The other week, we went on a research trip to Bristol to meet with the lovely people from MShed and the Pervasive Media Studio at Watershed (there’s a lot of sheds in Bristol!). During our research for Play Your Part, we had come across Hello Lamp Post, an innovative and playful project where residents of Bristol could ‘wake up’ everyday street furniture and hold a conversation with it. In essence, texting a lamp post. We wanted to find out more due to the nature of the two-way dialogue Hello Lamp Post were able to create between objects and people – something we are interested in exploring at PHM. As Bristol is a three hour train ride away, we thought we better make the most of our visit and find out more about what is happening in the South West.
First up, we went to see Ben from MShed, who gave us an exclusive tour of the galleries as they were closed to the public on Mondays. MShed tells the story of the history of Bristol through the objects and stories of the people who have made the city what it is today. We wanted particularly to find out more about their work with communities and how they collect stories and comments from their visitors both online and onsite. MShed was opened in 2011, just one year after we reopened, so we thought it would be a useful case study to compare a museum of a similar age. Whilst MShed focuses on the history of Bristol, there are a lot of overlaps with our story in that it covers how ordinary citizens have affected change.
The galleries themselves offer a community perspective in the form of walls curated by residents of different areas in Bristol. They included objects, stories, and opportunities for visitors to contribute their own memories. It was really positive to see a variety of voices in the gallery space, and helped to embed the museum within the community. This theme is expanded throughout the galleries as there is a great number of opportunities for visitors to contribute their stories to the museum via both high-tech and low-tech methods. There are both benefits and limitations to this approach. Whilst some of the stories submitted were insightful, Ben admitted that they were hard to moderate, and many were unusable. This is something important to consider when we set something up at the PHM, as we will need to think seriously about the sustainability of anything we do set up, especially regarding staff resources and time, which are precious commodities.
One of the methods used to gain visitor feedback on issues covered by the museum, was a number of ‘Have Your Say’ voting screens, dotted throughout the galleries. They covered themes such as congestion on Bristol’s roads and issues surrounding the slave trade. After voting, visitors were asked their gender, age and location. This allowed you to see the break-down of votes by these demographics. Ben said they had had thousands of people vote via this method, but pointed out that they sometimes left visitors confused as to the actual purpose of the vote, as it is not obvious why they were asking for the information. One would assume that a question about congestion on Bristol’s roads may be used by the council to garner residents’ opinion; however the results cannot be used for this purpose due to the unscientific nature of the vote. This is something we need to consider when posing questions to our visitors. We need to make transparent why we are asking the question and what will happen to the answers, e.g. will they feed into developing the museum in some way, or will they simply be a snapshot of visitor opinion.
Our second stop was Watershed, where we met with Verity from the Pervasive Media Studio. Their recent collaborative project, Hello Lamp Post, was the main draw for us to go to Bristol, so were keen to find out more about it. Unfortunately, the project had finished so we couldn’t actually text a lamp post/ post box etc. Gutted! Verity explained that Hello Lamp Post worked well because it had a story around it – the narrative of ‘waking up’ street furniture. In order to get people involved and invested in a quirky concept like this you need a powerful conceit. They didn’t want it to be the usual ‘hipster’ crowd, but wanted as low a barrier to access as possible in order to attract a wider audience. Verity used the phrase ‘minimum viable magic’, you need to give the impression something has happened in the most minimal way possible, which is why text messaging was used to create the conversations. A major strength of the project was that shallow participation- i.e, people only ‘speaking’ to the object once – felt good to the user, and deeper engagement was not always required to have a meaningful experience. People especially loved questions that suggested an activity, for example, ‘If you were as tall as me what would you do?’ and (asked by a bridge) ‘How many steps did it take you to cross me?’ The project took a lot of production time and Verity explained the importance of needing to get physical in order for digital activities to work. They did a lot of research into the city, location scouting for places where people walk every day and iconic ‘hero’ objects, which were specifically scripted. There was a massive banner and billboard campaign to promote the project. Overall, 25000 text messages were sent with 5000 players, and the top 10 objects interacted with were the ones with the banners on.
We also met with Matt during our time at Watershed, who is a producer for REACT, an organisation which funds collaborations between arts and humanities researchers and creative companies. Last year, REACT held a Heritage Sandbox – bringing people together in one space to workshop around a theme. Heritage Sandbox supports collaborations with ground-breaking ideas that create innovative, meaningful experiences for the heritage sector. The outcome was six projects, including Ghosts in the Garden, where Splash & Ripple and academic Steve Poole developed a ‘Georgian listening device’ for the Holburne Museum in Bath taking audiences on an epic journey of rediscovery, pitching visitors headlong into the past.
Verity and Matt also told us about a number of other projects which may aid us in our research. These included 1831 Riot , Citizen Journalism , Theatre Jukebox and Game the News . The meeting was incredibly useful, informative and inspirational, and we took a number of learning points from it, including:
– Working with technology is always iterative – think about how you maintain a community around it
– Start with resource or idea and not technology
– Call to action – put yourself in the audience’s shoes – how do I engage? Do I want to?
– Storytelling through objects
– Try micro commissioning in order to generate ideas from digital creatives
– Be wary of user generated content
– Bring creative people together into one space to collaborate and generate ideas