Interview with Dirk vom Lehn: Using Technology in Museums to Support Learning Through Social Interaction

Dirk vom Lehn is a sociologist and lecturer in marketing, interaction and technology in the Department of Management at King’s College London. With his colleagues at the Work, Interaction and Technology Research Centre and the Marketing Group, he undertakes research concerned with social interaction and technology in museums, at opticians and on street-markets. (Learn more about Dirk and his research here and follow him on Twitter @dirkvl where he tweets on technology, marketing, the arts, museums.)

Dirk was gracious enough to spend a few minutes to speak with us about one of his research areas, Museums, Interaction & Technology, and how museums have learned over the years to incorporate technology into exhibits in ways that connect visitors to the content and those around them.

Barry: What makes museums and technology such an interesting areas for you to research?

Dirk: I think to answer the question I have to go back to the late 1990s when I began with my doctoral research, first at the University of Nottingham and then at King’s College London. At the time, museums were increasingly required to account for the funds they were given to renew and redevelop their exhibitions. In response, they employed consultants that could investigate whether people learn in and from exhibitions. They also attracted academics from the behavioral and cognitive sciences, as well as from the field of education, who were interested in advancing the concept of learning. From this, a new sub-field of research emerged that still is known under the unfortunate denotation of “informal learning”; the “informal” thereby is an attempt to contrast learning in museums from learning in “formal institutions” like schools.

From 2002 to 2007 I worked with Rod Ogawa from UC Santa Cruz (who did some interesting research on the history of “informal education”) in Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS). CILS is an NSF-funded collaborative project between UC Santa Cruz, King’s College London and the Exploratorium in San Francisco that then was largely concerned with training the next generation of leaders in science education. Amongst others, PhD students were introduced to the latest theories and research methods on the boundary between the social and cognitive sciences. These theories increasingly pointed to a misconception of learning as being a subjective, cognitive process. Instead it was increasingly argued, for example by Barbara Rogoff, that children learn in and through social interaction, talk and arguments.

Barry: And how did this connect with your work?

Dirk: This shift in the concept of learning resonated well with discussions we had at King’s College London where from 1999 to 2002 I worked on a Wellcome Trust-funded project under the direction of Christian Heath and Jonathan Osborne. In this project we tried to explore how people interact with, and around, and talk about exhibits. Rather than focusing on the cognitive aspects of learning and measuring the ‘learning output’ as it were, we conducted detailed studies of naturally occurring interaction at the exhibits. We were interested in the opportunities they offer for interaction and the obstacles they pose to the emergence of interaction. These studies were and still are using video-recordings as principal data and focus on events occurring  at exhibits, rather than interviewing people about their activities after they have examined an interactive or a work of art. Being a sociologist myself and working with sociologists at the Work, Interaction & Technology Research Center (WIT) my interest in these studies is in the action and interaction through which people make sense of exhibits.

As it turned out, since the late 1990s, museums were deploying increasingly complex technologies in their exhibitions because “interactives” can engage people for a lengthy period of time in activities and there is the believe that the likelihood that people learn from that activity is higher than at exhibits where people only stop for a few seconds. So, to come back to your question then, the interest that I together with my colleagues at WIT pursue is to investigate the ways in which people interact with and around technology in museums; the technology being information kiosks and mobile devices like PDAs as well as interactive exhibits, touch-screen systems and larger installations. How do people find out how these technologies work? How do they deal with problems in using them? And in particular, how do people interweave the features of the technologies, their screens and buttons, etc. in the interaction with their companions. How do third parties who just happen to be nearby participate in the interaction of those with direct access to the interfaces of the exhibit?

Museums allowed us to investigate these questions in a public place where we can not only explore how people interact with and around technologies but we can also deploy technologies in environments without causing accidents or injuries to participants.

Barry: Can you please give us an example?

Dirk: We used our findings concerning visitors’ action and interaction at exhibits to discuss the creation of craft works with the designer Jason Cleverly that were deployed at major art fairs such as the Chelsea Craft Fair in London and SOFA in Chicago.

Two pieces, Deus Oculi and Ghostship, that have emerged from this collaboration are low-tech assemblies of materials and video-systems that were designed to generate interaction between people, both between people who have come together and those who just happen to meet in the vicinity of the exhibit. We were particularly interested in how people would discover exhibit features “by chance”, for example when they made a relationship between people appearing on a video screen and a location elsewhere at the exhibit. We used these observations to create further pieces and in our discussions of new developments with museum designers and managers.

Barry: So, to circle back to the history of your field, how has the increased use of digital media – both by the institutions and visitors – changed (or reinforced) what we understand about informal learning in museums?

Dirk: Well, in the 1990s there was a lot of excitement about the opportunities that new technologies and novel interfaces, such as touch-screens, offered museums. They seemed to be a way around technical problems with computers and interfaces and offered a new way to engage young audiences, children and teenagers who traditionally switched off when walking through the museum door.

They attracted large number of visitors of different ages and kept them engaged in long-lasting activities. There is some evidence that such long-lasting activities that fully involve the ‘user’ in focused interaction with the system support some kind of learning in museums. However, there is a fundamental problem with exhibits that are based on a design that principally favors an individual’s interaction with a system over social interaction and cooperation at a system. Museums are public places that people explore in interaction with others. Museum visiting is fundamentally a social activity. So, exhibits that are based on the same design principles as desktop computers that we use at home or in the office are not ideal for deployment in museums. In fact, as our research showed, the user’s interaction with the system often undermines the emergence of social interaction and can impoverish what would be possible to arise in museums, i.e. conversation, discussion and maybe arguments about original artifacts maybe augmented by less intrusive technologies.

There are of course museum managers and curators, primarily in art museums, who for good reasons argue that exhibits, i.e. works of art, should be experienced in solitude, undisturbed by others. Their arguments are supported by research, such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick Robinson’s book “The Art of Seeing”, which implies that aesthetic experience arises from individual, undisturbed engagement with works of art. The reality of museums, however, is that even when you go alone to a museum there is a strong possibility that your engagement with exhibits occurs in an environment that others explore at the same time.

And we know from Goffman’s famous studies of behavior in public places that those in ”perceptual range” influence each other’s action and experience. It would seem that those who used to deploy PDAs equipped with headphones in (art) museums tried to cut people off from events happening around them. It turns out that these devices cut people off not only from each other but often also from the art around them, with people spending more time with the devices than with the original artwork. But, people also subvert the designers’ best intentions to facilitate individual experiences of aesthetic spaces by taking headphones off or sharing one set of headphones with two people, etc.

Other people point to the aforementioned multi-user exhibits as examples of installations that facilitate social interaction. It however often turns out that these installations were designed based on very similar principles as the one-user systems. They facilitate the engagement of individuals with activities that are largely unconnected to the activities of others. Talk and interaction arise at certain junctures in the games, i.e. at the end of the game, which is supported, for example, by circular arrangements where people occasionally look at each other while playing individual games, see where others are in the process of the game and comment on this. Yet, these exhibits were not designed for cooperative forms of engagement, and it seemed difficult to encourage visitors to discuss the subject matter of the game because when the games came to an end people would leave the exhibits rather than talk about them.

It therefore is important to note that not only the systems and the interfaces are or were the problem with many of these exhibits, but also the activities that people were supposed to engage in at those installations; activities to involve individuals and groups of people. Consequently, what we found at these exhibits, whether one-user or multi-user installations, is that one member of a group would become the primary user of an exhibit whilst his companions as well as others stand behind, observe the action and experience the exhibit by watching somebody else using the installation. If then another group member gets the chance to use the exhibit, her or his experience of the installation is spoilt by having previously observed somebody else engaged in the very same activity.

To return to your question: the design and deployment of these computer exhibits and installations is based on the user-model of interaction developed in human-computer interaction. This model stands in stark contrast to those new ideas about ‘learning’ and ‘informal learning’ I mentioned earlier. They do not facilitate or support social interaction and cooperation but prioritise the individual user and undermine and impoverish cooperation and discussion.

Barry: So what happened next? Have museums learned how to use technology to support social interaction and avoid these earlier mistakes?

Dirk: Yes, museum managers and designers have moved very quickly and taken part in novel technological developments as well as used changes in academic thinking, in particular the growing understanding that social interaction and talk can and are beneficial to, at least some kind of, learning. Hence, it is not surprising that now these old touch-screen systems and first-generation multi-user installations are replaced by novel multi-touch interfaces, sensor-based systems and by very large displays. The Science Museum in London here is at the forefront in successfully deploying novel installations that allow multiple participants to engage in collaborative activities. Examples for these novel exhibitions are Launch Pad where people can collaborate with and around interactive exhibits and Energy with some sensor-based systems that allow for multi-party cooperation in the engagement with exhibits. Our research led by Robin Meisner who now is Director of Exhibits at the Providence Children’s Museum revealed how people use the space and the technology in the galleries to create performances that exhibit their engagement and experience with the installations and attract others to join in or just watch the events.

Related examples come from the arts where at the Tate Britain an exhibition about the British painter Constable displayed the artist’s technique by virtue of a large projection linked to a sensor-based interface. People used the technology and space to create experience of the installation not only for themselves but also for all others in the vicinity. People could learn about the installation and some of Constable’s technique by engaging with the system or by watching others moving in front of the projection. There are a number of further examples like this and art groups, such as Blast Theory with long-standing cooperation with computer scientists, the Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham, have produced multi-party installations, such as Desert Rain and new mobile and location-based pieces that use technology in highly innovative ways that in the future might influence also innovation in museums.

All these recent developments seem to point toward future exhibitions that take into account much more than before that museum visiting is a social activity, that people examine and experience exhibits in social interaction and that theories of learning suggest that interaction and talk support or even enhance learning and cognitive development.

Barry: Maybe to conclude you can talk briefly about what your observations might mean for the design of exhibitions.

Dirk: The difficulty for exhibition designers and museum managers is that exhibits and exhibitions largely are developed and deployed to stay in a museum for at least 5 years, often much longer. Therefore they have to get it right straight away, otherwise a failing exhibition will be in a museum and drag the reputation of the entire place down. It therefore is not surprising that designers and managers sometimes seem conservative as they unavoidably draw on concepts that have proven successful and effective in other exhibitions. Nina Simon raises this problem in a recent post on her excellent Museum2.0 blog. She draws on Tim O’Reilly’s proposals for web2.0 and calls, for example, for exhibitions to be in “perpetual beta”. I suppose the Exploratorium in San Francisco is and has been for decades the example par excellence for an exhibition that continually develops, with designers experimenting on the floor with new artifacts, etc. And I think the work that Kevin Crowley and his team at the University of Pittsburgh have undertaken over the past decade or so, can be seen in the same regard: naturalistic experiments with material, visual, technological, human and social assemblies conducted by interdisciplinary teams. The recently opened Chrome WebLab at the Science Museum produced by Dave Patten in collaboration with Google, might become another example in this regard. The gallery also opens up novel opportunities for visitors in the gallery to cooperate with online-visitors which would be an interesting interaction to study and further develop in the future.

I would hope that more such experimental spaces, laboratories on the exhibition floor, maybe linked to ‘web-spaces’, will be set-up where interdisciplinary teams collaborate on the development of theory, methods and practice which can contribute to academic debates about interaction and learning as well as to museum design and museum practice.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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2 Responses to Interview with Dirk vom Lehn: Using Technology in Museums to Support Learning Through Social Interaction

  1. Great interview. The increase in the use of digital interactives and interfaces means that designers and exhibit creators have many more opportunities to refine, refresh and iterate on their exhibits in response to how the public reacts to them. This creates both opportunities and increased costs, as no exhibit is ever truly “finished” if it can continually be improved.

  2. Pingback: Worn Through » On Teaching Fashion: Social Interaction & Learning

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