Moving beyond the collection box: Connecting community with natural history collections via augmented reality
Immersive technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality are quickly gaining momentum as a mass media tool being deployed in all areas of industry and society. These technologies will undoubtedly impact not only how we interact with our world but could have significant potential in transforming our understanding of it.
Unlike virtual reality, augmented reality depends on the user staying connected to place and space to achieve the intended experience and impact. In the augmented reality ecosystem, information is superimposed over the physical world creating an extra layer of interactivity as virtual objects and content appear within a spatial context.
Object-based pedagogy and constructivism has predominantly been the foundation of learning within the field of museum education. It stands to reason that current technologies now have the potential to serve as a virtual extension of the physical object providing deeper learning opportunities. While the artifact or specimen will always be the “real” thing, there are some real drawbacks and barriers that limits how one can engage with collections. Having worked in education and outreach in a university-based natural history collection for almost 6 years these barriers were frequently encountered. The most obvious is the “hands off” rule due to the fragility of natural history specimens. Specimens however may also be pressed or dried as found in botanical specimens making it difficult to fully appreciate their true anatomy and morphology. Fossils often bring up questions as to how the organism looked in life. To pursue the potential uses of augmented reality as it applies to natural history collections, a collaborative partnership with iDigBio (www.iDigBio.org), co-developer and botanist Austin Mast at Florida State University, and ExplorMor Labs at Arizona State University was involved in developing a prototype called Libraries of Life (www.libraries-of-life.org). The app has since served as a collaborative augmented reality platform serving natural history museums and nonprofits who are involved in biodiversity and conservation education and outreach. The Florida Museum of Natural History used the platform to promote a public campaign on the endangered status of the Miami Blue butterfly via an augmented reality craft beer label which was distributed at restaurants in Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0Op828foWw
Users activate the augmented reality experience by scanning target images which can appear on collection cards, floor graphics, stickers, and even tattoos at outreach events and exhibits allowing the public to interact with the specimens. Target images can also be enlarged allowing participants to engage with a larger than life praying mantis, to walk around it, or take their picture standing next to it.
The initial prototype involved using photogrammetry techniques to create 3-D models of specimens such as insects, plants, and fossils contributed from some 15 collection groups in the iDigBio network. The resulting models were stored in a cloud repository and on recognition of target image, the specimen models and augmented reality scene would launch on the end-user’s device. The potential outcome and impact of a 3-D repository on promoting accessibility to collections to anyone with a mobile device will pave the way for new case uses as virtual and physical worlds become intertwined. This movement is in parallel with the current massive digitization efforts of museums to output collections in both 2-D and 3-D digital formats. The resulting work of these museums are increasingly being shared on platforms such as Sketchfab (https://sketchfab.com/feed) creating online virtual museums.
With the current release of iTunes ARKit and Android ARCore SDK for developers and mobile devices which have AR viewers built in, we will see an increase in the integration of this technology on a massive scale. AR ready devices will allow museum visitors to easily engage with content in space and place with or without target images or the need to download apps. Probably the biggest barrier in the use of augmented reality in museums currently is the need to download an app. If you are involved in the emerging technology world you already know that things don’t stay the same very long. The augmented reality ecosystem is about to shift again with WebAR. The virtual museum of the near future will be one which you can search for a collection online, pull artifacts from the cloud, gather data, and engage with it in physical space all through a web browser. With the emergence of haptic technologies and mixed reality, users will not only be able to view and interact with the object in front of them but to also touch it. The cognitive and learning potential of technology that incorporates all the senses with objects in a spatial context will undoubtedly push the barriers in how we learn and engage with collections.
As museums start to think outside of the proverbial collection box, augmented reality and computer vision technologies may well be the tool of choice in moving experiences beyond the object while enhancing deeper engagement and accessibility. With this, new best practices and communities of practice will arise along with the need to answer new questions.
While the landscape of reality computing unfolds there is perhaps no better time to explore how these technologies might democratize the museum and move us beyond the collection box. This clearly is an opportunity to change the dynamics of how our audiences understand and engage with collections and the natural world.
Teaching high school students has its usual challenges. Getting students to listen, teaching them how to respect others who are talking, motivating them to learn, and last but not least. . . getting them to put away their cell phone. Cell phone addiction is real and whatever form we might see it in adults you can triple or double triple its’ severity in our teens. The statistics are staggering. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at University of California, San Francisco and Larry Rosen wrote “The Distracted Mind” (2016). Rosen tracked college student phone use over two years and found that the average phone use jumped from 3 hours and 40 minutes in 2016 to 4 hours and 22 minutes in 2017.
There have also been reports of an increase in anxiety, stress, depression, bullying, and suicide in teens who show signs of excessive phone use. According to an article in the Atlantic, rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate (Twenge, 2017). The article goes on to state that we are on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades and much of this can be directly linked to our phones (Twenge, 2017). Research also suggests that there appears to be a biological component in that the brain reacts to the cell phone as if it were a drug. Not unlike the experiment of Pavlov’s dog, every time a text alert sounds the brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is that “feel good” neurotransmitter that makes one feel happy and in control. Receiving a “like” on Facebook is for both teens and adults a vote of approval, acceptance, and belonging.
The unfortunate price of our love for technology could lead to an increase in alienation from each other and a disconnect from the world around us. A warning sign of this disconnect is when you try to speak to someone and they don’t look up or respond because they are too busy texting. You as a teacher may walk into the classroom and say good morning but few may respond if they are glued to their phone. Without making eye contact they might make a sad attempt to respond via some kind of primitive guttural utterance. You quickly realize that this is probably as good as it is going to get. When class begins students do not prepare for learning by pulling out their textbooks or paper and pen. Instead they lay their phones in front of them in plain sight and stare at them. . . the fact they are not turned on doesn't seem to matter. Students can't even leave their phones when giving a presentation in front of the class. While other classmates are presenting, students can be observed staring at his/her phone while waiting for their turn. It is understandable why teachers and colleges are cracking down by enforcing rules in an effort to minimize "digital distractions" in the classroom but it might be easier to find creative ways to integrate them.
Scavenger hunts using QR or AR codes is something that gets students out of their seats and engaging with content and each other. Setting up escape room experiences and critical thinking stations that require the use of their phones to solve challenges is another effective and emerging classroom activity. This can create multiple levels of engagement and co-learning experiences for diverse types of learners. There is this sudden awareness of the "other" in their group and if we dare say, a sense of collaborative purpose. The integration of tangible concrete objects combined with technology and a timer (and a few extra points doesn't hurt) motivates students to work with something real and attainable in the classroom.
The educator is always striving to promote meaningful learning that goes beyond that passive consumer who jumps from one stimuli to the next without ever experiencing meaningful and deeper engagement. Our role as learning institutions and educators should strive to nurture experiences that reconnects us with ourselves, our environment and to each other.
Is your museum an innie? If you are not sure what I mean by that then you haven’t read the recent blog posting by Elizabeth E Merritt, founding director of the American Association of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museums. In her post How can Museums Empower Communities https://www.aam-us.org/2018/11/20/how-can-museums-empower-communities-taca-perforum/ Merritt describes museums as belly buttons or rather “innies” and “outies.” An analogy that effectively describes two types of mindsets which can be found amongst museums and universities today. “Innies” are museums that start with the collection from which grows a desire to share that collection with the world. The “outies” are those museums that largely emerge from the community often in response to a societal need or problem. This raises the question if one can be both and if so, how might museums set out to move beyond the collection? W. Richard West, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian stated,
Only by deconstructing many of the existing boundaries that define our thinking
as museum professionals, and by involving, systematically and consistently, those
who sit outside of museums but within the communities that we serve and of which
we are a part, can we begin, truly and effectively, to contemplate, dream about,
envision, and formulate the 21st-century possibilities regarding museums and
Williams, a museum columnist, states that museums are not something people normally think about as being identified as a charity organization. Williams states, “there are actually 1,118 independent museums in the U.K. which are actually registered as charities." Great Britain has explicitly charged its national museums with serving as agents of social change. As stated in Britain’s policy document Centres for Social Change: Museums, Galleries, and Archives with the DCMS, or the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, it states, “The cultural sector is an important source of informal learning; learning can be a powerful agent in combating social exclusion; more social inclusion will result in better educational achievement, increased employment prospects, improved health and reduced crime.” It appears the U.K. is ahead of the U.S. by way of putting this mindset into action and into policy.
A museum focused on transforming itself to being a more “social museum” will inevitably challenge current ideologies and present new best practices related to outreach. The “outie” or indie/outie hybrid will want to ask, “what adaptations or changes can we make today that will promote meaning or give voice to those who may not normally visit our museum?” This does not imply that the museum should as part of their outreach agenda feed the hungry and end global poverty, but rather a simple shift of awareness as to who is in your community would be a good start. What change might your museum make that would support a need, solve a problem, or promote accessibility?
In April 2010, participants from cultural and educational institutions in 11 countries met at Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center to discuss the museum’s potential role as related to design and creating social change. In this report it was stated, “If you want to be an agent of social change, don’t go down the path of collecting.” Paul Thompson argued that, “the act of acquiring objects burns through resources that may be better spent in a museum’s education department.” An interesting perspective I think, yet collections are central to what makes a museum a museum. The goal of a “social museum” is to achieve a balance—to reach that proverbial gray area between the institution and the community.
Wenger states in his book Communities of Practice, “Communities of practice cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the world. . .we can participate in multiple communities of practice at once.” To accomplish this goal in connecting the community with the institution there will need to be collaboration and the need to cross boundaries. Many programs may serve the vulnerable adult learner, but how can one create buy-in from a museum to implement strategies that will address these needs?
Creating change within the confines of an institution can mean facing multiple barriers. These barriers can arise from differences in mindsets, lack of time and people, lack of space, lack of accessibility to collections, and lastly a general mindset that outreach is not a priority for funding. As a practicing community educator, program developer, and researcher I have repeatedly found myself sitting on the perimeters between the institution and the community. It is a rather lonely place to be but is perhaps where the greatest work is needed. It is perhaps the exact place one needs to be in the building of a community of practice that will cross societal boundaries that we all too frequently fail to acknowledge. As Wenger proposes, that intersection is where communities of practice are born.
The challenge for the museum is to commit not only to the care of one’s own institution, but also to the good of the public. Museums in order to be a sustainable institution needs to foster creativity, promote diversity, and be able to adapt to a constantly changing environment that will also serve their community.
Merritt’s call to museums for action in this regard I believe promotes awareness and hope that museums will find new ways to connect with community, to diversify, and to take steps towards creating a new identity for the social museum of the future.
Wenger, Etienne, 1952-. Communities Of Practice : Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y. :Cambridge University Press, 1998.