Let’s face it-exhibits can be very expensive! Interactivity adds even more costs to a basic exhibit. For the sake of argument, I’m generically dividing museum interactive exhibits into 2 categories-Digital and Analog. We’ll call Digital exhibits anything that involves audio, video, computers, motorized components or anything at all that plugs in that’s not just for basic illumination. Tactile exhibits, such as manipulatives, slider panels, flip panels, et al, –we’ll call these Analog exhibits.
For some applications, the best solution is obvious. Others require much more planning to determine the best type. Don’t over-do it! Too many of any exhibit type becomes boring quickly. No one wants to see the same technology repeated over and over with slight changes, so vary your message delivery ideas. Here are a few points that can help make the decision:
Message. At Museum Arts, we believe that the message is central to any well-conceived exhibit. This “message” can be thought of as a chapter in the narrative that runs through the entire museum. The message should drive the physical displays. Consider the addition of audio, video or computer graphics; will they add to or detract from the quality of the story being told? Perhaps a low-tech analog interactive will suffice in communicating an idea or message.
Budget. The key is to effectively communicate the message using the best means that fit your budget and cause your visitors to relate to the subject matter on some level. Audio/video equipment and computers and programming prices add up quickly. If your budget allows and the message can be conveyed better with digital interactives over hands-on tactile or manipulatives, it may be worth exploring. More expensive exhibits don’t necessarily translate into better exhibits. Analog interactives may also be expensive, depending on the complexity. Tell the story using the best means that fit your budget and that causes your visitors to relate to the subject matter on some level.
Audience. If the primary audience, or visitors, are 4th grade students, a digital exhibit may seem to be an attractive option, but digging a little deeper may tell you what they really want. Different people learn in different ways. Keep exhibits interesting by varying the delivery medium. A museum full of interactive video games becomes boring quickly if that’s all there is. Grade school kids are often more intrigued by something that they’ve never seen before and may be more interesting to them than an electronic version. At a recent tradeshow, our booth contained a variety of interactive exhibits-digital and analog. In an exhibition hall full of the latest and greatest of technologies, people couldn’t wait to touch a 3-D giraffe tongue that was part of a basic analog interactive. No computers, monitors, video players-just a 3-D textured tongue on a graphic board containing a 2-D giraffe. A variety of well thought out exhibit types almost ensures something for everyone. Talk to your visitors and see what exhibits they liked most and ask questions about their experiences and take-aways.
Time. An Analog interactive exhibit can generally be on display much quicker than a Digital exhibit. Digital exhibits may take up to a year to properly execute because of technology and/or complexity. If you have the luxury of time and an adequate budget, and your message is best conveyed with something other than a graphic with a static message and a hands-on exhibit, a Digital interactive exhibit may be even better. Your exhibit designer/fabricator can help with time estimates.
Upkeep. For almost any type of exhibit with moving parts, there is going to be required maintenance. Whether it be lubricating, adjusting, or sanitizing, there will be periodic downtime if not routinely maintained. Electronic exhibits tend to be more maintenance-free but are not without their own issues. Computers, hard drives, monitors and motors are just a few things that seem to have a short shelf life and can die without notice. Keeping the digital components free of dust and moisture will help them last longer.
Entertainment. The reality of today’s world is that museums compete with other leisure time activities for dollars. Why not make learning fun and entertaining? Museums don’t have to be stale vaults of information and artifacts. On the contrary, a museum exhibit can be tailored to different ages using different technologies and media–a combination of Analog and Digital even, to stimulate different types of learning. Who doesn’t want to come back to a place that’s fun? Studies show that kids who visit museums during their formative years are five times more likely to regularly visit museums as adults.
So, which is best? Digital exhibits allow visitors to more easily understand complex processes or ideas by walking them through the steps and sometimes simulating different outcomes. Additionally, they may spark imagination and “What if” questions. Digital exhibits can challenge skills, memory, understanding, creativity and generally work best with teaching concepts. Digital format exhibits can typically be updated easily, depending on the content.
Analog exhibits work really well at illustrating simple concepts and answer simple questions. In today’s digital world, analog simplicity seems to have an intriguing appeal. Don’t count them out. Make them part of the variety of exhibit types in a museum, which serves to keeps interest at a peak. The bottom line is that the message should always drive the exhibit. Other factors may come in to play, but the job of a museum is not only to display and store culturally significant artifacts and educate the public, but to find the best way to communicate meaningful information. Museum Arts is here to help with selecting the best way to tell your story.