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While it is true to say that the whole of an exhibition or gallery should be engaging, there are some techniques that are specifically designed to pull visitors into a subject, most often using some form of interaction.

Electronic media is offering ever more ingenious and enticing possibilities – from following the clash of arms on the battlefield of Culloden in 1746 on the Battle Table at the new visitor centre there, to discovering what Winston Churchill did, almost to the day, during his life via the 15-metre-long Lifeline at the Churchill Museum, London.

Where visitors have actively engaged with something they are more likely to remember that experience, personalise it and take something from it. As Peter Higgins, the creative director of museum designers Land Design Studio, says, it is about emotional connections. “All interactions are based on input, output and feedback. The more you’ve been emotionally engaged, the more you remember it.”

Electronic technology is playing a big role in making interaction possible, largely because it is the “intelligence” of computers that provides the feedback in the model. A more typical installation than oversized tables is the standalone touchscreen kiosk, loaded with software to respond to various input decisions from users.

While kiosks have their place, the downside is that they offer a rather pedestrian form of interaction, which is often detached from the physical presence of the exhibition and its objects.

At their best, interactive installations can deliver engagement in a more fluid, instinctive and social way than a straight computer screen, especially when groups can use them simultaneously.

Encouraging people to explore is crucial. The Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, is built almost entirely on digital installations, all predicated on the idea of visitors exploring the Center in their own way. Using an array of sensors, digital media and computer-controlled lighting, many of the installations respond to people’s physical presence (see link 1 below).

This is a thoroughly high-tech solution for an unusual museum: it contains just one object, a Peace Prize medal. But it shows that there is a range of interactive techniques that can be used to engage audiences through exploration.

At the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, a panoramic photograph of the view from nearby Kilvey Hill is projected across a 300-degree screen. Overlaid on this screen are three coloured locator bars controlled by tracker balls set into three consoles in front of the projection.

As users pan their bar across the view with the tracker ball, a “telescopic” magnification of the area selected is shown on the console screen. Embedded in the vista are a number of hotspots, typically places of cultural or historical interest, which emerge as the bar moves over them. Selecting these reveals greater layers of detail on the touchscreen below, using text, images and video footage.

“We wanted to recreate this great view of Swansea and looked at ways to achieve that,” says Damien Smith, director of ISO, the design group that created the display with lead designers Land Design Studio.

The high-resolution image was obtained by fixing a special rotating camera on a purpose-built scaffold at the site and photographing each “slice” of the view, three pixels at a time. Because the resulting photograph is so large, no more images were needed to get the “telescopic” magnification on the consoles.

But aside from the specialist camera needed to capture a picture with enough detail for the huge projection and zoom, the rest of the installation was created using relatively standard equipment: three high-definition projectors, synched across the 300-degree screen, standard tracker balls, touchscreen technology and PCs running bespoke software.

“It’s also quite a striking ambient piece, with little touches, such as the sky gradually darkening,” says Smith. “And the visitors get some information about the content through pop-ups that appear over the hotspots on the main projection. What we’re often trying to create in these kind of installations is something attractive, ambient and large scale, while also offering rich detail at the personal level.”

REALITY CHECK

The Swansea panorama is a step towards another kind of interactive interpretation, dubbed “augmented reality”. Museums are only just beginning to explore its possibilities.

One early adopter is the Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History) in Berlin, where the designers Art + Com created five “media telescopes”, or “Jurascopes”, in the World of Dinosaurs gallery.

When pointed at the actual fossil remains, these viewers offer a computer-generated image of the fossilised bones that “grow” muscles and skin, before taking a walk in a Jurassic landscape. A computer reads where in the gallery the Jurascope is pointing and presents the corresponding view and animation on a screen embedded behind the eyepieces.

What is interesting about this installation is not so much the individual technologies, but the intuitive simplicity of its presentation: everyone knows how seaside-style telescopes work, so they look, pan and discover.

A similar system by the same company called Timescope is installed on a street in Berlin. It offers views of Tauentzienstrasse and the surrounding area taken at various points in history, as well as an on-board web camera feed of the live scene. Users can literally turn back (or fast forward) time using archive material and set artwork in the real vista before them, watching buildings come and go.

Although these media telescopes require some specialist hardware and software, the concept is simple and flexible and their appeal is as enduring as that of the old Mutoscope, or “what-the-butler-saw” machines of the 1900s. The key really lies in the programming of the software that delivers the content to the final “view”.

If you are thinking of commissioning something similar, look for designers with skills in programming and interface design, as this is where it will succeed or fail. Naturally, if the viewer is destined for the open air, you would need to consider robustness of product design too. It must be weather- and vandal-proof.

MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT

There are more straightforward methods of promoting engagement with the objects on display in an exhibition. In the Music Gallery at the Horniman Museum in south London, a simple projection system allows visitors to explore and interact with the array of musical instruments displayed in showcases opposite. The layout of the cabinets is recreated on the projection table (the projector is placed vertically overhead).

Users can scroll through animated images of the instruments using large navigation buttons. Both projector and buttons are linked to software on a PC. A musical instrument can then be selected to reveal more written information and, crucially, a performance recording taken from the museum’s sound archive, which plays on speakers or headphones.

Designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates with Rom and Son, this direct exploration of the collection does not even require touchscreen technology, just a projector, PC, navigation buttons set into the table, some speakers and sound-absorbing material above the tables (all times three, as there are three tables in total).

Margaret Birley, the keeper of musical instruments at the Horniman, says the installation has been popular and robust. It has been working since the end of 2002.

“We wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the instruments in the showcase, as well as add to the information on the object labels with things like instrument decoration, who made it and who might have played it. It also allows us to showcase recordings made through our fieldwork,” says Birley. The content has been updated to include, for example, the recently discovered composer of a previously anonymous piece.

The Horniman Museum’s musical tables show how fairly simple interactive technology can provide a direct link with the objects in the space to encourage exploration. In a more high-tech way, the National Waterfront Museum’s panorama and the Museum of Natural History in Berlin’s media telescopes also link digitally-delivered information with the real and physical.

And this is where technology should really excel: it should not promote playing with gadgets just for the sake of it, but allow visitors to connect more deeply with objects and subjects on show in ways that are intuitive, educational and perhaps even rather enchanting

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Spring 2009.

Screening room

In the traditional gallery of exhibits behind glass pure, unobstructed consideration of the artefacts is considered paramount. Interpretation beyond captions and a few supporting images is minimal, or absent, and the space is organised so as not to overwhelm the works themselves. In short, the atmosphere is relatively neutral.

But in contemporary exhibition design something more evocative, perhaps even provocative, is often in order, demanding an injection of drama and ambience.

Such theatre and atmosphere are important components in storytelling and, for many curators, invoking stories from the collections is exactly what exhibitions are all about. While a few star objects may be commanding enough to conjure a sense of time and place on their own, many sit statically and quietly inside glass cases, leaving the scene-setting to various other design elements.

Although heavy-handed scenography may not always be appropriate, generating some dynamism around objects can animate a space. And one of the most effective ways of creating atmosphere and ambience is through light and sound. Moving images and spoken words can be used arrestingly to make a point, or recessively to set a mood.

But for real atmosphere, you need to think beyond the traditional screen. Large-scale projections in particular can literally wrap the viewer up in images from the collection, as well as the stories and ideas it holds.

TRANSPORTS OF DELIGHT

At the London Transport Museum’s Design for Travel gallery, a 12-metre-long “screen” is created by projecting a continuously moving film on to the floor and end wall of a long, narrow space.

Around the gallery, examples from London Transport’s rich design heritage – maps, posters and signs – are exhibited in showcases, but the films help to shape the feel of the space and give context to the physical exhibits.

Organised into six thematic “essays”, the looped film showcases hundreds of items that could not otherwise be displayed, including archive footage, stills and animations.

To achieve the gallery-long video, the design and motion graphics company ISO, working with the museum’s lead designers Ralph Appelbaum Associates, split the film across seven high-definition projectors, running in synch, with the frames digitally “stitched” together to play out across the gallery as one piece.

“It’s an enclosed, dense space which only holds a tiny sliver of the amazing design objects the museum has,” says Damien Smith, the director of ISO. “They didn’t want it to be static, but to bring things to life and delve into the huge volume of the archive. The films work in two ways because they can wash over you or you can watch them as detailed visual essays, each relating to the different physical displays.”

Rob Lansdown, the assistant director of support services at the London Transport Museum, says, “One of the issues we face is that we’re dealing primarily with transport vehicles and we can’t make them move. So we’re always looking for ways to inject movement into the galleries.”

Another way of setting off static displays in a dynamic way is through LED lighting, a technology that continues to become cheaper and more powerful. As LEDs are easily controllable by computer they can be used to set up semi-abstract moving displays, suggestive of subject themes or movement, but without the distraction of video imagery.

At the new BMW Museum in Munich every single square inch of wall inside the museum’s central space is clad with white LEDs, behind opaque, sandblasted glass. The solution, dubbed “Mediatecture”, involves millions of tiny lights controlled by four computers running special graphics software.

Created by Art + Com, working with the lead designers Atelier Brückner, it results in walls filled with fluid imagery, some abstracted from the cars’ design details, others using line art, water ripples or curtain sequences to give a sense of movement. This dynamic backdrop then plays around the otherwise static cars on show, reflecting on their surfaces.

“The best way of creating a dynamic space is through moving images,” says Joachim Sauter, the creative director of Art + Com. But unlike more cinematic projections of content, BMW’s Mediatecture purposefully lacks detail.

“It’s about making a facade and not making big screens. This is very important: people should initially just see it as the building’s glass facade and only on second glance realise it’s moving. If you make it in a cinematic way, it becomes more important than the objects.”

SOUND AND LIGHT

The Museum of London Docklands desired quite the reverse effect for its permanent London, Sugar & Slavery gallery, designed by At Large. Tom Wareham, the curator of the gallery, says they wanted people to literally stop and think about the subject at hand.

To make this happen, it commissioned a son et lumière show that would spontaneously play every 20 minutes, transforming a section of the gallery into “theatre in the round” (See link 1 below).

It is a more intimate version of the Big Picture shows at the Imperial War Museum North, where images are projected on to the double-height surfaces within a cavernous gallery.

Large-scale projections offer an “architectural” way of creating atmosphere while at the same time unlocking content from the stored collection and telling a story (or indeed, switching between the two). From a hardware point of view, high-definition projectors provide the quality needed for large projections, but these can be expensive.

At the London Transport Museum the seven projectors cost around £6,500 each, although you would not necessarily require seven for a simpler show. Bear in mind that carefully installed multiple projectors can deliver films with unusual aspect ratios to suit the gallery space.

If multiple projections do need to be synched – to project across a very wide wall, for example – you will also need a PC running software to piece the split “frames” back together, as well as PCs to drive each individual projector.

The projectors themselves use bulbs that will burn out, so you will need to keep an eye on those too. In a chain of linked projectors, every bulb should be changed simultaneously to ensure consistent brightness, even if only one is starting to dim.

UNINTENDED EFFECTS

Hardware aside, the effectiveness of projections may well come down to the clarity of your brief and the production skills of the company compiling the footage – look for designers specialising in motion graphics. And be aware of any “dizzying” effects that large-scale image movement might have on visitors, as well as possible concerns for visitors with epilepsy related to flashing lights.

These are not always easy to test, as Lansdown discovered at the London Transport Museum. “The scale is such that mock-ups don’t necessarily show you what you’ve done until it’s in place. Some of the images of posters moving initially felt as though the rug was [literally] being pulled from under your feet.”

A more ambient and abstract way of bringing a space to life can be achieved using wall-spanning LED lighting. A software programmer can animate these lights in a range of ways, linked to sound, video or image input, for example. LEDs themselves continue to become cheaper, as do the programmable computer chips that control them.

And there is another benefit over conventional incandescent lighting too: with hardly any power lost as heat, an LED’s lifespan can be upwards of 40,000 hours – important for exhibitions running all day every day.

So, whether you are after an intervention, a mood setter or a sense of movement, motion graphics, film and sound can suffuse a space very effectively, especially when delivered at scales that go far beyond the traditional television or computer screen.

This article was written for the Working Knowledge section of Museum Practice, Spring 2009.

Click till you drop

Talk to designers about retail and you’ll soon come across terms such as ‘theatre’, ‘experience’ and ‘customer journey’. These elements are part of the allure of a trip to the shops, for many a leisure pastime rather than practical chore. And with high street retailing such a competitive, cut-throat business, store designers are repeatedly called on to create more absorbing environments, anything to lure the customer away from a competitor’s store.

Yet it is just these 3D design elements – things like materials, finishes, lighting and space, as well as tactile products – that are lacking in the world of online retail. Despite this apparent handicap, the value of e-tailing is growing apace while sales on the high street are somewhat in the doldrums. According to a report from Verdict Research, online retail spend is forecast to grow by 32 per cent this year to £19.5bn, while offline sales bump up a mere 1.2 per cent. The report says that an online presence will become ‘a much more important differentiator between retail success and failure’.

‘Having an internet presence is now more important than ever,’ says Neil Saunders, a consulting director at Verdict Research. ‘The future for successful retailers isn’t about choosing between bricks or clicks, it’s about [both].’ Asda recently reached the same conclusion, partly because the likes of Primark and Tesco have stolen a march on the supermarket’s budget clothing line George. In response, George products are to move online for the first time.

According to Elmwood London managing director Nicolas Mamier, there are two main approaches to the web taken by retail companies. ‘They can either go for the full-on e-commerce portal, as FCUK has, or they can use the web as a branding tool, like Paul Smith,’ he says. ‘Some do a bit of both, like Top Shop, but for companies with a high rent, high footfall street presence there’s always the danger of cannibalising your sales with an online shop. This is the big decision they have to make.’

Either way, the high street will not die, claims Saunders. ‘Shopping is a tactile process and for many people it is a leisure activity – online retail does not really deliver on those two things,’ he says. Perhaps not, but retailers and digital designers are getting savvy about what the web lacks over its high-street counterparts, especially when it comes to fashion and clothing brands. On a website you can’t try clothes on, put together an outfit or shop with your friends and ask their opinions, for example.

To address exactly these sorts of issues, Otto – owner of the Freemans and Grattan catalogues in the UK – last year launched a dedicated online brand called Oli. Digital consultancy Conchango designed a ‘rich’ internet experience that would replace some of these missing elements. ‘Previously, the catalogues had been supported by a small web presence. With Oli it’s the other way around: it is primarily an internet brand supported by a smaller catalogue and they wanted to offer a dressing room-like experience,’ says Conchango digital media consultant Derek Dunlop.

The result is a site that allows shoppers to gather items ‘over the arm’ and place them on a blank canvas, re-sizing and arranging products to check out an overall outfit. This collection can be mailed to a friend for an opinion and the whole lot sent to checkout with one click. Dunlop says there’s now scope to add live elements, allowing multiple users to discuss and manipulate collections at the same time.

H&M’s response to online’s lack of dressing rooms is a series of ‘models’ created by Montreal-based My Virtual Model, whose bodies, hair and skin colour can be adjusted to match your own. Another approach to the lack of physical space online is the virtual shopping mall, a model given new momentum thanks to the rise of Second Life. Currently in beta test stage and scheduled to launch later this summer is UK-based Myfaveshop.com. Designed in-house, the site will combine a 3D ‘bespoke’ shop comprised of the buyer’s wish-list of products, with community elements, such as product reviews from friends, also built in. ‘You can manage your products in 2D, but when you look around they are all there in a 360-degree environment,’ explains Myfaveshop marketing director Ashley Harris.

Whether used as lush branding vehicle, e-commerce-enabled database or full-scale virtual world, a well-considered presence on the web is essential for retail brands. The design challenge is to make the online experience not only as enjoyable as shopping in stores, but also captivating enough to lure consumers to one site amongst a wild west of cheaper alternatives.

This article was written for Design Week, 15 May 2008.