Ventures into the Virtual – Finnish Postal Museum’s experiences of the digital world

25/11/2021 3:00 pm

Digital content and services have become notably and increasingly important for museums and cultural institutions during the last few years. The worldwide pandemic especially presented everyone with unforeseen challenges and showed how people have become increasingly dependent on technology. On the other hand, the need to find solutions to the situation showcased many new possibilities that digital technology can offer for museums.

From a wider perspective, the use and implementation of digital technologies and their applications in museums have become increasingly common many years before the pandemic. Even DREAM, which has heavy emphasis on using Augmented reality (AR) technology was planned well ahead of the crisis. However, the pandemic made the project partners more convinced than ever that there is a real need for new digital tools and methods to help guide museums into the 21st century.

The Finnish Postal Museum and the virtual space

When DREAM started, most of the partners already had experiences with the digital tools and platforms that help to contribute to the objectives of the project. The Finnish Postal Museum was asked to be a partner in DREAM because of our quality education programs and the approach we have taken with new technologies. In the Postal Museum we think that by adopting, testing, and implementing digital innovations, we can provide new and engaging ways of interacting with audiences. A positive and experimental attitude towards technology also helps to develop new practices that benefit our own work and the museum field as a whole.

For the last decade the Postal Museum has been very active in piloting and testing different ways of exploring the possibilities of virtual space. These include the digitalization of museum’s collections, integrating digital elements into physical exhibitions, creating different types of digital exhibitions, and creating new digital content from the ground up. It is important to note that in our opinion, there is no point in going virtual for the sake of going virtual. Instead, we find that it makes more sense to come up with ways of how digitality can enhance and make museum content more accessible to all kinds of audiences. Be it a virtual exhibition or a VR game, the digital content should always convey a sense of meaningfulness and value for its user. The following examples shed a light into Postal Museum’s experiences with digital contents and how they might benefit the DREAM.

Digital collections and virtual contents

Notable parts of Postal Museum’s collections have been digitized and a good sample of them can be browsed in Finna.fi service. Finna.fi is a free platform for sharing and exploring collections of hundreds of Finnish museums, archives and libraries. In addition, Postimuseo is actively creating content for the Finna Classroom, an educational service that provides curated, curriculum based and free educational content for schools and educators. All educational content is drawn from the digital collections and offers a great opportunity for exploring materials that are not present in the physical museum space.

Another way the Postal Museum presents its contents are virtual exhibitions that can be accessed through the museum’s website. The oldest of them, the Tarinoita (Stories) was published in 2003 and has already been removed from the internet. Other, more recent examples include the Correspondence of Tom of Finland which presents the life of famous Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen through letters, the Unohtumattomia kirjeitä verkossa which showcases a collection of Finnish letters from 19th century to contemporary times as well as the Postmasters General  which gives a detailed look into the life and careers of every Postmasters General of the Finnish Postal Services since 1811. We also host and administer the Finnish Stamps Browser which presents all stamps published in Finland since 1856.

The Postmasters General Virtual Exhibition

Postal Museum’s virtual exhibitions use pictures, sounds, videos and timelines in varied ways to help audiences to engage with history. While the presentation of these exhibitions is quite streamlined, each of them has been designed with the user experience in mind. An alternative and increasingly popular option would have been to create walkable virtual spaces by creating a 3D model of an exhibition or by taking 360-degree pictures of real-world spaces and combining them into a virtual exhibition. However, not every museum is equally suitable for such implementation. Generally, 3D spaces built to mimic historical and authentic surroundings work quite well as an experience, but ones that replicate an individual exhibition in a modern setting often fail to produce a similar effect. Navigating such spaces can get confusing and the user interface is often considerably more complicated than on more “traditional” virtual exhibitions built on a standard webpage.

VR game in Postimuseo, Finland

For the 3D space to become meaningful and interesting, the visitor needs stimuli and something to do while examining it. This can be achieved through interactive elements and gamification. In 2019 The Postal Museum tested these elements by producing a mail-themed VR game in co-operation with Reason Solutions Ltd. The Postimestari (Post Master) -VR game gives the player an opportunity to hone their skills in sorting out mail. The idea of creating the game was to produce an immersive and educational experience where the player is competing against time and trying to gain maximum number of points. The Postimestari game is currently not available for download but can be played in various events that the Postal Museum is attending.

Another way to approach virtual spaces is AR, which makes it possible to insert digital objects and pictures into reality. The Postal Museum is only taking first steps in developing AR content and skills. DREAM with its heavy emphasis on AR is therefore a sensible and an important step towards that goal.

First steps towards 3D modeling

Photogrammetry in action.

One dilemma in producing AR is to come up with content, i.e. objects and pictures to be inserted into the reality. Even though the internet is full of free and CC licensed content, it is important for museums to be able to utilize their own collections as part of the virtual experience. Thankfully, and in addition to the digitized collections, Postal Museum has been able to produce 3D models of some of their objects.

In 2020 the Postal Museum participated in a 3D modelling project where a small number of objects from museum collections were 3D-modelled using photogrammetry technique and modelled into 3D objects. The project was a co-operation of Trafiikki, a network of Finnish Communications and Traffic themed museums, in which a total of over 30 models were produced. By doing most of the work in-house, the project partners gained invaluable knowledge and skills to produce more 3D models in the future.

3D Model of a 19th century post horn. Click the picture to examine the 3D model.

Virtual 3D versions of real-life objects are useful as they bring audiences into contact with materials that would otherwise be restricted to the public, due to strict rules on preserving and protecting the collections. 3D objects can be also easily and infinitely transferred, resized, and modified accordingly to different needs. This makes them ideal to use in different projects and when working with audiences and schools. For students, the ability to inspect 3D objects rather than 2D pictures encourages engagement and helps to grow interest in cultural heritage and history.

From the viewpoint of museum education, a user-friendly, accessible and Creative Commons Attribution (CCA) licensed content forms the basis of Open educational resources (OERs) that greatly benefit the educational task of the museum. Thus, all the Trafiikki Museums’ 3D objects are available on Sketchfab and can be used freely with the CCA license. Most of the digitized, non-3D objects and pictures in Finna.fi can also be exploited in museum education. This makes them ideal to be used in the digital, open-source framework of DREAM. In return DREAM gives the Postal Museum a chance to present collections, learn and share digital competencies and, most importantly, to put them all into a good use.