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Digital Exhibit Labels (2 of 2) – Distraction Transformed Into Learning Tools

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This post is a result of my final project for the Masters of Learning Science and Technology program at the University of Sydney. The project investigated digital exhibit labels for the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), providing a literature review and recommendations for ANMM. A previous post defined digital exhibit labels and discussed the implications of existing and proposed examples (Digital Exhibit Labels – Balancing the Opportunities and Challenges). The review highlighted the ability of current technology to deliver tools whose scope is limited only by the imagination of museums, researchers and visitors.

Example Collage

A – Melbourne Museum First Peoples Digital Labels, B – Art Gallery NSW Art Sets Website, C – MONA The O

The future for museum technology is exciting, as museum adopt technology labels are no longer constrained to text on the wall, instead devices and internet access enable previously unconceivable ways to learn in both physical and virtual visits. Yet the speed of development has outpaced substantial evaluation of specific digital exhibit label technology leaving the impact on experience and learning not fully explored.

Labels for Learning

So … can exhibit labels and more specifically digital exhibit labels effectively support visitors and their learning process at museums? My answer is YES, there is evidence indicating that exhibit labels, and to greater extent digital labels, can significantly impact visitor experience and meaning making. Research indicates that label use can increase: exhibit content recall, emotional response, concept comprehension, inquiry skills, attention duration, and discussion quality. Well developed exhibit labels can go beyond providing information becoming a facilitator for the museum experience by providing multimedia, prompting discussion, supporting navigation, offering interpretation, maintaining attention, and provoking response.

However, to be successful digital exhibit labels must balance the needs of the visitor and the institution. Such tools should support individual visitor needs and enhance the physical and social experience, while also communicating key museum messages. Described by Falk and Dierking as a contextual model, meaning making is suggested to occur at the intersection of physical, personal and sociocultural contexts, with the learning evidenced by the change in the individual over time. Initially contextual influences present as an individual’s motivations and preconceptions, change with museum interaction into knowledge and experience, and then ideally transfer to other situations. Digital exhibit labels can help museum visitors manage the contexts of the moment and serve as evidence of the experience, creating an accessible bridge into their everyday life.


Falk & Dierking – Contextual Model of Learning Personal, Sociocultural, Physical

Yet regardless of the quality of a label it will not be relevant to all visitors, and no visitor will read every label. Learning is an intensely personal process, with the informal learning process at museums associated with novel experiences and active discovery that is ideally intrinsically motivated, self-directed, and inquiry based. As Kelly suggests the individual and beliefs about their learning identity (i.e. interests, learning style) are central to museum learning connecting purpose, process, people, place and product of a museum experience. Only by evaluating visitor roles, social interactions, tools used, tasks engaged, response to presentations, and content of interest is there a chance that elements of the museum experience can be designed to effectively engage visitor learning identity and influence experience.


Kelly – 6Ps Museum Learning

Evaluating Technology, Learning & Context

OK so … we know labels can be effective if they consider context and individual needs, and their benefit for visitors can be heightened with the magic of technology. But HOW? The answer is not concrete, rather lies in guidance driven by an evaluation of available related research, learning best practice, current technology examples and the ANMM context.

The first step, as suggested by Kidd, is to reframe technology as a museum learning tool, reinterpreting visitor interaction with technology as engagement instead of distraction. A digital label in any form can become a way to engage with an object of interest, a toolkit to capture the experience, a source for later reflection, and a vehicle for sharing personal interpretations. From the digital exhibit label examples reviewed technology potential is summarized as follows:

Technology Potential
  • Personalisation
  • Access to new voices
  • Social engagement
  • Evolving experience

Research evidence suggests that digital exhibit labels can be embedded with learning best practices to promote excitement and attention, but should also help guide and manage novelty of location and exhibits. Theses consolidated best practices can be applied to content, device, instructions, and individual … indeed anything that may impact physical, sociocultural or individual contexts.

Learning Best Practice
  • personalisation – offering a variety of meaningful content and experiences;
  • guidance – indicating suggestions for interaction with objects, tools and social;
  • construction – providing means to document and construct meaning;
  • socialisation – enabling a process of sharing of interpretations and feedback;
  • evaluation – monitoring and optimising emerging activity.

The final portion of the evaluation was a review of the museum context, to guide any ANMM specific considerations. Data sources included visitor surveys, museum guides, marketing materials, business reports and site visits. What became apparent is the pervasive diversity and novelty at the ANMM including the collection (vessels and exhibits), location (harbour and tourist precinct), visitor demographics (domestic, international, children, adults, school, families, etc.), visitor preferences (BYOD, CYOD, no tech), and visitor motivations (learning goals, fun seeking, hobbyist, tourist).

ANMM Context
  • High novelty (location, collection)
  • Tech savvy visitor population
  • Diverse (collection, population)

ANMM technology implementations must navigate challenges and optimise the affordances of its collection, location and population without dampening the excitement of an indoor / outdoor museum experience in an iconic location. While the current research does not point to the efficacy of one implementation over another, I found enough research to suggest a learning process and activities to foster during development of digital exhibit labels. However, evaluation must continue to monitor resulting human activity as visitor use will best inform as to the success or not of any tool.

Framework for Digital Label Evaluation

The learning process suggested is explore, imagine, inspire – simply defined explore is the process of discovery, imagine is the construction of meaning, and inspire is the opportunity for individual and shared reflection.


Museum Learning Process

Activities to foster in each phase are suggested below. However, each individual will choose their own action, as instructions, tools and environment can only suggest not guarantee specific activities.

Explore Imagine Inspire
  • Planning & research
  • Object interaction
  • Collection & notation
  • Collaboration
  • Social interaction
  • Attention to connections
  • Construction
  • Presentation
  • Remix & reuse
  • Self-assessment
  • Sharing
  • Reflection
  • Evaluation
  • Feedback
  • Discussion

The process of explore, imagine and inspire and the suggested activities seek to provide a framework to enable the museum to guide development and evaluate future programs and technology. This framework is technology agnostic, remaining applicable to any implementation from text labels to interactive experiences. It is the process of learning that is the priority, with technology remaining one element of the museum learning network.

Focusing on the learning process also enables targeting of tools to more narrow use cases and user profiles. Although demographics and broad profiles help to prioritise visitors to target, user profiles and scenarios can more humanise the development process and evaluation. To better exemplify the suggested framework, at the end of the post are two potential implementation scenarios – an exhibit website, and a reimagined education program.

What’s Next

Although I have developed personal opinions about what technology may best work for the ANMM, they are just that … opinions. As there is not yet any substantial research to recommend investment in a specific technology, investigating current projects at other institutions (i.e. The O, Ask) and evaluating low cost prototypes are likely the best short-term options for the ANMM.

With a history of trialling new label technologies including audio tours, apps, interactive iPad exhibits, games, QR codes and more, the ANMM will continue to trial and evaluate. For example, Michelle Mortimer at the ANMM has recently developed a new ANMM app and collection highlights tours using Google Cultural Institute tools. However, feedback from the ANMM suggests the main challenge to any sustainable digital label implementation may be data source and management.

I look forward to the continued innovations from the ANMM and the coming Warships Pavilion.

ANMM Google Cultural Tools

ANMM Google Cultural Tools

Framework in Action – Examples

Shackleton Exhibit Website 

The ANMM Shackleton website is conceived of as an aggregator of exhibit resources and a tool to guide interaction with objects, exhibits, content, tools and other visitors. The website will need to be responsive to a variety of devices and formats as it is assumed visitors will use the website offsite (desktop, tablet, smartphone), on mobile devices at the museum (personal and museum), tablets or other interactive technology mounted within the exhibit, and even as hardcopy print outs. It is important to remember that the website will serve as a digital exhibit label, thus it needs to convey information and guide both physical and virtual visits.

Explore – Website tools to enable exploration include: multimedia content, curator recommended tours, suggested activities associated with exhibit or object, as well as maps and traditional navigation aides. The tours would ideally be customized to meet the needs of prioritized visitor segments for example – Horrible Histories Family Tour (Learning Goals), Shackleton’s Perspective (Hobbiests), ‘Selfie’ Twitter Tour (Tourists). Tasks and activities should be embedded within the tours as well as offered separately as suggestions for how visitors can interact with the website and/or exhibit objects. Example tasks include: supplying response to museum supplied questions by submitting photos to the website, or suggesting a Twitter hash tag for groups to share and catalogue comments and photos during exhibit exploration.

Imagine – A combination of tools for visitors and curators, enabling creation of custom tours from existing collection material and external resources (i.e. personal photos or web content) as well as ability to comment on, remix or reinvent existing tours and online collection. Functionality should enable users to interact with museum and broader collections to create and curate meaningful representations of their experiences (ex. NSW Art Gallery’s ArtSets, Google Cultural Institute User Galleries, Storify). Examples of website use, such as tours, should be created by museum staff and engaged visitors (e.g. ANMM members), further use should be prompted by suggested tasks. These tours would serve to model use, but also be accessible during explore activities. Example tasks might include: remixing supplied tours or recreating a tour with musical commentary only.

Inspire – Tools to help users inspire themselves by reflecting on their work as well as sharing with an interested community. Functionality should create a space on the website that enables visitors to share their creations, tag and categorize content, submit comments and engage in discussions around ANMM or user supplied content of interest. Social media style functionality should provide easy means of leaving comments, sharing, stating a like or dislike, as well as promotion of top ranked or featured content.

HMB Endeavour Reimagined

It is possible to engage visitors in the process of explore, imagine and inspire by augmenting current experiences at the museum with defined tasks enabled by easily accessible technology. The goal being to create low cost prototypes for trial and evaluation. This scenario takes inspiration from Simon’s discussion of social objects within museums, items that stimulate active discussion due to personal relevance, physical presence, provocation or by compelling interaction. Such objects are optimal for the trial of participatory museum experiences, as they already create much discussion.

The ANMM vessel trail and specifically the HMB Endeavour is indeed a social object. A Google search of HMB Endeavour returned more than 65,000 recommendations including ANMM and community produced images, videos, blogs, and information pages, as well as evidence of social media followers. The HMB Endeavour is already a feature in the current ANMM education program as well as clearly represented within various stages of the NSW curriculum.

Implementation of digital exhibit labels for the HMB Endeavour is suggested to first require a consolidation of curator recommended resources. This aggregation of content could be created by the ANMM using Google Cultural Institute, and would enable visitors to explore the HMB Endeavour both online and onsite. Further, Google Cultural Institute could also be leveraged to create a number of tours targeting known interested markets such as school groups. Onsite exploration could be enabled by personal or museum supplied mobile devices, a trail of temporarily installed iPads/kiosks, or even printouts.

This example learning task takes inspiration from TwitterTours at Museum Victoria, with student groups completing the following:

Task Create a story about a crew member from HMB Endeavour
Segment Family Learning Goals, K-12 School Group
Motivations Facilitator, Explorer
Resources Provided
  • Crew member biographies
  • Multimedia tours
  • Multimedia exhibit collection resources
  • Twitter hashtag
  • Tablet / smart phone (personal or museum supplied)
  • Wireless Internet access
Apps/Tools Recommended
  • Explore – Twitter
  • Imagine –Shadow Puppet Edu (apple/android), or Book Creator (iPad/Android)
  • Inspire – ANMM Twitter, ANMM Blog, School Edmodo
Suggested Process
  • Explore – In advance of visit project is discussed with students, and technology is trialled
  • Explore – During visit students use Twitter to comment and upload notes and photos; Educators use Twitter to monitor and guide exploration
  • Imagine – At museum in small groups students are allocated 30 minutes to reflect, discuss and evaluate Twitter feed for knowledge gaps and to collect additional information
  • Imagine – At school access Twitter feed and compile story using recommended tools
  • Inspire – Share creations on ANMM designated site or school’s Edmodo, evaluate and comment on other’s work
Student Evaluation Points
  • Information technology skills
  • Planning & research; Collection & notation
  • Attention to connections; Self-assessment
  • Reflection; Discussion
  • Evidence of learning: Crew member story; Reflection on process

A big thank you to my very patient supervisors at the University of Sydney: Lina Markauskaite and Lucila Carvalho.

References – Included in post text

Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (2012). Museum Experience Revisited. Left Coast Press.

Kidd, J. (2011). Enacting engagement online: framing social media use for the museum. Information Technology & People, 24(1), 64-77.

Kelly, L. (2007). Visitors and learners: Adult museum visitors’ learning identities. Presented at the ICOM-CECA Conference. Retrieved from

Malloy, J. (2015). Beyond the walls. Retrieved June 2015 from

Simon, N. (2010). The participatory museum. Retrieved May 2015 from


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1 Comment

  1. […] Distraction Transformed Into Learning Tools – the second post that asks “… can exhibit labels and more specifically digital exhibit labels effectively support visitors and their learning process at museums?” and suggests that “… to be successful digital exhibit labels must balance the needs of the visitor and the institution.” […]

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