Point and learn

The future of museum exhibition design lies in developing more intelligent and involving user experiences, but budget-busting technology isn’t always the best solution. Tom Banks investigates the state of the art in interactive applications

As museum interactives become richer experiences for visitors, the design groups involved and the institutions themselves both say they are being mindful not to make the technology dominate the user experience.

On Saturday the Science Museum in London will open the Who Am I and Antenna galleries as part of its refurbished Wellcome Wing. A third gallery, Atmosphere, opens in November with interactive installations by All of Us and GRDD within a space designed by Casson Mann.

Dave Pattern, head of new media at the Science Museum, says that although the institution has a long history of physical installations and computer-based interactives, pioneering technologies can pose a risk.

Critically, Pattern says designers need to ask themselves whether technology is always the best solution. ’I’d rather use a beautiful object or something simple to tell a story [if the situation allows it],’ he says.

However, despite this cautious approach, interaction remains at the forefront of design at the Science Museum.

’I’m interested in blending the physical and online environments, the social aspects, multi-user experiences and social engagement in a space – people talking to other people,’ says Pattern. ’This should force them to stop and think, and can be a valuable aid to their learning and understanding.’

In the Who Am I gallery, All of Us is designing Me Three, an interactive experience which will encourage participation without being intrusive, Pattern hopes. On entering the gallery, an image of each visitor will be captured and rendered in dots and circles, which will then be projected across the floor and walls. At the centre of the room a multi-user, question-based interactive will cause ’phobias and desires’ to be projected over those images, according to Pattern.

Apart from graphics by A Plus B, the Antenna gallery has been designed entirely by an in-house team. Its approach shows that museums are redefining interactives to offer visitors experiences that extend beyond the museum walls, before and after their visit.

Live Web feeds will aggregate science news stories and display them on two 1.2m screens, and visitors will be encouraged to choose stories they are interested in and add comments. The gallery will draw on users’ experience of social media and encourage them to drill down into content by subject, and to think about pertinent scientific issues, Pattern says.

Augmented reality and gesture control interactives are currently under development for the forthcoming Atmosphere gallery, which will focus on climate change. Pattern adds that the museum is looking to appoint more designers to work in the space.

The gesture control installation will see ’an invisible spinning globe’ realised in front of a screen, says Pattern. A camera-based device will allow users to explore climate systems and how the sun heats the Earth.

GRDD is working on an augmented reality installation for the same space. Physical blocks tracked by cameras can be manipulated to unfold a carbon-cycle narrative represented on screen.

Pattern believes the future of museum interactive design will be explored through personal, handheld devices, such as smart phones.

He says, ’We’re still some way off knowing what this fully allows us to do. Apple iPhones, for example, are a very easy platform to develop for, and are indicative of the way smart phones are going.’ Research into interactive experiences through handheld devices may help reduce investment in more complex technologies, Pattern believes.

Exhibition design consultancy Studio MB defines its offer as ’telling historical stories by involving and informing, in equal measure’, according to director Charlie Barr. He finds that the budgetary constraints of smaller museums mean that costly and experimental technologies are not suitable for testing on his clients.

Barr, who says he is ’not a big fan of touchscreens’, says his idea of interaction includes creating ’hands-on’ weapon replication, as in the Battle of Bosworth Visitor Centre in Leicestershire, where visitors are encouraged to feel the size and weight of weaponry.
For this exhibition Studio MB created an interactive screen surrounded by the armour on display. Visitors need to understand how the armour joins together to dress an on-screen Sir Percy Thirlwall, clad in long johns.
Explaining the installation, which recently won a Museum of Heritage award, Barr says, ’My bugbear is if an interactive is not intuitive enough, or is too complicated, it becomes a barrier. There needs to be a reward at the end. It must appeal to six- to 65-year-olds, and be distinctive and fun.’
Barr believes more pioneering technology can come into its own when graphic boards or interfaces would distract from the environment – particularly at country houses and ruins where maintaining an atmosphere is crucial. Using pre-loaded MP3 players provided on site, Barr is looking at how visitors can point the adapted devices at artefacts to trigger atmospheric audio or commentary.

’We’re proposing this to two clients, and it could really help conjure a sense of place,’ says Barr. He believes the design could also work with some smart phones.

Designers and museums would agree that as interactive technology advances, its presence must be set in the context of narrative, social engagement and learning.

Cogapp managing director Alex Morrison says that, used correctly, the technology can mask itself. ’Advances in graphics processing, open-source tool kits, infra-red tracking and hidden cameras all help,’ he says.

Cogapp’s installation for the British Library’s Magnificent Maps exhibition opened in May, and uses these techniques ’to make the technology disappear,’ Morrison says.

Visitors to this exhibition are offered a glassless magnifying instrument on a table interface displaying maps. ’Instinctively, they pick up the magnifier and hold it over the table,’ says Morrison. Maps can then be selected and explored, but, vitally, he says it doesn’t feel like using a computer.

Atmosphere, the Science Museum climate science gallery

Exhibition space by Casson Mann

Central interactive exhibit by All of Us

Graphics by Nick Bell Design

Exhibits by GRDD, Clay, Seeper, HMC Two Four, Atacama

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