The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis partnered with CyArk, a non-profit with a focus on digital preservation of cultural heritage, to highlight sacred places and stories around the world. Along with a physical exhibit heavily featuring digital elements to share these direct accounts, the collaboration created a unique online exhibition, focusing on authentic narratives and exploration through guided tours of 3D models.
MuseumNext chatted to some of the minds behind this project to find out more about its inception, development and impact. Natalie Lyon, Interactive Technology Manager at the museum; Becky Wolfe, Director of School Programs and Educational Resources at the CMI; and Kacey Hadick, Director of Programs and Development at CyArk, all offered their thoughts.
Sacred spaces: creating communications around the world
Working with CyArk, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis wanted to highlight sacred places around the world, bringing forth the people, stories, and communities behind different locations and faiths. Including assets from a range of sacred sites, the exhibition includes a physical element and a separate online journey.
Natalie explains the long process of choosing which sacred spaces to highlight, saying: “We did have a very, very long list. We also had a previous exhibition called Sacred Journeys, which focused on artifacts from some of the more well-known locations. For this one, we wanted to focus on the personal connections, so we visited communities that were most interested in taking part. That’s where CyArk came in. Several of the locations already had strong relationships with their team.”
To spark these communications, digital assets were utilised across the physical and online exhibits, including digital displays, an interactive 360 theatre, a hologram of a 3D model of one of the sites, and countless interviews of the personal stories collected from the sites, presented in large format displays, such as a computer vision enhanced touch table.
3D models of each site provided visitors with a holistic “presence” through guided digital tours, integrating ambient audio and high-quality photography to enhance the sense of immersion.
COVID, connections, and spatial storytelling
The exhibition has been in the works for around five years, having gained funding in 2019. Originally positioned to open in 2020 or 2021, it was inevitably pushed back due to Covid-19 restrictions because, as Natalie explains, they wanted to “travel to each of the chosen locations and really focus on those relationships.”
However, the delay may have been a blessing in disguise, as Becky says: “Covid gave us a chance to think more about what we really wanted to achieve, particularly when it came to the online element. Initially, it was going to take the form of a toolkit for teachers, but working with CyArk showed us huge untapped potential.”
In keeping with the people-first approach of the physical exhibit, the online exhibit heavily featured interviews of personal stories from everyday practitioners at each site. Google Arts and Culture was used as a simple tool to create attractive and easily digestible introductory stories for each online tour, and curriculum guides were integrated into simple PDF formats familiar to the target demographic of educators.
Kacey says: “We were grateful for the longer timeline. We consider ourselves spatial storytellers and the way we work with communities is to identify partners that want to tell stories online and raise awareness for the places that are sacred to them. We reached out to past partners and many of them were excited by the opportunity.”
Approaching intercultural acceptance: the three Ps
The goal of the exhibit was to encourage attitude shifts toward intercultural acceptance and, as the team explains, the physical and online exhibits achieved this in different ways. Natalie says:
“In the physical exhibit there is a build-out of each location, featuring large-scale displays of the people to guide visitors through that space. It was all about the people and their stories.”
Meanwhile, Becky says that the online experience narrowed in on individual items, beliefs and discoveries:
“We used a similar approach, with the stories of real people being a key factor, but we also focused on the history of a place, the physical architecture, and the religious beliefs. We added video wherever possible because we know from our work with kids that attitudes shift when you make things personal and accessible. Adding a community element is how we can help kids understand that these are real people just like them.”
This was the main aim of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: to create an exhibition about sacred places around the world in order to help visitors not only learn about other people, but feel empathy, too. Kacey says,
“Places are touchstones for identity. Naturally, you have places that are close to you growing up, and our philosophy is to try and recreate that presence. We call them the three Ps: People, Presence and Perspective.
“Through those online experience, we can listen to multiple voices sharing their connections to these places. Having ambient audio, as well as photos and videos, helps give a flavour of what it’s like to be there in person. That helps visitors make connections with their own lives. People can start to understand their neighbour, and those who have different experiences to them.”
Establishing the physical and online exhibitions as two separate entities
Although the physical exhibit and the online exhibit share the same baseline goals, the approach was not to create a digital twin of the exhibit. Natalie explains how the audiences for both exhibits differed, with the physical exhibit primarily serving families and the online exhibit mainly used by classrooms.
“It’s a different context for the audiences taking part. In the physical exhibit, there are reflection spaces where families can sit together and discuss what they’ve seen, while the online exhibit features lesson guides that are tailored towards classroom reflection.”
Offering CyArk’s perspective, Kacey adds, “At CyArk, we typically only do online experiences. It’s exciting for us to be involved with the physical exhibit as well. Different audiences are an important element. Even at the physical exhibit, people are encouraged to explore further.”
The approach highlights the possibilities of online exhibitions to enhance rather than replicate what is found in the museum space. Becky explains,
“The exhibit had a finite space, so we saw this as an opportunity to extend. We wanted it to be a paired experience, so you can do both. There is overlap that will reinforce both the online and the in-person, but they also stand alone. Online was an opportunity to go a little bit farther and reach a large audience, but if you go to the exhibit, it enhances it even more.”
“People want to learn more”
Although many of the digital assets between the physical exhibit and the online exhibit are shared, their uses are adapted. For example, in the physical exhibit, the same 3D model of Wat Arun is used as an interactive hologram, while it is used for a guided 3D tour online.
This is designed to make learning as accessible, relevant, and exciting as possible for the groups taking part. And early feedback on the exhibits suggest that it is working. Kacey says,
“We want people to get interested in new people and places, and that’s something that’s clearly highlighted in this very early survey data: people want to learn more. It’s exciting to see that the audiences both online and in-person want to keep learning about these places.”
Natalie adds, “The exhibit’s only been open for about a month, but what we have seen has been extremely promising. People have an easy time engaging with the content, having discussions about it. Sparking those discussions was the goal, and we can see that it has been successful.”
A huge amount of work was put into the exhibit, including seeking out partners such as CyArk. Their insight and expertise added much to both exhibits and, while it may have been the longer route to completion, Becky explains that the collaborative efforts have made “the end result a much more powerful experience.”
Embracing digitalisation in the right way
When asked what piece of advice the team would give to another museum looking to blend physical and online exhibitions, the answers were unanimous: approach them separately. Natalie says,
“There’s bound to be a large amount of material that can be utilised across both exhibits, but it’s important to evaluate your audiences separately and address them specifically from the outset.”
Becky adds: “Look at your overall goals, but approach with different audiences in mind. That way, you can find connections, and create two halves of a whole; they go together, but they also exist by themselves.”
Digitalisation is all about connection, and the efforts of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and CyArk highlight just how powerful these connections can be. By allowing the physical and digital exhibits to shine, the team managed to forge connections not just between visitors and the exhibits, but between people, places, and stories all over the world.
MuseumNext’s Digital Exhibitions Summit will take place on the 11th and 12th December 2023, and will explore the importance of evolving museum spaces for the digital age, shaped by the rapid adoption of tech over the last three years. Click here to book your tickets.