Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Thoughts on producing a museum multimedia guide

The life of a modern museum curator is anything but dull, and new projects have a tendency to spring up at short notice (usually when funding becomes available) and take over your life.  One such project for me has been the development of new handheld multimedia guides for my museum.  I say 'for me' in a rather egotistical way, but of course the whole process has involved numerous colleagues and the company we employed to actually produce them.  This post, however, is my personal take on the process and my role in proceedings.  Putting some of these thoughts into words has been inspired by the talk I was recently asked to give about the process to the Midlands Federation of Museums and Galleries.

Museums are funny places when it comes to technology, and I think its fair to say that on the whole they are not usually near the cutting edge, preferring instead to hang back and invest valuable resources on technology that is older and more proven.  Modern multimedia guides, though, move a little closer to that edge.  Although not utilising features such as augmented reality quite yet the smartphone interfaces, screen resolution and production values on offer certainly make the product feel on a par with more commercial entertainment products.  For a regional museum, I admit to being quite proud of the quality of product we have produced.

But its one thing to want to wow visitors with funky technology, interactive games and objects coming to life in your hand, its quite another to actually produce the content that will consistently, cogently and comprehensively deliver that experience.  And as a curator, that task lands squarely on your shoulders.  Fun...

Because when you start to think about it, every museum gallery is (or bloody well should be) a mine of information and inspiration, of stories begging to be told - and particularly of stories that are difficult to tell in a 30 word object label.  Many therefore inevitably remain untold.  But visitors' attention spans are only so long.  With the best will in the world, no-one is going to commit themselves to an 8 hour slog around your gallery listening intently to every word you have to say.  Our multimedia guides, on the advice of those who do this for a living, consist of an adult tour and a children's tour, each just over an hour long.

'Fair enough' I hear you say.  But the gallery I deal with covers the whole archaeology of the very large county of Lincolnshire.  Imagine being told that you've got an hour to stand up and talk to a random group of people off the street, most of whom have no prior knowledge of the subject.  Your job is to tell them, in an interesting and engaging way and with reference to a series of objects placed in front of them, the entire history of Lincolnshire.  You have to explain the Ice Ages and the scant evidence of the earliest human inhabitation.  You have to talk about the development of farming and explain what round barrows are; about Iron Age votive deposition and early coin production; about the Roman invasion and life in an important Roman city; about Anglo Saxon burial customs and placename evidence, about Viking political organisation and trade; about Medieval monastic life, the feudal system and the impact of the English Civil War.  All in one hour.  Suddenly the task doesn't sound quite so easy...

In essence, there is a matter of seconds to not only describe each object you've chosen to highlight, but place it within its local, national or international context, reference wider social themes, demonstrate how the object was made or used and show the small decorative details that people miss when it is sitting behind glass - all while not boring or confusing the audience, being consistent with other interpretation, and trying to reflect accurate modern scholarship.

Needless to say, a clear picture of the overarching story you want to tell is essential from the outset.  Colleagues will attest to the howls of frustration coming from my general direction as my initial long list of objects and themes was whittled down further and further to meet requirements, and I confess it is a hard process to go through as everything has a story that you want visitors to know.  However, having come through that process I know it was the right thing to do - that a careful selection of objects to allow enough time to tell the right stories is better than including masses of objects but having no time to provide anything but the briefest of descriptions of them, most of which is simply a repeat of the label text.

A multimedia guide cannot sit alone in the gallery.  It has to be part of the interpretation strategy.  For a historic house, such a guide might be the only form of interpretation a visitor gets aside from talking to room stewards, but in a museum we already have masses of interpretation.  Wall panels and object labels already give descriptions of objects and sites, and the multimedia guide shouldn't repeat what is already being said - to do that would be a complete waste of both resources and opportunity.  The multimedia guide, for me, was a chance to go beyond the printed interpretation - to give visitors a personal tour, as if being guided round by a human being, pointing out the quirky facts and opinions that make history enjoyable and memorable.  In short, I wanted it to have a personality and a sense of humour.  I find our history exciting, and I want our visitors to share in that feeling.

Also important is a sense of equity across the gallery.  Our archaeological tours cover a vast span of time (around 300,000 years), and it is important that there is a balance between the periods.  I'm a Romanist, but it would be unseemly to let that bias show and neglect other periods - I think in that aim we've succeeded rather well.  Of course we'll never win, and I fully expect that we'll be chastised from certain people for not covering their pet subject in enough detail or, God forbid, at all.  Sadly, some never realise that such work has to be done for the benefit of tens of thousands of people, not to meet the personal interests of a single person.

It was important for the tours to be flexible, so that visitors who decided to abandon the chronological route (or simply got lost or confused and missed bits) could always know what was going on.  This meant ensuring that each piece flowed neatly when viewed 'in order', but didn't jar when seen individually or randomly.  Just another thing to bear in mind during the development and scriptwriting...

One important early decision was who should guide the visitor around.  A personality?  Museum curators and other staff members? A professional actor or narrator?  We quickly decided against a personality as a gimmick we'd regret in a few years, and settled on a professional actor and cameo interviews with staff and relevant external specialists.  Although I wouldn't normally give a plug at a time like this, I will do in the case of the actor we chose - Ian Houghton.  Apart from being an excellent actor, a lovely bloke and a pleasure to work with, the main thing for me is that he understood what this meant for us and cared about our product, our museum and our visitors.  I think that comes through on the finished product, and I'm absolutely certain that not every actor would have given us that.

The adult tours are therefore presented by a combination of characters from each period, acted in the 1st person, and a female narrator's voice over.  The children's tours are presented entirely by a modern-day character called Archie who starts each period in the modern day and travels back in time to appear in costume as an historical character, but always retaining his modern knowledge.  Both tours feature the staff and expert cameos and a selection of games and interactive pieces.

One of the most difficult things during the development process is simply to keep on top of it all - to meet all the deadlines but make sure that everything is accurate and keeping the balance you wanted.  Its so easy when checking through 100 pages of script to miss the odd word, but when you later hear it spoken by the actor you cringe and wonder how you let a minor inaccuracy or awkward phrase slip through.  Hopefully there aren't many of those in the finished product, but they are a constant worry as once the product is released on the public they tend to get noticed and, unlike an object label, cannot be corrected easily or cheaply.

So will all this hard work and multimedia sexiness lead to a whole new era in the experience of museum visitors?  Hopefully so, but only time will tell...

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