Exterior view of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

A Novel Approach to Exhibit Interactives amid the Pandemic

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This article is part of the “Exhibit Planning in 2020: Thinking Now about Where We Hope to Be in the Future” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

Melissa Pederson and Stephanie Eddleman, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

We want to be candid: this article may not be what you anticipated. We are not going to talk about cleaning practices, antiviral surface materials, or air purification systems. However, if you are interested in a story about a design team grappling with the messy, confusing implications of how the novel coronavirus could affect the future of interactives in exhibits, you have come to the right place. This story takes place at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and features a dedicated team of exhibit creators. Our mission: save exhibit interactives from a COVID-19-instigated extinction. But be warned, the story ends with a big “To Be Continued.”

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (TCMI) serves a core audience of children and families to fulfill its mission of creating extraordinary experiences across the arts, sciences, and humanities that have the power to transform the lives of children and learning families. Our facility sits on thirty acres and houses thirteen permanent exhibitions and four temporary galleries that draw on a collection of more than 130,000 artifacts. We also have a 7.5-acre outdoor experience called Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience®. Permanent galleries are updated every five to twenty years, and temporary galleries change constantly, so the museum’s exhibit department includes teams of developers, designers, and fabricators who conceptualize and produce multiple experiences per year.

Enter the Novel Coronavirus

On March 13, 2020, most of us were sent home. Museum leadership, facilities, and production staff immediately began planning and implementing strategies to prepare our galleries for reopening. The focus of these changes was to create the safest environment possible for our staff and visitors by removing high-touch interactives, creating policies and infrastructure to encourage social distancing, and providing materials that empowered families to sanitize their hands and touchable surfaces.

By mid-April we had acclimated to the work-from-home life, and understood that COVID-19 was going to keep us there for some time. Exhibit development did not stop, but we became acutely aware that we were designing pre-COVID exhibits that would be launched in a world with the virus. The hope was that everything would return to normal by the time our newest exhibitions opened in a year or two. But there was, and still is, a nagging uncertainty. What if things never return to normal?

Coronavirus: An Overwhelming Challenge for Children’s Museums?

Anyone who works in a children’s museum knows that the sense of touch is our friend. Time and time again research has shown that children learn by hands-on, active exploration of their environment. Children’s museums have embraced this knowledge and created environments where touch is one of the primary ways to engage and learn. So in March when the world changed and touch suddenly became an undesired activity, we were left with an existential question: how do we continue to provide extraordinary learning experiences for children and families when the ability to touch is off the table? 

Exhibit development did not stop, but we became acutely aware that we were designing pre-COVID exhibits that would be launched in a world with the virus. The hope was that everything would return to normal by the time our newest exhibitions opened in a year or two.  But there was, and still is, a nagging uncertainty. What if things never return to normal?

While touchable interactives are the go-to method for our design teams, we know there is value in delivering content via other senses through which visitors perceive the world. For decades, exhibit creators have been enhancing learning environments by experimenting with techniques that encourage visitors to manipulate and immerse themselves in sounds, sights, and smells.

For example, people make meaning through gross motor, large body movement. The Move2Learn project, an international collaboration between informal science educators and learning scientists, focuses on “embodied learning,” in which children use representational hand gestures and body movement to better understand scientific concepts. The best part—they can do this without touching anything! An example of this type of learning interactive can be found in The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’ Corteva Agriscience ScienceWorks, an exhibit that encourages children to explore careers in the sciences. Participants are prompted to imagine themselves as an entomologist by taking a sample of insects from a field of crops to study helpful and harmful insects. Children and families see the field projected on a screen in front of them, and Kinect technology allows them to sweep their arms back and forth to move a bug-catching net over the crops—completely touch free.

By reframing our thinking, we realized the coronavirus actually presented us with an opportunity to create exhibits in new ways. Interactivity is still possible if we challenge ourselves to innovate. Of course, we hope that one day soon we will be able to return to our tried-and-true hands-on learning methods, but no matter what the future holds, there is value in exploring alternatives.

How Are We Approaching the Problem?

When our exhibit team began thinking about creating low-touch interactive exhibits that still preserved the quality of the visitor experience, we knew we needed to bring order and clarity to a challenge that still felt nebulous. We convened a workgroup of exhibit developers, designers, and creative media staff to discuss and define our problem so we could begin to plan potential solutions. We mulled over questions including: What is it about high-touch interactives that makes them so effective? Are all touch interactives the same, or are there varieties that promote interactivity for unique reasons? Can we develop engaging interactives with low- or no-touch components? Had we already developed low-touch interactives for previous exhibits that could inspire interactives for new exhibits?

We started by creating a list of touchable interactives in the museum building and categorizing them into types. We articulated how each type delivered exhibit messaging or achieved learning goals and what made it appealing to visitors. We then brainstormed low- or no-touch alternatives with similar appeal and capacity to achieve learning goals.

TOUCHABLE INTERACTIVE TYPES AND THEIR ALTERNATIVES

Touchable objects or casts

Any item that is mounted within an exhibit component with the express purpose of providing the visitor the opportunity to touch an instructive object.

Before: Visitors touched items like fossil casts or accessible pieces of art.

Looking Ahead: Museum floor staff could exclusively facilitate opportunities to touch an object. 3D printing technology could create multiple copies of object casts, with each visitor receiving their own object to touch. Museum staff would immediately sanitize objects afterward.

TOUCHSCREENS

Digital interfaces that can be touched to reveal information, move through a process, create art, or participate in a game-like activity.

Before: Visitors touched a screen with their fingers to move through the interactive.

Looking Ahead: The exhibit workgroup proposed three alternatives to this touch interactive type. First, in lieu of touching screens with fingers, the museum could provide a stylus to each visitor to use with the touchscreen. Alternatively, this type of interactive could be designed with motion sensors that allow visitors to use movements like gestures to navigate through the activity. Finally, touchscreen interactives could be transferred to tablets, and only a staff member would touch the screen as they facilitate the activity with a visitor.

FLIP LABELS OR REVEALS

Visitors manipulate parts of the exhibit component that swing or slide away to reveal additional information.

Before: Visitors touched a hinged flap or similar device to reveal exhibit information like an image, fun fact, or answer to a question.

Looking Ahead: Instead of touching the component, visitors could be directed to wave their hand over a beam break sensor. When the sensor is triggered by movement, it could activate magic glass, LED glass, or scrim technology that disappears to reveal hidden information.

COSTUME DRESS UP

Special exhibit-related clothing and accessories that can be worn by visitors.

Before: Visitors were invited to wear costumes that fit an exhibit’s immersive environment or supported learning goals.

Looking Ahead: Visitors could see themselves in unique clothing pieces with the aid of technology. The interactive would capture an image of the visitor’s face and apply it to digital clothing. Interactives with Kinect or similar technology would map the visitor’s body, providing the illusion of control over the costume’s movement. A low-tech alternative could include photo opportunities such as graphic cutouts. Images of unique costumes could be applied to a life-size cutout of a person, and the area around the face could be replaced with a mirror so that visitors would see their own face on the graphic of the costume.

FEEDBACK WALLS

Visitors provide their personal thoughts and feedback on a question or topic.

Before: Visitors used shared pencils to write on sticky notes that were then placed on a large wall display. A shared keyboard was also used to type a response that then became a part of a digital display.

Looking Ahead: What if we capitalized on the overwhelming influence of social media? Visitors could share their thoughts using a particular hashtag and those responses would be gathered and curated by a museum staff member and posted in the exhibit on a monitor. The feedback prompt could be paired with a photo op to encourage further engagement.

PUZZLES AND CREATIVE BUILDING MATERIALS

Visitors manipulate pieces to complete a puzzle or build something.

Before: Visitors manipulated physical pieces while building or completing a puzzle. Usually these interactives involved numerous loose parts.

Looking Ahead: A high tech alternative would be to utilize technology like Kinect, a motion-tracking technology, or interactive projection where visitors would use large-body movements to manipulate pieces on a screen to complete the activity. Alternatively, a low-tech solution would involve using metal pieces housed in a case while visitors moved the pieces from outside the case using a magnetic stylus (much like magnetic maze board games). Each visitor could be given their own stylus or the stylus could be wiped between uses (much easier then cleaning a large number of loose pieces).

BUTTON-DRIVEN CAUSE AND EFFECT

Visitors press a button to make something happen.

Before: Visitors pressed physical buttons with their hand.

Looking Ahead: Visitors could activate feedback (turn on audio or video, make selections, trigger a reveal, etc.) using a piece of radio frequency identification or RFID-enabled technology. Visitors could pick up an item at the beginning of their visit containing this embedded RFID chip that would communicate with other sensors throughout the exhibit. Who doesn’t love the magic wands at Universal’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? A low-tech solution would be to change hand press buttons to foot buttons or foot pressure sensors. Bonus points if you activate feedback by jumping!

PLAY TABLES AND IMMERSIVE PLAY ENVIRONMENTS WITH MANIPULATIVES

Visitors engage in pretend play in an immersive environment.

Before: Visitors utilized props (like toy trains, plastic dinosaurs, etc.) on a themed play table or engaged in dress up for pretend play in a larger immersive environment.

Looking Ahead: The museum could create large-scale immersive environments that engage all of the senses. Ambient light, audio, and even scent could be utilized to help paint the picture. Visitors could take on a role in this environment that encouraged them to use body movements to play a part within the environment. Adding technology such as interactive projection could tie those body movements to specific outcomes.

So…What Now?

The museum reopened at 25 percent capacity in July. As Indiana moved to Stage 5 of reopening in September, our capacity increased to 50 percent. Prior to reopening, we removed interactives with lots of loose parts or pieces like puzzles and play tables, pretend play food, and dress up costumes. Our early childhood gallery (ages zero to five) has remained closed. We have slowly added some touchable items back on the floor in limited numbers, and we rotate out sets multiple times per day. Due to budget restraints, we are not retrofitting any existing interactives, just pulling high-touch items and augmenting these exhibits with more objects from our collection.

The only thing that is clear to us is that no one knows what the future holds, but this exercise helped us begin to embrace the unknown. We also know that each museum brings with them their own strengths and challenges, and what works for us might not work for all. If anything, we hope we have inspired you to be agile, think creatively, and not be afraid to try something new. As we forge ahead and continue to plan for new experiences, we know all of our thinking is still a work in progress and, as promised, is to be continued… 

Melissa Pederson and Stephanie Eddleman are exhibit developers at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.