The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10.
A few weeks ago, at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Conference, I attended a session titled ‘Not One Size: Interactivity at Small, Medium, and Large Museums.’ A panel of museum professionals at museums of each of these sizes outlined multiple types of interactive elements in their museums, describing the context and use of each. While many of us are familiar with interactive elements in museum exhibitions, I found this panel helpful in that it categorized a few different types of these elements and provided simple examples for producing them in museums with a variety of available resources. That being said, I thought I would relay some of their key points to you all!
Touchable Objects: While this is often difficult in museums, touching authentic objects is a great way to enrich the visitor experience. The biggest difficulties it provides involve collections management issues such as cleaning and durability. Important questions to consider include: where and how are people touching? Is there a way to protect a part of the object while allowing visitors to touch a less valuable part of it? The example given by the panel was of an original Apple 1 computer that is encased. Visitors are able to use an Apple 2 computer keyboard, which is much more replaceable, and still get the experience of manipulating the screen of an Apple 1.
Consumable Materials and Loose Parts: Benefits of these interactive elements include the ability of any staff member to easily replace cheap parts. These materials may not be as impactful as authentic, touchable objects, but they can still greatly enhance the visitor experience. A couple examples given at the session include drawing materials and fur pelts.
Social Interaction: This category refers to interactive elements that may or may not include objects but always involve interaction between visitors. Examples of this type include dance sections, lounges with conversation cards, a reproduced 1980’s living room, and a social engineering challenge.
Visitor Response: We are likely all very familiar with this type of interactive element – just think post-it notes. These spaces allow visitors to contribute their own ideas, opinions, or data in response to a prompt and can be done in many effective and creative ways.
Circularity: This can be a trait within multiple types of interactive elements and refers to the capability of an activity to reset itself for new visitors. One example provided by the panel was of a life-size buffalo puzzle. Visitors explore all the organs of buffalo and how they fit together. While this doesn’t reset itself per se, it is equally as fun for visitors to ‘unpack’ the buffalo as it is to put it back together. Thus, it resets itself in that it can be done effectively at whatever stage the previous visitor leaves it at.
Rock Paper Scissors Principle: Finally, the panelists provided an easy way to remember a common-sense concept; that is, that the most robust part of an interactive activity will degrade the least robust part. When thinking about durability, think about what element is the rock, or the paper, or the scissors, and where they are placed within the entire piece. That mental labeling can help construct a more economical, long-lasting activity.