Art and artifice

Museums are increasingly incorporating multimedia within their exhibitions. Emily Pacey investigates the technologies taking the world of exhibition design by storm

From Dundee’s new Victoria & Albert Museum outpost to the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, a raft of big new global museums is set to open in the next few years. Besides offering visitors an array of amazing artefacts, they are likely to break the mould of museums past to put interactivity at the heart of their exhibits.

Social media

As social networks such as Twitter enter their realm, museums and galleries are set to experience what Event Communications creative director Esther Dugdale calls ’the disappearance of the authorial voice’. The new Museum of Bristol will allow people to upload their own stories and pictures to its collections, and to comment on the displays. ’City museums are certainly set to go in this direction,’ says Dugdale.

At Tate Modern, social media are playing a major role in Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Turbine Hall exhibition. Here, Cogapp has installed video booths, where visitors can record questions for the artist. Those outside the Turbine Hall are also able to engage with him via Twitter.

Cogapp’s Alex Morrison says, ’That completely changes the power relationship between the museum and audience. ’You have to reinterpret your brand for a new world, where you can’t take for granted that you are the only person with a voice.’ It provides a design and branding challenge ’to keep what is good about museums and galleries’ authority, but also to open it up’, says Morrison. ’This is a great opportunity for designers, who must realise that this isn’t about throwing everything away, but instead about evolving into something new.’

Smartphones and apps

Forget the clunky audio devices that museums traditionally offer visitors, major players including London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Modern, Royal Academy of Arts and Paris’ Musée du Louvre are now using smartphones and apps to provide rich media guides – a trend set to continue its sweep of the sector.

Going one step further to turn an entire city into a museum is the Museum of London and its Streetmuseum app for the iPhone and Android, created by Brothers and Sisters. The app allows users to take photographs of more than 200 London streets, and then to receive a historical picture of the same street.

Another museum application for the smartphone is in reading QR barcodes. Displayed on signs, the codes would allow visitors to access further Web-based information relating to exhibitions via their smartphones. But the trend has not yet taken hold.

’It may take a while to get established, as a recent pilot in the US shows that people don’t quite understand the technology yet, but it does have real potential,’ says Ben Gammon, exhibition interpretation and evaluation consultant and erstwhile head of learning and audience engagement at the Science Museum in London.

Interactive projections

’The merging of the digital and physical is a big trend and we are increasingly seeing the highly successful integration of multimedia and real objects at museums,’ says Ben Gammon.

Rapid improvements in the size, robustness and scope of projectors – as well as their price – are driving a rapidly evolving trend in exhibition design. ’There are now projectors you can hold in your hand, which means they are more readily integrated into exhibition structures, unlike the great hulking boxes of ten years ago,’ says Gammon.

Working in tandem with projectors, touch-sensitive table tops are liberating the exhibition designer from the use of screens, and camera-recognition technology is freeing them to project on to any artefact and turn it into an interactive object.

Gammon cites Microsoft’s new, entirely gesture-controlled games system, the Kinect motion sensor – in which cameras track your movements – as a ground-breaking new technology for interactive exhibitions.

An interesting side effect of the improvement in projector technology is that as projectors get stronger, the ambient light levels in museums – which have grown very dark where interactives are involved – will rise again.

Making data beautiful

Turning physical objects into responsive containers of data is one trend, but so is the transforming of data into physical artefacts. In the Museum of London café, Furneaux Stewart has designed a curtain of LED lights blended with an ever-changing display of data from various London information websites. ’This is beautiful and fascinating to watch. Seeing information turned into something beautiful, and comprehensible too, is amazing,’ says Ben Gammon.

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