Touching base

Interactive digital displays are now essential for museums – they can be more engaging than traditional methods, and consumers now expect the same hi-tech media in a museum that they find in cutting-edge retailers, argues Scott Billings

The role of digital design in exhibitions may well be in the ascendancy. Not only do most museum clients now expect some digital or interactive elements as a matter of course, but with a real drive towards multi-user participation and cross-media content, those with digital skills could very well be thrust to the fore.

Recent evidence of this is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to bring in digital consultancy All of Us to help plan the whole exhibition programme for its £100m redevelopment in Stratford-upon-Avon. This appointment is significant, says All of Us interaction director Orlando Mathias, because all too often digital groups are called on towards the end of an exhibition plan just to provide the ‘de rigueur’ element of technology. The RSC’s move is certainly a good sign for the digital sector, but it doesn’t change the fact that using interactive technology in museums can still be a rather ominous undertaking.

Beautifully lit projection tables, intuitive and content-rich interactives and invisible environmental triggers are just a few of the techniques being used by designers to conjure evocative, emotional narrative spaces. And while these digital technologies can certainly be alluring and exciting, they must be applied with care. There’s nothing more damaging to an exhibition space – and to digital’s reputation – than a broken or crashed piece of software or hardware. As any digital designer or commissioner will tell you, a system’s robustness is vital. And even when fully functional, there is a real danger that ill-conceived installations will palpably detract from, rather than enrich, the visitor experience.

‘There has been a huge renaissance in museums over the past five years and people want to go to public spaces for information. This is partly a reaction to sitting at home alone on the Internet and partly due to digital: it is the only medium that allows for a mutual dialogue between information and user,’ says Joachim Sauter, director of Berlin digital consultancy Art&Com. ‘And even worse than a broken installation is seeing people in front of an interactive, not understanding how it works. You’ve got a 30-second attention span and a steep learning curve,’ he warns.

There are other challenges for digital designers working in exhibitions. As the retail sector continues to adopt in-store many of the narrative environment techniques developed in the cultural sector, big-money brands are serving up worlds that are more dazzling than anything a cash-strapped curator could ever hope to commission. Could this unexpected transaction of ideas – from museums to commerce, rather than vice-versa – have a damaging effect on digital’s role in exhibitions? As Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins asks, if cutting-edge interactives and responsive environments are being used to sell mobile phones, will visitors feel happy seeing older, lower-rent versions of the same wizardry in a museum? And if not, how should digital be used and where should curators and designers focus?

The answer, of course, is on the collections. But there are two further directions emerging in digital design, says the Science Museum’s head of new media Dave Patten. ‘There’s a recognition that over the next five years or so, we will be moving towards the use of personal technologies, such as mobile phones, rather than physical installations in museums,’ he says. ‘We’re now looking at how we can get content to phones, audio to iPods, people to use cameras and share material.’ The other trend, says Patten, is towards multi-user interaction. ‘Social interaction is a very important part of the museum experience, particularly for schools and families, and we need technology frameworks that make this happen.’

The challenge for designers is to bring to life a collection’s subjects, objects and stories without getting carried away by complexity. Museums must not fall back on technology solely as a means to captivate, warns Mathias. ‘It’s quite a risky path to take. People are suddenly going to become immune to technology and then what have you got left to captivate them? They seem to be a bit carried away with it, like when Flash hit the Web and everybody used it even if it wasn’t the best way to show the content,’ he says.

But despite challenges of suitability, reliability and cost, there are many wonderful applications of digital technology in the museum environment; designs which successfully promote involvement and learning, along with a good helping of wonder. It is, of course, the way ideas are executed, rather than the technologies themselves, that can carry an exhibition to the next level. Here is a selection of projects where digital designers have successfully married technology with an astute sense of objects, subjects and their environment to create alluring zones of discovery. ‹

UK Pavilion, Expo 2005, Aichi
Land Design Studio

Land Design Studio’s environment for the UK Pavilion at the 2005 Expo in Aichi, Japan attracted more than 3 million visitors. The scheme combined ecology in the form of a planted woodland, eight commissioned art installations and an interior space showcasing technological innovations inspired by the natural world, the expo’s over-arching theme.

Inside the structure, a series of interactive digital installations was used to explore natural themes, including uses of honeycomb structures and how tides created by the Moon can be harnessed for energy. Each interface is based around a physical action made by the visitor that relates to the idea being conveyed. Rotating the Moon around the Earth, for example, causes the projected tides to ebb and flow on the screen. According to Land Design Studio director Robin Clark, the use of digital installations in this way ‘helps the visitor to make immediate connections between their actions and the subject matter’. Verket, Avesta

Verket, Avesta
Interactive Institute

A 17th-century ironworks at the centre of the town of Avesta in Sweden provides the brooding backdrop for a sensory exploration of the building and its history. Developed by the Stockholm-based Interactive Institute’s Smart Studio and Emotional Studio (now the institute’s Art & Technology programme), the experience relies on an ‘invisible’ technology system, where computer-synchronised events are triggered by hand-held ‘flashlights’. Visitors are given two of these torches, one educational and one ‘poetic’. When shone on to glowing yellow targets placed around the works, the torch beams cause different media to be revealed, or machinery to grind into motion.

The project was led by Tobi Schneidler, now director of London environmental design consultancy Maoworks, who proposed the idea of interactive media which focus not on screens and installations, but on the senses and at a ‘human scale’. According to Tricia Austin, director of the Creative Practice for Narrative Environments course at London’s Central St Martins College of Art and Design, the Verket environment is powerful as a design concept because it leaves the dark, mysterious ambience of the iron works largely untouched by the exhibition.

‘It is experiential and immersive and demonstrates how a site can be transformed into an interactive environment in which visitors can learn, experience and be surprised,’ says Austin. ‘The flashlight’s coded and invisible beams trigger a variety of audiovisual media, spotlights, projections and even physical effects. The educational flashlight releases explanations of the steel production process, while the poetic flashlight makes the environment respond with personal stories and evocative effects.’

Jewish Museum and Museum of Natural History,
Berlin Art&Com

Projections on to touch-sensitive tables have been around for a while and are now widely used, but the scale and the complexity of computer-synched content are both increasing. Berlin interactive consultancy Art&Com’s design for the Floating Numbers exhibition in the city’s Jewish Museum employed a 9m-long table which displays a flowing ribbon of numbers. Users grab individual digits from the stream to discover their significance to science, religion or art, which is explained through text, pictures, film and animation playing out on the tabletop. Casson Mann conceived a similarly hands-on interactive table for the Churchill Museum in London. Its 18m ‘lifeline’ is a continuous projection screen that acts as a virtual archive of folders containing over 1500 documents and 500 photographs.

Art&Com also this month completes a three-year project for the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, featuring special telescopes that cause the museum’s dinosaur skeletons to grow organs, muscles and skin as they are viewed through the telescopes. Separately, All of Us is proposing a similar idea for a tower in the Royal Shakespeare Company complex that will digitally overlay information about Shakespeare-related Stratford buildings as users pan around the ‘live’ skyline.

Egypt exhibition, Birmingham
BBC One/Michael Danks

A show supporting the BBC One series Egypt, created by the BBC and independent producer Michael Danks, capitalises on the magical qualities of ‘invisible’ radio technology to produce a narrative experience. Visitors to the public space at BBC Birmingham were issued with radio frequency identification ‘press cards’, pitching them as reporters investigating a story about the curse of Tutankhamun. Interactive units around the space read each card’s RFID signal when visitors moved them within range. Specific to each person, the cards allow particular content to be locked and unlocked depending on information the user has already discovered.

An alternative to RFID is barcoding, a cheaper technology offering similar capabilities. The National History Museum’s current Ice Station Antarctica exhibition, designed by Land Design Studio, uses barcode identifiers on each entry ticket, clocking the progress of its ‘ice cadets’ through the exhibition, as well as unlocking additional on-line content after the visit – game and marketing tool all in one. But, according to Danks, RFID delivers a more immersive environment. ‘It’s more magical and mysterious. There is nothing visual to detract from the experience – the Egypt exhibition was set in the 1920s, when there would have been no barcodes,’ he explains.

The Public Gallery, West
Bromwich All of Us

Spun off as a separate enterprise after West Bromwich arts venue The Public experienced financial difficulties, The Public Gallery is set to open late next year with a complex RFID tagging system conceived by All of Us and implemented by RFID specialist Avonwood. Visitors will wear a necklace containing three types of RFID tags working at different ranges, as well as an infrared transmitter. The necklaces allow each of the artworks to ‘know’ the whereabouts of each visitor. The art will then respond, with colours and shapes relating to a profile created by the visitor at an All of Us-designed installation at the entrance. As well as using radio technology, the exhibition design taps into another important trend that is being delivered through new media – that of the ‘participatory’ exhibition. Work by some ten digital artists at The Public Gallery will be conceived specifically for the environment and built to react to these visitor profiles. As part of the participatory experience, each visitor will generate a set of unique films and artworks that they are able to e-mail from within the venue.

Advancing Technologies

Radio frequency identification
Objects can be embedded with a unique, radio-transmitted tag that RFID readers detect to display related information.

Another wireless technology which is currently in development for use in a museum environment. Bluetooth-enabled earpieces could deliver context-specific audio as the wearer moves freely around a space.

Touch-sensitive surfaces
The next generation of touch-screen surfaces has yet to make it into the museum sector, but Microsoft’s Surface technology ( com/surface), as well as Apple’s iPhone, both employ what’s known as a multi-touch surface. Another example of a large-scale, touch-sensitive screen is the CityWall in Finland, developed by the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (www.

Body-recognition software
The Science Museum is investigating sophisticated software that will allow recognition of individual body parts, says its head of new media Dave Patten. This would build on its existing Energy Gallery interactive installation on fossil-fuel mining, which is controlled by basic body movements detected by sensors in the floor.

Large-scale screens
In both cultural and corporate environments, advances in screen technologies are allowing designers to build displays into the very fabric of the building. Increasingly cheap screens, larger than 40 inches, can be used to unobtrusively set the ambience of a space, as well as to encourage ‘passive interactivity’ – whereby groups of visitors can see how other users engage with interactive installations.


Latest articles