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Digital Media for Heritage: Refocusing Design from the Technology to the Visitor Experience

Final Report Summary - DIME4HERITAGE (Digital Media for Heritage: Refocusing Design from the Technology to the Visitor Experience)

I have concluded a three years research project as Marie Curie fellow at the School of Museum Studies in Leicester, jointly with the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To complete this research project I have spent two years conducting fieldwork research and lab work in the USA and one year conducting analytical research and dissemination in the UK.
This Marie Curie research project is situated within Design Research focusing on the area of Digital Heritage – the study of digital media and technologies in museums and other cultural and heritage institutions. This project is a study of digital media design in museum settings. I studied complex digital media systems of five cultural institutions in the USA applying advanced qualitative research methodologies: Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Gallery One at Cleveland Museum of Art, Institute of Emerging Issues at the North Carolina State University, Tenement Museum in New York City, and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The innovative aspect – and the knowledge produced and disseminated – consists in exploring new directions of digital interpretation design by shifting the focus of analysis away from specific technical aspects of design to design as inherently social process (Bucciarelli 1988, "An ethnographic perspective on engineering design." Design studies 9.3 (1988): 159-168.) that brings into dialogue creative individuals from different disciplinary backgrounds: exhibition designers, curatorial staff, digital designers and developers.
The past decade has seen museums ad galleries to gradually integrating digital experience into the overall museum experience. To describe museums after the digital revolution, Ross Parry introduces the concept of “postdigital” museum in which “digital media has become normative within the Institution” (Ross Parry. 2013. 'The End of the Beginning: Normativity in the Postdigital Museum', Museum Worlds, vol. 1 2013, 24-39). In this scenario, museums are pushing the borders of the digital revolution beyond the introduction of cutting-edge technology. Whenever digital technology is employed, the digital-mediated experience becomes integral part of the overall visitor experience. It results that designing for visitor experience in the postdigital museum faces new challenges and, in turn, requires appropriate knowledge and digital literacy. Throughout the entire process of ideation, design, and development of digital resources, collaboration between curatorial, education and interpretation, audience development, exhibition and digital teams is what forms and informs these practices.
I argue that, in the museum context, the design of effective and innovative digital media and technology stretches across the disciplinary borders of museology, visitor studies, digital heritage, and design. The success of digital innovation depends on how well these domains are integrated to deliver an enriched visitor experience and interpretative strategies will become more effective the more we can elaborate design practices that allow museum practitioners, designers, and other stakeholders to better understand and deal with the complexity of that intersection.
My research methodology applied qualitative research and Grounded Theory, which is the one of the methodologies best suited to generating theories of social process (Glaser and Strauss 1967, The discovery of grounded theory, New York), where there is clear interest on the analysis of processes.
Data was gathered from multiple sources: fifty-nine interviews with team members with both museums and external design firms; the collection of team-generated materials (e.g. documents, submissions, prototypes, etc.); communications and files stored in Basecamp (for two case studies); conference proceedings in which the museums wrote about the projects; videos of conference presentations in which the projects were described; a two day workshop organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art during which they presented several sessions to describe different aspects of the Gallery One project. I also interviewed external design consultants, who offered support for (digital) design strategy in the museum setting.
The research has an impact on the European cultural heritage sector (on the scientific community, cultural institutions, and museum practitioners). The capacity for museums and heritage institutions in general to enhance their design strategies can benefit from Design Research as a driving factor by which to generate innovation. By studying innovative digital media projects in the USA I explored new domains of design practice that, applying a holistic design approach, allows to design meaningful experiences for people: the creation of the digital product itself is merely a means to reach this end. My Marie Curie research has contributed to create a practice of new digital media design for better experiences of museum visitors. It results that the research project outcomes are of interest to those working and researching within the European cultural sectors, especially on new media communication strategies. This is consistent with EU policy (see report “EC Implementing an Action Plan for Design-Driven Innovation”) to promote design as strategy for fostering innovation and enriching our knowledge society.