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.”
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.
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.