Dec 31 2009

Multimedia at the Museum

With MP3 players, PDAs and touch-screen computers, museums and parks aren't what they used to be.

Faced with increased competition for the
entertainment dollar, the Smithsonian Institution's National
Museum of Natural History is spicing up its exhibits with high-tech
gadgets to attract more visitors.

No longer do museum-goers passively gaze at dinosaur fossils,
stuffed tigers and dusty dioramas of forest floors. Today, the Museum
of Natural History's exhibits are infused with interactive, multimedia
content. Using touch-screen computers, visitors can view videos of
animals or play educational videogames. These range from a quiz on
volcanoes to a graphics simulation that lets viewers slam asteroids
of different sizes into Earth to see the damage they would inflict.

A temporary exhibit on Nordic culture
includes a computer with access to an
online database that lets visitors of Nordic
descent trace genealogy on the spot. By the
end of 2005, the museum plans to equip
visitors with personal digital assistants
(PDAs) and wireless Internet access so
they can watch videos, listen to audio and
access other educational information as
they view each exhibit.

When visitors find information they
want to keep and read later, they will be
able to store the data temporarily in a
personal folder on the museum's Web site
for later download to their PCs, reports
Robert Sullivan, Natural History's associate
director for public programs.

"Museums have to keep current and
market themselves as a worthwhile
leisure-time attraction," says Sullivan. "We
use technology both as a knowledge-delivery system and as an attraction. How
do you get teens interested? If you put in a
videogame that's fun to play, it becomes a
negotiating tool for parents to get their
kids to come to the museum."

IT staffers obviously play a key role in
that mission. In national museums and
parks, and in prominent federal
institutions such as the Library of
Congress, IT professionals cater to the
needs of the public, as well as to the needs
of their employees. They incorporate the
latest technology to enhance the visitors'
experience and to make their tours and
exhibits fun and interactive.

The IT department also uses
technology to make the overall design,
installation, and operation of exhibits and
tours easier and more efficient. For the past
decade, computers and software have been
the tools of choice for the Natural History
staff when designing and producing
exhibits. It's much faster than old manual
methods, Sullivan says. Because all images
and text for exhibits are now digitized, the
museum can put an exhibit on the Web a
day after it opens, he adds.

Technology Is Widespread

Roughly 87 percent of museums now
use some form of technology, such as
computers, Internet access and office
productivity software, and 54 percent use
technology in exhibits and educational
programs, according to a 2002 survey by
the Institute of Museum and Library
Services (IMLS). This federal agency, based
in Washington, D.C., is doling out $31.4
million to museums this year, with a
substantial portion of that funding going
to technology-related projects.

Among museums that use technology
in exhibits and educational programs, 37
percent provide information about them
via their Web sites, and 26 percent plan
to provide exhibits and educational
programs on the Web within the next 12
months, the survey found.

Web sites—especially those with virtual
tours of entire exhibits—encourage more
people to visit museums, says Robert
Martin, IMLS director. "Their online
presence does not replace their real-world
presence," he notes. "As museums have put
more resources online, their attendance has
gone up. People find them on the Web, and
it stimulates their interest in going to
museums and seeing the real thing."

But technology is doing more than
enticing a growing number of visitors. It's
also creating more collaborative work
environments at the museums. At Natural
History, for instance, a team of scientists,
scholars, educators and graphic designers
plan, design and build exhibits together.

It's a creative—though often taxing—process as they try to strike a balance
between the desire to communicate
complex scientific concepts and the need to
make exhibits fun, engaging and easy to
understand, Sullivan says. Museum staffers
develop the concepts for educational video
games, and then work closely with game
designers to ensure the games are realistic
and scientifically correct, he explains.

On average, the museum has one IT
person managing every 20,000 feet of
exhibition space. Its Hall of Geology, Gems
and Minerals features about 45 computer-learning activities. Because approximately
5.6 million people visited the museum in
2003, a lot of the computer technology,
such as touch pads, often needs replacing,
according to Sullivan. Sometimes the
software that runs light shows—lightning
and thunder simulations, for example—malfunctions, and the IT staff must
troubleshoot, he says.

Upgrading Audio Tours With MP3

Two years ago at Alcatraz Island, the
Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy,
a nonprofit organization that does
fundraising for the Golden Gate National
Recreation Area (GGNRA), deployed
1,400 MP3 players to replace the cassette
tape players that tourists once used on self-guided tours. For tourists walking through
the former federal prison, the digital
recordings delivered by MP3 players offer
crisper, clearer sound effects, such as cell
doors slamming shut and the voices of
former prisoners recounting their
experiences on "the Rock."

One problem with the cassette players
is that the tape stretches with repeated
use, which affects sound quality and
timing. That often results in "identical"
self-guided tours that progress at different
speeds and last different amounts of time,
which is a problem for tour groups visiting
Alcatraz, according to Park Ranger Craig
Glassner, who manages Alcatraz Island's
technology and Web site.

"You and a companion might have
started the tour at the same time, but 35
minutes later, you are two to three minutes
out of sync," he says.

With the old cassette players, if tourists
wanted to go through part of an exhibit
twice, they'd have difficulty rewinding to
the right spot. Now, with each section of
the tour divided into chapters on the MP3
players, visitors can simply click to the
chapter they want to repeat, Glassner adds.

The MP3 devices also have proved a
boon to Alcatraz staffers. In the past, the
arrival of a large group of non-English
speaking tourists in need of self-guided
tours in another language would have sent
the Alcatraz staffers scrambling for
cassette players equipped with a tape of
the tour in the right language. Now, each
MP3 player's hard drive stores the tour in
six languages: English, French, German,
Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

Moreover, Alcatraz staffers can quickly
update tours by making the audio changes,
then downloading the new tour from a
computer into each MP3 player. Previously,
Alcatraz staffers would have had to throw
out the old cassette tapes and hire a vendor
to handle high-speed duplication of new
tapes—a much slower and more expensive
process, Glassner points out.

With restoration work about to begin
on the prison warden's former office,
Alcatraz officials will have to reroute the
tour. "If we design a new tour, we'll have
to do the translations, and that will take
time," he says. "But once we have the
master tape, we'll be back in business the
following morning."

PDAs Take Flight

In Ohio, airplane buffs visiting Dayton
Aviation Heritage National Historical Park
can take a PDA with Wi-Fi (wireless
fidelity) Internet access with them as they
walk through the exhibits to learn more
about aviation history—from models of the
Wright brothers' airplanes to modern
aircraft from the U.S. Air Force.

At the park's Huffman Prairie Flying
Field Interpretative Center, the site at
which the Wright brothers developed and
flew the world's first planes, visitors using
the PDAs can view multimedia content,
such as video footage, historical
photographs and detailed specifications for
each aircraft. Some exhibits even include
interviews with former pilots.

"It does enhance the museum
experience considerably," says Park Ranger
Bob Petersen. "We simply don't have the
resources—the space and the time—to
provide that information ourselves."

The museum has nine PDAs available
for visitors. Some of the more tech-savvy
visitors have embraced the PDAs, while the
less technology-inclined majority of people
prefer not to use them, Peterson reports.
Nevertheless, he expects usage will
increase as the public becomes more
familiar with the technology.

"The PDAs provide a very hands-on
approach to the exhibits that a certain
portion of the visitors just love," he says.


The Smithsonian is going wireless. It plans to
offer PDA and Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) access in all of
its 17 museums during the next 18 months.

The institution recently completed a successful
test project using PDAs with wireless connections in
Washington, D.C., at the Renwick Gallery of the
Smithsonian American Art Museum, says Robert
Sullivan, the National Museum of Natural History's
associate director for public programs.

Visitors at the Renwick Gallery who are supplied
with the PDAs can click on an image of a vase, for
example, and turn it a full 360 degrees to view it
from different angles. The pilot project—paid for by
the museum with assistance from technology
companies—also lets visitors flag exhibit
information they are interested in and then log on
to the Web site later to access the information.

The Natural History Museum plans to begin
offering PDA and Wi-Fi access in about 18 months.
Developing the multimedia content alone will take
about a year, Sullivan adds.

The technology lets curators provide visitors
with more information on exhibits. One of the
greatest frustrations for curators is the limited
amount of space available to describe each exhibit
and offer insight and information on it. The PDAs
push back those limits by providing another
avenue to offer its visitors educational materials.

"The staff at the Renwick really likes it," Sullivan
says. "It expands the museum experience. You can
take it home with you. That's the most important
part. The visit could be tiring, and after a couple of
hours, people are worn out, but they want the
opportunity to continue the learning experience in a
comfortable environment, and the technology
enables us to do that."

The same can also be said of museum Web sites.
Online exhibits are important for marketing, but
they're also important educational tools, Sullivan says.
Because of space restrictions, an exhibit may be
able to include only a limited number of photographs.
However, such limits are meaningless in cyberspace,
letting Sullivan include additional photos and other
materials on a museum's online exhibits. The
museum also recently launched a new Web site
featuring a database and map that people can
search to find all of the mammals of North America.

"You get exposure beyond the four walls of the
museum, and that's important to us," Sullivan says.

"The new learning technologies enable us to deliver
data and messages in efficient ways. We are no
longer limited by the printed label on the wall. You
can have a database that allows people to keep
searching deeper and deeper."


87% use some form of
technology, such as PCs,
Internet access or office
productivity software.

54% use technology for
exhibits and other educational

53% plan to use
additional technologies to
support exhibits and other
educational programs in the
next 12 months.

62% have Web sites.

32% are digitizing
photographs and images of
their collection and artifacts.

Source: 2002 Survey of 341 museums
by the Institute of Museum and Library