University Of Tasmania
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A Hands-­on, mobile approach to collaborative exploration and discussion of virtual museum artefacts

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posted on 2023-05-27, 14:15 authored by Neale, SJ
For the visitors who frequent them, museums are a gateway and a window to culture, a place where children and adults can leisurely browse‚ÄövÑvp exhibitions and displays to discover endless aspects of history and science, and seek and find meaning and connection‚ÄövÑvp (Falk and Dierking, 2000). The public perception of museums has long been one of tried--‚ÄövÑv™and--‚ÄövÑv™true sources of understandable information‚ÄövÑvp, and as places where reliable, authentic, and comprehensible presentations of art, history, natural history, and science objects and ideas‚ÄövÑvp can be digested (Falk and Dierking, 2000). The museum is a place where people can connect with the facts, ideas, cultures, and scientific theories that underpin human and natural history, as well as the modern world that history has shaped. Besides simply being information sources, for many visitors museums are also associated with the storage and maintenance of physical records and objects. Museums are seen as places where treasures, both physical and intellectual, are preserved and displayed‚ÄövÑvp for public consumption (Falk and Dierking, 1992), and because of this the strength and importance of museums in society is not just down to the knowledge, but also the collections that they possess (Falk and Dierking, 2000). The focus of museums has started to change as the information age continues to shape the way people communicate with each other, share information, and learn from and about the world in which they live. Museums have had, and continue to, evolve in order to support the changing characteristics and demands of their audience, an evolution which necessitates a more sophisticated understanding of the complex relationships between culture, communication, learning and identity‚ÄövÑvp (Hooper--‚ÄövÑv™Greenhill, 2007). In order for museums to remain diversity‚ÄövÑvp, and when explored through touch can act as storytelling tools that hold secrets and reveal answers for the inquisitive learner (Chatterjee, 2010). Much of the importance that artefacts are able to transmit is due to the ability of a real, physical thing to [connect] people across time and culture that they have no tangible contact with otherwise‚ÄövÑvp, which gives learners handling, viewing or experiencing an object a strong personal connection to the past and to the makers and users of the object‚ÄövÑvp (Boyes and Cousens, 2012) (Mastoris, n.d.). This connection that artefacts facilitate between their users or creators and the museum visitors exploring them can evoke deep emotional responses and involvement (Chatterjee, 2007) (Boyes and Cousens, 2012), and it is important that museum professionals realise the power that this almost magical‚ÄövÑvp experience of touching or handling artefacts can produce (Pye, 2007). This connection between handler and artefact is potentially an important learning tool in museums. Here, artefacts are conveyors of knowledge and understanding that inspire discussion, group work and lateral thinking‚ÄövÑvp (Boyes and Cousens, 2012) (Chatterjee, 2010) ‚Äö- exactly the kind of collaborative activities that museums are encouraging their visitors to involve themselves in as part of a group or community of learners. The 'conveying of knowledge' occurs when artefacts are used as prompt[s]‚ÄövÑvp to memories (whether that be of someone, something or somewhere) and as a point of departure for learning and creativity‚ÄövÑvp (Mastoris, n.d.). For example, handling an unfamiliar object‚ÄövÑvp encourages museum visitors to imagine what it would be like to use it‚ÄövÑvp, which in turn may prompt [a] deeper understanding‚ÄövÑvp of what life, activities, or processes would have been like for the makers, users, or discoverers of the artefact (Trewinnard--‚ÄövÑv™Boyle and Tabassi, 2007). Existing research has suggested that 'object--‚ÄövÑv™based learning' plays an important role in active, experiential learning strategies (Chatterjee, 2010). Physical objects are 3D experiences, more tactile than a picture or a recording‚ÄövÑvp and often involving moving parts (Mastoris, n.d.), and being able to turn them over and look at them from all sides gives handlers and viewers an increased awareness of physical characteristics such as colour, weight, texture and scale (Boyes and Cousens, 2012). Besides the experiential benefits of tactile exploration that help handlers to understand the physical properties of objects, museum artefacts in particular can also act as a 'focal point' that can enhance and disseminate subject knowledge‚ÄövÑvp, revealing their history and cultural importance by inspiring the handler and inducing their practical and observational skills (Chatterjee, 2007) (Chatterjee, 2010). This 'conveying of knowledge' that artefacts facilitate, as described in the previous subsection, is especially prominent in collaborative scenarios, where the artefact acts as a focal point and a spatial reference for directing a discussion between a group of handlers as they collaboratively explore and make sense of both its physical properties and its historical and cultural significance. However, despite museum collections being full of exciting and valuable artefacts, most of the artefacts in a particular collection will be inaccessible to the normal visitor‚ÄövÑvp, with relatively few‚ÄövÑvp of the objects that make up a particular collection actually being on display at any given moment (Pye, 2007). In recent years, with the advent of advanced digital imaging techniques and web technologies, museums have begun displaying artefacts from their collections online, but despite being available to anybody with an internet connection, artefacts displayed using digital imagery tend to lack the participatory, tactile qualities of flesh and blood‚ÄövÑvp objects (Pye, 2007). There are also many scenarios in which, even when an artefact is on display, it is still inaccessible ‚Äö- an artefact might be positioned behind barriers, displayed in a glass case, or displayed in low light levels (Pye, 2007). For collaborative discussions in particular, physical access to artefacts is also affected by location, with two or more potential collaborators often not being in the same location as the artefact, as each other, or both. This can be problematic in scenarios such as discussions of artefacts amongst online communities (digital museum visitors), between curators in different museums around the world, or during long distance lectures, presentations or discussions delivered online. Staff from the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery (QVMAG) in Launceston, Tasmania described to us an example scenario of museum curators considering the purchase of an artefact from another museum situated overseas. With time, money, and potentially the museum's reputation at stake, it is hugely advantageous for curators to be able to understand the physical properties of artefacts before committing to a decision, even if they are not able to handle them in person. Currently, this is difficult to facilitate using remote--‚ÄövÑv™collaborative methods such as video conferencing or the sharing of still digital images. There is a huge benefit to be gained from manual interaction with museum artefacts. Being able to explore an artefact with the hands gives visitors an understanding of its physical properties and nuances, and allows it to become a focal point for making sense of its historical and cultural associations through active, experiential exploration, particularly as part of a collaborative discussion. But with access to museum artefacts often limited as a result of artefacts and those who wish to explore them being in different locations, this kind of exploration from all sides and angles is not always possible and the vital spatial referencing and physical understanding that handling artefacts provides is lost. This seems like something of a missed opportunity for participatory, collaborative museum learning activities. Providing experiences that support and encourage participatory activities for communities of museum learners is a key objective for museums, and the reason it should be so is exemplified by the way in which people visit museums. The Australian Museum has estimated that 45--‚ÄövÑv™55% of their visitors arrive in the form of family groups, 15% as pairs and partners, and another 15% as organised school or educational groups ‚Äö- that's up to 85% of the visitors to the museum arriving as part of a group, with as little as 15% visiting alone (Black, 2005). As well as making practical sense to target groups of visitors in so much as that such a large majority of people visit museums together, engaging visitors as partners in collaborative activity also has learning benefits, with adults in particular having been observed to have their need to know‚ÄövÑvp satisfied by collaborative activities that [appeal] to their self--‚ÄövÑv™concept as independent learners‚ÄövÑvp (Knowles et al., 2005). Museum visitors not only feel that they are learning something independently, but also feel like they are contributing to the learning outcomes of others, which can be a very engaging sensation. As well as servicing communities of learners, collaboration is also important in that many museum collections may continue to be of 'deep significance' to the specific communities from which artefacts come‚ÄövÑvp (Pye, 2007). Communities descended from the colonial or indigenous groups that artefacts come from are increasingly eager to gain access to their ancestral objects‚ÄövÑvp, the handling of which provides them with opportunities for reminiscence and sharing of information‚ÄövÑvp, enables communities to study techniques and materials‚ÄövÑvp and gives community members, young and old, the chance to regain [and revisit] traditional craft skills and cultural practices‚ÄövÑvp (Pye, 2007).


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