The future of digital interpretation: objects as service avatars
After 10 years of sustained digitization, the National Maritime Museum developed a new website and lounge to showcase its vast collection. The purpose of both projects was to open up the museum's collection and archive and induct museum browsers into a research experience.
The digital interactives within the Compass Lounge allow the Museum to display more objects. For example, the Horizon displays over 4,000 images from five collections – ship models, oil paintings, flags, uniforms and coins/medals – grouped only by visual similarity. This view transcends Museum classifications, allowing thousands of objects to be seen without imposed interpretation.
The plan chest is a physical embodiment of the Museum’s collections website. Wooden drawers are pulled out to reveal large digital touchscreens, each showing the most popular objects – how many times objects have been viewed, shared, added to a personal collection or tagged. In doing so, the plan chest showcases the collection in use. A linked LED installation shows the relevant accession number, highlighting this unique key to all information and media about an object. A supporting mobile website offers a simple accession number search.
A small selection of historic photographs is also displayed in the lounge, each label inviting the public to contribute their own knowledge to the Museum's records, The display will be refreshed twice a year through a process of co-curation with the public.
Every visitor to the Museum is given their own Compass Card to reveal the hidden connections between people and the objects in the collection, in the form of beautifully-packaged stories. Visitors are sent a free, personalised ebook reflecting the objects they collected. They're also invited to make an apointment to view the 'real thing' in the new archive reading room.
There is a constant interplay between the physical and the digital and a deliberate playfulness in the transitions between the two states. But our museum holds many more items than even the Compass system and lounge can expose. This paper will explore how museums could reveal more of their collections by producing dense displays of objects with limited fixed interpretation but hooks into deep digital services, especially as computer vision brings the possibility to refine this interaction and make it more magical. The object itself will be a 'service avatar': all of the evocative power of an object, used to access services in the cloud (where the cloud is all human culture and history).