• Cultural Practices

Unlocking Digital Heritage

By Isaac Hart, Karina Sorrels & Victoria Lane




The MA students who chose Digital Heritage as a module in 2021 were faced with an unprecedented challenge those in previous years had not - government restrictions on in-person events and the reopening of museums. In turn, the module which usually gives students the opportunity to work with local museums in creating physical exhibitions and content, adapted to remote training and virtual exhibitions. The module allowed trainee museum professionals to work with a three-dimensional (3D) scan of a heritage institution in order to explore the ways digital technology can enhance the museum experience. Due to government restrictions, the AGMS students were unable to create the scans themselves, or even visit their host museums in person due to lockdown, and so were faced with creating digital exhibitions entirely virtually, and still find a way to connect them to an audience looking to explore them. The following examples in this article demonstrate the three groups that took this module and found a way to develop their projects and reconnected them to the museum, each in their own particular way.


Manchester Art Gallery

By Isaac Hart


Our group, consisting of myself (Isaac), Vereniki Vasileiadi, Evita Iroukou, and Marnie Parker, were all eager to work on behalf of Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) when we saw that it was on offer, so we jumped at the chance before the available slots were filled! The brief provided was to create a digital exhibition based on a 3D scan of Gallery Three at MAG that would tie into the gallery’s ongoing effort to reimagine its displays in a way that more directly relates them to Manchester and its people.


Working alongside Hannah Williamson, the Curator of Fine Arts at MAG, we all agreed that the 3D scan, created in Matterport, provided an opportunity to add an extra layer of detail and context to the objects on display beyond what would be possible in an in-person visit. Gallery Three is the first in MAG to be redeveloped according to the new plan, which will eventually see every gallery grouped around a theme such as ‘Work’, ‘Leisure’, or ‘Immigration’.


Gallery Three features an assortment of objects, representing many different aspects of MAG’s collections, and we decided to reflect this eclecticism in our project. Using the Mattertags in the 3D scan, we would link the artworks on display to other pieces within the gallery, or that were in the collections but not on display, turning Gallery Three into a microcosm and introduction to the whole of MAG.


To do this, we drew up a list of all the objects on display in Gallery Three, and each of us picked three objects which we felt were particularly interesting. For example, one of the objects I chose was the famous painting ‘Portrait of a Stag with Two Indian Attendants’, which has hung in the same gallery for many years, alongside a more humble object, a teapot shaped like a camel. One of the ideas that Hannah had brought up in our meetings that we were equally enthused about was to highlight MAG’s pottery and stoneware collections as we felt they were underrepresented in the old way of display.


Having chosen our twelve ‘highlight’ objects, we each did in-depth research into them, uncovering their histories at MAG, how they came to be in Manchester, and the stories behind the people involved with them. This proved a fascinating experience, and we all discovered fascinating stories we would otherwise never have come across. My teapot, for instance, turned out to have once been the property of a rather eccentric collector.


Once our research was complete, we drew up lists of objects in MAG’s collection that we felt were connected to our objects. We then created a series of interactive labels that would allow visitors to the 3D scan to navigate to the connected objects within MAG’s website, while also providing original commentary in the form of an imagined conversation among ourselves, the ‘student curators’. We based this pathway on a ‘decision tree’, allowing visitors to choose their own path around the collections without feeling like they were being shuffled along a route we had chosen.


To be as accessible as possible, we also recorded audio versions of all our labels so that everyone could engage with the scan. We named the project ‘Reconnecting with Gallery Three’, as its main objective was to establish the links between the artworks in this gallery and with the rest of the building, while also showing the people of Manchester how they connected to them.. In conclusion, all of us found it a deeply fulfilling and interesting project. It was a privilege to work on behalf of MAG, and we were impressed with the enthusiasm and support we received from the entire curatorial team, who remained engaged with our work throughout and provided invaluable advice. It is our hope that we can continue to develop ‘Reconnecting with Gallery Three’ in collaboration with MAG into the future, and allow more visitors to discover the hidden links beyond the gallery walls.





Links


Reconnecting with Gallery 3 - Interactive Labels

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLH0emMU1LPuDuVoWRd8Lu-fN4Hhsncodb


Reconnecting with Gallery 3 - 3D Exhibition

https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=n2ALUsZ3BW4



Platt Hall

By Karina Sorrels


Platt Hall, an eighteenth-century textile merchant’s house in Platt Fields Park, closed its doors in 2017. It is currently being used as a conservation storage for various collections, and a place for small groups to gather and explore the history of the building and the collections it contains. These group events have played a crucial part in Platt Hall’s 100 Object Collections as each object has been chosen by a member of the public, and the centre for various discussions; from what an object could have been, to the impact of the modern labour system. However, the future of Platt Hall is being reimagined to become a place where the local community can gather, host events, discussions, and connect with history beyond the curator’s thought. Platt Hall plans to reopen in 2024, and until then, virtual events and small group events hosted by Platt Hall prompted by Platt Hall: A 3D Tour for the Future will be the key engagement platforms for Platt Hall and the community to use.

Platt Hall: A 3D Tour for the Future is a student-led project created by myself, Yaxin Wu, Yinghui Qin, Yinong Wang, and Yu Wang, with guidance from Elizabeth Mitchell, Curator of Platt Hall Collections. The project’s brief was ‘...to create an interactive visual and spatial 'conversation starter' for use in public consultation and planning…[where] people can explore the building, discovering aspects of its history, objects from the collections housed within, and ideas for the future that have come from conversations to date...a 3D self-guided tour [via Matterport]… with embedded content that brings the different spaces to life with ideas, stories, insights and glimpses into the past, present and future of the Hall, drawing on archives, images and related sources…’


A recurring theme that came up during our meetings was the idea of ‘connecting’ and ‘reconnecting’. As Platt Hall has been closed to the majority of the public, we wanted to ensure that the virtual audience would be able to have an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Platt Hall’s current state and be able to [re]connect with the building and its collections. In an attempt at forming these connections, we decided to scan all of Platt Hall, totaling 271 scanning points, and highlight 36 objects via Mattertags.



Dollhouse view of Platt Hall with Mattertags
Dollhouse view of Platt Hall with Mattertags

Through consultation, the project determined three content themes that each Mattertag would fall under: People of Platt Hall, Objects of Curiosity, and History of Platt Hall. Each content theme / Mattertag has been selected by our own interests from the 100 Object Collections, with additional objects being provided to us by Mitchell to fulfil all of our themes. Additionally, each Mattertag includes an image of the object, a short introduction to the object, a link to the object’s page in the 100 Object Collections, and questions about the past, the present, and the future in relation to the object to promote discussion and wonder.


The Mattertags have been laid out according to the content theme. These are as follows: History of Platt Hall’s main location is in the entrance and staircase with alternative locations in various rooms, the People of Platt Hall’s content is in the dining room, and Objects of Curiosity are primarily in the Room of Review with other objects located throughout Platt Hall. By placing the object according to content theme and not fully structuring the scan, we hope that the audience will be able to explore Platt Hall as though they were in the physical space, additionally, the scan will be used in for virtual events where a Platt Hall staff member can direct the audience to a particular point and so the scan is adaptable to each person’s needs.


In conclusion, as part of the Manchester Art Gallery’s new vision, the reconstruction and redevelopment of Platt Hall hopes to use art as a tool to promote change and (re)connections. Platt Hall: A 3D Tour for the Future provides a way to achieve this aim and offers further inspiration and opportunities for the ongoing development of Platt Hall and the diversity of content to be presented. The project is intended to increase online accessibility during Platt Hall’s closure, and help people to understand how Platt Hall works while building lifelong connections to Platt Hall and the community.



Interacting with a Mattertag
Interacting with a Mattertag


Links


Platt Hall: A 3D Tour for the Future can be accessed via https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=zGPW2WD5XFm

Platt Hall’s 100 Object Collections can be accessed via

https://www.platthall.org/100-objects.html




People’s History Museum

By Victoria Lane


The project undertaken for the People’s History Museum (PHM) was unique due to the curatorial team’s specification that the scan would be sold as a premium offering. The recouping of revenue streams post-lockdown is a huge concern shared by many museums, which has resulted in a growing market for digital products. However, with few market references, we felt as if we were broaching entirely new territory.


The museum focuses on the story of democracy and labour history within the UK. The group, which consisted of myself, Enrika Pavlovskyte, Rebecca Fleming, Ang Li and Mymona Bibi, was tasked by the museum to create a product exploring the ‘Radical Relationships’ between fifteen historical couples involved with the story of the nation’s fight for democratic rights. During our research, we found that many museums were translating their existing paid provision to online experiences with a focus on personalisation and exclusivity. We also found that many institutions using Matterport were not using the technology to its full potential. Often the scan merely acted as a facsimile of the physical space, a sort of ‘google maps’ for museums. As the digital cannot compete with the sensory experience of the physical gallery, we wanted to embrace the opportunities the digital can give us to present a new environment of interaction. We took inspiration from the Motor Museum of Western Australia, which incentivises users to buy access to their Matterport scan by giving the digital visitor an experience they can’t replicate in the physical space – the ability to see inside fragile vehicles.



Motor Museum of Western Australia’s ‘Step Inside’ function from their monetised Matterport scan.
Motor Museum of Western Australia’s ‘Step Inside’ function from their monetised Matterport scan.

We believe the digital environment benefits PHM as their galleries have little available space for the stories they wanted us to present. On the scan, we inserted mattertags to interact with the relevant contextual physical material in the galleries, giving background to the digital information presented and meshing the physical and digital together. We cut the fifteen relationships down to eleven as our research suggested that digital museum products which explore certain aspects in detail prove more successful as they are presenting a more exclusive, tailored experience. As our elimination process was mindful of PHM’s inclusivity goals, we prioritised relationships from marginalised communities that would have previously been ignored in museums. We also ensured that we included lesser known, ‘secret’ stories about popular figures as we wanted to give the user an experience they couldn’t get by simply googling the person, justifying the monetisation of the product.


Our main aim was to inspire empathy, weaving compelling emotional narratives through use of personal stories and ‘voices’ of the relationships via ‘acted out’ quotes to compliment the historical context of the gallery text. We hope this tour is an entertaining experience as well as an educational one, showing the visitor that our subjects were not two-dimensional historical figures, but real people with complex lives, emotions, and desires. Using the lack of physical material to our advantage, we invited the user to ‘uncover’ these hidden stories via the digital medium, through text, images and sound, to create a digital presence from physical absence, and a level of personalisation and exclusivity.


We were aware of the ethical considerations surrounding paid content, especially concerning ‘paywalling’ information about marginalised groups portrayed in the tour, which are already underrepresented in museums. Due to this, we suggested a tiered ‘pay as you go’ model so users could pay for access to groups of relationships based on categories (e.g. LGBT+, Women’s Rights), which meant they would only pay for topics they are interested in for a smaller fee without having to buy the entire tour. Other suggestions included restricting access by IP address so an entire household can access the product, or a timed access code, giving the ability to revisit.



People’s History Museum matterport scan displaying a sound file mattertag concerning the relationship between Esther Roper and  Eva Gore-Booth. Mattertags were placed on the walls of the gallery to draw the user’s attention to the surrounding material in the scan.
People’s History Museum matterport scan displaying a sound file mattertag concerning the relationship between Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth. Mattertags were placed on the walls of the gallery to draw the user’s attention to the surrounding material in the scan.


Conclusion


As exemplified in the three projects, the virtual aspect of the module provided each project with the opportunity to form a unique way to reconnect to the physical space: through objects’ meanings, exploration of the digital/physical space, and emotions. Perhaps this is the value of digital applications; allowing one to submerge themselves only on what is presented to them. However, this opportunity does not come without its limitations both in practice and results. Each project had the challenge of working remotely with museums who had already completed their 3D scans for us to use. We were unable to decide what was and was not scanned and while we could adjust scanning points and ‘hide’ them from the final format, the freedom of exploring a physical space and making it our own was taken away. Furthermore, many of us had little to no previous experience with the museums we worked with. We never had the chance to compare the 3D scan and objects in the virtual space with the physical; thus, our perception of what the museum felt like and how the objects were presented was entirely left to our own imagination with some help from the museum professionals. Practical limitations occurred too, these consisted of organizing virtual meeting times, learning to use Matterport, determining the projects’ aims, waiting for photographs of objects, etc. Despite these limitations, the three projects not only hope to make a significant impact on the museum visitors’ digital interaction, but also the museums’ digital application - encouraging museums to continue to develop their digital presence and understanding of digital technology.







Authors


Isaac Hart is an AGMS student with a background in digital and creative media. Born and raised in the south-east, he graduated from the University of Chichester as a Bachelor of Arts in 2017 before relocating to the north-west. Since then he has built a career in museums and archives, undertaking projects with Archives+ and Manchester Art Gallery. He is currently based at The Atkinson in Southport, and also works for the English Speaking Board providing educational support to students. He is a keen amateur artist, and his work has been featured in the Sefton Open exhibition.

Twitter: @isaachart96



Karina Juliana Sorrels, from Connecticut, USA, is an Art Gallery and Museum Studies MA student at the University of Manchester. She received her B.A in English: Cultural and Media Studies, History & Global Studies from Bishop’s University, Canada, and her Postgraduate Certificate in British History from Newcastle University, England. Her research publication debut occurred after the publication of Maude Abbott: Breaking the Barriers in the 2017 Bishop’s History Review. She has presented at the 2018 Eastern Townships Resource Centre Colloquium, Newcastle University’s Learning and Teaching Conference, and at Newcastle University’s Education Committee and Executive Board Meetings. Her professional career has led her to the opportunities of working for The Whitaker as a Virtual Exhibition Curator, and the first-ever Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at Newcastle University Students’ Union. She is a devoted anglophile, with a passion for British History, heritage sites, music, and travel.


Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kjsorrels/


Victoria Lane is an AGMS student and museum practitioner born in Birmingham and currently living in Manchester. Her research interests centres around digital coproduction and working class heritage. She achieved a BA from Central Saint Martins in Fine Art in 2016 and has exhibited in several London galleries. She writes about the subversive undercurrents of British cultural history such as folk traditions, subcultures and British psychogeography and has recently been published in magazines such as Moof Magazine and GULP. Since graduating, she has built a career in arts institutions and currently works for Arts Council England’s Museum and Cultural Property Department, aiding RCEWA and the Acceptance in Lieu panels. In her spare time she enjoys collecting vintage clothing, performing in bands and visiting 1960s concrete public art pieces.


Twitter: @victoriaclane