Meet the new project: Mapping Playful Spaces in the Museum

In this interview, Dr Kathryn Eccles and Dr Chico Camargo share how their GLAM Labs project explores the potential of social media for understanding visitor experiences in the museum. Using data from Twitter and Instagram, they focus on the playful ways in which visitors engage with collections across Oxford’s GLAM institutions.

This project is one of four GLAM Labs projects funded as part of this year’s IT Innovation Challenges round.

About the project

Exhibition room in the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology with social media symbols next to objects, showing likes and comments across different platforms

This project uses data from social media to map visitor engagement with museum objects. Image by Anton Ivanov via Shutterstock.

Museums often struggle to find ways of evaluating visitor experience without the use of intrusive instruments such as exit interviews and surveys. In the last decade, visitors have increasingly used social media to post reviews, photos, and comments about their experiences to their networks. This data represents a relatively untapped opportunity for museums to understand what engages their visitors, and how their experiences conform to or challenge expectations.

This project will pilot the use of social media data to enhance our understanding of ‘playful’ visitor behaviour across Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM). Using data from Twitter and Instagram, we will look for playful types of engagement, with a view to trying to understand how visitors experience Oxford’s collections as ‘playful spaces’.

1. Please tell us a little bit about the team behind Mapping Playful Spaces in the Museum.

The project team comprises a group of Oxford Internet Institute researchers interested in how new tools can contribute understanding to longstanding questions around how and why people engage with museums and cultural heritage, and how new digital platforms can support and augment those interactions. Dr Kathryn Eccles has been researching in this area for around a decade, and a new collaborative partnership with Dr Chico Camargo and Yayoi Teramoto Kimura, both data scientists with strong interests in museums and culture, has enabled her to develop a new suite of projects on social data.

2. How did you come up with the idea for Mapping Playful Spaces in the Museum?

There’s a growing interest in how social media data can contribute to our understanding of visitor behaviour in museums and cultural heritage sites. During an initial survey of Instagram posts about the Oxford museums, we discovered a number of playful engagements such as mimicking the pose of a statue and the expression of a portrait, and wanted to find out more about these types of post. We also noticed how many visitors were engaging with the built environment of our GLAM sites in playful ways, and wanted to map this behaviour.

Last year, Kathryn ran a series of ESRC IAA-funded knowledge exchange workshops on the potential for data science to contribute to understandings of visitor engagement across the culture and heritage sectors. Those workshops opened up the sorts of questions organisations wanted to ask and surfaced some very exciting projects (such as the British Museum’s work on their Trip Advisor data). From there, we developed a knowledge exchange project with English Heritage, which examines whether analysis of social media posts about their free-to-enter sites can elicit rich understandings of how and why people visit, and what types of engagement with heritage are represented in their posts. As we had already developed the social media analytics tools in order to run the English Heritage project, we knew that it was possible to create a similar dataset for the GLAM sites and develop the notion of ‘play’ from there.

3. Why did you choose to apply for the IT Innovation Challenges scheme?

The GLAM Labs stream of the IT Innovation Challenges scheme was a great fit for this project as it was dedicated to creating an environment to ‘pilot, test and evaluate the use of technology to enhance the user experience of physical and virtual spaces’. GLAM Labs also foregrounded the idea that we should be ‘creating an ethos of sharing expertise, developing digital skills among staff and collaborators’ which is exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to produce research findings that were useful, and could be implemented by our colleagues in GLAM through interventions we co-created to test our hypotheses. This scheme provided the perfect pilot funding for such a project.

4. What was the application process like for you? Which tips would you give future applicants?

This is Kathryn’s third IT Innovation award, so we’ve learned a lot from previous applications and presentations. The application itself is not long or complicated, and it asks useful questions about how and why you want to do the project. Our top tips would be:

  • Share your idea early in order to make the most of community feedback
  • Engage with everyone who comments, even if they hate your idea (especially then)
  • Read other ideas as there are often opportunities to join forces or work in synergy
  • Know your collaborators/work with people you trust – these schemes work best when you know your partners well as the pace of work can be pretty rapid!

5. What are your plans for the next few months? How will you realise your project idea?

The first job will be to start assembling our dataset by setting up social media scraping tools for Twitter and Instagram for all of the GLAM sites. We have set up a partnership with the Ashmolean Museum which has generated an initial list of questions and key priorities, so we will focus on this site in the first instance while collecting data across the GLAM sites. This approach will allow us to cast a wide net whilst also working in a more focused way on a single site. Once we’ve sifted through the initial data, we will share our findings with a group of GLAM colleagues, who will help us to collaboratively set the agenda for the next phase of the project, and will help us to devise a set of interventions.

6. How will the Mapping Playful Spaces in the Museum project bring benefit to students, staff and the University?

The gardens, libraries and museums are core to the University and bring millions of visitors to Oxford year-round. A key benefit of this project will be to contribute to better understandings of visitor behaviour in the museums, and to support active engagement with user-generated ‘play’. Seeing the GLAM sites through the eyes of these visitors will support our colleagues in designing and structuring experiences that resonate with visitors. A further benefit will be to enhance collaboration between the Oxford research community and GLAM, and to provide opportunities for knowledge exchange between the different areas of the University of Oxford. This sort of collaboration is difficult to fund through the usual RCUK channels, which makes the IT Innovation GLAM Labs Challenge a really valuable route to working more closely together.

Read more about the project on the OII’s website.

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