Articles

Helping share WA Museum Boola Bardip’s ‘many stories’

Young woman holding a mobile device and wearing headphones in a space with colourful poles behind her.

Ahead of its opening in November 2020, WA Museum Boola Bardip needed a site-wide digital platform and mobile guide that could seamlessly integrate with its significant collection database and deliver interactive visitor experiences. Experience design and creative technology company Art Processors met the brief during a challenging year, with the Gogo app this month announced as a finalist in the 2021 MAPDA Awards.

Western Australia is enormous. Occupying around 33% of the Australian continent, it is 12 times bigger than the UK, four times the size of Texas, and bigger than Western Europe.

The area's long human history reaches back more than 60,000 years to when Aboriginal people inhabited what is now called Western Australia. The State's immense natural resources include 11 of the 14 biggest gold mines globally and the most extensive temperate woodland remaining on Earth, The Great Western Woodlands. The State also contains some of Australia's largest desert regions and a coastline that runs for 20,788km (including islands).

How do you present this treasure trove of human history and natural wonder inside one museum? 

The Western Australian Museum set out to do just that with its newest museum site and a complementary digital platform, created by Art Processors, to help visitors experience it all.

'Many stories'

The WA Museum Boola Bardip opened in the Perth Cultural Centre on November 21, 2020. The $400 million museum project took four years and was designed and built by Multiplex, Hassell + OMA. It includes eight new permanent galleries, a 1000sqm special exhibition gallery, life-long learning studios, retail, café and public spaces.

Boola Bardip means 'many stories' in the Whadjuk Noongar language and recognises the significant role First Peoples play in WA's shared cultural heritage. As the Museum's website proudly proclaims, the Museum is "a place to share Western Australia's many stories. Our people, our places and our role in the world."

Endowed with a spacious, world-class building and a site that embraces heritage and contemporary architecture, the WA Museum wanted to create a coherent, engaging, educational and fun Museum experience incorporating an abundance of remarkable stories and incredible artefacts. 

Drawing upon the rich stories of the State and the incredible collections, the Museum's curatorial staff developed a plan that would honour the integrity of the Museum's mission while engaging visitors with a contemporary and interactive multimedia experience powered by a dynamic digital platform.

WA Museum Boola Bardip site manager Helen Simondson says the Museum wanted to present Western Australia in all its cinematic scope and storied diversity.

"Getting the digital platform right was an essential part of the concept for the new Museum. The focus was on layering content through multiple perspectives and stories across the eight main galleries," Simondson says.

To successfully execute such a plan, Art Processors was engaged to design and build the new site-wide digital platform for the Museum, drawing on the company’s capabilities in immersive content and technology.

The platform was required to accommodate a vast amount of multimedia content and be user-friendly for staff and Museum visitors of all ages and backgrounds, and flexible enough to support future projects and activities. 

The Gogo app — also built by Art Processors for the project and accessible via both Apple and Android smartphones — provides the interface for Museum visitors to engage with the platform's content.

Tony Holzner, Art Processors’ Creative Director & Co-Founder, says the team is interested in creating a “depth of material and content way beyond the traditional mechanisms of museum labels and the audio tour”.

“One of the important trends we are seeing in the Museum space is how they can leverage the power of everyone’s portable devices, and by focusing on the emotive side of visitor engagement, create this depth, diversity and a lasting gallery experience,” he says.

Women holding mobile device and wearing headphones, and looking up at the skeleton of Otto the blue whale in WA Museum Boola Bardip.

Overcoming challenges

As the digital platform project started, the global Covid-19 pandemic had reached Australia. By April 1, 2020, the Western Australian Government had instituted strict travel restrictions that closed the State's borders and restricted travel within the State. 

The restrictions would be in place for months to come, which meant key Art Processors staff — primarily based in Melbourne — could not travel to Western Australia to do the usual scoping, assessment and in-person consultation standard for a project of this size. 

With a tight deadline to deliver the project by the Museum's opening date, the Art Processors team swung into gear. For one of the key producers on the project, Jamie Houge, it was an unusual introduction to life at Art Processors.

"We started in April, and delivered the project in November. I started my job at Art Processors, and then one week later, we all started working from home. I never worked in the Melbourne office. I worked from home pretty much the whole time," she says.

Art Processors' head of content on the project at the time, Renae Mason, says it seemed like a massive undertaking initially. The pandemic created high levels of uncertainty. Still, once the team worked out all the processes and procedures, everything progressed relatively smoothly.

"We did this project from beginning to end without stepping foot on Perth soil. There were a few preliminary visits with the clients before Covid, but we did all the work online and in video meetings. That was unique," says Mason, who is based in Wollongong, NSW. 

Houge says the team planned and prepared thoroughly to ensure all the necessary groundwork could get done on the project's technical and content delivery aspects, despite the physical restrictions imposed by Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.

"It was a big digital infrastructure project with the software required for the app, as well as all the content creation and integration with WA Museum’s existing systems. It was complex on a few different levels, including content production, software, plus user experience. All three of those components were quite involved, and Covid-19 threw up some extra hurdles. Every part of it was huge, with a lot of little details, and members of the team were based around Australia and the world," she says.

Working closely with key Museum staff and hiring trusted local contractors for on-the-ground technical and creative work, Art Processors set about bringing the Museum's vision to life.

"One of the unique aspects of the work is that it's location-aware," says Houge. 

"We put Bluetooth beacons across the whole Museum site to create a digital blueprint of those spaces. That enabled us to augment those spaces in areas and objects with a layer of storytelling, an important part of the immersive audio tours and the app experience for end-users. We engaged a Perth-based technologist to assist with the hardware deployment."

Mapping the eight large galleries and external spaces with the beacons created the digital platform's physical infrastructure. The beacons work to trigger content and deliver it to the app as the visitor enters a space. 

Holzner explains that another valuable aspect of location-aware mapping is that it delivers data-rich feedback to the Museum. "It enables the Museum to collect data and insights and analytics on what visitors have been paying particular attention to, such as how much time they spend listening to pieces of audio and how long they spend in specific galleries, and the exhibits and content that resonate most strongly,” he says.

“Over time, the Museum can get an accurate reading of what works and what doesn’t. It can help guide decisions around how they invest in content and the different styles and approaches they take over time, eliminating the guesswork.”’

 

A person holding a mobile device displaying options for WA Museum Boola Bardip Gogo audio experience.

Delivering quality content

Of course, the platform required a huge amount of content. Simondson says the Museum's curatorial team worked with Art Processors to sift through and settle on around 80 key exhibits for specific audio tours featured on the Gogo app. The tours are divided into two categories: immersive, linear 'let us guide you' style audio tours and 'go your own way" style tours that allow visitors to personalise their museum experience.

"It's always difficult because you've got so many choices and such rich stories, but I think we had a clear idea of that sweet spot," Simondson says. "We had some great conversations between the curators and Art Processors, and we identified the 'hero' objects for inclusion in the audio tours. These are the significant objects on display that have exceptional stories and media to help bring it to life."

Among the Museum's hero objects are Otto the Blue Whale Skeleton, the GhostNet Crocodile sculpture, and Batavia shipwreck. These exhibits are included in both the linear and non-linear tours available to visitors through the app. The hero exhibits can also feature such elements as 3D model/AR experience, complementary historical items, and text and video elements alongside the tour's audio elements. The digital platform allows Museum staff to easily alter and revise parts for each exhibition. 

The breadth of the Museum's collections and the scale of the stories provided plenty of raw material to work with. However, it required a full-scale effort to produce quality work within tight deadlines that would do the material justice, and engage and entertain Museum visitors. 

From a tale narrated by famed Australian novelist Tim Winton, to stories from remote Aboriginal communities, the Art Processors content team went about researching, scripting, recording and producing the content snippets that would create the Museum’s immersive audio tours. The content was checked by the Museum’s curators, community members and the individual story owners as part of the Museum’s curatorial and community engagement process. Steadily, the content was created and added to the digital platform, readied for aural consumption by Museum visitors in time for the November opening date.

Holzner says that Gogo shows what is possible in the contemporary audio experience space, adding a deep, emotive element to what visitors are looking at in a highly immersive way.

“Once the headphones are on it's like stepping inside a film where the exhibits become a stage for the story to unfold as visitors wander the new museum at their own pace,” he says.

Mason says the team took special care to work closely with the Museum's curatorial staff and follow community consultation guidelines. The museum consulted more than 54,000 people in preparing the content for the new Museum. Mason says Art Processors was always mindful of the team's duty and responsibility in preparing and presenting content thoughtfully and sensitively. 

Working remotely with local creatives, including scriptwriters and actors, the team crafted a set of superbly told stories enhanced by nuanced and atmospheric soundscapes. This set of 'snackable' stories and vignettes form the backbone of the audio tours, accessible via the Gogo app as well as digital touchpoints around the Museum.

"It takes time to develop relationships when you're trying to create content that's authentic and still empowers local communities to share their stories," says Mason. 

"We followed the lead of the Museum's community consultation team to get in touch with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and elders and artists to help us develop the relationships that we needed to present their stories authentically."

Women with a mobile device and headset looking up at an Indigenous ghost net.

Outstanding value proposition

In less than a year and working within the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic during 2020, Art Processors delivered a technically complex and creatively rich project that successfully presents the depth of human history and natural wonder that is Western Australia.

The whole-of-museum digital platform is easily managed by staff, who can edit existing experiences and create new ones for visitors into the future, and also access detailed data on visitor engagement. Visitors who’ve visited WA Museum Boola Bardip since its opening have really enjoyed the Gogo app (available to download to iOS and Android) and the 80 beautifully crafted and produced pieces of content the Art Processors team created for its immersive audio tours.

"The value proposition was solid and clear, and the overall feeling was we were on the same wavelength," says Simondson. 

"Art Processors is a quality company, and they understood the sort of production value and sensibility we were after but also understood the need for stakeholder and community consultation in what was a concise period in creating the platform."