Profile: Silvia Filippini Fantoni

With her strong background in history and personalisation technologies, this versatile Italian was destined for a career in museum interpretation, but has just moved across to a consultancy management role. Anna Richardson talks to her

There is a rare breed of employee in demand in the digital design sector these days – a producer or project manager who can juggle designers, programmers and content as well as strategy.

Silvia Filippini Fantoni, who recently joined consultancy Cogapp as senior producer, is one of those. She brings a mind-boggling background in project management, technology and mobile interpretation in cultural organisations to the table, as well as an understanding of user experience, audience needs and the market as a whole. ’If you’d told me [what I would be doing now] ten years ago I would have said, “are you kidding?”. I am not really a technical person,’ says Filippini Fantoni.

Born in the medieval Italian town of Bergamo, surrounded by what she calls ’old stones’ from an early age, she studied history and then museum studies in Italy and the Netherlands. Filippini Fantoni’s interest in technology started when she joined the newly founded Maastricht McLuhan Institute in the Netherlands in 2002 to explore the use of personalisation technologies in museums. Eight years later, she has a PhD in this field, teaches at the Sorbonne’s interactive multimedia masters course and is a consultant on various technology-based cultural projects.

In 2006 she joined Antenna Audio in the UK, for example, where she developed applications and evaluated new technology pilots for mobiles, and last year she worked with the British Museum to develop its new multimedia guide.

There has been ’a crazy revolution in mobile technology use in museums’, says Filippini Fantoni, and much has changed since the radio-transmitted, curated tours of the 1950s. Development began to explode towards the end of the 1990s, and museums are now faced with a myriad of choices, from traditional MP3 players to sophisticated PDAs with touchscreen or keyboard navigation. Choosing the right one for a given institution or collection is vital, adds Filippini Fantoni.

’One of the big challenges is keeping focus on what you’re trying to achieve, on the end-user and on the audience,’ she says. ’Sometimes the technology is pushed to the limit and doesn’t work, which causes frustration with the users; sometimes there is too much focus on technology and not enough on the content.’

For the British Museum’s multimedia guide, budget considerations and the institution’s listed status meant that Filippini Fantoni’s team couldn’t use technologies such as Wifi, RFID codes or infrared transmission. They had to find a solution using content in different ways. The resulting guide allows ’random access’, where users punch in a number at a particular exhibit and listen to the corresponding information. The team also designed linear tours around certain topics, from ’the Classical world’ to Egypt. It was important to choose objects carefully and guide the visitor through both audio directions and visual elements, showing key markers along the route. Finally, they created a museum navigator that helps visitors locate where they are or go to a specific point of interest by room numbers and other wayfinding markers.

The British Museum guide uses content in an innovative way without relying on the latest gizmos, but one of Filippini Fantoni’s key areas of expertise is personalisation through technology – a field that has many different interpretations. Some see personalisation as the visitor’s ability to choose what commentary they want to listen to, for example. Others interpret it as providing an individual experience, with museums offering something that creates a connection with the life and emotions of the user.

’I look at personalisation as being about adapting content to the user’s needs, experience and characteristics,’ says Filippini Fantoni. In her PhD she focused on bookmarking – not customisation during a visit, but personalisation afterwards. ’You can bookmark things you’re interested in during a visit, and the system notes them as your interests and then sends you extra information or recommends other points of interest after the visit,’ she explains.

With the multimedia market for museums developing at speed, the possibilities for Filippini Fantoni are endless. As with most of her career until now, she is happy to seize opportunities as they arise, but in the longer term she might like to join a museum again to operate on a higher strategic level, looking at interpretation in general. After all, as Filippini Fantoni points out, she is not a technology geek at heart.

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