Digital reviews | Animal Crossing, archaeology and AI - Museums Association

Digital reviews | Animal Crossing, archaeology and AI

Danny Birchall takes a scroll through the latest digital content from museums and galleries
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Danny Birchall
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Animal Crossing helped many users during Covid lockdowns
National Videogame Museum, Sheffield | Animal Crossing Diaries virtual exhibition

Many organisations have set out to capture and record the dramatic and subtle ways in which our lives have changed since March 2020, once lockdown was no longer the stuff of magazine features.

Nottingham’s National Videogame Museum asked players of the popular Nintendo Switch videogame Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released just as the UK’s first lockdown began, to document how the game helped them cope with social distancing and personal isolation. A selection of diary entries are presented in this virtual exhibition.

For the unfamiliar, the Animal Crossing games are “social simulation” games. There are no battles or quests: you simply live a virtual life, collect and grow things, and build a home for yourself – in New Horizons’ case, on an island provided by enigmatic entrepreneur Tom Nook.

For some, the game became a way to set boundaries around working at home, a replacement for a bus journey and “something to break that commuter mindset”, even a virtual swim. For others it was an “escape room where I made everything realistic”.

The game also offers social modes: making it possible to get together to celebrate a birthday on a virtual island. For one participant, staying in touch simply meant keeping friendships going through mundane activities like keeping track of turnip prices.

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Simply and elegantly presented as a standalone microsite, Animal Crossing Diaries is a testament to the power of videogames and is a great example of telling the stories of people through objects – something for which all museums should strive.

Historic England | Aerial Archaeology Mapping Explorer
A view from the Aerial Archaeology Mapping Explorer

Public heritage organisation Historic England has brought together more than 500,000 aerial photographs into a unified archaeological map of England. It is the result of more than 30 years of work, and the map features everything from neolithic barrows to military installations and allows people to explore the surface of England through several millennia.

It’s no mean achievement to unite data like this from multiple sources. Historic England speaks breathlessly of the ability to “fly virtually over England and drink in its many layers of history”. The reality, however, is a little bit more prosaic: sites are layered over a map that you can zoom in and out of and pick features to examine further.

You can choose a base map, whether OS or Google Earth-type imagery, pick out sites and use a slider tool to show areas with and without their archaeological features.

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The interface, however, is a little overwhelming. Tools such as map layers are easy enough to intuit from their similarity to other mapping apps and websites, but it will take a bit of trial and error to find your way to the often gloriously detailed descriptions of the surveyed sites themselves. There’s plenty for experts and enthusiasts to enjoy here and many hours to be lost exploring the landscape. Absolute beginners will take a little longer to get to grips with the terrain.

Google Arts and Culture | Woolaroo web app
Users can learn words from 10 endangered languages, including the Australian Aboriginal language Yugambeh

Apps that use AI to identify birdsong, trees and more are proliferating rapidly. And 10 minutes a day with the Duolingo owl is how many choose to learn languages.

Google Arts and Culture smashes these two phenomena together head on with its experimental Woolaroo web app. It uses Google’s Vision AI to match a photo from your phone to the word for the object in 10 endangered languages from around the world, including Yiddish, Yugambeh and Louisiana Creole.

Perhaps most importantly, the app can be updated by native speakers, creating an open database and contributing to keeping important languages alive for learners and elders alike.

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