Highlight 3: Bilingual ‘story theatre’ at San Diego Natural History Museum

Highlights intro & index

Southern California, summer, 2015

It’s one of those hot July days in downtown LA, when all the colour’s drained from the world. We’re caring for our sick daughter in a cheap hotel smelling of toilet cleaner, musty carpet, and smoke. My partner slips out to grab us a quick bite. He comes back gob-smacked to discover that everyone is speaking Spanish on the street, and that burritos – at least in their Tex Mex form – are not, in fact, traditionally Mexican.

Burrito. Photograph by anna.xie (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photograph by anna.xie (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’m dying to go exploring. Eat rice, beans, and plátano. Put my rusty Spanish to the test. Now’s not the time, but I’ll soon have lots of opportunities. Welcome to Southern California.

TheNAT: Innovative, bilingual, multimedia storytelling

The San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) in Balboa Park is one of a growing number of US museums seeking to better represent their communities, and that means using more Spanish.

San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Latino/Hispanic people are now the biggest ethnic group in California. In San Diego County, 33% of the population are Latino, and in LA, that figure is 48.4% – likely to be a majority by 2020. In New York, the proportion is now 18.6% (all figures from US Census, 2014), but East Coast museums seem to be taking longer to catch up with the increase.

In Coast to Cactus in Southern California, the NAT’s latest permanent exhibition, they’re mixing things up a bit. Desert at Night, an immersive story-theatre experience, features Spanglish, the blend of Spanish and English often used in Southern California. In that sense, it’s entirely natural and normal. But sometimes the obvious and the innovative go hand in hand. In the museum world, I’ve never encountered an experience that merges languages, storytelling/theatre, science, and digital media in quite the same way.

At Te Papa, we’ve been talking about taking a theatrical, blended approach, so Desert at Night is a bit of a ‘Bingo!’ moment for me, particularly in terms of what it might offer for language learning.

Jump to Potential for Te Papa

Quieres go camping en el desert?

Here’s an Airstream Bambi trailer, full of items collected from the desert. Go behind it and you’ll find yourself on holiday with a Latino family.

Airstream Bambi camper van in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Museum of Natural History, 2015

Airstream Bambi campervan in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

The sun’s gone down. The stars are out. Crickets are chirping. You see the projected shadows of two children in a tent.

Screenshot 2015-10-07 20.32.14

Desert at Night in Coast to Cactus, 2015. Photograph by San Diego Natural History Museum

The kids are cousins and, as they get ready for bed, they talk about the wildlife in the desert – at the same time as it comes to life.

Snake project in Desert at Night in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Desert at Night in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

They move fluidly between English and Spanish. The girl is older and knows more; the boy bursting with questions – perfect narrators to connect with the young target audience.

For New Zealand audiences, I’d pull the acting back a few notches, but that’s a minor quibble. I’m interested in what’s at the core, not so much the particular expression.

Here’s Desert at Night on YouTube. (Go to 2:30 for the animated sequence.)

More on Desert at Night: ‘Press 1 for Spanglish’ by Elizabeth Salaam

The Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI)

Let’s go back in time for a moment – to the research that inspired theNAT’s experimentation with Spanglish.

The 2013 Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI) explored Spanish-speaking visitors’ uses and perceptions of four bilingual exhibitions in San Diego (theNAT), Portland, Houston, and Miami. Some key findings:

  1. Most visitors used both Spanish and English text, though the extent to which they did this varied across the four sites.
  2. Most ‘code switched’ in their conversations, moving freely between the two languages. In other words, they spoke Spanglish.
  3. Adults (parents, grandparents, caregivers) often used the Spanish text to facilitate learning with their children.
  4. Spanish content made Latino people feel welcome and empowered.
  5. The bilingual content also made non-Spanish-speaking visitors feel more connected to the museum. (This is the most interesting finding for me – that representing one community can make other communities feel more at home too.)

Spanglish: Inspiring interest, learning by listening

TheNAT has embedded the finding about code switching (2) into Desert at Night, creating a welcoming, natural language-learning opportunity by doing so.

The script (which involved a team of writers and more than 30 iterations) repeats ideas in ways that don’t feel repetitive. If you speak only one language, you get the gist. But if you want to learn, listen a little closer.

Ringtail projection, Desert at Night, Coast to Cactus, 2015. Photograph by San Diego Natural History Museum

Image (detail) by San Diego Natural History Museum

Images help you along. As the young boy imagines the animals that his cousin describes, they appear in the sky. Take the ringtail. ‘Really huge ears?’ he asks, and large ones appear. ‘No, no tan grandes, like the size of a fox’s ears,’ she replies, and zap, they shrink. Great visual support for learning about science and language simultaneously.

Potential for Te Papa – fact via fiction

The cultural context in Aotearoa New Zealand is of course radically different from that in Southern California. Te reo Māori (the Māori language), which Te Papa is aiming to use more in exhibitions, is an indigenous rather than migrant language, and the challenge is one of language/cultural revitalisation as much as community representation.

Since the 1980s, innovative revival efforts have increased levels of te reo, to the point where around 21% of Māori now speak the language. But many of them are over 65, and only 3.3% of the total population speak, so there’s still work to be done (2013 NZ census stats). As NZHistory says, ‘To remain viable as a language, Māori needs a critical mass of fluent speakers of all ages, and it needs the respect and support of the wider English-speaking and multi-ethnic New Zealand community.’ That’s where major institutions like Te Papa have to take a lead.

Despite the differences in context, the bilingual strategies used in the US, and particularly the theatrical, mixed-language approaches, have great potential in New Zealand. Te Papa showcases Māori culture through many striking exhibitions (eg, Kahu Ora | Living Cloaks) and events (eg, Kaumatua Kapa Haka). Within them:

  • we’re increasing the extent of bilingual text, moving beyond upper-level labels
  • we translate for meaning rather than directly, and write in parallel where possible, involving our communities
  • Māori content sometimes expresses quite different perspectives from the English.

But we could do more interpretively. Like most museums in the US, we’ve largely separated the languages until now. Where we incorporate Māori into English text, we do so in a fairly straightforward way, eg, ‘This kaitaka (fine-flax cloak) carries the mana (authority or prestige) of its chiefly owners.’ Otherwise, you see bilingual labels side by side. You choose between audio tracks. We pare back the content to fit everything in.

By comparison, Desert at Night says: ‘This language is a vital aspect of our daily life, and you could be part of this world.’ There’s a sense of conversation and connection.

Fiction and theatre – including via live, face-to-face encounters (kanohi ki te kanohi) – open up opportunities to extend people’s experience of ideas and language in a more compelling, creative, and perhaps comfortable way. And that’s certainly being done in other environments in NZ, eg, on television (Tōku Reo on Māori TV), in books and songs, and on the stage. The play Paniora (2014), by Briar Grace-Smith, mixed Māori, English, and Spanish.

It suddenly strikes me as odd that we museums haven’t explored this territory more.

Would doing so reflect our current reality, or be aspirational? A bit of both. Many New Zealanders already mix Māori and English in daily speech, some more than others. At a basic level, you might hear: ‘How’s your whānau?’ (How’s your family?) Beyond that, maybe: ‘Ka haere au i te movies.’ (I’m off to the movies.) And so on. Just go to a kindergarten to see how this is becoming more common: ‘Horoia ō ringaringa – wash your hands.’ So this is all about expanding the arenas in which Māori is an expected, familiar part of the conversation to help inspire a desire to learn.

Three approaches to bilingualism

Back to Coast to Cactus for a moment. You can’t use theatre everywhere, of course, and the exhibition takes three approaches to bilingualism overall, two of them more traditional.

  1. Spanglish (as above)
  2. English and Spanish text alongside one another in both labels and multimedia components

    Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

    Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

  3. Separate English and Spanish (for one particular digital interactive on a vertical screen). See the ‘Español’ button, bottom right.

    Bilingual digital interactive, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

    Bilingual digital interactive, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Side-by-side presentation (2) is predominant. This is linked to the BERI finding that most visitors use English and Spanish at the same time. Other organisations are making the same call, including the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (also part of BERI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Bilingual label, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual label, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

As Senior Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly notes, any family group may contain varying degrees of language proficiency, eg:

  • Spanish-speaking grandparents who know little English
  • parents who speak both proficiently
  • children who speak primarily English.

Displaying the two languages simultaneously supports them all. It isn’t just about representing the languages; it’s about ensuring that everyone feels competent in the museum. And it’s about facilitating social interaction, eg, helping grandparents answer the questions of their grandkids.

Summative evaluation

Summative evaluation of Coast to Cactus by Randi Korn & Associates has backed up the BERI findings, revealing positive responses to the bilingual interpretation, ‘with an overall preference for the side-by-side presentation’. Unpicking that a bit:

  • ‘Toggle languages: Preferred delivery for native Spanish-speakers who are most comfortable in Spanish.’
  • ‘Side-by-side presentation: Preferred delivery for many because one can (1) check authenticity of translation and (2) move between the two depending on comfort.’
  • ‘Spanglish: Preferred delivery by San Diego residents, but not native Spanish-speakers.’ This ‘smaller but very vocal group … felt strongly connected to the Spanglish interpretative approach’.

Of all the components, Desert at Night ‘had … the highest percent of visitors to stop and … the second highest median time spent’.

‘The study concludes that ‘theNAT should consider using the side-by-side interpretation technique as a model for exhibitions in the future, as well as Spanglish interpretation as appropriate’.

Tackling text overload

And the thorny question of text overload, which comes with side-by-side presentation …?

TheNAT has done a pretty good job of paring back key messages and visually differentiating the content so that the overall effect isn’t too overwhelming. They’ve also made good use of images rather than text where possible.

Bilingual label in Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual content, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

But it’s hard to ignore that adding languages increases complexity and can be visually daunting. It presents a design and UX challenge.

Bilingual content, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual content, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Other points to note from the summative evaluation:

  • Coast to Cactus ‘has a lot of content and visitors spent a modest amount of time in the exhibition’ – around 13 to 15 minutes (the same as in other exhibitions)
  • ‘The … amount of text became distracting for a few.’
  • ‘The toggle-back-and-forth interpretation was more aesthetically pleasing to a few since it meant less text was visible.’
  • ‘The Coastal Wetlands section [which had a considerable amount of text]  … had a low dwell time (the second lowest).’ This was the case despite its central location.
Bilingual label rail, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual label rail, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

We know that when there’s lots of text, visitors are less likely to engage with the content, and we need to keep that overall visitor experience firmly in mind. Most museums haven’t gotten to grips with the issue of too much text, particularly in history and science exhibits. (In art, there’s more room.) Take these labels from a touring exhibition at theNAT but created elsewhere, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed.

Bilingual label rail, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition, 2015

Bilingual label rail, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition, 2015

Bilingual label rail, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition, 2015

Bilingual label rail, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibition, 2015

I’ve long seen digital media as offering an opportunity to avoid text overload. For that reason, I’m intrigued by theNAT’s decision to default to simultaneous presentation in the digital context – though of course it makes sense in relation to the BERI findings.

'Where are we?' bilingual digital interactive, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Bilingual digital interactive, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Back to NZ

In this area, the design solutions in Aotearoa New Zealand may differ from those here. Unlike US Spanish speakers, all speakers of Māori understand English. Do they still want/need the languages side by side? Would English speakers interested in learning Māori prefer parallel presentation? Can we cater to everyone’s needs?

TheNAT has identified a difference between ‘language purists’ (typically born south of the border) and those who embrace Spanglish (typically born north of the border). Do similar ‘camps’ exist in Aotearoa New Zealand?

I’m keen to test approaches like those below (not everywhere but in some situations):

  • The top levels of content (engaging introductions/teasers, key messages/quotes) are presented on physical substrates or cut vinyl, in both languages, side by side – ideally higher than other content. Like ‘Coral Reefs’ and ‘Reef Partnerships’ below, but bilingual.

    Physical and digital labels, California Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2015

    Physical labels (top) and digital labels (the small ones to the right of the tanks), California Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2015

  • The next one or two levels are presented as separate languages on digital substrates (ie, tablets), with a toggle between the two – ideally close to objects, with the screen design replicating the display. As below (and above – see the small screens), but bilingual.

    Digital labels, First Peoples exhibition, Melbourne Museum, 2015

    Digital labels, First Peoples exhibition, Melbourne Museum, 2015

  • Visitors can override the default setting and see the languages side by side if they want. They can also access simple tools (audio/text) to hear the language and unpack key aspects (eg, words, metaphors) – enough to pique interest but no more. A bit like on an e-reader, but simpler.


These solutions might help alleviate the concern that ‘the toggle-back-and-forth approach does not support language learning’ (Coast to Cactus summative evaluation).

High time to test

It all comes down to setting our aims around the languages we use, identifying our target audiences, and then – primarily – researching what they need.

Another finding of the BERI report is that many US organisations already creating bilingual text aren’t evaluating how their visitors are engaging with it (unlike theNAT). At the moment, Te Papa falls into this category, but we know we need to change that. We need to involve Māori teachers and other experts too.

The bilingual story room in Coast to Cactus

The story room 
in Coast to Cactus also deserves mention. It takes a fictional, bilingual approach to the topic of the wildfire season. The story unfolds via a poetic, physically interactive wall mural. Sit on the rock in the centre. Crawl in and out of the ‘caves’ in the walls as you listen to the story.

Imagine these ideas conveyed via straight text panels. This approach is more meaningful and memorable – and not just for the young audience. Interestingly, only this space and Desert at Night were assessed as both ‘high attraction and engagement’ in the summative evaluation.

TheNAT is helping to point the way to more powerful bilingual experiences for all our visitors.

Wildfire Season story room, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Wildfire Season story room, Coast to Cactus, San Diego Natural History Museum, 2015

Thanks to Beth Redmond-Jones for the great conversation, Judy Rand for connecting me (and for the equally illuminating chat), and Senior Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly for her thoughts.

Big ticks
Emotional connection, social connection, less is more, real stuff

Looking for guidelines around creating bilingual content?

See my blog: How can museums help revive indigenous languages?

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Highlight 2: Noah’s Ark, Skirball

Highlights intro & index

Noah’s Ark: Immersive, physical storytelling

Noah’s Ark at the Skirball Center is one of a series of highlights from my time in the US, but it doesn’t fit into the digital box at all. In fact, it’s the antithesis of digital interpretation, and an almost wordless experience.

The Skirball is a striking complex on the hills overlooking Los Angeles. It celebrates Jewish heritage and its connections with diverse cultural perspectives.

Skirball, LA, 2015

Skirball, LA, 2015, with the Noah’s Ark banner on the left

Noah’s Ark is the core family-focused, interactive exhibition. For Wellingtonians out there, think Te Papa, Junglerama, and a contemporary art gallery all rolled into one. The exhibition opened way back in 2007 – the result of a collaboration with Olson Kundig Architects of Seattle and other internal and external experts – and 8 years on, it’s still a source of inspiration.

For those not so sure about the Biblical basis, this is a refreshing take. Noah’s Ark isn’t overtly religious at all. Instead, it foregrounds the underlying values of the story, which are common to all cultures: overcoming adversity, cooperation, and survival.

The marketing video gives a good sense of the experience:

Face to face

Enter the orientation zone. Here, educators give you an intro – face-to-face interaction is key. They explain that we’re all Noah in this experience. We all have storms that we need to weather, and we all – together – have to keep the boat afloat.

It’s especially nice to be welcomed by a pair of kiwi with brushes for legs and boxing-glove bodies – tough little brutes. Brilliant.

Pair of kiwi in Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Pair of kiwi in Noah’s Ark, tough as old brushes and boxing gloves

Pure artistry

The artistry is really what sets Noah’s Ark apart.

In the first room, you meet a bunch of diverse, quirky animals. These are stunning art works in their own right, all made from recycled materials – old stuff fitting for an old story. As Vice President and Director of Education Sheri Bernstein tells me, ‘All these animals are made from different bits and pieces from everywhere, just like each of us.’

Zebra, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Zebra, Noah’s Ark

They’re also entirely hands-on. Spin, ding, twang, rattle. It’s immediately clear that this isn’t your typical children’s museum of plastic stuff in primary colours. The aim here was to create something that people of all ages would explore and appreciate.

A boy in Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

A wee boy gets straight into it, Noah’s Ark

Deer with neck made of keys, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Deer with neck made of old keys and rulers, Noah’s Ark

Here’s a polar bear made from bathtub and bucket.

Polar bear, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Polar bear, Noah’s Ark

Peep through the teeny tiny hole in its belly …

Through the hole in the polar bear's belly, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Through the hole in the polar bear’s belly, Noah’s Ark

And watch that sneaky crocodile.

Crocodile made from a violin case, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Crocodile made from a violin case, Noah’s Ark

Do it yourself, together

Downstairs the storm begins – and you create it. Wind, pump, shake. Make wind, water, and lightning.

Kids make the flood, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Kids make the flood, Noah’s Ark

Making lightning, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Making lightning, Noah’s Ark

Words projected on the floor, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Words projected on the floor, Noah’s Ark

Anything high-tech is hidden; the overall sense is organic, and you’re in control. There are no instructions in sight, but everything feels intuitive, and both kids and adults are interacting. The sparse projected text is poetic rather than explanatory.


In the next room, the animals get to know each other, and you can help. Here’s the adventure park-type experience. Clamber. Crawl. Swing. Slide. Get Grandpa to help you haul up a bucket. Many of the activities work better if you do them together.

Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Noah’s Ark

Look after the animals – feed them, put them to bed.

Gorillas, the latest addition to Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Gorillas, the latest addition to Noah’s Ark

Keep an eye out overhead.

Owl, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Owl, Noah’s Ark

Puppets made by Brooklyn-based artist Chris Green roam the space. The hosts hardly speak – they’re there to encourage a connection with the animals. Even as an adult, I’m surprisingly willing to suspend my disbelief and bend down to stroke them.

If you’re wondering whether any collection items are included, the answer is yes, but they don’t take centre stage.


The final space is more reflective and makes connections to children’s lives outside the museum.

The final reflective room, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

The final reflective room, Noah’s Ark

There are low-tech and high-tech options to contribute. Add a leaf to the family tree.

Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Family activities, Noah’s Ark

Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Collaborative tree, Noah’s Ark

Or, via a laptop, make a pledge about how you’ll help to build a better world, and see it projected in the space.

Visitor pledges, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Visitor pledges, Noah’s Ark

Noah’s Ark is a bold, beautiful experience. Rather than prioritise cognitive learning objectives, it recognises that emotion and magic are what spark learning, and that doing beds it in. And as for whether it’s successful? School visits for the year book out in one afternoon. Impressive.

Thanks to Rich Cherry of the Broad for recommending I visit, and to the very generous Sheri Bernstein for showing me around.

Six big ticks
Emotional connection, social connection, physicality, less is more, orientation, real stuff

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Highlight 1: Connected Worlds, NYSCI

Highlights intro & index

Connected Worlds: Digital, physical, immersive storytelling

Connected Worlds is the first in a series of highlights from my time in the US, and it’s a cracker. This immersive, Dr Seuss-like fantasy world, more than 200 square metres in size, was recently launched at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI). It’s a digital game, but one grounded in the very real theme of environmental sustainability. For a quick overview, here’s the marketing video:

You’re faced with four ecosystems: desert, plains, rainforest, swamp. A large waterfall courses down the back wall, and there are two other water sources on each side: river and reservoir. Your mission? Keep the world in balance. Ensure that each ecosystem has enough water to survive.

The Explainer (love the Hunger Games-esque name) orientates you before you begin.

The Explainer introduces Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

The Explainer introduces Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

To get planting, hold your hands out in the air. Seeds materialise like fairy dust.

Two girls plant seeds in Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Creating seeds in Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Lower your arms to let the seed pods pop and drop.

Two girls plant seeds in Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Planting seeds in Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

To direct the water, drag large silver logs into position.

Directing the water with logs, Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Directing the water with logs in Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Cut down dead plants by swiping your arm. But be careful – while you’re working on one ecosystem, another may start to fail. You need to work as a team.

Social, physical, real, magical

Connected Worlds is a fantastic example of a digital experience that’s also:

  • social – if you can’t communicate and cooperate, you fail
  • physical – only by moving your body do things happen
  • real – in this case, I mean a real purpose rather than real objects: to keep the world in balance
  • magical – you have power, you get to play God … plus everything looks really cool.
See the two girls at the back? They were captivated by the power in their hands. Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

See the two girls at the back? They were captivated by the power in their hands.

It’s virtual reality that connects rather than isolates (in the way that VR headsets currently do). For science and tech museums wanting to retain hands-on engagement, it makes a lot of sense to go big, social, and immersive over small, individual, and wearable/mobile.

I was reminded of an experience we used to have at Te Papa: The Wall – a digital, social space where you could upload images and move them around with a wand. It was radical for its time, but Connected Worlds pretty much knocks it out of the park, particularly with its level of interactivity and its real, relevant purpose.

The Wall, OurSpace, Te Papa

The Wall, OurSpace. Te Papa

Failing to cooperate = learning to fail

One 30-minute session wasn’t enough for my kids. We sat out the next one and then did it again.

My eldest daughter, Luca (10), was scowling the second time: ‘That boy was hogging the whole waterfall! He wasn’t letting any water go anywhere!’ But that’s just it. The learning is in failing as much as succeeding. The fact that everyone has an impact is even clearer, and the need for cooperation even more glaring. Here’s Luca working with some boys in a more collaborative moment.

I saw mums and dads working with their kids, pulling each other around, calling for logs, cracking themselves up. I saw kids captivated by the power in their hands. I overheard others plotting sabotage, hauling logs to form a dam. Whatever the case, everyone was fully engaged. And you could certainly see the beginnings of that holy grail of engagement – connection between visitors in the gallery.

Cooperative play, Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Cooperative play, Connected Worlds

Intuitive versus instructive

There’s no text in the play space, but information panels are placed nearby.

Interpretive panels, Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Interpretive panels, Connected Worlds

Interpretive panel, Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Interpretive panel, Connected Worlds

The intuitive nature of the experience makes it more powerful. The more you play, the more you discover, like how the slug can block off the water supply, and the way certain animals migrate if the conditions are right. (My kids noticed more than me.)

And the hosts are always there to help – real people in this unreal world. They’re all pretty young (volunteer college students rather than retirees), so the overall vibe is youthful.

A large computer screen just outside the space gives you an overview of what’s going on.

Kids examine the overview screen, Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Kids examine the overview screen, Connected Worlds

I wondered whether it should be closer, but we were there in the school holidays, so it wasn’t really being used. In an educational or more mediated session, an individual or group could be assigned to direct, with others taking specific roles in the game. Sessions can also be paused and restarted to allow for discussion. Huge potential.

Overview screen, Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Overview screen, Connected Worlds

Climate change

Michael Cosaboom, Director of Exhibit Services, showed me the back-end interface that controls the game. I was expecting a handful of levels for different audiences, but numerous variables can be customised: availability of water, rate of evaporation, rate at which plants wilt … mindboggling stuff. The higher the number, the harder it is. Take this variable: how many clouds clustered together make a rainstorm. To make the water cycle more visible for novice players and learners, you’d lower the number for that variable and the rain would fall more readily.

Settings are saved, and those settings can then be applied to different groups depending on their level.

Explainer interface showing saved settings, Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Explainer interface showing saved settings, Connected Worlds

The possibilities are endless, and the scripting can happen on the go. A really engaged teacher could potentially adjust the settings to explore specific aspects relevant to their students – feedback loops, for example.

Fantasy versus reality

Part of me wanted more of a human presence in the game. Cities that guzzle water. Cars and factories that pump out fumes. Something more closely resembling our current reality. But simplicity is key and, as a player in the game, you are the human presence.

Michael explained that prototyping (and they did a lot) led them to take the fantasy angle. Initially, the graphics were more realistic, but people brought preconceived notions to the game, expecting the plants and animals to behave in too narrowly defined ways. Making it more fantastical freed them up.

Creative collaboration

Design I/O (Emily Gobeille, Theo Watson, Nicholas Hardeman, Josh Goodrich) were the creative collaborators for Connected Worlds, and game designer Zach Gage was also involved.

It’s a hugely impressive technical undertaking: 15 projectors rigged above the space (6 for the walls, 2 for the waterfall, 7 for the floor), 12 Kinects to detect gestures, 8 Mac Pros, 3 infrared cameras, a special floor surface, all operating on a closed network.

I was amazed at how stable the technology was, and how well the gesture-recognition worked. Mike confirmed that they’ve had very few glitches. Design I/O have created similar interactives elsewhere, including Funky Forest at Singapore Art Museum, so they’ve had a chance to iron out the kinks. And a key component is that the graphics are code, which means no large bitmap images to shuffle around.

An advisory board and scientists from Columbia University, New York University, and Yale also played vital roles in the development. I can just imagine the difficult conversations and debates. Simplicity versus accuracy. Fiction versus reality. The stuff that makes our jobs fascinating and exasperating all at once.

What was the hardest part? Simplifying the experience according to Michael (as it so often is) so that the key messages could come through: 1) that everything is connected, and 2) that your actions have consequences. Within that, the prevailing sense is still one of discovery and wonder. Impressive.

Hidden gem

Wayfinding to Connected Worlds, New York Hall of Science, 2015

Wayfinding to Connected Worlds

The only thing that confused me was finding the experience. The museum map doesn’t yet mention it, and the route through is like this …

Right now, Connected Worlds feels like a hidden gem, but that’s intentional in part. There was no opportunity to test its full potential during the school holidays. With summer over, that’s about to change. Whenever possible, Michael is in there with anyone who’ll play, testing the potential of all the variables. I’ll also be fascinated to see what any evaluation reveals.

The word really needs to get out.

Thanks to Seb Chan and his kids for recommending this one.

Six big ticks
Emotional connection, social connection, physicality, less is more, orientation, real stuff

A techier take on Connected Worlds by Filip Visnjic

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Highlights intro … & 6 boxes to tick in museum storytelling

I’m now more than halfway through my time in the US, and life has been frantic but fascinating, in and beyond the museum world. There’ve been monsoon rains, rattlesnakes, and rats, and many quirky encounters with thick-accented New Yorkers in buses, ubers, and ramshackle shops.

But what’s struck me most (aside from a particularly vicious rat) is the sheer diversity of the museum sector, and the generosity of the many talented people I’ve met.


Time for a series of highlights – separate posts, no particular order. I’ll add to it as I go (including one for my hosts, the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum – but I’ll save that for a little later).

  • Connected Worlds, NYSCI – immersive, digital, physical storytelling
  • Noah’s Ark, Skirball, LA – immersive, physical storytelling
  • Desert at Night, Cactus to Coast, San Diego Natural History Museum – immersive, bilingual storytelling [coming soon]

My main focus in the US is on how new technologies are being applied to storytelling in museums, including bilingual interpretation, but some of the best experiences haven’t been tech-heavy/savvy at all. Which just goes to show (as if we didn’t know it already) that innovation comes in many forms and doesn’t equate to technology. But things get really exciting when tech enhances what we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do – and when it helps us tick some of the boxes below.

6 boxes to tick in museum storytelling

Aye, I’m aware of the irony. How can powerful experiences be about box ticking? Well, they’re not, and there’s never going to be one right way to tell stories and engage visitors in museums. That said, these six general traits just keep coming through – as often as not because of their absence. They’re not rocket science, but they’re still surprisingly rare.

  1. Emotional connection and powerful storytelling
  2. Social connection and participation
  3. Physicality (embodied, sensory experiences)
  4. Less is more
  5. Orientation (unless getting lost is the idea)
  6. Real stuff (real objects, purposes, opportunities, or issues)

I’ve just noticed that if this were an acrostic poem, it would spell (or misspell) ESPLOR. Or SLOPER. Take your pick, because don’t we museum-ers just love our acronyms.

For 1, I specifically say ‘storytelling’ rather than ‘stories’. Museums are storehouses of great stories: fabulous raw material, objects with multiple voices just waiting to be revealed. But those stories aren’t always told in a powerful way – in a way that does them justice or really connects them with people. When they’re not, they’re reduced to mere information. And in a world where information is mobile and omnipresent – at our fingertips anywhere, any time – museums simply cannot afford to stay stuck in that place. That’s the route to irrelevance.

None of these traits are specific to the digital realm, of course, but apply there as everywhere else. The highlights to date nail a number if not all of them. I’ll give examples as I go. And I’ll take a more thematic approach to them later too.

Asking the right questions

In all the highlights, the exhibit developers have asked themselves:

  • Who is our primary audience? (They haven’t been afraid to narrow that down – but in doing so have achieved inclusion rather than exclusion.)
  • What will give them the most powerful, concrete, connected experience of this topic?
  • How can we tap into their lives and emotions?
  • How can we inject something special or magical into the experience?
  • Where might technology help, and where might it hinder us?

The results are striking. Go visit if you can.

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A virtually real story in 2 parts


This story is about virtual reality, but it might not look like that right away. Bear with me.

Polar bear (detail). Photograph by Zemlinki (CC BY 2.0)

Meet Colin

Colin is my neighbour. He knows how to talk. Pop over for some honey at 7pm and you won’t be back till midnight. Colin likes to tell stories. He can make you believe in The Growly Bear. He looks a bit like a bear himself – a nice, shaggy, ginger-haired one – and has a deep, resonant voice. But the real growly bear lives in his cupboard. True story. Here’s another story.

Once upon a time …

Once upon a time, there was a taniwha.

TaniwhaSorry, no, it doesn’t go like that. Sometimes I switch off when Colin is talking, only because I can’t keep up.

It goes like this, and Colin’s the main character.

The grand medal theft

Not so long ago, in the Land of the Long White Cloud …

Looking towards Tongariro and Ruapahu, 1847, by George French Angas, engraving by Mr J W Giles. From The New Zealanders. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB001054/066a)

Looking towards Tongariro and Ruapahu, 1847, by George French Angas, engraving by J W Giles. From The New Zealanders. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB001054/066a)

Drawing of a Victoria Cross medal, late 1800s, by William Francis Gordon. Te Papa (O.011933)

… nearly 100 precious war medals were stolen from a museum near the mountains.

The people of the land weren’t happy about this – the medals were very special, and very shiny, and had been given to soldiers who had done very brave deeds. The police furrowed their brows and stroked their chins. Then they straightened their jackets and declared, ‘We will get them back!’

Toy policeman, about 1910, by Sarah McMurray. Gift of Elizabeth McMurray, great grandchild of maker Sarah McMurray, 2010. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH020822)

Toy policeman, about 1910, by Sarah McMurray. Gift of Elizabeth McMurray, 2010. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH020822)

Colin asks why

But Colin said: ‘Wait! Why do we need to get them back? It will cost a lot of money. Why don’t we just get new metal and pretty ribbons and make some that look the same?’ (Today, he would have said: ‘Why don’t we 3-D print some more?’)

Mouths dropped open, and the people protested. Colin said: ‘Ah-hah, just as I thought! You believe in taniwha!’

‘Taniwha?’ the people gasped. ‘Māori monsters?’ (for most of these people were not Māori). ‘What rot! You may as well suggest we believe in dragons!’

Her favourite, the Green Dragon , 1914, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G L Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.006583)

The green dragon, 1914, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G L Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.006583)

Colin leans back in his chair

But Colin persisted. Smiling wryly and leaning back in his chair, he said: ‘Listen here. Taniwha are personifications – physical manifestations of past events or forces. They’re always connected with particular places and people. They embody something important to those people – just like your medals.

‘Why do you value the medals after all? Because of their link with events, people, and places of the past. They have been thoroughly cleaned and conserved – yet still you believe they carry some remnant of those who owned them and all they went through. You believe that they embody … that they personify those things. Māori have many words to convey these concepts: mana (power and prestige), mauri (life force), ihi (the capacity to inspire awe), wehi (the experience of awe). Your words may pale by comparison, but the belief is the same, as it is for humans everywhere.’

He pauses to catch his breath.

We all believe in magic

‘Why do you think we have museums in the first place? Because we all believe in the supernatural. We all believe in fairies and magic. None of this is rational in the slightest!’

Magic Strawberry Fields peg doll, 2011, made by Ella Hermens. Gift of Ella Hermens, 2011. © Te Papa. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH017395)

Magic Strawberry Fields peg doll, 2011, made by Ella Hermens. Gift of Ella Hermens, 2011. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH017395)

The people looked confused. These were new and strange words and they couldn’t think what to say. No one had ever talked to them like this and, quite frankly, it was doing their heads in. They fidgeted and twitched, and one of them bit a fingernail down till it bled.

*       *       *       *       *       *      *      *      *     *


Wake up! The year is 2015 and you – a humble museum-er – are in Silicon Valley, USA. Your location: A NASA research park. (How the heck did you manage to get in here?)

You’re in a large room surrounded by people much younger and smarter and smoother-skinned than you. You can feel their brains vibrating.

Brain image by Allan Ajifo (CC BY 2.0)

Image by Allan Ajifo (CC BY 2.0)

There’s a stage in front of you, and a man is speaking. He’s in his 50s and bear-like in appearance, but surprisingly sprightly in his movements. He commands everyone’s attention. His topic?

What will retain value in the future, as technology becomes more intelligent and pervasive? As it mediates more of our lives? As it replace our jobs? As it takes over the world?

Robot Noir - Red Robot 4, by J L Watkins (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Robot Noir – Red Robot 4, by J L Watkins (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Six golden offerings

The answer? Just six golden offerings. (Ponder these for a moment – they deserve some thought.)

  • The real thing (tech can make replicas, but it can’t replace the original)
  • People and personal services (tech just isn’t the same)
  • Creativity and intellectual property (what goes into creating the tech, and how it’s used)
  • Control of communications (who owns the tech and what they say)
  • Prime locations (tech can’t make places – yet)
  • Raw materials (tech can’t replace resources – unless it gets them from space)

You’re astonished. You’ve never met the speaker before, but he appears to be talking about you. The real, the original – did he really say that? Did he just make eye contact? This must be where you and your fellow museum-ers take the stage. Collectors of the original. Upholders of the real. Saviours of the universe! (Trumpets, fanfare!)

Fanfare of trumpets, Victory Queen Carnival, Wellington, New Zealand, 1941. Photographer unknown. Te Papa (O.039891)

Victory Queen Carnival, Wellington, New Zealand, 1941. Photographer unknown. Te Papa (O.039891)

And you don’t just stop at the real, no. You offer almost everything in the golden list. A personal and social experience – a place to spend time with friends and family. A creative space, and a space to create. A place of communication. A prime location. Hah! You knew they’d written you off too early – called you irrelevant, a dinosaur. Now you’re back with a vengeance!

A young man with sticky-uppy hair gives you a reality check

Just as you’re about to stand and revel in your newfound glory, a skinny young man with sticky-uppy hair bounds out of his seat, waving his arms. You can see the sparks coming off him. He seems barely out of his teens.

Photograph by M C Escher (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photograph by M C Escher (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Unfortunately, you can’t make out his face because he’s wearing strange headgear. Is he from another planet? (This is NASA after all.) He holds a magic box that seems to be fabricating some sort of figure.

In heavily accented English, he exclaims: ‘What is this rubbish: real this, real that?’ He taps twice on his box. ‘Soon enough, a 3D print is same as the original. You will not tell the difference! Do you even believe when someone says: This is the original, the one, the only? How can you know? Your brain will imagine even if it is not.’

He points to his headset. ‘This is the future. This is reality. As far as your brain knows, the real and virtual they are one! Soon this thing, it measures your thinking, your feeling, every chicken bump on your skin. It makes reality just for you.’

And then he rushes over to you, rips off his headgear (it’s OK, his face doesn’t fall off) and puts it on you. You don’t have time to protest – but never mind that because now you’re on a rollercoaster! Your heart beats wildly. You hear yourself screaming. (Did you really just scream?) And then, all of a sudden, you’re under the sea. It’s eerily quiet down here. Above you, a small shark circles around. Below you, a blobfish – and then a colossal squid emerges from nowhere. Sweet bejeezus, within a foot of your face! The eye, the suckers, it’s coming towards you.

Colossal squid close up

Colossal squid, collected 2008, Ross Sea, Antarctica. Gift of the Ministry of Fisheries, 2007. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (M.190318)

The whole thing is blowing your mind – but you’re beginning to feel a bit nauseous …

A question floats away

Locket, 1800s. Gift of Miss A Riley, 1963. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH002260)

Locket, 1800s. Gift of Miss A Riley, 1963. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH002260)

A question forms in your mind, then floats away. By the time you retrieve it, the headset is off and the young man has gone.

You – you – you want to know whether he keeps his great great great grandmother’s locket under the socks in his drawer. Or his grandfather’s pipe at the back of his closet. You sense that this might taint what he has said about reality, and temper your awe.

Then you remember that others have been watching. Were they laughing at you? Did you do that funny thing with your mouth? Were you drooling? You lower your head and quickly check your chin. When you look up, the room is empty and you’ve forgotten where you are. Where were you again?

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Down the rabbit hole at MONA & Melbourne Museum: Part 2

Part 2: Melbourne Museum’s Storyteller mobile app

Love and Sorrow entrance panel, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love & Sorrow exhibition entrance, Melbourne Museum, 2015

In Part 1 of this post, I mused about The O – the mobile experience at MONA, an idiosyncratic, private art museum founded by gambler David Walsh.

Now to Love & Sorrow, Melbourne Museum’s World War I centenary exhibition, and its associated Storyteller mobile app. This history show explores the impact of the war on Australian families via the lives of eight people.

Two very different experiences but each incorporating mobile interpretation with location-aware technology (which pulls content automatically onto your mobile device based on your position).

  • At MONA, the mobile content is the sole interpretation, available only on a museum device.
  • At Melbourne Museum, the mobile content is an additional multimedia layer, available on a museum device or personal smartphone.

Art Processors was involved with both, but with MONA in a more integral way.

Love & Sorrow

Love & Sorrow offers a rich experience in the physical space. Intimate rooms. Lots of cases with fascinating objects. Extensive text, as seen below.

Love and Sorrow exhibition case showing density of objects and text, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love & Sorrow exhibition, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love and Sorrow exhibition case showing density of objects and text, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love & Sorrow exhibition, Melbourne Museum, 2015

What more would the Storyteller app offer me? Would the physical and digital compete for my attention and, if so, which would win?

Skip to Overall learnings

First impressions

Love and Sorrow exhibition teaser cases, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love & Sorrow teaser cases, Melbourne Museum, 2015

My first impressions are positive. I like the sparse teaser cases before I reach the exhibition. The objects are great and offer enticing glimpses into the show, and the questions are punchy and provocative (even if the text could be pared back).

Love and Sorrow exhibition teaser case text, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love & Sorrow teaser case text, Melbourne Museum, 2015

I also really like the personal approach of the exhibition – the focus on the lives of particular people during World War I. An engaging way in.

A technical hitch

The first issue I encounter is that the mobile app, which I’ve dutifully downloaded onto my iPhone, doesn’t work. I discover that the museum has abandoned the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) option and is now going with the preloaded loan device. A friendly host helps me out.

I’m not too bothered – but this is a reminder that BYOD is still hard when you want to do clever things, because of differences in hardware. We’re still in that sticky transitional phase.

Starting out

Love and Sorrow exhibition entrance, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love and Sorrow exhibition entrance, Melbourne Museum, 2015

I’m asked to choose a character to follow through the show. Sounds great, and again I love the idea, but I find it overwhelming to choose between eight people I’ve never encountered before. In a world of endless options – chocolate bars, cereal, experiences – I long for something simpler: fewer options or a gradual introduction to them. (This is largely a personal preference, but it does raise questions about the trend in museums to mimic the multiple choices available elsewhere. At what point does meaningful engagement diminish and paralysis set in?)

I select orchardist Frank Roberts. He’ll do. For a subsequent visit, I opt for nurse Lil Mackenzie, simply because she’s a woman.

First screen of instructions (more below the fold), Storyteller app, Love and Sorrow, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Instruction screen, Storyteller app, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Onto the instructions: 100 words are daunting on a mobile screen, so I resist reading. (I want that MONA host.) I’m looking for something intuitive. The photo to the right shows the first section – there’s more below the fold.

Voice and tone

The female narrator is warm and welcoming, so why does she unsettle me? Because I’m expecting something that draws me into Frank’s wartime world, that offers a sense of character, that connects and immerses me.

There’s nothing wrong with the narration per se (it’s what you’d expect on many audio guides and is appropriate when your goal is to put people in the position of ‘audience’). But in an exhibition based on personal experiences, emotional engagement is crucial. I at least want a man to read the letters of men.

Integrating digital with physical

Each character has his/her own red symbol, and these appear on the mobile device and wall labels, tying the two together. A straightforward visual cue, or you’d think so. But in a complex exhibition space, images, text, and objects whirl together for the visitor, and finding a symbol can be surprisingly difficult. A clear link between digital and physical is crucial.

lil Mackenzie label showing navigational symbol, Love and Sorrow, 2015

Lil Mackenzie label, Love & Sorrow, 2015

Frank Roberts label showing navigational symbol, Love and Sorrow, 2015

Frank Roberts label, Love & Sorrow, 2015

On the device, I’d prefer a photograph of what’s on display (like MONA’s thumbnail images), but given the density of the exhibition, they may not be enough either. I even overlook the red dates initially – they’re another cue. And for a time, I don’t even hear the audio tone; I’m so focused on navigating the device and displays. All my senses are trying to keep up.

In one instance (when following Lil), I’m asked to look for an item on display: a Gallipoli diary. I like this. It connects me with the space – vital for mobile content. Problem is, it’s not Lil’s and I can’t find it. There are so many objects, with no numbering to help. (Orientation – it’s oh so important.) I don’t strike any other examples of this sort of prompt.

Love and Sorrow exhibition case showing lack of numbering, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love & Sorrow exhibition, 2015

Generally, I’m not sure what to look at first in the space. Which ‘gateway’ objects will guide me in?

Choice of content and platform

Give me the cool stuff
On the device, I’m expecting rich media – audio in particular (images if they don’t distract). Something different from what’s on the walls (there’s lots of text as it is). But I get text first. The length is more suited to reading from a label or larger screen, but I don’t seem to have the option of saving it to read from home. I increasingly scroll right past it, looking for the ‘cool stuff’.

Storyteller app showing scrolling text, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Storyteller app, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Storyteller app showing scrolling text, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Storyteller app, Melbourne Museum, 2015

When I get to the media underneath, it’s fascinating: interviews, diary entries, the voices of real people. But I’ve had to jump over barriers to get to it. I also question whether some of the more powerful media might be better placed in the physical space for all to experience.

Mostly, though, I want this original material to drive the other content. I can imagine a voice leading me through: Frank’s words, recorded by someone who represents him, with relevant sound effects or music – an immersive soundscape. (Perhaps I can even opt to turn certain sound elements on and off.) I can imagine the voice and sounds shifting as I move from space to space, with prompts about what to look at. But here, curatorial commentary is the starting point.

Competing content
I’m captivated by many items on display and am finding it hard to choose between objects/label text and the content on the mobile guide.

The prosthetic room is particularly powerful.

Prosthetics room, Love and Sorrow exhibition, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Prosthetics room, Love & Sorrow exhibition, 2015

Later, on the mobile device, I discover an interview in which a soldier talks about the prosthetics, and footage of women working on them. I’m riveted – but I’m not in the relevant room at the time. The audio doesn’t seem to connect with what’s in front of me.

Glencorse Wood, where more than 1,700 men died within a week in 1917, is one of the most moving spaces.

Glencorse Wood experience, Love and Sorrow, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Glencorse Wood experience, Love & Sorrow exhibition, 2015

Here, I see a projection of a lush forest. I hear the sounds of birds. Then shooting as I enter. The trees gone, devastation in their place. When I pass in front of the projector, my silhouette leaves an eerie trace of the original woods. Beautiful. The only issue is that I have to remove my earphones to hear the audio and really be part of the experience.

What’s what? What’s where?
I can read about Frank and Lil in both physical and mobile spaces, so I’m trying to work out the difference between the two. How are their stories playing out across the platforms? Since I’ve been asked to ‘look for my symbol’ in the exhibition space (the cross), I’m expecting something different there.

Lil Mackenzie labe for l 1919, Love and Sorrow, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Lil Mackenzie label, Love & Sorrow exhibition, 2015

In some cases, the wall text appears to be virtually the same; in others, a slightly extended version, as it is compared to the screen shots below. (Hard to shoot clear iPhone pics in dark spaces sorry!) Is the Storyteller meant to be an alternative to the on-floor show then – a summary?

Lil Mazkenzie screen on the Storyteller app, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Lil Mazkenzie screen on the Storyteller app, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Lil Mazkenzie screen on the Storyteller app, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Whose story is this?
At some point, I receive information about William Gamble. And extracts from the diary of Corporal Siddeley. It’s interesting stuff, but how does it relate to Frank’s story? Or Lil’s?

Storyteller app showing William Charles Gamble screen, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Storyteller app showing William Charles Gamble screen, Melbourne Museum, 2015I’m lost and, unlike at MONA, I don’t want to be. This is a different sort of rabbit hole.

There’s an answer of course – it’s my fault. I didn’t read all the instructions: ‘The small circles contain Storyteller only content’ (ie, content not connected to what’s in the space). But visitors don’t read everything; the experience has to be simple and intuitive. Sometimes you have to ditch your best material for the story to work.

End of the conflict

At the end are five screens, but they don’t seem to be functioning. Only on my second visit do I work out that you have to use your mobile device to activate the content. But what about those who aren’t using them (most people)? The content is great. Why the mystery?

Love and Sorrow final digital screens, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love & Sorrow final digital screens, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Technical notes

The beacons work relatively well, triggering content when I approach them, but in some spots the information doesn’t appear when it should, or does when it shouldn’t.

The size and density of the show (cases backing onto cases, with lots of objects) have made it difficult to achieve ‘black spots’ between zones. These issues are naturally going to come up with developing technologies, and we’ve had similar problems testing beacons at Te Papa.

At this point, it’s much easier to get beacons to function at a room level rather than case level. Downstairs at Melbourne Museum, the Imperial War Memorial’s World War 1 Centenary exhibition is showing. The mobile guide there is similarly location-aware (also care of Art Processors), but it’s audio only (speakers and sound effects), and it only operates at a room level, triggering a selection of tracks as you enter a new space. This simplicity results in a more seamless visitor experience.

Overall learnings

Love & Sorrow is full of powerful objects and compelling stories, and I can feel the passion and care with which the museum team have put it together. But I can’t help feeling that my experience would have been more satisfying if I hadn’t used the mobile guide. Yes, it contains interesting material, but its structure and relationship to the rest of the exhibition are problematic. For the most part, I felt disconnected from the space and others in it, and confused by what I was getting where. I was fixated on the screen. Some visitors mightn’t mind this, but it raises questions for museum practitioners about what sort of experience we want our audiences to have.

That said, only by museums taking the plunge, as Melbourne has done, will we figure out the best balance between on-floor and mobile content in different contexts. The Storyteller app is a great case study and learning opportunity, and is incredibly helpful in informing more experimentation in this area.

Here’s what I came away with. (By multimedia mobile interpretation, I mean content beyond audio: a combination of text, pics, video, audio.)

  1. Think very carefully before adding multimedia mobile interpretation to a rich narrative exhibition.
    Will it meet visitors’ needs? Do they want the extra info in the space? Be very wary (audio alone may be best), but if you do pursue this option …
  2. Simplify the story dramatically and carefully plot it across platforms.
    ‘Less is more’ is such a simple rule, but so easy to forget. Set clear criteria for what goes where (important for audio guides too – even more so for multimedia offerings).
  3. Consider what each platform does best.
    Mobile isn’t the place for long text – keep that for sending home. (MONA breaks this ‘rule’, but everything is mobile and that makes a difference. You can also read it after your visit.)
  4. Use mobile content to prompt close looking and connection with the space.
    This is what mobile content creator Sandy Goldberg calls ‘choreography’ – designing mobile content as a dance between the person, the device, and the space. I’d add ‘other people’ to this one.
  5. Make sure the physical space (2D/3D design) supports the digital content.
    Physical and digital interfaces need to clearly connect. The mobile experience shouldn’t complicate (or reveal issues in) orientation. UX, UX, UX.
  6. Ask: Should powerful content be in the exhibition rather than ‘hidden’ on the device?
    Again, this isn’t the case for MONA because everything’s mobile.
  7. Stick to the story.
    The mobile platform shouldn’t be a place for content that won’t fit elsewhere.
  8. Emotional connection is key.
    This one’s vital for all content everywhere. What will help to draw people in? Consider style, tone, and voice in particular.
  9. Factor in time to prototype, test with audiences, and tweak the tech.
    Involve all relevant parties early.

Thanks to Scott Brewer and Nic Whyte of Art Processors for the inspiring conversations about where to from here with mobile.

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Down the rabbit hole at MONA & Melbourne Museum: Part 1

Part 1: MONA & The O mobile experience

I’m travelling back in time for a moment, to 2012, when I first visited Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) – then fairly new.

MONA, Hobart, Tasmania, 2011. Photograph by Rob Taylor

MONA, Hobart, Tasmania, 2011. Photograph by Rob Taylor (CC BY 2.0)

MONA was the place that really sparked my interest in the potential, pitfalls, and parameters of multimedia mobile storytelling in museums. It also got me pondering how far we could branch out beyond safe, middle-of-the-road interpretation.

I’m late! I’m late!

Lots of commentators have written about MONA, so why am I adding my two cents now?

Melbourne Museum’s Love & Sorrow Storyteller app reignited my original intention to write about MONA. Its mobile offering – part of its WWI centenary exhibition – offers an interesting comparison, and both experiences raise considerations for museums embarking on mobile developments. They also provide a context for my explorations in the US.

I’ll split my thoughts across two posts. But first, some brief scene setting.

Skip to 3 surprises if you’ve experienced MONA in person
Go to Part 2: Melbourne Museum’s Storyteller app if you’ve read enough about MONA

MONA: Shaking up the art establishment

Corridor, MONA, 2012

MONA, 2012

Mad Hatter, by John Tenniel

Mad Hatter, by John Tenniel, via Wikimedia Commons

MONA is a dungeon-like complex built deep in a hill in an industrial suburb of Hobart. The brainchild of multi-millionaire mathematician/gambler David Walsh – a man fascinated by sex and death, whose private art collection embodies that obsession. The Mad Hatter of the art world, some might say. A man who solves the financial woes of his half-finished museum by betting on the Melbourne Cup and winning $16 million in one outing. A man who decides to ditch museum labels altogether. Who wouldn’t be intrigued?

MONA, working with Art Processors (which Walsh founded – an enormously talented bunch), is the first museum in the world to go fully mobile. Bold. But …

  • Will visitors be fixated on screens rather than art?
  • With earphones on, will they be even more isolated from the world around them?
  • Will the mobile device even work?

O! The MONA experience

Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, 2011. Photograph by Rob Taylor

MONA, Hobart, Tasmania, 2011. Photograph by Rob Taylor (CC BY 2.0)

A corridor lined with velvet curtains, MONA, 2012

A corridor lined with velvet curtains, MONA, 2012

Clearly, great thought has gone into making MONA an integrated, immersive, almost theatrical experience – every aspect contributes to the effect, from boat ride to architecture to food to post-visit experience.

Being lost is a key element, as many have noted. No sooner have I stepped off the catamaran and ascended the almost 100 stairs to MONA’s entrance and it’s time to descend again. A spiral staircase leads me down. And down. Welcome to Wonderland. A host at the bottom gives me a quick demo of The O – the iPod Touch device (it’s included in the entry fee) – and lets me loose.

Picture ornate furniture in the entrance hall. A cellist. Dimly lit, narrow hallways. Blood-red velvet curtains. Few if any directions. The O is my only guide.

Here’s a trampoline with bells on.

Trampoline, MONA, 2012

MONA, 2012

Over there, an undulating room covered in fluffy pink fabric.

Fluffy room, MONA, 2012

MONA, 2012

Alongside, a cacophony of TVs, all with different footage.

Multi-television exhibit, MONA, 2012

MONA, 2012

image001Art wank, madam? Love it or hate it

As I move around MONA, a list of nearby works with thumbnails automatically pops up on my mobile screen. I select what strikes my fancy and choose from four interpretive options:

  • Ideas: Interesting quotes, provocative conversation starters.
  • Art Wank: Need I say more? (In this case, though, it’s a bit more accessible than the obtuse interpretation that characterises many art museums, though it still suffers from a lack of paragraphing and excessive length.)
  • Gonzo: Musings from Walsh or one of his circle, with intriguing if tenuous links to the art.
  • Media: Mostly interviews with artists, some music.

I’m immediately struck by Walsh’s audacity, and envious of MONA’s freedom. Here’s a man who can do, and will do, whatever he wants, and he’s backing the team around him to do the same. Organisations with a public mandate can learn from that, but we’ll never be in the same position.

I can either love or hate works – such brutal simplicity. (Only recently have other museums grown up and decided that people hating their art might not be such a threat after all.) Too simple? Some might say so, but personal opinion is still too often left out of art interpretation, as if it didn’t matter at all. And opinions (no matter how ill-formed) are often the precursor to fascinating conversations.

I marvel. I rage. I question. I disagree. I fall in love.

A take-home experience

Supplying my email address allows me to revisit the works I’ve viewed from home – the physical and virtual worlds connect. I can’t actually access MONA’s collection until I’ve visited. In the public sector, we obviously wouldn’t opt for this approach, but OK, this is a private museum wanting to encourage visitation: because it’s integral to the experience, and because it means money.

The O retrieved tour, 2012

The O retrieved tour, 2012

I can also see the path I took around the museum – that squiggly line at the top. As a visitor, I don’t particularly care about that, but as a museum practitioner, I’m excited by the potential to better understand audience behaviour.

Interestingly, MONA isn’t focusing too much on that data (most viewed, duration viewed, most loved, most hated, etc). As Nic Whyte of Art Processors puts it: ‘If you only cater to what the stats tell you, you end up with a very vanilla experience.’ Masterpieces comes from another place.

3 surprises

Again, many commentators have discussed what works (and doesn’t work) about The O, so I’ll stick with the biggest surprises for me.

1. People are looking at the art … because they want to
Yes, they look at their screens (especially initially), but then they look up – closely. Some raise the device to move between text interpretation and art more seamlessly. I follow suit.

Mostly, though, I choose the audio. I also notice that I choose works based on gut instinct. I’m all for demystifying art, but could labels change the choices visitors make in less useful ways?

Ed Rodley noted the same in his blog: ‘I was … free to ignore objects that didn’t appeal to me, which I would have felt compelled to study because of their “importance” had they been labelled.’

Visitors at MONA, Tasmania, 2012

Visitors at MONA, 2012

2. People are talking to each other
I grab my colleague, Lynette: ‘Have you listened to this interview?’ or ‘Forget that wank.’ When I look around, others are doing the same. Despite the seemingly antisocial context, people are socialising.

Here’s my hunch. A) The provocative content is perfect gossip fodder, and you get a kick from unearthing some gem. B) The fact that the entire experience is ‘individual’ – everything is on The O – makes us want to share it. The ubiquity may even be a crucial component.

For less pervasive mobile interpretation, would we see this social connection? I’m not so sure. Also, I’d love to have experienced The O with my kids – the content is ripe for fascinating family conversations, but would I have felt disconnected from their experiences?

Visitors chatting at MONA, 2012

Visitors chatting at MONA, 2012

3. The device works … mostly
Actually, mine freezes at one point, but the hosts quickly replace it. Once, I find myself stuck on the Red Queen Tour – a more limited selection of works – but find my way out eventually. Mostly, the content appears when it’s meant to.

In the cafe, I survey (not at all scientifically) three older couples – people who look like my technologically challenged Mum and Dad. They’re all happy with their experience, thanks to a simple interface, clear instructions, and useful support from the hosts.

Upshot of The O

So what’s the upshot? The O works. Why?

  • It suits the art, the collector (a strong presence throughout), and the context.
  • It’s an integral part of the experience – the only way in.
  • It lets the art speak for itself and simultaneously offers multiple avenues into a new appreciation.
  • It prioritises emotional connection with art and diverse responses, through the silence of the walls and David Walsh’s Gonzo comments. His mental meanderings count; therefore ours do too.
  • It’s an art work in its own right. I’ve long thought museum practitioners should behave more like artists than lecturers, and MONA illustrates that perfectly.
Ping pong table at MONA, 2012

Ping pong at MONA, 2012

As Seb Chan noted in his blog, content rather than technology really maketh the O. Like Seb, I particularly like the lo-fi audio interviews. I can hear a kettle going off in the background, cups clinking. I’m there with the artist. In a world now accustomed to spontaneous, mobile video and audio footage, we need to ask ourselves when hi-fi is important and when it gets in the way. What sort of experience and emotional impact are we looking for – intimacy or awe? Still, that doesn’t do away with the need for a good edit. 1:30 max please!

Finally, it works because it works – technically I mean.

The numbers speak for themselves too: In 2014, MONA was the second most visited Tasmanian attraction according to Tourism Tasmania. 96% of visitors use The O.

3 questions for the rest of us

So, MONA’s a success, but how much of it is transferrable? Would it be mad to consider fully mobile interpretation beyond art, for instance? Quite possibly.

1. How would we retain the story with fully mobile interpretation?
With art, people don’t have to ‘get’ the overall story; to get anything in fact. To a large extent, art works are stories in themselves, with immediate impact. But in history and science shows (Te Papa covers all three), the story across objects is arguably more important. Without physical labels to signal key messages and connections, how would we retain that story when we wanted to? Only via a linear mobile tour or one-way spatial design?

2. Add a multimedia mobile layer on top of a rich on-floor exhibition – mad?
How would we prevent the mobile experience from competing with everything else if it extended beyond the usual audio layer? And what would the criteria be for physical versus mobile content? More importantly, would our visitors want this layer?

3. What about BYOD – Bring Your Own Device?
To what extent could we translate the MONA concept for museums unable to offer devices, or for visitors wanting to use their own? (I believe MONA’s introducing BYOD soon.)

Love and Sorrow exhibition entrance, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love and Sorrow exhibition entrance, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Then, in 2015, Melbourne Museum launches their Love & Sorrow exhibition. They’ve taken the plunge and integrated a mobile experience into a history show – a great opportunity to test questions 2 and 3 above. Grab an Anzac biscuit and join me in Melbourne.

Read Part 2: Love & Sorrow: Melbourne Museum’s Storyteller app

Other posts on MONA and The O
Richard Flanagan: The Tasmanian Devil
Ed Rodley: MONA – revolutionary, and not
Ed Rodley: MONA’s ‘The O’ mobile guide
Seb Chan: Experiencing The O at MONA
Nancy Proctor: Love, Hate or Punt? Opinions and prevarications about MONA and its O

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POSTSCRIPT: On going back after the fact

Saving content for later is considered one of the most useful features of mobile technology, but I’m keen to know more about who goes back, how many do, and why?

Did I look at what I’d saved on The O? Only very briefly. (I’m a working Mum, too busy for that.) When I do eventually return, I’ve forgotten my password – the quintessential problem in the digital age.

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996

I reset it and select Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary. The Art Wank is interesting and well structured, but I’m soon onto the Gonzo. There, I partake like a voyeur – half intrigued, half repelled – in the musings of three people (including Walsh) about virginity, sex, and lesbianism. Let’s face it, voyeurism is core to the MONA experience.

I also glance at Tracking Happiness, by Mircea Cantor, which irritated me intensely when I saw it. A bunch of young women sweeping a room, over and over. Only Gonzo is available for this one, and what do I read from Luke Hortle? ‘Look to be frank, I find this work really irritating.’ Hallelujah!

Finally Fat Car – a bulging, distended red sports car by Erwin Wurm. Again, the Art Wank is interesting, though one line makes me prickle: ‘Wurm makes us pause and ponder on self-image, human desire, and mindless over-consumption.’ Perhaps he does, but why the global ‘us/we’, as if everyone should read the work this way.

Erwin Wurm, Fat Car, 2006

Erwin Wurm, Fat Car, 2006

Again, the Gonzo wins me over. I hear about a young girl, Misty, who eats lots of pies. And Olivier, who suggests that his friend should lose some weight, prompting a ‘defriending’. These rambling associations better reflect the associations I make when looking at the art, and that’s why I like them. I’m emotionally rather than just intellectually connected.

Again, it’s MONA content that captures me, as much as the delivery mechanism. Good stories win every time. Like Alice in Wonderland.

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