Why do we use smart replicas in the museum?

On April 10th, 2015, the first meSch enhanced exhibition will be opened to the public at Museon, a Dutch museum and partner in meSch. ‘The Hague and the Atlantic Wall – War in the City of Peace’ is the first exhibition ever that has been realized with fully integrated meSch technology – thus with partly 3D printed replicas of museum objects that have been enhanced with sensors to create a smart interactive environment. In a series of blog posts Hub Kockelkorn will take us behind the scenes to reveil how meSch technology was used in this exhibition. What choices did the Museon have to make and what do they expect to get out of this, also for their visitors?

Success in the eyes of a cultural heritage professional

Last week we had a very positive review of the meSch project’s second year. There were also a couple of pieces of advice given by the reviewers for the project’s next year. One of these advices was related to the evaluation of the meSch technology applied throughout the Atlantic Wall exhibition that will open next week (see also Connecting opposites, meSch technology in an exhibition). Not only the visitors’ use of this technology will be evaluated, but also the cultural heritage professionals’ perspective will be subject to evaluation: to what extent does the exhibition and the application of meSch technology in the exhibition meet their expectations? As the reviewers rightly stated the exhibition’s success in the eyes of the cultural heritage professionals can only be really measured if their expectations are already captured before the actual start of the exhibition. What exactly do they want to get out of meSch in the exhibition? Only in this way we will know later on whether the exhibition succeeded in fulfilling these expectations. I am one of the cultural heritage professionals working intensively on the exhibition’s concept and contents. In a couple of blog posts I will go into some of the choices that we made and the expectations that we have. You as a visitor to the exhibition will be able to judge whether it meets these expectations.

Visual of the Atlantic Wall exhibition

Exhibition poster

A little bit of history
Let’s start with a few lines about the exhibition’s subject. The Atlantic Wall was the defence lines that Nazi Germany built during WW II alongside the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea from Norway to the Spanish border. The wall consisted of a 5.000 km long chain of bunkers, anti-tank walls, cliffs and other barriers and were aimed at preventing an Allied attack on the Reich’s western frontiers.

The exhibition in Museon focuses on the Atlantic Wall in The Hague. In this coastal city the situation was rather different. Because it was the seat of the administration of the occupied Netherlands and because of the presence of a fishing port it needed additional protection. After all, the Allied forces could break through the coastal defence lines and reach The Hague via the inlands. To keep them out a second defence line was created through the city. Thousands of buildings were demolished to give way to an anti-tank ditch and an anti-tank wall. Thousands of people had to leave their homes.

Exhibition floor plan

Floorplan of the Atlantic Wall exhibition. Almost every ‘island’ in the exhibition contains a meSch point.

The exhibition’s concept
What makes the exhibition in Museon special is that the museum building is located in the former anti-tank ditch and that in the previously residential area next to the museum nowadays important international organisations in the domain of peace, justice and safety are established, like OPCW and Europol. Therefore you can say that on this very location war and peace come closely together.
In the exhibition’s concept the relationship with the very location and the city of The Hague is made explicitly. The floorplan is based on the city map of The Hague, the exhibits take the shape of blocks of buildings or public spaces in the city. The exhibit’s contents are directly related to these locations.

meSch technology fully integrated
In most of these locations throughout the exhibition meSch technology is integrated, related to specific objects on display. Beforehand we put forward as a requirement that it should be possible to visit the exhibition also without using meSch. If in a showcase there is the cradle in which a baby was evacuated to another part of the country, this story will available to every visitor. The same will be true for the fragment of a V2, that was kept as a souvenir for many years. Anyone can access the story of the failed launch of the missile after which it crashed on a block of houses and just missed the cot in which a baby was sleeping. In the Atlantic Wall exhibition meSch technology will not be used to provide information directly related to the objects on display. The objects are used as a starting point for a second, additional storyline throughout the exhibition. Evidently, we expect this additional storyline to contribute to the visitor’s experience.

Real objects as a starting point
In this additional storyline different aspects of the Atlantic Wall will be highlighted, told from three different perspectives: civilian, official and German. What did it mean to lose your home? How was it to carry out German evacuation orders? Why in the eyes of the German occupier was the Atlantic Wall indispensable for the population in the occupied territories? The related stories are told on the basis of original sources like interviews, documents from archives and periodic newspapers. They have been transcribed and recorded in a sound studio with professional voice actors. The sound clips are combined with photographs and video clips from different archives.

meSch introduction in the exhibition

meSch introduction in the exhibition


From 3D printed replicas to smart objects
Technically speaking we could have used buttons to activate the stories throughout the exhibition, one button for each of the three perspectives. However we did not do so deliberately. Our visitors’ daily lives are already full of buttons and we expected to create a more immersive experience by offering smart replicas of real objects to trigger the stories. Smart objects disguised as a scenting bag with surrogate tea stands for the Dutch version of the civilian perspective, a box of surrogate sugar for the English version of the same perspective. A Delft blue mug, which was once used given as a Christmas gift to German soldiers, has been recreated using 3D printing to represent the German perspective in Dutch. The bracelet that was worn by a civil servant will reflect the perspective of an official in the Dutch language version. The different viewpoints can already be explored at a special exhibit at the start of the exhibition, where the replicas are distributed. We expect that it will make visitors curious and cause a much stronger involvement with the subjects then buttons throughout the exhibition would have done.

Smart replicas, just arrived in the museum

First look at the smart replicas: Top left the sugar surrogate boxes, top right the Delft blue mugs.


To be continued…

In the second blog post we will discuss the implications of using smart replicas instead of buttons.

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