Our first research trip to the big smoke of London was almost cancelled by the dramatic lightning bolt that hit Piccadilly Station yesterday morning. However despite the freak weather we made it to London by lunchtime.
Our first stop was the Churchill War Rooms in Westminster to check out their 15-metre-long interactive Lifeline which contains all the key events in Winston Churchill’s life (including the first episode of Corrie!!). We wanted to find out how well this worked in engaging visitors and using digital images of their collections. Initially we were flummoxed by how to work it, as we assumed (as many other visitors did) that it was a touch screen interactive table. After a few minutes of swiping, waving and tapping, we noticed the sensor pads, which were located at the edges of the table. Now we could work it! The timeline was crammed with information, of varying levels of interest. You could easily spend days reading everything! Key dates from World War II were complemented by images from the Imperial War Museums’ collections, including photographs, letters, videos and posters. There were surprising graphics that were hidden in some of the entries, including Frisbees that were launched along the length of the table. We really liked how the collections were used in this way, and there were handy transcriptions of letters and options to enlarge the images. The sheer volume of information has pros and cons, depending on each visitors’ level of interest and knowledge. If you wanted a brief overview of Churchill’s life, with key dates highlighted, then this probably wasn’t for you. But if you liked to dip in and out of the timeline to supplement your knowledge of particular dates then it was a useful tool. For example, one little girl was very excited to find out the name of the first winner of the Tour de France!
The key thing we learned from it was that technology needs to stand the test of time (which is practically impossible as it moves so fast!). We observed other visitors (mainly children) attempting to use it as a touch screen and giving up when it wasn’t working as they expected. We really liked it as a simple tool for bringing in collections not on display (it would have taken a LOT of space to display all the images and letters that were in the timeline) and we’re thinking of doing something similar with our ‘Battle for the Ballot’ timeline in the PHM foyer.
Next on the list was the Grant Museum, stuffed full of curiosities of zoology (including delights such as a jar of moles and a walrus penis bone!) at UCL. We’d gone to meet the brilliant Steve Gray, Research Associate at UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis to discuss the Qrator project. This project first sparked our attention because of the way visitors could have conversations about the themes and objects in the museum, both onsite and online. Basically, visitors can answer questions posed by the museum curators (eg Should we clone extinct animals?) on iPads dotted around the museum. Visitors can contribute to the debate and responses are not curated (apart from a swear filter and any deeply offensive comments being removed). You can see the conversations on the iPads, on the website and you can also contribute via Twitter. Using the Tales of Things website, the conversations are ‘attached’ to an object in the museum, becoming a permanent part of its object history.
We particularly liked this approach as it creates a two way dialogue between the museum and its visitors, and between the visitors themselves. The questions inspire people to respond to the museum and in turn their objects, and many of the comments are both thoughtful and insightful. The technology allows for instantaneous updates and the flexibility for the questions to be regularly changed. Steve explained how he developed the app and how they are planning on developing it in the future, using video comments that can be uploaded straight to You Tube. This approach is definitely something we’d like to explore as part of the Play Your Part project.
Steve then invited us to his techy palace of an office (think Macs, projectors, Kinects, and even Lego!) to show us Survey Mapper, a free real-time geographic survey and polling tool, a project he is working on for his Phd. A TV screen was hooked up to a Kinect motion sensor and you could ‘wave’ to answer the question. There’s real potential for using this at the PHM with ‘voting’, so watch this space!
Possibly the coolest thing we did all day though, was to become a pigeon and fly through the streets of London! (no we hadn’t been struck by lightning – it was one of Steve’s very cool toys projects!).