Consultation with Dartmoor local history groups

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As part of our research into usability, we were able to meet with Peter Mason and Bill Hardiman, representatives, respectively, of the Lustleigh Community Archive and the Moretonhampstead History Society. Tom Cadbudy, RAMM’s Curator for Antiquities, who had organised the event, brought some objects from RAMM’s collections that would feature in Moor Stories. Seeing the boxes reminded me of what Moor Stories is about: to see what is in these boxes; make items available, if only digitally, to the public; engage with these items by telling their story, or our story, in relation to them; think of them in situ, i.e. where they came from; take the museum outside of itself…

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We discussed the website and app, and handled some beautiful flints. Both Peter and Bill offered us invaluable help in understanding how local history societies would use Moor Stories. Their feedback had a huge impact on how the design of both the app and website was revisited, and we are hugely grateful to them, and to REACt’s Gabriel Gilson who helped us to make final decisions.

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First, like the schools we talked to, Peter and Bill suggested that Moor Stories should become a resource and link to other important sites, such as the Devon Record Office, the Westcountry Library, the Dartmoor Archive, Dartmoor National Park Heritage Gateway etc  Additionally, Moor Stories should connect with a number of local history society websites. This made us think about how we could offer an interface that allowed local history societies to see themselves on our map and we decided that we would show the stories by parish. So we completely redesigned the interface and used the map as a navigational tool. Bill and Peter also said that they wanted to be able to distinguish quickly between fact and fiction. We already knew that schools wanted to be able to  identify stories from a particular moment in history, so this influenced the way we organised the stories thematically. As most of our users don’t have the resources to moderate, we maintained our decision to use social media for user generated annotations. The next stage is to see what a designer will do with our wireframes, and then see what our experts on usability will make of that.

Mobilising the Heritage Experience

The history of museums is in large one of collecting, conserving and presenting our shared heritage within the walls of a physical space. The idea behind Time Trails is to reverse some of that process and in essence and return items of our historical material culture back into their original context. This idea of adapting the process of collection and presentation from outside in to inside out has become a major part of museums digital strategies over the past few years.  A couple of key examples have provided some welcome inspiration for our own Time Trails project.

The Museum of London Street Museum app has collated hundreds of the museums images, and pinpointed them in their original context on a mobile map of the city in order to showcase both everyday and momentous occasions in the capitals history. By utilising imagery, contextual information, the physical environment and mobile capability, this product provides an educational and immersive experience which augments reality by merging the world which surrounds the users with a window into the past.

In the spirit of exploring history outside the museum environment, the wonderfully titled More than a Mapp allows a person to locate, experience and interact with African American History through an interactive map. Similar to the London Street Museum, this app provides information about historical locations, items and images located in the user’s immediate vicinity.

What make this app so dynamic is that unlike the Street museum, which delivers information from the museum to the public, More than a Mapp allows its users to contribute information, images and links relevant to African American History. This process is removed from the traditional didactic practice of museum presentation and creates an interactive framework which fosters an organic and two way process of information and knowledge exchange between museum professionals and their community.

With Time Trails it is our aim to further the personalised nature of these experiences, by allowing users to create, store and potentially share their own explicit trails or tours, thus providing people with the power to not only be their own curator but to also create a myriad of journeys or possibly treasure hunts around the city of Exeter. This multiple linearity approach offers users of the app and visitors to the museum, the opportunity to follow trajectories of time and experience by selecting objects related to their own interests and purposes and to discover the extraordinary time depth of the City of Exeter through a digitally relocated representation of the museum collections.

These applications are indicative of many projects being produced in order to mobilise the heritage experience. In an age where mobile phone devices have and will continue to become more sophisticated and ubiquitous, it is important for museums to harness their potential in order to make their work relevant to an increasingly digitised society. At work and in our leisure time we expect not only to be able to access information at the click of a button, but also to be involved in the process of exchanging and recording historical information and content. Projects such as Street Museum, More than a Mapp and Time Trails, are facilitating this desire by allowing the user an increased level of free choice and interaction whilst learning about and engaging with history and heritage.

Sources:

Museum of London Street Museum: (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk)

More than a Mapp: (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/more-than-a-month/app.html)

Images:

Augmented image: (museumsassosciation.org) [accessed online: 28/03/13]

London Street Museum Map: (appfinder.lisisoft.com) [accessed online: 28/03/13]

More than a Mapp (multiple images): (appfinder.lisisoft.com) [accessed online: 28/03/13]

Workshop at St Leonard’s Church of England Primary School

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On 14 March 2013 we held a workshop in St Leonard’s Church of England Primary School in Exeter. We were invited by Ms Ruth Milankovic, Mr Sam Jones and Ms Wendy Daurge to work with two Year 5 classes (Year 5 RM and Year 5 SJ). This workshop was part of the early research and development for Moor Stories, providing us with feedback which, as was the case with St David’s Church of England Primary School, is likely to impact on the development and design of the Moor Stories app.

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This time the workshop took place between two classes, though the children were all brought together at the beginning of the workshop into Mr Jones’ class to listen to Tom Cadbury’s introduction to the objects we brought from RAMM. Helen Burbage subsequently introduced the Moor Stories website. As in the previous workshop, we positioned a number of objects on each table, Bronze Age flints and arrowheads, as well as Medieval pottery, together with some contemporary illustrations to give a sense of what Dartmoor may have looked like at the times these objects were used. The children really appreciated the tactile experience, and I think that this played an important factor in inspiring the children to write a story.

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The task for the children was to write a story about the object or to include the object into a story. This was part of the school’s Just Write exercise, which gives the children regular extended writing opportunities. More specifically, the children were asked by Ms Daurge to play historical detectives and work out: ‘When, Where, Why, What and Who’ in relation to each object. With these questions in mind, Ms Daurge noted, the children could analyse the objects, produce a map and then use the map to write a longer story at a subsequent point in time. This reminded me of my earlier blog in which I mentioned Michael Shanks’ comment on the similarities between the figures of the archaeologist and the detective, both piecing ‘together clues in order to reconstruct the past’ (1987: 7). Will and I agree now that the detective theme should run across the Moor Stories app.

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There were then subtle differences in the approaches taken by the two teachers. While Ms Daurge asked the children to imagine the person they were and think of how they were going to work with each object in their daily life, Mr Jones, in the other room, encouraged the children to think of a problem that their story could hinge on. In the end, all children had slightly different takes on their instructions, with Ted, for example, asking if he could write his Moor Story as a diary and Libby preferring to focus on identifying important details about the artefact itself, almost regardless of plot constrictions.

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As you can see (above and below) the maps look absolutely brilliant and we are all very much looking forward to reading the Moor Stories written for us by the children of St Leonard’s Primary School (I will do a new blog all about hem when I finally get to see them).

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We learnt many things from the workshop and are hugely grateful to the very dedicated teachers and all the children. Observing the interaction with the website which was projected on their interactive white boards, we could see that Moor Stories could operate both as a learning tool and a creative writing tool. The teachers suggested the inclusion of video clips to describe the environment in which the objects were found and offer feedback about the historical period in which the objects were used.

Reference

Shanks, M. (1987) Social Theory and Archaeology, Polity Press: Cambridge.

Aside

Workshop Feedback – St David’s Church of England Primary School, Exeter

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My personal research as a PhD student at the University of Exeter aims to examine user engagement, and how this relates to the development of digital content in the heritage and museum sector. The development of digital content in the museum environment, both physically and online, is helping to compliment the traditional text which accompanies most museum exhibitions and the items of interest contained within them, and through thoughtful research and evaluation museums can create dynamic visitor and user experiences which are relevant to an increasingly digitised and interactive world.

In the spirit of this endeavour, our recent workshop with Ross Sloman and the blue class at St David’s Primary School in Exeter highlighted a variety of ways in which children engage with heritage, and how digital content can help young people create and express relationships with both the physical environment of the past and its material culture. Utilising their own experience of multimedia tools and an impressive use of imagination, the children created not only some fantastic images and stories to publish on the Moor Stories website, but also provided some invaluable feedback which helped us to identify and confirm some good ideas for the continued development of both the Moor Stories project and RAMM’s Exeter Time Trails content.

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As expected games played a prominent part of the feedback provided by the class, and included a number of thoughtful and interesting ideas which will be considered in our development work. Gaming is an interesting aspect, because well developed interactive features engage a variety of cognitive functions which can educate, challenge and reward children; in addition, it is clear that games are a significant aspect of young user expectations and will continue to play a significant role in both the learning and leisure environments of young people.

In terms of environment, the feedback also highlighted the children’s desire to have their own identity on the site, with many members of the group suggesting separate Kids content. Further to this, other personalised elements such as creating your own collection to share with the public, and the development of personally tailored tours showed that both ‘Moor Stories’ and our other project ‘Time Trails’ have a popular underlying theme and ethos.

It was also suggested that any tour based functions should be guided, with over 80% of the class favouring maps over instructions, and that both tours and artefacts should be divided into chronological time periods, identifiable themes and object groups. They should also be child friendly, much like text boards in the physical museum which use specific writing techniques.

One element of this session was to formulate ideas of how to stimulate audiences in the absence of Tom Cadbury and the objects. The resulting answers provided lateral suggestions of replacing him with more audio and video links. These links could be used in a number of ways, primarily introducing material and asking questions. These questions would not necessarily need to have specific answers but should be aimed at meeting the thinking criteria set by the curriculum, and perhaps also towards older demographics who do not want information fed to them but appreciate guiding stimulus.

Visual and audio content is clearly an important aspect in delivering digital materials and represents the move away from a view of literacy that is confined to reading and writing text. In terms of additional visual content, the group felt that the site could benefit from being more vibrant and easier to read. As for audio the feedback suggested more narration, a welcome voice and a theme tune; although it may be preferable to have an optional audio background of music and/or sound to make the site a more immersive environment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is felt that ‘Moor Stories’ should have more stories. This of course will be helped by increased use of the site, with users contributing material as hoped. However, in order to make this a definitive ‘go to’ site for those interested in teaching, studying and enjoying Dartmoor, it was suggested that the site should be populated with existing stories or interpretations of folk tales, based upon themes such as myths and legends (as suggested by the class), ghost stories and stories about the people who lived there, both factually based and fictional.

Finally a good look at all the feedback sheets, so generously provided by the class, revealed two suggestions which occurred regularly…Indiana Jones and Hound of the Baskervilles! It would appear that themes of adventure and detective work, based upon popular culture, are desired in order to create an immersive and interactive experience with a recognisable frame of reference for this potential user group.

Workshop for St David’s Church of England Primary School, Exeter

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On 14/2/2013 we were invited by Mr Ross Sloman from St David’s Church of England Primary School in Exeter to workshop some ideas as part of the first stage in the re-development of Moor Stories. This first meeting constituted a very important moment in our project as any advice about usability is likely to have a substantial impact on the re-design of the tool.

Mr Sloman suggested that we should work with a class of about thirty children spanning 7-9 years (Y3/4) that had previously been visited by an archaeologist from University of Exeter. The class’s name is Blue Class.

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We walked the short distance from RAMM to St David’s with a box containing all sorts of objects from Dartmoor in RAMM’s collections, stemming from prehistory to the Tudor period, and illustrating the life of hunter gatherers and early farmers.

When we arrived at St David’s, the children were sat at five tables, and each table was equipped with two or more computers. You could see, as Tom Cadbury, Curator for Antiquities at RAMM, unpacked the box, how much the children had been anticipating this moment. They were completely focussed, eager to ask questions and very keen to offer good advice about the different elements of the project. I think we all felt very privileged to be in St David’s and very much looked forward to see what such a keen group of learners would make of our work.

The workshop started with a talk by Tom about the history of the Dartmoor objects he brought in.  He used pictures of people, dwellings, animals, landscapes as visual stimuli to back up to the objects, and talked about how we need to develop personalised relationships/stories with these objects to understand their role in history and hence their value to us in the present day.

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This idea is a particularly important aspect of Moor Stories which aims to offer users the opportunity to engage with objects in the RAMM collection outside of the museum by narrating stories, drawing pictures or taking videos and photographs of them in the contexts of their own lives.

We feel that it’s important that users find novel ways to relate to these objects, and, as far as children are concerned, that free style, mobile learning is facilitated through the tool by offering the opportunity encounter museum objects outside of the museum and self-document the learning experience in a creative way.

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To prompt the children’s imagination we asked them to pick an object from Tom’s box and spend some time with that object. We asked them to look at it, touch it, and ask themselves questions such as:

  1. describe when you where you think you were living at the time you had this object and what kind of landscape you imagine you were in;
  2. describe what you think you were doing with the object you chose and what it meant to you (did you buy it?; was it expensive?; did you make it?; what would you trade it for and why?);
  3. describe how you personally feel about this object now and what it means to you now that you have touched it and written about it.

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The children could also browse the Moor Stories website, see where the objects they had selected originated from, and what their history was. Each member of the team (i.e., H. Burbage, RAMM; T. Cadbury, RAMM; G. Giannachi, University of Exeter; W. Barrett, University of Exeter), as well as Mr Sloman and his classroom assistant, Mr Glyn Meredith, circulated between the five groups, offering advice on technology (Burbage); history (Cadbury); engagement (Sloman; Giannachi and Barrett); archaeology (Barrett) and creative writing (Sloman and Giannachi).

Some of the children worked in groups, some on their own. Some focussed on drawing, and some on writing. They all played, queried and very carefully analysed the objects, whether in relation to the additional drawings we brought in, or in relation to the information offered by the website.

We were all amazed at the quality of the detail the children saw in these objects, as can be seen by their beautiful drawings above. We were also very pleased with the way that they were able to associate stories with these objects and subsequently imagined what life would have been at the time.

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Of the four stories submitted during the session by the children who chose to use the tool, all referred to the East Week section of the site. By imagining how these objects were used in daily life, the children ended up writing about how they thought people lived at the time. The stories are again very detailed, offering data about living and environmental conditions. The stories are fun to read and show a great deal of empathy. Again, we were very pleased with the precision and accuracy with which some of the children developed the fiction around the object.

Finally the children were asked to create a short presentation about the work they had done around their object and tell the team what they learnt; whether they’d like to use this tool again and why; what we could do to make the experience more exciting and what we could put on the website that could replace the direct contact with the object and us as real people.

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As it turned out the children had already, and very efficiently, filled in some questionnaires about this project, kindly also offering advice about a new project that is still at pilot stage called Exeter Time Trail Tours, which will generate a set of tours through history by using the Exeter Time Trail model.

Our next blog will be all about that feedback, but we can already say here that there was an appetite for using Moor Stories as a learning tool and that we need to do some more research on the value of empathy in this context. For now, a huge thank you to all the children we met at St David’s Primary School and their teacher Mr Sloman and his class room assistant Mr Glyn Meredith – we look forward to coming back so that you may see how we tried to incorporate your ideas into how the site works. In the meantime, as you can see from the screenshot below, four of the stories are now already part of the growing body of literature that we hope to develop as part of Moor Stories.

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