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Physical-Digital Technologies for Culture and Heritage

Written by Luigina Ciolfi, Sheffield Hallam University

Digital technologies for culture and heritage is a topic that has kept me busy for the past 20 years and still intrigues me, as it is challenging, complex and very exciting.

In the latest major project I worked on – the meSch Project – we realised exhibitions where physical, tangible objects could be used by visitors as keys to unlock digital content. For example, replicas of actual museum objects held at Museon, a museum in the city of The Hague in the Netherlands, were used in a historical exhibition about the Atlantic Wall, a fortification built by the occupying German army during World War II. Each object represented one personal perspective of those events: German soldiers, civilians, civil servants. It could be carried around, placed at specific locations in the exhibition and (as the object remembers where it’s been) used to generate a personalised printed souvenir of each visit.

Are these “smart” objects digital or physical? Or both? They are not authentic objects, but they are tangible, generated by a 3D digital model, made with cheap material, but looking like the original thing. They conveyed to visitors more than another object or device would, as we discovered in evaluating the exhibition.

Very often, in bringing the digital to culture and heritage, we forget one of the things that are most interesting and engaging about culture and heritage: the material, the tangible, the sense of being there, the feeling of seeing beautiful, skillfully done, thought-provoking things, of being in those places. We put screens here and there, or build an app for a portable device, and  – hey presto! – we have the digital cultural experience.

However, this might not work every time, or for every type of heritage or cultural asset, or for every visitor.

It’s crucial to always think about what you might overshadow with that screen, whether big or small, to think whether there could be other ways to integrate digital content or services into a cultural experience.

I once did a project at a site where there one of the components of the digital experience was a fragrant piece of fresh turf. People forgot the mobile app we had created pretty quickly, but they talked endlessly about the turf, and the other physical objects that we integrated in the installation.

As I mentioned, in the recently completed meSch project we experimented with Internet of Things technology for several exhibitions, and – very importantly – we created a toolkit to help cultural professionals create their own tangible, physical/digital installations.

In my view, one of the most interesting things about the digital landscape these days is that, as well as large data repositories and engaging virtual and online spaces, we also have the ability to create hybrid experiences: we can build smart objects that can talk to each other and adapt to visitors, creating unique personalised traces, or reactive spaces that maintain those wonderful tangible qualities of being immersed with all senses. 

A lot of the projects that bring the digital into culture and heritage tend to play out modalities of interaction that we could support very effectively also before digital technologies became commonplace: visual representations, communication of textual information. We can push this further.

We must keep asking ourselves these questions: what are the challenges of blending the digital into the physical world? What kind of new stories can we tell? Can we build new ways to bridge places, people, artefacts?

When designing for new hybrid experiences of culture and heritage, we must ask ourselves how we wish to impact all aspects of human experience in the world:

  • The personal (emotions, memories, personal knowledge)
  • The social (the presence of others, conversations with them, the collaborative activities we can enjoy)
  • The cultural (our shared understandings of histories, of places, often difficult and challenging)
  • The physical  (the materials things are made of, their sensory qualities, our physical accommodation in the world).

 They are all interconnected aspects of human experience, and you never leave one behind in. We are now able to integrate digital features into our everyday world in such interesting ways: from smart materials, to wearables, reactive objects, hybrid communication channels, souvenirs rematerialising digital data. It’s time to be bold with our ideas.

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