Getting started with Interactive Exhibit Design

The second semester of my M.A. in Public History has taken a definite turn towards museum studies. I read an interesting statistic this week about museum exhibits and the amount of time people spend in them. Bev Serrell claims that “The average time is 10 minutes or less in many exhibitions ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet, regardless of the topic, type of museum, or modes of presentation.”

Ten minutes or less! For those in the museum profession, this is not a long time at all to get your point across. How do you condense months, sometimes years of research into something people can understand and remember in such a short period of time? For me, a memorable exhibit is one which involves several senses, has exceptionally interesting text/artifacts, or encourages active participation (or all of the above!). An educational and memorable experience is just what I am hoping to deliver at the end of my course in Interactive Exhibit Design.

What is an interactive exhibit? The definition that I’ve come up with is “an experience that is activated by a person’s interaction with an object.” Although our course emphasizes the use of digital technology, interactive exhibits can be digital or analog. At the Gothenburg City Museum, for instance, visitors quickly gain a new appreciation for medieval knights by using a pulley system to (try to) lift a sword and a chainmail shirt, which are suspended in their exhibit cases. I don’t know how people could move while they were wearing that stuff, let alone fight!

The most inspiring (and terrifying) aspect of this course is the fact that, truly, the sky is the limit. We have enough equipment and software in our History Department’s “Fab Lab” that anything we can think up, we can probably try in one form or another. I have to completely change my perceptions of what constitutes a feasible project and what’s outlandish. This means over the past two weeks I’ve had a few hard-core brainstorming sessions. This has resulted in a long list of half-baked ideas of things I could make, but nothing that seems quite concrete enough yet.

The Couch of Contemplation - where all truly great ideas begin.

The Couch of Contemplation – where all truly great ideas begin.

Some ideas I’ve had so far:

  • a jukebox that plays historic pieces of music as if they’re on a historical character’s “favourites playlist”;
  • something Sherlock Holmes themed, maybe a magnifying glass that you do something with;
  • a 3-D model of Krak des Chevaliers (an awe-inspiring castle which may be seeing damage from the Syrian conflicts) that tells you about itself as you interact with it;
  • some sort of control panel for a time machine that guides you through different periods of history;
  • something to do with MapBox, since I already know how to use it and I love interactive maps;
  • a choose-your-own-adventure that you physically move through;
  • a soundscape that you physically move through along an invisible timeline;
  • a composer’s baton that tracks your gestures and adjusts tempo/volume of music according to your movement, as if you’re really conducting.

My goal is to create something that’s not only cool and fun to play with, but actually teaches something – perhaps using words, perhaps not. I’m trying to picture this course as if I’m building a prototype of an interactive exhibit to be used in a museum. As I’m brainstorming I’m constantly asking myself, What idea can I convey with this object or activity? How is the interactive exhibit better suited to this message than a traditional panel of text?

I’ve always found picking topics to be difficult, since I like so many things, and I tend to get caught up in trying to find “the perfect idea.” (Alas, there seem to be no Eureka moments in my future.) And then I get distracted, and find myself ten minutes later looking at a recipe for Russian sour-cherry preserves. How did that happen? Maybe I need to make an edible exhibit. …or not. I think the real secret to doing well in this course will be to avoid overthinking everything, and to get back into my younger self’s frame of mind – the frame of mind that allowed me to write stories, draw, create board games and puzzles, make forts, and build contraptions on a whim.

Stay tuned as I stumble my way towards making something amazing. By my next blog post on Interactive Exhibit Design, I hope to be finished brainstorming, and ready to program/build stuff!

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