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Roundtable with Dave Patten, The Science Museum

Dave Patten from Science Museum speaking at a MuseumNext Conference

From social distancing to flexible interfaces, chemical screen cleaning to robot tours. In a recent virtual meet-up, Dave Patten took Jim Richardson and the MuseumNext community through some of the challenges that have presented themselves at London’s Science Museum over the last 12 months.

As part of the digital directorate at London’s Science Museum, Dave Patten manages a team that develops and delivers all of the in-museum digital experiences – incorporating film, computer games and digital interpretation. Over the years, the Science Museum has cultivated a reputation for its incredible levels of interactivity and visitor engagement.

But during the height of a pandemic, the more tactile and hands-on an exhibition or installation, the greater the challenge to run. In our latest community meet-up, Dave kicked things off by talking through his own experiences in 2020. He said,

“When we first went into lockdown we spent quite a bit of time auditing everything in the museum, trying to find out what we’d need to do to reopen the museum to make it Covid safe.”

Like many other institutions around the globe, the Science Museum reopened after the first UK lockdown with a massively upgraded cleaning programme and readily available hand sanitiser. Despite the museum’s best efforts this still meant sacrificing some of the museum’s interactive elements – typically where they were designed to come into contact with the face, with the eyes and the ears.

Among the remedial steps that were taken to avoid any loss of audio-visual quality in the experience, Dave says that the Science Museum quickly adapted audio facilities on to people’s mobile devices – usually facilitated by QR codes. This innovation served to maintain much of the continuity in many of the exhibits that had previously utilised headsets, but Dave admits that it is hard to gauge the success and penetration of some of the innovations due to the fact that, even when open, the museum has been running at significantly reduced numbers.

Tech testing

As the MuseumNext community shared their experiences of trying new approaches to Covid challenges, Dave confirmed that one of the key considerations that informed the Science Museum’s approach was always the ability to test. While there may have been a number of avenues open to the digital and exhibitions teams, he stated that they weren’t prepared to introduce any technologies that hadn’t been tested rigorously and proven to work in the right way for visitors.

Nevertheless, Dave suggested that there is undoubtedly a case to be made for hands-free or personal device-based interfaces becoming more prevalent in the future. This is not only because these technologies are engaging but also because the patterns of the last 12 months may become ingrained in behaviours long after the health risks of Coronavirus have subsided:

“I think the longer the pandemic goes on, the more likely we are to see permanent behavioural shifts. And it may be that people are increasingly reticent to touch even touchscreens because they’ve become so accustomed to not interacting in that.”

With that in mind, Dave’s focus for new installations will be on briefing new software development that is always built with flexibility of interface as a priority. Asked if the Science Museum runs the risk of investigating and implementing technologies that will become redundant after the pandemic passes, Dave says, “That’s why we’re trying to abstract the interface from the content so that it’s easy to change.”

The use of mobile phones, in particular, is something, the Science Museum has investigated extensively, having commissioned work previously in 2012 and 2016 and to look at the barriers to broader usage by visitors. Given the current climate, Dave explained that this research is now being repeated as the team suspects that those habits are likely to have changed quite substantially over the last 5 years.

Handling hygiene issues

Another topic of conversation during the virtual roundtable was the range of techniques being explored to facilitate greater hygiene for visitors. From chemical screen treatments to single-use styluses, all have been floated as ideas in recent months. The group discussed the pros and cons of these tools and techniques from a safety, sustainability and, of course, practicality perspective.

Due to the varying touchscreen technologies at the Science Museum, Dave said, “It would have meant using at least two different types of stylus required for a visitor. Then there’s the sheer number we’d need – and we were concerned about people just taking them and dropping them in the street, and that not being very sustainable”.

Future trends

The community also looked at future trends and what might be around the corner for museums visitors. From using mobile phones for in-museum experiences to gesture-based interfaces and haptic exhibits, it was agreed that much could be learned from this period of experimentation.

Immersive Digital Environment by TeamLab

Above: Immersive Digital Environment by TeamLab

Looking towards the future, Dave and the team at the Science Museum are already planning their programme for 2022 and beyond. Offering a sneak peek into the future, he says, “At the moment, I’m looking at large scale projected immersive environments . . . environments where you’re projecting onto the wall and the floor. And you’re putting motion tracking in the space.

“What we’re really interested in from a Science Museum perspective is telling some of those stories that are not easily told using objects. So, for example, how do you help people understand quantum computing?”

In the case of the Science Museum, the process for developing and launching an exhibition is quite elongated – even without the trials and tribulations of a global virus on the loose. The planning stages and research undertaken with technology companies can take many months to piece together – first in terms of scope and budget, then rigorous fundraising to get the exhibition going.

The group also discussed the value of looking outside the sector for future inspiration, input and ideas. Dave says:

“If you always just look to museums you just get what museums have always done. There are people doing a host of interesting things in a whole variety of different fields. We’re really fortunate that we get to see a lot of that. But you can never look too widely for ideas. The challenge is just to stay up to date with where all that stuff is going.”

Dave points to theme parks such Disney and Universal, as examples of organisations that can help to spark ideas in the museum space – particularly in the context of visitor interface.

Of course, ideas can travel in the other direction as well. In the case of the Science Museum, high-end retail brands have sought advice in the past regarding experiences in biometrics, personalisation, and projection techniques.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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