Teaching the Digital Museum: A Collaborative Museum-University Partnership to Develop Curriculum for Digital Interaction

Gabby Resch, Ryerson University; University of Toronto, Canada, Sabrina Greupner, Ontario Science Centre, Canada

Abstract

What are the opportunities and challenges facing educators across the institutional and academic divide as they introduce emerging museum professionals to new digital technologies? What levels of technical experience will their students require in order to navigate the shifting sands of digital museum interaction? What technical skills must emerging professionals possess in order to successfully prepare for digital innovations they are likely to encounter in their careers? These are among the various questions we were forced to address in designing and implementing a new graduate course focused on digital interaction in museums. This paper will describe a partnership between management at a prominent science centre (the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Canada) and instructional faculty in an established museum studies graduate program (the Master of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto, or MMSt). This collaboration was initiated in order to build experiential curriculum that would give students direct experience with digital technologies and interaction methods they can expect to see in a variety of museum contexts. In the paper, we will describe the numerous challenges we faced in attempting to bridge theoretical, critical, technical, and professional concerns as we developed a new course titled "The Digital Museum: From Strategy to Implementation,” which had its first run in early 2019. Recognizing that a significant number of our 35 enrolled students would enter this course with limited technical and design skills, we had to make various compromises in our course design as we attempted to survey a range of new interactive technologies (from augmented reality to 3D printing) while presenting students with contexts in which they could gain hands-on experience with these technologies. In summarizing our experiences, we will discuss new pedagogical opportunities that we hope to capitalize on in future iterations of this course.

Keywords: digital, technology, interaction, pedagogy, curriculum

Teaching the Digital Museum: A Collaborative Museum-University Partnership to Develop Curriculum for Digital Interaction

Introduction

Digital technologies present exciting new opportunities for interaction with museum objects. They help forge unique and novel paths of meaning, and facilitate the creation of new museum publics. But they also unsettle the foundation of stability, materiality, and temporal order upon which many museums reside. What are the opportunities and challenges facing educators across the institutional and academic divide as they introduce emerging museum professionals to new digital technologies? What levels of technical experience do their students require in order to navigate the shifting sands of digital museum interaction? What technical skills must emerging professionals possess in order to successfully prepare for digital innovations they are likely to work with in their careers? These are among the various questions we were forced to address in designing and implementing a new graduate-level course focused on digital interaction in museums.

This paper describes a partnership between management at a prominent science centre (the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Canada) and instructional faculty in an established museum studies graduate program (the Master of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto, or MMSt). This partnership was initiated in order to build curriculum that would give students direct experience with digital technologies and interaction methods they can expect to encounter in a range of museum contexts. In the sections that follow, we will describe the numerous challenges we faced in attempting to bridge theoretical, critical, technical, and professional concerns as we developed a new course called The Digital Museum: From Strategy to Implementation, which had its first run in from January to April, 2019. The course explores the role of new and emerging digital technologies in the context of the contemporary museum experience. It is intended to provide students with the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions regarding opportunities and challenges afforded by digital technologies.

Recognizing that a significant number of our 35 enrolled students would enter the course with limited technical and design skills, we had to make various compromises in our course design as we attempted to survey a range of new interactive technologies (from augmented reality to 3D printing) while presenting students with contexts in which they could gain hands-on experience with these technologies. In summarizing our experiences, we discuss new pedagogical opportunities that we hope to capitalize on in future iterations of this course (including one running from January to April, 2020). These include possibilities for collaboration with experienced digital producers and interactive designers, as well as courses focused solely on technical curriculum.

Do emerging museum professionals make good digital designers? How much instruction is necessary to teach students how to conceptualize a game prototype, or project manage a digital exhibit? What goes into crafting an effective institutional digital strategy? What do students need to know about scanning and reproduction in order to parse the various legal and ethical ramifications of digital repatriation? These are among the various questions that emerged as we took stock of the course. In the concluding section of this paper, we present new insights on them.

Background

The Master of Museum Studies in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information is Canada’s only anglophone master’s program that combines museological theory and in-depth instruction around critical issues to fuel the exploration of collections, curatorship, digital heritage, museum education, programming, and management. Author Resch is a sessional lecturer in the Faculty of Information, from which he holds a PhD. Throughout his doctoral studies, he carried out digitization and 3D printing research and design collaborations with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Bata Shoe Museum (see Resch et al., 2018 and Turner et al., 2017).

Author Greupner is the manager of the Weston Family Innovation Centre at the Ontario Science Centre (The Science Centre or OSC), where she has worked for 20 years and holds a Cisco Science Fellowship in Innovative Learning Technologies. Initial development of The Digital Museum coincided with the OSC’s 50th anniversary. Groundbreaking when it opened in 1969, this world-class science museum has welcomed more than 53 million visitors, and has established pioneering approaches to hands-on interaction that have been adopted by various science centres around the world. In 1997, a “Digital Media” department was established, launching a significant Web presence that included state-of-the-art Flash-based interactive science games and content. In the decade that followed, staff developed online content resources (e.g. experiments, monthly theme packages, activities), e-Books, award-winning websites for external clients, on-site augmented and virtual reality experiences, podcasts, multitouch kiosks, and award-winning digital exhibits, such as “The Aging Machine,” that used software to illustrate what children might look like as they got older and stop-motion animation stations where visitors could download their contributions.

In 2005, work began on the $47-million (CAD) “Agents of Change” renewal project which would lead to the creation of over 60 high-tech interactive experiences, with over 80 digital displays fed by a network of computers and driven by a custom venue/content management system. Daily live presentations on current science were also supported by custom digital assets that are created in-house daily by a dedicated team of digital content developers. By 2018, the landscape had shifted. Budgetary and technological changes presented new challenges. OSC was not alone in this. Many similar institutions struggle with a lack of consensus regarding the processes and resources required to effectively incorporate digital technology into exhibit offerings. The Knight Foundation’s Jayne Butler, in commenting on the strain that digital transformation places on museum staff, notes that “small to mid-sized museums have little capacity to take on technology projects. In addition, necessary infrastructure, including extended Wi-Fi and upgraded management systems, come with an expensive price tag. Museums often don’t have the capacity to hire staff who can advance the change process.” (Butler, 2017) Despite being a large institution, the Ontario Science Centre has wrestled with the following questions triggered by digital transformation: Should it have dedicated teams and digital specialists assigned to different departments? How can digital skills be most effectively leveraged in a cost-effective manner under these new conditions? Is it more cost-effective to hire external contractors to focus on in-house development?

Given rapid developments in digital technology, particularly social media and smartphone usage from approximately 2010-on, a re-evaluation of what actually constitutes “digital” work in institutions like the Science Centre has been necessary. Does “digital” encompass the corporate website? Related social media? Interactive on-site experiences? Online resources? Does this domain “belong” to Marketing, Exhibition Development, Corporate IT, or Communications? At what point should staff with digital and new-media expertise be brought into exhibition development teams? From the onset? When overall content concepts have been established? Should digital project components be shepherded by dedicated project managers with digital development experience, or is a general project manager sufficient? Finally, what is the “value” of digital? How can its contribution to revenue generation be effectively measured? Does its often expensive, resource-intensive development lead to more satisfying and enriching experiences for visitors? By whose standards and which criteria?

In the absence of clear standards and benchmarks for these questions, the application and integration of digital technology becomes haphazard, frequently resulting in one-offs that lack cross-organizational support and are difficult to maintain operationally. This sets the context in which new museum professionals now enter a field in which “digital” can mean many different things, depending on the institution and its priorities. How best, then, to guide students toward a comprehensive understanding of the “digital” museum work they will carry out?

Collaboration

Science Centre staff first discussed the possibility of collaboration with Museum Studies faculty in 2017. For a number of years, the Science Centre had worked with students from the faculty’s “Exhibition Project” course in curating and creating gallery exhibits and special programs for visitors. Through this experience, it became clear that the conceptualization and implementation of digital elements was an ongoing challenge for many students. Together, Museum Studies faculty and OSC staff agreed to explore developing a new course that would hone the emerging museum professionals’ digital skills.

 

In evaluating whether a proposed collaboration around curriculum development was feasible and/or desirable, the Ontario Science Centre was guided by the following criteria: “Will it result in something unique that would only be possible by bringing the two institutions together?” Initial discussions around the development of The Digital Museum seemed to satisfy this criteria. For students, this would be an opportunity to gain first-hand experience with existing and emergent digital technologies through access to staff expertise, resources, and exposure to the ongoing digital development process in an active museum setting. Professor Cara Krmpotich, Director of the Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto, when asked how the course content would address emerging digital trends in the field and provide a worthwhile addition to the program’s existing course offerings, responded: “We are surrounded by digital media in our lives, and it’s often so seamless that we gloss over what goes into making things digital, or making digital things. It’s important that staff in the cultural and heritage sectors have a sense of what it takes to make, maintain, and interact with digital tools and digital objects. And what better place to do this than with the Ontario Science Centre? A place that embraces innovation, participatory learning, and multi-generational experiences.”

 

From the Ontario Science Centre’s perspective, this collaboration aligned directly with its revised 2018 Strategic Plan to transform the Centre from an institution seen primarily as a cultural attraction to a hub that brings together stakeholders from educational, government, and private organizations in order to further its mission of “creating a more curious, creative and resilient world.” This transformation is meant to situate the OSC as a public centre for innovative thinking and a prime venue for public dialogue about science, technology, and society. The proposed collaboration was seen as a chance to support the next generation of museum professionals and also benefit from their fresh perspectives, enthusiasm, and experience as digital natives. By showcasing and promoting student work on our exhibit floor, the Science Centre could inspire younger visitors, highlight potential career paths, and establish relevance as an integral member of the innovation and learning ecosystem in Ontario.

Unexpected was the added benefit of this collaboration leading to an internal “taking stock” of how digital is approached at the Ontario Science Centre. If we were advocating for “best practices” to emerging museum professionals, how was that reflected in the institution’s practices? This project became an opportunity for OSC to re-evaluate some of its own processes and adjust them accordingly.

In order to ensure the endeavour’s success, careful consideration of the partner relationship and how this played out in the planning and delivery of the course was fundamental. In their paper on the “Realities and impacts of museum-university partnerships in Englan,” Bonacchi et al. (2016, p. 14) assert that challenges like misaligned missions and budget constraints can easily lead to project failure. While their study focuses primarily on research projects in universities, its findings apply to collaborations such as ours. Key elements that led to project success in our case included: project champions (in this case, the authors Resch and Greupner representing their respective institutions); support from senior administration; shared ownership; advance planning to meet each institution’s timelines and defined project goals that stood to benefit both organizations.

 

Furthermore, the importance of clear communication cannot be stressed enough: “…success in partnerships pertain[s] primarily to processes and, more specifically, to the implementation of mechanisms of good communication and dialogue” (Bonacchi et al. 2016: 14). Baggesen and Johansen (2016) describe similar insights gleaned through the development of their pop-up exhibition experiment, “//getting online”, at ENIGMA Museum of Communication in Copenhagen: “Implicit understandings and communal work practices within an organisation are not common knowledge for an outsider and often not even clearly articulated inside a team. Making these understandings explicit is thus a useful exercise for all involved and necessary in order to establish common ground for collaboration.” In the initial offering of the “Digital Museum” course, communication challenges were typically resolved on the fly, facilitated by a readiness on both sides to embrace agility and flexibility. This was aided by the support of management and faculty members willing to clear schedules, make resources available, and adapt to timelines. (In the second year of providing the course, planning has become much easier with the increased familiarity of both institutions’ organizational paradigms and requirements.) Table 1, based on studies cited in the Bonacchi paper, lists drivers of success for collaborations such as ours.

Ellison 2015 Share Academy 2013
  • Shared vision/shared values leading to clear shared goals
  • Mutual benefits
  • Benefits for all parties
  • A sense of fairness
  • Engagement of all parties in the partnership
  • Buy-in/stability/commitment for the top
  • Structure and organization of the partnership
  • Need for a project manager, or someone taking the lead
  • Human relationships within the partnership
  • Communication
  • Trust
  • Producing unexpected outcomes
  • Lead to future projects/future long-term collaboration
  • Brokering services or events which bring people together to discuss ideas are key to generating non-traditional partnerships
  • Developing a simple Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which outlines each partner’s responsibilities at the start of the project helps ensure the smooth running of the project
  • Museums and universities have different timetables and planning structures so it’s important to check that project timescales work for both partners
  • Successful partnerships deliver on the core priorities for both organizations
  • Trust and good communication is vital for a successful collaboration. Face-to-face contact is better than relying on email
  • Working with students brings considerable numbers of challenges and benefits. Students bring enthusiasm and new ideas but require considerable guidance. They may also need room to fail
  • The challenge of two different cultures coming together can result in exciting outcomes but partnerships are labour intensive and not necessarily a way to save time or money

Table 1. Drivers of success and factors contributing to determine failure in museum university partnerships (Share Academy 2013) and in HEIs cultural organisation partnerships (Ellison 2015: 20-21).

Course Goals

“Degree programs aimed at museum professionals are well-established. However, the skills needed are rapidly changing as information has moved from non-digital to digital form. This affects not just behind-the-scenes activities at museums (e.g., collections catalogs), but the whole way in which exhibitions are presented to the public, both within the physical museum and through virtual, online means.” (Coleman et al., 2015 qtd. in Giannini and Bowen).

Course and syllabus development for The Digital Museum was initiated in mid-2017. A new course proposal was crafted by the authors and Museum Studies faculty, and was approved by the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies later that year. The authors met numerous times throughout 2018 to plan delivery of the first session. The primary objective of the course was to facilitate opportunities for developing and strengthening digital and sociotechnical literacy among Museum Studies students. By creating a reciprocal learning opportunity with a prominent cultural institution in Toronto, the Ontario Science Centre, the course was designed to provide a rich context for students to encounter course themes in a realistic setting, as well as to expand their digital portfolios. While the course was designed to equip students with the capacity to weigh the various means by which digital technologies support new ways of thinking and learning in museums, its primary objective was not to produce experts in digital development. The course was meant to provide an overview of currently-available digital technologies, in a realistic context. It was simply not possible to expect students to be able to hit the ground running in the production of digital assets and apps.

We did, however, expect students to be able to demonstrate the following digital capacities upon completion of the course:

  • Understand the elements of a comprehensive digital strategy and explain the factors used to determine priorities and deliverables.
  • Identify the business models, infrastructure requirements, skill sets, and competencies required to execute digital transformation in a museum setting.
  • Model a multi-channel approach to content creation and distribution, including analysis and assessment of digital content systems.
  • Explain the role of digital in organizational initiatives such as community building, marketing and communications, education, public programming, outreach, exhibit curation, and archiving.
  • Understand the role of evaluation in making data-driven decisions regarding the development and implementation of digital initiatives in museums.
  • Understand user behaviour and expectations and their impact on decision making in a digital context.
  • Apply project management principles and practices in a digital development context.
  • Put into practice the creation of a digital experience by learning about and using new technologies that might include content management platforms, novel user interfaces, geospatial information systems, and 3D design software.
  • Think critically about the role of digital technologies in museums.
  • Evaluate the challenges that museum professionals face as new digital technologies are introduced to the environments in which they work.

These core digital capacities were aligned with learning outcomes for the Master of Museum Studies program, which expects students to be able to address critical issues facing cultural institutions (including digital transformation); to both understand and develop best practices (including for the use of cutting edge digital technologies) in museum exhibits; and to innovate in the face of new opportunities and challenges (including digital ones). Understanding digital strategies and identifying the requirements needed to implement digital transformations in museum settings (two course learning outcomes) are tightly integrated with the capacity to “organize processes involving people, financial and physical resources in order to actualize programmes, projects, buildings and revitalization plans,” a key learning outcome for the current Master’s program. Understanding and evaluating user behaviour and expectations (two additional course learning outcomes) requires that students learn to “use appropriate methods to assess on-going project development and to evaluate achievements and effects of museum activities,” another important learning outcome of the MMSt program. Applying project management principles and practices (a course learning outcome) is a crucial facet of learning to “work in and manage groups and interpersonal relations” (an MMSt program learning outcome). As such, the course was designed to augment and enhance the current master’s program by providing emerging museum professionals with exposure to various digital technologies, practices, and contexts they can expect to encounter.

From the Science Centre’s perspective, the course would provide pathways for potential future staff to foster an understanding of the definition and role of digital technology in the context of the museum experience. This includes how it can enhance the visitor experience by promoting engagement; supporting alternative learning and engagement styles; and encouraging participatory experiences that promote creativity and collaboration. This institutional outcome was summarized by a need to support the development of professionals who possess a good working knowledge of available options in the field of new and emerging technologies, including their potential strengths and limitations. Such professionals must be able to make informed and educated decisions about digital projects. The course was also an opportunity for the Science Centre to understand where institutional weaknesses lie for museums when it comes to helping staff develop new digital skills and resources – and to combat entrenched exhibition development processes that hamper effective use of digital. By providing hands-on experience with the processes and stages of real-life digital exhibition development, the Science Centre would help students (as emerging professionals) gain a broader understanding of the associated costs, resources, and timelines required to effectively manage scope and budget of digital projects. The goal was to help create future professional “digital ambassadors” in the museum workplace who are capable of bringing together individuals from across the organization and who have a shared understanding of how digital and new media can be deployed to create an improved visitor experience.

Implementation

The initial offering of The Digital Museum ran over twelve weeks, from January to April, 2019. Classes met for three-hour sessions each week, during which approximately an hour and a half was allocated for a lecture and discussion of relevant thematic material, and the remaining time was allocated for tutorials, technology demonstrations, and collaborative design work. Upon taking an initial survey of registrants in the first week, we recognized that the majority of our 35 enrolled students would enter the course with quite limited technical and design skills. To address this, we decided to scale back some of the technical instruction and make various compromises in our course design. Our goal, as noted in the previous section, was to provide an overview of new interactive technologies (from augmented reality to 3D printing) while presenting students with contexts in which they could gain hands-on experience with these technologies. While there was not an expectation that students would, say, learn to code, we did expect them to become comfortable and proficient with at least one digital technology they might expect to encounter in their future professional work.

 

The syllabus (Resch & Greupner, 2018) allowed for roughly three reading assignments per week, and students were expected to respond to those readings and the accompanying lectures by participating verbally in class or taking part in online discussions using the university’s Canvas-based online learning management portal. All course materials, including readings, assignments, special announcements, the syllabus, and schedules (including instructions for classes held at the Ontario Science Centre), were posted here. Weekly prompts were listed to facilitate robust discussion that bridged the online portal and in-class communication.

The course’s first assignment was structured to facilitate this. In it, students were asked to select an application of a contemporary technology (e.g. augmented reality exhibit, social media campaign, digitized and 3D-printed touchables) and produce a step-by-step instructional workflow describing its possible deployment in a museum experience. This would require iterative design and prototyping, familiarization with best practices, and consideration of a target audience for the instructional content (e.g. secondary school teachers, exhibit designers). The various components that were to be prepared could include required materials, design considerations, programming code, assembly images, etc. Students were allowed to submit this assignment through a variety of formats, including a white paper-style report, a web-based instructional or PowerPoint-type presentation, and even a YouTube-style video. Examination of the implications for developing such an experience were to be laid out in detail, including any new “best practices” that museum professionals doing similar work might employ. Submissions included a number of social media campaign tutorials, a walk-through of 2D-to-3D image translation for the purpose of making 3D-printed reliefs from paintings, an immersive museum tour designed in Scratch (a visual programming language), and a Jupyter notebook instructional for using Python-based machine learning processes to organize collections (which the student shared on GitHub).

 

In addition to this assignment, which was designed to ensure that students became familiar with at least one common digital museum technology, students were also given demonstrations and brief tutorials on usability evaluation of Science Centre digital exhibits; budgeting and digital project management; 3D digitization and printing, including photogrammetry, structured light, and laser scanning, as well as FDM and SLA printing (through author Resch’s affiliation with two campus makerspaces); and experience with mobile-based augmented reality applications for museum collections, as well as an immersive VR experience of the Cave Temples of Dunhuang that aligned with course material from that week (Kenderdine, 2013). In addition, students were given the opportunity to attend a free workshop, normally offered to elementary and secondary school educators by the Science Centre, that introduces participants to basic electronics, circuit building, and microcontroller programming for Arduino and Python-based platforms.

 

For the course’s major assignment, students were asked to work in groups to produce a minimum viable prototype (distinct from a minimum viable “product”) for an upcoming experience dedicated to current science news which would be located in the Science Centre’s “HotZone” area. They were constrained by a theme (climate change), and were asked to develop exhibit pieces that made use of interactive digital technologies (possibly including, but not limited to, augmented/virtual reality, 3D printing, infographics, touch surfaces, projection, etc.). Prototypes were to be developed collaboratively over the course of the semester, with a variety of deliverables:

  • An initial pitch to the class clarifying their topic and proposed approach;
  • In-class prototype development;
  • On-site user observations and user testing (if possible);
  • Budget estimates;
  • Developed metrics for evaluation;
  • And a group presentation to a panel made up of Ontario Science Centre staff.

 

The above deliverables were assessed as collaborative group work, and were worth 75% of the assignment’s value. Presentations before the panel were to include a visual component of the steps taken in development, the prototype itself, and an expectation that all group members would speak and participate in answering questions from the panel members. In addition, each student was expected to submit an individual summary report detailing their specific contribution to the project, reflecting on their experience, outlining possible best practices for future related work, and presenting new issues or opportunities for related development. This report was worth 25% of the assignment’s value, and the assignment as a whole was worth 60% of the final grade.

Challenges

Any first-time course requires equal doses of humility, flexibility, and seat-of-the-pants planning. The overall structure we sought to provide gave students good exposure to a wide variety of technologies, coupled with a broad survey of relevant academic research and thought leadership. Students’ lack of technical and design skills, while anticipated, proved to be a significant challenge, and was at odds with the original intent to provide significant hands-on experience with digital technologies. Additionally, the large class size (35 students) limited the amount of direct one-on-one technical instruction that we were able to provide. In some ways, this aligned better with the stated goal of the course, which was to develop museum professionals who would possess general familiarity with digital processes. While technologies change, the conceptual application of those technologies follows fairly consistent goals: to engage our visitors and involve them in the “conversation” of museum offerings. Because of this, general familiarity can be a more crucial skill than specificity when it comes to technical ability.

 

While mostly positive, feedback gleaned from student surveys confirmed the authors’ self-assessment regarding challenges experienced by students and instructors during the inaugural offering of the course. Constructive feedback centred on the structure and requirements of the second assignment. While the course was strong on museological and human-computer interaction theory, some students indicated that the lack of practical technical workshops or tutorials did not prepare them adequately for the expectation that a viable prototype would be required for the final assignment. One student commented that they felt there was not really a chance to know how to “make” digital components, suggesting that the course operated at an “academic” level while assignments required practical skills. Other comments expressed a desire to spend more class time testing and exploring technologies to garner experience with their basic functionality and application.

Not unexpected was the opposition some students expressed toward working in groups. A number cited social anxiety, while others commented on the difficulty of coordinating and scheduling teams for work outside class. Group sizes of five to six students did prove to be an issue, and several students suggested smaller groups would be more effective in distributing work equally among members. An earlier introduction to the major assignment, with more time to discuss and develop in class, was a recurring theme. While the students had approximately six weeks to focus on the major assignments, a number of them felt that it could have been separated into several deliverables throughout the semester, culminating in a final presentation.

Students responded positively to the structure of the final presentation, and enjoyed receiving concrete feedback from a panel of museum professionals. For their part, panel members expressed satisfaction that students had a solid grasp of the planning and development process, and had considered factors such as staff skill sets, budget constraints, timelines, and ongoing operational issues. Whether student projects could be realized beyond the prototype stage and put on display at the Science Centre proved problematic. With many of the students graduating, whether enough support and ongoing involvement could be mustered to see this happen became a crucial question.

To summarize, while students’ technical skill level proved to be a significant challenge, their creativity and desire to learn helped us overcome some of the operational hurdles. Despite a few growing pains, we learned a great deal about what can be effectively improved upon for future iterations of the course. These include lengthened timelines and refined scope for the course’s major assignment; greater access to technical tutorials; and an emphasis on the practical applicability of students’ work in the course (including whether their deliverables could – and would – be implemented at the Science Centre).

Insights, Opportunities, and Future Directions

If there was one thing that everyone involved in this initiative agreed on, it was that the exploration of digital in a museum studies program is of crucial importance for both emerging professionals and the institutions that will hire them – especially if those institutions endeavour to reach and engage audiences in an attention landscape that includes competition from the likes of Netflix. Sree Srinavasan, the Met’s former Chief Digital Officer puts it succinctly: “…[M]useums no longer need to compete with each other, because they are losing their visitors to the omnipresent technologies, games and social media consumed by the modern society; instead, those institutions have to find out ways to embrace the fact that smartphones, tablets, smartwatches and other digital devices are everywhere, and take advantage of the fact that people use them no matter when or where: ‘People ask me what our biggest competition is (…) It’s not the Guggenheim; it’s not the Museum of Natural History. It’s Netflix. It’s Candy Crush'” (Vaz et al., 2018, p. 31). This sentiment has critical import for the next generation of museum professionals.

 

But what does this next generation think? Are they equally afflicted by this sense of optimistic alarmism? To an extent, our students were. In surveying the group at our final meeting, we asked what core competencies they expect to rely on in their future work. While these are by no means empirical, and are perhaps skewed by the fact that they were brought up at the end of a course on digital technologies in museums, the lack of non-digital examples is telling. Students mentioned the following skills: fundraising (and the ability to navigate technology like Raiser’s Edge), being able to transfer related skills, gathering standards, designing for the Web and updating Web platforms, communicating on social media, being comfortable with payroll technology, and navigating locational awareness platforms. Surprisingly, nobody mentioned the capacity to digitize objects or 3D print, despite the surprising amount of ink spilled on that topic in the recent museological literature. More obscure skills, such as the ability to use machine learning for collections, or to deploy robot interpreters, or to design games for multitouch interfaces, were not seen as crucial. Was this a failure on our part to prepare the students for a rapidly transforming museum world, or a more sombre reflection of quite realistic professional concerns?

 

We also asked the students what they wanted to draw from their experience in the class. Again, the responses are telling. The most popular was the capacity to have a seat at the technical table. In other words, to know the language of how digital technologies are designed, deployed, and used – and to be able to describe their possibilities. This was framed by a few of the respondents as digital literacy, and as digital fluency by others. Students also wanted to have an expanded toolbox, not merely a collection of best practices. Despite this, many expressed a desire to know not only be aware of “best practices” in an environment of constantly shifting sands, but how to understand why past digital experiences have failed. There were, as expected, some practical responses as well, including the desire to better understand copyright concerns in the digital realm, or the need to comply with AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) standards and accessibility guidelines. Practical examples also included an expanded curiosity about how collaboration among digital teams will work, and about what kinds of design processes and workflows are used by museum-based digital professionals. Notably, the students almost universally expressed having a better sense of what a good digital portfolio looks like, despite fears that their portfolios were inadequate. But there was an almost managerial tone underpinning many of the responses. Students hoped to have a better sense of why museums are undertaking these projects, of why the museum world has been caught in the throes of digital transformation for so long. They wanted to know the major issues to advocate for, and to understand how to shield the museum from potential digital threats

 

Our second iteration of the course is currently underway. At the time of publication, it is too early to measure the concrete effects of changes we have made to its structure. But we are optimistic about the future of museum-university partnerships around digital pedagogy/curriculum development, and are already beginning to explore the possibility of establishing a centre for developing and researching museum-based interaction design curriculum. This year, we are clarifying our technical requirements much earlier, and switching our major assignment from an open-ended exhibit prototype to a project around improved wayfinding which will, we hope, make it easier for our students to discover technology and processes that go on behind the scenes – not just those that end up on the exhibit floor. We are also spending nearly half the time on-site at the Science Centre in order to maximize students’ opportunity to evaluate digital technologies in action. We are fortunate to be able to conduct this experiment with the support of two world-class institutions. While we anticipate that most of the kinks will not be ironed out for a few years, we are excited for this initiative to provide examples and insights for museum educators who, like us, recognize as many digital opportunities as there are challenges.

 

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Resch, G. and Greupner, S. (2018). “Syllabus for MSL2303 – The Digital Museum.” https://github.com/gbby/teaching/blob/master/MSL2303_syllabus.pdf

Vaz, R. I. F., Fernandes, P. O., & Veiga, A. C. R. (2018). Interactive technologies in museums: How digital installations and media are enhancing the visitors’ experience. In Handbook of Research on Technological Developments for Cultural Heritage and eTourism Applications (pp. 30-53). IGI Global.


Cite as:
Resch, Gabby and Greupner, Sabrina. "Teaching the Digital Museum: A Collaborative Museum-University Partnership to Develop Curriculum for Digital Interaction." MW20: MW 2020. Published January 16, 2020. Consulted .
https://mw20.museweb.net/paper/teaching-the-digital-museum-a-collaborative-museum-university-partnership-to-develop-curriculum-for-digital-interaction/