08/15/2013 03:11 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2013

Open Source Collaboration in Museum Exhibit Design

In the last few years, audience participation and collaboration has been an increasingly discussed topic among museum professionals worldwide. Emerging technologies and the open source movement provide an opportunity for new forms of collaboration, namely collaboration among individuals with different areas of expertise using an online platform. In this blog post, I briefly describe two open source initiatives that focus on collaboration in Museum Exhibit Design, and share my conversation with Bob Ketner, an independent curator and an expert on open source collaboration methods, who was actively involved in both initiatives.

Open Exhibits
Open Exhibits, an initiative sponsored by the National Science Foundation, is a multi-touch, multi-user tool kit for creating custom interactive exhibits. The tool kit is free to museums, educators and non-profit institutions. In addition to offering this tool kit, Open Exhibits aims to create an online community for learning about emerging technologies and best practices in exhibit development. Earlier this summer, Open Exhibits organized the Human Computer Interaction in Informal Science Education Conference (HCI+ISE). The (HCI+ISE) Conference was sponsored by Intel, and brought together exhibit designers, developers, researchers, and educators to discuss the challenges and opportunities museums are facing in the development of technology-based exhibitions.

The Tech Open Source
The Tech Open Source was founded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and is hosted by the Tech Museum of Innovation. It is an open design platform where museums can post a request describing their needs for exhibits or programs, and a global network of designers and creative professionals can contribute their ideas and solutions. The goal of the Tech Open Source is to leverage the latest tools in the creation of museum content. For museums, the Tech Open Source provides insights and solutions from a large pool of experts that will help them to develop existing projects. For designers, developers, and creative professionals, it is an opportunity for networking and portfolio building. Institutions that have participated in the Tech Open Source community include the Smithsonian, the New York Hall of Science, the MIT Museum, the Liberty Science Center, and the Science Centre Singapore.

Bob, what are some examples of emerging technologies that offer considerable promise for open source collaboration in Museum Exhibit Design?

Lilia, when The Tech Open Source was started it focused on the emerging technology of virtual world platforms. Specifically, it centered on the environment of Second Life in which 3D objects can be built and modified in real time by teams based in the same room, or spread across continents. So, that environment allows creatives and curators to prototype exhibits or entire galleries. See for example, Prototype an Interactive Exhibit Using On-line Tools.

Another technology, which emerged during this time, has been the amazingly increased quality of smartphone cameras and the capacity for video editing. This enabled dozens of independent videographers and informal science educators to create content for use in museums. This resulted in collaboration for content at The Tech Museum, e.g., the Microchip Clips project, and a multi-museum participatory exhibition at Arts Santa Monica in Barcelona called Science of the City.

Other interesting technology for museums includes Eyewriter which itself is open source. Museums are increasingly interested in knowing exactly where visitor attention is focused, and eye-tracking is being used to learn more about this. Pixel turned this into an experiential exhibit. Like the Open Exhibits software modules, Eyewriter may find lots of museum applications.

What are the main strengths and challenges of open source collaboration in Museum Exhibit Design?

One of the strongest points of developing with an open approach comes by simply having a diversity of ideas and input. It's a proven fact that having a truly open channel of ideas augments the design process immensely. Another strength is that museums, as community institutions, can build interest in their exhibition topics through participation and collaboration with the outside. The Tech Open Source documented a structured way to do this on a large scale.

Challenges come because a museum does need certain resources to be open or to use open source software. That's what we found through a project entitled Open Innovation and Open Source: A Guide for Content Developers. That an institution needs a dedicated staff member or at least a community manager to hoist the open innovation flag. Using an open source approach really requires a cultural change at the highest level, and this means a change in thinking, not in words.

The field is also very competitive for grants and funding. This means a lot of projects are secretive, and not open at all. For museums that view their purpose primarily as entertainment venues, there's probably less willingness to allow outsiders "behind the curtain" of the production process.

So these are some challenges. But, in short, the digital and open transformation that is upending every sector of the economy is only beginning to be experienced in the museum sector. Hold on to your hats.

How should museums deal with the unpredictable nature of emerging technologies that are often involved in open source collaboration in Museum Exhibit Design?
The important thing is to use your imagination. We live by the motto "fail early, fail often". Try on new ideas. Never be afraid of change. Even the most informed ideas about the future are, at best, about 50 percent right and 50 percent wrong. With technology, we live on these day-to-day guesses about how it might all play out.

Thank you.