Friday, March 20, 2009

Querying the Environment: A Smart Model for Pull Content

In my continuing quest to find elegant ways to integrate technology into the museum experience, we come to interpretative material and the simple question, "How can you create natural ways for visitors to retrieve the information of most interest to them relative to an artifact or exhibit?"

Here's one lovely answer: Meta.L.Hyttan. This project in Avesta, Sweden, in which visitors use special flashlights to explore a historic site and reveal interpretative content of interest, is an elegant example of how museums can innovative the label experience.

First, a little explanation about "pull" content techniques. Pull techniques invite visitors to actively retrieve content of interest, rather than consuming content "pushed" indiscriminately by the museum. "Pull" techniques don't just allow multiplicity of content; they also emphasize the visitors' active role in seeking out information. Of course, visitors are always somewhat active in their pursuit of interpretation--they decide whether or not to read the label, whether or not to watch the video, whether or not to click into the interactive. But requiring visitors to take a physical action to retrieve interpretative material imparts a certain power to visitors--they choose what to reveal, not just what to look at. It's not surprising that research has shown that information retrieved via "pull" techniques is retained better than that which is pushed. You may not remember what your teacher lectured about, but you probably do remember the answer she gave you to a question of particular interest.

The most familiar pull learning tool we use daily is Google. It's certainly possible to plunk a computer into the gallery and let people google to their hearts' content, but that activity doesn't fit naturally into the flow of museum-going. Nor does hitting different buttons on an audio guide or even a cellphone feel entirely natural in the context of the physical and visual exploration of exhibits. The technology distracts and breaks a bit of the power of the museum experience. And while I believe in letting people use their own technology (i.e. their phones) to access information, I think there's potential for other kinds of devices and environmental interactions to add value in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, museum-ness.

Which brings us back to Sweden. In 2004, the firm Smart Studio created a unique flashlight-based interpretative interface for exploration of a historic blast furnace site in the old Swedish steel town of Avesta. The site itself has no interpretative material--no labels or obvious media elements. But each visitor is given a special flashlight, used both to illuminate the space (for general exploration) and to activate interpretative experiences include light projection, sound, and occasional physical experiences (i.e. smoke and heat). There are indicated hotspots in the site which activate interpretative material when the flashlights light on them. Smart Studio launched with two layers of content in the hotspots--educational (how the blast furnace works, explanation of certain elements and history) and poetic (imagistic stories from the perspective of steel workers, based on historical content). Visitors can walk through the blast furnace site and receive none of the interpretative material if they choose, or they can use their flashlights to activate content.

I love this project for several reasons:
  • They used a technology that fits well conceptually and practically into the experience of exploring a historic site of this type. You use the flashlight to see the site, and you use the flashlight to see deeper, hidden layers of history as well. The metaphor is consistent and the object interaction is intuitive.
  • The flashlights function in a magical, surprising way that stems naturally from their typical use. If you were given a crazy pointer and told to use it in this way, it would not be as surprising or exciting as this new "activation" of a familiar object. This gives the sense that there is something magical and unusual happening at the historic site, giving it an aura of mystery and enhancing the uniqueness of the experience.
  • The minimal intervention of the interpretative material allows purists to experience the site without additional media elements if they so choose.
  • Unlike an audio tour, the light-based interpretative material can be shared socially. A family could explore the space together and use flashlights to "show" new content to each other.
  • The act of illuminating the interpretative material gives visitors the sense of personal agency in the discovery and exploration of history. Again, the flashlight metaphor evokes the experience of other explorers and archaeologists, and lets visitors play at uncovering history. But they are also in control of the content experience, revealing stories on demand.
  • The infrastructure can support a layered, changing set of content pieces. In their original proposal, Smart Studio alluded to this potential for multiple languages and interpretative contexts, but I'm not sure whether they have pursued it and added additional interpretative material over time.
You don't need a device like a flashlight to design elegant pull interfaces. But you do need an understanding of how people conceptually think of themselves when visiting museums. How can you create an environment or an object that invites visitors naturally to pull more content? What is the physical manifestation of "googling" in your museum?

6 comments, add yours!:

Kris Morrissey said...

I love this idea and the concept of "pull"! Fits with all kinds of things we know about motivation, learning, cognition, mystery, self-directed learning. When I was at MSU, we did a very simple flashlight tour of a linear exhibit as part of an annual Halloween event and we were amazed at how much people loved it. They could focus on one fossil (or simple labels we put up) at a time and of course, the flashlight not only gave them control, but limited the amount of stimuli hitting them. Plus the mystery and sense of the unknown.

Daryl said...

One of the things that intrigues me about giving visitors options to learn more about what most interests them is the flip side of the coin--the possibility for those of us who work in informal learning environments to see what visitors hit on when given the choice. I don't know whether the flashlights could function in this way but wouldn't it be cool if opportunities to pull could create mutual learning experiences?

Megan Dickerson said...

Kronborg Castle in Denmark (known widely as the inspiration for Hamlet's Castle) also incorporates flashlights in the casements (the dungeon and lower storage areas) to create a user-directed experience, and I imagine that the idea started from necessity-- it's really dark down there. When visitors enter the casements, you can buy a 4-in flashlight from a vending machine for about $3. I can't remember if wall text explains how this works, but once you're in the casements, it becomes clear that there is Danish/English text on the wall, in letters made of the same kind of material as reflective bike tape. You shine your flashlight across the musty walls to find the text. Most of the information focuses on the legend of Holger Danske, the apocryphal giant who lives in the Kronborg casements in the form of a statue and will rise from his slumber if Denmark is ever at war (http://bit.ly/4oicN) Some wall text started conversations ("Who is a contemporary Holger Danske?), made reference to other cultural caretakers such as the Golem, and offered short info on how people during World War II viewed the legend (needless to say, the giant didn't rise from his castle home to fight the Nazis, but people did use his example metaphorically during a time of crisis). The flashlight increased my appreciation of the casements in other ways, as well; by sliding my flashlight's beam along the casements in search of text, I also discovered architectural elements I would otherwise have overlooked. Overall, the flashlights created a strange, conceptually sound feeling combining wonder, comfort and a safe amount of fear, all emotions that reinforced the aura of Denmark’s mystical avenger. And it was totally simple: flashlights, wall text and dark rooms. Like Kris said, it's such a simple way to emphasize mystery and a sense of the unknown, and, like the blast furnace, it worked because it fit the content so well.

whaong said...

Ya, I like the idea.Great

Bodhibadger said...

I love that this has a magical element, a sense of revealed mystery as well as exploration. As such a simple technology to adapt! It does give me fantasies of more complex mechanism, riffing on the "magical" feel. Could a visitor speak different passwords to reveal different text or illuminate different aspects of an exhibit? Could a "wand" passed over surfaces with different passed (L to R, Up to Down) activate different text? Has to be simple enough that the mechanism isn't so gimmicky that it distracts from the content. That is another way the flashlights are brilliant--as everyday objects they become "invisible" as instruments of illumination.

Tim said...

The flashlight is a great tool in the museum environment because it puts the power of illumination (and information retrieval) in the hands of the visitor, not just the lighting designer (not to detract from the work of lighting designers).

@Kris - The idea of implementing this flashlight technique in a traditionally-lit museum for a special occasion allows for @Darryl's idea to come into play. While the Avesta Blast Furnace obviously has an electronic activation circuit that could also trigger a counter, we can use an old fashioned pen and paper - Halloween tour guides can count the number of "hits" each object/content piece gets and record observations about the specific areas of interest.

The flashlight model may work best in traditionally dark spaces such as caves, castles, and abandoned factories, but the idea could be translated to the "lit museum" world beyond just the occasional dark Halloween night.