Digging into digital techniques

It is cold, you are descending into a dark, damp, cave-like cellar, you do not see much, everyone around you is silent. Can you still turn around? Yes! But don’t, because you are entering a museum called DOMunder: a fascinating place that promises to teach you all about 2000 years of history in Utrecht, the Netherlands and Europe.

DOMunder is a prize-winning museum established in 2014 in Utrecht. It took ten years to complete and the costs were over 5.4 million euros. The museum won several awards: Museum + Heritage award 2015, Geschiedenis Online Prijs 2015 and IMAGINES Project of Influence 2016. The creators are celebrated for the innovative use of new media techniques to stimulate visitors to learn about archeology and history. Entering the museum you will find a striking contrast: the museum is located within an archeological site beneath the Domplein and displays artefacts of over 2000 years old, some broken tiles and a lot of grind. These historic remains meet numerous digital techniques such as Xboxes, smart sensors, films, digital displays and a lot of sound & light effects. The main activity within the museum is exploring the excavation site: visitors receive a torch that can connect to sensors, watch a short animated movie and start searching for excavated objects. Next to these objects is a sensor, when the torch connects to the sensor, the visitor can listen to a short informative text about the object through the connected headphones. The museum also created an app called Tijdreis 2000 jaar Domplein in Utrecht to learn more about the history of Utrecht and the Domplein. The use of these digital techniques inside and outside of the museum has consequences: they shape a whole new way of experiencing a museum.

Exploring the excavation site in DOMunderImage courtesy of DOMunder

Searching for a sensor

The use of digital techniques changes how visitors interact with the exhibition, this subsequently changes their interpretation. A few examples will illustrate how the interpretation is influenced. Firstly, when the visitor matches the torch to a sensor to get information about a displayed piece, the visitor disconnects from the object. In a traditional museum the focus is on the object, while in this case the focus shifts to finding the sensors, not objects. This enlarges the distance between the visitor and the object, which consequently may cause a less authentic feeling. Secondly, a different process happens: people do not have to read a sign about the object but can listen to the information and discover the object at the same time. This makes them interpret the object in a different way: they can make direct links between the information they get and the object. Another way in which this digital technique changes interpretation is the loss of the social aspect of visiting a museum. In a traditional exhibition visitors often look at objects together and discuss about it which helps to give meaning to it. The technique of the museum discourages this: every visitor is searching for sensors without experiencing it together. Finally, the choice of the creators to only play short informative stories through the headphones, invites people to form their own narrative. People are challenged to make their own interpretation: they find objects, listen to the stories and can use these to make a narrative of the history of Utrecht. In this way people are really encouraged to participate and interpret on their own. This is new, exciting, but also a bit risky: the creators will never know if the visitors leave remembering the story they wanted them to remember.

Less is more

By using different interactive digital techniques, visitors are challenged to actively collect, organize and interpret information: the museum shifts from a traditional museum to a participatory museum. However, these techniques can be distracting. At the introductory room, before entering the excavation site, there is an abundance of screens. Some objects have a screen next to them that shows fragments. However, it is not clear what they are trying to tell, they do not add information but are confusing to the public. Same story for a big three-tv display in another room: it is supposed to be an interactive screen which takes you through the different centuries of Utrecht. Yet, there is no explanation, so no one uses it. Clearly, by using all these interactive digital tools the museum tries to invite visitors to actively find their own information, but in the introductory room of the museum it does not work out. This shows the difficulty of the digitization of history: what information should be provided digital and what should be shown in a traditional way? This ambiguity is unknowingly illustrated by the guide: in a room full of tv screens and interactive displays, she tells us a vivid history of Utrecht, while using paper maps and handing out old stone materials to us: ‘to feel the past’.

Prize winner without a public

To top off the experience, the museum created a prize-winning app. This application complements the exhibition by taking you through all centuries of Utrecht’s history and presenting beautiful animations of what the Domplein used to look like. It provides extra information and context after (or before) looking at the excavations and promotes other interesting exhibitions in Utrecht. The app is constructed really well, gives useful extra information and invites people to discover even more about the history of Utrecht. However, the app is only accessible on an iPad. This excludes people who do not know how to use an iPad or do not own one. This raises the question if this app really reaches its public. A quick look at the reviews in the Appstore gives a little insight: it has only 18 reviews, last one posted in 2014.

All in all, DOMunder is a great example of a museum using digital techniques to shift from a traditional museum to a participatory museum. It clearly shows the strengths and possible weaknesses of digitization in museums. The techniques invite people to actively join in and find their own information. Yet using too many of these techniques at the same time can be distracting. Finally, it shows that creators have to be aware of the inaccessibility of some forms of digital techniques and should make sure that they actually reach the intended public.

Linda Coppens