Several questions about developing museum exhibits.
January 11, 2004 2:39 PM   Subscribe

I work with a group of people that develop museum exhibits and I've spent a lot of time thinking about unusual interfaces and compelling non-traditional experiences. I've been deep in this for some time, but would be interested in the views of people not quite so close to the field. So, a few questions:

1.What and where are some of the most compelling museum experiences you've had and why, online or in real life (ideally using tech in a surprising or particularly effective way, but I'm interested in the core of any great museum experience)?

2.Given your druthers, what sort of interaction would you like to have with a museum that you're not getting?

3.What conferences or shows might I attend to be exposed to stuff of which I'm not already aware, in the US or internationally. (Obvious ones are the annual meetings of AAM, ASTC, SIGGRAPH, SIGCHI, Ars Electronica)

4.What universities are doing compelling research and application in creating compelling interfaces and experiences that can work in a museum environment (such as the MIT Media Lab or Fraunhofer Institut)?

5. What companies or design firms execute this sort of stuff like no other (such as Second Story Interactive)?

posted by warhol to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
re: Question 1, online museum experiences: I liked this from Seattle & this from Los Angeles, both via Metafilter.
posted by obloquy at 2:48 PM on January 11, 2004

I can tell you one thing about museum experience that is absolutely critical and that I've seen done wrong far too many times. It's not really a content or interaction issue, but it can trump such things and ruin the best such designs.

Traffic Flow.

Nothing makes me hate being in museum more than botched traffic flow with lots of dead ends and other mistakes that throw people into each other going in different directions.

I've hated every single time I've been in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry because of this.

On the other hand, going to the Field Museum of Naturual History is usually quite pleasant regardless of the merits of the various exhibits.
posted by ursus_comiter at 3:10 PM on January 11, 2004

Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry

Yeah, MSI is hard because of the structure of the building - long wings that dead end, forcing you to retrace your steps to get back to the main hall.

What'd you think of NetWorld, Imaging, or the Genetics exhibit there?
posted by warhol at 3:13 PM on January 11, 2004

Never saw them. Haven't been there since 1998 at the latest. Honestly, I don't think I'm willing to go back there for any exhibit.
posted by ursus_comiter at 3:17 PM on January 11, 2004

Traffic Flow seconded.
posted by mookieproof at 6:26 PM on January 11, 2004

My favorite museum is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It's a bit of an anomaly in the museum world due to the terms of Mrs. Jack's will (nothing can be added or subtracted*, it all has to remain as it was when she died). What I love about it is that it's so clearly one person's vision, that things aren't collected all together by type or era, but instead jumbled all together--there is nothing more boring to me than looking at a glass case full of nothing but silver teapots. I realize I'm a bit of a freak, though, in that respect.

As far as science museums go, where things do sort of have to be organized, I have to agree that traffic flow is the big one. And parents who let their children shove other adults out of the way, but there's nothing you can do about that.

In terms of interaction, I'd like to have somewhat detailed information on the exhibits available for free or at a small charge. I don't want to have to spend $15+ on a guide book, and I'd like something I can take home with me. Doesn't have to be fancy--a photocopy will do. I don't want to be made to feel that I have to take a tour (self-guided or with a person) to understand the exhibits.

*except, of course, for those painting that were stolen about 15 years ago, including a Vermeer and Rembrandt
posted by eilatan at 6:53 PM on January 11, 2004

1. I thought Te Papa in Wellington, New Zealand was a great museum, especially Bush City and Mountains to the Sea exhibits. Terrible website tho.
4. I think HIT Lab NZ's augmented reality technology is amazing.
5. Nofrontiere's work in museum exhibits flooered me when I first saw it.
posted by X-00 at 7:30 PM on January 11, 2004

I did *not* like the wearable-computer-borg-like-contraptions given out by the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

It's a small computer with a hard drive and motherboard in a little bag that goes over your shoulder. The computer is connected to a ruggedized compaq iPaq. And to some headphones. The device is both rfid (I think) aware and this lets each section of the museum play an "intro" voiceover and musical selection as you enter the section--which is admittedly cool. You enter the disco room, and a nice professional voiceover begins, over some funky beats from the 1970s. The iPaq has the infrared little dongle on the front, and this is also used to get extra content from many exhibits. You point the thing like a remote and press some hardware button, and the content plays.

This all seems well and good. But it's not. It takes away, largely, the communal and group nature of going to a musuem. I might as well have not been there with my three friends at all, for as hard as it was to talk with them (both about the exhibits and not). One had to wait for them to show up (the wearable making the pace that much more self-paced), gesture to them, remove one or both of your headphone speakers, wait for them to remove their speakers, and then say "cool, huh?" This problem is not insurmountable, but it surely is a consequence that was not planned for by the museum designers.
posted by zpousman at 7:35 PM on January 11, 2004

More substance. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing, say, an artifact that takes your breath away from a culture you've never heard of without being able to get a decent amount of information on the spot. My ideal museum would be half exhibits, half research library. With real chairs in which one is actually encouraged to spend time and look deeper into things.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 8:18 PM on January 11, 2004

One of the most compelling museums I've been in was the Museum of Tolerance down in LA. When you enter in, there's a video display of this guy, your "host," whose going on a funny and slick monologue in which he's talking about frustrating everyday experiences with a racial overcast. Nothing blatant - just the sort of thing you'd hear from people all the time (e.g., complaing about customer service people who are immigrants or don't speak English well).

The guy goes on and on, and then, to enter the museum, you have to choose between two doors - one labeled "Prejudiced" and the other one labeled "Non-prejudiced." It was a little exercise that really forced people to think about themselves. The inside of the museum was filled with other little interactive things as well, so you really ended up having an experience, rather than only learning about history.

Similar moments occur in the Holocaust museum in Washington, when you take a passport portraying a real person in the Holocaust, and you find out what really happened to that person. Or when you ride up in those elevators that are made to resemble gas chambers. Or when you learn about Krystalnacht, and then cross over a huge glass bridge. And on...

I really like museums that combine a certain amount of theater with the learning experience. I realize that it might not work for all museums, and that it can go over the line and get hokey, but still - it feels really memorable to go into museums that do it right.

PS Has anyone ever been to theMuseum of Jurassic Technology in LA? I keep hearing about it, but have never made it down there... Is it for real??
posted by jasper411 at 8:36 PM on January 11, 2004

4. not to self-link, but I work in the Human Media Lab at Queen's University (Canada). We have a piece in the Ontario Science Centre, and we're in the process of making a new-media centre, with a strong basis in the arts.

Oh yeah, our website stinks.
posted by krunk at 8:38 PM on January 11, 2004

Re: Museum of Jurassic Technology... yep, it's real -- it just depends on exactly what your definition of "real" is. I shall say no more.

Other than to say "thanks!" to obloquy for the Legacy of Genghis Khan shout-out... I'll pass on your positive response to the curator (I work at LACMA and helped with the exhibit).
posted by scody at 9:45 PM on January 11, 2004

I second any pieces that involve interactive elements, or artwork that is a result of collaboration with viewers. People like Golan Levin come to mind.

I also personally love any exhibits that bring in the outdoors, or are open and expansive. I can't stand 'stuffy' exhibits, or ones that are in closed spaces. I love the building and gardens of the Getty in LA and the Walker in mpls.
posted by jazzkat11 at 10:27 PM on January 11, 2004

I would like museum experiences that are less like being marched through theme-park queues while passively watching tv and more like exploring professional collections of fascinating and offbeat specimens, with some context to explore as one is motivated to. My best museum experience was probably on a school field trip, when we were taken "behind the scenes" and shown the drawers and drawers of stuffed birds and mounted butterflies and seashells. Much more compelling than the vapid public displays.
posted by rushmc at 1:09 AM on January 12, 2004

In the Spring of 2002, Carnegie Mellon University offered a Museum Design class taught by Marc Rettig, which might prove helpful, even though not all of the materials are still online. I might try contacting him personally.
posted by kathryn at 4:41 PM on January 13, 2004

I was just about to mention the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Half had me thinking "this is really interesting & cool" and half had me thinking "I feel like I'm in a psych experiment, and there are grad students monitoring me from behind that window."

I encourage everyone to go if they possibly can.

Pet peeves in a museum? Bad traffic flow (the Tate Modern in London is atrocious at this) and not using non-reflective glass in a visual arts museum.

I also like museums that feel homey and unexpected and feel like they express a personal vision. Sir John Soane's Museum in London is wonderful -- it's his house and is a marvelous hodgepodge of stuff he collected throughout his life.

The Cloisters in New York is the medieval-art branch of the Met. It's assembled from huge chunks of real medieval cloisters and chapels, and it commands a beautiful bluff near Manhattan's northern tip. So cool to see medieval art in an authentically medieval setting. (And I hear that Rockefeller not only bought the land for the museum...but not wanting to do things halfway, bought 400 acres across the river in New Jersey, just so the museum would have a permanently unspoiled view.)

Also, the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh has some amazing works, including Raphaels, van Dycks, and Tiepolos. But it's in a gorgeous building, with red-silk-covered walls and period furniture that you can sit on, and everything feels very warm and inviting.

And the Center for Land Use Interpretation's website makes me wish they had more of a physical presence somewhere (aside from their office next door to the MJT.)
posted by Vidiot at 9:30 PM on January 13, 2004

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