Visitors to Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum can grab goggles and take a dive into a 9th century shipwreck.

These goggles are not meant for swimming though. The museum has digitally recreated the ancient shipwreck scene and allows visitors to walk through it using virtual reality.

This museum is trying to stay relevant in a world full of distraction, and and attract younger visitors. “We are trying to attract digital natives to come to the museum,” says Cherry Thian, the museum’s Senior Manager for Audience and Digital Media. Interactive technologies like virtual reality will get teenagers and young adults more interested, she believes.

Thian tells GovInsider how the museum is using technology to stay connected to its millennial audience.

The personalised museum

“Personalisation is the key to go forward,” she believes. Technologies can help make historical objects more relevant for millennials by connecting them with their own life experience, she says.

The museum has built an app to guide visitors through its exhibits. It uses the data from this to tailor information and exhibitions to individuals’ preferences. “You can see that this person actually liked this object a lot more or spent more time at this object. Then we know that in the future if we have similar exhibitions, we can show it to you,” Thian says.

Thian also takes inspiration from Amazon, and plans to recommend items from the museum’s gift shop. “I want to try using that data to recommend souvenirs”, she says.

In an upcoming exhibition in December, the museum will tailor these experiences even further. “Moving forward, we want to capture not just through the app, but using facial recognition as well”, she says.

Augmented reality

ACM VR Cherry Thian

Personal mobile devices are the best way to reach young audiences, Thian believes. “People using their own device is still the most important and essential thing”, she says.

Thian experimented with this idea during one of her early projects at the museum – an exhibition on China’s first emperor and his terracotta warriors. She piloted a gaming app with augmented reality for visitors to learn about the exhibition.

Players had to complete tasks on their smartphones as they walked through the exhibition. The augmented reality feature allowed them to interact with objects on display and visualise these scenes. Each task taught them something new, like writing ancient Chinese script or commanding an army on the battlefield.

“AR was very new” at the time of the terracotta warrior exhibition in 2011, Thian says. Few museum visitors had heard of it before, but since they used a familiar device, most were able to figure it out with trial and error. “They feel that the learning curve is not so steep when it comes to their own mobile,” she says.

Using data

The hardest part of introducing technologies to the museum is to “find out what people really want”, Thian says, because their preferences constantly change. In response, the museum must experiment and adapt. “You have to implement new ideas, learn, go back, and then change and revise,” she adds.

She has used data to do this and understand what works for different groups of visitors. For instance, she conducted a user feedback survey when the augmented reality app was introduced. This showed that the app appealed most to visitors between 15 to 22 years old, with a “sharp decline in interest” from people aged 30 and above.

The museum uses data from its app to plan and design the exhibition floor. “Wayfinding is one of the key issues we have in the museum,” Thian says. The app is location-based and shows how people navigate the exhibitions and where they spend the most time.

However, the data also shows that only around 11% of visitors to the museum use the app. Thian is working with the museum’s marketing department to promote the app on social media. There is also free WiFi offered now so that the app doesn’t eat into visitors’ mobile data.

Her focus is not on specific technologies, but importantly, on how people use them. “I spend more time talking to people than actually doing [software] development itself. That is very critical because otherwise you will lose touch with the outside world,” she says. A former researcher in interactive design, she continues to work with students and polytechnics.

Museums must tell old stories in new ways. Thian found a way to tell the story of a 1,200 year old ship with virtual reality – a technology developed by a 24 year old.

Cherry Thian was given the Gold award for her work as an ‘Innovation Champion’ in the Singapore Public Service this year. GovInsider is writing a series with PS21 on the award winners.