Category Archives: Gallery Technology

Going digital with our Exhibition Scheduling Timeline

 

 

developing a digital timeline for scheduling exhibitions

BACKGROUND

Having a visual representation of upcoming exhibitions, works, and major events is important in the exhibition planning process. Rather than relying on spotting dates that clash using lists of data, having a horizontal timeline spread out visually allows for faster cross-checking and helps collaboratively decide on how to plan for exhibition installs and derigs.

 

Until recently we had a system that used excel to plan out this timeline, by merging cells and coloring horizontally it was possible to manually construct a timeline. Apart from the pure joy that comes from printing anything from Excel, there were a number of limitations of this method.

  • When dates changed the whole thing needed to be rejigged
  • Everyone who received a printed copy at meetings stuck that to the wall and so date changes were hard to communicate.
  • We need to see the timeline over different scales – short term and long term, so this means using 2 separate excel tabs for each, hence duplication of effort.
  • We were unable to apply any permissions
  • The data was not interoperable with other systems

TIMELINE SOFTWARE (vis.js)

Thanks to Almende B.V. there is an open source timeline code library available at visjs.org/docs/timeline so this offers a neat solution to the manual task of having to recast the timeline using some creative Excel skills each time. We already have a database of Exhibition dates following our digital signage project and so this was the perfect opportunity to reuse this data, which should be the most up to date version of planned events as it is what we display to the public internally in our venues.

IMPLEMENTATION

The digital timeline was implemented using MEAN stack technology and combines data feeds from a variety of sources. In addition to bringing in data for agreed exhibitions, we wanted a flexible way to add installations, derigs, and other notes and so a new database on the node server combines these dates with exhibitions data. We can assign permissions to different user groups using some open source authentication libraries and this means we can now release the timeline for staff not involved in exhibitions, but also let various teams add and edit their own specific timeline data.

The great thing about vis is the ease of manipulation of the timeline, users are able to zoom in and out, and backward and forwards in time using with mouse, arrow or touch/pinch gestures.

 

Zoomed out view for the bigger picture
Zoomed in for the detail…

EMU INTEGRATION

The management of information surrounding object conservation, loans and movements is fundamental to successful exhibition development and installation. As such we maintain a record of exhibition dates in EMu, our collections management software. The EMu events module is used to record when exhibitions take place and also the object list where curators select and deselect objects for exhibition. Using the EMU API we are able to extract a structured list of Exhibitions information for publishing to the digital timeline.

HOW OUR TIMELINE WORKS

Each gallery or public space has its own horizontal track where exhibitions are published as blocks. These are grouped into our 5 museums and archives buildings and can be selected/deselected from the timeline to cross reference each. Once logged in a user is able ot manually add new blocks to the timeline and these are pre-set to “install”, “derig” and “provisional date”. Once a block is added our exhibitions team are able to add notes that are accessible on clicking the block. It is also possible to reorder and adjust dates by clicking and dragging.

IMPACT

The timeline now means everyone has access to an up to date picture of upcoming exhibitons installations to no one is out of date. The timeline is on a public platform and is mobile accessible so staff can access it on the move, in galleries or at home. Less time is spent on creative Excel manipulation and more work on spotting errors. It has also made scheduling meetings more dynamic, allowing better cross referencing and moving to different positions in time. An unexpected effect is that we are spotting more uses for the solution and are currently investigating the use of it for booking rooms and resources. There are some really neat things we can do such as import a data feed from the timeline back into our MS Outlook calendars  (“oooooh!”). The addition of thumbnail pictures used to advertise exhibitions has been a favorite feature among staff and really helps give an instant impression of current events, since it reinforces the exhibition branding which people are already familiar with.

ISSUES

It is far from perfect! Several iterations were needed to develop the drag and drop feature fo adding events. Also, we are reaching diminishing returns in terms of performance – with more and more data available to plot, the web app is performing slowly and could do with further optimisation to improve speed. Also due to our IT infrastructure, many staff use Internet Explorer and whilst the timeline works OK, many features are broken on this browser without changes to compatibility and caching settings on IE.

WHAT’S NEXT

Hopefully optimisation will improve performance and then it is full steam ahead with developing our resource booking system using the same framework.

 

 

Rowan Whitehouse joins the Digital Team

Hello! My name is Rowan Whitehouse and I am currently working as a cultural support apprentice for Bristol Museums.

I have been doing six week rotations around various departments, and as part of my third, with the digital team, I’ve been asked to review some of the technology around the museum.

So, to find some!

I noticed that the distribution of technology around the museum is heavier in areas with a higher number of children. Whilst there is a lot around the ground floor, particularly the Egypt and Natural History galleries, levels definitely drop off the more steps you climb, towards the Fine and Applied Arts galleries. I think this is due, in part, to many children’s interests leaning on the dinosaur/mummy side, rather than Bristol’s history of stone pub ware. Perhaps there are also certain established ideas about what an art gallery should  be, whereas many of the historic collections lend themselves well to interactive displays.

Upstairs, the technology has a distinctly more mature focus.
I chose to look at a tablet/kiosk in the European Old Masters gallery for an example. The kiosk itself fits well into its surroundings, the slim, white design is unobtrusive – something desirable in such a traditional gallery space. The kiosk serves as an extension of the wall plaques, it has an index of the paintings in the room with information on them. I think this is a great idea as the size of wall plaques often constrain the amount of information available.

A big drawback I felt however, was that the kiosk was static and fixed in one place. I observed that as people moved around the gallery they would continually look from the painting to it’s accompanying plaque, taking in both at the same time. Though the kiosk has more information, it would need to be able to move with the user to have the advantage over the plaques. On the position of the kiosk itself, I think it would receive more use if it was positioned in the middle of the room, rather than in the corner, where it is overlooked. Signage on the wall advertised a webpage, which could be accessed on a handheld device and provided the same information as the kiosk. I felt this was a better use of the index, and could be made even easier to access via a QR code. I wonder though, if people would want to use their phones like this in a gallery, and whether ideas about the way we experience art are the ultimate obstacle. I’ll be researching how other institutions use (or don’t use) technology in their galleries.

I wanted to see how technology is being used differently with the historic collections, so I headed back downstairs to the Egypt gallery. I observed a school group using the computers at the back of the gallery, both the children and their teacher struggled with the unusual keyboard layout and rollerball mouse, unable to figure out how to search. Eventually, they came upon it by chance, and enjoyed navigating the images and learning more about the objects in the gallery. The computers also have a timeline view, showing the history of the Egyptians, and an “Explore” function, where specific subjects could be looked at.

I think the location of the units massively benefit interaction, the dedicated space with chairs really invite and encourage visitors to engage. On using the technology, I felt that the access problems could be easily fixed by some stickers highlighting the left mouse button function, and something to resolve the stiffness of the rollerball.

My favourite interactive pieces in the museum were in the Egypt gallery. I loved the screens that featured the discovery of  a body, and asked the user what they thought about the body being in a museum, and gave the user the option of viewing the body at the end of the text. I felt like this type of interaction was fantastic, and rather than just providing information, engaged the visitor directly and was a great way of broaching questions that may not usually occur to visitors.

I’m looking forward to the next six weeks, and learning more about digital engagement in museums.

With such a fantastic collection, it’s exciting finding new ways of presenting it and helping visitors interact with objects