Rapid Prototyping the Connected Museum

Michael GallagherArticles

We worked on projects with two of London’s leading museums that focused on rapid prototyping practices used elsewhere in the industry. These quick projects that deliver results and actionable visitor insight are very suited to current financial realities and mitigate delivery risk. Both projects have involved thinking about the role of the museum in 2015 and how digital technology can help deliver this.

We developed a system that borrows from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience, and Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City. Without going into specifics, here are some principles we used while working on recent museum projects.

Our system divides all museum projects up into 5 basic areas:

  • Strategy: What are you trying to do?
  • Site: How does physical space help?
  • Spectacle: How do the object you show help?
  • Services: What activities or digital services do you need?
  • Sensing: How does the space self-monitor and feedback to Strategy?

Taking these principles and applying them to Museums in 2015, we see the following useful opportunities:

Strategy: The Priority is Museum Economics

Public investment is falling across the UK and the museum sector has been hit hard. The glut of National Lottery funding that opened doors for free and floated many 1990s refits has dried up. Museum clients need to see results sooner and for less cost than they used to – luckily this is in line with modern development techniques.

Recommendation: Do less but higher impact and work with modern rapid prototyping techniques that visualise progress and include user insight along the way.

Site: The Basics of Physical Space Don’t Change

The best chance for museums to attract and engage people is in a physical space. It may be that they need to consider experiences that are not just object based, however their most powerful channels are still very much in their physical spaces. The patterns of spatial design for museums are well established and digital media should accentuate these. These physical conventions of way-finding, display, and spectacle are the bedrock upon which digital services function and augment.

Recommendation: There may be digital-first experiences, but these would need to use immersive space rather than small screens to be effective in a museum.

Spectacle: Collections are King

Museums are still focused on the preservation and display of objects. Learning, understanding, and engagement happen because of and around those objects. It is unlikely that much activity around a theme will happen without preserved historical or cultural objects that support them. Given that the curator’s object list is a key element of the exhibition design, how does digital work help people to engage with objects in spaces?

Recommendation: Respect the object-centricity of museum curators and leadership, but use digital media to innovate in the immersive, augmented environments and testing of different object displays and interpretations.

Services: Immersion, Not Interaction

Many museums are re-appraising their approach to digital media, but all recognise that there is useful work to be done digitally, particularly in augmenting displays and gathering feedback. There was universal ambivalence for small touchscreens that drag people away from the journey of the gallery or space.

Recommendation: Use digital media at immersive scale to augment and engage in the whole exhibition rather than small screen interactives.

Sensing: Gathering Visitor Insights and Automatic Reporting

We developed concepts for galleries that sense their visitors habits. These used commercially available sensors to create nonintrusive sensing environments that detected dwell time, presence, numbers of people, activity, and so forth. The data is automatically collated and presented to a variety of stakeholders, including automated reporting to funding organizations such as the HLF, which saves reporting overheads for staff.

Recommendation: Create prototypes of simple sensing environments to report key metrics automatically.