XXXI.3 May - June 2024
Page: 54
Digital Citation

Engaging Teens Through Playful Tangible Interaction with Emotive Stories in Museums

Maria Roussou, Akrivi Katifori, Irene Kaklopoulou, Katerina Servi, Dimitra Petousi

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Despicable! Impetuous! Godless! This is what Socrates has always been! Always thinking about no one but himself! Well, he was executed, it's true, but honestly, he was asking for it! Instead of minding his own business, he wandered all around the Agora, talking to any old loser just like himself…. Not a trace of remorse, not even when they handed him that vial of poison. To me, no one is more annoying than Socrates…. Wouldn't you say?
    — Xanthippe, Socrates's wife, "speaking" the voice of anger. Color: red


Well, let me tell you, meeting him was a stroke of luck…. If it weren't for Socrates, I wouldn't have made it out of Potidaea alive. He dashed into that chaotic battle and pulled me to safety. I was severely injured. And the first sight when I opened my eyes was his funny face, beaming at me…. But that wasn't the end of it. Every time I crossed paths with him, it was a delight. Even in that prison cell, he never ceased joking around right before he drank the hemlock. Fearless…. "I only know that I know nothing," he'd say. "So, how can I claim to know if death is the worst fate? How can that scare me?" We all chuckled…. Can you imagine it? Chuckling in a prison cell just moments before your mentor faces execution?
    — Alcibiades, a general and one of Socrates's students, "speaking" the voice of joy. Color: yellow

back to top  Insights

Emotive storytelling and playful interaction in museums evoke historical empathy, especially among teenagers.
Using a historical empathy model in designing museum experiences shifts from visitors' factual recall to relatable connections with the past, fostering critical reflection and emotional engagement.
Lessons from a mobile prototype highlight the significance of substantive content in cultivating empathic historical understanding.

Socrates was second to none; there'll never be another like him! Firstly, he was an exceptional conversationalist. His words were always unexpected, guiding discussions along the brightest paths. He was courageous, like when he saved Alcibiades in battle. And he was a loyal friend, always ready to defend what's right and just. He never lost his temper, not even with his wife—Xanthippe, that unbearable woman…. I greatly admired Socrates, as did many others. I bet that in a few years, sculptors will immortalize him in statues. And rightfully so, don't you agree?
    — Xenophon, Greek philosopher and historian, "speaking" the voice of admiration. Color: green

Can combining playful interaction and emotional stories such as these in a cultural setting create engaging experiences with ancient objects? Can we make visitors feel connected to the distant past?

To answer these questions, we created Emotions Speaking, an emotion-led experience for visitors of the Museum of the Ancient Agora of Athens. It uses a location-aware mobile application and a custom tangible object to guide interaction through short stories voiced by characters inspired by key historical figures linked to museum artifacts.

Our drive stems from a wish to cultivate more empathy for history, especially among young people. Employing the historical empathy model [1], we shape learning experiences for informal settings. This model aims beyond mere factual recall, encouraging critical reflection and emotional engagement with the past. It encompasses three elements: starting with historical contextualization for foundational knowledge, progressing to perspective-taking by comprehending the viewpoints of historical figures, and culminating in emotional connection. This final stage prompts users to perceive individuals from the past with their emotions, values, and worldviews [2,3,4].

Our ultimate goal is for contemporary visitors to reflect on the context of narratives accompanying historical artifacts, recognizing the similarities between people of the past and present.

Our ultimate goal is for contemporary visitors to reflect on the context of narratives accompanying historical artifacts, recognizing the similarities between people of the past and present. People from historical eras, much like today, held diverse perspectives, encountered dilemmas, and experienced a range of emotions, from joy to sadness, from admiration to anger.

back to top  The Cultural Context

The Ancient Agora of Athens, situated at the foot of the Acropolis, is a prominent archaeological site. It is renowned not just as an ancient marketplace and social center during classical times but also as the heart of ancient Greek democracy. With 20 classical-era buildings and more than 14 monuments, it remains an emblematic site, known as a place frequented by iconic figures like Plato and Socrates. Housed in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos within the site is the Museum of the Ancient Agora, which displays artifacts and sculptures dating from the 7th to 5th centuries BCE that offer insights into Athenian democracy. The museum's collection boasts significant treasures; however, its conventional exhibit setup, common among similar museums, fails to attract younger audiences or offer in-depth interpretation. Display cases filled with objects lack detailed context and are merely annotated with numbers and brief descriptions. Sparse didactic texts and site blueprints adorn the walls, offering limited insight. Visitors are left to rely on guidebooks or hired guides for deeper understanding.

The use of mobile phones and playful interaction techniques have been widely recognized as effective strategies for engaging teenagers with cultural heritage and museums. Yet the substance of the information holds paramount significance. Frequently, in the adoption of emerging technologies, there is a tendency to prioritize the design of the technology itself, inadvertently neglecting the crucial element of content. It is essential to recognize that the effectiveness and impact of any technological innovation rely heavily on the quality and relevance of the content it delivers.

Hence, it was crucial to emphasize and prioritize the exhibits, along with any compelling narratives of historical figures and events connected to them. These narratives have the potential to resonate with visitors, underscoring the need for enhanced interpretation and connectivity between artifacts and their profound tales. Applications of digital storytelling in cultural heritage confirm the strength of this approach to promote engagement, learning, and deeper reflection, even for visitors with no particular interest in the specific period and themes [2].

back to top  Design Considerations

To overcome the shortcomings of the traditional museum experience, we introduce an experiential approach that seeks to combine stories about people connected to displays and artifacts, emotions, and tangible interaction, all of which aim to transform the museum visit into a playful experience.

Building upon prior research and insights from similar projects, we established design criteria to guide our approach based on the following premises:

  • We envisioned gallery exploration to be filled with surprise and discovery, eliminating the need to read long texts or descriptions. Our goal was to introduce digitally enhanced objects in an enchanting, nonlinear manner, avoiding didactic information overload.
  • Shifting from the object-centered museum journey, we sought to emulate successful story-based approaches, fostering connections between visitors and the narrative.
  • Our stories were crafted to embody characters with emotions, enabling relatable connections to visitors' daily lives and aligning with a constructivist philosophy.
  • Because we believe that imagination and emotion are potent catalysts for curiosity and exploration, we aimed to empower visitors to shape their experience.
  • The encounters ought to accommodate diverse visitor profiles and varying emotional states during the visit; in instances where visitors lack time or the inclination for an extensive narrative, they should have the option to skip or exit early while still gaining value from the experience.

back to top  The Experience

The Emotions Speaking setup consists of three integrated components: a handheld device with headphones hosting an audiovisual application, a beacon-based indoor positioning system, and a lightweight cardboard pendant. The aim was for this combination of technologies to create an immersive, seamless experience as visitors explore the museum.

The mobile application houses narratives links to museum artifacts, including an introductory tutorial and prompts to navigate the museum. An indoor positioning system utilizing proximity beacons aids visitor navigation, signaling points of interest and notifying visitors when they're near a display case where Emotions Speaking is enabled. The tangible object, made out of cardboard, is diamond-shaped. It is the interface for selecting and playing stored stories from the smartphone. Worn as a necklace, it grants visitors hands-free access, so they only need to hold the phone. Each side of the polygon displays an emotion and its associated color, aligning with Robert Plutchik's emotion-color theory [5]. Visitors select emotions by tapping their smartphone against the corresponding side. Near-field communication tags in the object identify the selection, triggering the recorded voices of actors representing fictional characters with the chosen emotion. For this prototype, we implemented seven sides/emotions: four with a negative valence (anger, fear, jealousy, sadness), two with a positive valence (admiration, joy), and one neutral (indifference).

For the Emotions Speaking prototype, we designed the experience around two museum display cases as points of interest. These displays were selected in collaboration with an archaeologist and storyteller well versed in the Ancient Agora collection. She identified interesting stories, based on historical facts, and subsequently characters that could be built around the multiple artifacts exhibited in each case.

Seven stories were written for each display case, one for each emotion/color on the diamond; the eighth side remained blank. The common denominator in these stories was that they all referred to one person from the past who related to the exhibits in a case. One display case, for example, was related to Socrates. The case displays shoemakers' nails found during the excavations at the location of what was presumably the sandal-making workshop of Simon the Shoemaker, known to be a friend of the philosopher. The case also includes small vials, which archaeologists believe contained hemlock poison, a fragment of pottery with the name Simon inscribed, and a small marble bust of Socrates.

The experience linked to this glass case involves narrations about Socrates by characters depicting other historical figures who lived during the same period. It's essential to clarify that these emotions reflect the narrator's feelings toward the historical figure (Socrates), not the emotional state of the visitor. The storytelling aims to offer visitors varied emotive perspectives on a historical figure and only indirectly references the artifacts. Visitors can opt for one to seven perspectives, allowing them to construct a more or less comprehensive image of the historical figure represented in the display case. The seven emotions were anger, voiced by Xanthippe (wife); fear, voiced by Plato (student); jealousy, voiced by Critobulus (rich Athenian); sadness, voiced by Simon (friend); joy, voiced by Alcibiades (student); admiration, voiced by Xenophon (student and friend); and indifference, voiced by a random Athenian citizen.

back to top  Evaluating the Experience with Teens

The prototype underwent an initial formative evaluation with 28 museum experts before extending the testing phase to a broader audience, which included 32 visitors spanning various age groups. All the studies were conducted at the Museum of the Ancient Agora during regular operating hours. We recruited participants from our personal networks, specifically reaching out to families with teenagers. Approximately half the participants were adolescents between ages 11 and 17 (Figure 1).

ins02.gif Figure 1. Adolescents participating in the museum study.

The evaluation methods included on-site observation (Figure 2), a postexperience questionnaire administered on a tablet outside the museum, and follow-up interviews with each participant (Figure 3). This mixed-methods approach sought to collect a range of viewpoints and understandings concerning the effectiveness and reception of the Emotions Speaking prototype in the museum setting. The focus was on assessing how the combination of tangible interaction with emotionally driven storytelling influenced individuals' experiences and emotional connection. Our questions aimed to uncover the emotions they selected and the reasons behind their choices. Additionally, we inquired about their favorite characters, exploring the motivations behind these preferences and how they believed these characters felt about Socrates. The importance of specific elements in each character's story and the overall significance attributed to the objects in the display case were also explored. Visitors shared the most captivating aspects they learned and concluded the interview by expressing their own feelings toward Socrates.

ins03.gif Figure 2. The observation phase of the study.
ins04.gif Figure 3. Follow up interviews were conducted with each participant.

Extracting insights from our teen participants' responses to the questionnaire and interview indicate instances of emotional and cognitive engagement as a result of their experience with the Emotions Speaking prototype. Responses from the young participants underscore a preference for this interactive learning method over the traditional learning methods of most museums. P27, a 12-year-old girl, expressed the common sentiment that it provides an "easier way to learn things than in regular museums because regular museums are a bit more boring," while P18, a 17-year-old girl, shared, "I liked it. It was very interesting in general, very different from what I have experienced so far in museums." Some teens were pleasantly surprised at the unexpectedly positive nature of the experience, challenging their initial expectations. P29, a 12-year-old girl, noted, "I liked the idea because I was expecting a tour guide to explain to us and then us just looking at the pottery; I didn't expect us to do something with feelings. I think this different way would interest other kids my age." Similarly, P28, also 12 years old, said, "It was different, better than I expected. I wanted to know who was talking first and then listen to them. I liked that it was an individual experience because I think it would affect me if I were with my friends."

Visitors can opt for one to seven perspectives, allowing them to construct a more or less comprehensive image of the historical figure represented in the display case.

Regarding the emotional impact of the narratives and historical empathy, quotes from our teen participants indicate interest in understanding how people in the past perceived and treated Socrates. For example, P30, a 16-year-old girl, stated, "I found it neat cause it makes you think you're there with Socrates. You already know stuff about him, but learning how people back then saw and treated him is really cool. I thought it would give clues about his pals and wife, and it did! It was cool to hear from his friend who lived with him."

Some participants were moved by the intensity of emotions portrayed in the narratives. As P18, a 17-year-old girl, noted, "Anger was basically very intense. The way she spoke caught my attention, and I didn't even think the woman would hate him so much. Also, the guy who showed indifference [toward Socrates] reminds me of how people are today in general, so I think it was very timely." P28, a 12-year-old girl, went even further: "I am angry with her, who was angry with him," and "My favorite emotion is admiration. Because from what I've learned about Socrates, people admire him."

Other comments indicate an interest in Socrates's choices and actions. P08, an 11-year-old boy, was impressed by the fact "that he did not refuse to take the poison and that his friends told him to escape from prison, and he did not. They gave it to him in prison to die, but his friends told him not to take it. I might not have taken the poison, but he took it. I think it was smart. Not smart, but it was worthy." Similarly, P02, a 14-year-old boy, noted, "Socrates loved all his students, and he said he knew nothing when he knew; he was humble. Also, he had the choice to leave or stay, and he chose to stay because he felt he had to keep his honor." P09, an 11-year-old boy, was intrigued to learn that "Socrates had not written a single letter; he did not know how to write. That was pretty interesting. Since he managed to do so much without being able to write, or read, for that matter, right? I think that was pretty interesting."

These reflections collectively emphasize the mobile experience's role in cultivating historical empathy among teenagers. The quotes unveil a deeper appreciation for historical contexts, notably in the participants' curiosity about Socrates' personal life and unconventional aspects. Moreover, the focus on Socratic decisions and emotions suggests a form of stepping into the historical figures' perspectives. The emotional resonance with the narratives implies a meaningful connection with these figures. While the use of a tangible object to interact with the mobile app added a playful element that was appreciated, it did not seem to overshadow the power of the emotive narrative. The inclination toward interactive and emotionally rich experiences reflects a preference that aligns with fostering a more empathic understanding of history.

back to top  Conclusion

Our exploration of the Emotions Speaking prototype underscores the importance of robust content in shaping a meaningful museum experience. While our attempt to blend emotive storytelling with subtle tangibility in an archaeological museum aimed to capture attention and foster immersion, we acknowledge the need for self-reflection. The endeavor to address traditional museum shortcomings through our experiential approach—intertwining narratives, emotions, and tangible interaction—serves as a stepping stone. It prompts us to recognize the delicate balance between innovation and content substance. It's a reminder that, beyond innovative design elements, content strength remains the cornerstone and resonates most deeply, demanding continuous refinement and thoughtful adaptation in future ventures.

back to top  References

1. Endacott, J. and Brooks, S. An updated theoretical and practical model for promoting historical empathy. Social Studies Research and Practice 8 (2013), 41–58; https://doi.org/10.1108/SSRP-01-2013-B0003

2. Petousi, D., Katifori, A., Servi, K., Roussou, M., and Ioannidis, Y. History education done different: A collaborative interactive digital storytelling approach for remote learners. Frontiers in Education 7 (2022); https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2022.942834

3. Petousi, D., Katifori, A., McKinney, S., Perry, S., Roussou, M., and Ioannidis, Y. Social bots of conviction as dialogue facilitators for history education: Promoting historical empathy in teens through dialogue. Proc. of the 20th Annual ACM Interaction Design and Children Conference. ACM, New York, 2021, 326–337; https://doi.org/10.1145/3459990.3460710

4. McKinney, S., Perry, S., Katifori, A., and Kourtis, V. Developing digital archaeology for young people: A model for fostering empathy and dialogue in formal and informal learning environments. In Communicating the Past in the Digital Age: Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Methods in Teaching and Learning in Archaeology. S. Hageneuer, ed. Ubiquity Press, 2020, 179–195; https://doi.org/10.5334/bch.n

5. Plutchik, R. The nature of emotions. American Scientist 89, 4 (2001), 344–350; https://doi.org/10.1511/2001.28.344

back to top  Authors

Maria Roussou is an associate professor in interactive systems at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She cofounded makebelieve, an experience design company, and previously directed the virtual reality department at the Foundation of the Hellenic World. With a Ph.D. in computer science, she specializes in designing, applying, and evaluating XR environments for formal and informal education. She is a senior member of the ACM and vice chair of the Greek ACM SIGCHI and ACM-W chapters. [email protected]

Akrivi Katifori is a senior researcher at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Athena Research and Innovation Center. With a background in computer science, she specializes in codesign and evaluation within the digital heritage domain. Her research focuses on interactive digital storytelling, virtual reality, and designing for social interaction in digital experiences to foster reflection and meaning-making. [email protected]

Irene Kaklopoulou is a Ph.D. student at Umeå University. She is a design researcher working at the intersection of interaction design and artificial intelligence, with a focus on exploring the felt, lived, and intimate aspects of bodies and their entanglements with technologies. Her doctoral studies investigate how notions of societal norms, uncertainty, and ground truth reflect and influence the design of technology for the body. Her research is informed by feminist and somaesthetic perspectives in HCI, along with feminist technoscience. [email protected]

Katerina Servi is an archaeologist-museologist, writer, translator, and creator of content and digital storytelling for museums and other cultural institutions, as well as a researcher at the Athena Research and Innovation Center. She holds a B.A. in archaeology and an M.A. in museum studies from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. [email protected]

Dimitra Petousi is a member of the Narralive team at the Athena Research and Innovation Center in Greece and is involved in content creation and the evaluation of digital applications and experiences in the field of cultural heritage. She holds a B.A. in library science and information systems and an M.A. in museum studies from the University of Athens. [email protected]

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