iPads and a Jar of Moles: Digital Technology in the Grant Museum

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© UCL, Grant Museum / Matt Clayton

DLNET talked to Jack Ashby, the Museum Manager at the Grant Museum of Zoology, about the QRator project.
 
Hi Jack, welcome to the new look DLNET website.  Can you tell us a bit about the QRator project that has been introduced to the Grant Museum?
 
QRator is a project that allows our visitors to get involved in conversations about the way that museums like ours operate and the role of science in society today. In the Museum are ten iPads which each pose a broad question linked to a changing display of specimens. We are really interested in what our visitors think about some of the challenges that managing a natural history collection brings up, and other issues in the life sciences. They change periodically, but at the moment our current questions include “Is it ever acceptable for museums to lie?”, “Is domestication ethical?”, “Should human and animal remains be treated differently in museums like this?” and “What makes an animal British?”
 
Visitors can respond on the iPads themselves, on their own smart phones by scanning a QR code (hence the name QRator), via Twitter using #GrantQR, or at home on their computers at www.qrator.org. In these ways they can input into our decision making process. Their comments go live immediately on the iPads and online, without being moderated by museum staff.
 
Not only is QRator a way of empowering visitors but it’s also a research programme – it was developed with a team of academic partners here at the University – the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) and the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (UCL DH). Museums are only just beginning to use this kind of technology – it’s a truly ground-breaking project – and having developed the software specifically for us, our partners are researching the way that museum visitors behave around it.
 
Why use iPad’s?
The Museum moved into our current venue last year from a small cramped lab down a back-alley in the UCL campus. It had an incredible atmosphere which, following our visitors’ wishes we didn’t want to lose as we moved into our beautiful larger space. At the same time we wanted to be a demonstrably 21stcentury museum, engaging visitors in the ways described above and being innovative with our practices. Working with CASA and UCL DH we decided on iPads as they are discrete enough not to detract from the incredible atmosphere we have here in the way that some computer interactives can, and they are intuitive to use. More importantly, museums had never used them before. To our knowledge, we were only the second museum in the world to employ iPads permanently in displays, and the first to use them for visitor participation.
 
What type of questions are you asking visitors? What is your favourite question and why?
The questions we ask are mostly very open and if our team has an opinion then it shouldn’t come across in the information given. They all deal with issues that we deal with everyday surrounding the ethics of collections like ours, or some big questions in natural history and other life sciences that relate to our collections. There are three real categories – those which we want to hear from our visitors to help us decide how to manage the collection (like “How do we balance the needs of our specimens and the desires of our visitors?” and “Is it ever acceptable for museums to use replicas?”); those which are contentious in life sciences and we can feed our visitors’ responses into wider debates (“Is ecotourism an answer to local environmental and biodiversity conservation?”); and those which raise issues that visitors perhaps haven’t thought about, but we do have an “institutional position” on. The best example of the last one is also one of my favourite questions: “Pets or Wildlife: Can keeping pets be justified given their impact on wildlife?” In this case we raise the point that supporting pets AND wildlife is often mutually exclusive, something that most of our visitors haven’t considered before. We are taking a conservation position here arguing that the benefits of keeping cats and dogs are far outweighed by the environmental consequences.
My other favourite question was “What makes an animal British?” as it is something that comes up a lot, in less explicit terms – how long does a species have to be here to be considered native? The answers to questions like this are massively important in deciding how conservation resources are allocated.
 
How are visitors engaging with them?
There’s been a great response from our visitors – they have left thousands of answers to the questions. One major thing that we didn’t anticipate is that people are also using them as a kind of digital visitors book. As well as getting involved in the conversations, people are letting us know their thoughts on the Museum in general and what they like or dislike about many of our specimens. The jar of moles gets a lot of mentions. This has become a great way for visitors to point things out to each other without us telling them what we think they should see.
 
Do you think using digital technology in museums produces a positive learning experience for visitors?
Only when it’s done well, and when it’s done for the right reasons. I’m sure everyone can think of examples of museum computer interactives that neither provided greater opportunities to access collections or information in a useful way, or increased enjoyment. When they provide opportunities to do things, access things or learn things which are enjoyable or otherwise valuable then the experience is definitely positive, and I’m convinced that’s the case with QRator.
 
I’m on the whole not a fan of the museums which offer hardly anything but digital technology – I’m extremely sceptical that they would be the things that people would chose to see. It definitely depends on the context, but give someone a load of actual specimens or some pictures of a load of specimens with reams of text on a screen, I think it’s the former museums should be offering as there main resource. We have the internet for the latter. In the Grant Museum the QRator technology doesn’t distract from the collections AND gives the visitors a different and valuable interface to engage with our topics.

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