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People First for China’s Smart Museums

Embedding technology in the cultural heritage experience

China’s national Smart Museum Pilot Initiative was launched by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) at the end of 2014, aiming to encourage the use of technology in cultural heritage. It aimed to do this to improve collection management, conservation, audience engagement, operational processes and the visitor experience.

SACH is an administration underneath the Ministry of Culture, one of the ministries and commissions under the State Council, and is responsible for both state and privately funded museums. It works on the drafting of museum sector rules and regulations, takes on a guiding and coordinating role within China’s system of public cultural services, and promotes the development of technology and digitisation.

Six museums were selected across the nation to join the pilot project. These include Inner Mongolia Museum, Gansu Museum, Guangdong Museum, Suzhou Museum, Jinsha Site Museum (an archaeological site in Sichuan) and Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Park (an archaeological site in Shaanxi Province).

The Smart Museum

The initiative initially took shape over the course of a series of meetings on the topic of digital in museums. At the outset, the focus was on the internet of things in museums, which developed into ideas around the Digital Museum, and finally settled on the concept of the Smart Museum. The Digital Museum was an expression of the sector’s focus on technology itself, rather than on how to use technology to provide a more informative and engaging visitor experience.

In contrast, the Smart Museum focuses on the relationship between people and digital technology, in order to enhance how people interact with museum exhibitions. Technology itself is therefore no longer the core, but an important tool that helps to bring people back to the centre of museum operations.

Funding support was allocated according to each museum’s development plan, and could be up to 10 million Yuan per museum. University based R&D teams were commissioned to provide technical support, and a museum sector steering group was appointed to oversee and inspect project progress. This shows a desire to work across industries and engage academics in the same vein as the UK’s Digital Art’s R&D fund.

Each museum took a different approach. At Jinsha Site Museum, the focus was on audiences and using digital technology to enhance the visitor experience. The Museum developed a mobile app, distributed through its website, with embedded augmented reality technology. When installed, visitors can view what the site may have looked like 3,000 years ago on their mobile screens. At Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Park the aim is to apply technology to better protect and monitor the archaeological site itself. Suzhou Museum has been working on building digital systems around object protection and restoration, as well as the management of resources, exhibition guides, exhibition space, the website and commercial products.

A people-centred approach

China’s museum sector lags behind others in the application of technology. Some museum professionals have suggested that this may be due, in part, to slower mechanisms for taking action within the state funded sector. Additionally, the initial burst of activity around digitisation within the cultural sector focused too much on the technology itself, and the results were therefore not integrated into museums’ wider objectives.

In recent years the idea of being people-centred has become increasingly recognised in the museum sector, not only with regards to the application of technology, but also in exhibition design and audience development. The SACH Smart Museum Pilot Initiative reflects this shift, and in so doing supports these pilot museums in testing out a new approach.

These findings come from our work on the opportunities for collaboration between Chinese and UK cultural organisations - get in touch to learn more.

- Lucy Minyo and Yunzhen Yang, BOP China