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Designing Interactive Museum Exhibits: Three Ways to Increase Audience Engagement

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Museums are increasingly creating interactive exhibits as a way to increase audience engagement. This raises a natural question: What are the elements of an exhibit that prompt visitor interaction?

An observation of Animation, an exhibit that was developed by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and has recently opened at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) suggests some general principles that will be helpful to all museums as they build interactive exhibits. The purpose of this exhibit is "to explore animation from concept to finish product -from storyboarding, character design, and drawing techniques, to movement, timing, filming and sound."

As noted by Eric Siegel, Director and Chief Content Officer at NYSCI, Animation is characterized by a theme that is appealing, science learning that connects well with the theme, and engaging interactives. Observing Animation allows one to extract some general principles for interaction design in the museum context.

Allow for Social Interaction Among Visitors
Planning the Action is one of the activity areas that allow for social interaction. It focuses on helping visitors understand the technique of "pixilation" -- a type of animation in which actors take a series of different positions in front of the camera for one of several shots. To create this animation, visitors enter a stage-like contained space and watch a countdown that alerts them of the beginning of the shooting session. Each of the poses is captured by a camera and is instantly displayed on a monitor. The resulting animation can be seen on a screen after the visitors exit the booth. It was interesting to see how this activity encouraged social interaction. Visitors, consistently experienced this activity as a group and preferred poses that involved interaction with others. This behavior seemed to be influenced by the stage-like setting, but also by the feedback they were receiving -- i.e., as I mentioned earlier, each of their poses was instantly displayed. This immediate feedback encouraged visitors to communicate with distinct body movements from one shot to the next, thus, engaging in some sort of silent conversation.

Involve Physical Activity
In Visual Effects, visitors explore the "bullet time" effect, a visual effect in which actors hover in midair as if time stands still. This effect is achieved by several cameras taking pictures of an actor in action, in quick succession and from many angles. In this activity, visitors are instructed to "do something-jump, skip, hop, or whatever!" The animation that is created based on the visitors' physical activity can be seen on a large screen. This activity involved a full-body interactive experience that was very appealing to visitors. They would "perform" again and again after seeing the animation. Learning through physical activities and play increased visitors' involvement and made this activity fun and engaging.

Give the Audience Flexible Goals

The Stop Motion Animation activity area involves three-dimensional objects. In stop-motion animation, objects are photographed continuously after being slightly moved between consecutive frames. The goal is to make these objects appear as if they move on their own. In the Stop Motion Animation activity area, participants move around objects on a flat board to create various scenes. Each one of these scenes can be photographed by the press of a button. After a series of photographs of these scenes are taken, they are played back on a screen as an animation. For this activity, participants are encouraged to think of additional objects that can be used in creating the scenes. These open-ended instructions involved a set of given objects but also allowed visitors to involve personal objects in each scene to create their own story. This flexible goal increased visitors' involvement in the process and allowed them to create unique stories that they could see on the screen.

Building interactive exhibits can be a powerful tool to build visitor engagement. Identifying the factors that make them successful can significantly contribute to a museum's long-term relationship with the visitors.