Augmenting Living History: Experimenting with the Access App at Plimoth Plantation

Tags

blind and low vision; Crowdsourcing; living history; multi-sensory experience; quality of experience; performance-driven experience; Universal Design; verbal description

Abstract

This case study examines the unique challenges of building a meaningful, app-based audio experience for use at living history museums. Because the museum experience at sites such as Plimoth Plantation is not object-based, it is essential that any app complement and augment, rather than detract from, a museum experience that is already multi-sensory and performance driven.

Top Line Summary

Plimoth Plantation, an open air living history site, contributed the possibility for the Access App team to test and develop software in a cultural environment very different to that of a typical material culture-based museum. This case study looks at both the process and the differing environmental factors and associated visitor needs, and how both affected the development of the Access App.

About the Author

Jessica Rudden-Dube is a member of the Evaluation Team for the Access App project and Deputy Director of Media, Design and Collections for Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum.

Narrative

Plimoth Plantation’s interest in participating in the Access App project stemmed from its curiosity as to whether or not audiences visiting an outdoor, living history museum would universally benefit from independently accessing exhibit-related streaming audio content. The typical Plimoth visit is inherently challenging for many audiences: the rugged, coastal terrain, immersive museum theater performances, and rich, multi-sensory environment can hinder a variety of people, including those with language barriers or mobility limitations and those who are blind, low-vision, hearing-impaired, or living with sensory processing disorders. Plimoth Plantation has traditionally been a low-tech museum and does not currently offer assistive technology for its outdoor living history sites. As an institution, Plimoth Plantation encourages its visitors to disconnect from technology while visiting its sites—emphasizing an unplugged guest experience focused on its immersive, natural, outdoor environment—and has avoided the idea of implementing technology experiences for technology’s sake. Plimoth Plantation’s technology department adopts open-source software solutions whenever possible, and the Access App project’s potential to offer an open-source toolkit was appealing.

When the Access App project launched in 2014, Plimoth Plantation was primarily involved in basic audience research and focus groups. In establishing parameters for the app’s development, it became apparent that in order for the app to be viable at the outdoor museum it would need to work over a cellular data connection (not a Wi-Fi-only device) and be highly focused on specific, unchanging elements of a particular site or repeat performance. The organic, improvisational nature of the museum theater performance and the outdoor sites (often adjusted for visitation patterns based on the weather) leave too many variables for reliable crowdsourced descriptions; the resulting streaming audio could end up being confusing to guests who visit at a different time with different actors or under different weather conditions.

As different iterations of the app were released and underwent beta testing with small user-groups, the end users were just as interested in the functional experience of using the app itself as they were in creating and listening to content during a visit. Questions arose regarding the turnaround and availability of the user-generated content, options for the user to edit/amend their contributed recording, and if the user would have to download the app for each museum or if one app would feature multiple museums’ contributions (seemingly more efficient and more valuable to the end user).

As feedback from beta testing came in, the project team spent time clarifying and narrowing the focus of the project to explore whether or not the guest experience was enhanced with the addition of independently accessed streaming audio, and if so, which audio contributions were most helpful to the listener—those generated by curators or guests.

At the time of writing, Plimoth Plantation has chosen to focus the final round of beta testing in their outdoor colonial education site with a repeated combination of short museum theatre performances, scripted living history interpretation, and invariable outdoor structures. Content will be seeded by our curator and staff members, and the app will be downloaded prior to testing on three different devices to minimize technological hurdles. We will be evaluating the following:

  • Does independently accessed streaming audio positively augment the guest experience of a living history museum?
  • Does the content generated by other guests positively augment the guest experience?
  • Does curator-generated content positively augment the guest experience?
  • Does guest-generated streaming audio encourage the creation of additional guest-generated audio?
Observations

The living history museum environment creates a unique set of compounded environmental, interpretive, and content challenges. The varied, organic, and performance-based nature of the museum experience makes it difficult to ensure that the augmented content on the app remains relevant to our guests.

What I/we would do differently

If the museum were to embark on a project like this again, Plimoth Plantation would actively recruit self-identified audiences with potential barriers to content and experience for an evaluation visit. Most guests to Plimoth Plantation are members of group tours or school groups. Such structured, time-restricted visits do not provide an audience for beta testing/evaluating. Similarly, guests at the museum who are not visiting as part of a large group are more often than not visiting with family and friends. The ticket price for admission is quite high, and asking guests to interrupt their visit to participate in an evaluation is not a successful practice.

What I/we would not change

The opportunity to explore the implementation of independently accessed assistive technology at Plimoth Plantation is invaluable. The museum is beginning to implement a new interpretive plan, part of which focuses on increasing access to content for diverse audiences. The implementation of an app or other assistive technology is essential to the success of this new interpretive plan, with a focus on fostering independence during the user experience.  The Access App project has significantly shaped the way the museum is approaching this initiative.

Conclusion

The Access App project’s experimentation with augmenting a museum experience through independently accessed content opens the door for a wide range of conversations. It asks museum professionals to look broadly at the impact that technology has on museum guests with varied backgrounds and abilities and closely at the correlation between user-generated content and what moves guests to contribute to a museum initiative. While the results of the final beta test are yet to be seen, Plimoth Plantation has internalized the conversation that began with the Access App project and hopes to use best practices gained from this initiative in the museum’s implementation of assistive technology in the near future.