This is Our Playground: Recognising the value of students as innovators
Oonagh Murphy, Northern Ireland, Alan Hook, Northern Ireland
‘What we need is a hybrid, a fusion of the critical stance of cultural theory with the constructive attitude of the visual designer. This new media critic that we are imagining wants to make something, but what she wants to make will lead her viewers or readers to reevaluate their formal and cultural assumptions’. - Bolter, J. D. (2004) “Theory and Practice of New Media Studies”
On the 25th April 2012 the University of Ulster hosted a hack day in the Ulster Museum for students on the Interactive Media Arts BA (hons) and Museum Studies MA, this event saw students develop innovative interactive experiences within the context of a traditional museum setting. Students worked in teams with mentors to develop playful ludic interactions which worked with (and sometimes against) the museum's collections and displays.
The interactive experiences that students developed are designed to question the notion of play in the museum, recontextualising the collections and gallery spaces to create new modes for the public to investigate and interrogate the spaces of the museum as an institution and develop new dialogues with the exhibits.
These ‘experiences’ act as a tangible example of how time constrained prototyping can facilitate innovative responses to museum collections and presents a case for museums to develop and implement interactive experiences in a faster and more efficient manner. The Hack Day marked the culmination of ‘This is our Playground’ a semester long collaborative research project which explored interdisciplinary teaching and practice, through a series of workshops on digital literacy and designing for the cultural sector. As a result of this project National Museums Northern Ireland has begun to explore new ways to engage with students, and is in the process of developing an interactive media project that will build on the outcomes produced during the Hack Day.
This paper will:
Demonstrate the potential benefits of moving away from internships and workshops with defined outcomes and moving towards a model of engagement which asks students ‘what’s possible?’
Make a case for museums to develop stronger R&D and skill share partnerships with students at local universities, and outline possible approaches that would allow museums to benefit from the skills, knowledge and experience of students from a wide range of design, media, and creative technologies courses.
Showcase some of the most successful projects that the students created and demonstrate that an inter-disciplinary approach and guerrilla dialogue with museum spaces can encourage new audiences and creative responses, encouraging a new sense of ownership for the developers and their audiences.
Delegates will gain practical insights into new ways of working with University/ Higher Education students. This will help attendees develop a solid understanding of how they could facilitate partnerships that would generate cutting edge R&D and low budget approaches to skill sharing between museum staff and students.
Keywords: Hack Days, collaboration, innovation, internships, play, R&D,
The Northern Ireland Museum sector has been slow to respond to digital technologies, at present no one is employed in a fulltime capacity overseeing digital practice in any museum in Northern Ireland. Indeed the only dedicated ‘digital’ post is that of the web marketing manager at National Museums Northern Ireland. NMNI Collections department has a number of staff whose work includes the digitisation of collections, and like many museums NMNI has made these available online via their website (http://www.nmni.com/home/Online-Collections). Whilst NMNI have a strong online collection the lack of dedicated staff means that ‘digital engagement’ has to date not been a priority for NMNI, or the museum sector in Northern Ireland. Indeed unlike National Museums Wales, National Museum of Scotland, and Tate; National Museums Northern Ireland have not made their digital strategy publically available and instead have deemed it to be an internal document for staff – it is our understanding that this document refers solely to the digitisation of the museum’s collections, rather than being an organisation wide digital strategy.
Over the course of the last two years three key reasons have repeatedly been cited by museum staff, and strategic partners as to why museums in Northern Ireland have shown little interest in developing a more holistic approach to digital engagement with visitors. The reasons cited by museums professional in Northern Ireland are the same that museum professionals around the world regularly cite: a lack of money, staff, and skills.
Having spent two years researching digital practice in museums internationally, we felt that a lack of money, staff and skills could provide a strong platform for an agile, dynamic and an engaged approach to innovation within the museum sector in Northern Ireland. The lack of an already existing infrastructure could possibly be a positive thing as it would not restrict production methods and would mean that the Museums have no fixed agenda, policy documents or time scale that projects needed to speak to. In short: fewer meetings and more making.
Taking influence from cultural Hack Day, geeks in residence programmes, professional development workshops and the growing influence of ‘play’ and ‘gaming’ practices in museums and supporting literature we began to explore how these formats could work in Northern Ireland (Beale, 2011; Goins, 2010; Gunatilliake, 2012, Henson and Birchall, 2011; Simon, 2010;). We held talks with a number of museums, arts organisations and strategic partners about the potential to hold a Hack Day but soon realised that people were struggling to translate this concept into a Northern Ireland setting. Many people that we spoke to felt that the museum and cultural sector in Northern Ireland did not have access to the skill set or resources required to deliver a Hack Day. There was a lack of belief, of confidence and indeed conversations always got shifted towards outcomes, even though we pushed the value of the ‘processes’ developed during Hack Days. A common theme that emerged was those working within the cultural sector saying ‘yes we love the idea of a Hack Day, but we aren’t Tate, Edinburgh festivals (really you could insert any cultural brand name in here) – we don’t have the same data, or skills, or resources.’ Around the same time as we held these meetings, Northern Ireland Museum Council held a workshop on digital practice. This workshop was attended by around 40 people, of the attendees only 3 or 4 people worked in or with museums; the rest of the attendees came from the creative industries or were strategic partners and funders. This again demonstrated to us that Northern Ireland did indeed have the skills, resources, and enthusiasm to hold a really successful Hack Day – the challenge was to convince museum staff.
Talk was getting us nowhere fast, and digital culture was continuing to evolve around us, so, as a means to demonstrate what could be achieved in a short space of time with little resources we decided to hold our own hack day, working with students rather than museum staff. The Hack day also served a second purpose to provide student participants with a chance to gain practical, real world experience. We played to our strengths and worked with the resources we had to develop a teaching and research project called ‘This is Our Playrgound’. More than just a Hack Day ‘This is Our Playground’ was a semester long project that developed the digital literacy and professional skills of the students that took part. The outcome of this project would also provide us with context specific prototypes through which we could demonstrate that a lack of money, staff and skills did not need to curtail innovation within museums in Northern Ireland. An unexpected outcome is the potential for students to catalyst change within museums, and the development of mutually beneficial student / museum collaborations.
We told the museum that we were going to hold a Hack Day, and as they weren’t really sure what that meant they provided us with a space to host the event with very few questions asked. We promised them that students would abide by their normal visitor rules.
In advance of the event students on both courses attended a number of workshops and lectures. Students on the Museum Studies Course attended at a 3 hour digital crash course.
Before the event a project prototype was produced to test the approach and ideas. The project was developed over a day, but production lasted one week due to production complexities and time commitments and produced the Foursquare Mayor Chair; a touring intervention for museums and galleries to promote dwell time and engagement with Social Media check-ins. The project followed the approach we would take on the Hack Day, rapid prototyping, easily produced project pages using existing tools and a project developed to encourage playful encounters in a museum setting http://foursquaremayorchair.tumblr.com/. This project was then used to showcase the approach to students.
The Designing for Interactivity module on the Interactive Media Arts course had a special focus on designing for the cultural sector which was a shift in delivery on the module which usually focuses on developing a web platform for an existing media product or practitioner.
On the event day students on both courses met for the first time. They were split into interdisciplinary teams of 4. We wanted the event to be highly self directed with students showing us what was possible, rather than us telling them what was required.
Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies ‘Digital Crash Course’
Students on the MA in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies attended a 3 hour ‘Digital Crash Course’ workshop as part of their Cultures of Curatorship module. This crash course started with a 1 hour lecture on digital practice in museums, and briefly introduced best practice examples of social media, digital engagement, and linked data. After a lecture which provided students with a contextual benchmark, students broke into small groups and were tasked with developing creative and alternative solutions to a number ‘design challenges’. Inspired by Birchall and Henson (2011) ‘Games Kit’ and Locton, Harrison and Stanton (2010) ‘Design Lens’, the design challenges workshop provided students with the opportunity to develop design thinking skills in a structured workshop.
Students were provided with challenges such as:
The Ulster Museum would like visitors to engage on social media platforms, and to visit their website as a follow up to their tangible museum visit. The museum would like to develop an intervention in their entrance to encourage people to engage with them online. They want visitors to be excited by what they have to offer online.
What could the museum do to encourage visitors to engage with them online?
The design challenges activity provided students with the opportunity to develop design thinking skills. At the start of the activity students were intimidated by the large sheets of blank paper, and hesitant to note down ideas, ‘in case they weren’t right’. Museum people love facts and certainty, so to, do museum studies students it seems, writing down new ideas, and challenging established practices was something many in the group had never done before. It was interesting that students got really involved in heated debate about new ideas and approaches to responding to the design challenges – but found it difficult to translate conversations to paper. If they put their ideas on paper they became ‘official’ and this was more difficult than simply pitching ideas in conversation. To start groups off a number of ideas were added to their sheets of paper and this encouraged each group to add to what had been started, which seemed more attainable than starting on a blank page. One of the key difficulties students had during this activity was in understanding how, when and why to use appropriate technology. Students came up with ideas that didn’t involve technology, or involved only a small amount of digital engagement; they presumed this meant they were approaching the task in the wrong way. ‘This is a digital workshop, so does our project idea not need to be digital?’ – this provided a valuable platform to introduce the concept of ‘digitally mediated solutions’ which was explained within the context of ‘digitally mediated solutions’ vs. ‘digital for digital sake’.
Following the ‘design thinking’ activity came a 1 hour ‘digital skills’ activity. Students were tasked with creating a class blog, and worked collectively to decide on a blog name and appearance. Students then broke into smaller groups to write blog posts and learnt how to use the wordpress dashboard. This activity built on both the lecture and ‘design thinking activity’ as students had to create engaging and relevant blog posts. After the blog posts had been created each group discussed their target audience, use of language and images, and how they intended to drive traffic to their blog post. By the end of this Digital Crash course there was real energy and students began to see that they already had a range of digital literacy skills from their personal lives that could transfer into ‘professional’ digital literacy in a museum context.
Interactive Media Arts Teaching
Second year students on the BA (hons) Interactive Media Arts Course take a compulsory module in ‘Designing for Interactivity’ in 2012 ‘This is Our Playground’ formed a key part of this module. Students attended three lectures on designing for cultural audiences in advance of the Hack Day (which was also a required module component.) Whilst the emphasis with museum studies students was on developing digital literacy and design thinking skills, the emphasis when working with iMA students was on getting them to place audiences at the centre of their designs. Through the course of this project we discovered that students on the iMA course did not regularly attend museums or galleries, and instead turned to the internet as their primary source of inspiration. The Ulster Museum is Northern Ireland’s only encyclopedic national museum, however about 70% of iMA students had not visited since the fully refurbished museum reopened in 2009.
It was important to consider the iMA students as fresh eyes on the spaces of the museum and understand that they were not fixed by the usual dialogues that galleries and museums present. This poses its own problems as they are unaware of, or dismissive of the institutional boundaries that Museums have. The iMA course is situated within a Media Arts discipline and encourages the students to challenge and subvert the systems and practices of corporate media, how would this translate into a museums setting when they were asked to create playful digital mediations for the spaces and exhibitions of the museum was important to us. Students on the course had already studied modules in Transmedia Narratives which asks them to think about social media engagement and playful interactions but these projects and the module asked students to create their own projects from scratch, we were interested in how they built on this knowledge and how they might use it to recontextualise the exhibition and buildings of the museum.
The iMA students seemed to form, through their cultural consumption of net and pop cultures, the audiences that museums are talking to, with the added benefit that these students like to make and think. They are designers, developers, theorists and artists situated in digital cultures, popular culture references and participatory media, what exhibits or experiences did they want inside the museum and what interested them.
The students came to the project with an understanding that play and playfulness could be a new lens for the spaces of the museum and that playfulness could be a form of subversion, especially in formal institutions, serving as a way to regain a sense of ownership over space.
Play […] can serve as a lens for creating something beautiful. In other words, games are systems for imagining what is possible. Games and play environments are particularly useful frameworks for structuring systemic and conceptual concerns due to their multifaceted and dynamic, rule‐based nature. (Flanagan, M., 2010)
These playful experiences could be a way to rethink the spaces that seemed not to speak to these students, it could work as a lens to see the institutions and space of the museum differently and could be a new way to interact inside the museum.
Building on materials discussed in lectures and workshops we created a joint Facebook group for both sets of students to post links and ideas in advance of the Hack Day. Contact with students prior to the Hack Day generated a really positive momentum which allowed students to hit the ground running during the actual event. We brought together both sets of students on the morning of the Hack Day and after a short ice breaker session split them into teams of four (two students from each course). During the morning we held two short sessions, the first led by Alan Hook looked at the concept of play and game mechanics; the second session led by Oonagh Murphy explored participatory design in museums. Each group was tasked with creating interactive experiences that question the notion of play in the museum, and recontextualise the collections and gallery spaces to create new modes for the public to investigate and interrogate the spaces of the museum and develop new dialogues with the exhibits. The task was deliberately vague, rather than tell students what we wanted them to create, we wanted them to show us what was possible. The only required outcome was a Tumblr project blog that outlined their ‘hack’ and any prototype media they had produced during the event (http://ulstermuseumhackday.tumblr.com/).
Once students had been set their Hack Day brief they went on a tour of the museums galleries with a museum educator; the tour was particularly beneficial for iMA students, as it provided them with a basic introduction to curatorial thinking and object stories. This was then situated as the institutional, authoritative voice of the museum that students could work with or against in their interpretation and mediation of the museum.
Each group responded to their brief in a different way, but across all the groups we noticed a disciplinary distinction. Museum studies students were concerned with facts, and accuracy, whilst iMA students wanted to make prototypes, some groups revelled in the challenge to find a common ground, others found this more difficult. One group argued for an hour about factual accuracy and which one of their initial ideas would be best to prototype – we intervened and explained that when they leave university as museum professionals they will have to work with designers, and as designers they will have to work with clients. This example demonstrated the need for students to work outside their own discipline, as this provides opportunities to develop professional skills.
One group of students created a QR Code video ghost tour of the museum. The video prototype produced by this group features Takubutti a female Egyptian mummy, played by a male student who dressed himself up in fabric rags. The museums studies students took issue with the factual inaccuracies but the iMA students in their group were able to confidently explain the term ‘proof of concept’ and ‘rapid prototype’ to their team mates. This video and their QR code tour ended up being one of the best concepts and prototypes to come out of the Hack Day (http://hackdaygroup.tumblr.com/project1 ).
Students wanted to engage with the museum on their terms, many groups were put off by the ‘no photography policy’ in the art galleries and instead choose to work with the history galleries. This lead to two interesting creative responses, one group choose to work around the no photography rule and create an alternative audio tour of the museum. This group negotiated taking wide angle gallery images for their blog with staff, their rationale being that copyright wouldn’t be infringed as the paintings would not be the main feature in their photographs. The group produced a 1960’s era radio show, which featured music and news from the decade, and also made reference to objects that featured in paintings on display in the exhibition. The group explained
The project started off from the generic idea that art can be intimidating for some visitors and that ice-breaking activities could encourage a more relaxed engagement with art. It also developed as an alternative to the traditional descriptive and self contained audio tour format. The theme of the exhibition, stressing the sixties as a decade of revolt and innovation, spurred us to challenge the conventions of visiting museums and engaging with art….
The period is certainly best remembered for its music. We used it as an entry point into the gallery as visitors are likely to relate to it in some way or other. The use of music is relevant from a learning point of view as it helps recreate the atmosphere of the time and of the creative process. It is also likely to trigger memories or emotions with visitors, hopefully encouraging deeper interaction and a few boogie steps. (http://heartour.tumblr.com/#22210234901)
Another group decided to work with the Natural History collection instead of the art collection as they wanted to take photographs. Using an art history narrative the group recontextualised the Natural History collection through the creation of a number of meme style images drawing on their consumption of images and culture on the internet and reusing this as a way to encourage engagement on a Facebook page. The memes the students created may to a curatorial eye seem crude or irreverent, but the students rationale explains a critical approach to cultural consumption in museum spaces informed by their own theoretical knowledge of digital culture:
Recently, the meme scene has exploded on to Facebook, with the typical themes involving cities, towns and schools. We decided to bring this to the Ulster museum, to bring a bit of creative Internet culture to contrast with the tradition atmosphere of the place. This lets people think outside the box and come up with different interpretations on what they see, coming up with completely unique narratives and situations to put the sculptures, paintings and other objects. Creating a parody of quite serious objects is becoming a favourite past time of our post-modern generation, and this is the perfect way to bring a little ‘play’ to the museum. Creative, free, fun. (http://hackdaygroup.tumblr.com/project3 )
Other groups prototyped games, primarily in a treasure hunt or quiz format, however we noticed that these groups got bogged down in game mechanics and technicalities rather than the design and development of game formats and prototypes. Whilst we steered groups away from ‘games’ and towards playful ludic experiences we found some groups resisted and stayed with ‘safe’ formats, it was interesting that these ‘safe’ formats ended up being the weakest, less resolved and developed projects. Whilst striving for perfection these groups talked lots, but made little.
One simple game that came out of the day was ‘I dare you’, which was inspired by Super Going a game that was commissioned by SFMoMA as part of their exhibition ArtGameLab, in 2012 (http://supergoing.com/sfmoma).
‘I dare you’ challenged visitors to look at the museum, and the museum experience in a more mindful, but fun way. Simple challenges are placed on pieces of paper and placed around the museum, or dropped from balconies – such as ‘Throw personally illustrated paper airplanes into the open space from any level’ or ‘Spend time riding the lift and listen to what other people are saying about their experiences in the museum and build up an opinion on what the museum is like based on what these people have said. (http://hackdaygroup.tumblr.com/project2)
The simplicity of concept, and materials for this project struck us. It is the type of thing that could be thought up and implemented in one afternoon. Indeed it was the simplicity and limited resources of many of the projects that demonstrated the value of museums working with students. Students are keen and enthusiastic, in the course of their studies they don’t have vast institutional resources or budgets, instead they rely on the tech they have in their pockets and the ideas they have in their head. They use a wide range of free online platforms from Facebook to WordPress both socially and for university coursework, and rather than buying solutions to problems they work with classmates to develop a ‘work around’. This thrifty approach to design and R&D is something that museums could learn a lot from. In the case of students a lack of money, staff and resources often leads to innovation rather than project failure. ‘This is Our Playground’ demonstrated that students could replicate their creative, innovative and thrifty approaches to R&D and rapid prototyping within a museum context.
What we learned
Many of the Interactive Media Arts students had never been to the museum, and started the day hesitant about what they could do, but as the day progressed and we encouraged their ideas we began to see students confidently engage with the museum and challenge the approach it took.
Students wanted to use platforms they were familiar with – for example no one suggested creating alternative information plaques. Instead students used platforms such as youtube, tumblr, vimeo, Facebook and soundcloud. Working with students would ensure that museums are producing digital content on relevant platforms. This approach also means that the projects work as a digital layering of the spaces rather than intervening or disrupting the physical gallery spaces.
Students wanted to use contemporary culture as an underlying narrative to the digitally mediated responses they created. They wanted to relate the museum to themselves, and the world around them – they didn’t care about policy, instead they wanted to make people laugh, stop, stare and question. Working with students provides museums with a valuable way to develop culturally relevant stories that link collections to young visitors.
Students wanted to create work using their own language, their own voice. Take for example the Facebook Memes page. Whilst a museum may not endorse this type of response to their collection, it provides an invaluable insight into how some visitors engage with and respond to exhibitions and collections. Each visitor interprets museum collections and exhibitions through their own creative lens, a lens that uses cultural capital and life experience to derive meaning from collections. Whilst a curator might want visitors to read the panel, the reality is many visitors are taking funny photos, adding captions to them, or tagging their friends as a museums dinosaur on Facebook. Whilst it is right for museums to uphold accuracy as the cornerstone of museum practice, the emergence of visitor reappropriation of collections is becoming endemic, working with students provides museums with a valuable opportunity to respond to this emerging trend.
Students don’t need fancy equipment; they’ll happily use the tech they have available in their pocket. We provided a range of equipment for students to use including cameras, flip cameras, audio equipment, and tripods – despite us hauling them around for the day, students didn’t use them. Instead students used their own devices and created videos and audio using mobile devices and edited these on their own laptops. Museums don’t even need to provide access to equipment to successfully work with students.
Students can take risks that museum staff can’t; students can work on the boundaries of museum practice, and can create prototypes without the ‘official’ endorsement of museums. All of the Student Hacks produced during this project were placed on a blog http://ulstermuseumhackday.tumblr.com/ which was not endorsed by the museum, and did not carry any museum logos.
The lack of involvement from the museum was a good thing – it provided students with creative freedom and a confidence to push boundaries. We felt that if museum staff were present during the Hack Day, or in the presentations, students would have been more conservative in their approach.
As with all Hack Days the dialogue and debate that took place on the day was more valuable than the project outcomes themselves. We feel that students have gained valuable professional skills, and that the interdisciplinary nature of this project replicates more accurately the nature of the museum workplace than a classroom ever could. Encouraging conservative museum studies students to take risks at university will mean that these students will be more comfortable with taking risks when they begin to work in museums.
When we presented the Hacks to the museum, we found that they wanted to engage in what Sync would call a ‘transactional’ way they wanted to buy a good or service rather than co-produce it (Guntallike, 2013). The prototypes produced by students have allowed us to move conversations with funders and museum staff forward, and we are now developing a project with NMNI and University of Ulster that will see students breathe life into the museums WW1 Collection as part of a UK wide project.
Students as innovators
- Students are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, they aren’t jaded by constant meetings, or lengthy project negotiations they bring with them fresh culturally relevant insight that can side step museum bureaucracy, dismantle a problem and find a solution. They can do this on the fringes of museum practice, in a way that is both risky and safe. Students can question museum practices, and disrupt these practices within an incubator space. In many museums R&D is a luxury, asking students to carry out R&D can shift it to the core – in a way that does not affect staff resources or budgets
- Internships are generally department based, sometimes project based, they have a pre defined outcome. If museums provided internships based on challenges then the outcome could be solution based rather than task based. Rather than writing content for Facebook – interns could explore new ways to engage with social media. Problem based internships provide museums with opportunities to take risks with established museum practices,
- R&D led internships provides museums with a platform for ‘safe risk’ , students can experiment with a museum, but they can do so away from official museum platforms, and can work in parallel creating their own blogs, and social media channels.
- Rather than advocating big money University ~ Museum research partnerships instead we are advocating smaller scale more informal ways of working which would be mutually beneficial to museums, universities and students.
- We would be interesting in exploring problem, challenge and solution focussed R&D internships, as our research suggests that these would be beneficial to both museums and students.
- We would be interested in developing R&D workshops for museum staff with iMA students acting as consultants and contributors.
- We would be interested in exploring digital internships that would allow our best students to work with some of the best museums in the world in a remote capacity.
We would like to thank the Centre for Media Research, University of Ulster for supporting this project and students on both the Interactive Media Arts and Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies courses for taking part. Thanks also to the Ulster Ulster Fund, University of Ulster for financial support to attend Museums and The Web.
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We have linked all quotes from students back to their blogs rather than crediting individual students.
O. Murphy and A. Hook, This is Our Playground: Recognising the value of students as innovators. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 31, 2013. Consulted .