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Digital Interpretation

Introduction

Digital interpretation can open up a world of access for your museum or collection which has simply not been possible in the past. Where physical access is an issue you now have the option of offering digital access to your collections. When accompanied by appropriate interpretation at a digital level, this can ensure your collections are accessible worldwide. 

Digital technology also offers numerous opportunities for increasing intellectual access to collections, through offering alternative interpretive language, or by allowing the visitor to explore the collections and related interpretation at their own preferred pace or route. When using a digital platform for interpretation, you have the power to bring text, video and sound into a museum or gallery space, adding context and allowing visitors to respond to the collections on their own terms.

Employing digital interpretation

Use digital technology in a constructive way. Ask yourself these questions before you begin planning your digital interpretation strategy:

  • Will digital interpretation enhance existing interpretation?
  • Will ‘going digital’ encourage new users (such as younger people or family groups) to your museum?
  • Can you interpret strategic parts of your collection digitally, to encourage people to visit your museum, by using your social media or website pages, for example?
  • How can you encourage the visit to be followed up by a visit to your website, and thus continue engagement post-visit?
  • Does the digital interpretation make the most of opportunities to reach a diverse audience?
  • How will you address changes in digital technology to ensure that your digital interpretation does not become outdated and obsolete?

It is important to make the most of any digital technology you use. Allow the digital interpretation to compliment any existing interpretation. Use digital technology to take interpretation into the homes of your visitors through social media or website engagement.

Advice for the digital novice

Developing interpretation can take time, money and resources. Museums should not include digital interpretation just because they’ve been told it’s what they ought to be doing. This could likely lead to an underdeveloped interpretive approach.

Digital technology can be employed within a gallery or museum space as a standalone alternative to other forms of interpretation, for example on a hand-held device, or in support of other forms of interpretation, for example, offering further web-based information about your collections post-visit.

Where digital technology can be particularly useful is when it is used to interpret collections either before and/or after the physical museum visit: for example, for follow up information on your website or social media page. You can also edit information easily and often immediately. Similarly, by being less reliant on text, digital technology can prove useful when it comes to interpreting to visitors who do not have your language as a first language, or where audio-visual content would add substantially to interpretation of your collections (for example, in a video showing a particular object from the collection in use in the past).

Re-thinking Digital

Digital interpretation is now considered a standard interpretive method. There can be some reticence to see anything digital in this way, particularly if you do not have a background in using digital (in any capacity). However, there is no need to be apprehensive about developing your digital interpretation offer if this is the route you are planning to go down. 

Decide if you have the capacity to make your collections digitally available online. Try regularly uploading images of strategic objects from your collection onto social media, along with interesting interpretation about the object. This will not decrease the digital visitor’s wish to see this object in person: consider the fact that most people will have seen innumerable reproductions of the Mona Lisa throughout their lives, on TV, film, billboards, posters and digitally. This does not mean they’d be less likely to want to see the painting ‘in person’.

When thinking constructively, digital interpretation should not be intimidating.

Consider if it would be possible to:

  • Use a complimentary website;
  • Use videos;
  • Interpret using social media;
  • Provide visitors with their own devices to use, for example Tablets, or encourage them to bring their own device to your site.

It’s important to think creatively about the opportunities which digital technology offers interpretation. Mobile-friendly websites, such as this gallery guide from the V&A, can be far more effective and user friendly than either apps or QR codes. Similarly, you can always make remarkably effective use of social media. Could you, for example, suggest a ‘hashtag’ (#) for visitors to use in response to your museum from their own hand held devices?

Social Media

Social Media can be a great boon to the profile of your collections, and the use of social media can encourage creative responses from your visitors as an alternative to non-digital interpretation and its reliance on an authoritative voice. This helps to open up the collections and promote inclusivity and a feeling of wellbeing and ownership over the collections, as a community of social media users worldwide contribute to a digital interpretation of your collections.

Use the social media platform you are most comfortable using. The more confident you are using social media, the more appealing your posts will be to potential engagers. Remember, most people are more likely to look at a social media profile if it is entertaining and informative, rather than purely educational. Consider making your posts humorous, intriguing, and/or light-hearted. This will help give a human voice to both your social media feed and your organisation. [NB: keep in mind your interpretive tone and the content of your collections].

Social media is often effective as it allows people to develop their own approach to an online platform. Below is a quick rundown of some of the more common social media platforms, which might be useful if you have not used social media before.

  • Facebook- good for both text and image based posts. Users ‘like’ a page. Posts can be re-shared.
  • Twitter- posts limited to 140 characters. This can encourage succinct, snappy posts. Posts can be ‘re-tweeted’, and a ‘hashtag’ (#) can be employed which links related content from other posts.
  • Instagram- mainly photographs, can be very useful in positive presentation of collections. Similarly employs a hashtag (#) and good space for text.
  • YouTube / Vimeo- channels for videos. These can be of great benefit to any museum.
  • Snapchat- you can send photos or short videos to people who follow your account. These can often be humorous, and are a good way of encouraging your collections to be viewed differently, and of appealing to harder to reach audiences. See this ‘Snapchat for Museums’

It can be useful to use social media management tools such as Buffer and Hootsuite to make effective use of multiple social media platforms at once, or provide scheduled uploads.

In order for social media to be effective during the museum visit, you must ensure that you have good (ideally free) wifi throughout your site or museum.

 

Digital Interpretive Planning

Ensure that any digital interpretation is planned for in your interpretive plan. Do not give it a separate section under a separate ‘digital’ heading. Treat anything digital as an extension of any other interpretation you do. This will help to ensure that any digital interpretation works in conjunction with your wider interpretive plan to help you reach your interpretive aims and objectives.

Make this your own

A digital approach works best when you are passionate about why you are doing it, and you are clear on how it will benefit your interpretation. Try to be as comfortable as possible with the interpretation you are developing, whatever medium it might take, and this will allow your interpretive aims and objectives to really shine through.

It is good to regularly revisit all forms of interpretation, ensuring that they are relevant, interesting and still true to your original aims and objectives. Digital interpretation should be reviewed at least every two years, and ideally more often, to ensure that it stays as up to date as possible. 

Learn more

The South West Museum Development Programme have a useful page of digital resources.

The Association for Heritage Interpretation

Please contact our Collections and Engagement Officer if you’d like to discuss any of this further.

Thanks to Michael Hamish Glen, Principal of Touchstone Heritage Management Consultants for proofreading these pages.