Museum App Review: MCA Insight

I recently visited the newly re-vamped Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. One of the recent additions to the visitor repertoire is the MCA Insight smartphone app, and I thought I’d give it a go.

The MCA Insight home screen

Choosing the ‘Explore’ option takes you to a clean and easy to use interface that lets you look for specific works or see a map of the gallery. It uses the Museum’s wi-fi to locate you so can also select the option for it to only show works that are near you. This works most of the time but in some cases it got a bit confused due to the location of gallery walls – sometimes you were physically near something you couldn’t actually get to.

The “Explore” screen

If you were looking for something in particular, you could use the app to locate it in the gallery. If you were already nearby the work this was helpful, but the lack of gallery labelling or signposting of locations beyond the level number and the location of walls could make it difficult if you were using this as your principal way to find your way around.

The location of a work on MCA Insight

As you walked around, the Insight app gave you more information about the works. In most cases it was nothing different from the label, but it was often easier to read the text on your phone while standing back to take a work in, rather than having to peer at the text on the wall. Overall I found the app quite easy and fun to use.

An example of a label on the MCA Insight app

I was a bit underwhelmed by the follow-up though. On the way you were able to collect works to add to ‘My Gallery’.  Then, if you enter your email address, the app promises to send a record of your visit. I think I was a victim of my own expectations here – I was expecting to receive something akin to what you get with MONA’s “O”. This sends you a wireframe model of the route you actually took through the museum as well as the artworks you selected. I was looking forward to seeing my meandering route through the museum rendered in 3D. However, what I got was a straightforward list of the works saved in My Gallery (mine is here), along with some additional details about the works and the artists. This was good enough (except in the cases where the only additional information was the page where you could purchase a $49.95 catalogue), but I was a bit disappointed because of my loftier expectations. I think it would be better if MCA re-worded how they describe the ‘record of your visit’ so that it’s a better description of what is actually offered by the app.

Unpacking “Experience”

Experience, n & v:
n: 1 – actual observation or practical acquaintance with facts or events
2 – knowledge or skill resulting from this
3 – an event regarded as affecting one (an unpleasant experience)
v: 1 – to have experience of, undergo
2 – feel or be affected by (an emotion, etc)
– Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 2nd Ed (2002)

Straightforward enough, huh? Well maybe not.

I’ve been reading  Experience, evidence and sense: the hidden cultural legacy of English by Anna Wierzbicka. In it, she argues that the word experience, particularly in the third sense of the noun described above, is a peculiarly Anglo-English concept that cannot be easily translated into other languages. Furthermore, this use of the word is a relatively recent development in the English language, not appearing until around the 18th century. Its rise coincides with the rise of empiricism in British philosophy (Hume, Locke), in contrast to the rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz) that continued to dominate philosophical thought in the rest of Europe.

The original sense of experience was something that built up over time: experience as a body of accumulated knowledge (e.g. an experienced tradesperson). However experience has expanded to also refer to something that can be, ahem, ‘experienced’ in the moment – it is sensory, self-aware and subjective, combining perceptions, thoughts and feelings. In other words we can have experiences, and we are aware that we are having experiences while we are having them. Experience has become a countable noun: we can have an experience going horseriding; this is a very different thing from gaining experience in horseriding. However, this relatively new and now ubiquitous use of the word experience apparently has no equivalent outside the English language:

“The word experience plays a vital role in English speakers’ ways of thinking and provides a prism through which they interpret the world. While its range of use is broad and includes a number of distinct senses, several of these senses have a common theme that reflects a characteristically Anglo perspective on the world and on human life. This is why the word experience is often untranslatable (without distortion) into other languages, even European languages” (Wierzbicka, 2010, p.31)

So I’m wondering what this means for the way we conceptualise and study Visitor Experiences in a global context. It’s a significant question, as numerous theories in tourism, education and other areas hinge on defining characterising the experience. Obviously, English speakers aren’t the only people to have ‘experiences’. But maybe we are the only linguistic group to conceptualise and describe them in the way that we do. So when we talk about experiences across cultures, how do we know we’re all talking about the same thing?

Pine and Gilmore's 1999 work set up a value chain that had commodities at the bottom, then goods, then services, then experiences. So now I'm left wondering how Anglo-centric this highly influential idea is . . .

“Given the central role of English in today’s science, including psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, it is particularly important that such culture-specific constructs are not absolutised and also that they be well understood” (Wierzbicka, 2010, p.30)

I’m probably late to the party on this – it’s likely others have already given this considerable thought. I’d appreciate links to additional resources on this point. Given ‘experience’ is a key word in my thesis title, it is probably worth my while mulling it over for a while.

Pine, B. J. I., & Gilmore, J. H. (1999). The experience economy: work is theatre & every business a stage. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Wierzbicka, A. (2010). Experience, Evidence, and Sense: The Hidden Cultural Legacy of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Evaluation: it’s a culture, not a report

The UK Museums Journal website has recently published the opinion piece Why evaluation doesn’t measure up by Christian Heath and Maurice Davies. Heath and Davies are currently conducting a meta analysis of evaluation in the UK.

Is this the fate of many carefully prepared evaluation reports?

The piece posits that: “[n]o one seems to have done the sums, but UK museums probably spend millions on evaluation each year. Given that, it’s disappointing how little impact evaluation appears to have, even within the institution that commissioned it.”

If this is the case, I’d argue it’s because evaluation is being done as part of reporting requirements and is being ringfenced as such. Essentially, the evaluation report has been prepared to tick somebody else’s boxes – a funder usually – and the opportunity to use it to reflect upon and learn from experience is lost. Instead, it gets quietly filed with all the other reports, never to be seen again.

So even when evaluation is being conducted (something that cannot be taken as a given in the first place), there are structural barriers that prevent evaluation findings filtering through the institution’s operations. One of these is that exhibition and program teams are brought together with the opening date in mind, and often disperse once the ribbon is cut (as a former exhibition design consultant, their point about external consultants rarely seeing summative reports resonated with my experience). Also, if the evaluation report is produced for the funder and not the institution, there is a strong tendency to promote ‘success’ and gloss over anything that didn’t quite go to plan. After all, we’ve got the next grant round to think of and we want to present ourselves in the best possible light, right?

In short, Heath and Davies describe a situation where evaluation has become all about producing the report so we can call the job done and finish off our grant acquittal forms. And the report is all about marching to someone else’s tune. We may be doing evaluation, but is it part of our culture as an organisation?

It might even be the case that funder-instigated evaluation is having a perverse effect on promoting an evaluation culture. After all, it is set up to answer someone else’s questions, not our own. As a result findings might not be as useful in improving future practice as they might be. So evaluation after evaluation goes nowhere, making people wonder why we’re bothering at all. Evaluation becomes a chore, not a key aspect of what we do.

NB: This piece was originally written for the EVRNN blog, the blog of the Evaluation and Visitor Research National Network of Museums Australia.


New Interpretive Trail at West Terrace Cemetery

Last Sunday was the launch of the Beliefs Attitudes and Customs self-guided interpretive trail at West Terrace Cemetery. This trail complements the Heritage Highlights tour (featured in this 4-minute video) that was launched last year and won a 2011 tourism award.

The trail was launched as part of a Victorian funeral re-enactment staged during the About Time history festival. Over 400 people attended the re-enactment, which was an impressive turnout.

Crowds photographing the funeral procession as it enters the cemetery

I was responsible for writing the signage and self-guided leaflet for the trail, with the assistance of historian Geoff Speirs who helped me with some of the background research and sourcing of images.

In contrast to the Heritage Highlights tour, the Beliefs Attitudes and Customs trail focuses less on individual personalities and more on how the cemetery reflects both the religious diversity of South Australia and the change in social attitudes since the colonial era.

So this trail encompasses the different religious sections of the cemetery, the funeral rituals of these different faiths, and how these religious sections came about in the first place. It is also an opportunity to compare the practices of colonial times, which to modern eyes can seem very rigid and superstitious, with the more ‘scientific’ view of death and the grieving process prevalent today. However in the absence of the prescribed social norms of yesteryear, we now may find ourselves at a loss regarding how we are ‘supposed’ to deal with death and grief.

I have to confess that while fascinating, some of these more abstract ideas proved difficult to write about in a way that was clear, engaging and succinct. Time will tell how successful we were in this goal.