Title:Situating Cultural Technologies Outdoors: Designing for Mobile Interpretation of Rock Art in Rural Britain
Authors:Deborah Maxwell, Areti Galani, Kate Sharpe, Aron Mazel
Publication:MW2011: Museums and the Web 2011

Mobile development and technology is the now, the here, the cutting edge. Rock art, or 'cup and ring' marks - Neolithic and Early Bronze Age carvings in stone - is the past. Here then may be the greatest contrast between the old and the new, the immutable and the ever changing. Yet it is strangely appropriate that rock art and more specifically, the interpretation of rock art, explores the potential of mobile technology. Rock art in Northumberland, in the North East of Britain, is prolific and well documented in paper and online databases but is difficult for the non-expert or casual passerby to find or even be aware of. Occasionally registered as Scheduled Ancient Monuments, rock art panels are situated in the open landscape generally without convenient museums, heritage centres or indeed buildings nearby to house information or interpretation; furthermore, placing interpretation panels next to the carvings is not often an option due to conservation and complex land-owning and managing arrangements. The untapped benefits for mobile interpretation development in this context are immense; imagine non-intrusive, on-demand content delivered to personal handsets, which users already know how to use, to discover carved panels and find out more about them.

This paper discusses the Rock Art Mobile Project (RAMP), a twelve-month research project which addresses the challenge of designing and delivering mobile interpretation to three rock art areas in Northumberland. RAMP, however, moves away from the more traditional design approaches of delivering scientific content in the form of an archaeological mobile guide. It acknowledges that rock art interpretation requires a 'design space', which allows the existing archaeological content, the public's fascination with the 'cryptic' meaning of the rock art sites and the technological, social and personal situation of the user to be understood and negotiated.      

Drawing on research carried out in the first stage of this project, this paper develops two lines of enquiry by:

(a)  Exploring logistical challenges in relation to environmental conditions, the interoperability of mobile devices and platforms, and the long-term sustainability of solutions. The advantages of using mobile technology in such a setting are tempered by the environmental challenges, such as patchy network signal and outdoor conditions (wind, rain and bright sunlight). Couple this with the mixed range of handsets and varied visitor experience with mobile technology, and no obvious technological solution presents itself.

(b)  Discussing the methods used to elicit user experience, and specifically to understand the situated nature of users' engagement with rock art in the social and wider landscape context. Three participatory design workshops were organised, with participants largely from the surrounding areas who had an interest in either rock art, archaeology, or the countryside.

These workshops, (informed by the 'cultural probes' design tradition), deliberately adopted a low-tech, informal approach, to elicit specific instances or memories of recent visits to rock art and the countryside, shifting away from perceived 'truths' or generalisations about user needs. Participants were taken on a site-visit and asked to reflect on their experience using a variety of media, including booklets with sample visual content, audio on mp3 players and written prompts on wooden lollipop sticks.

This paper reflects on the effectiveness of such a design approach and its ramifications for the development of mobile heritage applications which respond to the situation of their users and the constraints (and delights) of rural outdoors environments.