New York Blog

February’s SoNYC: On Science and Social Media – The Museum and the iPad: how the Grant Museum is using social media to make us all curators

As part of Social Media Week, Nature London talked to Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, about QRator, the pioneering project the Grant Museum is working on to allow the public to engage with museum collections by contributing their own interpretations.Read on for more from Jack before Thursday, when you can tune into the live stream of “Beyond a Trend: Enhancing Science Communication with Social Media.” The panel, hosted by American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is the latest in the monthly series organized by Science Online NYC, aka SONYC.


Hello Jack, welcome to the Nature London blog. Can you tell us about the QRator project you’ve introduced to the Grant Museum?

QRator is a project that allows our visitors to get involved in conversations about the way that museums like ours operate and the role of science in society today. In the Museum are ten iPads which each pose a broad question linked to a changing display of specimens. We are really interested in what our visitors think about some of the challenges that managing a natural history collection brings up, and other issues in the life sciences. They change periodically, but at the moment our current questions include “Is it ever acceptable for museums to lie?”, “Is domestication ethical?”, “Should human and animal remains be treated differently in museums like this?” and “What makes an animal British?”

Visitors can respond on the iPads themselves, on their own smart phones by scanning a QR code (hence the name QRator), via Twitter using #GrantQR, or at home on their computers at www.qrator.org. In these ways they can input into our decision making process. Their comments go live immediately on the iPads and online, without being moderated by museum staff.

Not only is QRator a way of empowering visitors but it’s also a research programme – it was developed with a team of academic partners here at the University – the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) and the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (UCL DH). Museums are only just beginning to use this kind of technology – it’s a truly ground-breaking project – and having developed the software specifically for us, our partners are researching the way that museum visitors behave around it.

What inspired you to try the iPads in the first place?

The Museum moved into our current venue last year from a small cramped lab down a back-alley in the UCL campus. It had an incredible atmosphere which, following our visitors’ wishes we didn’t want to lose as we moved into our beautiful larger space. At the same time we wanted to be a demonstrably 21stcentury museum, engaging visitors in the ways described above and being innovative with our practices. Working with CASA and UCL DH we decided on iPads as they are discrete enough not to detract from the incredible atmosphere we have here in the way that some computer interactives can, and they are intuitive to use. More importantly, museums had never used them before. To our knowledge, we were only the second museum in the world to employ iPads permanently in displays, and the first to use them for visitor participation.

 How are visitors engaging with them?

There’s been a great response from our visitors – they have left thousands of answers to the questions. One major thing that we didn’t anticipate is that people are also using them as a kind of digital visitors book. As well as getting involved in the conversations, people are letting us know their thoughts on the Museum in general and what they like or dislike about many of our specimens. The jar of moles gets a lot of mentions. This has become a great way for visitors to point things out to each other without us telling them what we think they should see.

Can people who can’t get to the Grant Museum at the moment participate at all?

Absolutely. Everything that is on the iPads is also on www.qrator.org– if you comment online it goes live on the iPad and vice versa.

Are you pleased with how it’s going?

Definitely. It was a big risk – we didn’t know if the hardware could stand up to this kind of use, and allowing visitors to comment without moderating beforehand is something museums very rarely do (though there is an expletives filter), but it’s been a real success. We’ve also had huge amount of interest from colleagues in other museums around the world wanting to know what we’ve learnt from it and whether they can create something similar for their visitors.

What are you hoping to do next with this project?

The big next step is to start putting our visitors’ responses into practice, and for the ones that are more broadly about the life sciences to disseminate what they’ve said more widely. We are constantly exploring what we can do next in this field – broadening the ways that people can respond.

Do you think social media is going to be very important to museums and outreach departments of universities in the future?

There’s no doubt it will be. It would be clichéd to say that more and more people are accessing information through these platforms, but it’s true. Museums are certainly upping their game, and the best examples are those that aren’t all about marketing. Building on the lessons we learnt with QRator at the Grant Museum, The Imperial War Museum is developing its new gallery with what they are calling “social interpretation” – it uses the social media model for visitors to participate digitally with the way their displays are interpreted. It’s a really interesting model and the time is now for museums to be experimenting with this kind of concept.

You can visit the Grant Museum and experience the QRator project for yourself at Rockefeller Building, 21 University Street, London WC1E 6DE. The Museum is open to the public free of charge Monday – Friday 1-5pm. Research and group visits are available by advance booking on weekdays 10am-1pm.

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