A trip to the museum need never be 'boring' again since the introduction of high-tech displays and cutting-edge social networking systems, E&T discovers.
If your mental image of a museum involves dusty artefacts and crusty curators, it's time for a rethink. Museums across the globe are experimenting with the most innovative of new technologies - from the latest in high-tech displays to the most cutting-edge of social networking systems - in a bid to create experiences that both attract and involve their visitors.
The Science Museum in London, UK is well-known for its collection of industrial revolution relics. In the Energy Hall on the Ground Floor, the museum displays one of the earliest surviving Newcomen-style pumping engines and a working mill engine that a century ago harnessed the power of steam to drive 1,700 textile looms.
Look up and you'll see an energetic innovation very much of the 21st century. The 'Energy Ring' is a 13m-diameter annular display sizzling with words and graphic effects. Its circular shape echoes the spinning wheels of the mechanical dinosaurs two storeys below, providing a thematic and physical link with the museum's award-winning Energy Gallery upstairs. Since its opening in 2004, visitors to that gallery have been leaving comments and questions about energy - and it is these that are shown on the Energy Ring's unique wrap--around display consisting of 38,000 white LEDs.
This juxtaposition of venerable scientific heritage with the latest in contemporary technology is no accident, as Professor Tim Molloy, the museum's head of strategic design, explains. "We spend a lot of time seeking out cutting-edge technology," he says. "We aspire to be brave, finding new work and ways of applying it."
As part of the £3.2m Energy Project - incorporating the new Energy Gallery, resources for teachers and a refurbished roof - the Energy Ring involved a series of engineering challenges. Technographic Displays wrote a new piece of software capable of controlling the whole LED array simultaneously at a frame-rate of 200Hz. The aluminium alloy ring was fabricated in 16 sections and then welded together, creating a one-tonne structure that is hung from the Museum's roof using four 8mm-diameter steel cables.
According to Professor Molloy, the secret to successful innovation is a team with a collaborative spirit. The Energy Gallery's designers, Casson Mann, "scour the world looking for interesting young practitioners", says Prof Molloy. "No one person or company controls everything. It's a gamble."
Casson Mann's successful gambles continue to pay off. At the Churchill Museum in the Cabinet War Rooms, they created a rich interactive exhibition which uses innovative audio-visual techiques to tell Churchill's story. The display's centerpiece is the 'Lifeline Table' - a projected exhibit 15m long and 1.5m wide - with which up to 26 people can simultaneously interact. John Pickford of Casson Mann explains: "We wanted to display a selection of material from an archive of over one million documents. This digital archive allows access and contextualisation and avoids all the problems of showing real documents."
When visitors touch the sensitive strip at the exhibit's edge, the Lifeline brings up the documents, films, photographs and sounds relating to that date in Churchill's life. Key dates can also bring surprises. Touch 6 August 1945 - the date of the Hiroshima 'A' bomb, and visitors make the whole table flash white while triggering the noise of a sickening explosion. Armistice Day carpets the table in poppies, and if a visitor chooses the day the Titanic went down, everything goes suddenly watery.
The scale of the table gives an instant sense of Churchill's longevity and influence. But when people start interacting with the data, the exhibit comes into its own, provoking amusement, engagement and social interaction - all important aspects of a successful museum visit.
The approach taken at the Churchill Museum was anything but 'technology for technology's sake', according to Pickford. All the interfaces they chose for the project had a physical analogue relating to Churchill's own experiences in times long before the desktop PC.
"There were to be no mouse clicks," explains Pickford. "The interfaces are visitor-friendly: simple, intuitive and inviting, whether it is about rifling through papers, painting, looking through binoculars or voting."
A similarly intuitive - yet very clever - approach to presenting information is also the key to a new display technology that attracted much attention at the most recent Museums Association exhibition and conference in Liverpool. A specially-designed moving projection is beamed onto a 3D landscape giving an incredibly detailed, realistic vista that people can't help but explore.
"It's an intriguing trompe d'oeil: we're painting the 3D model with light," says Chris Walker, MD of Bright White, the company that came up with the concept of the projections while working for a Norwegian client. "We were trying to tell the story of the co-existence of the fishing industry, oil, agriculture and tourism for a visitors' centre in the Arctic Circle. An animated map gave us the chance to provide an interactive experience of a complex set of relationships."
It's a highly effective technique, but one that Walker insists is subservient to the all-important content. "Technology for the sake of it is not the solution," he warns. And time and time again, it's clear that the most successful museums are looking for ways in which technology can serve their crucial underlying goal - that of encouraging visitors to interact meaningfully with their content.
This needn't always involve installing big new high-tech exhibits or revamping older galleries with flashy touch-screen computers. Museums are also taking advantage of the options offered by hand-held gadgets to provide a subtle new layer of interactive content to their experiences.
Ookl learning service
Dan Phillips has developed a learning service using mobile phones called OOKL ('a new way of looking') that's now been used by over 15,000 students at venues from Kew Gardens to the National Maritime Museum.
He explains: "On school trips in the past, students made notes with pen and pencil then went home and wrote a report. Now, using mobile phones, students can collect pictures and sounds in response to a task."
Successfully stimulating tasks might include "imagine what it was like to be a child at war" or "find out what life was like as a slave". Information is uploaded automatically to a personal OOKL website that the students access later and turn into a multimedia presentation. To give additional richness of content, the venue pre-loads extra details about a selection of objects that the user can access either while in the gallery or when they visit the website later.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, students enjoy using the technology. They also "look with new eyes", says Phillips. "OOKL suits different learning styles because the technology allows you to speak, read, collect pictures or interview your friend about what you've seen."
OOKL has seen success with both hard-to-reach children and gifted-and-talented groups - and shows every sign of being suitable for general visitors, too. This upbeat assessment is confirmed by evaluation work with 11-14-year-olds who used OOKL at the National Maritime Museum (NMM). "All the learning outcomes we hoped for were achieved," reported Anna Salaman, head of formal learning at the NMM. "Students found using digital technology easier and more enjoyable than paper and clipboards, and the mobile phones played a key role in initiating and sustaining the creation and exchange of information."
A sustained exchange of information is exactly what museums and archives are trying to promote in another technological innovation. By using new social and networking technologies they are not only spreading knowledge of their collections but also enhancing them.
Flickr is a photo-sharing website set up in 2004 which now hosts billions of images. Many bloggers and enthusiasts use the site as an online photo album (it's free to upload 100MB of photos per month), tagging their photos to make them easy to find and for other users to locate and comment on.
In January 2008, Flickr launched a new project called 'the Commons'. It aimed to bring together public bodies willing to share their photo collections and then use the combined muscle of the website's visitors to improve the information available about those photos by allowing people to 'tag' them and add notes. The US Library of Congress participated in a pilot project aimed at increasing discovery and use of their considerable collections in a world where users can choose between an ever-growing range of online options for professional and private research projects.
Less than a year later, the Library of Congress reported that the Flickr community had viewed the photo collections they'd shared more than ten million times, and had provided original information that enhanced the official records of over 500 pictures - data that would have taken thousands of precious research hours to find otherwise. The availability of the photos on Flickr had driven 20 per cent more traffic to the Library's main website, and the overall project had shown benefits that "far outweigh the costs and risks".
In April 2008, Australia's Powerhouse Museum was the first museum to join the Commons, sharing historic images of Sydney and its surroundings. They made sure they 'geotagged' each of these pictures - adding geographical data so that the locations could be shown on a map. A few weeks later, a programmer combined the Powerhouse's historic map with Google Street View - which provides panoramic street-level vistas of towns and cities - to give then-and-now images side by side. Thus, research and display work which might previously have taken months of preparation was carried out with existing public data and a bit of nifty programming in less than half an hour.
Flickr Commons only allows institutions to share photos they don't mind the virtual community using as they wish - which means uploading pictures with no known copyright restrictions. From the other perspective, many museums make a good income out of selling high-quality images from their collections for publication, so most participating bodies make available only relatively low-resolution versions.
Taking Flickr and 'The Commons' global
The clever thing is, of course, that by sharing the images with the world, museums - like the Powerhouse - are creating a demand for their collections that might never otherwise have emerged. Meanwhile, the trend to join the Commons has now spread to museums, libraries and archives across Europe, Australasia and North America.
And, surprising though it might seem, we can expect to continue to find museums at the cutting edge of innovation, if Professor Molloy is right. "We spend a lot of time researching and evaluating how people respond," he says, noting that interactive display techniques in museums often appear in West End retail stores two or three years later.
"Museums are known as conservative - but we're actually much more likely to go out on a limb than the commercial world. We are a laboratory for new technologies."