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2 Design Process

Virtual handling of museum artefacts lies within a complex context of different professional practices, technological development and end-user needs. As part of the Science and Heritage programme funded by EPSRC-AHRC, Linda Hurcombe led an international project bringing researchers from different disciplines into a networking cluster focused on Touching the Untouchable: increasing access to archaeological artefacts by virtual handling.

It was therefore appropriate to adopt a design led user-centred approach that would bring the many experts involved in a creative dialogue. The interaction technique we present in this paper was one of the outcomes of two design-led workshops that took place for two days each over the period of six months. Many of the key-issues that are related to curatorial practice and technological development were described and discussed in the first workshop, and prototype ideas were developed and presented in a second workshop six months later. From the first meeting of this group it was evident that there were multiple issues faced by the heritage sector and many potential ideas for solutions.

The workshops involved 26 participants from 19 institutions and 6 countries. Disciplines included archaeology, conservation and curation together with art and interaction design, computer science and haptic human-computer interfaces. Representatives from small and national museum collections, artifact specialists, the National Trust, Historic Palaces, the Royal National Institute for the Blind attended and all presented different points of emphasis offering a richly textured insight into professional practices. The transdisciplinary nature of the first workshop allowed key issues to be raised and discussed from a plethora of perspectives, while design sessions involved participants in collaborative hands-on work and cultivated a number of ideas that were developed as first prototypes and evaluated in the second workshop.

On the first day participants gave short position presentations on their work and the key issues as they saw them. There were also demonstrations of museum specimens and haptic technology. The second day consisted of a plenary session where stakeholders discussed a broad range of themes and opportunities arising from the previous day. Topics included haptic device capabilities, archaeology research agendas, curation and end users and the potential benefits of virtual handling.

Key issues that were raised included:

Haptic installations may deflect interest away from the ancient items on show both physically and conceptually.

The technology for virtual touch needs not to overwhelm its physical setting e.g. a museum gallery and must be able to cope with the visitor numbers (i.e. size of machine, noise, ease of use)

Can haptic experiences get away from the computer desktop?

Products and solutions could be expected to be diverse according to the kind of user and their setting. Rapid-prototyping could be explored for its practical issues and scope.

Financial mechanisms for public display varied and virtual technologies need to be assessed against the robustness of device and costs to set up and expertise to maintain them.

The focus of the present paper is on two of many more prototypes which were developed in response to these key issues and which were presented in the second workshop for testing and evaluation. They were well received by the stakeholders and after some corrections were made, they were deployed and evaluated in two museums: the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall. These evaluations and prototypes flowed from the first networking grant which pursued them to proof of concept stage. More recent work was undertaken as part of a second grant also led by Hurcombe within the Science and Heritage programme which allowed them along with some of the other ideas to be given more extensive public trials and development. The full range of installations developed is covered elsewhere [17] but here the focus is on one famous object presented in two contrasting ways.

 
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