Handiest of all guides to the past

Youngsters get to grips with one of NMS's new apps. Picture: Ruth Armstrong

Youngsters get to grips with one of NMS's new apps. Picture: Ruth Armstrong

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Apps, blogs and the social media will never replace museums, but they will open them up to a much wider range of people, argues Hugh Wallace

The collections of National Museums Scotland encompass a span of four billion years. By comparison, the five years that the museum has had a digital media team is fleeting, to say the least. But in digital terms, five years can sometimes feel like a lifetime.

Thinking back to 2009, it is startling to consider some of the technology and services that are now part of the furniture were then barely a twinkle in an entrepreneur’s eye. No iPads, no Instagram, Pinterest or Tumblr. Twitter was the preserve of the few, Facebook was scraping by at around 100 million users (scarily, less than 10 per cent of its global user base now).

Mobile phones, computers and tablets that were cutting- edge five or ten years ago are already part of our collections. The digital landscape moves fast, and part of our job is to get the balance right between things that are worth putting time and energy into, and things that are flash-in-the-pan – a lot of websites and apps seem to disappear without trace no sooner than they’ve been launched.

“Why bother?” some may ask. The unique thing about our museums is that we offer first-hand access to amazing objects and their fascinating stories, and it remains true that the collections and the public buildings where they are presented are central to what we do.

But digital engagement covers a wide range of different areas within National Museums Scotland. Our website is an increasingly important hub of activity, not just for people planning a visit to one of our four “real-world” museums, but as a place where we host additional resources, put further interpretation material, multimedia content and an increasingly accessible range of online collections records.

Not everyone in Scotland (or beyond) will get the chance to visit our museums in person, so providing information that can be accessed at any time and from any location is important. That said, we’re not trying to replicate the physical museum with our online presence: instead, we want to offer things that will complement and supplement the museum-going experience, as well as stand alone.

We have recently redesigned and relaunched the entire website (www.nms.ac.uk) in order to provide a lively, engaging experience and try to better address the needs of our users, especially when it comes to people accessing the site using mobile devices.

In the past two years in particular we have seen a huge jump in people accessing the site using smartphones and tablets.

When it comes to mobile devices, we have also been developing apps for use within the National Museum of Scotland, tailoring different kinds of application for different audiences. Museum Explorer is designed for younger visitors and involves a simple clue-based trail leading to nine unusual objects. Capture the Museum is a team game where two sides vie for points and compete to “capture” territory supported by an innovative app.

Our most recent app, Museum Highlights, features a digital map and information about a range of treasured objects in the museums’ collections, translated into four languages. We’ve had lots of positive feedback about it and were even more delighted when it won Best App Design at this year’s Drum Design Awards.

We’ll definitely be looking to develop more for mobile devices, and are planning how digital media will fit in to the new redevelopments currently taking place in the National Museum of Scotland which will see the creation of ten new galleries presenting our collections of decorative art, design, fashion, science and technology.

We are particularly excited about the possibilities that new location-based technology might offer visitors to help deliver enhanced information, and extend a museum visit after they leave. A big part of our work involves trying to reach people in a range of different ways, and offering opportunities for people to get involved themselves. Whether that’s through our blog (http://feastbowl.wordpress.com) which takes a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in the organisation and has picked up comments from far and wide, or from our presence on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter where the tone is more conversational, and the response more immediate. We have found these to be a great source of feedback and help provide a reliable temperature check on the popularity of events and exhibitions we put on.

And what will the next five years bring in digital?

If I could confidently answer that, I’d probably be in a different job, but I think it’s safe to say we don’t anticipate sitting still!

• Hugh Wallace is head of digital media at National Museums Scotland

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