Monthly Archives: June 2011

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part two of ?

In the first part of this post, I alleged that I’d be examining gamification (ack), and trying to sort out some substance from the hype surrounding it.  And I will, really!  To give it some museum context, I ‘d first like to posit a number of qualities that good interactive exhibits possess and then review what the game theorist/ludologist/game designer/user experience types say about gamification (ack) and see what areas of synergy exist. So, stick with me for maybe two more posts after this one and hopefully the trip will have been worth it.  As an added incentive, there’ll be lots of links to research and juicy reading in the last couple posts.

What are the qualities of a good interactive exhibit?

A good exhibit has a point

Pinball Wizard by Flickr user Jared Kelly

Luckily, I don’t have any photographs, but I’ve used some really awful interactive exhibits. One example that sticks in my mind was a pinball game, dressed with science content, where you “attacked” diseases with white blood cells that were pinballs.  Amassing a high score involved being good at pinball; hit the targets with the ball using the flippers, and since the targets were labeled as “diseases”, you learned that white blood cells destroy diseases and that‘s a good thing, right? Right…?

Yeah, not so much. I’m sure most people who used that exhibit learned more about pinball than they did about medicine. The content of that exhibit could’ve been a single label or an annotated graphic.  The interaction had nothing to do with the content and, in fact, completely overwhelmed it. I will spare you the story of the time I saw the ‘Rapping Refrigerator”. You’re welcome.

A good exhibit is rooted in its physicality

The Field Museum by Flickr user T a k

A museum is a physical space, a built environment. Everything we do in the building is rooted in that physicality, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Our physical spaces themselves are affective teaching tools.  Just the fact that there is a huge building dedicated to (art, history, science and technology, etc…) makes a powerful affective statement.

In the interactive exhibit world, it’s easy and rewarding to test components and make them better, polish their content and design until they’re good enough, and completely ignore the context they will placed in once they’re built.  I know nobody has the money to prototype entire exhibitions, but it behooves us to pay more attention to the experience of being in space full of exhibits, and not just make sure all the bits work.  I’ve seen the difference it makes in prototyping multiple exhibits at the same time. Even something as simple as the way an exhibit is oriented in relation its neighbors can have measurable impacts on visitor use.

A good exhibit provokes emotional responses

Marina Abramovic exhibition by Flickr user La Citta Vita

This may get me in trouble, but when I think back on museum experiences that have stuck with me, I find that they all shared one thing in common – they made me feel something. Informal education is a great forum for affective learning; formal education can do a much better job at cognitive learning.  Nobody ever got a degree from going to a museum, and I don’t want them to.  That said, we should have both affective and cognitive learning going on here, but our emphasis and pride should be on our affective learning programs.  We will never explore as much physics as even an intro physics textbook, but that book will never provide an affective experience with physics to a broad audience.  A successful museum visit is one that has an emotional outcome.

A good exhibit encourages play

by Flickr user hoyasmeg

Play is an important entry point for folks of all ages into any subject matter. For us, play is a crucial element to engage the interest of the non-literate public in the sciences.  We all know this intellectually for children, and yet we look down our noses at those parts of our offerings called “entertainment.”  Entertainment is merely an adult word for play, and entertainment can be a device to get adults involved with any topic. I consciously use “play” instead of “playing games” in this sense because of the open-ended nature of play.  This will be important later.  Games are a form of play, but play is much bigger than games.

Sometimes, casual observers of the enthusiasm and energy evidenced by children in the science museum environment conclude that this behavior is so different from what occurs in school, it must be entertainment and not education.  The same high levels of energy and enthusiasm can be found in video arcades and amusement parks.  However, nothing about entertainment excludes it from being educational.  Museums are amusement parks for the mind.  Our activities are not designed simply to engage motor skills and reduce reaction time, or to provide visitors with whole-body disorientation, but to provide the sensory/motor experiences and concrete knowledge that are necessary for understanding.  Entertainment value in museum exhibits and programs is not a distraction but a key to any museum’s educational success.

Entertainment need not be dumb

Entertainment versus Education is straw dog.  Too often, the idea of entertainment gets conflated with the idea of “dumbing down” content that is too hard for visitors to comprehend.  They are, however, separate issues.  Done properly, entertainments can be powerful affective teachers, and an integral part of them, what Csikszentmihályi calls “flow experiences” only happen when they are challenging enough, a common mistake that Mitch Resnick from MIT points out.

“…Too often, designers and educators try to make things “easy” for learners, thinking that people are attracted to things that are easy to do. But that is not the case. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi has found that people become most deeply engaged in activities that are challenging, but not overwhelming.  Similarly, Seymour Papert has found that learners become deeply engaged by “hard fun”—in other words, learners don’t mind activities that are hard as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions.”

A good exhibit rewards visitors

Academy Awards by Flickr user cliff1066™

Visitors choose to come to museums. As Edward Deci wrote in Why We Do What We Do: “Self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.” This intrinsic motivation drives the vast majority of our visitors, not external rewards. This point is lost on many in the field who seem determined to turn a visit to a museum into a test, or a frequent flyer program.

When developing an interactive exhibit, what visitors are doing while they interact, is as important as the content.  It is not enough that they seem to have fun doing it, but the fun should come as a result of their finding something out.  Some kind of thinking ought to be involved. The prize in a good exhibit should be a new understanding, a new skill, a new way of seeing something, a surprising result or a confirmation of what you always knew, the satisfaction of knowing or of figuring out.  Visitors may not come knowing what they expect to learn, but they hope they will learn something, and they know when they haven’t.

Here are some more qualities I didn’t get round to explaining. I could go on… and probably will some other day:

A good exhibit responds to visitor actions

A good exhibit is visitor-focused

A good exhibit makes obvious how to use it correctly

If you’ve got any others to add to the list, send ‘em to me!

So now, you’ve got any idea of where I’m coming from when I speak of museum exhibits.
Next up: Part Three – Games and Gaming come to the Museum

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part one of ?

One of the undercurrents running through many disparate projects I’ve been working on this year has been gamification.  It’s probably the buzzword of the year (running just a hair ahead of “mobile”), and seems to be following a classic Gartner hype curve.  It’s going to solve everything, and can be applied to every situation! It makes your boring museum content “fun’! And that’s not all…!  I’ve had it used on me enough that I feel my skin crawl a bit whenever I hear, say, or write the word now.  Is it just a knee-jerk reaction to a buzzword, or is there a deeper discomfort with the idea of making museum exhibits more like games?

by Flickr user Sherif Salama

I’ve been collecting references, reading up, and looking for useful practices to adopt or adapt while I sort out where I think this trend is going.  In the midst of trying to understand and unpack my reactions to gamification (ack), I had a brief Twitter and email exchange with Lindsy Szilvasi (@Ysdnil) that got me to stop thrashing around and start writing it out to see what I thought.  It turns out to be a tangled issue that brings in exhibits, gaming, games vs. play, play in museums, and more… There’s a lot to unpack. This will probably have to be at least a couple of posts long, so bear with me as I try to get to the point. There’ll probably be some ranting, too, along the way. I’ve ridden the hype roller coaster enough times to know this feeling…

by Flickr user

For you impatient readers, the executive summary (I think) is that I think there is a place for applying strategies used in developing good games to develop good museum exhibits, but gamification (ack) is no magic remedy for all the problems that exhibit developers face as they try to make experiences that attract and inspire museums visitors.

First, a word on interactive exhibits

In order to talk about how interactive exhibits might benefit from gamification (ack), I think it makes sense to explain a bit about interactive exhibits, what they’re meant to do, and what  I think they need to be good.

Years ago (think late 1980s- early 1990s), a European colleague asked my boss if her museum should “go with the flow and make everything interactive” so that they could attract more young visitors.  Back then, “interactivity” was the thing that was gong to solve all the museum world’s problems with attendance and “getting the kids interested” in whatever we wanted to interest them in.  Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s where gamification (ack) is in 2011.


by Flcikr user the_exploratorium

If you’ve used interactive exhibits in a science museum, you’ve probably used an exhibit designed by the Exploratorium. They demonstrated both the appeal and educational validity of interactive exhibits way back in the 1960s and 70s.  In their exhibits, visitors generally got to change a variable in the device being demonstrated and see the effect of that change. In Exploratorium exhibits a “Do This” label models the kind of activity that scientists might do if they were studying the phenomena on display.  So having a button, or a switch or some manipulable let visitors change something that a scientist would’ve changed if he or she were investigating the phenomena. The visitor action; pushing buttons, flipping switches, etc… was necessary to the educational goal of understanding what scientists do. And for that goal, interactivity is a great technique to employ.

But it didn’t take long for folks to see that people liked an exhibit much more if they got to do something, and decide that the doing something was the important thing, when what was really the important thing was the learning that it enabled. Thoughtful and clever developers could figure out ways to make button pushing coincide with relevant observation on the part of the visitors.  But, more often than not, the button pushing had nothing to do with the ostensible content being demonstrated and in the worst cases, the button pushing isolated visitors from the important parts of the phenomenon being demonstrated.

 When done well, interactive exhibits can engage visitors in active and prolonged learning experiences of astonishing depth and duration.  When done poorly, or gratuitously, interactivity damages the credibility of informal education.

I often liken the use of interactive exhibits to the use of techniques to make exhibits accessible to visitors with disabilities. If you approach it as something you *have* to do to survive in the market, you’re unlikely to produce a product that is compelling. It is a burden that is imposed by external forces and is resented. If you find a reason that it makes sense for your institution to embrace, then it becomes a lot easier to make it compelling. Exhibits that are universally designed are usually more interesting than exhibits that are designed to be “compliant” with government regulations, like the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) here in the U.S.. Exhibits that are interactive because that’s the best way to communicate the idea are usually more interesting than exhibits that are interactive for the sake of being “appealing”. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that same dynamic will apply to gamification (ack). We’ll find out soon enough!

Next up: Part Two – The qualities of good interactive exhibits

Boston Museum Tech meetup, Thursday, June 23rd, 7PM

All is well with the world. The Bruins won, and hopefully the bar scene has returned to normalcy.  To celebrate, we’re going to have our Stanley Cup postponed next gathering at The Field in Central Square, Cambridge, on Thursday, June 23rd, starting at 7pm.

If you’re into in new technologies in museums, either as a producer, developer, vendor, or just interested party, then come hang out. We’ll talk shop, swap stories, and hopefully be useful community resource.

Tell your friends, and tell me too, so I know if I’m gonna be drinking alone.


The Field
20 Prospect St., Cambridge, MA 02139

Boston Bruins vs. Boston Museum Tech posse

The wheel of Karma has gone round and after years of shame, the Boston Bruins once again stand on the edge of greatness.  Tomorrow night in Vancouver, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals will be played to see who is the next National Hockey League champion.

Tomorrow night is also the next scheduled meeting of the Boston Museum Techs meetup group at the Field, in Cambridge.  Given the emotional nature of the finals thus far, I expect the Field to be packed (along with every other bar with a TV in the Metropolitan area) with Bs fans.  So, I wanted to check with y’all whether you wanna mingle or fall back for a quieter night, like Thursday. This poll will be up only for a day, so vote early and often.



89% voted for moving, so we will *not* meet tomorrow night. Bruins fans, go forth and celebrate.  Let’s do Thursday, then, shall we?

A letter from Gibraltar

a selection of curiosities from "Museum of Science: Then and Now"

We’ll be releasing a mobile app in the Fall to accompany a new permanent exhibition on the history of the Museum. As part of the research for that, I spent a day in the Boston Athenaeum looking through their manuscripts collections for information on the Linnaean Society of New England, a predecessor of the Museum of Science that operated from 1814-1823.  One of my favorite parts of research is when you find an object or document that so neatly encompasses an era or an idea that it practically sings.  I found two at the Athenaeum, and I wanted to share one. It starts thus,

U.S.S Washington, Gibraltar Bay, Feb 18, 1817.
Mr. Shaw,
Dear Sir,
I beg leave to recommend to your care the enclosed letter & accompanying box. The box is principally filled with specimens in nat. hist. For the Linn. Soc. but as it contains some private packages, I wish it to be opened by one of the persons to whom it is directed.

This is the third time I have troubled you in this way; but I have done so, presuming on your well-known disposition to aid all endeavors, however small, to advance the cause of science in our country.  What I am able to contribute to this end is certainly very inconsiderable, but “Non sunt contemnenda quasi parva, sine quibus Constare magna non possunt.” ["Those things are not to be disparaged as little, without which great things cannot come into being." - St. Jerome]

I am, Sir, respectfully, yr. obedt. servt.
Ch: Folsom.

Folsom sent a series of letters to William Shaw, the vice-president of the Linnaean Society.  The letter accompanied a large box of specimens that included Roman coins, volcanic rock from Vesuvius, marine creatures, an ostrich skeleton, a chameleon he hatched from an egg, and several pages. His explanation of his collecting is classic,

“In the large box you will find a farrago of specimens in natural history, which I have collected as I could, not without expence of patience, & occasionally of money. I fear some of them may seem hardly worth notice; but they interested me at the time of collecting them, & are connected in my mind with interesting places & circumstances.”

His letters are marvelous, written in a large bold hand, and full of the kind of details about his objects that so often get lost by the time they get into collections databases.  You can almost see him in the wardroom of the Washington, looking at his instructions on how to preserve birds, trying to eviscerate an adult ostrich in his spare time.  His crew mates must have loved him!

The objects themselves are long-gone, along with the rest of the Society’s collections, so his descriptions are all that is left. Folsom goes to great pains to explain his lack of skill. Specimens are poorly preserved, or all that was left after he tried to preserve them. But his snake wasn’t just a snake. It was one he caught climbing up the rudder in Chesapeake Bay. The ostrich was a gift to the Commodore from the Bey of Tunis, which lived aboard ship til it sickened and died, apparently from eating too much rope, “which it consumed avidly.” When he autopsied it, Folsom found its stomach completely full of scraps of rope and other tidbits. Every object possesses some personal meaning for Folsom as well as value to a new museum as specimens. At an old institution, where so many of the object have outlived all the people who were associated with their collection, it’s easy to forget that they all once possessed these narratives.

I was looking for an example of the collecting strategies employed by my distant predecessors, and came up with Lieut. Folsom, much to my delight.  But who was this intrepid benefactor, and aspiring naturalist? Some sleuthing was required.

USS Washington, from an old book

In early 1817, the USS Washington, a 74 gun ship of the line built in Portsmouth, NH, was cruising the Mediterranean as the flagship of Commodore Chauncey’s squadron. Information on Folsom was hard to come by, but luckily he had a crew mate who made quite a name for himself later. The most famous member of the Washington’s crew was a teenager from Tennessee named David Farragut, who was already a seasoned veteran at age 16, and would become Admiral of the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War, where he uttered his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Midshipman Farragut’s  instructor (who would become his lifelong friend) was the ship’s Unitarian chaplain, Lieut. Charles Folsom.  Folsom served briefly aboard Washington before being named U.S. Consul at Tunis.  Upon leaving the ship, he secured an extended leave for his young friend to stay with him in Tunis and continue his study of mathematics, as well as French, Italian, Arabic and Turkish.

It’s tempting to imagine the chaplain and his midshipman collecting rocks on the beaches of the Bay of Naples, or catching lizards in the ruins of Carthage, but that’s a bit of a leap to make. More of Folsom’s papers are at the Mass. Historical Society, so someday I might have to dig a little more and see what other gems I might uncover. For now, I’ll hope the we can afford the license and duplication fees, so Lieut. Folsom’s letter can enjoyed by more people.

I do love this work.

Boston Museum Tech Meetup, June 15th, 7PM

Following up on the success of our initial Boston Museum Geeks Meetup, we’re going to have our next gathering at The Field in Central Square, Cambridge, on Wednesday, June 15th, starting at 7pm. They’re low-key, they’ve got a big back room and it might be a bit easier to congregate there than it was at Eastern Standard.

If you’re into in new technologies in museums, either as a producer, developer, vendor, or just interested party, then come hang out. We’ll talk shop, swap stories, and hopefully be useful community resource.

Tell your friends, and tell me too, so I know if I’m gonna be drinking alone.


The Field
20 Prospect St., Cambridge, MA 02139