Guided by voices

In this age of ever more elaborate multimedia exhibitions, how do you strike the right balance between offering an in-depth museum experience and avoiding information overkill? Scott Billings looks at the latest technologies for guided tours

Combining new approaches to interpretation and fast-evolving technologies, the museums and galleries world is abuzz with work by designers and curators to develop richer, deeper and more immersive visitor experiences. As part of this, there is much experimentation with the idea of exhibition guides – the range of materials designed to enhance and supplement the main space by offering more detailed information than can be carried by a 3D and graphic scheme alone.

London’s Tate Modern has already installed a fully multimedia tour designed by global audio-visual guide producer Antenna Audio, featuring contextual interviews, video, images and audio, all delivered to handheld PDA devices. The Tate says the system offers a commentary on the art while ‘preserving the visual integrity of the displays’. According to Alyson Webb, creative director for Europe at Antenna Audio, PDAs are great for tailoring content in a way that would be much more difficult with graphic panels. ‘There are some things that mobile multimedia does well and others not so well. You have to think about the mix of media and the information it will carry. Then giving designers time to properly integrate that into the overall design is very important,’ she says.

Antenna’s work for the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum illustrates this. ‘We were brought in at the same time as graphic, interactive and kiosk designers and worked with the museum’s curatorial team to produce multimedia guides in a range of languages. This way we can deliver tennis player interviews in the right language,’ she adds.

Although at this level of detail, handheld devices may be a better option than graphic panels, placing such ‘interventions’ between the visitor and exhibits can also have some unwanted side effects. Independent exhibition installation designer Joe Cutting says that one such effect, especially with PDAs, is that they pull attention away from the objects themselves. ‘At Tate Modern they started off thinking they could have games, social networking and all this kind of stuff, but then realised that people will spend all their time looking at a poky little screen instead of the art,’ he says. After trials, guides were pared down, focusing on supplementary content about key artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Joseph Beuys and Frank Stella.

One of the designer’s challenges is to prevent users getting lost in technology, employing it instead to light the spark of debate and interpretation. Extensive research at the Exploratorium science and art centre in San Francisco showed that PDAs even deterred people from using the venue’s very hands-on exhibits, says Cutting. Or, as Webb puts it, ‘No matter how good an interaction designer you are, you have to facilitate a great moment between people and the exhibits, not the screen.’

Designers are also harnessing other technologies to absorb visitors in an interaction with the exhibits themselves. BBC Learning and Interactive Television used radio frequency identification, or RFID, to move visitors through a themed exhibition on Egypt. In an interactive journey centred on the death of Lord Carnarvon as he entered Tutankhamun’s tomb, each visitor is given a ‘press card’ allowing access to computer stations throughout the BBC’s Mailbox space. Visitors were periodically locked out of systems, encouraging them to discover more.

It’s this idea of discovery that is at the heart of a system called Ookl, a product devised by service design consultancy The Sea. Developed initially for schoolchildren, Ookl promotes interaction and reflection as learning aids by delivering contextual information straight to mobile phones. Trialled at venues including the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth and Urbis in Manchester, the aim is to get children to form memories, says The Sea creative director Paul Phillips.

‘It’s not just about consumption, but about getting people to express themselves too. Ookl allows them to record sounds, make notes, take photographs, all as they’re standing in front of the object,’ explains Phillips. At the D-Day Museum, some students were given the challenge of discovering what it was like to be a child during the D-Day period. ‘The children are consuming and collecting in a kind of detective treasure hunt through the museum,’ adds Phillips. Their recordings are also instantly compiled into personal Web pages that can be viewed later to open up further debate.

This is the direction in which exhibition guides are heading, says Webb. Antenna Audio is developing a system of ‘bookmarking’ that, similar to Ookl, collects chosen objects into a Web page for later viewing. It also ran a recent trial of a mobile phone system for Tate Modern’s show on American sculptor David Smith. This used existing archive audio of Smith in interview to recreate a type of ‘phone conversation’ guide to the work in the gallery.

Extending the idea of exhibition guides even further is The Partners’ concept for the National Gallery’s Grand Tour, a series of guided walks across London, where prints from the gallery’s collection are temporarily on display. Each print carries a phone number giving more information about the work and an accompanying website, designed by Digit, offers interactive route maps and audio tour downloads.

With the wider adoption of mobile technologies and a desire by museums to spread their collections and knowledge more widely, the skills of graphic, 3D, product, interaction and digital designers are vital in helping visitors navigate a wealth of material. The challenge, as ever, is to leave sufficient space for reflection and personal appreciation, while simultaneously providing a robust context for learning and excitement.

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