Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Museum design and cultural heritage - Report

Museums in discussion

Report about a management seminar organised by the British Embassy in Athens, 17th of February 2006


Hatto Fischer







How technology, in particular multi media and knowledge management systems in museums make presentations simpler, more accessible, provided such an interactive environment is created in which informal learning can take place in competition to other forms of entertainment and attraction all while paying heed that the multi media does not replace but allows new relations to real objects.


As part of its world wide promotion strategy, a management seminar was organized by the British Embassy Trade Development Section and UK Trade & Investment in Athens, Greece, Friday, 17th of February 2006. It took place not in the rooms of the British Council, but in the residence hall of the British Ambassador. To enter the lavish building, everyone had to go through a security check point just as if at any airport on high alert. Nevertheless after going up the stairs, a friendly reception gave every visitor a folder containing detailed information about the key speakers and showed that the event was a part of a wider campaign organized around the slogan of ‘Restoring the Old, Developing the New’.

The aim of the event was to illustrate and to promote Britain’s role in tourism, heritage and museums worldwide. Invited to speak aside from three other experts were three multi media representatives from the UK: Peter Higgins from www.landdesignstudio.co.uk, Peter Mercer from www.newangle.co.uk and Mike Coyne from system simulation limited or www.ssl.co.uk.

For anyone familiar with recent developments in the world of museums and treatment of cultural heritage, this event was a promise to learn more about the latest state of the art. As it turn out the promise was more than fulfilled. There is a lot to be learned from these developments in the UK both in terms of use of multi media by museums and in what may become an integrated approach to knowledge management systems. Both have tremendous cultural and social ramifications. As Peter Higgins and Beverley Garrett would stress in their presentation, making science, even the issues of research and therefore of ethics understandable is a task worthwhile but must be done well and careful, if interaction is to bear fruits in an informal learning setting.

However, Peter Higgins did not give the first presentation, but followed Marleen Mouliou from the University of Thessaly and therefore feared jokingly, so his opening remarks, that it would be difficult to say something of interest if someone else had stolen already the opening thunder.

The first presentation was given by Marleen Mouliou who teaches museology at the University of Thessaly and is doing momentarily a survey for the ‘Museum of the City’ to be created in Volos. In her opening remarks she stressed not finances are as decisive to bring together objects and users of museums when faced by ‘challenges of interactions’ but rather the ‘vibrations and dynamics of an exhibition’. She maintained exhibitions transmit only then cultural values (such as of equality, of training etc.)’, if they create poetic museum experiences. How to make museums become more poetic was, therefore, her main theme.

Of interest is that she referred to the UK Museum policy as being implemented, monitored and evaluated by the Museum, Library and Archive (MLA) organization. According to an interpretation by Marleen Mouliou, she sees in the MLA approach to things a simple principle important to be recognized, namely that it is hard ‘to imagine the world without the past, without access to the imagination’. (The MLA favors at regional level a more integrated approach, a medium between local and central governmental level and therefore has initiated a program called ‘Renaissance of the Regions’, something most speakers at the seminar viewed as quite a successful policy since it has brought about a remarkable spirit of cooperation between the various levels. [1]) As such, she pointed out that the UK policy deals in the twenty-first century [2] with identity, citizenship, collection, learning and research, career, leadership, employment and partnership. In her mind they are all essential things museums take care of, if their collections are to be both authentic and inspirational in a poetic sense. (The MLA policy calls that ‘inspirational learning’.[3])

Right now she sees very much museums going through an identity crisis. Faced by strategic choices, management is confronting the need to explore the new media but this at the great risk, in her opinion, that any authentic collection takes second place to the emphasis put upon technology. Rather she would wish that multi media use by museums complements the items of the collection. Thus how to deal with interaction between people and museum’s collections is in her opinion the important question. There has to be a clear story line. Objects and audio-visual means have to combine well in order to tell the story.

As references she quoted from K. McClean (1993), Planning for people in museum’s exhibitions, and from Spalding, The poetic museum, while showing examples of a variety of good museums and displays of their collections, such as the one in Arnhem, the museum of the year 2005. In her research approach as to how a visitor can experience the objects of any collection, she differentiates between different types of experiences: object, cognitive, introspective and social. They are all evident when the visitor is moved by beauty, by seeing something rare, a real thing. Crucial is the entry point. The poetic dimension can be evoked in her opinion in what appears to be a Surrealist method, namely by juxtaposition of objects (e.g. feather cut by a saw). Then, it would be important to create such an atmosphere that sound is heard in relation to the authentic object. Most of the time she would observe that static or dynamic elements help when they stimulate ‘artistic interpretations’ related to even oral testimonies. An example would be to give visitors the change to reproduce replicas and to leave comments at the exit after they experienced how many things are entailed when archaeologists attempt to discover the past.

Next spoke Peter Higgins who was recently involved with landdesignstudio in designing the UK pavilion at the last EXPO in Japan: a beautiful example of how it is possible to create an interactive environment. He is known for his rich and varied work not only on multi media used by museums but as he said himself at the outset of his lecture, by his special architectural orientation. He believes museums have to integrate design (content), building and location. He started his presentation by showing some images of Tate Modern and made the comment how brave a decision it was to convert for museum purposes the former Heating plant into what is now known as Tate Modern.

He showed first some outside views, including a look over the roof top and tower of Tate Modern to point out how crucial was this location vis a vis the City of London; it mattered to him since these two entities were separated by the river, that real connection was ensured by building a novel bridge to link in a spectacular way a major ship of the cultural sector with the financial activities of London.

In dipping into the discussions prior to decisions taken, Peter Higgins retraced in his lecture how crucial it is to combine vision with practical concepts. He marveled at letting the big engine room remain as an empty space inside the Tate Modern while realizing that for the galleries nothing but simple spaces were needed to make it work. He added, however, the café and above all the gift and book shop are something to be seen. His comments underlined what matters to make any museum work.

By describing Tate Modern as part of a trend in the UK, Peter Higgins pointed out that since 1993 8 Billion pounds have been invested in the cultural sector, in museums in particular. This huge amount of money comes mainly from the Lottery even though own financing must always be found in these cases. The investment volume indicates the recognition of the importance of having ‘informal learning places’ that museums and galleries present. Peter Higgins is realistic enough to acknowledge that museums and galleries are ‘in competition with other commercial activities’, hence they must be as interesting and stimulating as movies and even better. In that equation of cultural competition architecture has to be included as narrator and above all as becoming a part of the interactive media. Altogether any museum or cultural space is only sustainable if it manages ‘to reinvent itself’. This is only possible if the museum space is open to ‘multi-use’, allows the management of ‘change’ and is in constant ‘interaction with the community’.

Peter Mercer wanted to stand when speaking. He represents the independent creative digital agency set up in 1995 called newangle. The agency specializes in heritage and science communication. Many of the most recent works were realized in cooperation with Peter Higgins. Practically the point of departure and realization of multi media in museum is according to him that “we always live in an interactive environment”. He cautioned not to implant interactive media without relating it to the overall context and concept. Once work begins on the interface design, then everyone has to work together: curator, engineer, architect etc. His caution reveals that the state of the arts to be handled by museums demands a much more integrative approach than realized until now.

The presentations were continued by two varied examples: first spoke the director of “Hellenic Cosmos”, a cultural center of the Foundation of the Hellenic World, Elias J. Spirtounias (www.ime.gr) about a ‘virtual world’ devoid of almost any real object; then Ivi Vardas, a charming woman from Cyprus, and therefore as many others at this occasion fluent in both Greek and English, spoke about her company  ‘Antenna Audio Ltd.’ (www.antennaaudio.com) offering hardware solutions, among others, under the names ‘EASY’, a weather proofed audio player, and ‘X-plorer’ as the next generation of digital audio players. They offer as well group tour systems as well as multimedia systems. They have many clients, including the Imperial War Museum when it came to the Holocaust Exhibition and Tate Modern with regards to some recent exhibitions. (Something similar has been developed by the Bauhaus University in the newly opened Wieland Museum outside of Weimar, Germany). Both presentations showed varied use of multi media for either focusing on the past or else in making easily accessible in various ways (by pressing a bottom or else by having infra red signals trigger of the sound system) contents of exhibitions. An added value of mobile sound systems is that once they have installed also sign signals for those who are deaf, the museum experience becomes more accessible to those with special needs.

Altogether the penetration of museums by multi media companies needs to be reflected upon since those engulfed in interpreting collections or busy preserving and protecting them forget often the practical aspects only evident once coming to terms with ‘technology’ and what can facilitate their work by finding easier solutions. As Cornelius Castoriadis said already a long time ago, technology is no longer just a tool like a hammer or measuring stick; the very logic of digital technology entails a ‘theory of organization’ which carries with it the risk of replacing ‘theory of society’ and the knowledge such a society needs by not merely recognizing what is of use but also what should be passed on to future generations.

Consequently the last presentation by Mike Coyne was a most welcome sobering down in what matters most when approaching the following question: to what extent should museums make use of multi media to present their collections and to make the visit into an experience. The very first point made by Mike Coyne is that ‘effective use of digital resources’ enriches such an experience. This will require quite a new and novel ‘knowledge management’. As he pointed out later, while museums and their experts have been spending years if not centuries on collecting and cataloging, something essential for knowledge management, science and in particular university professionals are a far cry away from such collecting and cataloging habits. Such a remark points out that there is not merely a digital gap, but a gap in approaches to what should be a common knowledge base of society. Thus his understanding of the work he and many other multi media companies are doing can be summed up in one key purpose, namely ‘to bring efficiency into data information’. ‘There are’, in his opinion, ‘a lot of digital resources in museum still unused and under exploited.’

Now, to give an example, the topology of knowledge management departs from a favorite metaphor, namely ‘Buried Treasure’ as code name for a sophisticated system entailing following functions:

Such multi use means one and the same resource can be used at different points - an approach which cuts across sectors and specialized compartments but links everything. By connecting the one with the other, obvious linkages become suddenly evident and readily available. In the program ENRICH UK undertaken by System Simulation he cites examples of work undertaken:

Ø      entry into all digitalization projects

Ø      access to images e.g. Victoria Albert Museum

Ø      British Museum: compass system (entailing restricted access and thereby editorial work before being accessible to the general public)

Ø      Art and architecture

Ø      Museum of London site: where loads of stories are told and which has become a very frequent website

Ø      SCRAN: gives access to all the collections in Scotland and organizes the material for education purposes according to curriculum and questions asked

Ø      24 hour museum: although called ‘virtual museum’, which it is not according to his opinion, it is really about ‘journalist reporting’ about museums and therefore a self made communication platform with a huge appeal

Ø      Kiosks and projections as information gathering / dissemination points such as ‘Compass’ in the British Museum or what CORINIUM sets to achieve, namely to be adaptable to different settings.

Always the framework of the work done seeks integration in response to policy focusing on the cultural sector both in a technical and content related way. All operations take place at different levels and therefore, in his opinion, all of this is becoming easier because of the technology already developed and still being refined to suit the purposes of museums. One novelty he cited by pointing out larger websites have tiny little websites included from where special messages and images are forwarded to other sites. Alongside with this integration of the system two factors are crucial in order to judge further development: a) technology costs are going down and b) things are becoming easier to service.

He sees the development of digital asset systems as most promising. Put into an overall concept, it means going from such economic factors like growth in tourism to further cultural development, all this will shape the ‘creative economy’ of the future. Following assets can be identified as positive factors:


All this goes with increased access to digitalized information, while the methods and technology used reduces storage costs, allows for control of imagines from a centralized position in the organization, and thereby allows also museums to manage better all questions linked to property and copy rights. At the same time, museums with such a knowledge management system can readily deliver info and images to a range of outlets.

With such a positive outlook, the question as to how museums should make use of multi media, Peter Higgins expressed in the end a need for a crucial philosophical prerequisite. He said that this development is exciting and challenging, and of course mistakes are made, but then as long as multi media and real objects enhance interaction and thereby experiences can be made, what is needed most of all would be a new ‘text’ that allows an understanding of what is happening daily. Such a text would bridge the gap between users and provide a better understanding of what potentials museum have once their design includes also multi media as part of the very buildings they create for purpose of not merely showing and collecting content, but to become a focal and meeting point of reflection about what the future has in store when seen from such informal learning places.

The fact that the event took place in the British Ambassador’s Residence was underlined when after the seminar was over and people enjoyed a wonderful buffet of food and drinks, suddenly a dog appeared. Sniffing around the table, in between people holding their plates, everyone laughed when someone said: ‘even if you didn’t have a chance to meet the ambassador, at least you have his dog’. It was a lively interaction that underlined once more the fact what Peter Higgins had said as a conclusion: the real objects, things, animals and people in the world move people. It is a humane way of saying multi media and people can be reconciled in a world known already to be interactive even before the special intervention by technology in the name of such a term occurs in not just museums, but in all places where informal learning processes shape the day.


[1] http://mla.gov.uk/action/region/ren_report.asp

[2] http://www.mla.gov.uk/information/policy/21stcentury.asp

[3] http://www.inspiringlearningforall.org.uk/default.aspx?flash=true


^ Top

« Museums | Museums as parameters of societies »