The Same but Different – Digital Labels with Analog Content

Should Museums be More Linear? This is a question Nina Simon asks on her blog Museum 2.0. Although in the post Nina muses that grounding visitors in a story is a reason why museums should be more linear, I was drawn to what Nina says about the web and its potential spiral out in infinite non-linear directions. This potential, Nina admits, has not been embraced as museums continue their membership in the “cult of linearity”.

This post, along with viewing some digital labels that I had been excited to see and then was disappointed in,  got me thinking about digital interpretation in museum galleries and how we are using the same types of linear content but claiming that they are different because of their digital presentation.

Singular Authoritative Narrative

In Grad School I learned about the movement in the 1990s where critical thinkers called for the end of the singular authoritative voice of museums and the advent of multiple voices including the visitor’s.

I read Witcomb who argued that

…many museums have traditionally organized their exhibits, with a strong linear narrative which allows space for only one point of view that of the curator/institution. (128)

And Hooper-Greenhill who talked about how museums were

…breaking down the long-established monolithic singular narratives that privilege dominant perspectives, and [were] introducing multiple perspectives. (Hooper-Greenhill 23)

It’s now 2013 and with the potential of digital to introduce multiple perspectives and visitor participation you’d think we’d have accomplished this by now. Every time I hear of a new digital interactive I have high expectations for it doing just that, and as a result, seem to be constantly disappointed.

I should say that there is definitely a time and a place for linear stories in museums. A strong storyline can stay with visitors after leaving an exhibition and help them take away key messages. Also, as Ed Rodney points out in his post about the theatre phenomenon Sleep No More (On immersion, theatre, and museums) a lack of cohesive storyline can lead to feeling lost and ill at ease.

What I’m talking about is not losing a story but giving the visitor more ability to control it. This is what seemed to be missing for Ed. And it’s what I keep expecting. When you use digital media regularly you become used to having this control. Being able to click on hyperlinks and follow your curiosity wherever it takes you. Maybe you want to know more about something, maybe you don’t understand a certain term that is used so you look it up and then go back with a better understanding. But YOU have the control. This is the potential that digital gives us. You can’t hyperlink an interpretive text panel on the wall but can do it to a digital one. So why aren’t we?

The Same

One example of how digital labels are the same as their print cousins is Live!Labels developed by the University of Leicester and National Galleries back in 2006. The labels are digital and are edited by museum curators with up to the minute information about the object.

It’s quite an innovative thing for a curator to have this amount of editorial control over the context of an exhibit.

The key words in the above quote are curator and control. How is this different from print labels? The voice is still that of the museum’s and the control is still in the museum’s hands. The information presented is the same curatorial driven content as before.

I was just at the BETT show in London – a learning technology exhibition – where I ran into the British Museum showcasing their digital trails created using QR codes. QR codes add a digital layer to the existing print labels. Seven years after the “innovative” digital labels of the National Museums are we doing anything different? These QR codes link to webpages on the museum site where information that is much like what you would find on the written labels is offered. It continues to be a single authoritative museum voice where although the visitor actively scans the QR code, all they can do after is passively read the information. There was talk of using the QR codes to link to pages on Wikipedia that were written about the British Museum’s objects by a Wikipedian in Residence at the British Museum; however, Matthew Cock, the museum’s head of web, said he would only feel comfortable using QR codes that linked to the museum’s own webpage. So we get more of the same.

But Different

But there is hope! UCL’s QRator takes advantage of the capabilities of digital media. On the QRator website the application is described as giving the visitor the chance to be the curator, to add their own interpretation to the museum objects, share their stories and generally join in the conversation. It’s about the visitor.

In a paper called Engaging the Museum Space: Mobilising Visitor Engagement with Digital Content Creation  the creators of the project talk about how QRator aims to construct multiple interpretations inside museums. They are tackling the problem we’ve been trying to solve since 1990! They express it nicely here:

The QRator project represents a shift in how cultural organisations act as trusted and authoritarian institutions; communicate knowledge to the community; and integrate their role as keepers of cultural content with their responsibility to facilitate access to content.

Visitors’ thoughts about objects can be typed into iPads in the galleries, or tweeted about using twitter and a designated hashtag, or contributed using the Tales of Things app on their smart phones.

To see examples of the QRator you can go to the Museums and the Web article and read Part 2 which has screen shots of the application.

But Can We Do More?

It’s great that visitors can contribute to museum interpretation and interact with the museum and each other but there is still a missing element in terms of control. The digital environment is completely contained within the museum’s network and does not link out to other sources. It would be nice to give the visitor the ability to follow hyperlinks on topics or terms they may want to know more about or need further information on. It is understandable that the museum would be wary of directly linking to outside sources from the galleries. I’m not sure if you remember but in the old days of the web many institutional websites would have a list of recommended links. The hyperlinks in museums in-gallery digital media (digital labels and QR codes) could link to websites the museum would be comfortable endorsing. It would also assist visitors in knowing where to go for trusted information.

I also think that the writing on digital labels can be less formal and academic, and more conversational. Like a blog versus an academic journal article. The culture of the internet and digital media is important to reflect in museums usage of it.



Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. The Educational Role of the Museum. 2nd ed. New York: Routeledge, 1994. Print.

Witcomb, Andrea. “Interactivity in museums: The politics of narrative style.” Re-imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum. New York: Routledge, 2003. 128-64. Print.



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