Digital interpretation can improve access for your museum or collection which has not been possible in the past. Venues with physical access limitations can now offer digital access to their collections. When accompanied by appropriate interpretation, this can help your collections to be viewed by a wider audience.
Digital technology also offers numerous opportunities for increasing intellectual access to collections. Such as providing alternative interpretive language, or by allowing the visitor to explore the collections and related interpretation at their own preferred pace or route. When using a digital platform for interpretation, you have the power to bring text, video and sound into a museum or gallery space, adding context and allowing visitors to respond to the collections on their own terms.
Using digital interpretation
Ask yourself these questions before you begin planning for digital interpretation.
- Will digital interpretation enhance existing interpretation?
- Will ‘going digital’ encourage new audiences to your museum? How can you appeal to people less likely to visit a museum or gallery?
- Can you interpret strategic parts of your collection digitally, to encourage people to visit your museum, by using your social media or website pages, for example?
- How can you encourage an in-person visit to be followed up by a visit to your website to continue engagement post-visit?
- Does the digital interpretation make the most of opportunities to reach a diverse audience?
- How will you address changes in digital technology to ensure that your digital interpretation does not become outdated and obsolete?
Advice for the digital novice
Developing interpretation can take time, money and resources. Museums should not include digital interpretation simply because they’ve been told it’s what they ought to be doing. This could lead to an underdeveloped interpretive approach.
Digital technology can be employed within a gallery or museum space as a standalone alternative to other forms of interpretation, for example on a hand-held device, or in support of other forms of interpretation. For example, offering further web-based information about your collections post-visit.
Where digital technology can be particularly useful is when it is used to interpret collections either before and/or after the physical museum visit: for example, for follow up information on your website or social media page. You can also edit information easily and quickly.
Digital technology can prove useful when it comes to interpreting to visitors who do not have your language as a first language, or where audio-visual content would add substantially to interpretation of your collections (for example, in a video showing a particular object from the collection in use in the past).
Decide if you have the capacity to make your collections digitally available online. Try regularly uploading images of strategic objects from your collection onto social media, along with interesting interpretation about the object. This will not decrease the digital visitor’s wish to see this object in person: consider, for example, the fact that most people will have seen innumerable reproductions of the Mona Lisa throughout their lives, on TV, film, billboards, posters and digitally. This does not mean they’d be less likely to want to see the painting ‘in person’.
When well thought out, digital interpretation should not be intimidating.
Consider if it would be possible to:
- Use a complimentary website
- Use videos
- Interpret using social media
- Provide visitors with their own devices to use, for example Tablets, or encourage them to bring their own device to your site.
It’s important to think creatively about the opportunities which digital technology offers interpretation. Mobile-friendly websites are far more effective and user friendly than either apps or QR codes. Similarly, you can always make use of social media. Could you suggest a hashtag (#) for visitors to use to respond to your museum from their own hand held devices?
Social Media can help raise the profile of your collections. The use of social media can encourage creative responses from your visitors as an alternative to non-digital interpretation and its reliance on an authoritative voice. This helps to open up the collections and promote inclusivity and a feeling of wellbeing and ownership over the collections, as a community of social media users worldwide contribute to a digital interpretation of your collections.
Use the social media platform you are most comfortable using. The more confident you are using social media, the more appealing your posts will be to potential users. Remember, most people are more likely to look at a social media profile if it is entertaining and informative, rather than purely educational. Consider making your posts humorous, intriguing, and/or light-hearted. This will help give a human voice to both your social media feed and your organisation. [NB: keep in mind your interpretive tone and the content of your collections].
Having good (ideally free) wifi throughout your site or museum is recommended if you want to encourage visitors to engage digitally during their visit.
Digital interpretive planning
Ensure that any digital interpretation part of your interpretive plan. Don’t give it a separate section under a separate ‘digital’ heading. Treat anything digital as an extension of any other interpretation you do.
Make this your own
A digital approach works best when you are passionate about why you are doing it, and you are clear on how it will benefit your interpretation. Try to be as comfortable as possible with the interpretation you are developing, whatever medium it might take, and this will allow your interpretive aims and objectives to really shine through.
It is good to regularly revisit all forms of interpretation, ensuring that they are relevant, interesting, and still true to your original aims and objectives. Digital interpretation should be reviewed at least every two years, and ideally more often, to ensure that it stays as up to date as possible.
The South West Museum Development Programme have a useful page of digital resources.