Final Project: The Interactive Museum – Blogging About Digital Interactives!

This semester I created a blog titled, The Interactive Museum , that evaluated how museums are using digital interactives in their exhibits. I focused on three interactives inside the Smithsonian Institution. These interactives were inside the National Museum of Natural History Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, and the Arts and Industries FUTURES exhibition. I also explored the Cleveland Art Museum (from the interwebs) because they are a wonderful example of how innovative and creative museums can be. As an educator, I am really excited about how technology can transform the museum to be more inclusive, relevant, and effective, which is what let me to this project.

I wrote six blog posts: an introduction, my evaluation process, three evaluating different museums, and one exploring the Cleveland Museum of Art’s interactive gallery. From my study, I found that the Smithsonian is working hard to provide effective digital touch screens in their exhibits that are well connected to the exhibit’s themes and objectives. I was pleased at how well these interactives worked and their effectivity in delivering information. However, I feel that there is more space for creativity and collaboration using digital interactives.

After doing this study, I am interested in growing my understanding of more concrete barriers to this work like budgetary confines and the kind of technology expertise needed to complete this work. I really enjoyed the informality of blogging, while still holding an academic framework. I would love to keep working on this blog – I am excited to keep learning about innovative technological improvements to museums and about how these improvements can make museums a place where all feel worthy, engaged, and comfortable.

Notes on: Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media

Hi team! Get your big kid pants on – we are diving into some self-reflection on how we move through the world. Jason Farman takes a theoretical approach to discussing how mobile media influences our connection to place, meaning, and the world around us. In Farman’s words, Mobile Interface Theory is diving into “…the production of social and embodied space through practices with mobile technologies.” This book employs a lot of new concepts and funky words, so I did a little digging inside and outside the book to try to get solid definitions for concepts he uses. The concepts below come from the introduction

Mobile media: digital devices (cellphones, tablets, etc), print texts like metro cards, credit cards, “everyday objects that signify elements of our identity” (1)

Embodied space: the location where human experience and consciousness takes on material and spatial form (definition from here)

Ubiquitous Computing/Pervasive Computing: (definition from Wikipedia) “a concept in software engineering, hardware engineering and computer science where computing is made to appear anytime and everywhere. In contrast to desktop computing, ubiquitous computing can occur using any device, in any location, and in any format. A user interacts with the computer, which can exist in many different forms, including laptop computers, tablets, smart phones and terminals in everyday objects such as a refrigerator or a pair of glasses.” Farman asks – How can the surfaces around us become screens? Should they?

“While VR attempts to bring us into the computer, ubiquitous computing actually brings the computer outside, into our daily, lived experiences.” (11)

Wearable computing is the manifestation of ubiquitous computing think Juni’s glasses in Spy Kids or the Apple Watch. (Others are trying to take this further– look at the example of page 9 about crisis response.)

This first chapter, Embodiment and the Mobile Interface, sets the “theoretical foundation” for his discussion of mapping tech, social media, video games, and storytelling throughout the rest of the book. He spends the entirety of the first chapter telling us what and what is not embodiment. Personally, I found this concept quite up in the clouds and spent some time looking outside the book for a beginner’s definition. At its most basic, embodiment is the first-person experience of the body, “what it means to function as a being-in-the-world.” (34) I kind of like to think about it as connection to yourself/awareness of yourself in the world around you. It often comes up in reference to anthropological studies. The quote below summarizes the connection between embodiment and Farman’s work:

“By spending the entirety of this chapter focusing on my definition of ‘embodiment,’ I hope that my theories of a ‘sensory-inscribed’ body help illuminate what it means for us to experience moments like seeing our location mapped on a mobile device, interacting with others via locative social media, playing games that change our perceptions of a city, experiencing site-specific art and performance on a mobile device, and interacting with spatial histories and narratives with mobile technologies.” (17)

For a long time, people thought that embodiment, or connection to yourself and others, came from physicality. Farman states that the digital age has changed that. He argues that embodiment does not always need to be located in physical space. For example, people have meaningful connections everyday through FaceTime, texting, Snapchat, etc. This is all “…evidence that embodiment is not dependent on physical space.” (22)He also says embodiment comes from culture and biology, our five senses and subconscious. This is what he calls “sensory-inscribed,” we move through the world both by taking in the world around us and acting on the world around us. This is especially poignant in the digital age, for example, as we can be on the phone talking to someone in one state while checking out at the grocery store in another, carrying on multiple interactions and moments of embodiment at the same time. Still with me? 

Over the next five chapters, Farman applies this understanding of embodiment to mapping and space (chapter 2), location-based social media (chapter 3), locative video games (chapter 4), time (chapter 5), and storytelling (chapter 6). We learn that there is power in location on a variety of levels mirroring the complexity of how people experience embodiment/connection.

Questions for Discussion:

Chapter 2 is all about mapping – how we do it, how we interact with digital maps and physical places, etc. How might Farman’s theory impact mapping projects or how we might portray a map/place within an exhibit?

Farman says “by using locative social media, location does become meaningful for the construction of self-identity.” Chapter 3 focuses on the power of ‘checking-in’ on social media – whether that means you are close or far in proximity, in a familiar or unfamiliar place, or you don’t let people know where you are at all. How could this translate into our work as public historians?

How can a mobile media and/or a digital tool create tension or distance from an experience rather than pull you in like it’s supposed to?

What were some of your biggest takeaways from this reading?

The two following questions come from previous blog poster Sarah Adler – I thought they were really interesting and wanted to include them – see her post for an additional take on this book.

“In what contexts is the personal computing interface still preferred to the pervasive computing interface?

How do movies, video games, and other types of media influence how we understand space? If we play or view them on a portable console or phone, does that change things compared to playing or viewing on a couch at home? Does this differ from reading books that describe location?”

Unlocking the Secrets of Mystery House

This week we are diving into a few spooky things, 1) life before the MacBook, 2) a video game about murder, and 3) understanding the tech behind this game. Developed by wife and husband duo, Roberta and Ken Williams, Mystery House is a horror-adventure game created for the Apple II in 1980. The Apple II, shown below, was released in 1977, and with it came a huge market for computer games. After experiencing another computer game for the Apple II, Roberta and Ken were inspired to create their own.

How do we solve the murder?

I am not a big gamer myself, but it is instantly clear that Mystery House is a true relic in graphics and controls compared to the hyper realistic and elaborate games of today. The link on the syllabus didn’t work for me but I found a playable version on the Internet Archive. (I hadn’t been on the Internet Archive before but it has free access to tons of resources like a variety of library, software, government, and topical collections.) The directions instruct you to use one- or two-word commands to navigate through the game. You begin at the outside of a mansion and are instructed to use commands like “GO STAIRS” or “UP” to enter the house.

After entering the house, you are met with different characters that are also in the house with you. The point of the game is to explore the house and find the murderer before they find you (or you die some other way like accidentally starting a fire)! You can also use directions like “WEST” or “W” to navigate the house.

In this step, the action I wrote was “WEST.” This then took me to the west part of the house, the kitchen.

After struggling to type in successful commands, I found a ‘walkthrough’ for the game that does just what you might think it does. This was super helpful for quickly understanding how many rooms are in the house and what items to take note of. The game boasts of a ‘high-res adventure’ but us folks from the future might raise our eyebrows about that. However, the game is entertaining and challenging! Gamer or not, this is definitely worth a try.

Why are we still talking about this game from 1980?

Matthew Kirschenbaum, author of Mechanisms, takes us through a different kind of ‘walkthrough.’ In Chapter 3, “An Old House with Many Rooms”: The Textual Forensics of Mystery_House.dsk” he describes his walkthrough as “forensic,” explaining the tech behind the game. I am extremely underqualified to be explaining this, but I shall do my best! Using a type of editor, a hex editor, that allows someone to look at a file “byte by byte,” Kirschenbaum dissects Mystery House’s disk image, giving us a fuller picture of how the game was created and unveils some of the disk’s own mysteries. Kirschenbaum finds traces of two other games that were previously on the disk, Dung Beetles and Blitzkrieg, and finds different notes on the disk as well . To my limited understanding, this is important because it creates a digital trail that tells the story of what tech was important when, how it evolved, and forces us to ask questions about the digital culture of the past.

Mapping Museums to Unlock Safe, Effective Learning Expereinces

In brainstorming for this project, I found myself looking at the accessibility information for the Smithsonian Institution. My expectations were low, but I was impressed by breadth of resources offered. They included information on mobility, sign language, special programming, and an entire institution accessibility map. While their resources were often hard to navigate and some links were not functional, I was inspired by the format of the accessibility map. For any local or out-of-state visitor, having this critical information on a singular color-coded, map would be so helpful in creating a worry-free experience. While this resource helps visitors feel comfortable getting to the museum, it does little to point them in the direction of content that will fit their group when they are inside.

For my digital project, I am hoping to apply this simple map format to create an interactive map on ArcGIS of digital and general interactive experiences found on the floor of museums in the Smithsonian Institution. Museums are tiring and quite overwhelming – it takes information and planning to create a safe, effective, accessible experience. Therefore, I think this type of resource could be helpful for many audiences – teachers, families with kids, people with cognitive differences, and the average visitor that doesn’t like reading labels but wants to learn!

Currently, each SI museum has its own ‘Plan Your Visit’ page with a brief blurb about educational or interactive programs. However, these often list titles of exhibits with no explaination (and that require a map to find) and are not updated regularly. By using a fluid, digital tool, museums would be able to update these ‘Plan Your Visit’ pages frequently and easily, also including ever-changing daily programs.

Within each map location, I’m hoping to include pictures of the area, age range suggestions, content summary, and links to related resources on the object/experience. I will pick three museums, (one history, one science, one art) to focus on because I don’t think time will allow me to complete this project for the entire Smithsonian. This project will be a success if I am able to make relevant information about the inside of a museum available for those hoping to expereince it in person!

Creating Relevance & Accessibilty Through Intentional Digital Expereinces @ Cultural Institutions

This year, the humanities-loving world was swept away by the “Van Gogh Exhibition: Immersive Experience,” set in over 20 cities across the world.  The ad for this attraction has popped up on my Instagram upwards of 50 times and I’ve seen it on other people’s stories almost as much, my family group chat suggested it as an activity for Christmas (alas, Omicron), and the tickets, even at over $30 a piece, are always in high demand. Even in a pandemic, people are showing up for Van Gogh! Suddenly it was extremely trendy and a ‘can’t miss’ to go to this museum type experience. What made this so popular? Was it the ‘Instagram-ability’ of the experience? Was it, as I’m sure the exhibit designers hope, the ingenuity of the exhibit design that truly created an interactive, immersive, and emotionally connected experience?

Museums across space and subject often get a bad rap for being boring, stuffy, and all about walking around and reading. As academics, educators, and the world around us have adjusted to the reality that people learn in a variety of ways and exhibit labels are not always the way, museums are beginning to include innovative methods to educate visitors. In this research project, I would like to investigate the ways in which museums are successfully creating digital interactive experiences to both enhance visitor experience and become relevant and accessible to a wider audience. As the amount of amazing digital educational content piles up around us, people need to know that leaving their house for a museum is going to be a worthwhile experience for their whole group.

Through analyzing failures and successes, I hope to define a handful of attributes that lead to relevant and effective digital interactive experiences in cultural institutions. For this project, I will look at a variety of examples and ask why did they succeed? Who do they work for? Who don’t they work for? Are the adding to the learning expereince or mission of the institution?

  • A few that are catching my eye now:
    • Cooper Hewitt museum’s Pen (thanks, Trevor!)

I am also contemplating taking this down to the local level and asking these questions specifically within the Smithsonian museums. Within SI, I could look at the new exhibit FUTURES, and see how they are implementing digital strategies in older exhibits throughout the institution as well. However this project progresses, I am looking forward to learning more about creating accessible, relevant, and fun museum expereinces for all.