LIVE!Museum: visitor and institutional contexts for digital labelling and in-gallery connectivity

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Museum Studies


Traditionally, printed labels and information panels have been the principal means by which museums have explained their exhibits and told their stories.

This orthodoxy of 'labelling' owes much to the emblematic visual technologies of the Renaissance as well the classificatory systems of the Enlightenment - the historic moments when the idea of 'museum' was forged. The label, therefore, has become (and remains) a defining characteristic of the museum, and entrenched as much in visitor expectation as in curatorial practice.

Although digital information technology is now widely used in museums and galleries, labels and information panels are generally printed, possibly because the range of available materials for the task - typically paper, plastic, composites, paint ... do not permit updating without much effort and expense.

In 2006 the Department of Museum Studies, at the University of Leicester, received HEROBC (HEFCE) funding to develop and test flat, wireless, updateable, prototype digital labels for exhibitions - labels that looked like labels but could show 'live' content generated either by curators or visitors, triggered either by news, latest research, or the nature of the visiting group, or simply the time of day. This original small-scale pilot research considered the prospect (and the challenge) of a gallery of labels that were as adaptable (and 'live') as the content of our museum websites (Parry, Ortiz-Williams and Sawyer, 2007).

This work highlighted a range of issues:
- visitor interactions raised a range of questions about the use of digital signage
- curators took different approaches to using digital signage
- stable WiFi connectivity was challenging
- the hardware (LCD screens) presented some difficulties
- in practices, integration with wider IT systems would be significant

Since the original research, there have been many changes:
- museum staff are increasingly aware of digital media
- new WiFi standards have emerged
- complementary technologies (RFID) are now more common
- electronic paper is on the cusp of viability
- the retail sector is showing increasing interest in digital signage.

The LIVE!Museum research network will - as a starting point - review the original research in the light of these changes and identify key areas for further research, development and knowledge exchange. These might include:

- what are the implications of live digital content and media for the visitor?
- what are the implications for exhibition design and maintenance?
- what are the implications for curatorial practice and authorship?
- what are the implications for associated IT systems?
- and what can we learn from other sectors, especially retail?

LIVE!Museum builds upon this initial work - but with more intellectual depth, more mindful of the substantial technological advances taking place, involving a broader range of partners, within a wider curatorial context of in-gallery 'live' provision, and with a more circumspect and strategic eye on what the sector needs and what visitors expect.

Planned Impact

In guiding the museum and gallery sector in using state-of-the-art means of display and communication , the LIVE!Museum research network will:

FOSTER ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE of the UK: the UK's museums and galleries make a significant contribution to the UK's tourist industry (NMDC's A Manifesto For Museums showed that 4 out of the top 5 tourist attractions are museums, and overseas visitors make up a quarter of all visitors). Research into state-of-the art exhibition technology will add value to the sector's offer; it will also enable museum professionals to gain new specialist knowledge. The the LIVE!Museum research network will strengthen the offer of UK exhibition design firms by generating specialist research (many of the UK's design companies compete at an international level). The Network will also contribute to and enhance research and teaching on museum studies courses, a niche area where UK HE recruit proportionally large numbers of overseas students, contributing to the UK economy.

IMPROVE PUBLIC SERVICES, as museums will be able to access leading research when formulating policy. The technologies have the capacity to enhance the quality of life, especially to disabled and minority ethnic groups, by enabling bespoke/customised signage in exhibitions - the Network will raise the profile of these groups in relation to the technology, not just in the museum sector, but (via partners such as BT) to wider debates about digital signage. The Network will also develop thinking about new modes of exhibition design. As the research in this area develops, we should expect it to stimulate novel creative output in museum design.

Who will the research benefit?

PRACTITIONERS. First, the research will benefit practitioners in the field of digital heritage and exhibition design (the events will target this group). The events (the inaugural MCG session; the 'sandpits'; the 'ResearchMart') will significantly raise the profile and knowledge base of digital signage and the concept of a 'live museum' among practitioners active in digital heritage. As part of the LIVE!Museum research network, they will also be able to steer research agendas, ensuring theory relates to practice.

COMMERCIAL PARTNERS. Second, the network will benefit commercial participants by enabling them to identify and assess new markets, and understand clearly the thinking of their customers. They will also be able to communicate their concerns and their specialist knowledge to the research community.

ACADEMICS. Third, the events will also help clarify the research priorities of individual academics and students working in the field.

AUDIENCES. Finally - and perhaps most significantly - the Network will benefit museum audiences/users by ensuring the UK's visitor attractions benefit from multi- and inter-disciplinary research into emerging and novel technologies. Disabled users, and those from minority ethnic groups, stand to gain from these technologies, if their needs are taken into account at this early stage in the research.