In today's world where people have abundant means of acquiring information, museums are stepping up their efforts to display content and artifacts in ways that amaze and engage their visitors so that they understand more, stay longer, come back more often, and recommend the experience to friends.
Largely through the use of digital technology (apps, in-museum devices which send additional info by email after, connect with social media, augmented reality, facilitated selfies, etc.) museums are offering more interactive, shareable experiences and personalized stories that connect what's on view to the visitor's life. The use of some of these technologies allows museums to publicly catalog and "display" the estimated 80% of artifacts which are housed in storage at any given time in an interactive medium, allowing curators to enrich the narrative experience exponentially.
Designers and curators are cognizant of the solitary nature of most digital engagement—one person on one screen—and also the fatigue associated with the number of messages people receive in their daily online and physical lives. They are tackling the issue of many-to-one interactions and are in the lead in this new type of interface paradigm, and continue to find ways for their message to resonate with visitors through physical and digital spaces.
Using technology, museums can put visitors virtually into the experience, let them design and understand their own experience, explore to their own depth and on their own terms, and provide the means to connect with the experience before and after being in the museum. They can let the visitor leave a mark of their presence at the exhibition and their impressions of it. They are helping to build a deeper connection between the visitor and the museum than was ever possible before.
The experience-extending medium
When the goal is to offer visitors experiences designed to carry the appropriate message in an emotionally connective way, curators can choose digital or physical. When visitors to SEGD Fellow Ralph Appelbaum's U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum physically carry facsimile ID papers of real people who experienced the Holocaust, they are definitely engaged sans digital interaction.
The magic of technology is its ability to activate people inside the museum in interesting ways, and to expand their connection beyond the physical space. Innovative technologies are putting the visitor into the center of the experience in ways ranging from posting their selfies in real time alongside exhibits to "capturing" and taking home museum artifacts. Recent projects executed by SEGD members are excellent examples of the popularity (and behind the scenes complexity) of experience-extending technology:
Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art. New York firm Local Projects opened the door to experience-extending uses of technology when they were tasked with helping the Cleveland Museum of Art engage visitors and created "Gallery One,"a suite of interactives that transform the art museum experience. Visitors can explore digital versions of the artworks, gathering ideas and seeing the original context of the artworks themselves. Rather than simply viewing the artwork created by others, visitors can also create their own works of art, gaining a new understanding of the creative process by being creative themselves. Through interactive games, visitors can put their own bodies into the experience, matching poses with figurative sculptures or browsing the museum's collection by making different facial gestures. Gallery One won an SEGD Honor Award in 2013.
The Pen at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Museum. Local Projects won a 2015 SEGD Global Design Merit Award for a constellation of interactive media—including "the super-powered pen"—that enlivened the complete renovation of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Touch one end of the pen to a plus sign you find on an object label in the museum and you’ve added that object to your virtual collection. Use the pen's other end to draw and design on touch tables located throughout the museum. By analyzing the data the pen generates, the museum knows that, on average, visitors spend about an hour and a half in the small museum, collect about 30 objects, save one design they created, and return periodically to the museum's website to learn more about "their" collection.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's new Boeing Milestones of Flight Hallinteractive wall with GO FLIGHT app designed by Bluecadet. The large touchscreen wall in the hall has rotating content that can be seen from a distance, including highlights, social feeds, facts and photos. From close-up the user is able to navigate through the collections, and get a sense for the connections between exhibits, artifacts and their affect on our modern lives. If a user selects an artifact, they can send it to the app on their smartphone via a code, and the app will actively guide the visitor to the artifact in the collection, as well as provide additional context. Once outside the museum, the main functionality of the app shifts from wayfinding and providing context for artifacts to content—linked to the website's content—extending the learning experience.
The Immersive Interactive Ghostbusters Experience at Madame Tussaud's NYC. OpenEye Global, a technology and experience design agency, just completed a memorable first-of-its-kind experience that combines virtual reality and real-time interactive effects with lighting, motion, film and sound on a three-story theatrical set. A unique sensory connection to the story itself is created as each visitor's steps cause additional material to be revealed-- even Slimer, a holographic 3D ghost who flies around and interacts with visitors. Technology is the enabler here as the visitor's interactions create their singular story of "being" a Ghostbuster through digital engagement.
Expanding the museum-to-visitor experience, too
From the point of view of the museum, technology that better connects the visitor to the museum's content can establish a relevant means of communicating with visitors in the future and also give meaningful data about visitors, what they want to learn, and how they react to and interact with exhibitions. Being able to analyze effectiveness with real metrics is becoming very important; curators and administrators can use visitor data in increasingly sophisticated ways to improve operations, justify new expenses, further evolve current exhibits or plan future exhibits in ways most likely to maintain the museum's relevance for an expectant and evolving audience.
So, technology can give the museum a better understanding of what they should do, and it has also evolved so that, once in place, it is easier for the museum to manage to change, adding or updating content. Ultimately, it is the stories delivered through the technology and not the technology itself, that will keep people interested.
This article was prepared with the assistance of Jake Bartonand Bryan Meszaros.