What happens to interactive kiosks and hands-on installations when the lights go out and visitors are sent home? And how do you turn tactile exhibitions into contactless experiences in a post-Covid museum?
That’s what David Dewhurst will explore in his presentation at December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit, drawing on his own experience at Science Museum Group.
With an extensive background in audio technology and interactive media, and a career background that has seen him work on user experience and software design for telecommunications giant, Nokia, David Dewhurst brings a wealth of experience to his role as Digital Experience Manager for Science Museum Group. Yet even the subsequent 8 years as part of the Science Museum team couldn’t prepare him for the events of 2020.
“I work with the exhibitions and galleries teams to see where digital can be used as part of the interpretation of the content. It could be film, audio, interactive exhibits that need to be produced, reviewed, tested and then all the way through to installation.
“The last 18 months has really impacted the work we do quite dramatically. While the museum did keep some exhibitions under development through the pandemic, it’s been a challenge to find the best way of working.”
While David says that the museum as a whole has adapted well to remote working and utilising MS Teams for day-to-day communication, in his own role there are many things that can’t be achieved using video conferencing and management tools.
“Because my job involves a lot of physical ‘stuff’ that gets built, that’s very difficult to progress when you are working remotely. We’ve had to find ways to work through those challenges for prototyping and testing.
“One of the biggest challenges is testing without any visitors. Typically, a big part of our development process is actually getting people into the museum space to play with the installations and exhibits . . . but we just haven’t been able to do that. And so we’ve had to rely a little bit more on our own experience at times.”
Determining what can and can’t be delivered remotely
Of course, much of the digital content that goes into the Science Museums’ installations could be utilised online over the course of the pandemic. Video and audio material from existing exhibitions were used to help maintain engagement online for the many months of closure. But as David explains, not everything can be part of a digital pivot:
“We’ve certainly found that there are ways of applying and utilising digital elements of our exhibitions that we will continue to explore in the future. But there are often occasions where we are really creating something that does not translate to a remote offering; that belongs on a screen of a certain size or as part of a larger installation that can really only be experienced properly on the hardware that forms the installation.
“There are many cases where our kiosks are designed quite differently because of the interface and the way we want visitors to use them.”
Hands Free Hands On
Touching exhibits became a problem during Covid. Or rather, once lockdowns had concluded and the Science Museum welcomed people back into the physical space, the spectre of Covid made it difficult to run interactive exhibitions in the same way as before the pandemic. With that in mind, David and the Science Museum team have worked hard to find alternative solutions.
“On a case by case basis it became clear that some exhibits would have to close because it wasn’t possible to use them hygienically in line with Covid restrictions. In other instances, particularly with the new exhibits that were in development, we had the opportunity to design them ‘touch free’.”
To do that, David says that he investigated how different tools and technologies might enable the museum to deliver a high quality experience without the need for contact. As he intends to share with MuseumNext delegates at the Digital Exhibitions Summit, his investigations revealed the potential of some interesting solutions.
“I really saw it as an opportunity to look at techniques we could use to do the exhibition justice without the need for touch.”
Another challenge that David experienced, and intends to share at the Summit, was the problem of delivering audio without headphones.
“Obviously headphones require close contact to your face. That meant we had to remove them entirely from our exhibits. In many cases that’s led us to rely on subtitles. But, again, with new exhibitions we’ve had the opportunity to explore different solutions. I’ll share our experiences of how we’ve looked to manage audio through speakers without causing clashes or noise levels that become annoying.
“What’s critical with any decision we take in relation to an installation or exhibition is that we can make it work at scale. My role encompasses the whole of Science Museum Group which welcomes millions of visitors each year. So, whenever we make a choice on a technology or tool we have to be confident that it’s robust and doesn’t exclude a portion of the audience.”
Hear more from David and an exceptional range of other museum professionals at December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit running 6th – 8th December 2021. Find out more about the conference here.