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When I decided to critique the British Museum’s website, I didn’t expect the breadth of material geared towards children. There is an entire section, titled “Young Explorers“, dedicated to the museum’s younger audience. There are 4 main categories in the Young Explorer section; Create, Play, Discover, and Post. This is the most extensive kids page I’ve ever seen on a museum’s website. I can see kids spending hours on the website and not running out of new things to try. Most of the material on the website is educational and successfully teaches about objects in the collection. Information is presented in multiple ways to  appeal to multiple intelligences. The goal of putting this resource online may have been to reach out to children who could not visit in person. It allows kids to explore the museum’s collection from home. Children usually visit the museum with an adult, so they may not be able to get to the museum on their own even if they’re interested in visiting. On the other had, many kids would not be excited to be dragged to a museum by their parents. Playing games and doing activities from the website may get them excited before a visit to the museum. By creating a connection with the objects before the child visits, the website is building anticipation for what can be seen in person during a museum visit.

Create is a section with outlines of activities and crafts kids can try at home. Exciting activities include creating a cuneiform tablet, making a prop from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and cooking ancient Greek porridge. Each activity relates to an object in their collection. The activities can be done at home, and a brief interpretation is given along with instructions. Out of all the sections this one had the least amount of interpretation and at times I found myself questioning what would be learned from certain activities. However this may be the best way of learning for kinesthetic learners and also offers more of an opportunity for families and kids to learn together. If I could change one thing about the site, I would offer more opportunities for kids and parents to play together.

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Play is a section with online games. I tried out three games and was more satisfied with some than others. The Explorer is a game that allows you to learn about the collection travelling “back in time for the ultimate adventure” and to save relics of the past. Little or Large is a game that asks you t guess an objects size in comparison to your own height. It starts off by asking you to enter your own height and then gives an introduction about how the size of some objects can be surprisingly large or tiny. I can see this being a fun game for younger children and adults. However it only included 3 very large objects from the collection and I felt could have used more variation. The last game I tested was The Great Dig which was supposed to put you in the role of an archaeologist digging up ancient artifacts. As a former archaeology major I had high hopes. Unfortunately this was the least user friendly of the games. There were no instructions and the game wasn’t very intuitive even for someone with background knowledge of archaeology. The game didn’t teach about the archaeological process, but it did teach about objects from the collection as they are dug up. All the games accomplished teaching kids about the objects from the collection and the civilizations they came from. More attention was obviously given to developing some of these games than others. I would improve by at least giving clear instructions for each game. I also think that this would be a good section to create more games that children can play with their parents or a friend since museums are often a social experience.

The Discover section had information presented in many different ways. An interactive world map showed where objects in the collection came from; Images of sculptures could be rotated and zoomed into for a closer look; Museum staff provided interpretation on various topics through brief videos. The developers of this website obviously put a lot of thought into the many different ways they could present information. With all the various media and techniques used, there is something engaging for every type of learner.

The last section, post is simply a place for kids to post whatever they’d like to share with staff and other museum visitors. Kids can send images of activities and projects they’ve completed inspired by the British Museum. They can also look through what other kids have submitted. It is a great way for young visitors to have a voice and feel some ownership of the museum. Children like to be recognized and contribute to the site. Hopefully this sense of ownership will motivate them to become lifelong learners and supporters of the museum.

 

On our most recent visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, my brother, Kenrick, and I stumbled upon an immersive exhibit on New England Forests. Multi-sensory media was used to recreate the experience of walking through an old growth forest. Few New Englanders have ever had the opportunity to walk through an old growth forest. Through a video in the exhibit we learned something that shocked even my zoologist brother. Today, old growth forests make up only 0.2% of forested land in New England.

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Walking into the gallery we were transported into the past. An old growth forest would have been a common scene for the English colonists that first settled in Massachusetts in the 1600s, but is hard to imagine for someone who has never experienced one. Visiting a museum with a knowledgeable companion is always more enjoyable, which is why I decided to bring my brother along for this visit. He was able to tell me about the species of plants and animals, once common in New England, which we seldom see today. One of these is the American chestnut tree, which once blanketed the landscape. The tactile exhibit invited visitors to feel what the bark of these trees would feel like. There were also rocks, plants, and some stuffed animals that could be touched. Glass ponds with fish looked so life like I had to touch them to determine if there was really water there. My favorite detail was the soundtrack they played over the loudspeakers to mimic the sounds of an old growth forest. Kenrick was able to identify some of the bird calls for me, and we later found examples of them in the collection.

The exhibit did a good job of both creating a personal connection to the resource, and informing visitors how they could help preserve old growth forests. If the information on how to help were given without first creating an engaging and immersive forest atmosphere, I doubt I would have felt as strong of an urge to learn about and protect old growth forests.

I can think of few ways to improve this exhibit. The only thing I might suggest is to find ways of engaging the senses which were not already. Smell and taste are the only senses that weren’t a part of this immersive environment. The museum staff may want to avoid using taste for safety reasons, but smell is becoming more commonly used in sensory exhibits. If they could find a way to recreate the smells of old growth forests, it would be one step closer to experiencing the real thing.

Sacred Pages: Conversations about the Qur’an

Earlier this week I came across a facebook post by Denali National Park of a youtube video promoting their online distance learning programs. Their free programs are designed to meet national teaching standards and are appropriate for students in grades K – 12. As part of each program the students schedule a free 60-minute interactive conference with a park ranger via skype. What makes these programs successful is that they are interactive- students actually get to meet virtually with someone at the park- and it utilizes a variety of media appropriate to the topic. There are pre-visit and post-visit activities and a wealth of online resources for the teacher to use in class in addition to the visit if they choose. These additional resources alone would be fodder for hours of engaging classroom activities. For a park like Denali, this is a logical use of technology. Most classes can’t make the trip to Alaska. In fact, Alaskan parks are among the least visited in the National Park system. At a time when many museum professionals are afraid that putting too much online will deter visitors from coming, Denali rangers are trying to create an online experience that can substitute an in-person visit. They would agree with Nancy Cutler when she said “Museums have a limited impact when their audience is confined to the people who visit within their walls. Extending beyond the museum walls into the community to demonstrate why your museums matters can benefit both the museum and the community in innumerable ways.” They know an online visit never really could replace the real thing, but Denali staff have brought as much of the park as possible to students.

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Two programs were being offered when I visited their site on September 13. One of their programs Denali: The High One (Geology of the Mountain) is designed for 4th-6th grade. This program “focuses on the dynamic geologic processes – subduction, uplift and erosion – that created North America’s tallest mountain. Students investigate why Denali is so big, how it influences the weather, and whether glaciers are succeeding at making the mountain smaller”. There is a pre-visit activity which takes an hour, and the conference itself is also an hour. Besides those two components the rest is optional. Optional resources inclue a post-visit acitvity, panoramic views of the park, and a 4 minute video “Climbing Denali”. The Science of Sled Dogs is a biology program for 3rd-5th grade about Denali’s famous dog-sled team. Like the other program it includes a 1 hour pre-visit activity and a 1 hour skype conference with a park ranger. What I want to know is, do you get to skype with the dogs too? Fans of Denali National Park may already be familiar with their live “puppycam” and a video series called “puppy paws” all about the sled dog puppies who are born and raised at Denali National Park. There are few students, or adults who wouldn’t find these videos engaging.

Since my first visit to their site last week, they have added yet another distance learning program to their offerings, Ask An Alaskan- Living and Working in Alaska.The program is appropriate for K-12 grade and can be on any topic. The idea behind this program is to skype with an Alaska resident and have the class ask them anything and everything about Alaska. This program seems underdeveloped, but that is most likely because it was only added to the site a few days ago. I would like to see more information about which standards it meets. I would also expect additional teacher resources and a more detailed description of the program. The description is very vague and it seems as if the program was not fully developed before being put online.

The only suggestion for improvement I would make is to keep registration information updated. When I visited their site 4 days ago, it included information on how to register for a program for the Fall 2012 semester. Today the registration information has already been updated to reflect the 2013-2014 school year. The information should have been updated sooner for teachers looking to plan further in advance. Beside that small complaint, I am impressed by the scope of Denali’s online offerings. Their program design is innovative and something I hope to see more of. This type of program isn’t right for everyone, but is perfect for places like Denali. This is a creative solution for National Parks that everyone has heard of, but few can get to (ie. The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Ellis Island, etc.)

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Last Wednesday I visited the MFA’s Hippie Chic exhibit with my fiance. The exhibit features a collection of “hippie” fashion from the 1960s and 70s. One piece of technology, a jukebox, caught my attention. It was the sole interactive, placed at the exhibit entrance. A confused crowd congregated around it. No music came from the ancient machine. While this was certainly not “new” technology, it was a memorable media moment worth mentioning. I would argue that this media is so old, it was new again for many of the visitors.

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To see a jukebox in a museum was a fresh and original experience. It has been years since I’ve seen one anywhere, but I’ve never found one operating in a museum before. I suspect the goal of adding this technology was to create an ambiance  For visitors old enough to remember, it incited a sense of nostalgia. For younger visitors, it immersed them in the past through touch and sound. Many teens who had never used a jukebox before lined up and experimented with pressing buttons to try to make the machine work. The music of Jimi Hendrix filled the gallery, creating an atmosphere that complimented the collection. However, this experience was still unsuccessful and inaccessible for several reasons.

IMG_3094One reason is that it competed with the objects on display. A common pitfall of exhibit design is adding technology for technology’s sake. Paul Orselli put it eloquently when he said “too often the siren song of technology becomes louder than the voice of the exhibit content itself”. If I had not been waiting in anticipation of my song coming on, I would not have spent as much time in the exhibit. The text panels were not engaging and there were no other interactives in the entire exhibit.

Another reason this media moment was unsuccessful was that few visitors could operate the machine. For younger generations instructions would have been helpful. The area around the jukbox became very congested because it took a long time for some visitors to figure out how to make a song selection. When they finally did make a selection, they were upset that their song didn’t come on immediately and complained to staff that it was broken. Generations accustomed to the instant gratification of an ipod playlist did not expect that they would have to wait through everyone else’s previous selections to hear their song. Finally, the machine was actually broken when we arrived, and it took a while before staff members noticed and fixed it.

This media moment could have been executed more successfully if instructions were provided, and it wasn’t the sole interactive in the gallery. Improvement could be made by including ways for visitors to interact with the collection more. For example, text labels could have been written in a more conversational tone to encourage the reader to look more closely at the object. Other types of media could have been used to create interactives focused on hippie fashion. For example, an app where visitors get to design their own hippie fashion. This would have been a more successful use of technology because it would have helped visitors connect with the object. If other opportunisties for interaction had been provided then the jukebox wouldn’t steal the spotlight. However, the technology they chose competed with the rest of the exhibit, and seemed like a last minute attempt to make the exhibit interactive. Read more