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An EPFL app to inspire Geneva’s Museum of Ethnography

A permanent exhibition at the Geneva Museum of Ethnography (MEG)

Digitalisation has become a strategic priority for many cultural actors today. Virtual exhibitions have thrived during the Covid-19 pandemic, as has the use of digital tools. All with one main purpose in mind: connect with the public. But do institutions only really know what the audiences want and need? 

This is the question being addressed by a team of researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).  The university’s Laboratory for Experimental Museology (eM+), led by Sarah Kenderdine, is developing a new application that allows museums to interact and gather feedback from their audiences.  The app, known as “muse”, is working in collaboration with eight core partners including the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum and the Geneva ethnography museum (MEG).

Why this is important. Museums usually collect basic socio-demographic data from their visitors, such as gender, age, and origin. In Geneva, the surveys are quite specific and repeated regularly. The problem is that most museums welcome more or less the same audiences. But if we examine the data closer, the MEG has a high conversion rate, with 50 per cent of the visitors discovering the museum for the first time. The question is then to understand what inspires prime visitors to come and why do they come back, if they do.

The goal of muse is therefore to provide data analytics tools to help museums better engage with visitors and offer more tailor-made experiences as explained by Sarah Kenderdine:

“It is the social, political, emotional, educational, and creative elements, in addition to how deeply people are participating in a museum’s programs and exhibitions, that should be the basis for measuring value”.

North-American, British or Scandinavian museums have since long shaped their offer according to the satisfaction and motivation of their audiences. It is not about communicating only, it is about connecting with audiences by designing programs that will resonate perfectly.

The technology. Contrary to what is usually done, muse is designed to be used by visitors in real-time at the museum. Through an app on a tablet, muse becomes the voice of the visitor in a live experience.

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Users can snap photos or make audio recordings to describe the impact an exhibition had on them. Source: Sarah Kenderdine/EPFL.

Museums will be able to follow the results and collect the data on a real-time dashboard.

“Visitors are active participants, and not just consumers, in helping to support museums as polyvocal places. Muse gives an amplifier to those voices”, Kenderdine continues.

A case study. MEG director, Boris Wastiau, finds in muse the opportunity to contribute to the museum’s digital strategy. The MEG is known to have been among the firsts in Geneva to have digitalised its entire collection in 2003, and made it available online. And with 193’000 visitors in 2019, the MEG is definitely popular, but Wastiau explains that more can and should be done.

“We have a great potential, but the question is: what do we offer to our visitors that is special? We co-produce exhibitions, which travel all over the world, there is a demand, but how can we make ourselves known even to people who don't know us? How can the museum be positioned in a broader, national and international context through digital technology?”

A strategic development. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital change and questioned the museum’s strategy in many ways. The MEG is aiming to improve internal skills to ensure that the staff is able to identify important digital tools, to use them and to follow their evolution. It is designing its own digital architecture and looking for bridges and links between the different tools. Moreover, Wastiau wants to take the museum a step further, by asking what the digital could bring to the source countries of the collections. Although the MEG has not been criticized for the origin of its collections or received many requests to restitute objects in the light of the decolonization debate, there is a strong commitment to reach out to source countries and find new ways to collaborate. Such an opportunity has presented itself with the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro.

“After having burnt down, the Brazilian museum announced that it would not be able to rebuild itself as it had been, but that it would proceed with a digital reconstruction of the collections. They are thus developing partnerships with museums around the world, one of which is with us. The idea is to transfer to them all the digital data concerning the Amazon and the indigenous peoples that we have. ”

And the data is substantial. When preparing the 2015-2016 exhibition on shamanism, the MEG digitalised a lot: thousands of images of about 4000 objects, inventories and field work.

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2016-2017 exhibition at the MEG. Source: MEG.

This Brazilian partnership is more than just scientific. The MEG also commits to involve the culture bearers and local communities up to 50% in the interpretation of the objects by 2023. Innovation emerges not only from the digital approach itself, but in a broader sense in the definition of cultural international cooperation.

The bottom line. By engaging in digital projects such as muse and building bridges between continents, museums are seizing the opportunity to become key players not only in terms of innovation, but on a broader scale in international relations. They too, can act as diplomatic actors and show how culture is necessary to move forward and connect the world.