the past year with strategies to better connect our varied audiences with the museum’s collection. Many of our visitors are not local members of the community, so pursuing initiatives to share content with them on the web has been a primary goal. Throughout late 2011 and early 2012, MIA is exploring two new ways to bridge online content with the physical museum: installing a QR Code interactive tour in the museum’s physical and also launching an interactive virtual tour of the museum on the web. This paper compares responses to the two projects and comments on lessons learned for small museums entering these arenas.

Keywords: small museum, QR codes, virtual tour, interactive

Introduction

The Museum of Inuit Art is a relatively new, small museum with very ambitious goals. Founded in 2007, MIA has grown tremendously in its first five years. A significant portion of our visitors do not live in close proximity to the museum and these visitors were keen to continue their relationship with the museum in a meaningful way once they returned home. Non-resident memberships, monthly newsletters, website updates and even our Web 2.0 platforms did not seem to meet these needs in a significant way.

MIA also faces some more specific challenges related to our collection. As the only public museum south of the Arctic dedicated to the display of art made by Inuit, MIA visitors often do not have much, if any, incoming knowledge about Inuit art, history or culture. Over the years, many visitors have expressed interest in more contextual information about Inuit culture and history; the Arctic environment; individual artists; and materials used in art making. Due to the limited space we have for didactic panels and the wide variety of information visitors have expressed interest in, we have attempted to find a way to include this information in the physical museum.

The museum also recognizes that it has a responsibility to serve Inuit living in the Arctic as well as across southern Canada, as the collection is composed entirely of art created by Inuit. Overwhelmingly, art produced in the Arctic is exported to southern Canada or international locations for sale, meaning that artists and their family members, ancestors, friends and community members often do have access to these works. MIA feels that the museum has an obligation to make these works available to Arctic communities as much as possible and as consistently as possible, which is a challenge.

These three issues, when taken together, compelled the museum to create two separate but related initiatives that would make the museum’s collection as accessible as possible to off-site visitors, both in the Arctic and elsewhere, by creating virtual tours of the museum and its special exhibitions, as well as allowing on-site visitors easy access to a variety of contextual information about the artworks on exhibition by creating an interactive tour of the museum employing Quick Response (QR) code technology.

Rationale

QR codes

QR Codes have been the subject of extensive debate among museum and other technological professionals. The drawbacks are perhaps best summed up by Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum, who said, “I’ve long been a critic of QR Codes. When I look around, I see low adoption rates, technical hurdles for end users and some really annoying uses in the marketing sector – who wants that?” (2011). We were very aware that QR codes have their drawbacks when we began investigating how we could augment the didactic and interpretive information inside the museum. We were also very aware that one of the major hallmarks of museums is their status as places of free-choice learning (Falk 2009). QR codes seemed like an excellent way to facilitate free-choice learning within the museum while still offering a broad range of content: visitors do not have to scan every code, only those that they find interesting.

The two major concerns that the museum had when considering adopting QR codes were whether visitors would use them and how to ensure better access to the technology needed to use them. At the outset that some of the objections, we wagered that some of the barriers to the adoption of QR codes by visitors could be mitigated by thoughtful placement, readily-available printed instructions and rigorous training of our front-facing staff and volunteers. The issue of access was also significant: the use of smartphones has been increasing almost exponentially (Gartner 2010) but we wanted to ensure that no one who wanted to experience the additional content would be unable to do so because they did not have access to a smartphone or tablet. In addition, many of the museum’s visitors are from outside of Canada and do not want to incur roaming rates for data if they were to access the online information.

Virtual tour

The museum’s virtual tour was inspired in large part by the Google Art Project (http://www.googleartproject.com), which essentially transposes the Streetview function of Google Maps (http://maps.google.com) inside several large museums across the world. The ability for people to virtually tour the museum was an important solution to the problems of allowing non-resident visitors to have a continued, significant connection with the museum and facilitate continual access to the museum’s collection to Inuit living in Arctic communities.

Implementation

QR codes

The implementation of the QR codes throughout the museum’s physical space required careful planning to maximize their effectiveness and the make best use of the museum’s available resources. Several considerations guided the decision-making process:

1. Determining if compelling information about an artwork, piece, artist or community was available;

2. Ensuring that the presentation of the information was interesting;

3. Ensuring the presentation of the codes was visually appealing and inviting;

4. Ensuring cross-platform compatibility;

5. Enabling the information to be easily shared; and,

6. Ensuring the longevity of the project.

Dealing with the first issue was relatively straightforward: by examining our archives, our pre-existing audio tour tracks, videos with artists and other material to which we had access, it quickly became clear which works were good candidates for a code. The second issue was more challenging. Using lessons we learned from blogging, we resolved to use media (such as images, videos, and audio tracks) in every page, rather than just relying on text. Instead of relying on our regular museum map, we made the decision to incorporate Google Maps satellite views when possible, in order to give visitors a better sense of the changing environmental terrain across the Arctic as well as make the information more interactive. The Google Maps embed was also of significant importance specifically to Inuit art, since the collective works from a specific region tend to reflect environmental conditions and cultural difference among Inuit groups. Allowing people to discover where a piece was produced with the aid of an interactive satellite map courtesy of Google truly allows the visitor to get a greater sense of this connection and learn more about the environment which influenced the artist, directly or indirectly.

Making the codes themselves compelling was also an important factor to help increase user-adoption. QR codes have a reputation as being unattractive at best as well as giving little indication of the content to which they redirect a user. We agreed that, because the museum’s collection consists largely of sculptures, we would endeavor to create a code that looked carved. Additionally, we made sure that underneath each code was a description of was content was available, should a user scan the code.

We also realized that the codes would be of little use to anyone if they were incompatible with visitor’s mobile devices. We chose a universal and open source QR code generator that created two-dimensional QR codes – the most common kind – to ensure compatibility across platforms. Also, we noticed in testing that the longer the web address was, the more complex the code became, which made it more difficult for different phones (particularly those with low resolution, fixed focused cameras) to read the codes. Our solution was to use a freely available URL shortener bit.ly (http://bit.ly) in order to ensure the codes would be as simple and compatible as possible. Once the codes were created, we tested them with each major type of mobile device: an iPhone, an Android phone, a Blackberry, a Windows Mobile phone and a webOS phone. Ensuring the cross-platform compatibility also meant that we needed to ensure that the websites to which the codes would direct visitors, and all the content they contained, needed to be compatible with mobile phones. The popular blogging framework Wordpress automatically creates a full-screen, mobile compatible and tablet-optimized version of a single webpage, so we elected to create Wordpress pages for each code. Using Wordpress pages also neatly allows the content to be easily shared, since sharing tools for a variety of Web 2.0 platforms (including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and more) are built into the site.

This also dovetailed into our strategy to keep the project easy to update: our staff was already familiar with Wordpress because we host our blog on the site (http://museumofinuitartblog.wordpress.com), so creating new pages or updating the content of existing pages will be (and has been) easy to accomplish. Also, using these freely available social web or Web 2.0 platforms means that the content is guaranteed to be accessible on any type of mobile phone device, whether a Blackberry or an iPhone; these popular cloud-based content hosts, such as Youtube, Google Maps and API, have themselves ensured cross-platform compatibility with most mobile devices. For us, this meant that any audio, video, map or image would be accessible on any device. This is a serious issue when offering this variety of media in a mobile format: interoperability as well as hosting costs can be significant stumbling blocks. As a small museum, these Web 2.0 sites allowed us to create and host multimedia content on the web freely, and to ensure visitors are able to access all of it regardless of their device as well as embed and share it on their own social media sites. This in turn allows more people to view the content and experience the museum’s collection.

Implementation also necessitated a strategy for helping our visitors feel comfortable using the codes inside the museum. This meant that the codes had to be visible enough that people would notice them, and we had to decide on appropriate places to place printed instructions on how to use the codes. Our instructional signs are now behind our front desk and inside the museum’s first display cases. Training staff and volunteers on how to use the codes and a QR scanner app, and on how to assist visitors with the technology was more difficult but was accomplished by focused meetings and one-on-one training. We are also in the process of creating an instructional video for the main QR code site (http://miainteractive.ca) about how to scan the codes, as well as offering smartphone devices for visitors to borrow who do not have their own.

Virtual tour

The virtual tour has been more of a challenge than the QR code tour because it is a much more daunting project. Though we were inspired by the Google Art Project, we did not have Google’s resources or help in accomplishing this project. Because the scope of the project was also larger than the interactive QR code tour, it has required much more planning and time than was initially anticipated. When deciding our approach, we had similar concerns to those we considered with the QR code project:

1. Ensuring the site is easy to use and navigate;

2. Maximizing the use of available resources to augment the artworks;

3. Allowing the content to be shared; and

4. Allowing visitors to easily record the impressions and memories of the artwork, Arctic communities and artists.

The design of the site would be an important element of success, which we realized from the beginning. Early on, we decided on using Adobe Flash and Actionscript as the coding framework for creating the virtual tour, largely because of its ease of development when creating virtual environments from images. Although this means a slight drop in cross-platform interoperability, particularly for mobile devices using Apple’s iOS which cannot access Flash-based content, we speculate that unlike the QR code tour, the virtual tour will be accessed primarily through home computers that can access Flash content. Navigation through the museum is accomplished simply by clicking on a forward, backward, left or right arrow on the screen. Once situated, the user can zoom into different parts of the museum and click on different pieces in order to launch a pop-up window with additional content and information related to the work, similar to the content offered on the QR code tour. The pop-up will be HTML.CSS and Javascript based, as the content again will be hosted on Web 2.0 sites like Youtube, which allows sharing and interacting with the content much more easily. While Flash suits our needs for virtual museum navigation, we find it to be very static and resource-intensive in its implementation of multimedia like video and audio content, as well as suffering from accessibility issues. Therefore, we decided to employ HTML-based pop-up windows. Consequently, offering a pop-up window allows users to close the window without losing their place on their tour.

Determining what material would augment the artworks was, as before, an easier consideration than the design elements, particularly because we had the experience of determining what content would be used for the QR code tour.

Allowing the content to be shared was, again, an important aspect of the project because not only do we want people to virtually tour the museum, but we also want visitors to create personal links to the artwork. This emphasis on creating personal links with the artwork was also the impetus behind the “Share Your Story” feature, which will allow visitors to the site to upload their own reactions to the artwork, memories of an artist or other personal reflections triggered by the works. In order to facilitate this collaboration, every single page on both the QR code site as well as the pop-up content for the virtual tour has a comments section available to the user, which will allow them to post their reactions to the content and works. Rather than have a single “guestbook style” comment section on the main site, we chose to divide the comments by artwork. This facilitates a closer relationship with the piece and will only be available to other visitors who view that particular artwork, both physically in the museum and virtually off-site. “Mapping” out their thoughts onto the works evokes a very strong connection between the work and the viewer and also allows visitors to choose how and when they want to personalize their experience.

Impact

The impact of these projects has been substantial, even in the case of the virtual tour despite the fact that it has not officially launched at this time. Somewhat surprisingly, the visitors most interested in the QR code tour have not been “tech savvy” young adults but middle aged visitors who are not overwhelmingly familiar with the technology but are either intrigued by it or particularly interested in the additional content to which the codes link. The glaring exception to this generalization are middle school students. Students in grades six through eight have overwhelmingly taken to the QR codes when visiting, to the point that our school tours must now begin by ensuring that all students’ phones are securely put away while tour guides are speaking. When planning the project, we did not anticipate that these younger visitors would be so interested in using the codes and so we have reevaluated the presentation of the content in response.

The virtual tour has garnered significant interest from off-site visitors as well as Arctic communities. The museum has reached out to both groups to get feedback on our design and to incorporate this feedback at the ground level. As a result, the project now has the support of many important Inuit-run organizations which will help to enrich the website and help when launching throughout the Arctic.

Issues to consider

Creating these projects has taught us a lot about our visitors, the technology we are using and ourselves. Pursuing these projects has demonstrated that even small museums can accomplish ambitious online projects that can help enrich and extend visitor experiences. However, we have learned that these projects are not as straightforward as we initially envisioned that they would be.

The most important issue to consider is the availability of staff resources to accomplish these projects. We have had to readjust our timelines fairly significantly after confronting the reality of how much time was needed to truly accomplish them. For example, we initially planned to have our virtual tour of the entire museum launch at the end of December 2011. Due to the significant commitment of time and other resources required, as well as feedback from our visitors, we decided to change the scope of the project to initially encompass only our special exhibition “The Unique World of Jessie Kenalogak” and to launch it at the end of February 2012. This way we will be able to better test out the site, its functionality and its relevance to our target audiences before we create the larger museum tour.

Another issue to consider when incorporating QR codes inside the museum is related to their placement and design. We were somewhat surprised when we realized that, due to the different lighting conditions in different areas of the museum, some QR codes needed to be lighter than others so that they could be read by the scanner. Code placement also necessitated that some codes be a bit larger than others for the same reason. These issues could only be resolved through rigorous testing with a variety of devices.

Unsurprisingly, we also found visitor feedback to be a key aspect of creating projects that will actually be used. Residents of Arctic communities, for example, expressed concerns about being able to effectively use a website that was overly complicated or demanded a significant level of computer skills to use. It was also instructive to learn that visitors overwhelmingly preferred we rely less on text and more on interactive media, such as audio tracks, videos and photos. This approach helped to change aspects of both projects, to the point that we have held back a portion of the QR codes in order to better tailor them to objects and content that have been most popular.

Further avenues for exploration

These projects have opened a number of exciting doors for the museum to explore and have changed our perspective on how visitors are using technology inside the museum and to interact with the museum off-site. QR codes now have now become integrated into our special exhibition creation to offer more information but also to solicit visitor feedback. Due to the popularity of the codes with young adults, we have started to think of the codes as less of a way to engage adults, which was our initial tactic, and rather as a means of engaging an age group which is notoriously difficult to engage in museum settings. To this end, we have started exploring incorporating the codes into our school visits programs using iPads and to create contests for students using the codes to further encourage their use. By changing our perspective on what audience we will target with QR codes, we will be able to better engage young adults and more effectively use this type of technology.

Creating the virtual tour has also created new and important relationships with members of communities that we serve which would not have existed otherwise. This has helped other areas of the museum’s activities, from curatorial activities to educational outreach. It has also helped to stimulate and change our use of Web 2.0 platforms to not only tailor content to their needs but also to create new media resources for use in the tour, such as our Skype Chats series on our Yotube page (http://www.youtube.com/miamuseum).

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the staff and volunteers at the Museum of Inuit Art, without whose support these projects would not have been possible. Special thanks also go to Canadian Arctic Producers for allowing their photographs to be used to augment our QR code mobile pages.

References

Bernstein, Shelley (2011). “QR Code Conundrum.” http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/2011/10/20/qr-code-conundrum/ Consulted 31 January 2012.

Falk, John (2009). Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Gartner (2010). “Gartner Highlights Key Predictions for IT Organizations and Users in 2010 and Beyond.” http://www.gatner.com/it/page.jspd?id=1278413 Consulted 31 January 2012.