Stepping out from our personal ‘comfort zone’ is advertised by many motivational psychologists as the magic trick to re-invent our life path and reaching happiness and success. Kajsa Hartig, Senior Advisor – New Media at Nordiska Museet applied this metaphor to museums that are struggling to get out of traditional and colonial models to become more socially relevant to the audience. The title of her speech given during one of the MuseumNext Conference, ‘Stepping out the comfort zone to re-imagine the museum experience’  grabbed my attention at a very personal level. To re-imagine and stretch out the horizons of my life I stepped out from the comfort and the warmth of my cosy home to move in another country and challenge myself by doing an academic master degree. The idea is exciting but implementing the change and new work practices can be tough.  The creation of a new customer oriented inclusive experience which will be delivered across the various museum ecosystem, including online and on sight, inevitably will move the museum into new and unknown grounds (Hartig 2016). Organizing experimental events require a transition into new work practices which involves multidisciplinary skills which might be away from the usual personal field backgrounds. These new paths can create discomfort among staff and I can relate completely with that feeling of uncertainty and insecurity.

‘Changing a tyre while driving a car’ (Harting 2016)

Beside my personal projections towards the idea of getting out from the comfort zone, I found very interesting to listen in a quite detailed way how the Nordiska Museet of Djurgården (Sweden) has been using two pivotal projects to learn how to use digital technology to reach a wider audience meanwhile using themes of social relevance. For my current research project, that I have been working on for the last few months as an intern, I have been looking at how museums and galleries need and can practically open their boundaries to keep up with a fast-changing social environment.  Technology is contributing in changing our society, visitors’ need ‘for and understanding of authenticity is changing’ and no less important native communities ask museum curators to change the way they have been represented (Gurian 2005 )Therefore, museums are called to revise their anatomy (Boast 2011) and to start a transformation process which will help them not only to strengthen ‘community bonds’ (Hazan 2007:135)  but ‘to present a variety of perspectives, rather than a singular, institutional voice’ (Hazan 2007:134). We are all aware that implementing this process will not be an easy task and, using again another metaphor, it can be depicted like ‘changing a tyre while driving a car’ (Hartig 2016). Nonetheless, some museums are trying and it’s inspiring listening at their experience and the stories about the challenges and difficulties they faced and overcome.

The use of pivotal projects to introduce digital technology in the museum working practices

My research is focused on Amsterdam’ museum but, for everyone who is working in this field, it is fundamental also looking at other international museological organizations who bring along other experiences and perspectives. Kajsa Harting as other speakers at the conference questioned on how to build new practices to invite the audience to participation and exhibitions co-creation. It was particularly insightful to listen to practical examples of how her museum and her team put this process of transformation into practice. The team set up two pivotal initiatives that helped them to learn how to use online activities to engage with a younger audience (which is a struggle for most museums). This project has been valid also for introducing digital tecnology into the organisation which meant framing staff into a new mindset. The first experiment was a ten-day-long pilot called ‘counting lamps’ which engaged kids and families online in connection with earth hour. At the same time, the staff had already started working in a new exhibition called ‘No declite’ addressing the cultural and historical aspects of light in our society. They decided to connect the pilot event to that exhibition in order to make more sense of their work to the audience, to participants and to the training course that staff was attending about digital technology in museums. This also allowed to frame the initiative within a larger socially relevant context. In fact, the idea behind counting lamp was to create awareness of light consumption in Sweden. In connection with the ‘Earth Hour’  event on March 20th 2016, when the public is supposed to switch off their lights all over the world, children were asked to count all lamps in their house and to ask the adults to guess how many there were. They created a simple form where children could state how many lamps they had as well as uploading an image of their favourite lamp. The campaign last 48th hour and was run through Facebook and Instagram. Looking at numbers they noticed that the engagement grade was higher than normally is in their social media. The results were also used by the exhibition curator. However, the number of participants was not yet satisfying. This fact triggered a discussion among staff on how can they really encourage participation of families and kids online.  Anyway, besides the fact that they had a substantial number of ‘Likes’, these visitors contacts also lead to a direct online visit to the museum website. This initiative was utterly fundamental for the process of implementing digital technology in the museum as it brought crucial contributions for the second pivotal initiative. Moreover, it taught the museum staff to reflect on engagement dynamics, to discuss social media tactics and to produce contents together with the public. At the meantime, the most difficult part was ‘truly integrate digital technology when the planning has started’ (Harting) for the onsight exhibition.

New media platforms used as an instrument for contents co-creation and community participation

This experiment shows clearly that the introduction of digital technology and new media platform within the museum practices does not lead ‘to replace the material object with an electronic surrogate, but instead opens up new possibilities to harness and to enact reciprocal, user-driven scenarios, as well as new opportunities for the remote visitor to be able to interact with the museum’ (Hazan  2007:134). Moreover, it is an answer to the rising demand of experiences that bridges online and onsight aspect of the museum. Online activities can also represent a ‘key way’ of involving the ‘active visitor’ in the museum experience through ‘hand-on interactivity’ (Hazan 2007:143). In fact, generally, and the young public in a special way, we remember much more something that we do hands-on than we read.  Obviously creating this connection between cultural institutions and new audiences ‘requires more than the provision of convergent technology infrastructure’ (Russo & Watkins 2007:149).  It needs to be taken into consideration also the ‘audiences familiarity’ with technology.  Russo and Watkins termed this new framework, where cultural institutions build connections with the public ‘through community co-creation using new media platform and new literacy training ‘: ‘Digital Cultural Communication’ (Russo & Watkins 2007:149). Basically, museums can build links with communities ‘through practical, innovative, and technology-derived literacy programs’ (Russo & Watkins 2007:164). The creation of digital content offers an opportunity for audiences to interact with narratives, thus creating unique experiences.

Stepping out of comfort zone: where the magic happens

All these considerations drawn from the academic field reinforce the idea that initiatives like those implemented within the Nordiska museum can be very useful for enhancing audience participation. Surely, for anyone working in the museum field, achieving a better and more meaningful relationship with their audience is the most rewarding result of their effort in stepping out from the comfort zone and facing uncertainty when ‘venturing unknown space’ (Hartig 2016). This transformation process takes time and it will need to be implemented on a regular day to day base working proceedings and not just a one off experiment. These new practices might be a valuable opportunity to ‘truly address issues of complexity, activism and inclusion’ (Hartig 2016) and could lead to exciting experiences for both staff and visitors. The museum could actually be transformed into a place ‘where the magic happens’ (see the title picture).

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Works cited

  • Boast R. (2011), Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisite, Museum Anthropology, 34/1, pp.56-70.
  • Gurian, E. (2005), A blurring of the boundaries, in Heritage, Museums and Galleries – an introductory reader, ed. Gerard Corsane (Routledge), 89-94.
  • Hazan S. (2007), A crisis of Authority: New Lamps for Old, Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage, Edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, pp. 133-148.
  • Russo A. & Watkins J. (2007), Digital Cultural Communication: Audience and Remediation, Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage, Edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, pp. 149-164.

Other sources