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Science in Museums: Planning and Development of a Digital Gallery Guide

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on February 8, 2014 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Cira Brown

I am in currently in the midst of a project at the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University as part of my fellowship, but I thought it would be useful to write about some of my experiences. My primary responsibility has been the planning and development of digital gallery guide for our upcoming exhibition on the cultural history of anatomy. The curatorial team has defined 3 major thematic narratives (Preparation, Practice and Afterlife) as well as 3 key time periods (roughly, the 16th, 19th and 20th Centuries).

The guide will be distributed as an app (for both Apple and Android devices) and a website. It will contain approximately 25 discrete digital “features” that expand on existing content in the gallery. Visitors will access these features through corresponding numbers on labels (similar to an audio guide).

(I called these digital components “features”, to avoid confusion with the “sections” and “subsections” of the gallery arrangement; when building supplemental material in tandem with exhibition planning, things get confusing very quickly!)

Each feature will contain at least one of the following functionalities:

  • interpretive content (e.g. further explanation of a concept or object)
  • image galleries / video (e.g. expanded media related to gallery content)
  • translated or annotated text (e.g. descriptive key for an image)
  • featured quotations (e.g. documents, academic analysis or commentary)
  • contextual timeline (e.g. historical background for a particular topic)
  • external links (e.g. museum, academic, government or news sources)

I selected the subject matter of each feature based on the following criteria:

  • equal distribution across the exhibition’s time periods and themes
  • inclusion of media that we do not have room for in the gallery
  • noteworthy digital resources of academic origin
  • additional perspectives of existing content in label copy
  • topics that I feel are relevant and will interest visitors
  • depictions that lend themselves well to the app format

Based on these considerations, here is a preliminary grid of all of of my features, using the 3 main thematic narratives and time periods as organizing parameters:

  Click for full view.

As I’ve been immersed in planning (and now creating) this gallery guide over the past couple of months, I’ve found it to be an extremely insightful way to engage with both the topic of our exhibition and the process of developing it into a show. Designating educational goals in history of science exhibitions is challenging, as there is often a large amount of scientific and technical context associated with each object (as well as the historical narrative and tangible attributes inherent in each artifact). Even with the gallery guide, selecting content requires careful curation, even though I’ve designed it to serve as an extension of the material in the gallery. Viewing the features as a simply as space for content “overflow” is imprecise. Selecting content has been a continual exercise in ensuring the features are relevant to the main exhibition themes, but not redundant or overly tangental.

I used the curatorial team’s existing object list as a starting point for planning the content of my gallery guide, assigning each feature on my guide an “anchor object”. Starting with a general theme, I’ve defined discrete issues and “take-away” points for each feature as well as the requisite technological considerations needed to implement them. I’ve organized each feature into distinct “content”, “rationale” and “functionality” components, both for ease of communication to the rest of the team and to keep myself on task and organized. Since visitors will access each feature through corresponding numbers on labels (similar to an audio guide), I’ve also defined each associated label for the corresponding feature reference number, so the exhibition designer knows where to allocate space. Here’s an example from my planning document that shows this organizational structure:

  Click for full view.

My planning document ended up being 11 pages! However, I felt this depth of organization was essential in order to keep everything organized in my mind, as well as consistently communicate my plans to the team.

Now to make it come to life! A very busy month awaits me. And a shout-out to Tufts student (and fellow Science In Museums columnist!) Kacie Rice for contributing to the content of this digital gallery guide as well!

 

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