Through a glass darkly: museum, memory and senses

A project examining how sensory and digital displays can create a more inclusive approach to museum collections is the subject of this guest blog post from Rebecca Sweetman, Professor of Ancient History and Archaeology, and Alison Hadfield, Learning and Access Curator, Museum Collections Unit, both at University of St Andrews.

Torpedo amphora model
Participants taking part in memory experiments

Museums and digital provision
As society rapidly changes, museums are playing an increasingly important role in the health and wellbeing of communities. Museums have responded to the rapid changes and to the increasing emphasis on inclusivity by providing digital displays and interactive opportunities. However, as yet, little empirical research has been undertaken on what the value of digital displays in the museum is for a variety of visitors, and we would argue that there are many missed opportunities for enabling museums to provide a more inclusive and holistic approach to the communities in which they are located.

The Bridges Collection, University of St Andrews
In 1994 Mrs Margaret Bridges, a Fife resident, donated a collection of Cypriot archaeological material to the University of St Andrews, which now forms part of the University’s Heritage Collections (A Recognised Collection of National Significance). The artefacts range in date from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine period and include pottery vessels, lamps, figurines and votive offerings, as well as some bronze and glass objects. These artefacts provide fascinating glimpses into the ancient world – from trade, technology and consumption to burial, beliefs and artistic expression. The collection is used extensively for hands-on teaching within the University’s School of Classics, the wider community and schools, inspiring poems and competitions. This everyday collection is important because it helps visitors to understand ordinary objects from daily life, as well as the extraordinary ‘treasures’ so often displayed in museums.

Digitisation and Sketchfab
In order to raise awareness of and widen access to the Bridges collection, as well as for conservation purposes, the School of Classics and the Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA) launched a collaborative project in 2016. This project created and provided online access to 3D digital models of artefacts in the Bridges collection using Sketchfab. (Our guide to the creation of simple 3D images and to Sketchfab is available here).

Sketchfab bridges collection
The Bridges Collection on Sketchfab

Research on material culture: interpretation and memory
A key research component of the digitisation project was to test perceptions of material culture as experienced in different formats: in a glass case, as 3D digital reproductions, or through blind touch of replicas and hands on originals. One of the most striking observations was that with each sensory experience introduced, visitors became more engaged with the experience and began to consider a wider range of interpretations of the artefacts. Handling original artefacts was the most popular activity for the majority of participants, due to its multisensory nature.

Participant at glass case
Participant at glass case

To build on these initial results, we wanted to test whether or not there were differences in the way visitors remembered salient information about the material culture, depending on the way in which they experienced it. To this end, we collaborated with Dr Akira O’Connor (School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews) to run a number of memory experiments. These involved showing participants 15 objects divided into three different viewing conditions (glass case, 3D digital and handling originals). The objects were displayed with short labels giving the name, date and a single piece of factual information. Participants were then presented with 30 images in test conditions and asked to indicate any items they recognised from prior viewing. They were then asked to recall any associated information about the artefacts they recognised. The results can be summarised as follows:

  • There were no major differences between viewing conditions at a basic object recognition level, in which participants were asked to identify whether they had seen an object before, and to pick out correct information from multiple choice options (very high accuracy across all conditions: 90%).

    Participants chatting at feely box
    Participants chatting at ‘feely box’
  • In the more demanding ‘free recall’ tasks when participants were asked to state any information they could remember about the artefacts, object handling led to significantly higher recall completeness  (28%) than virtual manipulation (23%), with glass case presentation resulting in intermediate recall completeness (26%). This is the first analysis to show a difference in memory driven by viewing condition.
  • Some types of label information were recalled more readily: descriptions were the most memorable (35%), followed by object names (33%) with dates proving far more difficult to remember (9%).
  • Differences between experts and non-experts were only seen in the more demanding recall tasks, with experts retrieving significantly more information than those without previous archaeology experience (29% and 22% respectively).

These results have helped to support our initial argument that the provision of a range of media is likely the most important means of maximising visitor enjoyment and understanding. Importantly, providing a range of media will also enable a more inclusive approach to visitor engagement in museums. Research on dementia has shown the importance of new experiences, interactions and investigations for people with early and middle-stage dementia in helping to restrain the development of the disease. We have begun to consolidate our memory and sensory research into packages for museum curators, comprising of the results of our work and suggestions for making museums even more accessible. We hope that this will have significant implications for the role of museums in the health and well being of communities.