Creating Dynamic Digital Trails: Content Design and Interpretation

Melissa Langdon, Western Australian Museum, Australia


This workshop invites participants to consider key content design and interpretative principles involved in creating dynamic digital trails. The session will refer to the conceptual design of "Secrets of the Maritime Museum" – a digital trail delivered on Apple iPad Minis using 360º animation, film and illustration to bring to life 12 different objects from the Western Australian Museum's collection. Key principles guiding content creation and interpretation will be discussed, including notions of participation, empowerment, engagement and co-creation. The humanisation of collection items as "social objects" will also be explored. Similarly, the use of objects as triggers for the sharing of secret stories and curatorial anecdotes with visitors will be examined. In the second part of the workshop, participants will be supported to create storyboards for digital trails that interpret stand-out objects from their museum’s collection. They will be encouraged to consider a wide range of media formats including animation, film, art, photography, archival footage, text and sound. Key questions posed will include: how can a museum item be presented as a social object that encourages the sharing of essentially human stories? Can objects be interpreted in ways that reveals the museum and showcase the knowledge, experiences and skills of those working behind the scenes? What are some of the creative approaches that can be taken? And, are there are any secrets about the objects that can be shared? Participants will have the opportunity to ask questions and find out more about the challenges and opportunities that come from creating digital trails of discovery.

Keywords: Engagement, Interpretation, Co-creation, Participation, Digital Technology, Museums


This paper explores the critical ideas supporting the conceptualisation of the Western Australian Museum’s Secrets of the Maritime Museum digital trail. The aim of the project was to bring to life 12 different objects from our collection using a range of experimental formats and technologies. Strong principles of participation, co-creation and engagement informed the content design. The notion of museum collection items functioning as social objects was another powerful idea that we explored. Through this project, we sought to “reveal the museum” through involving staff working behind the scenes. At the same time, we wanted to provide visitors with greater access to our collections through providing new opportunities for interaction and engagement.

Technical realisation

Secrets of the Maritime Museum was delivered using Apple iPad Minis. For the story formats, a wide range of media was incorporated including archival photographs, historic maps, oral history recordings, illustrations and film. In technical terms, our team experimented with location technologies, dynamic text, 2D and 3D animation, photo capture and augmented reality, and used unexpected formats to tell stories. For example, one story The Evolution of the Whale featured a voiceover from a prominent Museum scientist explaining evolutionary processes. The audio was visually complemented with a contemporary dance by the sea that was uniquely choreographed for this story. In choosing diverse formats, technologies and storytelling methods for this project, our Engagement team wanted to create a digital trail that was highly original, imaginative and captivating for visitors.

Principles of participation

Strong principles of participation were at the heart of Secrets of the Maritime Museum. In determining which objects to interpret, we consulted with a range of staff and came up with a list of their favourite collection items. To encourage visitor participation in processes of content development, we built a feedback form into the trail, which invited them to reflect on their experience, nominate their favourite stories, and suggest additional elements for future trails. We were also keen to maximise the tactile and interactive elements of the devices, so as to provide opportunities for individual experience and response. For example, for one story we used photo capture technology to allow visitors to “try on” famous examples of pearl jewellery ranging from Dali’s Ruby Lips brooch to Cleopatra’s single pearl earring. Visitors were able to have their photo taken wearing the jewellery, and have the image emailed to them social media sharing. This worked to the extend visitor’s experience beyond the Museum’s walls.

In seeking to provide opportunities participation and co-creation, our team sought address some of the most common visitor complaints, as expressed by Nina Simon in her 2010 text The Participatory Museum:

  1. Cultural institutions are irrelevant to my life.
  2. The institution never changes – I’ve visited once and I have no reason to return.
  3. The authoritative voice of the institution doesn’t include my view or give me context for understanding what’s presented.
  4. The institution is not a creative place where I can express myself and contribute to history, science, and art.
  5. The institution is not a comfortable social place for me to talk about ideas with friends and strangers.

In consulting with staff in the content creation phase, we were able to share and respond to their stories, and facilitate more personal and meaningful visitor experiences that countered some of the concerns identified by Simon.

Revealing the museum

From seeking advice from experts in our collections and research areas, through to asking for input from staff ranging from volunteers to the CEO, our ambition was to make Secrets of the Maritime Museum a collaborative project that also served to “reveal our museum”. In taking this approach, we wanted to humanise the site and generate organisation-wide support and investment in the project. This method supports Simon’s vision that museums should function as personalised and essentially “human” spaces, “where visitors and staff members share their personal interests and skills with each other” (Simon, 2010) and places where “each person’s actions are networked with those of others into cumulative and shifting content for display, sharing, and remix” (Simon, 2010).

In approaching the complex and sensitive topic of immigration and asylum seeking for the story “Secrets in my Suitcase”, for example, we invited a staff member to relay her stories of being a child refugee. However, the approach we took was very different to our standard content development practice. We set up a workshop with children who created illustrations in response to the staff member’s account. In the final story, we included a voiceover from the staff member that was visually complemented with images of the children drawing, and close-ups on their completed works. This approach effectively “revealed the museum” through giving our organisation a human face. It was also the first time that we had invited primary school children to be part of our content development process, and while it was enriching for them it also allowed us to address and make accessible a very difficult topic. As Barbara Piscitelli notes in her article “What’s driving children’s cultural participation?”

[t]he growth of children and young people as cultural participants and as cultural decision makers is an important new phenomenon. Children and young people form a strong and significant part of the population. As citizens, children and young people have rights to form ideas and to express them through various media, and to participate in social and cultural life (Piscitelli, 2011).

Social objects

The locational alignment of “Secrets in my Suitcase” with a gangway at the Maritime Museum added a powerful social element to the object. Jyri Engeström (2005) uses the term “social objects” to encourage us to think of objects as being ways for people to identify with and relate to each other. In her discussion of social objects Simon invites us to “imagine looking at an object not for its artistic or historical significance but for its ability to spark conversation.” (2010) Similarly, to complement an exhibit about World War One, we developed a story that incorporated an oral history testimony from an Australian woman, Doreen Richardson. As a young woman experiencing the war, Richardson recounted what life was like on the home front.

In choosing the account of an everyday woman rather than a celebrated military figure, we wanted to counter the tendency to tell war stories from typically male, authoritative perspectives. This narrative instead focuses on important social practices from the time: signing around the piano, listening to jazz, and dancing with friends. The inclusion of artistic illustrations and dynamic text offers an alternative critical framework for considering war and its affects. Through an interpretative approach centred on key social elements, this story encourages visitors to connect with this topic on a more personal and affective level.


Another key practice that has informed this project’s development is the principle co-creation. As Govier (2010) writes, “this means working with our audiences (both existing and new) to create something together: it could be meaning or interpretation; a space or exhibition; an online resource or collective response – there are many possibilities.” Despite criticism of co-creation from commentators like Josie Appleton, who argues that “[m]useums should stick to what they do best – to preserve, display, study and where possible collect the treasures of civilisation and of nature (Appleton, 2001), this project greatly benefitted from the involvement of internal and external stakeholders in content creation.

As previously discussed, in developing Secrets of the Maritime Museum project we sought input and advice from over 30 stakeholders that were both internal and external to our organisation. However, as Govier (2010) observes, “co-creation is also an area of museum work that is fraught with practical and philosophical difficulties, and one where achievements in reality may fall short of ideals”. Govier notes that museums need to design for participation, arguing that “asking people to start with a blank canvas may seem like the ultimate in democratic gestures, but is in fact a real barrier for most people, and may not be that helpful in the end.” (Govier, 2010).

One of the challenges we faced in developing Secrets of the Maritime Museum was being willing to relinquish elements of control over the project. For us, this meant giving our external design team significant creative freedom when it came to formats and presentation. For this project, we had wanted to experiment with and showcase new technologies such as 3D animation and augmented reality. This required some experimentation, and we often had to compromise when for technical or practical reasons what we originally wanted was not possible. This required our project team to be open-minded when it came to the visualisation stage. It also meant that we needed to have some flexibility with the budget and project schedule. For example, for one story that explored the architectural design of the Maritime Museum, we had originally envisaged a 3D animated picture book format. Due to time, budget and technical constraints, the designers came up with a completely different idea: a marionette stage. Needless to say, we loved what they presented.


Strong principles of participation, co-creation and engagement informed the content development for our digital trail Secrets of the Maritime Museum. The idea of collection items operating as social objects was another powerful idea explored. Commencing this project with an agreed set of interpretative values to guide the content development was the key to delivering a project that effectively engaged and involved staff, and generated meaningful experiences for visitors of all backgrounds. Through establishing this clear framework we have provided scope for the development of future trails. Fundamentally, this project has highlighted the need for critical interpretation and engagement principles to underscore digital content design.



Ana Doria Buchan, Western Australian Museum

Campbell Whyte, Western Australian Museum

Lauren Fletcher, Hungry Sky

Nick Lowe, Hungry Sky

Minh Tran, Hungry Sky


Appleton, J. (2001). “Museums for ‘the people’?” In S. Watson (ed.) Museums and their communities. London: Routledge.

Engeström, J. (2008). Social objects: What beach balls and potatoes can teach us about social Networks. Consulted August 14, 2015.

Govier, L. (2010). Leaders in co-creation? Why and how museums could develop their co-creative practice with the public, building on ideas from the performing arts and other non-museum organisations. Leicester: University of Leicester.

Parry, R. (2007). Recoding the museum: Digital heritage and the technologies of change. London: Routledge.

Piscitelli, B. (2011). “What’s driving children’s cultural participation?” In D. Griffin and L. Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology. Consulted August 12, 2014.

Simon, N. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0.

Watson, S. (2007). Museums and their Communities. London: Routledge.


Cite as:
. "Creating Dynamic Digital Trails: Content Design and Interpretation." MWA2015: Museums and the Web Asia 2015. Published July 13, 2015. Consulted .