Museums and Heritage Show

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I went to the Museums and Heritage show on Wednesday. They claimed it was the biggest ever, and it was in a new venue, the West Hall, Olympia. When I used to exhibit, it was at the Royal Horticultural Society New Hall, near Victoria, Olympia is a little more out-of-the-way, with no direct tube service on weekdays (or if the the show is big enough, which M&H isn’t of course). If my train into London had stopped a Clapham Junction, there would have been a very quick Overground journey to Olympia, but it didn’t so I had to take the tube to Earls Court, and then a bus and a walk to Olympia.

Once there, the “out-of-the-way- ness” continues, as the entrance to West Hall is about as far from any of the main roads as its possible to be. Inside though, the hall was a comfortable size for the show, which had felt a little drowned by space in the Earls Court venue in recent years.

There were the usual stands from industry stalwarts: organisations like the AHI and GEM, exhibition designers like PLB and Hayley Sharpe; vitrine systems from the likes of ClickNetherfield and Conversation by Design, and all the retail product suppliers. But this year was all about the apps – stick a pin in the exhibition plan, and chances are, the stall you pick will be selling an app, or at the very least “a mobile web service that looks just like at app to your visitors.”  It’s the start-ups though, like Huntzz, which I feel sorry for. They think they’re bringing something new to the market, but I wonder what they felt as they walked around the other exhibitors, realizing that their USP isn’t as unique as they thought, and in fact their product isn’t very good either. To be fair, they have apparently sold to a number of clients, including Chatsworth, but I can’t see them surviving in the long term. ATS were one of the first on the app scene, and they took a sensible approach, using a combination of app and bulk-bought iPods to undercut the costs of proprietary audio guide systems. Now the big boys like Acoustiguide and the even bigger Antenna will sell you apps too, though I bet you’ll still get better value from some of the smaller companies.

Apps haven’t killed off proprietary audio hardware though. The trend in hardware is about small solid-state devices with simple interfaces for locative or interactive content. The DiscoveryPEN for example, reads barely visible micro-barcodes, others are activated by Infra-Red, or RFID. The GuideID collects information on the the visitor as well as providing interpretation, but no-one seems to be using visitor information to adapt content to better engage that individual.

There were two highlights of the show for me.

One is a lovely piece of tech that I had a application for as soon as I saw it. The info-point is a tiny self-contained wifi webserver, with a content management system. Load your interpretation text, pictures and video on to it, plug it in and leave it. Tell visitors to point their smartphone browser at it, and it will serve them the content you want, without using their data allowance, or requiring connection to your network. If it falls over for any reason, it reboots itself automatically. Its basically a Raspberry Pi, with a wifi dongle, and some open source software, so you could probably build one yourself for less than a hundred quid. But not everyone has the technical knowhow to do that, and it would take time, so for many sites, an off the self solution like this is well worth the investment. I emailed one of the properties I work with from the stand, because I knew this is just what they need.

The other exciting thing is Storyscope, the product of an EU funded research programme called decipher. Its a server based system that enables heritage professionals to work collaboratively on papers, guidebooks, exhibitions – both virtual and in the real world, and even, dare I say it, apps. Start with your collection: build your story, adding items from other collections as you go; pull in data from collections management systems; add your narrative; share you working; add stories from other professional and the public; edit it, and publish. And the system records every step, so there’s a record of every decision, and the links back to the CMS systems at your and other institutions. I’m involved in a project at the NT right now that would really benefit from a tool like this.

Oh, and one more thing, not a highlight exactly but a nice touch. I’ve had used roller banners more often than I care to remember. They are a necessary evil. The green printers, Seacourt, were showing a nice looking bamboo banner stand, and even the banner itself is made from bamboo fibre.