Due to pressure to increase visitor numbers, museums have increasingly worked to attract new audiences to their exhibitions, especially children. One common approach is to use digital technologies to craft interactive installations that are then placed inside the exhibition space. These multimedia exhibits are intended to entertain, animate, and educate. Although they have shown potential for engaging young visitors with the objects on display, such technologies have to date been used mostly to deliver information content. Too often, unfortunately, they remain detached from the physicality of museum artifacts.
Designing for Dream Spaces is a research project conducted by the School of Art & Design of the University of Wolverhampton in collaboration with the Bantock House Museum in Wolverhampton, U.K. . In this project, I have examined an alternative approach to fostering children’s engagement at the museum by leveraging the evocative aspects of physical artifacts and promoting a museum experience that is deeply personal and social at the same time. In my research, I stress the importance of inviting visitors to establish emotional connections with the physical artifacts that are displayed behind glass, where tangible interaction is inhibited.
Museums usually promote experiences that are centered on the cognitive aspects of the museum visit. But for children, who tend to engage primarily through physical contact, imagination, and social interaction, this model of engagement is often inappropriate. The Social Dream Spaces Model is an alternative model of engagement that I have developed and experimented with at the Bantock House Museum, and that is particularly suited for children. The model is based on the concept of dream space by Sheldon Annis . According to Annis, a dream space is a place of interaction between “suggesting/affecting objects” and a visitor’s “subrational consciousness.” It is within this space of encounter that objects become meaningful to people. In the Social Dream Spaces Model, the concept of dream space is expanded to also include social interaction between visitors, specifically children and their families. In the proposed model, dream spaces are both personal and social. Personal responses to “suggesting/affecting objects” are communicated and shared among visitors. This process leads to a unique enrichment of the personal dream space of each individual, which would not be possible if people were to visit the museum alone. In this perspective, social dream spaces can be understood as loosely connected personal dream spaces experienced in response to the evocative encounter with actual museum objects.
In these spaces, museum objects are intended to be evocative focal points of social interaction. They allow people to focus on a “third thing” rather than each other, making interpersonal engagement less direct and more comfortable . Not all museum objects are equally evocative . Digital technologies can be a powerful tool for exhibition designers to expand the evocative qualities of artifacts hitherto neglected by visitors and transform them into powerful social objects.
Bantock House Museum
Bantock House Museum in Wolverhampton is a local museum with a collection of artifacts from the Victorian era. This family-oriented exhibition includes objects in vitrines as well as hands-on exhibits that visitors are allowed to touch. As such, Bantock House Museum was the ideal setting for gathering and comparing comprehensive baseline data on visitors’ responses to different types of exhibits. This would not have been possible in a more limited conventional exhibition.
In order to locate neglected objects and gain a basis for comparing and evaluating the design intervention, I carried out a series of visitor observations in the exhibition space. The analysis of these observations confirmed that objects in glass vitrines were not as evocative to children as the tactile elements of the exhibition, such as furniture and hands-on exhibits. I decided, therefore, to digitally enhance the artifacts displayed behind glass and bring children’s attention to them.
To avoid competition with objects on display, digital elements were designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. Subtle solutions, which fit the cozy ambience of Bantock House Museum, were chosen, as opposed to more incongruent elements such as computer screens and touch tables.
Additionally, analysis of the data collected during visitor observations also suggested the importance of non-physical contact in children’s engagement with museum objects. For example, in the case of the bed scene in the Ladies Room children imagined themselves lying on the bed or using the bed paraphernalia. The fostering of imagined touch was thus identified as an important means of enhancing non-physical contact with artifacts in showcases.
The concept for a design intervention based on the collected data and informed by the Social Dream Spaces Model was developed in cooperation with museum staff, implemented as a prototype within the existing exhibition space, and tested with visitors in April 2012 over a period of four weeks.
Digital technologies can be a powerful tool for exhibition designers to expand the evocative qualities of artifacts hitherto neglected by visitors and transform them into powerful social objects.
The design concept revolved around the idea of objects as storytellers. In this concept, digital technology should play the role only of amplifying the voice of museum artifacts. Instead of creating a digital element independent of the actual object, such as an additional interactive installation or layer of information content, I decided to use digital technology to enhance museum artifacts with a series of evocative audiovisual elements. I chose the least evocative artifacts and enhanced them through a combination of various media triggered by infrared proximity sensors, with the goal of capturing visitors’ attention. These enhancements included light, animation, sound, and movement, and were organized as a series of evocative “micro spaces” within the exhibition space. Each micro space corresponded to either an individual object or a group of objects.
Such micro spaces enhanced both physical and imagined properties of the museum’s artifacts. Physical properties included shape, texture, and size of physical objects—for example, a butterfly from a plate in a vitrine that was animated to fly on the wall using the actual visual element of the object. Imagined properties included features such as the barking sound of a ceramic dog or the singing of a fireplace hand-painted with different types of birds (Figure 1).
Content based on historical facts was explicitly avoided to create the possibility for the objects themselves to trigger conversations and social interactions based on more emotive associations.
I developed, installed, and tested the concept in two rooms of the Bantock House Museum: the Drawing Room and the Dining Room. Micro spaces inside these rooms were accessible to all visitors, but subtle and unobtrusive enough that those who were not interested in them could simply ignore them without adversely influencing the typical museum experience. I designed six micro spaces, three in each room. Three of them are briefly described here.
Ghostly Butterfly. Some of the most neglected objects at the Bantock House Museum were porcelain plates displayed in the Dining Room. These plates are decorated with depictions of insects. In order to attract the visitors’ attention to these details, I brought one of these insects to life. One of the butterflies was photographed and animated to flutter around with light and irregular motion. The short animation was then beamed onto the wall in the Dining Room by a hidden projector. As visitors approached the cabinet, the butterfly fluttered across the wall and then disappeared just above the vitrine where the plate from which the butterfly had been taken was on display (Figure 2).
Non-physical contact with objects in vitrines was enhanced by using imagination, memories, and dreams as vital elements of the design.
Barking Dog. The vitrine opposite the door in the Drawing Room contained Royal Worcester Porcelain. On the most neglected bottom shelf, there was a figure of a dog, a depiction of a Victorian town painted on a porcelain plate, and a sculpture of a couple playing a hammered dulcimer and a drum. In creating a micro space for this group of artifacts, I focused on their imagined properties: the sound of the dog barking, the soundscape of an old town, and Victorian music that included hammered dulcimer. As visitors approached the cabinet, a light was triggered to illuminate one of the figures and the appropriate soundscape was played. As long as visitors were detected in front of the cabinet, soundscape and lighting changed at a short regular interval. Because the shelf was only about three feet high, this micro space was suited in particular to children, who were able to easily locate the intended source of the sound when standing in front of the vitrine.
Dancing Cup. The Drawing Room has a collection of tea sets, displayed in a glass cabinet near the window. In order to enhance their evocative features, I turned them into animated objects that would react to people’s presence. In the enhanced space, when approached by visitors, one of the cups rattled on its saucer to startle and attract the visitors who were passing by the cabinet (Figure 3).
Bringing Museum Objects Back to Visitors
A total of 79 family groups were observed while interacting with the redesigned exhibition space. As in the initial observations, each group comprised at least one adult and one child. Final observations showed that focusing on artifacts brought them to the foreground of the museum experience and made visitors more sociable. In describing their experience, they often referred to the actual objects rather than to the enhanced spaces around them.
Non-physical contact with objects in vitrines was enhanced by using imagination, memories, and dreams as vital elements of the design. Visitors were able to connect with the objects on a very personal and emotional level. This facilitated the sharing of those engagements, in particular among families. By not presenting the visitors with a specific task, I facilitated an open-ended exploration of the exhibition space and put visitors in charge of their own visit. This reduced the barrier between visitors and objects in vitrines, and facilitated children’s engagement.
For example, visitors were observed reacting with amusement and surprise to the animated butterfly. Smaller children reacted strongly in a non-verbal way, jumping up and down, trying to catch the butterfly, and following it to the corner vitrine. The installation of the barking dog significantly attracted the attention of younger children, whose emotional reactions drew the attention of other family members and often became the starting point for excited conversations around the artifacts. Some visitors even became convinced that they saw more than what was actually on display. For example, visitors engaging with the depiction of the Victorian town, prompted by the sound of horses walking on a stone street, often talked of seeing horses in the picture even though there were no horses depicted on the plate. In the installation of the dancing cup, many visitors got startled and stopped in front of the cabinet to have a closer look and show the cup to other family members. Some visitors lingered longer to observe other objects in the vitrine that were usually neglected.
Visitors tended to interpret the museum space in a creative way, and to associate these spaces with magical, ghostly, or animated objects.
Visitors, both children and adults, displayed conscious and unconscious imaginative reactions to the designed micro spaces. They tended to interpret the museum space in a creative way, and to associate these spaces with magical, ghostly, or animated objects, as in the example of the dancing cup.
Children, in particular, showed frequent non-verbal indicators of engagement. Intrigued by the digitally enhanced objects, children would point them out to other members of the family. They expressed their enthusiasm by clapping their hands, jumping up and down, and even dancing. This excitement was contagious and often turned the attention of other family members or other families to the redesigned spaces.
The most significant change was observed in the category of verbal indicators of engagement, in particular of adult visitors. Before the design intervention, adults were concerned with passing factual information down to children and often assumed the role of teacher. After the design intervention, I observed that the adults’ verbal communication included more expressions of personal responses and sharing of ideas. These led to an increase in intergenerational conversations around the objects on display.
Considering the personal and social aspects of the museum experience in the design of exhibitions allows us to create spaces that initiate meaningful encounters among museum artifacts, children, and their families. Designing for Dream Spaces exemplifies how digital technologies can be used as a means to enhance existing museum artifacts and increase their evocativeness in ways that stimulate imagination, bring personal memories to the surface, and open the door to shared fantasies and daydreams. In particular, the case of Bantock House Museum shows how digital enhancement—when designed in a subtle and unobtrusive way—can provide visitors with an effective tool for “touching” with their imaginations artifacts on display behind glass that are often neglected in conventional exhibition settings.
Kasia Warpas is a Polish illustrator and exhibition designer based in Munich, Germany. She recently obtained her Ph.D. in exhibition design from the University of Wolverhampton, U.K., and is particularly interested in exploring digital media as a means to instill magic into the museum experience.
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