Interactivity in museums: learning by doing
Simply put, interaction design is the process of making tools that people can use to learn. An interactive object is one that takes user input to activate, or better yet, to generate its output. Along with artifacts, storytelling and environment design, interactive objects represent one more tool museum designers have in their arsenal as they craft experiences for visitors.
For us at GSM Project, an interactive is first and foremost a communication tool. Each one is a way of telling something through doing. Interactives that are done well transport the visitor to a place where they are deeply engaged in a particular subject and where their learning is intuitive and natural. It can be deep or shallow but the goal of an interactive is to turn a message from something the visitor learns into something the visitor does.
In the exhibition “Human” at the Montréal Science Centre, we wanted to show how humans are related to other species and how the evidence of these relationships is shown right in our bodies.
In a dim enclosure in the vertebrates section of the Human gallery, a child has just stepped onto a set of footprints on the floor and watches as her arms turn into the claws of a T-Rex. Projected in front of her is her silhouette with her arms replaced by the dinosaur’s. She can see the skeletal structure of the dinosaur arms moving as her arms move. She makes roaring noises and turns to make sure her parents are seeing this.
The goal of a given interactive will vary depending on its place in the exhibition and what the content of the exhibition needs it to share. It can be demonstrative or playful, emotional or experimental. Its goal can be to show a specific idea or feature, or to give visitors the space to explore the breadth of the available content.
Now she chooses the dolphin image, and the colour-coded bones of the dinosaur transform into the bones of a dolphin’s pectoral fins. Her movements change, with her arms flapping now, close to her body. Her movements are stiff to reflect this new animal.
The best interactives take advantage of elements that can be controlled to change how the piece works, or what its outcome is. They invite the visitors to spend time experimenting, in one sense or another, to see how the parts affect each other, how they might be manipulated to get different results.
She moves on to the bat, and her eyes go wide as the bones of the dolphin elongate and expand. She spreads her arms and fingers wide, then lifts them slowly above her head. She folds her arms in, as though she had wings herself. She opens them wide again. “It’s like they have hands!” she says, wiggling her fingers and causing the bat wings to flap and twitch.
As she moves on to leave she turns to her parents: “What if we had wings?”
A great interactive is not a toy, even if it feels like one. It is a communication tool. It tells a story or illustrates a point. It reveals. It convinces. It confronts. A compelling interactive leaves questions open. It asks the visitor to think, ask and imagine.
Erika Kiessner is an interactive designer at GSM Project.