This term, as part of the MA program, I am completing a practicum with IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The practicum provides me with hands-on, real-world experience working on a digital humanities project and helps the host institution find solutions to a unique problem or challenge.
Introduction to IMMA
IMMA – the Irish Museum of Modern Art – is Ireland’s premier modern art institution, and is home to the nation’s collection of modern and contemporary art. Established by the government of Ireland in 1990, IMMA opened in 1991 and, since then, has featured a dynamic and evolving series of exhibitions, events, and programs, which are designed to engage the general public with the museum’s collections while supporting and promoting Irish artists.
IMMA’s emphasis on creating an enjoyable visitor-centric experience for museum guests has led to such initiatives as its award-winning Education and Community Program, the Artists Residency Program, and regularly scheduled talks, lectures and events. Through these offerings, IMMA strives to provide innovative and inclusive opportunities for a variety of audiences, including the more than 400,000 annual visitors from Ireland and abroad.
The practicum with IMMA is titled Bringing Irish Artists Closer at IMMA and is primarily focused on connecting and engaging museum visitors with a specific Irish artist and her body of work through a digital resource. In April, IMMA will open a new retrospective exhibition featuring the work of Gerda Frömel, an artist who was well-regarded during her lifetime and who first exhibited in Ireland in 1957. The digital resource will be designed both to complement the Frömel exhibition as a mobile-responsive website and serve as a template for future exhibitions in IMMA’s Modern Masters series. In addition to increasing overall awareness of IMMA and of Gerda Frömel, the practicum will seek to position IMMA as the primary source of information for contemporary Irish artists.
Challenge: The User Experience
There are a number of challenges – and opportunities – associated with this practicum, but one key issue revolves around understanding the user’s experience of exhibition, the digital resource and the combination of the two. Traditionally, a visit to an art museum might involve a visitor giving his or her near-complete attention to the art or exhibition itself. In some cases, there might be a tour, led by museum staff. In these cases, the experience is primarily analogue, with no digital component.
With the rise in mobile applications designed specifically for museums, however, visitors may now divide their attention between the art and a smartphone or hand-held device. They may Google a phrase or name that might be unfamiliar, upload photos to a social media website or “check in” via a geolocation app. As a result, museums (including IMMA) must determine how to balance the benefits of a digital, mobile resource with the decidedly un-digital experience of viewing art.
During the nascent years of mobile museum applications, many institutions created multimedia guides for exhibitions and collections that were based, in part, on the traditional docent-led tours of gallery. In a 2009 paper for the Museums and the Web conference, Koven Smith of the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out that multimedia and/or digital “tours” with “stops” often do not take the specific user experience into account, thus limiting the usefulness of a mobile, digital resource. According to Smith, only a small percentage of museum visitors still want the “led-by-the-hand” approach. Rather, he says, “museums [must] now encourage users to self-curate.”
A mobile app or other digital resource for a museum exhibition or collection needs to be flexible enough to provide a user with choices that lets him or her drive the experience. This may mean incorporating content that can and should be viewed (or read or seen) while the visitor is at the museum, and it may also mean specifically including content intended to be accessed via the Internet before or after visiting the museum. The digital resource for the Frömel exhibition, for example, will be built as a website, but will also be accessible on and responsive to mobile devices. This decision was made deliberately, as it offers a range of possibilities for IMMA visitors in choosing how, when and where they experience the complementary information. The website option also allows IMMA to use the Frömel exhibition and digital resource as a test for future exhibitions, helping museum staff discover the format that best suits IMMA’s visitors.
Of course, the user experience incorporates more than simply how and when a visitor will use a specific mobile app or a website. The specific nature of the museum, the widespread use (or lack thereof) of mobile devices and user demographics will all influence a visitor’s experience. In working to build a digital resource for IMMA, the Bringing Irish Artists Closer practicum will explore best practices from other museums and cultural heritage institutions, while also analyzing specific data about IMMA’s audiences and visitors to present a whole and complete understanding of how best to engage art lovers and art newcomers alike with the work of Gerda Frömel.