A case of too many interactives?

A couple of weeks ago I visited the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, Wales.  The museum’s focus is on the industrial history of wales, and object cases alternate with high-tech interactives.

I’m not personally a huge fan of interactives.  The reason is that I have not seen many interactives that I feel were necessary and the ‘best tool for the job’.  I particularly dislike the off-the-rack, stand-up computer screen interactives shoved into an arbitrary corner: I might as well be sitting at my own computer at home surfing the web.  Why come to a museum?

In all fairness, these are not the kind of interactives I found at the National Waterfront Museum.  They did put some thought into their interactives, and a few of them were quite interesting.

My favourite was one about the 1851 census in Swansea.  The entire room was created around the interactive which integrated the technology into a more traditional exploration of museum objects.  The room as a whole was really successful at telling a story, and if you’ve been reading my blog you will know that I consider that to be the core of good interpretation.  A panel by the entrance talked about the man who walked through the streets of this particular neighbourhood in Swansea, knocking on doors, chatting with inhabitants, and jotting down their stories for us to participate in.  Once inside the room, visitors could sit down by a screen and see a map of the neighbourhood.  On the map, certain houses were highlighted, and you could tap on the house you wanted to visit.  At this point, an animation was projected onto a transparent screen hanging from the ceiling.  It took you on a carriage ride through the street until you entered the house.  You continue to interact with the screen on the table in front of you, but the content of the interactive is projected onto the transparent screen.  This made for a subtle dynamic which meant you didn’t get bored with the activity straight away.  The content was also very smartly organised: A little bit about the main character we meet in the house as recorded by the census man, and then the opportunity to explore the house for objects relating to that character.  You had to find the objects, which again kept the activity interesting, and then you could click on them to get information about the object, its relation to the main character and a little background on the wider story.  Most of this content was related through audio; again this was a nice change from using one sense only.  I found myself quite engrossed and spent about fifteen minutes exploring houses and people.  When I got up, I walked around the rest of the room and was delighted to see the actual objects I had just explored in the virtual world displayed in the show cases.  There was more information on panels here which made for a nice reenforcement of what I had just learnt, and then some.

This was the primary strength of many of the interactives in the National Waterfront Museum: the interactives related to objects that were displayed in nearby cases.  Quite often, the museum had created environments for the interactives and objects, turning them into a whole experience where one part connotated and complemented the other.  That’s how museum interactives should be done.

On the other hand, there were many interactives where I couldn’t but feel that the interactives were there just because the planners had the technology.  Mind, I liked playing with the technology but I honestly couldn’t tell you much about the content I was supposed to have interacted with. In one such interactive the way you had to interact with the content was by sticking your arm through a frame and point at the screen in front of you.  I’d never done that, so it was fun, but the technology was also sluggish and looked terribly unattractive.  It must have cost an absolute fortune, and I’m convinced that the cost per contact and effectiveness ratio analysis would make me wince.

So overall, the Swansea National Waterfront Museum did have some interactives that were smartly used as interpretive tools.  But it also reenforced my opinion that technology should never be used for technology’s sake.

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