Seeing the museum with new eyes

Did you ever make a mixtape for someone else? How about with objects from a museum? This challenge was explored by the artist group Blast Theory in collaboration with Brighton Museum and researchers in the GIFT Project.

Over the last 2 years, Blast Theory has developed an app that invites a visitor to see the museum through the eyes of someone else – a person they want to create a digital gift for. The app asks the visitor to select objects or details they think will be particularly interesting to the other person, take a picture, record a personal message and finally select a piece of music as soundtrack for the experience.

It was a great opportunity to watch live prototyping and testing in action on a scale that we couldn’t do in-house. That experimental approach has influenced how we approach future digital interpretation projects.
Digital Manager, Brighton Museum

One of the most important design intentions was to address the needs of museums who are attempting to respond to the rise of mobile digital media, often with small budgets, very small teams, and lots of time pressure.
Artist, Blast Theory

You’re looking at the museum through fresh eyes.
Visitor, Brighton Museum

The app was developed iteratively through a series of workshops and user tests at Brighton Museum from early 2017. In July 2018 Blast Theory organised a large public trial lasting three days, during which 170 visitors tried out the app. We gathered feedback through interviews and questionnaires, allowing us to conduct a thorough analysis of the user experience. The academic version of the analysis is published in this research paper.

The most consistent reaction from visitors was that they felt the app offered them a new way of looking at museum objects or thinking about them. They saw the exhibition ’with other eyes’, or ’through fresh eyes’, looking with ’a different meaning’. One visitor explained that looking through another person’s eyes ’made art seem alive’. Another noted multiple levels of engagement happening at once: ’You’re actually looking for stuff that someone else would enjoy, but you’re also looking at your own experience and what your eye is drawn to’.

When we asked visitors whether they formed personal connections to any of the objects, many responded confidently: ’If you can choose good objects, you will feel a personal connection to those objects as well’. One person said she ’really engaged’ with objects she ’would have perhaps otherwise walked past’. Gift receivers felt particularly attached to the objects given to them and spent time examining them, even when ’I don’t think I would have necessarily looked twice at them’.

The act of using museum objects as digital gifts creates a triangle between giver, receiver and the object, in which the object becomes connected with the relationship between the giver and receiver. One of the receivers said that the process of finding an object ’brought back great memories and important things in our relationship’.