top of page

Digital Renaissance: Transforming Museums for Inclusive Education

Written by Emilia Sharples


Introduction


Every year since 1977, ICOM has organised International Museum Day (IMD). During this annual event, participating museums plan and execute events and activities relevant to the chosen IMD theme that year, while also highlighting the important role museums serve within society and its development. Recently, museums and the cultural heritage sector, like many other creative and cultural sectors, have been experiencing an expansion into the digital world. The embrace of digital was accelerated by the pandemic, and in 2021, ICOM emphasised the importance of adjusting to hybrid and virtual platforms in order to reach broader audiences and maintain a presence. That year, 89 million internet users engaged with IMD events, through means of social media, news articles, blog posts, podcasts and more.


Now as someone who loves talking about the intersection between heritage, culture and technology this is really quite exciting. Through digital exhibitions, virtual tours, and interactive online experiences, museums are transcending physical constraints, allowing people from all corners of the globe to explore and appreciate diverse cultural narratives. Looking at the goals of this year’s IMD: Goal 4 ‘Quality Education’ to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all and Goal 9 ‘Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure’ to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation, going digital seems like a great step forward. This post will look in a little more detail as to how digital strategies are being used to advance these goals in museums.


Doing it digital

Interactive exhibitions and engaging with a new generation


A key factor to the success of digital and hybrid events for International Museum Day is the involvement of new and often younger audiences. Engaging younger generations in activities is crucial, not only for ensuring the longevity of cultural institutions, but also for instilling a sense of ownership and relevance in the future guardian of heritage. By tailoring digital experiences to resonate with the interests and preferences of young audiences, museums can ignite a passion for cultural exploration and preservation from an early age. 


A great example in London is Frameless. They're really grabbing them young, offering monthly immersive multi-sensory ‘tots’ classes. Each 20-minute class transports you into an enchanted forest, packed with narrative content and interactive technology. They use both digital technology, along with more traditional strategies such as performance artists and sensory props. Although a simple idea, Frameless uses art and emerging technology to invite children into a museum environment, inviting a young audience and breaking boundaries in experiencing art. There is also the possibility to attend one of the ‘late’ events on a Friday and a Saturday evening. Having been to one myself very recently it was fascinating seeing young adults interacting with art in a totally different manner. People were dancing, lying on the floor, and talking in groups while artworks transformed and ‘danced’ around them. Very different, but there were people there and they were engaged! 


Enhancing cultural spaces through technology is not only crucial in reaching out to younger audiences, but it also offers a new outlook on accessibility. As an accessible, multi-sensory, immersive art experience, Frameless has committed itself to ensure that all visitors can access and enjoy the experience. They have a dedicated ‘Chilled Experience’, open to all, but have been created especially for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people, and those who might feel more at ease in less busy public spaces. They reduce their capacity, meaning more room for wheelchair users and certain elements are adapted, loud noises are minimised, and low-level lighting is included to avoid complete darkness. They also offer British Sign Language tours that are suitable for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing. Finally, they also offer audio described tours that are tailored specifically for visitors who are blind or visually impaired. During these tours they provide enhanced support with headsets linked to a dedicated guide who leads groups through the galleries at Frameless describing the visual content alongside the music. They are an interesting digital museum, who seem to prioritise sustaining interest with future generations from all backgrounds, fostering their ownership, voice and input in tandem with these cultural spaces.


Image showing floor, ceiling and the corner of two walls with digital projections on all surfaces of the painting by Hieronymous Bosch titled Garden of Earthly Delights.
Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Frameless 2024

Online spaces, accessibility and interdisciplinary collaborations


Creating digital spaces is another avenue museums have been exploring. Digital collections are becoming increasingly prevalent, allowing museums to transcend physical limitations and reach global audiences. I recently read an article written by Livi Adu, a neurodivergent and disabled freelance e-curator, specialising in digital opportunities for inclusive access, about a virtual artist’s house, Halo open art studio, Halosenniemi, Finland. Built with Virtual Art Gallery, an innovative platform that offers an inclusive and expansive space for artists to showcase their work to a global audience, the space aims to recreate the software’s mission to foster a democratic and sustainable art world. It can be accessed from anywhere through an internet connection, and so people who may not have the opportunity to visit a physical museum due to distance or mobility issues can still engage with the exhibition online. As virtual exhibitions are often more cost-effective than a physical exhibition, with reduced expenses related to venue rental, transportation of artworks, security, and staffing, this enables museums to allocate resources to other areas such as conservation or educational programs. Livi acknowledges that Virtual Art Gallery revolutionises the art experience by breaking down barriers of accessibility and affordability. Not only can you recreate historic spaces such as the Halosenniemi, but it empowers contemporary artists to show their work digitally, promote inclusivity and thereby foster a thriving online art community. 


However, work still needs to be done in order to elevate the accessibility of these new virtual spaces. Currently lacking in this example are audio descriptions for the house, artworks or interpretation panels. Ensuring this is in place would make for a much more inclusive experience, particularly for those with visual impairments or dyslexia. There is also the topic of findability, where currently the physical museum’s website is not linked to the virtual re-creation. This makes accessing the virtual venue much harder as you have to find it on the Virtual Art Gallery website - a space that may well be unknown to the average visitor. We also assume that everyone has access to the appropriate technology to access this space. Having access to a laptop, internet connection or even VR headset is not a luxury afforded by everyone and that is something that also needs to be considered. But technology does help revolutionise the museum experience, allowing visitors to engage with exhibits in new and captivating ways. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) bring historical events to life, allowing visitors to step into immersive worlds from anywhere they like.


Screenshot of painting 'Double Portrait, 1895' within the virtual space Halosenneimi, studio of Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)
Screenshot of painting 'Double Portrait, 1895' within the virtual space Halosenneimi, studio of Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)

Text accompanying the painting 'Double Portrait, 1895' reading: Pekka Halonen and Maija Mäkinen were wed in early 1895. In the same year, Halonen painted a double portrait of his wife and himself. The painting depicts the artist and his wife in a tender yet mysterious atmosphere. This subject was rare in both Finland and the Nordic countries in the 1890s. During that period, Finland was going through the era of symbolism. The downcast eyes and the mysteriously dim lighting are references to symbolism. The husband and wife are portrayed differently. Halonen depicts his wife with great respect and love. Maija's face is lit up, while the artist himself stands modestly in the shadows, protecting his treasure. Symbolist double portraits can also depict the two sides of one person: one is facing inwards, the other outwards. The double portrait painted by Halonen, however, depicts two individuals who complement each other. The marriage of Pekka and Maija Halonen was a happy one.
Example of the text accompanying the painting 'Double Portrait, 1865'

The big scary world of AI and how it helps (and how it doesn’t) 


One concept on almost everyone’s lips is the broad and looming topic of Artificial Intelligence (or AI). Despite it now dominating every heritage conference, making news headlines and threatening academic integrity, AI has been around for decades and is being used across the sector already. For example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is using AI to enhance visitor experiences and conservation efforts, while also enriching its collection. In the UK, Towards a National Collection is revolutionising cultural heritage engagement by using AI to analyse user preferences, personalise presentations of heritage collections, facilitate navigation and exploration of heritage items, suggest related content, and provide real-time assistance. It is also a tool which promises new ways to consider and address issues around accessibility for different audiences. The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo is using its ‘AI Suitcase’ to enhance accessibility for visually impaired visitors, guiding them through the museum, and even reading exhibit explanations aloud. 


It is clear AI undoubtedly offers a number of opportunities, be it in assisting in sorting through data, elevating experiences for disabled visitors and revamping the heritage and museum sector. But it also creates tensions, especially in the current context, where the regulation of AI is lagging behind the speed of innovation. For example, practitioners in the heritage sectors know the importance of regarding tools, instruments, and objects as situated in their cultural, temporal, political, or economic context. For AI technology, this practice of contextualisation is just as necessary, but lacking. Although, in my opinion, AI is nothing to worry about in the heritage sector, it is vital that heritage professionals are aware of emerging trends and take it upon themselves to add to the discourse of building ethical frameworks in using the technology. As long as it is monitored and its input is used for elevating pre-existing datasets, accessibility models and museum infrastructure, I think AI offers a brilliant avenue for museums to push themselves to engage with all types of digitisation strategies, to benefit existing and future users of their resources.


AI generated image given the prompt 'A digital museum in the future' which shows a white/pink lit interior with a robot to the left and people viewing screens along the walls
AI generated image given the prompt 'A digital museum in the future'

Conclusion


There are three emerging themes throughout this discussion of the rise of technology and digital strategies in heritage sites, sustainability, inclusivity and consciousness. Looking back at the goals of this year’s IMD ‘Quality Education’ and ‘Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure’, it is interesting to see these intersections. Digital strategies in museums play a crucial role in promoting sustainability by reducing environmental impact, conserving cultural heritage, minimising energy consumption, expanding access to educational resources, and fostering community engagement. By leveraging technology to support sustainable practices and initiatives, museums can contribute to a more sustainable and resilient future for generations to come. The second being inclusivity, as digital platforms provide accommodations for individuals with disabilities, such as audio descriptions for visually impaired visitors, captioning for videos, and keyboard navigation for those with mobility impairments. This ensures that museum content is inclusive and accessible to people with a range of physical disabilities. Digital platforms can offer multilingual content, allowing visitors to engage with museum resources in their preferred language. This eliminates language barriers and ensures that cultural and educational content is accessible to individuals from diverse linguistic backgrounds.


These are encompassed by the final theme of consciousness, by leveraging digital strategies to enhance accessibility, museums can promote consciousness by ensuring that cultural and educational resources are available to all, regardless of geographical location, physical ability, language proficiency, or individual circumstances. This inclusive approach fosters awareness, understanding, and appreciation of diverse perspectives, ultimately contributing to a more conscious and sustainable society. I hope digital innovation continues to help address themes important to the future of heritage!


 

Sources:




Livi Adu, Digital review | Virtual artist’s house, Halo open art studio, Halosenniemi, Finland: https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/reviews/2023/09/digital-review-virtual-artists-house-halo-open-art-studio-halosenniemi-finland/


Sonja Thiel, Johannes C. Bernhardt (eds.) AI in Museums Reflections, Perspectives and Applications: https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-6710-3/ai-in-museums/?number=978-3-8394-6710-7

136 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page