Bringing Museums alive with Digital Technology

In this hyperconnected world, how can museums use digital technology to engage its audiences?

Last month, I was invited to speak alongside two other museum-tech enthusiasts at a YES Bank-backed Panel Discussion held at the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur.  This post is a recap of our discussion, and a digital route to continuing the conversation with all of you as well!

How are Museums using Digital Technology today?

To set the record straight, “Digital” does not imply social media solely. Social media surely is an important part of a museum’s digital strategy but museums in India are yet to warm up towards this idea. Digital technology is what you can use to attract potential visitors to the Museum, enhance their visiting experience and stay in touch with them long after they’ve visited.

There are a plethora of tools a museum can choose to employ based on its objectives and strategy but here’s a look at the tools offered by my co-panelists.

Culture Connectors :

Arundhati Mitter (second from left) presenting the Culture Connectors project

This refreshing project by the Flow India team is not your regular VR experience. It merges Flow’s experience of developing creative inquiry learning modules with an immersive introduction to Delhi’s cultural environments. Simply put, a student from South India would be able to visit Delhi’s monuments for the purpose of engaged projects-based learning. Providing digital access to heritage has been a challenge India has been grappling with, and a project such as this surely bridges the gap.

The pilot project would roll out in 8 cities of India with support from the Prince Claus Fund and British Council.

CaptivaTours :

Mockup of the CaptivaTour app (android version)

This mobile-based audio guide app launched by Siddhartha Kongara and his cofounder Ravi ensure that everybody has access to a personal guide while visiting a museum / heritage site.  My co-panelist Arundhati and I took the museum-tour before our event and can vouch for how engaging the audio-guide was! Interspersed with inputs from the Museum’s Curators and scholars, the in-depth information had me staying back much longer in the gallery than I would have ! What’s more, the guide is tailor-made and personal so you can actually skip parts that don’t interest you. My biggest takeaway from an app like this was, its story-based approach! The guide ensures that a visitor engages with the  cultural, economic, architectural as well as the historic part of the monument / museum.
Example: Visiting the Taj Mahal, have you ever wondered where the funds to build it, really came from?

You don’t want people to keep downloading one app for each monument they visit. India needs to promote it all together!

CaptivaTour is currently hosting sites from Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.

The Heritage Lab & Public Engagement

While both the above mentioned tools are important for museums to enhance visitor-experience, there are a range of digital mediums a museum can use to attract audiences and keep in touch with them. Social media tools are one – and while museums in India focus a lot on Facebook; Twitter and Instagram have been my personal recommendations to increase engagement.

Using Twitter to Listen!

Sample this : You’re in a gallery and wish to give feedback about a certain object or have a pressing question, and there’s nobody around to help (that’s a pretty regular scenario, right?) What if your Gallery-map had the twitter-handle of its curator? In simple ways like these, museums can start to encourage conversations but more importantly break the barriers between its visitors and staff.  For more proof on this, see how #AskACurator campaign got people so engaged with the CSMVS Museum, Mumbai!

Here’s a poll I took hours before the Panel Discussion:
Any good conversation involves two-way exchanges. If Museums are keen to engage with their audiences, these digital tools should be used to “listen” to their prospective visitors too! What are people talking about?  What makes them laugh, or take action?

Here’s why GettyMuseum’s Twitter handle is one of my all-time favourites. Click on the tweet to read our star-wars-reference-laden conversation!

How Relevant is your Museum to its Community?

Social media tools like Instagram & Instagram’s stories are free marketing tools that Museums can use to their advantage – but lets not limit them to advertising spaces. Museums and their participation in people-centric campaigns are just as important in establishing their relevance to the community.  This year for example, #MuseumWeek is focusing on citizenship and tolerance, while it’s #WomenMW theme from last year has continued to strike a chord with people all over the world.

A popular concern in museum-circles on digital strategies (read social media fun) is that it undermines the Museum’s scholarship to engage on such campaigns. When your Museum starts to feel this way, perhaps look at digital strategies such as industry-specific podcasts (on second thoughts, this panel discussion should have been converted into one), to broaden the scope of outreach.

What should Museums know before engaging with Digital Technology?

Left to Right : Mrinalini Venkateswaran (Museum Consultant); Arundhati Mitter (Flow India); Siddhartha Kongara (CaptivaTour), Medhavi Gandhi (The Heritage Lab)

While Siddhartha rightly pointed out that Museums must make a conscious investment decision,  Arundhati asked the tougher questions, forcing us to think as to how audiences with no digital footprint (that’s a lot of people in India) can be engaged. While crafting its digital strategy Museums must keep in mind its audience & the kind of information they want to share and with what sort of creative / sharing licenses.

Digital Conversations & Museums

This perhaps was the toughest for any Museum to address : when people start to interpret museum collections to suit their own agenda, what do you do?  

Siddhartha’s faced this on the other end of the spectrum; often in India, guides to heritage sites make up their own stories to create a fascinating appeal for visitors. With apps like CaptivaTour, and their well-researched authentic information, visitors at least are saved the fictitious accounts. As for the guides, who the App is assumed to be replacing (someone in the audience pointed that out), it offers them an opportunity to brush up on facts, become even more engaging as storytellers – and who knows, they’d probably be the next Tour-makers on CaptivaTour!

museums digital technology

On our end, when the Hon’able Supreme Court banned the use of firecrackers (on account of increasing public health issues), countless number of people shared our Firecrackers-paintings story. Most of the shares were accompanied with the defence that crackers have been part of our heritage. We’re not a museum, but our purpose for sharing content has similar objectives; and so even though I was happy to have sparked conversation, we decided to engage with the tweets offering our own insights.

It is okay for Museums to have opinions. It is time that Museums in India started to use their collections to converse.

museums digital technology

For a while now, the Indian Government has been backing the “Digital India” movement. Today when access to high-speed internet has become pocket-friendly, it is a wonder that Museums in India have not embraced digital strategies yet.  With such panel discussions though, my hopes are up!

What are some ways in which you would like to engage with Museums, digitally?

The Heritage Lab
The Heritage Lab
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