Trip to London Musuems

Our course took a trip to Exhibition Road to visit the variety of museums that are situated along the strip. I decided to make a note of the different exhibits that were there, especially the interactive ones, as I think it will help with coming up with a solution to my next project. By gauging how audiences interact with different types of interactive media and visual displays in general, and what works and does not work, will help me come up with an engaging piece.

I visited the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. There were a range of different exhibits through the three museums I visited, and each appealed to different demographics in different ways and generally had very different exhibition styles. I decided to study both the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum in particular as they had very different approaches to audience engagement and various strengths and weaknesses.

Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum had a mix of both traditional information graphics and interactive screen-based displays, but I found that in general a lot of the impact of the museum mostly relied on the objects themselves. One of the areas of the museum that I found particularly interesting was the dinosaur exhibit. This was mainly geared towards children and so most of the graphic information presented was very brief and in simple language, however they were often not read. Main interest in this area was on the dinosaur fossils and animatronics themselves and most people were very disengaged with the information displays. Although most of the information was presented through traditional information graphics, there were some interactive displays in the space the main one being a quiz game on information displayed in the dinosaur exhibit. It was situated in an area slightly set aside from the main path and during my observations not many people used it. The reasons for this could be that most people were with very young children, who were too young to reach the buttons or read the text. Also as it was set aside from the main path, it was a diversion that could be easily overlooked for most people who were more interested in the fossils.

Another thing I observed in the museum, was that even though much of the exhibit was not digital, a lot of people chose to interact with the space through digital media in some way, either by using their phones or cameras to film and take pictures of the space. This could be utilized by the curators by implementing a camera based app that can detect when people are pointing their cameras at a particular animatronic or fossil and then give corresponding screen based information. In observing the Natural History Museum I learned how important it is to base information displays on both the demographics of the space, but also the space itself and how people interact with it.

Science Museum

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An interactive display is embedded into a traditional information board in front of a steam engine. The interactive graphics (which was set out like a webpage) expanded with more in depth information on what was presented on the board. As the board was in front of the steam engine and used as a kind of barrier, engagement was high with the piece.

The Science Museum was the most interesting museum to observe during my trip as it had such a wide range of displays of both the traditional and digital kind. It also had a widest range of demographics in the space, with there being parents and infants, school children and adults visiting the museum. Mostly the displays were very effective with a high level of engagement from all of these different groups. One of the ways the museum achieved this was through different spaces in the museum directed at different demographics.

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Projections onto a sphere of several different global maps. This installation was particularly popular, presumably partly because of novelty and the scale of the piece, but it could also partly be because of complex information being presented in an easily understandable way (through voice recording and image.)

Although some of the displays presented text-based information on complicated themes, they were usually adjacent to posters with more simple language or a more visual representation on the topic. This can be shown in the above example where although the voice recording relayed some very complex information, the sphere projection conveyed the themes talked upon in a visual manner, which made it more popular with children who might not have understood the voice recording. A disadvantage of using techniques like this is that inevitably some of the information would be lost if the voice recording could not be heard or understood and the visual information could become quite abstract. This approach is typical of many museums as described by Twiss Houting et al. (2013) where information is displayed in a variety of different ways to complement various visitors knowledge discrepancies and different learning styles.

Some of the most popular displays integrated both screen based and animatronic interaction. An example of this is a game-like display where visitors could use a screen to play games based on saving energy and in return a model city in front of them would raise, lower and light up in response to how well they did in the game. Although not entirely applicable to my project, it was interesting to see how adding objects that can be manipulated physically greatly improved interaction with the piece.

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An interactive exhibit at the Science Museum. Visitors can text and use apps to interact with the installation which uses video to ask quiz questions on the internet.

Conversely, some of the least popular exhibits were purely screen-based. One particular wing was set out as a series of interactive screens where visitors could learn more about current scientific discoveries using a web- based interface. Although personally I found the information in these exhibits very interesting as they were very thorough in a wide range of topics, in 10 minutes of observed time only 2 people interacted with the piece. Of course these figures may be different at busier times, but the rest of the museum saw notably more engagement and footfall during the time-frame I was there. This was somewhat surprising for me though I could predict that some of the reasons for this low level of engagement is that the screens were installed at table height with a single seat in front of them. This made it hard for groups of visitors to interact with the displays, especially those with children.

App and phone based interaction with the displays was also as unpopular with no-one in the observed time using the museum’s SMS and app features to interact with the museum. From very informal discussions with visitors this seemed to be for several reasons. One main one was because people did not want to take the time to stop and download an app or text when they could be looking around the exhibit as there was so much to see. Although this contradicts my earlier findings in the Natural History Museum, where people were often on their phones. it could be because of the very different environments of the two spaces, with the Science Museum having many more digital experiences present in the space and a lot less physical objects available to be photographed.

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A simple interactive display where film from thermal imaging camera is projected onto the screen.

One thing I observed that was particularly relevant to my project was the popularity of exhibits were people could view altered images of themselves. Even though technically most of these were very simple, such as convex and concave mirrors and thermal imaging cameras they were very popular. Taking as an example the thermal imaging camera as illustrated above, within ten minutes of observed time almost every visitor passing it stopped to see their image. Again this could be that their actions are concretely changing the environment, like in the energy game outlined above although I presume that part of it is to do with the eternal fascination of the representation of self and by the alteration of that image. This is something I am going to explore in the further development of my project.

Generally I found that the Science Museum created far more engagement with their information displays for a variety of reasons, the main one being using a greater variety of different methods for conveying information and differing levels of complexity of information. The Science Museum also utilized digital media more effectively in some If I were to visit the museum again I would set up some more formal interviews and questionnaires to be more certain of the reasons for some of the observed patterns in audience engagement I have discovered and gain more accurate data.

Twiss Houting, B., Taylor, M., & Watts., S., 2013. Learning Theory in the Museum Setting[online] Avaiable at: http://www.bu.edu/sed/files/2013/11/Twiss-Houting.pdf [Accessed 24.11.2014]