Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Blueprint Book Club Part 3: The Future of the National Vending Machine

This post is the third and final in a series of reactions to Blueprint, a book chronicling the rise and fall of the Dutch Museum of National History (INNL) in 2008-2011. This guest post was written by Geert-Jan Davelaar and Anna Tiedink, educators at the Zuiderzee Open Air Museum in the Netherlands, the museum that "adopted" the INNL's National Vending Machine project after INNL's closure. The Vending Machine project was one of my favorites; you can learn more about it here

After INNL was forced to close its (mostly virtual) doors, the National Vending Machine, one of the projects the Museum of National History had set up, was transferred to the Zuiderzeemuseum. How is the exhibit living on at the museum and what is it like to take over someone else’s project? We’d like to share some thoughts and ideas in this guest post.

 The National Vending Machine is an actual functional machine, which, instead of traditional Dutch snacks, contains different everyday objects and souvenirs visitors can buy for a small sum. Information on a label and a short video clip informs the buyer about the history behind objects including a tulip, fishing boat, licorice and tea towel. Online, participants can share why they bought the object and suggest a new object for the machine.

A vending machine is actually a pretty good metaphor for the process of taking over the exhibit from INNL:

  • It was convenient: without going through the process of initiation and development our museum was treated to a very attractive exhibit, all set up and ready to go. 
  • It was well stocked: not only did we have about 60 objects and their stories; the whole project was well documented as well. 
  • It was solid: in the 1.5 years the exhibit had been presented at four different locations across the Netherlands, it had proven itself to be a great tool in engaging the public with historical objects. 

But the National Vending Machine, as most of INNL’s projects, is a prototype. Consequently, soon after the transfer, our discussions focused on the objective of the machine in its new context: what purpose does it have? Where should we place it and how do we want our visitors to engage with it? 

Zuiderzeemuseum is an open-air museum that focuses on a specific region in the north of the Netherlands. Originally, we placed the vending machine in the car park ticketing area, where about 60% of our visitors wait for a ferry to come to the museum itself. After exhibiting the vending machine in our entrance building, we found it was used by a cross-section of our audience: families, day-trippers, pupils and students. We also noticed about 30% of the exhibit's visitors by-passed the registration procedure, choosing to buy an object without creating a user profile. This focus on buying the object was also reflected in the fact that none of the registered participants responded to the objects online. The vending machine itself was popular, but the secondary experience around it was not.

So now, we are trying to come up with a way to go beyond the convenience of the quick sale and seduce our audience to have a deeper engagement with the histories behind the objects. We want to have a conversation with our audience and facilitate storytelling. We want to increase the offline and online participation and go beyond what can be seen as a gimmick: buying an historical object in an unexpected way.

While we are interested in facilitating deeper experiences, we also plan to start tweaking the usability of the vending machines to make buying an object as easy as possible. Why should a visitor go through a laborious registration procedure to get a RFID card when it has no other use for him or her? The RFID card was intended to be the entrance ticket for INNL, so it made sense in that context during their planning. For us, the card is less useful. Also, just like any vending machine, objects get physically stuck in the system. Rethinking the design and the technology used is an important part of this ongoing process.

Being an open-air museum presenting the past, present and future of a specific region in the north of The Netherlands, our discussion of what regional objects we should include in the vending machine goes deeper. Are we the ones who should curate the items that tell people’s history? We don’t think so. Most importantly, we see the Vending Machine as a catalyst for co-creation, giving our audience greater influence and a greater voice to a shared history. The Vending Machine will travel to different communities in and outside our region. We would like to link with other organizations, institutions, individuals and neighborhoods and have them decide which objects represent their history and belong in the exhibit. This project will result in new objects for the Vending Machine as well as our coming new main exhibition. The vending machine could even be a message in a bottle: going from one place to the other spreading its stories as it moves.

So, we’re back to our original vending machine. In a way we are like our visitors, standing in front of the brightly lit National Vending Machine, coins in our hands, 80 different compartments to choose from, trying to make our decision as we would an actual vending machine. We're left wondering what aims can be relevant for this exhibit and our museum. Which compartment would you open?
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