From new experiential projects to creative spaces, museums act more and more like creative hubs and labs. In December 2016, the Science Museum Group launched their Digital Lab which aim is to analyze how museums dive into the digital age. With the earlier opening of the London Science Museum kids’ paradise “Wonderlab” and “Mathematics, a new display designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the Science Museum Group is turning into a real futuristic experience-focused space for all types of audiences. The Digital Lab is slated to become a great source of information on the evolution of museums and their role facing the technological developments supported by Samsung who fully sponsors the project. We interviewed John Stack, Digital Director and Dave Patten, Head of New Media at the Science Museum Group to better understand how the lab was born and where it is headed.
We Are Museums: How did the project start? did the idea come from top deciders, practitioners or from an external actor? How is the project included in the Science Museum Group’ strategy?
John Stack and Dave Patten: The Digital Lab is a core component of the Science Museum Group’s digital strategy.
The four museums in the Science Museum Group (Science Museum, London; National Media Museum, Bradford, Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester; and National Railway Museum, York) are all undertaking major projects to redisplay the collection. Digital technologies will, of course, be a fundamental component of these new displays and refreshed visitor experience.
However, digital technologies are evolving rapidly as is audience behaviour. Alongside, these large-scale projects which have a lifetime measured in decades, we could see all manner of exciting opportunities that can flourish without the constraint of long-term sustainability and which could also be pathfinder projects for future digital initiatives.
The Digital Lab operates at the intersection of content, design, user experience and technology. Among the many areas which we are interested in exploring are:
• What kinds of immersive and augmented technologies can most effectively bring collection objects to life?
• How can new forms of digitisation and digital presentation of objects provide new forms of access?
• How can we best use digital to layer information for different museum audiences?
• How might location-aware mobile technologies enable audience to experience collection objects in the places where those objects have a significance?
• How might we build on the collection catalogue to create user interfaces that encourage new forms of exploration and discovery?
• What might the next generation on gallery digital content delivery be like?
• What new kinds of games might engage new audiences with the museums and their collection?
We Are Museums: The Science Museum is getting much attention lately with WonderLab and the crowdfunding campaign for Eric, the UK’s first robot. What are the links between the Lab’s project and the other Science Museum’s innovation and digital projects?
John Stack and Dave Patten: The Digital Lab’s launch is aligned with the opening of Mathematics: The Winton Gallery, a stunning new display designed by Zaha Hadid Architects.
The three first Digital Lab projects are all related to or inspired by the Mathematics gallery:
• enhanced digitisation of objects in the displays,
• a VR experience around the Handley Page aircraft which is the centrepiece of the gallery,
• a series of hackdays using open data sets from the museum.
We Are Museums: Samsung is the founding partner of the Lab. What is their involvement in the project except besides the funding aspect?
John Stack and Dave Patten: Samsung are the founding partner of the Digital Lab and have supported the projects by sharing their expertise as we developed the VR experience. They will also play a part in the hackdays that we will announce in early 2017.
We Are Museums: Did you get any help from someone to help implement new ways of thinking within the Science Museum Group? Did yourself or the team receive a special training to run the Lab?
John Stack and Dave Patten: The Digital Lab will explore the tension between the relatively short life span of some digital technologies and the lifespan of a permanent museum gallery which can be upwards of twenty years. The Digital Lab is embedded in the the inhouse team and we’re looking to work with the best external partners we can who have expertise in specialised areas. For the Handley Page VR experience we’ve worked with the digital agency Preloaded, for the enhanced digitisation we worked with Drew Gardner and Tom Flynn from MuseumInABox, and for the hack days we’re working with Mar Dixon and Don Undeen.
We Are Museums: How is the project deployed in the 4 museums? How do you keep a sense of strategy and unity across museums? How are the teams organised?
John Stack and Dave Patten: At present the projects are all located at the Science Museum in London, but we absolutely intend to extend this to the other museums in the group. In the New Year we will start to work closely with the other museums in the group to identify Digital Lab projects that respond to the key challenges they face.
We Are Museums: How will the results from the 3 projects be shared with the public? Does this project signal a wider collaboration with other science museums?
John Stack and Dave Patten: The results from the projects will all be made public beginning in 2017. The VR experience will be available in the Mathematics gallery at certain times, the enhanced digitisation will be incorporated into online narrative stories around the collection and the hackdays will hopefully coincide with evening openings where participants will be able to present their work.
The Digital Lab will be regularly blogging about the work it is doing. Code and assets developed by the Lab will be made available for reuse via GitHub.
The Digital team at the museum has always been in regular contact with museum’s across the world but our hope is that the Digital Lab should make project based collaboration with other museums easier.