Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

The GIFT Project – webapp makes playlists

A visitor tests out the GIFT app at the Royal Pavilion and Museums in Brighton, England.

Nicholas Jarrett & Kevin Bacon, The GIFT project: Museums of the future tap into the GIFT app,

As part of our series spotlighting the GIFT project, we take a moment with the Royal Pavilion & Museums in Brighton, UK. They’ve spent three years working with GIFT project partners Blast Theory, helping to test the GIFT web app in a live museum setting. In this article Digital Manager, Kevin Bacon shares his perspective on GIFT and museums of the future.

This article was first published on the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery website on 31 May 2019.

Why we’ve been testing GIFT

The best way to explain the GIFT web app is that it’s like making a playlist or a mixtape for someone, except with objects from a museum instead of music tracks. Basically, you can pick any object in the museum and use your smartphone to create a digital gift for someone you care about. I think it has huge potential in rethinking the way digital technology can shape a museum visit. Most visitors come to our museums with relatives, partners, friends, or as part of a group. For these people, the museum visit is clearly a social experience. Yet this is often overlooked by digital offerings in museums, which are designed for a solitary user. Audio guides speak directly into an individual’s ears; interactive touchscreens can usually only be used by one person at a time. These technologies can be effective ways of providing more content to visitors, but they often rub against the grain of the social experience, resulting in a low uptake.

On the surface, GIFT does much the same: the visitor uses their mobile phone to create and share content in a solitary way. But because it is so rooted in the practice of creating and sending gifts, it can enhance the museum’s social experience. A gift could be sent to a friend in another gallery of the museum, who is then encouraged to seek out the shared exhibit. It can even be shared with someone outside of the museum, so that they can enjoy their gift at home, and possibly visit the museum themselves in the future.

GIFT vs Social

You could argue that GIFT is simply replicating what social media platforms already enable. Thousands of people every year are creating and sharing photos of their museum using familiar tools such as Facebook and Instagram. Why should any museum visitor use a new application like GIFT for this purpose? There are several answers to this question, but for me there are two powerful reasons why GIFT can enable a much richer experience.

A 19th-century study of a dog’s head.

Social media channels like Twitter and Facebook are based on a model of the one speaking to the many. This changes the way people communicate. When you compose a tweet, you are likely thinking of the tens, hundreds, or thousands of followers you might have, and will shape your language accordingly (for better or worse). Whether you’re showing off, being cautiously diplomatic, purposely aggressive, or conspicuously polite, the way you communicate will be inherently performative. As a result, these channels are not ideal for communicating more nuanced messages, or sharing ideas that only make sense within more intimate relationships. If you spot a painting that reminds you of a long-deceased aunt’s dog, is Instagram the best place to share that with your cousin?

Although platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger enable the sharing of rich content through private groups, these messages become part of a feed. As these feeds are often noisy, even a thoughtfully crafted message will quickly get lost on a long timeline. By turning an ephemeral message into a gift, Blast Theory’s GIFT app taps into the long-established practice of museum visitors acquiring souvenirs of their experience.

Postcards of the future

GIFT reminds me of a much older form of social technology: the postcard. The development of the postcard in the early 1900s was a stepping stone to how we communicate with social media today, as they enabled rapid communication through images and short-form text. Unlike social media, however, postcards were designed for one-to-one communication, and this encouraged the use of them for more personal and intimate communications. Take this 1905 example from our collections:

Aside from enabling rapid and personalised communication, people often kept postcards, as souvenirs and mementos of places and people. That is why this postcard, and thousands of others, have ended up in our collections. (We have over 7,000 in our collections, including 1,000 that you can view and download online.)

For all its speed and ease of use, digital media is not very good at providing long-lasting mementos of shared experiences. GIFT gets as close as any digital medium I have seen to recapturing what has made postcards so popular for over a century.

What’s next?

We’ve extended the run of the GIFT web app at Brighton Museum until 6 October 2019, and the feedback received from visitors will inform the future of the app. By showing that digital technology can be used to reframe the social experience of the museum visit, and not simply provide a conduit for more content about the displays, GIFT already shows a new direction of travel. Even if it does not create the museum of the future, it may very well provide a postcard for the Instagram generation.

If you can’t visit Brighton you can test the apps developed as part of GIFT and hear more about the project at Europeana 2019 this autumn. On Wednesday 27 November, members of the GIFT project will spend the day showcasing the tools – you can get involved by booking your ticket to Europeana 2019. I’ll be there and will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

To find out more about the project and to download tools and apps please visit the GIFT project. Plus you can tune in here for more of Kevin’s perspective on GIFT.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Mr Brian Oldman, South Australian Museum PO Box 234 Adelaide, South Australia 5001 Australia, © CAMD 2022
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