Pille Runnel (Estonian National Museum), Pille Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt (Malmö University), Krista Lepik (Lund University/University of Tartu)

Analytical Dimensions for Understanding Digital Elements in the Museum Exhibition Space

Digital objects have often controversial roles in the exhibition space. Are they intended to support the museum experience, are they distractions and tools for entertainment or are they taking away the chance to explore the authentic objects? These controversial discussions of digital museum objects together with limited financial resources have resulted in limited examples of best practices of how digital objects can be meaningfully integrated into the exhibition space.

The aim of the current paper is to analyse the permanent exhibition “Encounters” of the Estonian National Museum in order to understand the conceptualisation and use of digital objects. When the museum was opened in October 2016, the digital layer of the museum aimed to explore different digital solutions, in order to bring new possibilities of inclusion and engagement to the museum space. Our aim is not to assess the digital exhibits based on their success or failure, but rather look at the opportunities they allow on a number of different scales that could potentially bring museum closer to the visitor and allow for increased sense of inclusion.

In the process of developing the digital elements for the permanent exhibition, the starting point was always cultural heritage content. The team of curators and exhibition designers developing the exhibits, discussed what would be the best expressive form for the cultural heritage content that needs to be explained, the technological form was always secondary. Curatorial discussions of the digital elements within the exhibition space ended up having five primary digital layers: a) Historical originals (objects, documents, photos, documentary films etc); b) Curator’s texts on e-ink screens; c) Interactive multimedia touch screens for showing large amounts of data: whole collections, visualisations of researcher’s hyphothesis etc; d) Staged films for emotional intimacy, which used fiction film as a form and documentary data as a script; e)  Hands-on exhibits or ’3D multimedia exhibits’, combining material and digital in the exhibits.

In the preliminary analysis, we propose looking at the digital elements of the exhibition by using the following analytical dimensions. 1/ We will consider the spatial dimension of the digital exhibits. Can one take the digital experience outside of the exhibition space? 2/ We also want to discuss the temporality of the digital dimension – how static or changeable are the digital elements used at the permanent exhibition? The social dimension of the museum has been discussed by several authors (Simon, 2010; Tatsi, 2013). Some of the critique of the digital resources developed for the museum space has been that these are often inviting solitary experiences. We will therefore look at the dimensions of 3/ private/public as well as 4/ single/multi-user aspects of the digital elements. As digital elements often relay on the audio-visual materials, then increasingly, in order to tell the story of the historical events, 5/ fictional re-acting or re-creation of the past is needed to provide the necessary audio-visual component. But we will also look at the dimensions of 6/ authoritative voice vs collaborative voice as well as 7/ planned openness or determinedness of the interpretation allowed with the digital elements. 8/ borrowing from the works of Lepik and Lotina (2015) and Lotina (2016) we will look at the modes of engagement that these digital elements are predominantly inviting. 

We will use these eight analytical dimensions to map the diversity of the digital elements in the permanent exhibition space. Heuristic mapping and visitor observation will be used to make sense of the key components when planning digital elements for a museum exhibition. Examples from each of the five layers listed above will be analysed through the outlined lenses. Analysis of the permanent exhibition will include the following digital elements: a) Historical originals – here we will analyse the use of audio-visual originals as well as digital photographs within the exhibition space; b) Curator’s texts – we will look at the conceptualisation of  e-ink screens in the museum space; c) Interactive multimedia touch screens – we will analyse several more or less playful uses of screens and their relation to collections; d) We will look at the witch process audio-visual fictional re-creation that aims for emotional engagement; e) As an example of hands-on exhibits or ’3D multimedia exhibits’, combining material and digital in the exhibits, we will look at multi-media mixer “Freedom synthesiser”.

We propose to discuss the first results of such mapping. These analytical dimensions will allow more systematic understanding of the role and expectations relating to the permanent exhibition. As the work is at the moment in the preliminary analysis stage, we will focus on the operationalisation of the analytical dimensions – if these are the ideas and aspects considered relevant in the literature, how can we make sense of these dimensions within the museum space. Can these analytical dimensions be used in planning digital elements? What kind of aspects have been more relevant when digital elements were designed and planned? What kind of elements seem to be more relevant when attempting to understand the visitor inclusion?