An Interview with the Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow on their design approach to interactive installations

In the meSch project museums and heritage sites and their staff are consulted and involved in the co-design process of the development of the meSch toolkit for creating interactive tangible exhibits with smart objects. This includes the three museums that are involved in the project as a partner, but to gain an even better insight, museums and heritage sites outside of the consortium are also regularly visited, consulted and used as a test bed for some of the exploratory prototypes already developed. PhD student Loraine Clarke at the University of Strathclyde recently met with staff from the Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow (in the UK), who won a European Museum of the Year 2013 award, to discuss some of their “more ambitious” digital media or interactive installations. She was curious to find out about their approach, how these exhibits came about, where the idea came from and how they were developed. Through asking these questions she hoped to gain an insight into the challenges, needs and considerations of the team of curators and designers who embark on creating both interactive and non-interactive digital exhibits. Her findings are elaborated in the blog post below.

Outside of the Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow

Outside of the Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow

Overview of the design approach

There are three typical exhibition development approaches in the UK, from conceiving, designing and constructing all exhibits in-house, to conceiving them in-house and then handing over to contractors, to all steps being conducted by contractors. The Riverside Transport Museum adopted the second approach for the implementation of interactive digital media exhibits when it moved to a new building with a re-developed permanent exhibition. They varied from the second approach by remaining very involved during the design process, with exhibition designers working in a team with museum staff. The amount of conceptual work conducted for concept designs and interpretation plans is impressive. In particular the curators define desired learning outcomes not only in terms of knowledge or skills, but also in terms of values and attitudes as well as in categories that relate to user experience, such as inspiration and enjoyment, and already sketch visitor interactions. Interpretation plans are continuously adjusted as the designs develop, ensuring that the exhibit remains coherent with the curators’ aims.

Inside the Riverside Transport Museum

Inside the Riverside Transport Museum

Stage 1 Conceptual Development Process for Story Displays

The initial seed for an idea comes from the core content team. Any person within the service team can submit a proposal, outlining the specific things they want to tell, for example, the story of an artefact, what it did, where it went to, who used it, in relation to where the visitors are now. There is also emphasis on giving context in relation to the visitors by presenting information on how heavy an artefact is and its scale in comparison to a human. If an idea is chosen for development – as a story display, the content curator and IT and AV curator (now titled Digital and New Media Curator) then work together, developing interpretation, obtaining the needed factual information about the artefact and ideas on how to achieve the exhibits aims. During this stage they also explore the potential technologies (such as back and front projections and ultra thin screens etc.) before issuing to exhibition designers. This concept development process involves the generation of an extremely detailed interpretation plan to guide story display development. This includes what the story is, the key message, the target audience, the desired learning outcomes in terms of (1) knowledge & understanding, (2) skills, (3) values, attitudes and feelings, (4) creativity, inspiration and enjoyment and finally (5) behaviour. The interpretation plan furthermore lists a description of the interpretative methods (how will it work?), sketch the visitor interaction, required content, the tasks required to complete this interpretation, the need for evaluation and a draft script.

An interpretation plan might thus state that an exhibit is aimed at young children, that it is expected that adults and older children will be around, that the learning aims are to raise an interest e.g. in how a steam train works, as well as an awareness of how this is a collaborative task, and that the activity is collaborative and challenging, requiring a group to coordinate.

The image below shows the Glen Douglas locomotive hybrid interactive exhibit which was developed in order to illuminate the process of what happens to make a steam locomotive work. The exhibit runs alongside the real Glen Douglas steam locomotive in the museum. It consists of two interactive stations where visitors can add coal and water to the steam engine at station 1 and regulate the steam pressure in the engine at station 2, as well as a number of visual outputs representations and displays using different media. The goal of the exhibit is to get the steam train running by monitoring the various media outputs and controlling the water, coal and steam levels. If successful, a physical wheel model moves at the far right end of the exhibit, and steam train noises appear. It was developed for families as the target audience.  With this in mind the exhibit was specifically designed with certain considerations, goals and visitors interactions in mind, such as; enabling independent exploration and re-grouping, facilitating communication and social interaction such as teamwork or task-based activities, supporting activities that are hands-on, engaging and promote collaboration where both adults and children can swap roles allowing either to lead the situation, act as facilitator, control the pace and direction of the activity.

Glen Douglas locomotive bybridhybrid interactive exhibit

Glen Douglas locomotive hybrid interactive exhibit

As part of this overall design process the Riverside often creates paper prototypes to gain a sense of what an interactive digital media exhibit will be like when out on the floor. They often recruit groups of potential users, such as school group and ask them to use these. However, it is clear that there are limitations of what can be done with a paper prototype, and resources are limited for physical prototyping of non-screen-based exhibits. This indicates that the Do-It-Yourself maker movement approach, which is part of the meSch project, can address current problems.

Many aspects influence these concept design decisions such as the contents of their collections, what is considered important, what is popular with visitors as well as information gathered from visitor surveys. Surveys at the old Transport Museum building found visitors wanted to see more, get closer. Museum staff told us that at one point they  equipped visitors with microphones during their visit for a better understanding of how they move through the space, what they talk about and how they approach exhibits.  

Stage 2: Collaboratively working with exhibition designers

Finally, when the core content team agrees upon the concept, external exhibition designers are brought in to work together with them. This starts an iterative development process, led by the core content team, to collaboratively develop each story into a three dimensional display. The exhibition designers work from interpretation plans and museum object lists, translating interpretive and learning needs for each story display into 2D, then 3D design drawings , until a final design is complete. It is in this way that digital interpretation is refining both content and interpretation.

2D design drawing for the Glen Douglas locomotive hybrid interactive exhibit

2D design drawing for the Glen Douglas locomotive hybrid interactive exhibit

Stage 3 Implementation of the exhibit in the Museum

Finally the technical specifications and drawings are created by the external exhibition designers and signed off. From here, the brief is very developed, almost set in stone, and the museum puts the building of the exhibit to tender. 


Some challenges the interviewed staff experienced in this process include getting the content right, sometimes a lack of knowledge of the technology that could implement the concept in the envisaged way or unforeseen interactional options.  

Some key points of the Riverside Museum’s Approach to be taken into account for the meSch toolkit

Glasgow Museums have now created a Digital & New Media department, comprising a full time Digital and New Media Manager and a Digital and New Media Curator. This is similar to the National Museums Scotland who also have a full time Head of Digital Media. It seems to be unusual to have in-house digital and new media experts, especially with smaller museums, but possibly this is becoming more common. It should be noted that Glasgow Museums comprises several larger museums, so the establishment of a new department with in-house knowledge constitutes a clear strategy. Smaller and individual museums might not always have the resources to do so.

After discussing the exhibit it also became clear there was a clear philosophy running through the Riverside’s approach. It recognises the museum as a social space, takes a story approach similar to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and links every exhibit to targeting audience considering their behaviours and interests. The interviews revealed an emphasis on early user testing of concepts via paper prototyping, and a lack of resources for physical prototyping of non-screen-based exhibits. This confirms the meSch approach of supporting curators in developing material-digital concept prototypes.

Interestingly the Riverside museum standardises the hardware used, so they have a family of hardware. They use the same computers, screens, etc. in the exhibits. A backup supply of hardware in-house means they are able to replace elements and scale up exhibits without having to extend their knowledge. There seem to be two main overarching concerns when considering exhibits in terms of development, implementation and maintenance which are (1) conceptual interpretation and (2) practical production, logistics and upkeep considerations.

Supporting maintenance and upkeep by museum staff is an aim of the meSch project, and providing a similar standardisation or easy replaceability and extension of hardware through the system we aim to develop, might be one way towards this goal.

We would like to hugely thank Glasgow Museums and the Riverside Museum for all their support and help.

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