Why have Royal Pavilion & Museums spent three years helping Blast Theory test out a new app? And is Gift really the future of museums? Digital Manager Kevin Bacon shares his perspective on Gift.
Throughout June visitors to Brighton Museum will have the chance to ‘try out a museum of the future’ with Gift, a new digital experience created by Portslade-based interactive artists Blast Theory.
This is the third year that Royal Pavilion & Museums have hosted the testing of Gift, and it’s been fascinating to see how the app has developed from the early prototypes into a near fully-fledged product. I won’t try and explain here what Gift is, as Blast Theory can explain it better than I can, and if you are able to visit Brighton Museum in June, you can try it yourself. But I will explain why we’ve spent time supporting the testing of Gift, and why I think it has huge potential in rethinking the way digital technology can shape a museum visit.
Most visitors come to our museums with relatives, partners, friends, or as part of a group. For these people, the museum visit is clearly a social experience. Yet this is often overlooked by most digital experiences in museums, which are designed for a solitary user. Audio guides speak directly into an individual’s ears; touchscreen interactives can usually only be used by one person at a time. These technologies can be effective ways of providing more content to visitors, but they often rub against the grain of the social experience, resulting in a low uptake.
On the surface, Gift does much the same: the visitor uses their mobile phone to create and share content in a solitary way. But because it is so rooted in the practice of creating and sending gifts, it can enhance the social experience of the museum. A gift could be sent to a friend in another gallery, who is then encouraged to seek out the shared exhibit. It can even be shared with someone outside of the museum, so that they can enjoy their gift at home, and possibly visit the museum themselves in the future.
Private and Quiet
You could argue that Gift is simply replicating what social media platforms already enable. Thousands of people every year are creating and sharing photos of their museum using familiar tools such as Facebook and Instagram. Why should any museum visitor use a new application like Gift for this purpose?
There are several answers to this question, but for me there are two powerful reasons why Gift can enable a much richer experience.
Social media channels like Twitter and Facebook are based on a model of the one speaking to the many. This changes the way people communicate. When you compose a tweet, you are likely thinking of the tens, hundreds, or thousands of followers you might have, and will shape your language accordingly (for better or worse). Whether you’re showing off, being cautiously diplomatic, needlingly aggressive, or conspicuously polite, the way you communicate will be inherently performative. As a result, these channels are not ideal for communicating more nuanced messages, or sharing ideas that only make sense within more intimate relationships. If you spot a painting that reminds you of a long-deceased aunt’s dog, is Instagram the best place to share that with your cousin?
- Although platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger enable the sharing of rich content through private groups, these messages become part of a feed. As these feeds are often noisy, even a thoughtfully crafted message will quickly get lost on a long timeline. By turning an ephemeral message into a gift, Blast Theory’s Gift app taps into the long-established practice of museum visitors acquiring souvenirs of their experience.
Wish you were here
Blast Theory describe Gift as a ‘playlist’ or a ‘mixtape’ for museums, and depending on whether you’re old enough to remember what a C90 is, one of those comparisons is a good way of describing the experience.
As an ex-curator who tends to look to the more distant past, Gift reminds me of a much older form of social technology: the postcard. The development of the postcard in the early 1900s anticipated how we communicate with social media today, as they enabled rapid communication through images and short-form text. Unlike social media, however, postcards were designed for one to one communication, and this encouraged the use of them for more personal and intimate communications. Take this 1905 example from our collections:
Do you remember the evening at this place. Fred’s done the photo’s he is going to write on the one he is going to give me , I havent seen the sweet creature lately, you see I have other fishes to fry. Nearly mid-night ta ta. I went on the Pier with nurse Sunday we had a fine time , she introduced me to another Frank that fated name.. I will write letter later it is now 11.15 pm so bye -bye with best love (darling) Beatie x x
Aside from enabling rapid and personalised communication, people often kept postcards, as souvenirs and mementos of places and people.That is why this postcard, and thousands of others, have ended up in our collections. (We have over 7000 in our collections, including 1000 that you can view and download online.)
For all its speed and ease of use, digital media is not very good at providing long-lasting mementos of shared experiences. Gift gets as close as any digital medium I have seen to recapturing what has made postcards so popular for over a century.
The Future of Museums?
Whether Blast Theory’s Gift represents the future of museums is down to visitors. The feedback gleaned from June’s testing in Brighton Museum will be vital for Blast Theory, and I am interested in any opinions on whether this is something Royal Pavilion & Museums should make a regular part of the visitor experience.
By showing that digital technology can be used to reframe the social experience of the museum visit, and not simply provide a conduit for more content about the displays, Blast Theory’s work already shows a new direction of travel. And even if Gift does not create the museum of the future, it may very well provide a postcard for the Instagram generation.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager