Digital Exhibits, Physical Spaces

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This week I took a trip to the International Museum of Surgical Science, notable for its implementation of an Encurate-powered phone app. The app seeks to improve the experience of the patron, by offering more ways to engage with the exhibits and better organize the visit. As such, I felt it accomplished this goal rather well.

One fairly simple but strong feature was the capability to highlight certain objects. Much like a curated exhibit in Omeka that draws from the larger archive of materials to highlight a narrative, the app enabled the creation of ‘tours’ that highlighted individual objects in the various rooms that might otherwise have been overlooked. This feels well-targeted to the more casual patron, who may not be interested in examining all the displays in depth but wants to see particular highlights, or at least those objects that relate to their interests.

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But expanding on this concept, the most interesting usage of the application was the capability to overlay an additional level of meaning on top of the standard information the museum was trying to convey. Through the same ‘tours’ functionality, the app allowed users to get information on the history of the mansion itself, and hear more about what the exhibit rooms used to be when it was originally in use as a home. (At times the juxtaposition is striking… You can read about one room being a child’s bedroom, only to look up and see floor-to-ceiling paintings of a rather visceral cesarean section.)

This is strictly additive content — none of the information could be found in the exhibits themselves (nor should it have been, as it didn’t deal with surgical science). But that kind of augmented reality experience offers a new dimension to the museum visit, and most clearly demonstrates a purpose for the app that could not have been experienced in another way. If the previous usage benefited casual visitors, this functionality is aimed at those who want more exhaustive information, those who might be visiting a second or third time, and those who are less interested in surgical science than other aspects of the space.

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In terms of a museum-level experience, the app felt useful and valuable. At first I didn’t have an understanding of how it worked, and the flow of information felt overwhelming as I felt I was missing its prompts, but once I grasped the overall flow, the app integrated well into my trip through the exhibits. That being said, there also seems to be room for improvement. There are currently four tours available, but there could conceivably be more, particularly targeted to different interests / ages / experience levels (though I do not fall into the category, I think a tour with much more technical information aimed at patrons who were physicians would be applicable and well-used).

There’s also an opportunity to engage at a more individual-exhibit level. The app had the capability to ‘like’ certain parts of the museum, but I didn’t figure out exactly how to use it. It seemed to only apply to the preselected bits of info collected into the tours. Instead, having the ability to take a picture of an object or exhibit in conjunction with the app would be interesting; particularly if the user could then see further detailed information on it, ‘like’ or save it for future consideration, and even share it on social media. Opening the app up to a broader usage than just the predetermined tours allows the visitor greater agency, and in conjunction, better engagement. (Such usage would probably require additional technical considerations, but doesn’t seem outside the scope of current technology)

Overall, however, the app feels like a very strong first step to bridge the divide between traditional museums and the daily technological usage of the average American. Rather than being a mere distraction or novelty, there’s genuine promise in the integration of this digital tool with the material objects and space.

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