Digital Interpretation

The use of digital interpretation is a hot topic for museums at the moment, but it’s a difficult thing to get right. As part of Stage 2 in the Collections in the Landscape project we are hoping to redevelop the Wonders of the Peak gallery, and we see digital interpretation as a key part of that. One of the best ways to understand what works and what doesn’t is to go and visit other museums, so that’s what we did! I have to admit that I was a bit of a digi-skeptic when it comes to museums, I visit to see objects not screens, but even I was won over.

Gold Coin of Trajan - This level of detail would be hard to see in normal gallery conditions.

Gold Coin of Trajan – This level of detail would be hard to see in normal gallery conditions.

 

A good reason to use digital is to bring small or hard to view items to life, and make them easier to see. It is hard to see the real detail in a roman coin, especially when there is 20cm of case between you and the object. To get around this visitors often move closer to the case in order to see the object properly, which causes problems for other visitors. I experienced this first-hand when visiting the British Museum’s current exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend. The objects themselves were incredible but because of their size, and the busyness of the exhibition, it was a struggle to see them sometimes (and I am relatively tall!). The problem was partly the amount of people, which is unlikely to cause the same issues for us, but it was mostly the scale of the objects that made it difficult.

Vikings: Life and Legend. No problem viewing Roskilde 6, but the cases at the back look a little busy.

Vikings: Life and Legend. No problem viewing Roskilde 6 but the cases at the back look a little busy.

 

One of the ways to get around this is by digital interpretation. There was no digital included as standard in the Viking exhibition, however, there were guides on iPhones available to rent. The additional charge put many visitors off, myself included, and only around 3% of people in the gallery were using them. The visitors with guides did seem to be using the space differently and were spending less time at the objects themselves; perhaps they were seeing things the rest of us weren’t. We have thought about designing an app or specific guide for Buxton Museum but the uptake in audio guides is so small that it isn’t practical for a museum of our size. We are also quite interested in touch tables. Although not a fan of digital in galleries, I would have loved a massive touch table in the Vikings exhibition featuring the Vale of York hoard. Not only could it have been used to view the objects in detail but an extra layer of information could have been added, making the objects far more accessible. This could be a useful interpretation tool for the recently acquired Kirk Ireton coin hoard and is already successfully being used for the Staffordshire Hoard.

Ed, Anna and Jess all using the digital interpretation on offer at Archives+

Ed, Anna and Jess putting the digital interpretation at Archives+ through its paces.

 

Archives+, in the Central library in Manchester, have embraced new digital approaches in their redevelopment. They have recently re-opened after a complete redevelopment of the building, funded by Manchester City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. We were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the new space and got to test out their digital offer. As a digi-skeptic and lover of archives I didn’t know what to expect. Archives+ face a different set of challenges to us; archives are hard to work with and difficult to engage people with. Paper is one of the most delicate materials to display, and, for conservation purposes, items can only be exhibited for a limited time. Audio and film archives can be intrusive and annoying in open gallery spaces. Archives+ avoid these problems by having a carefully designed space. Audio and film archives are available in separate booths to the side with directional speakers or headphones, and cases can be changed by a single member of staff.

The Oculus - situated in the centre of the building, it acts as a focal point.

The Oculus – situated in the centre of the building, it acts as a focal point. Audio booths can be seen behind.

 

There is very little original material on display in Archives+; instead they let the digital do the work. You can scroll through maps of Manchester from 1640, or look through the photographic archives of immigrant families. This is an approach that works well with delicate collections. The interactive that impressed us most was the Oculus in the middle of the gallery. It consists of three touch screen terminals that allow visitors to navigate a map of Manchester. The map contains around 50 points of interest and various different topics are covered by these points. The best thing is that everyone can see what and where the users of these terminals are looking at via the central map. We found this really drew people together and made you want to use it as a group. It was a positive visit and we all left feeling motivated about the digital options that are available. Digital seems to work well as a focal point, but is also a good way of making difficult items more accessible. While it should never replace original objects, it can be used to complement and support exhibitions to great effect.

The Peak District in the Early Medieval period

A particular challenge Buxton Museum will face when redeveloping our popular Wonders of the Peak gallery is the Early Medieval period, or, to be more precise, 400 – 1100. It is a huge period, but it is also a time that, until recently, has lacked popular appeal. There have been a lot of new research over the last 30 years and we need to update the gallery to include this in the story of the Peak District. The High Peak was a less populated region than today. It was also a tumultuous time. For much of it England was divided into separate kingdoms, and from the 8th century onwards the country was subjected to Viking attacks, invasion and settlement.

The Peterborough Chronicle - Bodleian Library, Oxford

The Peterborough Chronicle – Bodleian Library, Oxford

Part of the reason this is a difficult period to document is that little written material survives from then, certainly in comparison to the Late Medieval period. One of the main written sources for this time is the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. The chronicles make for an interesting read. In 626 there was an attempted assassination of Eadwin, King of Northumbria, in the Derwent Valley. The assassination was ordered by Eamer, King of the West Saxons, but it failed. In 848 a witenagemot, a national council assembly, was held in Repton. Archaeologists also found the bloody evidence of Viking occupation of the town in 873, which was described in the chronicle.

One of the 9th century crosses in Bakewell Church

One of the 9th century crosses in Bakewell Church

Most evidence of the Early Medieval Peak District can be found in situ, although sadly very little remains today. The Normans caused a large amount of damage across the country after the conquest, both intellectually and physically, and especially in the north. The Peak District was a densely forested area, which was a hunting forest for Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings. Nevertheless, it still would have been inhabited by local people. Well preserved crosses from the 9th century can be found in Eyam, Hope and Taddington churches, although the crosses at Bakewell are perhaps most famous. The church used to have various coped tomb slabs built into its walls, however, these were removed by Thomas Bateman and are now in the collections of Museums Sheffield. One of the challenges we face is linking to these monuments. Digital offers us the potential to give these items a gallery presence, but we could just as easily opt for photography, or even have a digital trail.

The Bentley Grange Helmet - Museums Sheffield

The Bentley Grange Helmet, Museums Sheffield

Some of the other items that do survive are quite spectacular. As well as the coped tomb slabs, Museums Sheffield hold a helmet, c. 650, excavated from Bentley Grange, near Bakewell. It is one of only four horn-covered helmets found in England. There were also possible fragments of chain mail, a ‘circular enamelled ornament’, a cross and cup remains found at this site. Sheffield’s collection is home to other items collection from barrows in Derbyshire, such as a bronze circular box from a woman’s barrow near Hurdlow, and a double edged iron sword from a grave mound near Brushfield. The British Museum, meanwhile, hold the Beeston Tor Hoard, which includes two complete brooches with intricate knot work patterns. One of our hopes for the new Wonders of the Peak gallery is to return these objects to the region in which they were found, be that physically or digitally.