VisitorBox: a toolkit to support ideation of novel visiting experiences

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: School of Computer Science

Abstract

The VisitorBox project will produce a toolkit that combines physical ideation cards with a mobile app and web-based idea repository to enable heritage organisations to rapidly generate and share ideas for new visitor experiences. This Follow-on Fund project addresses the 'Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities' theme and will forge impact through commercialization and knowledge exchange. It builds on research undertaken by the project team as well as research and impact collaborations with our external partners. These partners are chosen from different segments of the regional and national heritage economy; they represent curators and collection managers with differing training backgrounds, all keen to harness digital technologies to enhance access to and engagement with their collection assets.
VisitorBox presents an unanticipated pathway to impact that has emerged from the AHRC international network Data - Asset - Method (DAM network: AH/J006963/1). This network identified the barriers that prevent our stakeholders operating in the culture economy from accessing digital technologies. The main barrier is the stakeholders' lack of an overview of available technologies, and their low confidence and expertise to experiment with such technologies, especially at the early stages of design and prototyping.
The network findings align in particular with our experience of collaborating with partners in the heritage sector, including in the context of three EU-funded projects. We want to bring to bear our knowledge and the expertise gained through the network to overcome the barriers of harnessing digital technologies in this specific sector. Our aim is to respond to one explicit demand of our heritage partners in the domain of visitor engagement, which is their key means of intellectual and commercial exploitation: to have access to their own design and prototyping exploration tools and so scale up the impact of our research and consultancy.
Researchers and partners (including the Nottingham Castle and Galleries, the National Videogame Arcade, the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum, Nottingham's UNESCO City of Literature, and the National Trust) will work together as co-producers of VisitorBox. The tool-set will consist of a set of ideation cards. These physical playing cards represent individual design concepts, technologies, user types, and visiting activities; the cards encapsulate comprehensive engagement design and humanities thinking, reflected in the rules for playing them. The cards will allow players (e.g. curators) to produce new ideas quickly but without compromising on methodological depth.
Alongside the card deck VisitorBox will include a mobile app, allowing players to scan individual cards or card combinations to capture ideas and curatorial trajectories in digital form. Players will be able to upload these digital ideas to an interactive website, the VisitorBox repository, and share them with their colleagues, or with trusted partners. Users will also be able to gain access to a rich set of digital resources that will support project refinement and execution.
The project will evidence the value of the toolkit through co-production with our partners in six design workshops and additional piloting with twenty national and international heritage organisations. Feedback from these activities will inform the development of a sustainable business model for VisitorBox. We will promote VisitorBox along with our business plan at high-profile sectoral events in Europe and the US, and within the teaching programme of a leading US HE organisation.
The project will be led by an early-career researcher - Dr Ben Bedwell - to establish him as a research leader at the interface of Computer Science and the Humanities. The project team has a strong track record of developing challenge-driven technologies for arts and humanities practitioners; it involves the lead investigators of the DAM network, Lorenz and Benford.

Planned Impact

The proposed Follow-on Funding project exploits previous research findings for knowledge exchange and commercialisation along an unanticipated pathway to impact. Through co-production activity with partners in the heritage sector we will create VisitorBox, a tool-set for designing and delivering visitor experiences that will yield economic, cultural, and social benefit. Our product will provide heritage organisations with design skills and technological understanding; it will support them in their efforts, alone and in collaboration with their peers, to expand and enhance public cultural engagement and understanding.
The project aims to deliver impact at local, national, and international level. Access to VisitorBox will empower heritage institutions - regardless of their size, skills profiles, and budget - to access a tool-set that:
a) Gives institutions a handle on the effective exploitation of their cultural assets for culture and heritage tourism, which in Nottingham alone - with 12m visitors per year - is worth an estimated £466m;
b) Supports institutions in creating a vibrant and attractive cultural offering, well integrated within the regional visiting economy, and so improve cultural understanding and social well-being;
c) Provides opportunity for building up, via the online repository, a record of institutional design processes while accessing the expertise of a community of practitioners at other institutions;
d) Offers those heritage partners who are co-producing VisitorBox (those who attend the 6 design workshops, in addition to the 20 who receive VisitorBox for use independently) the opportunity to grow, through reflection on and appropriation of their practices, their design expertise and gain higher visibility within the community of heritage institutions, nationally and internationally.
VisitorBox will enable local institutions to realise the aim of a joint-up approach of all heritage stakeholders, detailed in the Nottingham Heritage Strategy 2015-230. The city provides an ideal crucible for creating the initial version of VisitorBox because the project coincides with two major local initiatives: Nottingham Castle's £29.4m redevelopment (2016-2020), and the award of UNESCO City of Literature status to Nottingham. These activities provide us with access to a critical mass of local heritage organisations keen to invigorate their approach to visitor engagement.
The Nottingham case study will provide a strong, coherent basis for marketing VisitorBox to heritage organisations elsewhere in the UK and internationally facing similar technological challenges. The project includes activities specifically designed to adapt VisitorBox to requirements in other settings and so forge impact nationally and internationally:
a) Partnership with the National Trust allows us to explore how VisitorBox might be rolled out across site teams within a larger heritage organization and serve as a standard tool for visitor experience development at scale. By working with the Trust we have opportunity for upskilling 70,000 volunteers who play an active role in developing and implementing new visitor experiences; we could shape cultural engagement at national scale because experiences developed through VisitorBox may be delivered to the Trust's more than 4 million members.
b) Working with the University of Illinois (UoI) at Urbana-Champagne and their students gives us the opportunity to study the potential for VisitorBox to be used for the training of future heritage professionals; their Library and Information Science courses are rated no. 1 in the US.
c) Dissemination at high-profile conferences in the US (Museums and the Web) and Europe (Ecsite) will ensure that we can promote VisitorBox to opinion leaders from HEI and non-HEI stakeholders in the heritage sector.
d) Members of the wider UNESCO Creative Cities network will benefit from the sharing of VisitorBox and the example of its use within the city of Nottingham.

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