Stepping into the main gallery at Brighton Museum is like entering an oasis of calm.
Couples talk in low voices as they pull open drawers and peer into cabinets. Teenagers whisper to their classmates to ask what they’re supposed to do here. Grandparents distract children with centuries worth of artefacts from the museum’s peculiar assembly of objects and paintings.
The challenge of Gift – how to use the idea of ‘virtual museums’ to extend the reach of museum collections – started with understanding some of the value that visitors find in coming to spaces like Brighton Museum. And some of the issues.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager at Brighton Museum, observes that whereas some digital projects envision adding to the museum experience, the issue for many visitors is already: ‘too much content’. In the context of a daily tide of app notifications and digital updates, one argument for the appeal of museums is the potential they offer for quiet focus; away from the attention seeking swell of people’s phones.
‘Selfie’ aware exhibits and even entire museums that set out to provide photogenic Instagram backdrops have become increasingly popular. In contrast, Gift was inspired by the research work of Leslie Fosh at the University of Nottingham. Fosh explored the more private practice of making personalised gifts for loved ones, and how this could transform the experience of visiting a gallery. Fosh experimented with a process of personally guiding visitors around a gallery; working with each visitor to combine music, instructions and text to create a highly personal interpretation of the exhibition for them to give to a friend or loved one.
Gift takes this model of focusing on the personal and attempts to translate this care and attention to the act of creating an experience to your phone; setting a steady pace, and guiding your attention.
In this shift to the personal, visitors are given a license to dispense with the unspoken orthodoxy of museums as sites of self-improvement; where the feeling that we should be learning something can overwhelm us with where to begin. Instead, Gift introduces a mission which is much closer to home; inviting visitors to ask of the artefacts: “Would this object be interesting to someone I love?”
Ironically, we’ve found that this focus on the personal can lead to a deeper relationship with the objects that are chosen. And even with ones that aren’t. One person testing a prototype of the app apologised for not creating a gift, having spent their time reading all the labels on the displays and reflecting on their relevance to the person they’d chosen.
Making Gift and seeing people use it at Brighton Museum has been a pleasure this year. We hope you have a chance to enjoy it too.
A redeveloped version of Gift is currently showing in the Green Zone at COP26 and is available to present. Read more about the project here.