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Designing Interactive Museum Exhibits!: Enhancingvisitor curiosity through augmented artefacts

Luigina CiolfiInteraction Design Centre

Computer Science BuildingUniversity of Limerick

Ireland+353 61 213530

[email protected]

Liam J. BannonInteraction Design Centre

Computer Science BuildingUniversity of Limerick

Ireland+353 61 202632

[email protected]

ABSTRACTIn this paper, we describe the current work beingconducted at the Interaction Design Centre on thedesign and development of a novel interactive museumexhibition. The particular context and cultural setting ofthe museum calls for a careful approach to theintroduction of technology in such a context. Wepresent some of the findings from our early fieldstudies, and discuss how we are attempting to take thesefindings into account in our ongoing design processes.

KeywordsMuseum technologies, engagement, design process, roleof artefacts.

INTRODUCTIONThis paper provides an outline of some of the workbeing done by researchers at the University of LimerickInteraction Design Centre (UL IDC) on the EUDisappearing Computer SHAPE (Situating HybridAssemblies in Public Environments) project. Our focushere is on issues in designing innovative interactiveexperiences for visitors to the Hunt Museum located inLimerick, Ireland.The introduction of technology into museums andexhibitions is a difficult and delicate matter, as themuseum is a rather complex entity from the point ofview of experience, interaction and exhibition design(Falk & Dierking, 1995), e.g. educational issues,curatorial necessities, pleasuarable visitor experiences,etc need to be merged. A number of distinctcommunities, with different disciplinary backgroundsand thus cultures, are involved in the process:pedagogical and curatorial concerns have to beunderstood and supported by exhibition, informationand interaction designers and technology developers.We need to understand the ecology of artefacts, spacesand practices with a view to trying to create somechanges or interventions in that context. How to takeinto account these different perspectives is not an easyquestion to answer. In what follows we describe ourevolving approach to this topic in the context of our on-

going work in the Hunt Museum. This is still work-in-progress, and thus what follows is an interim report,and presents our reflections on the process to date. Theframe of this paper is formative, rather than evaluative,and it aims to discuss the process of design rather thancompleted designs. We have been evolving what weterm a number of design sensitivities, based on anextensive data corpus collected during nearly 8 monthsof field studies. The focus of these observational studiesis on the features of the museum environment, theartefacts, and the public interaction with the objects inthe different museum spaces.

THE SHAPE PROJECT AND THE HUNT MUSEUMThis research is being conducted within the EU-Disappearing Computer SHAPE1 project (SituatingHybrid Assemblies in Public Environments). Theproject focus is on creating hybrid public environmentsthat allow visitors to actively interact with features ofboth physical and digital spaces. SHAPE is specificallyinvestigating these issues of hybridity and assembly inthe context of public spaces such as museums andexploratoria. Living Exhibitions, where ourexplorations are exhibited for public experimentationand evaluation, are planned at selected Europeanmuseums which have agreed to participate.The SHAPE team at the UL IDC is currently workingwith the Hunt Museum on a SHAPE Living Exhibitionplanned for the Summer of 2003. We are currentlydeveloping design scenarios for a number of exhibits tobe located within a specific room at the Museum. Thesescenarios are based our analysis of field study datadisplaying human behaviour within the museumenvironment, and, specifically, the way visitors

1 Members of the SHAPE Consortium are: the Royal

Institute of Technology-KTH (Sweden; CoordinatingPartner), Kings College London (UK), the Universityof Nottingham (UK) and the University of Limerick(Ireland).

ECCE11 - Eleventh European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics. Catania (Italy), September 2002.

approach and make sense of particular exhibits andspecific objects in the Museum.The Hunt Collection is an internationally importantcollection of original works of art and antiquities. It is apersonal one, formed by a couple (John and GertrudeHunt) who judged each piece that they collectedaccording to the standard of its design, craftsmanshipand artistic merit. These criteria they applied to objectsof all ages - from the Neolithic to the twentieth century.Since 1997, the collection is arranged on three floors ofthe historic "Custom House" in Limerick City Centre.

The whole collection is presented in a way thathighlights the personality of the owners: for example, awall panel in the Museum, near several artefacts, showsa photograph of the Hunt Familys home kitchen. It ispossible to locate these precious Museum objects intheir original everyday place in the Hunt home. Aremarkable example is the Plat Del Dia (The Dish ofthe Day) by Pablo Picasso, a small oil on cardboardthat Picasso painted for a Restaurant in Barcelona toadvertise daily specials, and that was used for the samepurposes in the Hunt familys kitchen!The information available to the visitors in theproximity of the displays is minimal: simple labels toindicate the nature, the provenance, and the period, areplaced near an object or a group of objects. This isintentionally done by the museum management as theywish to encourage personal discovery, also allowing formediation of information by person-to-personcommunication with human experts in their veryengaging Docent program.The Docents are volunteers who, according to their timeand availability, are available in different parts of theMuseum, and can provide visitors information aboutspecific objects or sections of the Museum, theirfeatures, history, and also stories about how theseobjects became part of the Hunt family collection. TheDocents are also in charge of guiding small groups ofvisitors through the Museum and assist other museumpersonnel during hands-on activities and educationalworkshops.As well as the human help and guidance provided bythe Docents, panels presenting more generalinformation about the collection are displayed on the

walls throughout the Museum. The panels are eitherrelated to the Hunt family and the process of acquisitionof the collection, or to a specific section of it (e.g., glass,earthenware, bronze, etc.).Whereas the nature and structure of the collectionresponds to Victorian criteria of classification anddisplay (Newhouse, 1995), the Hunt Museum differsfrom most museums of this kind in that it has someextremely interesting features that integrate the classiccontent of the exhibition with elements of direct,hands-on, engagement for the visitors. We discussthese features in later sections as we turn to ourobservational studies.

OBSERVATIONSGaining a thorough understanding of the way visitorsmove through the exhibitions and interact around theobjects on display is a crucial element in designingeffective museum installations (Ciolfi et al. 2001). Moregenerally, it is crucial to understand the way visitorinterpret the museum and the story it tells throughartefacts and information resources (Hooper-Greenhil,1992). In the specific context of the Hunt Museum, we wereparticularly interested in how visitors explore variousassemblages of drawers and cases in the museum andhow such exhibits engage people. Another focus of ourinvestigation was gaining an understanding of thestructure, nature and content of the exhibits, theinformational material available, the role of humanguides and the related educational activities theMuseum organises for groups of children and adults.We conducted an extensive set of field studies in theMuseum including informal observations, interviewswith experts, curators and docents, and videoobservations of visitors focused on specific parts of thecollection. Following this phase of study, some relevantfeatures of the museum emerged as crucial in shapingthe visitors experience of the Hunt Collection. We arepresenting three most notable examples in the followingsections.

The Cabinets of CuriositiesWe studied how visitors move through and approach theexhibits, noting which areas and features of the museumwere favoured by the visitors, and where interestinginteractions occurred. We found much of interest in theareas where cabinets of curiosities were located (SeeFig. 2).These cabinets can be viewed as an assembly ofobjects/artefacts - prompting complex dynamics ofunderstanding and sharing knowledge amongst thevisitors of the museum (Pearce, 1994). The cabinetscontain several kinds of artefacts (from decorative artspieces, to archaeological findings, drawings, tapestries,etc.) arranged in a way that reminds of that in whichJohn and Gertrude Hunt originally displayed them intheir own house.

Figure 1. The Hunt Museum, Limerick.

ECCE11 - Eleventh European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics. Catania (Italy), September 2002.

Visitors are free to open the cabinets drawers in thesequence they prefer and explore their content. They areallowed to take a very close look at the objects as theonly protection is a thick glass panel on top of eachdrawer.

Visitors are surprised by the fact that the traditionalcultural rules of behaviour in a museum do not applyto the Study Collection room, as it is possible for themto touch and open the drawers, and to get closer to theircontents. Sometimes, people do not actually realise theyare allowed to do so. However, when visitors find outabout this possibility, they engage in observatio