Saturday, April 20, 2024

Museum Directions

Interactivity in exhibit trends / directions

by Wayne LaBar

As we start the new year, there is always the question of where might we see the field moving in the future. Interactive exhibits or interactive experiences are certainly robust and mature, so now, in the museum field, there is a constant search for different mediums, approaches and processes. The past year, both here in North America and internationally, reveals the following trends on some of the new directions for interactivity.

AdElectrosonic2As you review these trends, a key point to keep in mind is that one of the primary factors driving the role of interactivity is the economy. The scarcity of funding, the decrease in attendance in some markets, the increasing costs of what is seen as the necessary modes of interactivity (exhibits, mobile and others) needed in an exhibition, and costs for traveling exhibitions are all part of the puzzle that drive interactivity trends. If you are interested in how the economy may be changing the exhibition world, both in interactivity but also in all areas of exhibition, I urge you to subscribe and pick up a copy of the Exhibitionist, the official journal of National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME). You can do so at the following link (


Tinkering – Making

Certainly one of the largest movements occurring in children’s museums and science centers is the creation of Tinkering or Making spaces. This is a movement that originates from the work done by Make magazine and their affiliated “Maker Faires.” ( As museums witnessed the creativity and the direct interaction that the public has with STEM (science, technology engineering and math) content, an essential need for museums to attract audience and funding, Tinkering/Maker spaces are popping up in many places. A Tinkering space is a place where visitors are allowed to build, create and tinker with low-end technology, use real tools and explore the concept of making something. These are usually staffed spaces although some are trying to explore minimizing staff engagement. Often, special events, fairs and other programs are being held in connection with these spaces. A key aspect of this is that these spaces do not require extensive design and development schedules and costs. They are a marriage of exhibit and program, where the activity is more important than the environment. The Exploratorium with their Tinkering Studio ( , New York Hall of Science who hosts the NYC Maker Faire and issued a report ( , and the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum MAKESHOP ( are some of the leaders in this endeavor.

Collaborative Exhibits & Events

In the constant search for innovative (yet budget-conscious) exhibits and interactivity, museums are increasingly looking to create ways in which people can interact by engaging with artists, groups and community organizations. Exhibitions based on this approach tend to have interactivity that may be more experimental or short-term, perhaps built around a weekend event or happening. A benefit of this type of low-impact interactivity is the opportunity to try things that are different and not necessarily built to the fabrication and durability standards that would define more traditional exhibits. Additionally, by reflecting engagement with community groups and other organizations, the exhibit becomes more social, and the social networks of these organizations, both physical and electronic, become engaged with the exhibits and potentially become part of the exhibitions themselves. One place exploring this direction is the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Check out their event at ( and read Nina Simon’s article in the latest NAME Exhibitionist issue.

 One recent MAKESHOP event (right) encouraged kids to make a city out of found and recycled objects. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Children’s Museum
One recent MAKESHOP event encouraged kids to make a city out of found and recycled objects. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Children’s Museum

New Interfaces

Certainly, an area that piques everyone’s interest in the interactivity field is devising new ways for people to engage with digital content or digital displays through more physical interfaces. We have seen a move away from the idea of keyboard-and-mouse to touchscreen to touch tables and now Kinect or Kinect-like interfaces. This outlines an evolution of the interface becoming more and more physical, more fully-body engaging and with more seamless physical/virtual experience. Over the past year, we have seen interest in new and innovative ways to engage people physically but also marrying that with digital content. Examples include the “Firewall” by Aaron Sherwood created in collaboration with Michael Allison, “Water Light Graffiti” done under the Digitalarti Artlab by the artist Antonin Fourneau, or the work done by  ART+COM. In part, this is driven by the need for museums to provide experiences that cannot be duplicated at home. The interface advances also reflect the evolution of museum experiences moving into the home. These marriages of art, computer, physical world and content create interactivity and experiences that can’t be duplicated on your Xbox.

Mobile Individuality

The world of mobile computing has been transformed over the past five years with the increasing size of and sophistication of smart phones, the acceptance of tablets, and the growing ubiquity of internet access through cellular plans or freely available wifi. Museums were quick to adopt these technologies as part of the visitor experience, and now they have become almost a necessary part of interactivity strategy for an exhibition or institution. Despite this, the field still struggles with what is the best way to use these technologies and how to integrate them into the exhibition form. For some collections-based exhibitions, they may be the principle interactivity, while a device at an interactive exhibition might actually be an obstacle to visitor experience. As our field continues to explore how to best apply new technologies, some of the more exciting experiments relate to how these devices might personalize everyone’s experience. For example, work is ongoing on enhancing personal instruction as part of school trips, accessing data through NFC technology, and integrating augmented reality into an experience. This personalization will certainly be another ongoing trend in interactivity over the coming year and beyond. Check out work being done at the Minnesota Historical Society in their Education Department with their new exhibition Then Now Wow ( with school groups talked about , The Australian Museum and the work lead by Lynda Kelly ( and the Science Museum of London and their augmented reality with James May (

At the Then Now Wow exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society, the Grainland play area lets visitors trace the journey of soy and corn by climbing into a grain elevator and sliding through the chutes. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
At the Then Now Wow exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society, the Grainland play area lets visitors trace the journey of soy and corn by climbing into a grain elevator and sliding through the chutes. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

These trends are just a sampling. There are, of course, other trends in interactivity. Feel free to share your observations with me at [email protected]. The one constant we can count on is change, and, as we look back a year from now, no doubt we’ll be discussing innovations we couldn’t have imagined today.

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Wayne LaBar, with twenty five years of science center experience, is the founder and principal of Alchemy Studio, an experience and institutional development, design and consulting services studio located in Maplewood, NJ. Alchemy Studio works with museums, science centers, boards, civic leaders, governments, NGO’s, filmmakers and others involved in the informal learning field. He is the Vice President on the Board of the National Association for Museum Exhibition. Wayne obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and is a graduate of the Getty’s Museum Leadership Institute.

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