Last year has been a fun year. At one point I found I had a number of hours to kill before I caught an onward travel connection. Since I was travelling through a city, I decided to kill some time by visiting some museums.
I have to confess I really like museums. My favourite type is science and engineering museums. I really like looking at machines, mechanisms and drawings, learning about the people and situations that shaped them. I also like visiting art museums too, but I will be the first to confess that I do find some of the exhibits that they can contain a little difficult to understand.
Starting my exploration
I stepped into the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum (wikipedia) with mild trepadation, not really knowing what I was letting myself in for. After the entrance area I discovered a desk that was renting audio guides. Since I felt that I might be able to gain something from the use of an audio guide (and since I was travelling alone, it could offer me some company), I decided to rent one for a couple of hours.
With my guide in hand I started to wander around the gallery. The paintings appeared to be set out in a very particular and deliberate way. The gallery designer was obviously trying to tell me something about the history of art (of which I know next to nothing about). The paintings gradually changed from impressionism, to modernism, through to paintings that I could only describe as thoroughly abstract (some of which I thoroughly liked!)
Extending my guide
I remember stopping at a couple of paintings at the impressionist section. The disembodied voice of my guide was telling me to pay attention to the foreground, and the background: particular details were considered to be important. I was given some background information, about where the painter was working and who he was working with.
On a couple of occasions I felt that I had been told a huge amount of detail, but I felt that none of it was sticking. I didn't have a mental framework around which to store these new facts that I was being presented with. Art history students, on the other hand, might have less trouble.
What I did discover is that some subjects interested me significantly more than others. I wanted to know which artists were influenced by others. I wanted to hear a timeline of how they were connected.
I didn't just want my guide to tell me about what I was looking at, I wanted my audio guide to be a guide, to be more like a person who would perhaps direct me to things that I might be interested in looking at or learning about. I wanted my audio guide to branch off on an interesting anecdote about the connections between two different artists, about the trials and tribulation of their daily lives. I felt that I needed this functionality not only to uncover more about what I was seeing, but also to help me to find a way to structure the information that I was hearing.
Perhaps my mobile device could present a list of topics of themes that related to a particular painting. It might display the name of the artist, some information about the scene that was being depicted, perhaps some keywords that correspond to the type under which it could be broadly categorised.
Choosing these entries might direct you to related audio files or perhaps other paintings. A visitor might be presented with words like, 'you might want to look at this painting by this artist', followed by some instructions about where to find the painting in the gallery (and its unique name or number).
If this alternative sounded interesting (but it wasn't your main interest) you might be able to store this potentially interesting diversion into a 'trail store', a form of bookmark for audio guides.
Of course, it would be much better if you had your own personal human guide, but there is always the fear of sounding like an idiot if you ask questions like, 'so, erm, what is impressionism exactly?', especially if you are amongst a large group of people!
There are other things you could do too. Different visitors will take different routes through a gallery or museum. You might be able to follow the routes (or footsteps) that other visitors have taken.
Strangers could be able to name and store their own routes and 'interest maps'. You could break off a route half way through a preexisting 'discovery path' and form your own. This could become, in essence, a form of social software for gallery spaces. A static guide might be able to present user generated pathways through gallery generated content.
One of the things I had to do when I explored my gallery was exchange my driving licence for a piece of clumsy, uncomfortable mobile technology. It was only later that it struck me that I had a relatively high tech piece of mobile technology in my pocket: a mobile phone.
To be fair, I do hold a bit of fondness for my simple retro Nokia device, but I could imagine a situation where audio guides are not delivered by custom pieces of hardware, but instead streamed directly to your own hand held personal device. Payment for a 'guide' service could be made directly through the phone. Different galleries or museums may begin to host their own systems, where physical 'guide access posters' give users instructions about how visitors could access a parallel world of exploration and learning.
Rather than using something that is unfamiliar, you might be able to use your own headphones, and perhaps use your device to take away souvenirs (or information artefacts) that relate to particular exhibits. Museums are, after all, so packed with information, it is difficult to 'take everything in'. Your own device may be used to augment your experience, and remind you of what you found to be particularly interesting.
If each user has their own device, it is possible that this device could store a representation of their own interests or learning preferences. Before stepping over the threshold of a museum, you might have already told your device that you are interested in looking at a particular period of painting. A museum website might be able to offer you some advice about what kinds of preferences you might choose before your visit.
With the guide that I used, I moved between the individual exhibits entering exhibit numbers into a keypad. Might there be a better less visible way to tell the guide device what exhibits are of interest?
In museums like Victoria and Albert and the Natural History Museum, it takes many visits to explore the galleries and exhibits. Ideally a human guide would remember what you might have seen before and what interests you have. Perhaps a digital personalized guide may able to store information about your previous visits, helping you to remember what you previously studied. A digital system might also have the power to describe what has changed in terms of exhibits if some time has elapsed between your different visits. A gallery may be able to advertise its own exhibits.
These thoughts spring from an idealised vision of what a perfect audio (or mobile) guide through a museum or gallery might look like. Ideally it should run on your own device, and ideally it should enable to learn and allow you to take snippets or fragments of your experience away with you. In some senses, it might be possible to construct a museum exhibit e-portfolio (wikipedia), to store digital mementoes of your real-world experiences.
There are many unsaid challenges to realise a pervasive personalized mobile audio guide. We need to understand how to best create material that works for different groups of learners. In turn, we need to understand how to best create user models (wikipedia) of visitors.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges may lie with the creation of a standards-based interoperable infrastructure that might enable public exhibition spaces to allow materials and services to be made available to personal hand held devices.
Acknowlegement: image from Flickr by jonmcalister, licenced under creative commons.