Staying in the Here and Now: Spatial Literacy in Musuems

The second session I attended at the 2015 American Alliance of Museums was Spatially Literate Digital Experiences with Nathan Moody and Alan Maskin. The presentation opened with the picture of a musical swing set in Montreal, seen above, which shows consideration of spatially literate designs. In this exhibit the designers found an underused area and, understanding the desire for community involvement, created an interactive exhibit that was so popular it is now a permanent installation!

Spatially literate designs that carefully and purposefully incorporate the environment and create context-based experiences are becoming a challenge today because of the use of technology.

Like a visitor who is drawn to the swings, our experience often depends on the location. But, if we are engaged in a virtual world or looking down at our smart phone, we aren’t fully aware of our environment. To take that a step further, the use of fully immersive wearable technology can lead to a disconnect that causes us to feel lost or removed from our current place and time. As designers, we can avoid this detachment by making sure there is a seamless integration between the architectural, digital, and audio-visual designs. Digital design should enhance the experience as the prerecorded sounds did for the swings. Before beginning a design, we need to consider what a museum or exhibit visitor wants to do and see.

Learn more about the musical light swings at:

How Can We Create What a Visitor Wants to Experience?

Messrs. Moody and Maskin recommend creating a prototype of the display. Something as simple as a cardboard and duct tape model could be enough to test the visitor interaction and determine whether or not they want to see more.

The rapidly changing world of today’s interactive technology enables designers to control almost all aspects of the digital exhibit. In the past, designs had to be able to work on any computer the museum might have at hand because the cost of new computers was so high. That meant a lighting design might have been limited to the available computing power. With the cost of technology coming down, we can include the proper computing power in the exhibit design and have the ability to control all aspects of hardware, software, lighting, and functionality. Gone are the days of flat standard sized screens. We can wrap them around a column or create visually interesting geometries. Design doesn’t have to be limited to a single architectural location or kiosk; the whole building can become part of the exhibit itself, sensing and responding to the visitors.

Stay in the Here and Now, But Don’t Forget the Future

With the fast evolution of technology, no design can truly be “future ready”. While this may be one of the bigger challenges for designers, we can discuss how the exhibit will be refreshed. The panel suggested that a good rule of thumb is to refresh technology-based exhibits every 5 years. This guide is long enough to anticipate the technology and consider changes: Will there be a software or hardware update? A shift in the architecture style? How will the user interface change? Consider these questions from the standpoints of use, cost, and downtime.

If a change is planned in the general architecture of the space, then the team might consider simultaneously updating the digital exhibit. If the digital exhibit isn’t updated, it can create a cognitive dissonance that will detract from the visitors’ experiences. That cognitive dissonance takes us out of the space or experience and causes distance from the exhibit. While we endeavor to maintain our sense of space, community, and involvement through the digital experience, we must remember that the digital aspects must enhance and never detract from the experience.

Designer Takeaways

Jessica Clements, INCE

Jessica Clements, INCE

Senior Associate, Acoustical Consultant
Jessica has over 10 years of experience in architectural acoustics, sound isolation, theater design, mechanical system noise and vibration control, and acoustical testing. She has particular expertise in the fields of civic and cultural facilities, higher education, health care, and religious facilities. Email Jessica
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