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The Early Middle Ages: Christians, Castles and Charlemagne?

Knights, Christians, miniature art, poverty, ‘Dark Ages’, 500-1000AD, monks and monasteries, princesses, Charlemagne, beautiful dresses, inequality, some time after Rome..

.. can you find the common denominator of all these concepts? According to the people of Amsterdam it’s the Early Middle Ages. As part of the development of the CROSSROADS exhibition, opening in Amsterdam in September, we carried out some informal, qualitative, visitor research and asked people about their associations with the Early Middle Ages.

This type of visitor research is called front-end evaluation. Often, we think that visitor research takes place after an exhibit opens – the visitors are then asked (in interviews or through questionnaires) about their experiences in the exhibition. However, an important part of visitor research also takes place before the exhibition opens, while it is being developed. The main goal of this front-end evaluation is to understand more about visitors’ preconceptions regarding the topic of the exhibition. This information will help exhibition makers to think about how they will present the story. What do visitors already know about the topic? What are their assumptions and feelings about it? Knowing these things will allow the museum to find an appropriate approach to the topic, which will draw visitors in based on their pre-existing ideas, and through these address the museum’s core message.

In the case of the CROSSROADS exhibit it was important for us to know more about people’s ideas regarding the Early Middle Ages. This kind of research is actually quite easy because it doesn’t have to be quite as rigorously formal as some large quantitative studies. On a sunny day in February we went out to the street across from the Allard Pierson Museum, the Kalverstraat, one of the largest shopping streets in Amsterdam. Here, we briefly asked approximately 50 people about their ideas regarding the Early Middle Ages.

The responses were very informative and helpful. It was quite interesting to note that, even though we specifically asked about the Early Middle Ages, people quite often discussed concepts that could be linked to a slightly stereotypical image of the Middle Ages in general. Words such as castles, knights, horses, kings and queens, and swords came up quite a lot. Also religion was prominent: monks, monasteries, Bibles, the power of the church, the Inquisition, and even – burning witches. This is important for us to know, because it shows us that these themes will be familiar to most of our visitors, and even though they might not always be related to our specific time-frame, it would be worthwhile to mention them as a way to draw visitors’ attention.

As was expected, many people also seemed to have a quite negative image of this time period. Participants mentioned concepts such as darkness, difficult times, poverty, inequality, general misery, obscurity. It was remarkable that quite some people associated the Early Middle Ages with mud. One woman even described the period as one of “miserable people in the mud”. For us, these associations are extremely important – they teach us that we must work very hard to create a different, more nuanced, image of these Early Middle Ages, because, apparently, these negative associations are fairly deeply ingrained.

Luckily, the participants also mentioned positive elements – many people associate the time-period with cultural expressions such as beautiful clothing, interesting music, Bible miniatures and delicate writing. This shows that the core message of our exhibit – which will highlight much of the cultural wealth of this time period – will not be completely foreign to most visitors.

We are very excited about the results of this small visitor study. They will help us immensely in developing our exhibition because they will continuously make us aware of our visitors, and help us to frame the exhibit in such a way that will be most beneficial to them. Or.. to you! What are your thoughts and associations regarding the Early Middle Ages?

If you happen to be in Budapest this March…

do not miss to visit the ‘Avars Revived’ exhibition in the Hungarian National Museum, realised in the framework of the CEMEC project!

The HNM, founded in 1802, is one of the oldest national museums in Europe. Its Migration Period Collection belonging to the Archaeological Department contains more than 200.000 artefacts including such widely known, highly valuable and scientifically important assemblages as the princely grave from Bócsa, the Tépe hoard and the Szilágysomlyó treasure.

Our ‘Avars Revived’ exhibition, opening to the public on 6th March 2017, is one of the so-called national presentations complementing the three large-scale, transnational exhibitions realised by CEMEC between 2017 and 2019. This time the focus is on the Early Medieval Carpathian Basin.

Tamás Futó/FutóStúdió Graphic reconstruction of the Kunágota chief – Tamás Futó/FutóStúdió

In the exhibition Avars come to life through two stories complementing each other but told from different perspectives. One of our main characters is a venerable Avar chief, who, as a young man, witnessed the heydays of the Avar rule in the Carpathian Basin and has seen the walls of Byzantium as a warrior. His exceptionally rich grave was found in Kunágota in the middle of the 19th century. The chief was buried with the most outstanding pieces of his treasury, among which artefacts reflecting an Inner-Asian taste as well as precious imports from the Mediterranean can be found. These latter serve as evidences to the wide-range connections of the Avar elite towards other regions of contemporary Europe.

The protagonists of the other story are two ladies of foreign – perhaps Germanic – origin, who lived in the first half of the 7th century in a village situated close to today’s Kölked. Their jewels of unparalleled beauty hint to their nobility and their far-reaching contacts towards the Late Antique world as well as the newly forming Europe of the Early Middle Ages. The group of people living once at the village unearthed near Kölked must have been an important one among the communities of foreign – that is, not Avar – ethnic origins living in the early Avar empire.

Brooch_prespective 3D rendering of the disc fibula of Kölked – Moobels.com

With the help of the technical partners involved in the CEMEC project, a truly 21th century, high-tech implementation became possible: our Avars are revived through the Cross Culture Timeline, holoprojections, 3D models and more.

The exhibition complements the CEMEC partner meeting held in the Hungarian National Museum between 28th February – 1st March 2017, where the latest achievements of the project will be discussed by the CEMEC partners.

Image credit for photo of Hungarian National Museum – ecolife.blog.hu

The Cross Culture Timeline

A  beautiful bronze incense burner from Egypt and a shining golden sword which you can find in the National Museum in Budapest.. What do they have in common? Maybe you will find out using the Cross Culture Timeline! 

One of the goals of the CEMEC project is to create an exhibition, which will open in October 2017 in Amsterdam and will be called CROSSROADS. For that exhibition, our team is developing several digital applications, one of which is the Cross Culture Timeline – and I will tell you a bit more about it in this blog.

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My name is Inge-Kalle den Oudsten, I am one of the PhD students from the University of Amsterdam working on the CEMEC project. My research focuses on the use of digital technologies in museums, and that is also why I am working together with our technical partner in Dublin, NoHo, to develop this particular digital application – a large projected timeline which will include information on many of the objects in our combined collections. We have a wonderful way of working together: the great minds at NoHo work on developing the actual application – the complicated technical part, basically – while I am concerned more with the visitor experience.

But first, let me tell you a bit more about the Cross Culture Timeline. As said, it is a digital application, which consists of a large projection on a wall, put there by three large short-throw projectors. This projection consists of three parts: the left shows a map with a timeline, the middle screen shows the object and the final screen will be used to show 3D scans, videos or other images. The projection can be controlled by using a tablet, such as an iPad. The main goal of this application is to show the connections between the different objects. Our project incorporates collections from a lot of different museums – they are from different time periods and different regions, but, surprisingly, they are also similar in many ways. We want to show the visitor the diversity of objects that will be in the exhibition, as well as the different links between these varied artefacts.

Ultimately, of course, we are very interested in whether visitors will use the application to discover these connections. We want to know how and why they use the timeline, and in what ways it affects their experience in the exhibition. Yet, before we can even start of thinking of such questions a lot has to be done still. Because the most important thing at the moment is to make sure that this application actually works, and that each visitor will easily understand how to use it. In short, we need to focus on user experience.

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Over the last few months, the amazing technology nerds at NoHo have been working really hard on developing a first pilot version of the application which we could then test in a physical space. This way, we could invite visitors to interact with the application and see how they respond. So that’s what we did; last month we showed an actual physical test-version of the application in the Digital Museum Lab of the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. Here, I can share some of the main questions and issues that we came up with based on this first evaluation.

  • What is the relationship between the iPad and the projection? So currently we’re using a tablet to control the large projection on the screen, intending to use it as a kind of ‘remote control’. However, it turns out that, for most visitors, it takes a while to see this connection, because all their attention is first focused on the tablet. How can we make this more clear to our visitors?
  • How do we select objects? The timeline application allows you to select objects in order to get more information about that particular object. Currently, visitors can find objects based on chronology or location. But maybe visitors would want to pick objects in a different way, for example, based on the material or its aesthetics. How can we incorporate these different methods of choosing objects into one clear design?
  • A tablet in the museum or a take-home-app? We are thinking of developing an application that you could use on your own device, such as your phone. But do visitors really want to download an app in the museum? Maybe they don’t have WiFi, or their storage is full? And why would you download an application if you can just grab the tablet that’s right there? So we’re wondering, how can we make such a take-home-app of added value?

So now you know about a few of the things that we’re working on with regards to the Cross Culture Timeline. Of course there’s many other things that we will have to improve (like its looks, for example ;)!), but luckily we still have a while until CROSSROADS opens! We will use that time to evaluate even more – in January, already, the Cross Culture Timeline will be part of one of the smaller CEMEC exhibits in Budapest. If you’re around, come give it a try!