Museums enjoy digital remix

March 2011


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PAUL SWIFT says students are helping to blow the cobwebs off collections and letting museums loose through online technology.

Wikipedia describes a remix as “an alternative version of a song, made from an original version. This term is also used for any alterations of media other than song (film, literature, etc)”. In the spirit of remix, museums can play an important role in developing digital literacy skills while also encouraging engagement with collections. Museums must recognise the fact that in this digital environment it’s likely visitors and students will use museum collections in ways which may surprise, delight or even worry them a little bit.

There’s a shared responsibility between schools and museums to teach students the correct etiquette and copyright procedures, and also support and enable remix activities. Auckland Museum recently ran some remixing workshops for schools using digital editing software to remix some classic silent films. This was inspired by an exhibition at the museum exploring the work of pioneering New Zealand film maker Rudall Hayward. Working with copyright-free resources, stronger connections were made between the exhibition and the film making process while at the same time helping students to acquire or extend their digital literacy skills.

Museums could be described as being all about things and stuff. True, they contain amazing, awe-inspiring collections; objects and information helping us to learn about ourselves and the world we live in. Museums also display great treasures from around the world and they can help bring to life the history or habitat of a local community. This all sounds good and dare I say, educational; the transmission of authoritative knowledge to the visitor is a worthy aim.

But museums should do more than showcase the collected treasures and accepted wisdom of a society. Museums should also strive to be relevant to their varied audiences and be places where opinions are formed, shared and reshaped in line with new experiences and interactions that take place within a visit to a museum. It’s a learning environment – and should resonate with the directions for learning as identified in The New Zealand Curriculum’s vision, values and key competencies.

Teachers value what museums can offer. In England, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education and Skills, undertook a museum evaluation project in 2003 titled Inspiration, Identity, Learning: The Value of Museums. The project identified museums as “sites of enhanced achievement, going beyond what learners think they can do”. Teachers are recognising the wider learning potential of a museum visit – it’s not just about finding key facts and answers from a label or a museum curator. The multitude of reports produced in the UK over the last decade show 86 per cent of pupils aged 12 and above see museums as a good place to learn in a different way to school, and 64 per cent say a visit to a museum makes school work more inspiring. The 2006 report by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries – What did you learn at the museum today? – contains impressive statistics: 88 per cent of teachers expect to be exploring new ideas with their pupils as an outcome of a museum visit and 92 per cent anticipate an increase in thinking skills. The wider benefits of a physical visit to a museum are well recognised and valued by teachers.

But do teachers recognise the potential for museums to have an impact on students’ off-site learning? Many museums are now designing a web presence, encouraging exploration of museum collections and associated activities online. E-learning is certainly breaking down and changing the actual definition of a museum visit itself.

We live in a world of on-demand, instant access to an amazing range of resources which can be reached anywhere there is a computer or smartphone device and web portal. For example, through institutional websites such as or collaborative projects such as Digital New Zealand’s, students are able to visit and engage, share photos, read and comment on blogs, search databases, watch movies, play games and get creative with museum, library and archive collections at will.

The traditional barriers to visiting a

museum are being reduced – if you can’t attend an event at Auckland Museum you can watch it on the museum’s YouTube channel at at a more convenient time or together as a whole class. Te Papa now provides a free series of video conference sessions which allow experts to share their knowledge with schools

anywhere in the country as long as they can access video conferencing equipment


Recently a group of junior students from Papatoetoe High School and their teacher Gerard MacManus visited the Domain which surrounds Auckland Museum and participated in a geocaching activity (developed by Gerard). This year, strengthening the links between the physical building and its surrounding environment by exploring the potential of GPS (global positioning system) devices, is being considered.

There are some amazing, engaging and thought-provoking activities online today via museum websites. Brooklyn Museum’s excellent tagging activity at: is worth investigating. An image of a collection item appears on screen and you have to tag it with keywords that you think are relevant to the object. This may not sound that great, but once you realise that you’re involved in adding to the collective value of an object as your ideas and opinions are being recorded it suddenly becomes quite an important activity and an imaginative and engaging way to add a new dimension to The New Zealand Curriculum’s key competencies and values. What’s more, it’s fun, with a scoring system and competitive aspect too.

It is also important in the sense that it is evidence of a subtle shift from museums being places where knowledge is distributed out from, to places where knowledge is collected, co-created and shared.

The impact of mobile learning devices on a traditional museum visit is going to be huge. Imagine a group of students accessing a series of activities online via their phones in preparation for a visit then being encouraged to use their mobile cameras and recorders to collect and reflect upon their visit.

Perhaps they scan some QR codes from objects that interest them or carry out some on-the-spot research via a smartphone WiFi link so that they can build upon their understanding there and then, at the precise moment that they need that new piece of information or second opinion. Or maybe they’re not even in the museum – but out in the place where history actually happens, connecting up to evidence from museum collections in a contemporary environment.

Like a great old school tune remixed as a backing track for a rapper, museums are being remixed by the young people using them. Museums live on in the digital age.