Advancing Digital Transformation in Museums
News from 08.05.2017
museum4punkt0 is the name of a recently launched, cross-institutional “ideas laboratory“ for digital applications in museums. We spoke about it with Markus Hilgert, manager of the project and director of the Vorderasiatisches Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.Prof. Dr. Markus Hilgert © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum / Olaf M. Teßmer
What are your expectations of the museum4punkt0 project?
The idea behind museum4punkt0 is to advance the process of digital transformation in museums and cultural institutions such as the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). Our experience so far has shown us that digital transformation requires an enormous amount of coordination and networking, even in areas that aren't necessarily involved in the day-to-day running of a museum. Our work in museum4punkt0 will therefore emphasize cooperation and coordination, and we will look not only at marketing and communication tools, but also at digital infrastructure and questions of standardization and data storage. I expect that after three years we will have developed new tools. What's more, we'll have a much better understanding of what we need to do in the medium term to achieve digital transformation – in a broad sense – in cultural institutions.
From your current perspective, how do museums and their visitors benefit from digital media and digitization?
Museums are creating digital inventories of their collections. This digital documentation helps to protect cultural property. It is also a useful research tool, as three-dimensional documentation allows researchers to work with objects from any location and in a manner that is not invasive. Perhaps even more importantly, however, digital tools allow museums to approach visitors differently, in a way that provides them with a different experience during their visit. These tools would make it possible to address specific target groups and increase inclusion and accessibility. On top of that, exhibitions that incorporate digital media have great potential for attracting new sections of the public to the museum. When I look at the Pergamon Museum and compare it to the Natural History Museum in Berlin, for example, it's clear that each institution has a different clientele. That is really a shame. I think that archaeological museums are of interest to young families too. Also, we should make a much greater effort to engage with people from less educated backgrounds. As far as museum4punkt0 is concerned, I hope that new tools will be developed that can meet individual needs and reach new visitor groups.
What do you think these tools might look like? Or, to put it a little differently, how can digital media help museum pieces to “speak“ to visitors?
Before we can answer that, we first need to look at how things are being done in museums now. Let's say there's an object in a glass case. Next to it is a little card, which only has room for the most basic information about the object. While you're looking at the artifact – it may be a cuneiform tablet, a text from the Koran, or an Aramaic incantation bowl – a number of questions occur to you. What does the writing actually say? What might it have sounded like in ancient times? How would we translate it today? It's hard to provide answers to these questions in an analog environment because there is not enough space. Using digital media, though, translations could be accessed in a variety of languages. Or visitors could look at the object in detail – maybe even in 3D – on their smartphones. Or augmented reality could be used to simulate how the object might have been used in various contexts. And in the future, we'll undoubtedly be able to create immersive museum experiences through virtual reality. In a few years time, when we have made more progress in the field of 'big data' and artificial intelligence, we will also be able provide individualized content. We'll know what our visitors expect and how familiar they are with the subject at hand, and we will be able to offer them precisely tailored information and tours. We'll be able shape content in a way that appeals to, say, a 15-year-old interested in the history of the Middle East, and we'll also be able to meet the needs of a researcher who wants to know more about the research history of the object or the materials analyses that have been performed on it. Lastly, the ability of digital media to “entertain,“ if you will, presents a great opportunity and is sure to help us reach new target groups.
In your article in the current SPK yearbook, you write that archaeological objects “embody diversity.“ How can this diversity be communicated even better using digital reproductions?
Objects literally have multiple perspectives. They are objects for researchers to study and conservation specialists to restore, but they are also cultural property – a vessel for the identity of a society. It is very difficult to represent all of these perspectives for a single object in an analog exhibition, because it would require a great deal of room. With digital media, however, it can be done in the smallest of spaces. You can show a vase in the context of fifty other vases, and in so doing view the object from the perspective of archaeology or of art history. I could also imagine putting the object back in context by showing where it was found, or what part it played in a person's life. Multi-perspectivity always means that your view and my view of an object are equally valuable and valid and that we can and should leave some trace of that view. Digital media will enable visitors to continue writing the history of an object – an idea that might be taken up by museum4punkt0.
Considering that the funding for museum4punkt0 has now been approved, where do you want to start?
First, we're going to create the basic infrastructure. We will develop a common platform very quickly to serve as the “heart” of the project, to be shared by all the organizations involved. We will use it to publish updates on our progress and provide information on the project for the public. Of course, it's also very important that we hire staff. And I hope that this fall we will be able to hold a symposium or conference on the potential of 3D digitization, which will also look at issues concerning reproduction and research tools. I would like the event to be international and developed in cooperation with UNESCO.
The interview was conducted by Julia Lerche.
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