Taking you by the hand into the unknown: Raivis Sīmansons explains how the House of European History tablet was made

  • What is the background context for the decision to use a tablet as a central part of a visit to the House of European History?

In a museum which must communicate with its visitors in 24 languages, you couldn’t possibly imagine that there would be text on the wall! Our baseline understanding was that every single unit of information has to be presented in a digital format.

  • How does the tablet compare to other visitor tools in museums around the world?

Europe-wide, it is unlikely that another multimedia guide exists with the same volume of information. I stress the ‘multi’ part. It’s not just audio, it presents footage too. Elsewhere in the world there might be large museums which provide content in 20+ languages, but the multilingualism policy of the EU is a necessity that is to be applied whatever we do in terms of communication.

  • What’s your opinion on the final tablet as a visitor product?

In terms of its qualities, I think the guide is really well designed, due to a joint effort between content people, designers and developers. The end result is a great tour which takes you by the hand into the unknown. It’s almost like a cinema, where you can completely relax, because you know that every area will be introduced by the audio. You can also explore areas in more details, but without being forced to do so.

  • You say the tablet “takes people by the hand”, but in the museum you have to give visitors the freedom to explore sections on their own. How does the tablet achieve this?

It’s built into the structure of the device. We always give display texts recorded through the earpiece, which provide a global introduction into the area you have entered. After this you are given choices regarding which areas you want to delve into in more detail. You are also really welcome to tap on large audiovisual sections, which synch you with the recording, and tell you the story in a cinematic style.

  • In the background notes on the production of the tablet, a consultant talks about “bring your own device”, where visitors would use their smartphones as a guide even before they arrive to the museum, thus joining up an online with an onsite visit. What are your thoughts on this?

I’ve heard about downloadable applications from museums, and for the House of European History this is indeed something to think about in the future, as a supplementary digital offer. But we have to offer a permanent in-house device from our stock too.

  • Which stages were the most challenging aspects in the delivery of the tablet?

I think there was a huge logistical exercise to hire and assemble all the voice actors together for each of the 24 languages in cities across Europe, to do their recordings. Curators were also involved at this step,  helping with coordination and overseeing quality control on, for example, the pronunciation of words. In addition, the translation department of the European Parliament did phenomenal work with huge volumes of text. There was also a lot of bouncing back and forth between the design and development of the tablet, until we got to the required level of simplicity for the user-friendly interface.

  • How did you balance the showing of attractive audio-visuals on the tablet, with the physical visiting experience?

The balance is provided by the different scales of visuals. On the tablet you see a picture in a square, whilst in the museum you are immersed in a 3D environment of objects, graphics and multimedia. These two modes of experience, because they are well formatted, supplement rather than contradict each other. For example, in the area where we talk about the Welfare State, there are two interactive tables which you can manipulate data on the tablet and see the result immediately projected on a large interactive surface.

  • During the testing phase, 40 people from a range of backgrounds were given the tablet and interviewed on how they felt it operated. What sort of feedback did you receive and what changes were then made?

The prototype of the tablet was tested by representatives of various target groups. Their feedback was to make the interface more user-friendly, and to reconsider some of the functionalities. We are very grateful for the outcome of this cooperation. Thanks to the high professionalism of both the concept designer and developer of the device, not too much had to be changed! The company selected to produce the tablet, Nous, is a leading expert in the field, and had also produced a guide for the Parlamentarium too.

  • Looking to the future, what’s the next step to build on the successful delivery of the tablet?

I prefer first to extend the testing phase to see how the device is working. It’s also helpful to see how the target groups interact and appreciate the content and functionalities of the device. We haven’t received feedback from families with kids, or teachers yet – both of whom can access special functions. Nevertheless, as a contemporary history museum, we have to reflect upon current events and serve history ‘hot’, such as Brexit or the migration crisis. We expect political events of European significance to be happening, and we will integrate them into the tablet over time.

 

Raivis Sīmansons was interviewed by Wiilliam Parker-Jenkins for historia-europa.ep.eu 

Raivis Sīmansons

Muzeologs