Innovating Access: The Digital Touch

Today’s Story from the Museum Floor takes a multi-sensory look at some of the innovative work Manchester Museum is doing to improve access through digital technologies. This work, led by Sam Beath, Collections Care Manager and Senior Conservator at Manchester Museum, in collaboration with Touch and Discover Systems and Loughborough University was acknowledged and celebrated with the commendation received at the Jodi Awards last week.

Looking after museum objects

There is a natural impulse to want to touch objects, and touching and handling objects was a central feature of visiting museums in the past. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, visitors to the Ashmolean in Oxford and the British Museum were allowed to handle, rub, shake and even taste objects on display! However, over time, restrictions emerged on how objects could be handled and by whom, and by the mid-nineteenth century it was only curators and conservators who were able to enjoy physical interaction with the objects within the museum.

IMG_2505aPractical demonstration of the detrimental effects repeated handling can have on objects of a variety of materials (Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum).

Increasing Access

In the twenty-first century, museums are more aware than ever of the necessity to safeguard objects for future generations. Nevertheless, over recent years there has also been an increasing emphasis on widening access to museum collections and social inclusion. Manchester Museum has actively pursued a philosophy of making more of its collection available for visitors to handle and touch, risk-managed in careful conversation between curators and conservators, through object handling sessions and tactile displays – giving our visitors the chance for a multi-sensory exploration and to be inspired in new ways by our collection.

Up close and personal, Manchester Museum’s volunteers facilitating object handling for visitors.

Innovating Access: The Digital Touch

Despite the benefits of having this ‘hands-on’ with objects, and the connection this can give visitors with the people of the past, and with nature, the vast majority of museum objects still cannot be handled because of the risk of damage and loss of material evidence that may affect future research potential.

With this in mind, with funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Sam Beath, Collections Care Manager and Senior Conservator has been working on a series of projects to develop the provision of access to objects that cannot be handled, using new 3D digital technologies. But this goes beyond flat digital images available online;

“Part of the incentive for me as a conservator is trying to find ways of sharing our objects and encouraging others to explore their physicality – because Museums are full of stuff – 3 dimensional objects and they lose a lot of their power once they are lost within the digital world online.”

– Sam Beath, Collections Care manager, Manchester Museum

Probos™ Sensory Console – Haptics

probos BG manChris Dean, designer of ‘Touch and Discover Systems‘, using the Probos™ Haptic Console with a visitor from Henshaw’s.

The goal was to create a ground-breaking user experience that enables users to touch and interact with digitally scanned museum artefacts and which also addresses the needs of our visitors who have sensory impairments. Working with Touch & Discover Systems, the Probos™ Console provides a universal 3D interactive platform with innovative haptic (interaction or communication using touch) technology which enables users to interact with high quality digital scans of objects that would never normally be touched because they are too fragile or protected in a showcase.

“My experience with haptics was amazing, like a light being switched on in my damaged brain. I found examining art and objects in new formats tapped into mental/visual perception previously dormant…”

– Bev Norris, Henshaw’s, focus group member

Display screen from the Gallezeum, and visitor interacting with the Probos™ Haptic Console.

Digital Touch Replicas

Accurate laser scanning and replication technology means a physical encounter with a replica object can now occur in the knowledge that the surface will be a faithful representation of the original. Engagement with Digital Touch Replicas can be especially rewarding for our visitors with visual and other sensory impairments. A physical prototype was created which integrates novel touch sensors that allow information to be strategically placed onto the object. When touched information is delivered as images, audio or video on an associated screen which is tailored to the visitor’s needs.

 Sam Beath, working with a Henshaw’s focus group, and the Digital Touch Replica of an ancient Egyptian coffin of a mummified cat in action.

You can see Digital Touch in action in Manchester Museum’s current exhibition Object Lessons. This piece was funded by STFC, as a collaboration with the University of Manchester. The object featured is a fossil bird, Confuciusornis Sanctus, chosen to showcase the cutting edge research of scientists at the University on the chemistry of fossil feather colour, and this ‘Digital Touch’ technology allows it to be related directly to the are on the surface of the fossil.

 ‘Digital Touch’ interactive fossil, Confuciusornis Sanctus. ‘Object Lessons’, Manchester Museum.

The Jodi Awards

Sam Beath, collecting the commendation at the Jodi Awards last week

The Jodi Mattes Trust is an organisation that champions accessible digital culture with biennial awards; the 2017 ceremony took place last week. Their aim is to promote barrier-free access to cultural collections for disabled people. The Trust fosters the cultural equality of disabled people by celebrating best practice through the Jodi Awards.  The Awards are given in memory of Jodi Mattes, a tireless champion of equal access to culture for disabled people.

At the 2017 awards ceremony, Manchester Museum’s innovative digital 3D work was a Commendation Winner.

“We are very happy to have won a Commendation Award from The Jodie Mattes Trust for the work we have done here at Manchester Museum understanding how to make important museum objects more accessible to our visitors with visual impairments through the development of new 3D digital technologies.”

– Sam Beath

These innovative approaches to access and inclusion have been possible through significant collaborations. Our partners here at the Manchester are Christopher Dean from Touch and Discover Systems; Mary Gifford and a working group of dedicated volunteers from Henshaw’s Society for Blind People; Professor John Tyrer and Stephen Hammond from the Mechanical Engineering Department at Loughborough University and Tamarisk Kay, a web developer who has worked with me on the Digital Touch Replicas.

And well deserved congratulations to the overall winner, Signly, an app which displays pre-recorded sign language videos on a user’s mobile, enabling better access to written content for d/Deaf sign language users. And also to the finalist and commendation winner, House of Memories, a museum-led dementia awareness programme which offers training, access to resources, and museum-based activities to enable carers to provide person-centred care for people living with dementia.

These are just a few ways that Manchester Museum is working to increase access and inclusion for an increasingly diverse audience. If you want to find out more, have a look at some of the links below.

Judith Fabian

Find out more about digital technologies in museums;

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