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Museums and Interactivity at the New York Hall of Science

The State of the Art

This is an amazing time to be creating media for museums and other informal learning spaces. I’m the creative producer at the NY Hall of Science (NYSCI). I came to NYSCI in 2011 to work on Connected Worlds, a 2400 square foot immersive, interactive space created by Design I/O.

The exhibition offers a rich, open-ended learning environment that immerses visitors in a fanciful universe where they can affect the health and balance of six distinct, interconnected habitats. The beautifully rendered, projected habitats represent fanciful versions of wetlands, rainforest, grassland, river valley, reservoir and desert, which arc around a 40’ virtual waterfall and floodplain. Each habitat thrives with unique creatures and plants that respond to the visitors’ interactions.

Sensing technologies create the magic: namely, infrared cameras/lights and the gesture-based Kinect system. Users direct the water flowing from the waterfall, river valley and reservoir with logs wrapped in retroreflective material – which the IR cameras read and respond to. Two Kinects are mounted above each habitat has 2 Kinects above it that read a visitor’s gestures so they can plant seeds, interact with creatures and chop down dead plants.

Supplementing the interactive experience is the Living Library, which provides in-depth background information about the plants and creatures of Connected Worlds: their behaviors, habitats, and how they live their lives. It functions as an interactive field guide to the whole experience. As visitors turn the physical oversized pages of the book, the projected image changes, giving insight into the phenomena encountered in the exhibit, and allowing visitors to research the needs of different plants and creatures to better understand how they might affect any one environment. A printable PDF file of the Living Library is available at NYSCI’s web site for download.

The experience inspires cooperation among the visitors whether they know each other or not – creating a truly social learning experience, and encourages reflection and problem solving. There are no right answers here. Experimentation is encouraged so that the visitors come to understand how the system is working and how they can intervene to get the results they want.

This was really mind blowing for me. Let the visitor define the problem and figure out how to solve it. This kind of engagement supports skill building like problem solving and critical thinking. This was a new approach for me, a narrative filmmaker.

Makerspaces have really embodied this kind of thinking. I first encountered making when I came to NYSCI. Maker Space and Design Lab were being developed. The projects looked like the crafts class I used to teach. Science? Hmmm.

As I was getting up to speed on Connected Worlds, one of my secondary assignments was compiling and writing the Maker Playbook, a guide on how to set up and facilitate a maker space. That’s when I started to get it. It’s about engagement, problem solving, tinkering as a way to learn skills important to understanding science and engineering. Technology offers this too in a different way, as apparent in Connected Worlds.

Media Meet Museums

When I started at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in the early 90’s, very little media appeared in exhibits. Up to this point, museums were places where people came to see cool things like art or dioramas and be told what was important to know. Media was basically comprised of a video on a screen where a very smart person talked about something very important or a basic interactive where you clicked a button and got an answer or saw a video.

Audience visitorship had dwindled because museums hadn’t changed much since visitors’ school field trip days. The content didn’t feel relevant and the visit wasn’t a very exciting, dynamic experience. In a survey the American Museum ran, a visitor described the museum as an old tennis shoe – you love it, it’s comfy, but don’t wear it anymore. Things had to change. Museum staff began to explore ways to incorporate videos and interactives in substantial, engaging ways. Over the next 16 years, the pace of change accelerated and I was so lucky to be there, jumping at every opportunity that came my way.

I started at the museum as a temp, (cause, you know, we all have to pay rent), then moved to the administrative assistant for the new VP of Exhibitions and Education, a position that had just been created at the time. I began working for Aldona Jonaitis, an art historian who specialized in NW Coast Native art and cultural history.

I lucked out – Dr. Jonaitis was curating an exhibit on the modern Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch. The opening ceremony would feature tribal members in full regalia coming the Hudson River to the 79th Street Boat Basin on a fishing boat. They would be greeted by local NY tribes and together form a procession to the museum that culminated in a combined dance ceremony. I convinced the Dr. Jonaitis that the unique event needed to be filmed and that we could edit the footage into an introductory video for the exhibition just one week after opening. I basically said, “I can do that.”

We were able to combine the Kwakwaka’wakw footage into a video that served as an introduction to the exhibit, and the museum leadership was convinced of the merits of video. After that I began making videos for exhibitions while working as an administrative assistant. Ultimately a media coordinator position was created for me. Though the role wasn’t clearly defined, the fact that the position was created was an acknowledgement that things were changing.

Shortly before I was hired, the museum had partnered on new kind of exhibition (Global Warming) that used interactives and videos to relay a large portion of the content. This was a first. Kiosks featured computer interactives and some videos were presented in mini theater like settings. Interest in this multimedia approach continued to expand at the museum, as was apparent in the video and interactive kiosks and mini theaters that were planned for the new dinosaur and prehistoric mammals halls.

Natural history museums started to become a destination as they upgraded their exhibits and the visitor experience. Media made its way into temporary exhibits and rejuvenated older permanent exhibition halls. It took a while to win over the more traditional designers who thought of media as a fluffy add-on, or as a designer once said to me, ‘it’s just wallpaper’. But videos, interactions, and audiovisual installations became an essential part of the early exhibit development and were integrated seamlessly into the overall design.

The advent of digital video made it less expensive to produce and display videos. As producers, we could travel with scientists on expeditions or be in the midst of a Hindu celebration and take the visitor along with us. We could compress the passage of time, go into space or delve into a cell so the visitor could see scientific phenomena that would normally be out of reach or only on a PBS documentary. There is something powerful about seeing things in action along with artifacts, specimens and instruments that are relevant to the story being told.

Videos could define spaces and create environments. For the entrance of the Pearls exhibition, we created an ethereal, eerily blue space where divers floated. We shot blue screen underwater footage of free divers, then projected them onto layers of scrims that hung from ceiling to floor. It transported the visitor into a different world.

The end of the Body Art exhibition a montage of current body art trends was projected onto walls of mirrors. The slowly moving images were mesmerizing as they repeated and repeated throughout the space catching the visitor in the projectors’ throw.

For the Hall of Ocean Life, we created a subtle and effective environmental experience by synchronizing lighting changes with a soundtrack that moved from calm to storm to calm again.

How videos are displayed can tell a story as well. Totems to Turquoise, a display spanning three monitors, visually and metaphorically brought together native peoples from the SW US and the NW Coast, merging their distinctive landscapes as they discussed their artistic collaboration.

The interactive team at AMNH was making strides in computer interactives as well through exploring physical computing. For The Genomic Revolution, they created a large 3D sculpture of part of the fruit fly DNA. Visitors could manipulate the base pairs and see the resulting mutations of the fly on a large monitor nearby.

The exhibit wanted to address the controversy around genomes- issues like privacy rights, genomic medicine and genetically modified food. To inspire discussions and also to capture the futuristic feel of genomic science, we hung large screens (about 4’x8’) throughout the space on which were projected large talking heads of specialists representing all sides of the issues. Through clever editing we created a virtual debate that followed the visitor through the space. The effect was eerie and powerful.

I think what really exemplifies how media evolved and how it really helped grasp and make tangible difficult science was the exhibition Einstein, The Man Behind the Science. Videos throughout the exhibit told the human story, discussing Einstein’s life and work and exploring the relevance of his work as contemporary astrophysicists discussed Einstein’s influence on their life and work. The interactives and digital displays took on the challenge of making his complex theories accessible and understandable for visitors. As an example, to illustrate the Theory of Relativity, visitors approached a curved screen with a projected grid. Spheres represented visitors’ relative size and location and the grid bent towards these spheres as they moved across the screen with the visitor. When two or more visitors came into close proximity, their spheres merged and the distortion increased. This piece visualized and physicalized the phenomenon of relativity. Together the media elements brought the life and work of Einstein to life.

It was clear that video, interactives and installation pieces convey science concepts in new, engaging ways and compliment the artifacts and specimens on display. They inspire learning and creativity. Media also provide opportunities for visitors take part in the scientific process.

But where are we going now?

The Future of Media-Rich Museum Exhibits

Technology has advanced at lightening speed. AR and VR, big data, and tracking are all the buzz. Everyone wants the latest and the newest technology for their exhibits. But to what purpose? I am a total fan of using whatever the most effective tool is to tell the story, involve the visitor and explore the content. So a lot of experimenting needs to be done on the part of media producers to understand what affordances different technologies give us. Museum visitors used to be happy with seeing cool things and being told important information. Now they want to be transported, engaged and excited!

I’ve evolved as a storyteller and educator while working independently as the principal of GA Media Group and here as Creative Producer at the NYSCI. I’ve expanded my work from straightforward filmmaking and AV installations to include different kinds of narrative making: interactives, eBooks, iBooks, websites, apps, visitor programming around media installations and producing large interactive spaces to straight up filmmaking and AV installations. I’ve worked with some very talented creatives from whom I’ve learned a great deal.

At NYSCI we aim to engage our visitors in a process of exploration, play and experimentation that will spark their curiosity and inspire them to want to know more; a tall order for sure. Technology offers such amazing opportunities to engage visitors. But not on it’s own. We really dig in to understand how people learn through interaction, physical engagement and play. As a result, we create programming, exhibits and digital tools that incorporate the latest thinking about how people learn. We also design to reach the broadest audience possible, inviting in the youngest learners and but also scaffolding the experience to challenge older and more advanced visitors. Sometimes the best medium is the latest and greatest technology and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, there’s nothing like just sitting there and watching a good video.

I love getting people excited about stuff so that they leave an exhibition or digital experience with questions and a curiosity to learn more. I love seeing the ‘aha’ moment when a concept finally makes sense. I was sitting in Connected Worlds one day watching some families play around. After about 30 minutes, these kids had lined the logs up along the jungle habitat, blocking water from getting in or out. Slowly the groundwater ran out and trees were dying. The dad said, ‘what are you guys doing?’ One kid answered, ‘we’re trying to make it a desert’. I was blown away. They were about 9 years old and were really thinking about the processes at work in this exhibit. That felt great.

We need to understand a lot about the emerging technologies and how visitors can benefit from them. But this takes time and it takes research, prototyping and iteration – the kinds of practices we encourage. While it’s great to have ideals about learning and storytelling, the reality is we have budgets and schedules that limit us. Exhibits need to open, audience flow through matters, and exhibit maintenance needs to be funded. Technology especially is pretty expensive to keep up-to-date. So there’s this tension. We’ve gotten really good at prototyping and testing media ideas with our audiences, but VR and AR have different user experiences that are hard to prototype on paper. These technologies currently require a device of some kind, which raises issues of managing equipment and hygiene. Visitor tracking would be a cool device for the visitor to engage with content over the course of an exhibit experience in intriguing ways. It would also give us data on how visitors use exhibits. But it pushes against issues of privacy. Also, what do we use for tracking, is it sustainable? Do we need a large consumables budget? Not really fun, creative things to have to think about. But it’s our reality. It’s not to say we can’t do it, but we need to be thoughtful about it. And it’s worth it. Using technology, we can really engage reluctant learners and people with language barriers, as well as

Museums are already integrating technologies that people use day – GPS, streaming, AR for the iPhone, Google Cardboard. We use social media as a way to keep visitors engage after their trip here and to create a community for our audiences and teachers.

I think museums will continue to use existing technologies and incorporate new ones. The real evolution will be in how we use it all to connect with our audience. Keeping central what the experience gives them and gives us. There’s no lack of talented, smart people working in both the tech end and the visitor experience side.

Filament Asks: What’s the utopian vision for museum interactivity?

This was a hard question. Utopian. At first I thought – oh, it could all be virtual. Everything, everywhere connected and you can pull it all together, curate your own exhibit, access content from all over the world and make connections that weren’t thought of before. But that made me sad. The power of museums is that they are public spaces, social experiences. You can come alone and still be part of a group experience, even if you’re just watching and getting inspired by what the person next to you is doing or saying. I’ve seen this in action in Connected Worlds and Design Lab. Some kids will be struggling with something or just kind of sitting there. Then they’ll see someone do something and it sparks idea in them. Maybe they copy an idea then change it up and make it their own. Maybe they come up with an idea that totally goes in another direction. This kind of interaction to me is utopian. It’s magic.

About the Author:

After receiving a degree in Film and TV at Tisch School for the Arts at NYU, I went to LA to work in the film industry. After about 10 years, I was very dissatisfied with the opportunities for women in the 1980’s. I moved on to work in grassroots political organizations and then taught art and directed plays in a high school in an underserved area south of Central LA.

Before I left the American Museum of Natural History in 2005, I had traveled the world making videos for exhibitions. As the Director of Media Production for exhibitions I contributed to the design of several temporary and permanent exhibitions, produced over 80 video and audio installations, managed a video production team of 8 (producers, writers, various assistants) plus a group of interns and coordinated the efforts of the interactive and animation teams. It was a dream come true. But it got to a point where I wanted to strike out on my own, explore new ways to tell stories, in new places about new things.

Over the next several years as the principal of GA Media Group, I parlayed my experience at the American Museum into developing interpretive plans for museums and producing media and interactive experiences for art and history museums, state parks and tourism. Videos and interactives were must haves for every project.


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