GLAM agencies and the accidental tourist – Part 1

Sep 13, 2016 | Best practice, Digital reinvention, emerging trends, GLAM sector, Libraries, new technology

Have you ever tried to explore a library or gallery collection without a specific goal in mind? If so, you’ll know that it can be an underwhelming experience. Conventional catalogue systems are designed for a specific audience that knows what it wants.

That leaves the curious, serendipitous explorer without an easy entry point from which to begin their voyage. But that is beginning to change.

In a world where emerging technologies offer the potential for truly immersive experiences, it is increasingly important that collecting agencies recognise the opportunities that now exist to capitalise upon the content that they hold.

For this to happen, institutions also need to move on from the idea that access is enough, and take advantage of digital technologies to create new types of experiences to visitors that they haven’t met yet – and who don’t know what they want.

The good news for explorers is that progressive agencies in the GLAM sector are doing just that.

Agencies are using a range of emerging digital technologies to craft new, experience-based discovery interfaces that give new power to the accidental tourist and inspire entirely new audiences in the process.

What is a collecting agency?

The role of collecting agencies is not widely understood outside of the GLAM sector and academic circles. Galleries, museums, State and many larger public libraries, and the public archives in each state hold rich, varied and in many cases irreplaceable collections of historical items.

These collections hold content that can bring the hidden history of a place and people to life. Believe me, I know. I have spent hours (or maybe days) exploring old maps, photos and documents without any specific outcome in mind beyond the joy of finding old images that reframe the way I see a place or an event.

These are voyages of accidental exploration. They have no specific target, and they do not support an academic argument or research hypothesis; they are simply unstructured, fascinating voluntary freefalls down the historical rabbit hole.

To date, collecting agencies have struggled to understand users like me. This is in part because until recently agencies used closed catalogue systems that provided had no real way to address the needs of the serendipitous explorer.

Catalogue systems are tracking and retrieval devices – designed to provide efficient access to specific things. With millions of items to track, that’s exactly what you want them to do. But the process of discovery feels more like inventory management and doesn’t work so well if you don’t know what you want.

However, digital technology, the growing body of digitised collection material and the shifting priorities of the catalogue vendors are changing that – laying the foundation for a technology ecosystem that lends itself well to this kind of curious grazing, and emergent technologies promise more and more immersive experiences.

Happily for me (and possibly for you) there are lots of these experiences for explorers beginning to emerge. As a general rule they are largely visual, sometimes tactile, and increasingly immersive. Importantly, they require no previous experience to operate. They are simply there to provide an entry point into the richness of the collections and inspire you to dive in.

Exploration experiences that inspire

Here are 4 very different ways that agencies are creating new exploration experiences using emerging technology. There will be more to follow in coming articles…

1.The Cube – QUT – View the website 


Close to home, the Cube is a remarkable collection of touchscreen technology and projected surfaces. The end result is a rich, engaging collection of interactive experiences that are playful, educational and easy to connect with.

2.Street History Hoddles Grid mobile app – State Library Victoria – View the website 


Street History – Hoddle’s Grid is a location aware mobile app that features 300 locations in CBD Melbourne. It uses the user’s location within the city to display images of surrounding buildings as they were a century or more earlier and tells their unique stories in image and text. The app uses the library’s historical photo collection.

1.New York Hall of Science – Connected Worlds – View the website 


This beautiful, responsive animated world designed by Design I/O contains 6 habitats worlds: jungle, desert, wetlands, river valley, reservoir, and grasslands. Each has its own trees, plants, and animals but a common water supply. Each visitor’s actions – gestures, movements, and decisions – impact how well the world is kept in balance. (image:

4.Illinois Holocaust Museum – Interactive survivor experience – View the website 


This interactive exhibition is an amazing example of digital storytelling. Capturing and recounting the experiences of holocaust survivor, Pinchas Gutter, the exhibition provides an interactive experience between a live audience and a remarkably lifelike hologram-like display. Interviews with Mr. Pinchas were recorded using more than 100 cameras and sophisticated language recognition software was developed to interpret audience questions.

The result is an intimate, personal and very human Q&A style interaction where Mr. Pinchas can continue to tell his story and engage with future generations. Based on the success of this exhibition, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center plans to extend the experience to build an immersive, engaging, and empowering visitor experience through its Survivor Stories Theater, interactive Upstander Gallery, and an action-oriented Take A Stand Lab. (image: Ron Gould Studios)

It’s an exciting era for collectors and explorers. Institutions have an opportunity to step beyond simple access, and, like the examples above use technology to enable rich experiences that inspire and encourage the accidental tourist.