Week 9

In June 2007, the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester will be opening a Communications Gallery. In order to offer visitors a more personal interpretive tool, a handheld multimedia guide, Mi-Guide will be trialled. Researchers at The University of Salford are developing the Mi-Guide with funding from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.

On Tuesday, our group met at the Science and Industry Museum to use the Mi-Guide and discuss issues including navigation, usability, social interaction, content and interpretation. We met with Pauline Webb, The Collections Manager at The Museum of Science and Industry and were given a tour of the exhibition space. At this stage of development the spaces were empty. Pauline Webb talked about the concept and envisioned content of the Communications Gallery. The Gallery will chronologically explore the development of communications in the locality of Manchester. Areas that will be covered in the gallery include, body language, written forms of communication, oral traditions, printing methods, photography, telephony, telegraphy, computer technology and other digital technologies. Objects from the museum’s collection will be exhibited together with descriptive labels and interpretive text. Visitors also have the option of using the Mi-Guide.

We were introduced to Professor Nigel Linge and Research Fellow, Duncan Bates from The University of Salford who are developing the Mi-Guide. They gave an overview of the features of the Mi-Guide and how it can present digital museological interpretations. The Mi-Guide takes the form of a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). The content is transferred from a PC to the PDAs. This enables information to be updated efficiently. Mi-Guide has a passive tag on the back that enables the location to be detected by scanning a device by the museum object. This process reveals the interpretive text, audio description, other images and video footage. We were then given the opportunity to use the Mi-Guide in relation to a range of objects that had interpretive content uploaded onto the Mi-Guide.

Succeeding this, we discussed some of the critical issues that arose from using the Mi-Guide including:

• Limited social interaction
• Potential for multiple interpretations
• Ease of updating or adding information
• Visitors are recipients of information and are unable to contribute information, ideas or opinions
• Focusing on the Mi-Guide and not the objects,
• Ambiguous navigational tools
• The novelty factor of using this new technology.

Rather than expanding on these issues, I want to discuss some of the issues and questions that the Mi-Guide catalysed when I started to critically reflect upon this experience.

Everyday technologies are commonly used in museological contexts, including computers, mobile phones and PDAs. They enable interpretive information to be accessed and consumed by visitors. In this Information Society, are we witnessing and also catalyzing the demise of intuitive curiosity, aesthetic contemplation and liminal experience in museums?

In Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life, Michael Bull discusses how the use of personal stereos are tools of resistance against the mundane routines of everyday life and give an aura of invisibility and superiority in public space. This could be applied to the use of PDAs in museological contexts. Are PDAs being used liminally in museums to catalyse information consumption by using this everyday technology in a novel and creative way? Carol Duncan discusses in Civilising Rituals the role of architecture in catalyzing rituals and liminality in museums. Mi-Guide is a virtual architectural space that prescriptively and paradoxically guides the user through the grand entrance of the homepage with iconic images of institutional logos, corridors of menus, leading to grand rooms of images and information to contemplate and consume.

Professor Nigel Linge revealed that in the future, the Mi-Guide will be tagged with an active tag. This means that it can be tracked at all times without having to scan a device to activate it. It was also mentioned that in the near future, most people would have PDAs that could be used in museums. Will museums add the active tag, or will we have reached a point where we are not only watched on CCTV, located by GPS, but also radio tagged? Are personal technologies primarily for the benefit of everyday users or for institutions and Big Brother?