Use of computer interactives in museums

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: At The Museum, Date: 30 Sep 2009

Results from the 2009 survey on computer-based exhibits now available on Open Exhibits website.

Jim Spadaccini says: "The results of our 2009 survey on computer-based exhibits are now available on the Open Exhibits Website. We received 150 responses from individuals from museums and educational organizations around the world.On the Open Exhibits website you can filter the results by "small" and "large" museums and by informal science education specific organizations."

Key findings (from their website):

  • 26% of all respondents and 35.6% of respondents from small institutions produce no interactive computer-based exhibits per year, on average.
  • 77% of respondents rate their organizations interest in improving its overall capacity to develop computer-based interactives in house as "interested" to "very interested."
  • 87.8% of respondents rate the popularity of computer-based exhibits with their visitors as "popular" to "very popular."

Very interesting. I'm wondering, however, whether computer interactives in exhibitions as we know them have had their day? Visitors I speak to want us to go back more to our collections and objects, and with the tightened financial circumstances do we have the resource to develop these? For example, the games I play with my 14 year old on Xbox far exceed anything we could ever offer in the museum.



Lynda Kelly - 4.10 PM, 29 October 2009
Thnx Glenn. I couldn't agree more with you about looking in the gaming arena. DEMOS (the UK think tank) published a great report called "Their Space - Education for a digital generation" which has a whole chapter devoted to how gaming provides great skills for people. That report can be downloaded here: There is also the Pew Internet (US) publication called "Teens, Video Games and Civics" that outlines what's happening in that genre too. It can also be downloaded here:
Glenn - 2.10 PM, 27 October 2009
If you're playing on XBox then perhaps your options are limited. In the on-line PC environement things are very different, as many 14 year olds will tell you. Many PC multiplayer games - particularly FPS ones - now have editing software available for building maps and different environments to share with friends. Like social networking systems, it's the basic tools for interaction that are important, then you surrender the content to user. Museums who are interested in dabbling in this environment need to change their thinking - yet again - don't consider delivering fully formed games with predetemined outcomes. Develop the tools and see where you users take them! I wonder how many museums sent representatives to London's Games Conference last week. According to the National Gamers Survey UK, "55 per cent of the UK population plays games on consoles and 35 per cent state they play PC games. 27 per cent of UK console players state they download levels or complete games via their console, almost all have experienced paying for this ... 19 per cent of the UK population plays games on their mobile phone. 44 per cent actually downloads new games and pays directly via their handset. The enormous reach of casual game portals – used by 32 per cent of the total UK population – is due to the fact most games are free, but 20 per cent of UK game portal players state they spend money on the portal. In the US this is even higher, at 33 per cent. Paid subscriptions are the most popular in both countries but already six per cent of all UK and US game portal players frequently buy premium games online". If museums want to see where the trends are being set then perhaps it's time to step outside the hallowed halls.
Lynda Kelly - 5.10 PM, 14 October 2009
Thnx Michael - all great points.
Michael Harvey - 11.10 PM, 12 October 2009
Hiya. I think it's also worth considering the contexts. When you play a computer game, you're at home - possibly by yourself, possibly with a couple of friends sharing your sofa and the Xbox, or possibly with loads of friends/opponents online. You concentrate very closely on just the game, so the gameplay and cinematography absolutely define the experience. When you are exploring a museum interactive, even a gamey one, you're in quite a different place - physically and headspace. You're surrounded by the 'theatrical set' of the exhibition, the other visitors, and - yes - those specimens/objects. For me, the interesting thing to explore further is how the computer interactives can work with those things to enhance the exhibition as a whole. Check out the 'Jurascope' exhibit at the Natural History Museum, Berlin ( - one of my favourite examples. The interactive takes the specimen, in context, then does something dramatic with it that you can only do with a computer. Similarly, the 'World Leader' interactive in our Climate Change exhibition ( used the context of the exhibition and the presence of other visitors - either your friends or complete strangers. It played with the complexities of global decision-making in a 5-15 minute experience (ideal for an exhibition) rather than the 5-15 hour experience that is Civilisation IV (ideal for insomnia). Both are fun in their own context - and wouldn't work in the other's place. But maybe we should set up a Civ IV machine in our next ancient world cultures exhibition and see what happens :-)
Lynda Kelly - 2.10 PM, 02 October 2009
Thnx for this Catherine. I also agree about the use of this technology for giving layered informtaion. Visitors have been wantig ways to get at more info *if they so choose* for a long time and computer technology enables this. The table in our Surviving Australia exhibition is certainly amazing but I guess my point is a cost-benefit one. Of course the visitor experience and engagaemnet is the key criteria as you rightly point out.
Catherine Cooper - 10.10 AM, 01 October 2009
There is no doubt that home computer games are far more sophisticated than anything we would ever have the money to develop in a Museum context. But I don't think this means we need to ditch computer interactives altogether. We just need to think about what we are trying to do with them. For example, one thing a simple touch screen display can achieve is information delivery - just images, text, audio and/or video. This is using the computer as a way of hiding information so that visitors who want to dig deeper can do it, without overwhelming those who don't want to see reams of text etc on the walls in more static displays. It is not really an 'interactive', but they are pretty cheap and easy to do these days. Another way to go is to look at things that are totally different from the home computer game - bigger scale, different interfaces, immersive. This kind of exhibit is still a draw to visitors, and can provide the wow factor, e.g. the Surviving Australia 'dangerous australians' table top projection. They are expensive, but also engaging and fun. Computers are part of our everyday world and I don't think we gain by simply saying we don't need them - we just need to be picky about museum uses that don't try and compete with the everyday.

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