More than 850 million people visit museums in the United States every year. Museums cover a diverse range of exhibits, including art, natural history, science and technology. People keep coming back to museums because they are a trusted source of information and valuable touchstone for the growth and accomplishments of human society. In 2016, 7.4 million people visited the Louvre in Paris, and another 7.01 walked the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Museums like this draw millions of visitors because of their amazing collections, and because they continually strive to connect with the people who keep their doors open.
Museums are increasingly becoming aware of how digital technology is revolutionizing our daily lives. People have limitless information at their fingertips at all times. They can watch a video of the latest dinosaur fossil being unearthed. They can tweet at a professional who restores priceless works of art. They can go to Google Earth to virtually walk anywhere in the world. Those capabilities do not take away from the joy and value of seeing ancient artifacts and modern technology in person at a museum, but it does leave people wanting more than a “look-and-see” experience. People want to engage with the information museums have to offer, which is why interactive museum technology is becoming invaluable.
Here is a comprehensive look at the technology that goes into creating interactive exhibits, how the design process works and what role digital technology has to play in the future of museums.
Technology Used in Interactive Exhibits
Museums can be dedicated to something as distant as prehistory, or as relatable as the food we eat today. Technology is not about changing what a museum exhibits. Instead, it is a tool to make what a museum hopes to teach its visitors a more tangible, engaging experience.
Examples of technology used in museums today include the following.
- Apps: Apps are an outstanding way to engage museum visitors, most of whom are probably going to have their smartphones with them during their visit. Apps can serve as an interactive map of a museum, guiding people through exhibits and using different digital ways to present information. Maybe the app has a video about the ancient jewelry on display in one of a museum’s exhibits. Maybe it has fun quizzes about the dinosaur fossils in another wing of a museum. The museum can invite guests to download an app during their visit, and even use it when they go home. Apps are a fun way for guests to interact with the artifacts they are seeing.
A great example of app technology in art museums is Smartify. This app is designed to be the “Shazam for the art world.” Shazam is a popular app that can be used to recognize nearly any song. Out at a restaurant and hear a song you love? Open the app, and it’ll find the name of the song and the artist for you. Smartify works in a similar way. The app can recognize thousands of different paintings, a feat that is becoming easier as more and more museums move to digitize their collections. Museums like the National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York work with the app.
- Touchscreen devices: More and more museums are integrating touchscreen devices, like tablets, into their exhibits. Many museums must prohibit visitors from touching the items on display, which can be frustrating for a lot of people. Tablets give people something to touch and another conduit for education. Additionally, touchscreen technology gives museums a way to engage the different types of learning styles. More than half the population — 65 percent — is made up of visual learners. These people need images to help them learn and retain information. A touchscreen can offer pictures, maps and short videos. Another 30 percent of the population is made up of auditory listeners. These people learn best when they hear information. Tablets can offer the option to hear how a dinosaur might have sounded, or offer short videos that serve as a pronunciation guide to an exhibit. A small portion of the population — 5 percent — is made up of kinesthetic learners. These people need to really engage with material to learn it. Tablets can offer challenges, like quizzes, to engage these people.
For an example of touchscreen technology in museums, look to the Evolving Planet exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum. Many of the displays in this sprawling, multi-room exhibit have touchscreen tablets that offer visual and auditory experiences. One such tablet lets you click through how a fossil is formed.
- Virtual reality: Virtual reality is a growing sector of technology across all sorts of industries, and it can be very useful in the museum space. Through virtual reality, museums can transport their guests inside the anatomy of early humans, back in time to the Renaissance, up into space or to the other side of the globe. Virtual reality generally uses headsets. This kind of experience has the potential to engage all the different types of learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.
The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is a great example of virtual reality at work. The museum uses HTC Vive and Oculus Rift virtual reality technology to take its visitors through the human body, below the ocean’s surface and through outer space. The museum’s app also offers virtual reality content people can assess from anywhere.
- 3-D printing: 3-D printing is an exciting technology for museums. It can render images of things that were previously difficult or impossible to see. Plus, 3-D renderings allow the museum to keep the actual object in question, which is likely very old and priceless, safe from damage. The technology ranges in price, but it can be relatively inexpensive.
The Virginia Museum of Natural History is partnering with the Virtual Curation Laboratory to use 3-D printing as a way to allow visitors to touch copies of famous artifacts, a big benefit for blind visitors as well as anyone who wants a closer look and experience. 3-D printed objects people will be able to touch through this partnership include Gen. Robert E. Lee’s face and Gen. George Patton’s pipe. The Field Museum in Chicago also takes advantage of 3-D printing. The museum is using 3-D printing technology to “unwrap” mummies layer by layer. Visitors and researchers can see what is beneath a mummy’s wrappings, all without disturbing the physical object. Scientists at the museum are also using the technology to create 3-D models of cheetah bones.
Designing Interactive Exhibits
When designing interactive, digital museum exhibits, you have to think about some core issues.
- Physical space: When designing any activity, you have to take into account the amount of space you have with which to work. The same rule applies when you are designing a digitally driven exhibit. Can the exhibit handle large groups of people all at once, or is it a space for smaller groups? Knowing this will help you decide how to place technology and how to manage the way people enter the exhibit. If it is a large space, you can allow guests to move freely through it and experience the exhibit and digital technology at their own pace. If it is a smaller space, you might want to consider having ticketed entry times to better manage the crowding and flow of people in the exhibit.
You will also want to consider how people will use digital technology in that space. Will there be an entire wall with an interactive digital display, or smaller touch-pad screens throughout? Multiple visitors at once can enjoy larger displays, while smaller things like touchscreens and virtual reality headsets will be for individuals or small groups. The space will need to be designed with that in mind.
Another key consideration regarding physical space is the technology that isn’t user-facing. Things like projectors or hardware help keep a digital exhibit running, but you do not want these things cluttering the exhibit or anywhere that might put them at risk of getting accidentally broken by the throngs of people moving through the exhibit.
You can also factor in space for guests to have a social and physical experience with the digital technology. Maybe one touchscreen will show people how human anatomy works to achieve certain movements. Guests can make those movements along with the display. Another digital display could call for group interaction among visitors. All of these different options serve to engage people with the exhibit and the technology. Museum leaders just need to consider how this can best fit into a given space.
- Visitor experience: What do you want visitors to take away from their time in the exhibit? First and foremost, museums want to educate their visitors. You want the artifacts or art you are displaying to remain the focus of the exhibit. Digital technology helps augment the experience of seeing that exhibit.
When people visit a museum, they want to experience different things, like seeing a rare object, learning something new, interacting socially or taking the opportunity for inward reflection and thought. Technology can play a role in each of these different ways of experiencing a museum.
Many artifacts are an experience in and of themselves. Seeing a priceless piece of history is hard to forget. Museums can use digital technology to take people closer. Maybe they can touch a 3-D printed replica of an artifact, or use a touchscreen to enjoy an immersive experience that walks them through the discovery of the object. Digital technology can also be a complementary educational tool. By presenting smaller bites of knowledge through a variety of media, a museum can educate guests without overwhelming them. Plus, digital media can present information in a fresh way that doesn’t mean visitors need to read long blocks of text. Digital technology brings people together every day, and it can do just that in a museum too. Visitors can play mobile games related to the exhibit on touchscreens, or watch digital content together. Finally, technology can be a great way to inspire an introspective experience. Present digital content that connects an exhibit to the people viewing it. For example, an exhibit on evolution can show how early human history led to where we are today.
- Technology: What kind of technology do you want to put into your digital exhibit? You might be tempted to pick out all the latest and greatest tech, but stop before you get carried away. Ask yourself who is your target audience and what the best way is to connect with them. Your audience likely ranges widely in age and demographics. Welcome younger generations with the option to engage digitally with an exhibit, but do not alienate older guests by trying to force them to use technology with which they might not be familiar. Find a nice balance between traditional exhibit strategy and the more progressive approach of digital technology.
Budgetary concerns are also, of course, a concern for any museum. Try to spend the money set aside for digital technology wisely. Look for high-quality items that won’t easily break or become completely obsolete in a short time. Digital technology may be new, but you want to integrate in such a way that visitors can enjoy the exhibit for years to come.
Another big part of the technology consideration is staff training. Are the members of the museum team prepared to help visitors with the technology, if necessary? Do they know how the technology amplifies the visitor experience? Having your staff on board is a key part of this process.
Once you have determined the scope of the digital exhibit and the technology you want to support it, you will need to consider the logistics of bringing that vision to life. Here are some of the products that support digital museum exhibits.
- Pedestals are an effective way to showcase digital technology in a museum exhibit. Consider the type of material you want for a pedestal, such as laminate, acrylic or wood. Then, when you begin designing an exhibit, you can strategically place pedestals with things like touchscreens or virtual reality headsets throughout the space.
- Display cases are an essential piece of any museum exhibit. Do you need somewhere to show off that 3-D printed version of your museum’s latest find? A display case is a natural answer. You can find displays of all different sizes and materials to fit your needs.
- Showcases can be a bigger way to display your exhibit’s artifacts. These larger displays are perfect for offering a clear, but protected, view of priceless items. Find the right size and style for your exhibit.
- Lighting is essential to any museum exhibit. You need to highlight the objects you are displaying, and you need to ensure the lighting does not damage any art or artifacts. Lighting considerations include types of bulbs, filters and placement.
- Trade show booths and walls are convenient, portable display options. If your museum exhibit is temporary, these options may be an ideal fit. Other typical trade show staples include tables, pedestals and display cases.
- Cube tables are simple, classic display options. The shape does not distract from the object it is displaying, and the convenient fit works with nearly all different spaces. If you have objects exhibit visitors can touch, cube tables could be the right place to put them.
- Easels are a classic display option for works of art. If you want to allow museum guests a closer look at a piece, opt for an easel instead of a wall display.
- Turntables slowly rotate to offer a 360-degree view of the object it is displaying. People who come to see a famous artifact or piece of art usually want to see every angle, and with a turntable, they can.
- Toe kicks are the extra space at the base of a display option, which allows the viewer to step closer to the display. Museums can select cube tables and pedestals that come with a toe kick.
- Custom design and logistics: Selecting the right pedestals, displays and tables can be overwhelming. Museums always have the option to engage an expert that offers custom design and logistics services, which ensures the technology and displays in the exhibit are safely and effectively set up for public viewing.
The Future of Museums
With millions of people flocking to museums every year, it is undeniable museums will continue to be part of human culture across the world. Technology will continue to change the way museums display artifacts, art and information and the way people experience exhibits. Here are three trends that will likely have a hand in shaping the future of museums.
- Museums out in the world: Museums are increasingly integrating technology into their physical space, but technology also means people can take part of the museum with them when they leave. Visitors can take virtual tours of entire galleries or go inside the latest archaeological discovery, all from their smartphones, tablets and laptops. That portability means museums will need to find fresh and inventive ways to become part of daily life. Whether that is achieved by an app, digital displays in public spaces or through some new technology that has yet to be invented remains to be seen. Digital technology is dissolving barriers and making more information accessible to more people every day. Savvy museums will be part of this trend.
- Personalization: As companies and institutions amass more and more data, they have a great ability to find ways to personalize the goods and experiences they offer. The same will likely be true of museums. Museums can begin by collecting data on the different ways in which people interact with exhibits. What technology do they use most often? How long do they spend in the exhibit? From there, museums can make decisions on what people like. For example, maybe half a museum’s visitors like to linger in exhibits, while the other half likes a faster-paced experience. Museums could recommend different ways for those two groups of people to navigate exhibits based on their preferences. Likewise, museums could invest more in the technology people are more interested in using during their time in an exhibit.
- Great collections will endure: While museums can amass new technology and evolve to cater to personalized tastes, one thing will remain the same: Museums will still be built around great collections. People will still want to see paintings by Monet, Degas, Picasso, Dali, Kahlo and Van Gogh. Egyptian mummies, fossils of colossal dinosaurs, ancient gems and meteorites from distant corners of the solar system will continue to fascinate people. Museums will always be the keepers of history and art. The things that change will be how museums educate the public and engage them with the invaluable collections they curate. The future of museums holds enormous promise for the people who lead them and the people who experience the wonder within.
If you are ready to join all the museums going digital, reach out to Pedestal Source to chat with a professional and get a quote on a display pedestal that can be the start of your interactive exhibit.