New Directions in Exhibition Design

exhibit design

Image from wxystudio.com

Before I entered graduate school, my definition of exhibition design was in a way quite narrow. Coming from an art history background I frequented mostly art museums and exhibits, with the occasional history museum thrown in from time to time.

National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC

The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

But I found after a while, that all those quiet white-wall museums and art gallery didn’t resonate with me as much as places that gave me the opportunity to create my own experience through interaction within the exhibition, rather than simply looking at objects or art from a few feet away or behind a plexiglass case.

Today exhibition design and interpretive planning for exhibitions are taking new directions into more immersive environments, with the visitors more actively participating in the exhibition. This happens in the form of physical and digital interactives (or a combination of both), and can be used both indoors and outdoors, depending on the type of technology it uses.

Multi-touch Surfaces

One form of technology that is becoming widespread in interpretive design is the multi-touch surface. The technology was developed to enable more than one user to interact with a digital touch display. More than simply touch and read, users can move information around or play around with the display in a way that makes sense to them.

Image from Globacore

Most of the multi-touch surfaces I’ve encountered have been in the form of the Microsoft Surface Table, which is essentially large multi-touch screen in the form of a low table. You can do everything you can with an iPhone or Smartphone, such as scale pictures up and down, and dragging items around the screen to get a result or reaction.

touch screen

Image from museumsandtheweb.com

Using a surface table at the National Postal Museum. Image from postalmuseumblog.si.edu

While the surface table is in itself a quite remarkable development that is affordable for the most part, I think though it would be really cool to see more of the multi-touch technology on a larger scale, perhaps on floors or on different types of material.

Handheld Interpretation

Many people these days have a smartphone, and whether or not you use an iPhone, the whole “there’s an app for that” saying seems to be holding true for almost anything, including new forms of augmented reality experiences. One of the reasons I was really excited to finally get a smartphone last year was because of apps like Google Star map.

Image from Sapli

Through mobile technologies, users are able to bring virtual reality outdoors, which enables them to create their own museum-like experience outside the walls of the museum gallery. One interesting app I found that allows for this kind of experience is WhatWasThere. The app fuses the Google Street View technology with historical photos, so you can see what a place looked like at a specific point in time.

Image via WiredCPU


I think this kind of technology is developing rapidly and interactive media developers are now adding more interpretation to this sort of app, so you can also browse facts and interesting events that are related to the place you are looking at. I expect this technology will be developed further and maybe we can even get virtual tours as you walk through a landscape.

These applications are all very interesting and certainly very cool, but there are times when I can’t help feel a little anxious about how so much of interactivity and learning is now being done through digital methods.

While touch interactivity is certainly a more dynamic learning style, does it perhaps lessen physical and human interaction because everyone’s noses are stuck to a screen? This is one of the biggest questions I personally have when it comes to the use of digital technolgy in a learning environment such as a museum.

I think there are definitely merits to creative physical learning environments, and in future posts I’ll explore some of these to compare with the digital methods I’ve shown here.

For more information about the WhatWasThere app, visit http://whatwasthere.com

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