Book Learnin'

When visitors write in the CHF museum's visitor log, the comments are uniformly positive—they love the space, the stories, and the objects. The only complaint (and it's more a declaration of surprise) is that the museum has little in the way of interactives. "What you have here is so intriguing," they say, "I wish there was a way to explore the stories further."

When I came to CHF late last fall as manager of emerging media, one of my immediate tasks was to address our visitors' needs in the upcoming exhibit The Alchemical Quest, which debuts July 2, 2012. It will showcase CHF's collection of rare alchemical books, some dating back to the 1600s. These works have everything a book lover could ask for—art, history, philosophy, religion, and science. Their "only" problem is that very few people in the world can interpret them.

In a heritage institution, the marriage between technology and interpretation more often feels arranged than passionate. Communicating historic objects authentically in a new medium requires new thought patterns. Enter The Alchemical Quest interactive project, which attempts to thwart this tradition. Here's what we're learning.

Begin with Interactivity as a Value

Jumping into the project about six months before it was due to launch, I knew much of the conceptual groundwork had been laid. Fortunately, my colleagues were open to rethinking the content and spent a lot of time figuring out how it would work best in the medium we chose. It was a labor-intensive process that siphoned some of the energy from the development of the physical exhibit. As much as we wanted to align the milestones of the book exhibit and the interactive, they are not parallel processes. Changing the narrative or look-and-feel of an interactive is not like switching placement of exhibit cases. Code never complies so cleanly. The physical books will be opened to single points behind display cases and interpreted in big-picture concepts with limited label text; the interactive will require a kind of relationship with the user with its two more in-depth illustrated narratives.

Imagine broadly, but be ready to edit

The possibilities for this project were dizzying. Initially, we imagined recreating an alchemists lab out of CHF's Transmutations exhibit. Imagine a broad, rough-hewn work table, with glass-blown replicas of alchemical flasks. In the middle of these objects is a large leather-bound "book" that magically comes to life at the touch of the user, who can then explore these historic texts and set up virtual experiments based on the processes described in them. It didn't take long for the constraints for time, budget and space to make way for a more practical implementation of the idea. Dreaming big opened the team's eyes to the possibilities, though. It also helped us recognize instantly when the right approach for our resources came along, making consensus much easier to achieve.

Complement the physical objects in a way that fits the medium

The right approach ended up being a relatively new out-of-the-box technology called the Monkeybook. CHF was the third organization—and first museum—to purchase it in the U.S. It pretty closely fit my dream of gesture-based projection with the form factor of a book. The base is clear acrylic rather than ancient wood, but it serves a long-term purpose. Because the basic page-flip programming only requires scans of the page, we can re-use the device in the Othmer Library after the exhibit is over. Over time it can potentially drive the digitization of our rarer titles, and save wear on them by serving as an access point. That's a bonus, but not really an interactive. In the meantime, The Alchemical Quest is certainly testing the Monkeybook's limits: sequential animations with contextual boxes enhance the stunningly arcane etchings throughout. We had to tweak page sizes to match the proportions of the Monkeybook's screen sizes and re-evaluate visual concept treatments. The concept remains true, however, and I believe it will spur interest and understanding of the books even while it entertains as a standalone project.


Find a development partner who understands your audiences, inside and out.

Fortunately for us, Philadelphia has a nationally respected interactive agency that deals almost exclusively with cultural heritage clients. Night Kitchen Interactive started with us early in 2012, and has been our guide through the majority of the process. Even with a compressed time schedule they took the time to understand what our team valued in the physical objects and the interactive. They quickly delivered the Monkeybook as a realistic refinement of the original vision. Having explored the project early on with a commercial agency that had mondo development chops but lacked available time and proximity to build that kind of trust, I appreciate Night Kitchen's approach even more. 

Define roles: both who and when

Night Kitchen delivered a timeline for development that helped set the rails on a process that could easily get overwhelming. They also specified a deadline for one, official response from us. If you've ever witnessed the results of design by committee, you know how critical this is. Getting feedback from the entire team is important for concept development. After matters of audience, purpose, and basic visual treatments are settled, it's time to identify a core group who can work closely with the developers to get the product out the door with enough time for a visit from Murphy.

Newer technologies are seductive, but prepare for complications

While I've never wanted to be a hardcore coder, I do obsess about the outreach implications of emerging technologies to such an extent that I sleep with a notepad nearby so I can capture dreams on the topic. Riding the tech wave of innovation comes with benefits and risks. We've never doubted the Monkeybook is the right tool for this exhibit but it has presented challenges related to projector calibration, touch sensitivity and sub-par performance in ambient light conditions. After several weeks of trying to overcome these issues, Night Kitchen was able to determine with the manufacturer that it was a defect in our particular device. We just received the replacement model with only a month of development time left on the clock. Both companies approached these challenges heroically. But the situation has reinforced the importance of extensive testing with newer technologies, particularly when the plan is to fully explore their capabilities. 

Embrace some level of abstraction

The concept of abstraction is both bookend to my first point, and a way of taking it to the next level. It can be tempting to force a literal interpretation of objects, wanting our visitors/users to gain an appreciation of them based on the authentic story behind them. If you own a smart phone or tablet, you realize how quickly expectations for interactive technologies have changed. Have you used a pinching motion to zoom text on a museum display monitor to no effect other than amused glances from the docent staff? Me too. In much the same way, expectations have also changed regarding how we tell these stories effectively. Be novel enough to intrigue. Use just enough story to evoke emotion. Inspire memories from the experience. Leave the user with a thirst for deeper meaning in the museum and beyond. CHF is striving to achieve these objectives with The Alchemical Quest, and I think our approach will continue to improve in our future interactive endeavors.

Those experienced in the development of museum interactives may find my account obvious, or just plain wrong. If so, I value your insight! Though my experience is strongly rooted in technology and cultural heritage communications, this was my first involvement with interactive development in a museum setting. It's been a growth experience for the CHF team. We've learned new ways of understanding our collections, and each other too. We hope you'll make plans to visit our museum between July and December to experience the exhibit for yourself and let us know how you think we did.  

How to Make History of Science Interesting: Part I [Periodic Tabloid]
How to Make History of Science Interesting: Part II [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: Technology

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