For some people, going to a museum is a deep and fulfilling experience.
For others, it’s worse than watching paint dry. It’s literally watching dried paint.
Jake Barton, designer and founder of the museum consulting firm Local Projects, shudders at the idea that something as visually appealing and historically rich as a museum could ever be a bore.
If it is, Barton says, it’s because the museum has failed to capture humans’ deep-seated love of storytelling. It hasn’t made the exhibit, artwork, or artifact relatable.
“Unless somebody is completely committed to a story, how you tell that story is incredibly important,” Barton tells Tech Insider. Even people interested in art or science can lose interest if they don’t connect with the material in just the right way.
“So one thing museums can do effectively is have a mixed media approach that allows different people to engage at different levels,” he says, “because that’s really critical.”
Barton’s approach with Local Projects is to blend technology, culture, and childlike wonder. It’s helped turn New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the September 11th Memorial & Museum into entirely interactive experiences.
At Cooper-Hewitt, visitors receive a high-tech pen that they can use on tabletop screens strewn around the museum. Draw a straight line with the pen, and a piece of artwork from the collection — in that shape — appears on the screen. Draw a triangle, and a triangle-shaped piece pops up.
Elsewhere, in the Immersion Room, visitors can create their own virtual wallpaper. They can then share their creations on social media, taking ownership of the immortalised design.
Further downtown, visitors at the September 11th Memorial & Museum can hold their smartphones up at a given site and see, live on-screen, what the scene looked like during the disaster. The augmented reality project is one of more than 90 multimedia installations at the museum.
What makes those museums work, Barton explains, is that they immerse the visitor within the exhibit. People can’t help but feel connected.
“Older museums have challenges because typically they launch with the uniform technology of their time,” he says. “And if that technology doesn’t continue to be engaging it can be really stifling.”
As a result, some of the dinosaurs use no technology at all — save for a headset and audio tour — because they fear they will somehow taint the integrity of the exhibit. But what they’re really doing is cutting out entire groups of people who might take an interest in the museum if the stories inside were told in a new and different way.
“If you look at the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, those were the cutting-edge technologies of their day,” Barton says. Here he’s referring to the dozens of glass-encased animals that have been stuffed and staged to recreate scenes straight from their natural habitat.
“They were actually controversial because they were seen as edutainment, taking the same techniques used at Coney Island and using them in a learning-centered way,” he goes on. “Teachers literally protested outside AMNH when they saw those things, and they still work today. They’re emotional and beautiful and interesting.”
In other words, technology doesn’t have to keep up with the latest trends for it to be moving.
“If you focus on something that’s both spectacular and engaging,” he says, “you can last for a long, long time.”
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