Seal Hunting in the Museum, Testing a meSch Prototype
Can a magnifying glass add a dimension to a museum visit? The Waag Society, one of the partners in the meSch project, created a prototype of an interactive magnifying glass: a wooden frame with a smartphone hidden in it. It aims at wayfinding on the one hand and at adding contextual layers to an exhibition on the other. The magnifying glass was tested at the museum Museon, another partner in the meSch project. This particular interactive smart exhibit is designed specifically for children.
The test took place in an exhibition space dedicated to the Inuit of Greenland in the Museon in The Hague. Three pairs of children were involved in the test. So three times, two children were given a magnifying glass each.
A polar bear and seal served as virtual guides, guiding the children with the magnifying glass in the right direction, starting from an arbitrary spot in the museum. When holding the glass above markers on the floor, a polar bear or seal appeared in the magnifying glass. These markers were attached on several spots on the floor, both in the Greenland exhibition space as in the area around this space. The markers outside the exhibition space were only used to lead the children to the objects in the exhibition space. The markers near the objects in the exhibition space activated contextual information about the objects, which was also shown in the magnifying glass.
Each animal led to three different museum objects, which were part of two tiny story lines. Both storylines relate to hunting as a main mean of existence in Greenland, a country that used to be very isolated, without agricultural development or access to raw materials. So, one storyline focussed on the seal, which was not only hunted for its meat, but was also used as a source for the production of items such as clothes, tools and utensils. In the other storyline the central element was the polar bear hunt. In all three tests one child followed the polar bear while the other followed the seal.
A closer look
For the children it was immediately clear that the glass had a wayfinding function and that the animal led them the way. At the same time the metaphor of the magnifying glass turned out to be a little bit tricky: since a real magnifying glass should be held very closely to the object, some of the children also tended to approach the markers very closely. In this case however, sufficient distance to the marker is needed, or the marker will not activate.
Getting lost guided
As soon as you leave the marker, your guide disappears. The next marker puts you on the right track again. Of course you are not only dependent on your device to find your way through the museum; the exhibits around you can also be of great help. Rocks, prehistoric animals or energy do not have a very strong relationship with seals or polar bears, but what happens if you are just focussing on your magnifying glass and you are constantly looking for new markers on the floor? Then you can easily get lost… This is exactly what happened with several of the children in the test.
What attracts most attention?
Besides guiding users through the exhibition, the magnifying glass should also draw the attention of visitors to specific museum objects in the exhibition. However, instead of attracting attention to the real objects, the magnifying glass tends to distract attention. The test persons pay hardly any attention to the objects. Completely focussing on the glass, one of the test persons does not even notice the real polar bear in the exhibition (which can hardly be missed by visitors without a device). Does this mean that there is no educational value by using this devise at all? No, since on the magnifying glass a few lines of relevant information about the exhibits are displayed. While some of the test persons are not interested in reading this information, others are eager to consume it.
What about the fun factor of the smart magnifying glass? Without exception the children loved walking around with it and would like to use it again. So mission accomplished after all? Sure, as a museum one of our most important goals is to ensure that our visitors have a great time and the magnifying glass certainly contributes to the museum experience of our test persons. However, in our view fun should be linked closely to education and appreciation of cultural heritage, so on these two points we will have to focus during the next steps in the development of the smart object.
Some conclusions and next steps
The test proved that wayfinding with the use of virtual reality is fun, but we should look for ways to put more focus on the real object.
In this respect it would be useful to carry out the same experiment with a different approach:
- Would the children have more sense of the environment if the markers would not be attached to the floor but on eye level?
- What would happen if not a marker but the museum object itself would be used to activate the information in the magnifying glass?
- What if written information would be replaced by spoken information?
- And, instead of giving information with the objects on the smart object, would asking questions stimulate more interaction with the real exhibits?
More about testing prototypes of smart objects
In the meSch project a toolkit will be developed that will enable heritage professionals to create smart objects for interactive exhibitions (for more information, read the About section of this website). Concept ideas and prototypes for these smart objects (such as a magnifying glass) are developed and tested throughout the first year, to come to a final exploratory prototype set at the end of the first year of the project (see also the blog post about the first meSch co-design workshop). This forms the base for further development and larger case studies in the Museon and the other museums in the meSch consortium.