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Joining the Conversation: Visitors Co-creating Museum Content

Photo UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology / Matt Clayton

The QRator project running at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology is a collaborative project between the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (UCLDH), UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), and UCL Museums and Collections,  to develop new kinds of content, co-curated by the public, museum curators, and academic researchers, to enhance museum interpretation, community engagement and establish new connections to museum content.

The Grant Museum uses iPad’s powered by Tales of Things technology to offer a continual programme of ‘Current Questions’ for visitors to engage in.   Visitors are encouraged to use the iPads to respond to questions about science in society and museum practice today.  Their thoughts become part of the display itself and subsequent visitors can read and respond to them in real time. One of the first current questions was entitled Conserve or Display? Asking visitors to consider the following:

“How do we balance the needs of our specimens and the desires of our visitors? Most objects on display are irreversibly damaged by exposure to light, dust and fluctuations in temperature and humidity. The longer they are on display the shorter they will last. Instead, specimens in storage will last longer without requiring conservation treatment and care; however, visitors would not be able to readily see the specimens. Without specimens there wouldn’t be a museum.”

It’s really interesting to see how visitors responded to this the question.  The majority are individual visitor considerations of how the museum should display and conserve specimens.  Contributions ranging from rotating objects to having the museum in constant darkness as not to allow light damage to the specimens.  How would the visitors see? By giving them night vision goggles of course. But on some occasions there are contributions which form part of a conversation from different visitors who are in the same space but who are temporally distinct.

Visitor 1 reflecting on Conserve or Display question: Who cares? Most people who visit these things are just tourists and locals. Have displays and photos and only let experts and zoology students see the real things. Everyone else will just take a photo and leave.

Visitor 2 (a day later): But don’t the public have as much interest and right to see ‘the real thing’ as those we call ‘experts’? If objects are displayed carefully and monitored closely there is less of a conflict with the need to conserve.

It is these contributions which I think are most interesting for Social Interpretation, as we are trying to create digital interventions which enable connections, discussion and debate, inspired by IWM objects, between people who are in the museum at the same time, in the museum but temporally distinct and then for good measure those different in space and time, contributing online.  The Grant Museum and QRator provide an excellent example of what is possible.

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