Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

The Rituals and Performance of Digital Gifting in Museums and Galleries.

  Michelle Coleman (2016 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~psxmkc

The aim of this PhD is to further the discourse on digital and hybrid gifting within cultural industries such as museums, galleries and performance arts. To do this the research will use critical theory, performance studies and HCI methods to explore how ritual and intimacy impacts and personalises the experience of digital gifting.

This PhD is being undertaken in collaboration with the artists’ group Blast Theory.


As part of the Gift Project, an EU funded project that focuses on '[m]eaningful personalization of hybrid virtual museum experiences through gifting and appropriation' (gift.itu.dk), Blast Theory are designing a prototype gifting platform in collaboration with researchers from the University of Nottingham. As part of this researchers from the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham are developing a toolkit to enable institutions to create new visitor experiences that involve visitors creating gifts for each other. This PhD will use the tools available through the Gift Project to create and study unique experiences of digital and hybrid gifting in museums in order to explore the impact of ritual and performance on the process of digital gift exchange.


To understand digital gifting we should first understand the act of gift giving. In looking at what gifts mean to individuals and communities we may gain insight into the limitations of digital gifting. The works of Marcel Mauss set the themes of the gift as the obligations to give, to receive and to reciprocate. Gifting is positioned as an act of obligation and reciprocity. A practice important to the building of relationships and a sense of human solidarity [8]. Gifts can act as extensions of self: the act of giving something to someone is to make a present of oneself [8] and the objects exchanged become symbolic of the relationship, imbued with a new social agency [5]. In some contexts, gift giving becomes a power exchange. Exchanging a gift where there is no possibility of a reciprocated gift of equal value becomes a violent act of social dominance [2].

Gifting is not an homogenous act: the context and ritual of the gift often determines how the gift is perceived. In some instances, it reflects the moral obligation of the gift economy, the potlatch where those with wealth are obliged to share it with those without [8]. Other times, gift giving is a means by which social relationships can be maintained. With the right framing gift giving becomes part of a shared cultural narrative: the object is only given with the express understanding that it will be made use of and passed on [8]. Examples of this style of gifting are family heirlooms, and items such as baptismal dresses.

Digital gifting however highlights some of the disparities between the physical reception of a gift and the digital reception of a gift. The act of giving digital gifts online is relatively easy, but the convenience of digital gifting may serve to undermine the rituals of social gifting that give meaning to the act of exchange: choosing an object; wrapping it; and its presentation to the recipient [6]. In digital gifting the manifold nature of the object being gifted often means the exchange is viewed as an act of sharing as opposed to giving [6]. There are suggestions that digital gifts should possess ephemeral qualities and extend social rituals to mimic the flow of gift exchange in real life [6].


This PhD will use a variety of methods including participatory design workshops and case studies.

Participatory Design:

Mock-ups: paper and digital designs that will of represent future work, 'enabling users to experience and modify potential design-solutions' [3]. For the purpose of this research paper based mock-ups will be designed to explore the trajectories of reciprocation in digital and hybrid gifting.

Case study:

Case studies are used to explore an early concept, explain the technologies, describe the design process, or demonstrate through anecdotal evidence how tools are used [7]. For the purpose of this research ethnographically informed case studies will be used to explain how the digital prototype is used in situ and to demonstrate the use of the gifting tools by users and institutions.

The first case study for this research will look at gifting in museums. In this study participants will use the Gifting app to create a gift, this is done by taking pictures of existing museum objects, adding text or audio messages and sending this new hybrid object to others.


As digital culture and digital technologies continue to evolve so too do the paradigms of digital and hybrid gifting. The purpose of this PhD is to contribute to the ongoing discourse in digital gifting ([1][4][6][9]) through the identification of ritual and performance practices that best contribute to meaningful personalisation of digital and hybrid gifts.


  1. Benford, Steve and Gabriella Giannachi. Performing Mixed Reality. MIT press, Cambridge, Mass, 2011
  2. Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and symbolic power. Harvard University Press, 1991.
  3. Crabtree, Andy. "Ethnography in participatory design." Proceedings of the 1998 Participatory design Conference. 1998.
  4. Fosh, Lesley. "Gifting personalized trajectories in museums and galleries". Dissertation, University of Nottingham, 2016.
  5. Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford, 1998. Print.
  6. Kwon, Hyosun, et al. "" It's Not Yet A Gift": Understanding Digital Gifting." CSCW. 2017.
  7. Lazar, Jonathan., Jinjuan Heidi. Feng, and Harry. Hochheiser. Research Methods in Human-computer Interaction [electronic Resource] / Jonathan Lazar, Jinjuan Heidi Feng, Harry Hochheiser. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass., 2017. Ebook Library. Web
  8. Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. WW Norton & Company, 2000.
  9. Spence, Jocelyn, et al. "The Rough Mile: Testing a Framework of Immersive Practice." Proceedings of the 2017 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, 2017.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1) and Blast Theory.