Interaction is a key-word in exhibition planning today. But what do we want the museum visitors to interact with? The museum personnel, the information communicated by the exhibition, the technology or the other visitors?
One week ago I visited the new national centre of pop and rock in Trondheim, Norway, called Rockheim. Here you can, among other activities, visit an exhibition about Norwegian pop and rock from the 50s till today. The exhibition depends heavily on technology and the visitors interact with different kinds of screens in different kinds of ways, to get to know the history of norwegian pop and rock, which is told mainly by music videos, photos and newspaper articles. The exhibition opens up a lot of interesting topics, and I will probably write more about it in oncoming posts, but now I will use my experience of the exhibition to describe the above mentioned kinds of interaction.
Interaction with the museum personnel
At Rockheim they have made a quite brave choice by not adding any explanatory text to the media installations. This can be experienced as something negative, because you feel quite stupid when you don't understand what to do. But, this has led to a lot of interaction between the museums personnel, walking around with their blue t-shirts, and the visitors, because most visitors have to be explained how the different installations work, something I find very positive. I think it really does something with the ambience in the museum. What is more scary than the silent museum guard sitting on his chair in the corner, just watching? The last year I have been working at the Karen Blixen Museum outside Copenhagen. Here the museum guards let the visitors in to Karen Blixen's private rooms every half hour, and give a short introduction to the museum before the visitors can walk around on their own. This means that I say hello to each and every guest, and, because the doors have to be locked all time, I say goodbye when unlock the door and let the visitors out. I think this contact between the museum personnel and the visitors does something for the visitors experience of the museum. Both at the Karen Blixen Museum and at Rockheim this contact happens because of an inconvenience, a locked door and unclear technology, but the result, the interaction between museum personnel and visitor, I see as an advantage.
Interaction with the technology
It is fun to visit Rockheim, it is like getting a taste of how we in the future will be interacting with technology. You move in front of a screen, and the picture breaks like glass in small pieces and a music video starts. Or you point with a laser pen on a circle on a map and the picture on a TV-screen changes, when you point at another circle, another town on the map, another TV-screen reacts. Some of the installations at Rockheim gave me the feeling of only interacting with the technology, with this I mean that I only tried it to see what happened, not because I wanted to read more or wanted to see a new music video. The way the technology worked was the main entertainment. If you are interacting with the technology or the information depends of course on what your interests are, but it must be the goal of the curator to make people be interested in the information. I guess in most cases the interaction is included to make people get more information, not to make them learn about new technologies, except where the exhibition is about technology.
Interaction with the other visitors
Museums are often thought of as public meeting places, and maybe there is a wish from the museum that the visitors interact with each other. At Rockheim there are possibilities for interaction between the visitors, but I think it works best with the ones you know. There are lots of places where there is room for more than one participant at the time, but nowhere do you need to be more than one to handle the installation. This means you only interact with other visitors if you want to, and therefore probably just with the one you are coming with. Then, it must be said that I was there on a quiet day, so this may change if there is really crowded and and you can't have an installation to your self. Also because the installations are difficult to understand you might start a conversation with some of the other visitors to find out what to do. Again, I think that people talking together in the museum is a good thing for the ambience, but it is not often you see exhibitions where interaction between the visitors is an important aspect.
Interaction with the information
This might be the most common goal when curators includes an interactive element in an exhibition. Every museum want the visitors to actively engage with the information the exhibition present. Interaction with information can happen on different levels. For example it could be that the visitors contribute to the information, by writing messages to the museum or the other visitors. Another example can be when the visitor actively think something about what is communicated and act on this by choosing one specific topic to learn more about or when the visitor has to do something to get more information, and is focused on the information and not on the technology. Even though I some times felt I just interacted with the technology at Rockheim, I mostly felt I interacted with the information. One particular successful installation is a band bus, a room decorated like the interior of a band bus, with screens in front and on the sides acting like windows where you can watch the scenery the bus is "driving" through. Here you can sit in a good chair and read an electronic magazine. By touching the pictures in the magazine a music video starts in the "window" next to your seat, and you listen to the music through a headset. Even though the technology is very good, the content is more interesting. And most important, you get the impression that the technology is chosen to suit the content, not the other way around.